Monday, February 24, 2020

TRL - The Rail Loaders (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victory / Soft Action

Published by Victory in 1999

Even though video games tend to be easily categorized in genres, some titles clearly defy the norm with offbeat gameplay. SDI, Tekkaman Blade, Rez and Gadget Twins are notable examples I have tackled in the past and somehow made me question if they should actually be considered shmups. And now TRL - The Rail Loaders makes it into this special list with its unique approach to the vertical shooting subgenre.

First and foremost, this game is disappointing no matter the genre it belongs to. You play as a train that moves on rails, so you don't have freedom to move around as you wish. You shoot and exert some minimum degree of dodging as you glide through predetermined tracks, only gaining full control of your movement during boss fights, the only parts where you play in a regular shmup-like environment. The Rail Loaders is also unremarkable in every design aspect, no matter how weird it decides to get throughout its five stages.

The oddball nature of this game probably comes from its Korean roots (see this page for reference). Yes, the whole package is in Japanese, but there's practically nothing of the Japanese school of thought in the game as far as shmups go.

Rail brothers

Moving your train forwards and backwards is possible at all times, so there's no need to worry about coming to dead ends (unlike a hauntingly similar gimmick in Xenon 2 Megablast). Just watch out for the timer because once it reaches zero the game ends abruptly. Button × is used to shoot, button □ makes you jump and button ○ punches levers to switch track directions. The shot sprite is a slow-moving bubble that's perfectly tuned to the overall pace of the game, and since it lacks autofire you'll either need to mash that button hard or arrange some sort of turbo function. In single player mode your train shares the screen with a second train whose control is taken over by the computer AI. This companion starts the level on the other side of the rail tracks, moving and shooting on its own while following you up and down. He's invincible but not very smart, so don't count on him to do anything for you.

The purpose of the bubble shot is to actually engulf enemies and make them float away, one of the most obvious indications that the developer took on a childish tone to the overall appearance of the game. Powering up is achieved by collecting P items, while powering down happens whenever you pick up the mushroom or when you get hit. Every life has two health cells, and new lives are granted for every 10.000 points you're able to score. The gallery of regular items also includes speed-up, speed-down, hourglass (to increase the timer), medical kit (+1 HP) and lots of things that give you a few points (candy, gold coins, gift boxes, popcorn). Tickets collected are accounted for so that they are traded for time in secret bonus areas located at specific dead ends. Note that the AI-controlled train is also able to help you out in picking up these tickets.

The dark medical kit (that looks like a coffin) must be avoided at all times because it takes away your health, but you also need to watch out for a brown invincible fluffy thing that moves down along the rails. Any unwanted contact is avoided either by jumping or by moving backwards. Finally, hitting specific enemy trains grants you with special weapons such as a straight or a 3-way pattern shot made of musical notes. Both are very efficient but are lost immediately if you get hit. If you manage to reach bosses with them they'll be gone very quickly. Weak points on bosses are either the star(s) on their foreheads or the eyes, never mind the triangle laser formations that pulsate and make the fights confusing at first.

Opening movie and first stage of TRL - The Rail Loaders
(courtesy of YouTube user adatiikaru)

Amidst its sleep-inducing gameplay and some unexplained weird details (such as your shot randomly sending items to the other side of the screen), TRL - The Rail Loaders occasionally comes up with something that tries to infuse some variety into the short yet repetitive design. Once you get into the cemetery area, for instance, it starts raining while harmless ghosts emerge from the ground and try to slow you down (bats do the same thing in the tunnel area). The rain effect is actually kinda cool, the only problem is that it's as slow as the rest of the game. The final theme park stage is split in two halves by an inexplicable "roller coaster" section where players control a bulky vehicle in a straight line while avoiding blocks that move left and right. This is the only checkpoint-based section in the whole game, but the good news is that just like in the rest of the credit this part is extremely easy once you get used to how fast you're supposed to move.

As if the mediocre gameplay wasn't enough an indication of the substandard ilk of The Rail Loaders, the disc is also completely devoid of any noteworthy functional resources. The only thing you'll find in the options screen is the possibility to reduce the volume of the music, and that's it. I believe one could try to maximize scoring by pursuing optimal routes, assuming boredom isn't a problem for those brave enough.

The game doesn't even have any sort of high score table, so the picture below was taken by pausing right after the final boss went down (60.9000 points).

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selected at start of level
- - - - - - -
Developed by Banpresto
Published by Banpresto in 1996

The Time Bokan Japanese anime series received many chapters since its debut on Fuji TV in 1975, courtesy of Tatsunoko Productions. Since then many video games appeared based on the franchise and its characters, of which some of the most awkward are Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō and its direct sequel Bokan Desu Yo, both released for the Playstation only in Japan. Translating to something like Time Travelers (or Time Fighters, as it became known in English), Time Bokan is a wacky cartoon with well defined characters for heroes and villains.

An interesting detail about the abovementioned games is that players take on the role of the Doronbō Gang, the official villains of the second Time Bokan series (Yatterman). Although odd at first sight, this choice actually comes from the fact that these clumsy villains were by far the most popular characters in the history of the anime. In Time Bokan Series: Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō (the game's full name) the gang goes against several main heroes of the franchise, so at least in a video game they finally get a chance to succeed in their comically villainous endeavors. Besides, that bossy female leader called Doronjo is certainly sexy, I'll tell you that.

Judging from a few descriptions I read, the game is aesthetically very faithful to its source material. It also includes lots of low-res cut scenes depicting the three members of the Doronbō gang plotting their evil deeds. The game itself is quite a colorful cute'em up and visually reminds me of stuff like Detana!! TwinBee. I have no idea how successful the Time Bokan series was back in the 90s, but since fan service is so strong in this one I assume the game must have been at least a minor hit with Japanese audiences back then. For me and practically for everyone else, these days it just comes off as an obscure oddity whose gameplay intricacies still remain rather misunderstood.

One of the mid-bosses in stage 6

For each stage the player must select one vehicle from an initial assortment of six (after the third level another three become available). Each vehicle has its own firing pattern and different stats for power, movement and shield/health, with basic commands in the form of shot (×), bomb (□) and a "fast dodge" (L or R). They're all standard shmup fare, except for the bomb. In this game bombs must first be armed: a first press of the button brings it out from the vehicle, which then carries it around until you press the bomb button again to actually use it. In flying and swimming areas bombs go out as straight missiles, whereas over regular terrain they're thrown in front of you with some minor aiming capacity.

Another uncommon trait for bombs in Bokan To Ippatsu! is that they are unlimited. Bombs are great to eliminate minor and medium-sized enemies, but be warned that they don't come with any invincibility. Shot and bomb can be used at the same time, but if a bomb is armed you won't be able to use the fast dodge command. Even though it's seemingly pointless, the fast dodge actually makes the player invincible at the cost of a brief period of recovery. It's a very important resource against some of the trickiest bosses.

Most of the items you come across in the game are the skulls left behind by defeated enemies. Silver skulls add +1 to the skull counter, golden ones add +5. Once the counter reaches 100 the vehicle transforms into a huge invincible mecha that's able to wreak havoc anywhere in the screen as the counter decreases. When it reaches zero the mecha then reverts back to vehicle form and the shield bar is fully recovered. Other items are either released by special skull carriers or by selected enemies: power-up (D), health refill (green/blue birds), temporary turbo speed (pink cat), power down (a dark helmet), point bonus (diamonds), extra credit (potion) and vehicle reassemble (a shining helmet). This last one only appears after you've lost the vehicle and the Doronbō gang is forced to ride a bike with very limited firepower.

Complete intro and first three levels of Time Bokan Series: Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō
(courtesy of YouTube user あかねちゃん)

Being forced to ride the weak bike is the worst thing that can happen in the game because in this condition the next hit means GAME OVER. Such dreadful downgrade only happens under one circumstance: getting hit while carrying a bomb. No matter how much health you have, even with a full shield bar you will be forced to go into bike form if you get hit with an untriggered bomb armed over the vehicle's hull. And now we come to the fine line between survival and scoring in Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō: the more enemies you're able to kill with a single bomb blast the more points you get from multiple score tags generated. By bombing you also get a lot more skulls to fill up the skull counter, even though skulls aren't worth any points whatsoever.

Once you realize that killing enemy flocks in a single blow is the secret to more points, timing bombs well becomes your main objective if you're a high score chaser. However, the punishment for getting hit with a bomb on your hands will certainly make you think twice in crowded areas. The only way to avoid the bike downgrade completely is to never use bombs, an approach that suits some of the hardest parts of the game such as the high speed chase full of mines in stage 5. Using bombs on bosses is only relatively safe when you do it in between those types of attacks where they leave the screen for a few seconds.

With a learning curve that provides a good incentive to get to know the game well, Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō offers quick fun and is rather competent as far as variety goes. Those huge bosses and mid-bosses are the natural highlights and main sources of difficulty, at least until you figure out how to deal with their attack patterns. Bullet count is never overwhelming but bullets might get clouded by your own firing and bombing sprites, so that must be taken into consideration. If you're down on health the best way to recover is going into mecha mode, that's why sometimes it's good to keep the skull meter close to 100 if you want to get back on your feet at specific points in the game. Just bear in mind that constantly turning into huge robots is detrimental to scoring since you can't use bombs when in mecha form.

Click for the option menus translation for Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō

My favorite vehicle is the last one to the right from the group of extra three. It's kinda slow but also extremely efficient once you reach maximum power (it takes three Ds to max out firepower in every level). Too bad you can't pick the same vehicle twice in a row, because once it's used it must "rest" / go for repairs for the duration of one stage. Co-op play is possibly quite amusing if both players know what they're doing since they're able to cover a wider area of the screen together. The horizontal span of the game is wider than a single screen, so when playing solo you'll often have to choose from deviating or splitting pathways.

Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō comes with basic features such as a manual save/load function and the ability to remap buttons (only shot and bomb). The game received an enhanced port for the Sega Saturn two years after its release under the name Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpekiban, which I should be checking out in the near future. For now, my best 1CC result on the Playstation version is below (Normal difficulty). Bear in mind that the act of continuing does not reset the score in this game.

Coming up next: Bokan Desu Yo.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Adventurous Boy (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1998

Famous games and franchises often have their strengths copied or imitated in further titles, in a natural evolution that's perfectly expected in the world of video games. However, a minor part of this evolution is comprised of blatant ripoffs that often pop up as bootlegs or unlicensed products. One of these is Adventurous Boy, a rare cartridge to find in original form for Mega Drive aficionados. There's no in-game information about its release year, but online sources indicate that it came out in 1998.

Developed by Taiwanese company Gamtec, the same one that delivered Magic Girl, the game is best defined as a shameless clone of Fantasy Zone, so no special presentation is needed if you happen to know how Sega's classic plays. What's needed in the case of Adventurous Boy is the will to try a game that looks nice on the outside but ends up being a mediocre experience in almost all fronts. The saving grace is the nice use of colors for backgrounds and some decent designs with several layers of parallax (the frame rate is also better than what we get in Magic Girl). Unfortunately this good impression fades as you start to play and spot the underlying differences from the finely tuned gameplay of the Fantasy Zone titles.

It all begins with an intro sequence that sets the story of the game in the future and makes absolutely no sense.

Opean ocean, night time and jungle levels
(courtesy of YouTube user taizou / 12bit club)

Button B fires the main shot (weapon 1), button C drops bomb-like auxiliary shots (sp weapon) and button A shoots out single rounds of special weapons (weapon 2). The designations inside parentheses are the ones that segregate the items you're able to buy and select inside the parts shop that appears at the start of all levels except the 8th. The currency used there is the one provided by the stars left behind by destroyed enemies. Most of the time prices vary according to the item's efficiency, but for a better start it's essencial to get one of the speed-up options and one of the bomb alternatives, then keep buttons B and C pressed at all times. Autofire is active by default.

Gameplay follows the tried-and-true formula developed by Sega in Fantasy Zone. As you fly left and right on a cylinder, your mission is to destroy generators that spill out the enemies that populate the levels. The distance to the generators is indicated in a map located at the bottom of the screen. Once all ten generators are destroyed the boss appears, granting you with a lot of stars when defeated. Stage themes vary a lot throughout, as well as the sprites for generators (honeycombs, candy blobs, seahorses, robots, wood logs, etc.). The last stage is a boss rush with all previous bosses and a stupidly easy final boss in the end. In that level you automatically enter the shop once each boss is once again destroyed.

When you try out different weapons one thing becomes clear: all purchases for weapon 1 or weapon 2 types are not permanent. Weapon 1 items have limited duration, whereas weapon 2 items are for single use only (you can buy more if you want, of course). Before leaving the shop you're required to choose which items you'll activate for each category (speed-up and all three weapons). Only speed-ups and bombs (sp weapon) are permanent, at least until you die and lose all your inventory. Track missiles are the way to go for bombs because they follow enemies around and are very useful despite their slow speed and reload cycle. Other upgrades available at the shop include "live" (for health refills, up to seven but not always worth three at once), shield (disappears after a while) and 1UP.

Pink seahorses ahoy!

Though not apparent upon a first contact, there are many flaws in Adventurous Boy. The most aggravating one is that upon dying you become a sitting duck due to the lack of checkpoints, the extremely low default speed of our hero and the fact that no shop appears at all to help you out. If that happens on a boss fight chances are your life stock will be quickly depleted. The good news is that when you figure out how the game works it becomes a walk in the park, mainly because bosses are actually ridiculously easy. Besides, there is no inflation at all for upgrade prices in the shop.

And then there are a few retarded programming bugs, such as the game randomly denying you the choice of a wing type before leaving the shop, thus forcing you to play with no speed-up at all. Or the baffling reset of your score as soon as you fire your first shot in any stage. This means that the number of points you'll have when the game is beaten is the exact score you achieve in the final level. Oh boy...

Don't be fooled by how Adventurous Boy looks. Graphics are okay and you can even say some music tracks stand out (the sound effects, however, are rather miserable). Being unlicensed is no excuse for such lame programming, but unfortunately the game is bottom-of-the-barrel material in that regard. Below is a peek of my final result with the game in the Normal difficulty. You need to pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to get any record of your "high score".

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tectoy / Sega
Published by Tectoy in 1995

Created by a talented cartoonist during the 80s and based on a famous Brazilian children's song, Sapo Xulé (which translates to something like "Stinky Feet Frog") was adopted by Tectoy and promoted to a local mascot a few years later. Starting with a plastic frog toy that exuded a bad odor when stripped off of his sneakers, the company soon followed with three video games released exclusively for the Master System.

The stinky detail about these games is that they are all official hacks, meaning they were all hacks officially endorsed by Sega at the time. Sapo Xulé Vs. Os Invasores do Brejo is a hack of Psycho Fox, whereas Sapo Xulé - O Mestre do Kung Fu uses Kung Fu Kid as a basic mold. In the case of Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída the game in question is Astro Warrior. The latter is also the only one that got an European release in Portugal.

All Sapo Xulé titles are nicely packaged in late Master System boxes, with sympathetic art, specific instruction manuals and rather detailed backstories. They are nice collector's items in their own right, but all they offer in terms of gameplay is an experience that's identical to the original template. In SOS Lagoa Poluída (or SOS Polluted Pond), Sapo Xulé must battle three underground areas in order to free his environment from evil greedy scientists. Astro Warrior's star-dotted backgrounds are recolored in green to resemble a swamp, and all sprites of the enemy gallery get replaced by cartoony renditions of garbage and a few random objects.

Meet Blublu

There's a single noticeable functional difference from this game and Astro Warrior: it's the number of starting spare lives, which in Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is five, as opposed to the original two. Other than that the gameplay is exactly the same, down to enemy and boss behavior. Stage and boss names were altered to something more swampy though: Blurp Lake is protected by boss Plurb, Gulpb Lake is protected by boss Blublu, Sgurpb Lake is protected by boss Sblug. They all SURELY SURVIVE after defeat, meaning the game loops these three stages endlessly.

As you fly over terrain that resembles Star Soldier you can shoot around at will and collect the items that arrive floating in the middle of the screen. Even though these items seem to come at random spots as you play, they are actually spawned by destroying successive ground tiles. A red pepper serves as speed-up, a funny face is the power-up and a tiny thingie grants you a trailing option to increase firepower. It takes two power-ups and two options to achieve max power, with plenty of speed-ups to send you rocketing around the screen if you so wish. Beware not to let the option item pass by, if that happens you won't have the chance to collect another one for the duration of the current life. At one moment speed-ups stop appearing, but power-ups keep coming no matter how long it takes for you to pick them up.

By trying to make a sci-fi shooter look like a wacky cute'em up, Tectoy was only able to go halfway and doesn't really succeed. Sure, you will be shooting at rotten apples, dirty boots, banana peels, watermelon slices, amoeba flocks, matchsticks and other unidentified flying objects. Boss sprites are retouched in order to look like vehicles piloted by creatures from the pond (the detail of final boss Sblug's ugly face inside the cockpit is nice, for example). But that's it, essentially. Bullet patterns are unaltered and the music is unchanged. It's just like having a regionally different Astro Warrior. We couldn't ask much from a hack anyway, I guess.

Sapo Xulé to the rescue!
(courtesy of YouTube user Anarki)

With just three stages, Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is a rather short game that loops forever, as I mentioned above. Difficulty is already maxed out on the second loop, however playing marathon runs isn't a trivial endeavor simply because recovering from deaths can be quite tricky. Blame it on the extremely slow default speed of our poor little stinky feet frog. And once all four extra lives are gained you won't get any more extends (the extend interval is 50.000 points, but note that the current score is only shown in between levels).

In my pursuit of a better performance in the game I had a few surprises. The first one was that upon beating Plurb again in stage 6.1 I noticed my score had rolled over on the mark of one million points. Suffice it to say my will to continue playing faded right there and then. However, upon reverting back to the start screen I found out the game actually has a counterstop on 999.900 points, as we can see in the picture below. Upon a quick research I discovered that this is also the case with Astro Warrior. Well, better late than never, I guess. Nonetheless I did have fun with SOS Lagoa Poluída, and I believe achieving the counterstop in either version still stands as a fun little challenge for all Master System owners.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thunder Force V (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

When I think about the fact that Thunder Force V came out more than 20 years ago I can't help but feel a sting of nostalgia. Back then I had completely left video games in favor of college, and would only get to experience the game some ten years down the road. It was also the very first shmup I purchased for the Sega Saturn once I started collecting, so I guess that says a lot about my appreciation for the franchise. Why Sega and Technosoft didn't release the game out of Japan is beyond me. I absolutely don't buy the idea that a game like Thunder Force V wouldn't sell well in the West, or that shmups were already a dead genre by then.

The leap of Technosoft's most famous series into the 32-bit video game generation is everything fans could hope for. Granted, Thunder Force IV / Lightening Force set the Mega Drive on fire, something that can't be said about Thunder Force V and the Sega Saturn. Nonetheless the sequel successfully expanded on the ideas of previous chapters, taking the gameplay to new heights while remaining faithful to the atmosphere and the general feel of the series. It's still frantic, clearly methodical and heavily bent on memorization. Graphics are a mixture of regular sprites and 3D models based on polygons with varying textures. Even if they might seem dated to some people by today's standards, they've still got a lot of charm and a healthy dose of sleek cinematic transitions. Let's also not forget about the excellent soundtrack.

No blue? Really?

Following the trend of previous games in the series, the order of the three initial stages can be established as soon as you start the credit. Commands are fully configurable in the options and work with shot, two directions for weapon select (right/left), speed selection and overweapon. This overweapon input is the most important gameplay addition in Thunder Force V. Whenever you press this button the power of your current weapon is augmented at the cost of the energy of your options/claws/craws. Craws are single energy spheres that rotate around the ship, increase its firepower and protect it from regular bullets. You can have a maximum of three craws at any given time, but if they're hit while their energy is fully exhausted (by using an overweapon) they will disappear. Exhausted craws recover energy with time, but can be replenished faster by collecting new craws.

Craws are one of the items you get from harmless carriers or special enemies. Other items include the non-default weapons (wave, free range and hunter), shields and extra lives (1UP). The only weapons you don't lose when you die are the default ones (twin shot and back shot), all others are lost and need to be reactivated with another weapon item. Shields give you protection against three hits: a blue shield means you have 3 hits left, a green shield means you have 2 hits left and a brown shield means you can take only one shot before becoming vulnerable again. Once you die your craws will scatter around the screen and bounce for a while so that you can pick them up again. As for score-based extends, they are granted with 10, 50, 100 and 500 million points.

In line with the evolution of the genre by the late 90s, which demanded more than just mindless shooting and flashy explosions, Thunder Force V includes a scoring system of its own. It's essentially very simple: the faster you dispatch mid-sized and large enemies (including bosses) the more points you get based on a multiplier that goes from ×2 to ×16. There's also a completion bonus based on the chosen difficulty, the number of lives left and the final equipped weapons, which is once again a noble incentive for players to polish their performances as hard as they can. There's a catch related to this completion bonus though (keep reading).

As far as speed-killing goes, it doesn't take long for you to realize the extreme importance of the aiming and overweapon capabilities of the free range shot. When properly used, it's able to easily dispatch most enemies and several boss phases with ×16 multipliers (note that it does even more damage when enemies are hit within range 1). The other weapons are useful in their own right, but there's no doubt that dying and losing free range severely limits scoring and survival possibilities. Free range is, in fact, the reason of many complaints regarding gameplay balance in Thunder Force V. While that's a valid point, personally the only fault I could attribute to free range is making the game an easier ride. Once you learn how to lay waste to everything with it, of course.

Stage 2: Wood
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

Each stage in Thunder Force V is quite unique in its environment. Sea, jungle and city precede a space station guarded by a transforming mecha boss. Then comes stage 5, which brings a treat for fans of the series, especially those who played the previous chapter. First you're propelled to outer space by docking to a sword-shaped shuttle with a shield bar and its own firepower capabilitites (two special weapons only used in that level), then you have to face none other than the Fire Leo-04 Rynex, the original ship from Thunder Force IV, as you listen to the epic opening theme of that game in one of the most iconic moments in the whole franchise. Defeat it and play the rest of the game with improved versions of the default weapons, the same ones seen in part VI (twin shot turns into blade and back shot becomes rail gun).

Thunder Force V also boasts a rather complicated storyline depicted in the animated opening, in the details shown prior to each boss fight and in the ending. There's a catch though: in order to see the good ending and understand how the story arc closes you need to beat the creepy insect-like last boss within a time limit. If he escapes you get a bad ending and you're denied the completion bonus. High score tables are segregated by difficulty and show a few stats for each logged run. Some extra tweaks can be applied to the game, such as setting the weapon HUD in different arrangements. Bonus note: beating the game on Hard unlocks a special Master difficulty.

Besides the regular retail release the Sega Saturn also received a special edition of the game called Thunder Force V Special Pack, which adds a bonus CD with rearranged tracks of previous games entitled The Best of Thunder Force. A port was released a year later for the Sony Playstation with the title Thunder Force V - Perfect System, and while it does look like the Saturn original there are still noticeable differences I intend to point out in the near future. As for the series progression, it would take more than ten years for the sequel Thunder Force VI to appear on the Playstation 2.

In revisiting the Saturn version, my best 1CC result in the Normal difficulty is the one shown below. It represents an improvement of 42% over my previous highest score, achieved when I didn't have much of a grasp of scoring systems at all.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Strike Force Hydra (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Ignition Entertainment
Published by Ignition Entertainment in 2003

There are shmups that defy genre conventions in the most diverse ways. Within this special category, there are those that succeed and those that fail. Within the batch that fails, there are those that at least manage not to do anything blatantly wrong and those that for some reason or another are barely playable, exhibit a few downright broken traits or adopt boredom as a defining element of their gameplay. If we're to choose one of these infamous categories for Strike Force Hydra, those who played the game will probably agree with me that it deserves to be included in the latter.

Strike Force Hydra is also a prime example of the backlash that befalls many shmups made by European developers. It's got pretty much all the aspects that made the "euroshmup" term so shameful, including uninspired stage/enemy design, unbalanced difficulty, health bar and inertia. The game was released alongside an identical version for the Game Boy Advance, so it's hard to tell if one of them was ported from the other. If that's the case, then it coming out for the handheld after a Playstation original would make a little more sense. The problem is that no real excitement is to be seen in either version of a stale hovership adventure that seems to be loosely inspired by River Raid.

Hovercraft strike over the river
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Levels in Strike Force Hydra are divided in three sections. In the first and the third sections you battle enemies and fight bosses in the end. The intermediary parts are simple corridor arrangements where you don't need to shoot, instead you're supposed to pilot the hovership in order to avoid walls or obstacles (the so-called "speed" section). Button × fires your main weapon, button □ fires a secondary weapon, L1 jumps and R1 activates a boost function. Every once in a while a wave of tiny rotating enemies will appear. Destroy most of them and you'll release an item: the red one powers up the main weapon and the green one powers up the secondary weapon.

Having both shot buttons pressed at all times is recommended since they come with autofire by default and the secondary attack is quite powerful even though it's got an extremely low rate of fire. Upgrades enhance them by a good margin. The maxed out main shot, for example, is a thick laser beam that melts everything in its path. The only problem is that it also overshadowns everything, including all regular bullets. For a while I avoided getting it for the sake of bullet visibility, but once I noticed it's much better to have power rather than visibility I changed my mind. The Whirl-Wind boss (stage 3.2), for example, can only be destroyed before its rotating kamikaze attack if you have the laser.

Speaking of bosses, if only they lived up to their badass names (such as Master-Laser, Attack Drone Alpha and Crab-a-rang) this game would be a completely different kind of beast. They all fire pathetic, predictable, extremely easy patterns with no variation whatsoever. As for regular enemies, they're a joke. It's either turrets on the sides or staggering ships/bots descending with little gusto. If by any chance you get cornered you can always use the jump input to quickly reach the other side of the screen and be safe. By the way, jumping is the second most important dodging resource in Strike Force Hydra, the first one being learning how to overcome inertia. The tip is to move slowly, enemy bullets are never fast anyway and the few dangerous attacks from bosses won't harm you if you use those jumps wisely.

Each credit offers five lives and no energy recovery of any kind. Energy is drained every time you touch a bullet, an enemy or a wall (in the speed sections that is). Deaths send you back to the beginning of the section and take away one power level of your weaponry. Even though that seems harsh, once you get the hang of things you'll realize how easy the game actually is. Environments alternate between jungle, ocean, ice and some sort of factory backdrop, with light techno themes that either fit the graphics (jungle part) or just resemble elevator music. Sound effects are extremely loud and practically engulf the music whenever there's any action going on.

Welcome to the jungle

No matter how lame the gameplay looks like, the scoring system is even worse. Never have I seen such disregard for the score mechanic in a shmup. You will see a display for your kills, but it's reset every time a new level starts after you're given some stupid ranking description for your performance. The instruction booklet even mentions the number of kills is only supposed to be reset upon death, but that's not the case. Talk about some dumb, useless alocation of programming resources!

By the way, the instruction booklet is riddled with false information on the gameplay, which is just another sign of the laziness that plagues Strike Force Hydra. It says there are two types of button layouts, but there's no option at all to switch to a different control setup from the one I described above. It also states you can recover health by figuring out the "secret" behind certain types of rotating enemies. Unless this secret involves some sort of arcane proceedings it's just not there, and so aren't the power-ups mentioned to be present in the toughest paths of the speed sections. There's even a proper score display in the snapshot for the screen description, which is of course nowhere to be found in the final product.

Alas, sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Saying Strike Force Hydra is bad is a gigantic euphemism. It's one of those games that can make people lose faith in the shooting genre, so be warned and warn your friends. The picture below appears briefly during the final credits, then you're back at the start screen with no bonus game to play after defeating the game on the Hard difficulty (another lie of the instruction manual), which I had just done. On a single credit, of course.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Galaxy Force (Master System)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Activision in 1989

I often ask myself if the the 8-bit generation was ready to handle arcade ports of rail shooters. Most examples say it wasn't, but when you realize several other rail shooters were also released for less powerful platforms then you can somehow forgive Galaxy Force on the Sega Master System. Never mind the confusion related to the arcade releases of Galaxy Force and Galaxy Force II, which widely replaced the former to the point almost no one ever saw it running. If you'd still like to have a glimpse of what it *looked like* you could try the Master System port, yet from the references I got it probably isn't the case.

Anyway, the only thing one can infer from playing this version of Galaxy Force is that little is to be expected that resembles the frantic, jaw-dropping action of the arcade game. Gone is the thrilling sensation of cruising through space taking down multiple targets. Just the basic framework was preserved in the transition: you fly a spaceship in rail shooter fashion through four different planets in any desired order, shooting down enemies until you enter a tunnel full of turns designed to test your piloting abilitites. For some cinematic flair, in every stage you see your ship taking off from a hangar.

Button 1 shoots single bullets, button 2 fires missiles that target enemies framed by your lock-on indicator. Button 1 has native autofire, button 2 doesn't. Ammo is unlimited for both.

Beware, floating platforms ahead

Stage selection is completely up to the player. The default order is an outer space station, then a volcanic planet, a plant world and a desertic landscape. Once all of them are conquered you will battle the final and only boss in the whole game. Yes, there's only one actual boss. Stages in Galaxy Force have no proper target cores at the end of the tunnel sections, which is one of the main sacrifices made to squeeze the game in the Master System cartridge (bosses are replaced by a brief animation showing the destruction of the planet). Sure, as the back of the box says it's got not double, not triple, but four times the playing power of a regular cartridge - meaning 4 Mega power! But hum... no, you don't get the hottest space combat, nor the baddest explosions. As for the sounds, well... at least we can say the soundtrack is undoubtedly the best thing about this port.

Many enemies are unique to this version, which tries to preserve the feel of the original game by means of the background scenery alone. Nevertheless the enemy gallery is practically the aspect that best conveys some sort of sprite scaling; tunnel sections use a flashing effect over static pillars to achieve the illusion of scrolling into the screen. For all it's worth, the trickery kinda works. The overall frame rate is still apalling and needs some getting used to. You still get to lock onto multiple enemies with your crosshair aim, but never in a reliable, repeatable fashion.

Another concession made on the port is the absence of the stage timer, and by extension the acceleration and break inputs. Everything is much more simple now, and your only concern while moving around in your killing spree is to preserve energy. The energy shield meter is color coded and changes as you get hit. As a general rule, the more red and flashing it gets the closer you are to biting the dust. Shield energy is automatically recovered at the end of the level after your bonus is calculated based on the amount of hits/kills you just achieved. Note that the more enemies you destroy the higher the bonus gets for each enemy in the final tallying.

Cruising the galaxy for justice
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

The elimination of the timer element more than offsets the difficulty imposed by the confusing sprite scaling effect and the way the turns behave inside the tunnels. These turns vary a little in length with every new level, which means that each stage tunnel demands a certain tapping strategy for you to perform the movement without hitting the walls. After a while you notice that later levels are actually easier than the starting ones, at least this was my case. In fact, I even consider the first stage to be the hardest of them all by dint of the random nature of the meteors and the lack of ground scrolling for better evaluation of enemy approach. The turns inside the frst tunnel are also the hardest ones to perform.

Though considerably butchered in technical terms, my feeling after playing Galaxy Force on the Master System is that the game isn't a total wreck. It's fun in an awkward, nostalgic manner, with a final message that calls players out for using continues and advises them to beat the game again on a single credit if they want to watch the real ending (not the one where the ship crashes onto the landing platform). All in all, I liked that the difficulty was duly adapted to the console's limitations, unlike what happenened with the remarkably tough Space Harrier port.

Here's the final 1CC score I got for Galaxy Force on Sega's 8-bit machine: