Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gaiares (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Telenet
Published by Renovation in 1990

Very few shmups inspire such fear in people's hearts as Gaiares for the Mega Drive does - or at least this is the impression you get when you read most reviews written on the game since its release in 1990. I was always remembered of how controversial it is regarding its awesomeness or its overrated status among those who played it, and finally decided to see it for real after receiving a few inputs from some fellow shmuppers. Keep reading if you want to know how it went.

As I was playing Gaiares it was inevitable to relate the game to two other Renovation titles, even though they were originally published by other companies: Arrow Flash (Sega) and Whip Rush (Vic Tokai). It's a bit awkward to explain why these 3 games represent an unnoficial trilogy to me, one that starts with the somewhat disappointing Arrow Flash, improves but still presents rough edges with Whip Rush and then reaches full potential with Gaiares. The Renovation tag on them is the first obvious reason for this, but I do think these games (all Mega Drive exclusive) are graphically and musically related, with unexpected similarities in stage/weapon design.

Two indestructible ground gunners on the beginning of the 2nd stage

From the story shown in the attract mode, your name is Dan Dare and you're out to stop the evil ZZ Badnasty's army in order to return the original green status to a destroyed Earth, and Alexis is the co-pilot lady that operates the "TOZ" system. This TOZ is the core aspect of Gaiares - a feature that allows you to throw your single option (one that follows the ship around and absorbs bullets) on enemies to mimic their weaponry on your own ship. The possibilities here are many, since there are over 15 different weapons to be acquired. Moreover, each one can be powered-up twice by using the TOZ again on the same enemy. The greatest sort of fun here, and in some cases of stress, is to figure out which weapon serves best for each situation, and the important thing is to try to steal weapons from everything that moves, even bosses or mid-bosses. Combine this with the selection of 3 very distinct speed adjustments and the availability of shield icons spread throughout the stages and you're ready to face the increasingly difficult barrage of baddies.

It takes some runs to see what Gaiares has best, but after you've been sucked into the gameplay there's no denying it is a strong and addictive 16-bit shooter. I don't find the first stage to be that appealing: the graphics aren't special, nor is the music. The music in the second stage still isn't that convidative enticing, but the challenge picks up a little. Finally by the 3rd stage the game reaches full load, with an awkward but very pleasant graphical mix (massive black holes followed by a castle with guillotines, deadly pendulums and fire-spitting wall gargoyles) accompanied by a great pumping BGM. When you notice that the music gets even better while you're fighting homing missiles, lasers and massive enemy crafts amidst all the exploding fireballs and ice debris that populate the whole 5th stage you definitely know you've got an excellent, if not downright awesome, shmup in your hands.

How to not play the first stage in Gaiares
(courtesy of YouTube user mathowlett)

As far as horizontal checkpoint shooters go, this one excels in being intense and extremely versatile from a gameplay standpoint. And the best thing is that its difficulty cult status is a lie. It's not an easy game by any means, but I don't think it can be included into the hardest category either (try Hellfire or Truxton for some serious beating). Here go some reasons why:
  • Most of the time it's not impossible to recover after you die, like in some other well known checkpoint shooters (R-Type, anyone?);
  • ALL enemies have defined and fixed patterns, which is something that rewards those who stick to them play after play;
  • While the normal shield adds 3 extra hits to your ship, absorbing it with the TOZ will give you 5 hits instead (!). It's like having 5 extra lives, while managing shields is the key to a great performance;
  • Some weapons are far more powerful than others and using them makes the game considerably easier (the fun is in identifying these ones!).
You start the game with 5 lives, but there are absolutely no extends while playing. My favorite weapons are the H-Laser and the T-Missile, but I also used the G-Beam and the S-Laser a lot. Another minor thing I found out is that those tiny missiles your ship fires can acquire a homing ability by absorbing a tiny ground enemy during the 1st stage. The secret weapon (acquired by throwing the TOZ at nothing 5 times and then against any enemy) resembles the Hunter weapon from the Thunder Force series, but it must be enabled in every stage (not an easy task in later levels) and isn't really that helpful.

I was able to beat the game on NORMAL without losing any lives, with the high score shown below. By the way, to access the options screen it's necessary to press either A, B or C with START during the start screen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tiger-Heli (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Acclaim in 1986

Despite being ignored by Nintendo during the majority of its lifetime in Brazil, the NES had a whole line of clones that filled in for the original hardware for a long while, with such names as BitSystem, Dynavision, Phantom System and Top Game, all of them coming from different local manufacturers. The Top Game in particular had a very early influence in my gaming formation, because every console package came with a 60-pin cartridge named Tiger-Heli. It was, as much as I can remember, my first shmup love affair with an NES setting, and the time has come to revisit this absolute classic from my childhood.

I believe I have digressed a few times into recollecting the reasons for why I eventually became a shmupper. Tiger-Heli was one of the few NES shmups I had the chance to play back then, simply because they weren't so popular or readily available in rental/retail shops, and maybe that's why it played such an important role in my shmuppy coming-out-of-the-closet process. After all, it ocuppied my attention side by side with NES heavyweights such as Contra, Battletoads and Mega Man, and was the first complete NES game I bought when I started collecting more than a decade later.

Two little helis increase firepower to the sides of the helicopter

Developed by Toaplan, originally distributed by Taito and finally published by Acclaim in the US, this enjoyable helicopter shooter is one of the genre's foundation stones. The transition from the arcade game to its 8-bit version is of great quality, as it does retain all of the original gameplay characteristics while adapting the aesthetics graphically and musically to the home format. Basically, you pilot a chopper through various scenarios (streets, city, ocean, desert, etc.) and shoot down terrestrial targets along the way. Interesting detail: no bullets are fired from the few airborne craft seen here and there. Bomb for more destructive effect and get "little heli" power-ups to increase firing capabilities. Please refer to my writing on the PS1 port for a deeper description of the gameplay, because it's exactly the same.

Some remarkable aspects of the NES port are the good use of colors (the game never feels washed out like so many other games for the platform), the improvement on the helicopter's speed (which moves a little faster than in the somewhat painful arcade game) and the nice music rendition. The screen is obviously stretched out for the regular TV aspect ratio, while the difficulty was toned down a lot, as there are in general less enemies to destroy and a considerably lower number of those tanks appearing from the bottom of the screen. All enemies present a defined interval between firing consecutive shots, during which it's safe to get closer and dispatch them. This interval decreases as the game progresses, getting really short in later stages of the second loop. To the player's advantage though, enemy bullets are able to travel only in 8 directions (horizontals, verticals and diagonals), so it's always feasible to herd bullets and do the killings during the shot intervals.

Early 8-bit helicopter justice
(courtesy of YouTube user MetalsGeek)

It's not due to nostalgia alone that I think this version of Tiger-Heli is better than any other out there, including the arcade original. It's a very basic shooter, in such a way that it fits the constraints of the NES hardware better than in the arcade or the PS1. In fact, it feels tailored for Nintendo's 8-bit machine. The original version is also too difficult up front, while the NES title only truly shows its claws in the second loop, providing for a more comprehensive and overall better challenge slope - something like "warm up during the 1st loop and fasten your seatbelt for the real thing in the 2nd". It does have everything that the original had, so one should expect no complaints for lack of faithfulness, missing key enemies or different extend settings.

The only gripe I have, at least with the US release of the game, is that it's got a bug in its score display. Whenever a credit is finished, both your score and your high score should be buffered to the start screen. However, after the 1st attract mode round is over, both the score display and the first digit of the high score are reset. If you managed to get 150.000 points, for example, your high score would then show 050.000 points. That's pretty annoying when you want to keep track of performance, so be prepared for it. I don't know if this also happens with the Japanese cartridge.

So here's my high score, game played until stage 2-3:


Friday, December 11, 2009

Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Toaplan in 1991

There are certain games that are capable of warming our needy hearts regardless of time, setting or platform. No matter how long you've been away from them, when you play these games you are transported to a very particular oasis of fond memories and undeniable fun. Zero Wing is such a game for me, one that every so often I insert in my Mega Drive with the volume in my speakers cranked up above 20. After all, having the earphone jack plugged to a stereo system is the way to go for those who have a model 1 machine, for the music in this title is in my opinion one of the best ever made for any video game.

Reasons for why I have Zero Wing in such high regard aren't restricted to music. Going back in time, it was no wonder that this game caused a strong impression in my still incipiently shmup-oriented mind. Subcounsciously I was already hooked, and while still playing platformers and racers I was constantly drawn to this rocking shooter and its punishing difficulty (for a 15-year old teenager, mind you). Besides the awesome soundtrack, the graphics were great, the weapons were extremely cool and the overall feeling of cruising through the vastness of outer space was conveyed like few other shooters managed to accomplish at the time. Take the 1st stage, for instance (Natols - all stages have names!): you take off of an exploding mothership, blast your way through a surface base, face a creepy skull mid-boss and end up fighting a whale-like boss, all of that to the sound of great pumping shmup music. It's an easy level alright, but it sets the tone perfectly for the more difficult - and awesome - stages to come.

Further stages are also preceded by their proper names: Legrous, Pleades, Aquese, Submarine Tunnel, Barricade Zone, Bellon and Gerbarra. Don't they all sound like cool names for stand-alone games? They feel very different and unique and, despite having a slow scrolling speed, the action is never boring due to the decently varied enemy design. I absolutely love the music in Legrous and Submarine Tunnel, but all BGMs carry a top notch pumping rock aura (this is no techno, I don't know how some people have come up with this) that even surpasses the original tunes from the arcade version or, in most cases, from the music found in the PC Engine CD port. Yes, it's that amazing.

Facing the boss of the 7th stage - check out the super vulcan power-up!

There are 3 weapons to choose from: the red (vulcan), the blue (laser) and the green (homing). They can be interchanged with the appropriate icons left by destroyed carrier ships, and after collecting the first one (the red, not the blue/green!) two pods will materialize above and below the ship. They are an essential part of gameplay, as they increase the ship’s firepower and absorb all bullets, automatically squeezing in tight passages. Sticking three times to the same color will upgrade the weapon to its full power. Further icons of the same color are worth 5.000 points or, in rare cases, 1UPs, 2UPs or even 10UPs (seriously, I got this one a few days ago). A speed-up icon appears after each power-up cycle, being occasionally replaced by a sphere that works both as a front shield and as a bomb that can be tossed onto enemies with the B button. Normally the B button works as a tractor beam that's used to capture small and mid-sized enemies, latching them to the front of the ship. These captured enemies can be used as 1-hit shields or just tossed away as you will, but beware of heavier hijacked craft/objects - their increased mass will pull the ship down!

With a default difficulty set to EASY, it's necessary to go to the options in order to activate NORMAL or HARD. Following the trend of its time, Zero Wing is checkpoint-based, thus presenting some rather harsh sections in later stages. They will make you angry but at the same time a lot better in dodging enemy heat-seeking missiles. Though difficult, the overall challenge does not reach the extreme heights of Hellfire, also developed by Toaplan at around the same time.

Stage 2 - Legrous
(courtesy of YouTube user Stovepipehat)

I have come to the point where I can say I know Zero Wing inside out. I have memorized every single section and strategies in the NORMAL setting, being able to recover even if I die in the hardest possible checkpoint. However, I still don't know how to trigger the super-mega-power-up that materializes randomly. It's a big pink pulsating icon that increases the pods to 3 times their size, gives the ultimate final upgrade to the ship and boosts the blasting fun to the stratosphere. You can play the game for days without getting it and then, all of a sudden, the damn thing just falls in your lap when you least expect it.

The one thing I finally grasped when having this last gaming session was how to achieve a monster score in the first loop alone. As much as it hurts my feelings towards the game, I have to admit that this spoils the immaculate brilliance it once had before my eyes. I refer to the fact that the gameplay is broken in the last stage. Die in the last boss before the final pod leaves the screen and play the last checkpoint again. Each time this is done you get approximately 200.000 points, which also means 2 additional lives (first extend with 70.000, then one for each 100.000 points). I don't know if this is inherited from the arcade original, but you can counterstop the Mega Drive port by doing it.

If you're still reading this and wondering why I didn't write a word about the ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US meme, that's because all my glory days with this game were spent with a Japanese cart. I wasn't aware of the Engrish debate over Zero Wing until much later in my life, and it irks me to see so much incongruent bashing of people who will dismiss this incredibly fun game based on this AYBABTU crap alone. Come on, you play a shooter to blast and explode stuff, not to gaze upon an intro (a cool one, but just an intro anyway).

I died in the last stage and took advantage of the last boss to see how many points I could get with each checkpoint. Funny thing is that when I decided to move on he gave me a hell of a beating! The game was played in NORMAL until stage 2-5 (in that section with those impossible blue tanks).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deathsmiles (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2009

When shoot'em ups for the new generation of video game consoles (namely the Xbox 360) began to finally trickle, things only gained full steam for me when I laid my eyes on Deathsmiles. It had been a long time since I was instantly blown away by any video game as I ran it for the first time, solely on the merits of how good the game looked. For someone who doesn't have any access to the world of arcades, it was nothing less of stunning.

Horizontal shooters allow for a far deeper and more intricate game design, and Cave's renowned expertise really stands out here. The original arcade incarnation is included in the Xbox 360 port, but the top cream of the game are the new modes, which were properly revamped to high definition standards and look amazing on an LCD screen. As a lovely take on a gothic halloween theme, Deathsmiles delivers a great, intense and at the same time light-hearted experience that's aimed both at casual/novice and hardcore players alike. And that's probably the best thing Cave managed to accomplish while developing the game.

Rosa makes her way through the volcano stage (C2)

Four teenagers (lolitas for the initiated) battle in 7 or 8 stages to rid their world of hordes of devilish creatures. Their ages vary from 12 to 17 (Casper, Windia, Follet and Rosa), and their strength and firepower are very distinct from one another. Each one of them flies with a familiar, a small creature that plays a very important role as it adds to the firepower and absorbs some types of bullets. The girls shoot both ways (left and right), varying the attacks between button tapping (shot) and button holding (laser) - the familiars behave differently according to this, as does the character's speed (Casper and Rosa have shot = fixed familiar and laser = free/moving familiar, while Windia and Follett are the opposite). The only part of their bodies that can be hit (the hitbox) is their glowing and pulsating heart. When colliding with an enemy they'll lose only half a life, while incoming shots will take a full life cell. Maximum life stock is 5, which can be achieved with the extends on 20 and 45 million points, but there are also life replenishers that can be triggered inside the stages. Each life comes with 3 bombs/spells, and extra spells can also be obtained in the correct stages.

Certain enemies drop items that add to a counter on the lower left side of the screen. By pressing both shot buttons the familiar performs a lock-on attack and homes on enemies while the counter decreases. However, if the counter has hit 1.000 and this attack is performed, the character enters the "power-up" mode. Once in this mode the player remains invincible against enemy collision, while the counter goes down - however, its instantaneous value is first buffered and then increased with the new items released by all enemies. When this hidden counter reaches 10.000 you enter "fever" mode and your score will skyrocket with all those golden crown items. Power-up/fever mode ends when the item counter reaches 0.

Suicide bullets come towards Windia in the graveyard stage (A2)

Now here's where the game starts to show its intrincacies: besides letting you choose the order of the 6 initial stages, Deathsmiles also lets you choose with which rank you want to play them, from levels 1 to 3. Higher rank means a higher difficulty, but also more enemies and more scoring opportunities. Sticking to rank level 1/2 is the way to go for starters while, on the other hand, playing only on level 3 will activate "death" mode. On the 5th stage played on rank level 3 suicide bullets will appear from each defeated enemy. That's when the familiar comes in handy, because it absorbs the suicide bullets and by doing that also increases the item counter. Yes, Cave did find a way to include one of the trademarks of their second loops for the hardcore people! After completing the 6 initial stages, you're offered the option to go straight to the last level or to go through the Extra stage. Going straight to the final stage with no death mode is the way for starters, since playing Extra adds +1 to death mode difficulty. That means if you already have death mode active after 6 stages, you'll enter Extra in death mode level 2, facing the last stage in death mode level 3 (with ludicrous amounts of suicide bullets!). Going into Extra with no death mode activates death mode level 1 and a final stage in death mode level 2.

The action is relentless, with creatures and bullets coming from both sides all the time. As I mentioned, the game will definitely please non-hardcore players with the implemented rank selection. It seems complicated, but after just a few plays you'll see it's definitely not. My goal was to achieve the 1CC with the Extra stage, and in my quest I stumbled upon two learning phases. The first one was getting used to the suicide bullet swarm of the last stages (with the aid of the useful training option). Once this was out of the way I started playing for the 1CC, but then I got greedy and had to learn or refine my gameplay even more, since minor details affect a huge deal of the scoring.

Deathsmiles official game trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Here are some of the greedy stuff you're likely to come across by yourself:
  • enemies yield more items depending if they are hit by shot (tapping), by laser (holding) or by the lock-on attack;
  • the familiar's laser pierces larger enemies and generates more items;
  • position and movement of the familiar is crucial in order to perform well and increase item counter faster;
  • some enemies must be attacked in increments for maximum item bonus (the forest stage!);
  • timing the end of the fever mode to get more items for the next power-up round is a great bonus;
  • the start and the end of a power-up/fever mode wipes all on-screen bullets (very useful!).
That's enough for gameplay! For an extremely detailed description, the best source is this wonderful page.

Saying that Deathsmiles is reason enough to purchase a Japanese Xbox 360 is no understatement. It's beautiful, has a great soundtrack for its theme and will definitely provide endless hours of fun. Additional modes include versions 1.1 (a much more difficult game with different controlling aspects) and MBL (Mega Black Label, a downloadable version with an additional stage and an additional character, Sakura, boss of stage B2). The package is rounded up by a good deal of options for special adjustments, online play and replay saving, and the limited edition of the game includes an arrange soundtrack CD.

Here's my high score on the Xbox 360 mode, default difficulty (2), playing with Rosa in initial route B1-B2-A1-C2-C1-A2. B1 and A1 were played in rank level 2, with all others in rank level 3 and Extra stage included. The best thing about it is that I feel I can still improve a lot!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Darius Alpha (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
16 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Nec Avenue in 1990

Collectors are a strange breed indeed. I am one of them, and I know that my hobby sometimes makes people around me wonder if I'm too wound up in this neverending gaming infatuation. You realize that things have reached a new plateau in your collecting habit when, as a shmup collector, you get to the point where you can say something like "I own Darius Alpha".

I say that because Darius Alpha is not only the rarest PC Engine game ever released, but also one of the rarest games ever. It was manufactured in extreme low quantities in Japan, being granted only to those who purchased both Darius Plus and Super Darius and mailed the publisher the attached special coupons. In result, there are only two categories of people who would be crazy enough to go after it these days: the hardcore collectors (the ones who don't collect to play but buy as an investment instead) and the hardcore Darius lovers. Those who have read some of my takes on the series will immediately know which category I belong to, so it's unnecessary for me to once again pledge my appreciation for everything Darius.

Tiat Young isn't in the game, but pays a visit to represent Proco Jr.

Forget about branching paths and space/sea environments here. This game is simply a boss rush, a progression of 16 straight boss battles based off the engine from Darius Plus. Presentation is bare bones, with just a title screen that alternates with the high score table. The Silver Hawk starts its journey with no power-ups, but these are automatically applied to the spaceship after each defeated boss, first in sets of 3 but soon in sets of 1 orb for each power-up category (missile/bomb/arm). I would've loved to see the names of the bosses appear on the screen as in other Darius games, but here you don't even get the famous WARNING messages. Shoot, kill, power-up, repeat. Simplicity is inversely proportional to how rare the HuCard is.

I had no trouble at all beating Darius Alpha. In my first run I was stopped by My Home Daddy, a creature that's as nasty as its stupid name. In the second run I cleared the game without dying, taking advantage of my previous experience from playing the other ports of the original Darius. I guess it isn't that easy for someone who never played them, so I don't feel all comfortable in calling it a walk in the park. Darius fans will certainly devise a higher fun factor than casual players, but even for them the experience should feel short and nothing more than an extremely expensive guilty pleasure. There's no difference in audio, however owners of the Supergrafx console are supposed to see graphical improvements when running the game.

The battle against the almighty Tough Spring

Let me now share some of my thoughts about the bosses:
  • 1. King Fossil - Classic and iconic first boss that's actually not as wimpy as some others in the game. Avoid staying in front of him with no space to dodge, and destroy his upper and lower fins for point bonuses.
  • 2. Electric Fan - One of the easiest bosses ever, and a recurring presence in the series.
  • 3. Big Rajarnn - The uppermost part of the screen is a safe spot against his attacks. He gives a hint to when he's about to shoot, in a subtle improvement from the Darius Plus mold.
  • 4. Little Stripes - Since he appears really early here, it seems his rock-splitting attack got easier to avoid. Again, his fins are worth a good deal of points.
  • 5. Dual Shears - He's frightening, but don't fear. Stay on the top hitting him with the "twin" missiles. When both his claws are gone target his mouth.
  • 6. Guard Savage - He fires 3 consecutive fast but easily dodgeable blasts from his mouth before homing on you. Just don't stay put and you'll be OK.
  • 7. Red Crab - Target his big claw heavily, beware of the spreading pattern and stay low to avoid the yellow lasers. His homing bubbles are not hard to dispatch.
  • 8. Hard Mollusc - It's good to stay just below the line of his mouth, concentrating first on his tentacles. Don't go up, or the lasers will crush you.
  • 9. Tough Spring - Visually impressive, this one needs a good beating with lots of dodging in the lower part of the screen. Priority should go to the small drones he leaves on the ground when halting for a second.
  • 10. Keen Bayonet - Going up and down is the best way to obliterate him. Avoid getting slow in the upper part, because those blue lasers are deadly.
  • 11. My Home Daddy - Definitely the most treacherous boss in the game in my opinion (it's him in the game cover). He throws a lightning bolt from his tail with almost no signal at all, and it's really hard to evade safely with all those bullets popping up from below. The good news is that after the bolt source is gone he's not much of a threat anymore.
  • 12. Mystic Power - Again, close to his mouth line is where you oughta be. The yellow arch swings back after leaving the screen, but other than that there's no severe menace.
  • 13. Fire Star - From here on, all bosses are large and impressive. The first parts to be taken down here are the 5 tips, then it becomes a really easy kill.
  • 14. Green Coronatus - His bullets are fast, and it's pretty much better to avoid them by going up and down while paying attention to the laser from his tail.
  • 15. Octopus - His tentacles shoot nasty bullets everywhere. By then you should be good at dodging, and if you didn't die the wave weapon will do the rest for you.
  • 16. Cuttle Fish - He's got a series of deadly attacks, but good anticipation, vertical movement and careful dodging should do the work.
As usual, don't take too long to beat any of the bosses, or you'll be disturbed by the homing rotating cubes.

Besides the main game, Darius Alpha offers a time attack "pseudo-caravan" mode of 4 minutes. It's activated by pressing SELECT instead of RUN in the PCE controller, but it's sort of pointless because there isn't a separate high score table for this mode. My high scores are shown below, both for the main game (table) and for the time attack mode (to the left of T- 0:00).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Toy Shop Boys (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victor Musical Industries
Published by Victor Musical Industries in 1991

"I got your toys! I'll get you all next!!"
"No, Gamma! You never!"

The above dialogue is shown in the start screen of Toy Shop Boys, a somewhat strange vertical shooter for the PC Engine. From it we deduce that "Gamma" is the ultimate bad guy in the game, and that the three boys with caps are the heroes that must defeat him after going through six stages of battling, well... toys. Rubber ducks, robot/soldier figures, teddy bears, mounting blocks, little cars, little tanks and much more in a myriad of mildly trippy sceneries. It's actually quite enjoyable, at least while you're discovering it. More on that in a few paragraphs.

Upon hitting the RUN button I chose NORMAL level and found out I should use one button to fire and another to cycle the boy that shoots. The two remaining kids always stand a little behind and follow the one who's shooting, with the auxiliary task of absorbing bullets. The boy with the red cap shoots a blowpipe, the boy with the green cap throws boomerangs and the boy with the blue cap swings what looks like a light saber, a weapon that cancels bullets but only damages airborne enemies. It's a nice gameplay mechanic that makes you use all of them in order to overcome the obstacles along the way.

Bushes, bushes everywhere!

While playing, it's good to be on the lookout for the blinking enemies because they carry the power-up balloons. You increase firepower with P, get a 2-hit shield with S, increase speed with ↑, decrease speed with ↓ and smart-bomb with *. All surplus Ps and Ss also work as intantaneous smart bombs. The maximum number of speed-ups is 4, and this is a good thing because it's impossible to get too fast. Actually, speed 4 was my favorite selection most of the time. There's a solitary 1UP that can be found in the 5th stage, but it's totally unnecessary since you get an extra life with 30.000 points and then for each 40.000 points after that. And here's where the problems with the game start.

Up front Toy Shop Boys is surprisingly fun. Decent use of colors and enemy placement, a decent array of weapons and some easygoing music to boot. I personally found the BGM for the 2nd stage to be very relaxing. Overall it's quite an easy game until the last stage, when the challenge gets a lift with the line-up of previous bosses to be defeated. Only after beating them again you will face the evil Gamma, a skull creature that materializes off of a TV screen. In my attempts to beat the game I lost all my lives fighting him maybe 2 or 3 times, so I guess he's a tough last boss - a little too hard for such a laid-back and light shooter, but a worthy one nonetheless. Fireworks tell you the mission is over and you're treated to a nice ending where the boys head home during the sunset, and the game restarts.

"Cool, it loops!", I thought. "Let's see how far I can get with more bullets and shit".

Attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Database)

Suffice it to say there's absolutely no increase in difficulty. None. You go through the same patterns all over again, with the same exact degree of challenge. And when I thought I would have some problems the game just skipped the last stage and restarted after level 2-5. And repeated it for the next 3 loops. I could've gone on for some hours maxing out life stock until reaching the counterstop, but I was tired and had already developed a minor headache so I decided to quit after surpassing a score of 2 million. What would be the point of playing any further? The experience was ruined, and it just bugs me as to why the developers didn't simply make me play the HARD difficulty for the second loop.

Toy Shop Boys could be described as a Gamtec game (of Magic Girl's fame) that instead of sucking is actually good. It could've really been above average if it weren't for the inexcusable loop flaw. No shooter should go on like that with such an underwhelming challenge level because there's really no point in counterstopping a game just by standing hours in front of the TV facing the same easy stuff over and over again. The HARD setting is a lot more difficult - dying leaves you too underpowered to continue playing - but my patience had dried out by then and I quit the session. The result can be seen in the picture below, taken midway loop 5-2. Just take a peek at the number of lives!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Trouble Shooter (Mega Drive)

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

The horrible cover art of this game is legendary, as it appears in practically all "10 worst covers of all time" listings. One would imagine it was the western publishing company's fault for not inheriting the Japanese art (which is always superior), but this is not the case here. Trouble Shooter was released in the US before being released in the land of the rising sun (as Battlemania)! The weirdest thing regarding art direction though is that all in-game graphics and sketches follow an anime style that's obviously not typical for the western culture. What could've happened here? Go figure...

At least the game shows one of the most unique ideas for a shooter. The main character is actually a pair of girls, Madison and Crystal, who fly around back-to-back shooting everything. The blonde Madison shoots right, but the blue-haired Crystal can toggle her shot between both directions by the press of a button. The hitbox is in Madison, so you don't need to worry about Crystal taking damage or being crushed. Power-up with F icons, get faster with S icons, get slower with ↓ icons, get (scarce) silver medals for points and make good use of your special power, one of 4 options that must be chosen at the start of the first four stages. This special power can only be used again after the charge meter is refilled. And that's it, no more quirks on the gameplay side.

Crystal and Madison are full of attitude and their mission is to rescue a prince that was kidnapped by the bad guy. No groundbreaking stuff here, but there's an overall humorous tone that lends a special flavor to Trouble Shooter. The dialogues and story narration in-between stages are quite funny. The game is full of light jokes up until the end, and when you think you've reached the ending there comes the true final boss to crash the party. Additionally, one of the bosses is a red robot that blows kisses to the audience before fighting!

Graphically, what we have here is a very competent little title. It's got plenty of parallax, no hints of slowdown and great character sprites - I love how Madison's hair moves when she's flying. Stages are varied and cover environments as distinct as a city, a descending shaft, a huge battleship, some sort of factory, an out-in-the-open fight with the baddies and an ascending showdown with the last boss. During the last 2 stages the special weapon attack is disabled, first because the prince gets a hold of the weapon that activates it (at least it seems so), and then because Madison is unprepared for the appearance of the final boss. At times the music feels cheap and cheesy, but it's got its moments and keeps you wired up for the action most of the time. Scratchy voices are also there, but you get used to it after a while.

Now for the not-so-good side of things. First and foremost, the difficulty. This might surely be one of the easiest shmups in the Mega Drive library. It's so easy some people will probably 1CC it on the first sitting. Even the most inept player will do it after a few rounds. It hurts what could've otherwise been a very good game. You start with 5 lives and get an extra one for each 60.000 points or with every "heart" icon, so it's not hard to achieve a stock of 30 lives, for example. The strangest thing is that you can lose all of them at once if you get crushed by an obstacle, in one of the most shocking GAME OVERs I've ever seen. Don't think this makes the game more difficult, because it doesn't - there's no harm in going against walls. Trouble Shooter also fails to motivate you to try a harder setting because the score counter simply stops at 999.990 points. So there you have it, the game also ranks in the top tier of easiest counterstops in shmup history.

Anyway, if you're completely new to shmups this is in every sense of the word a very good game to start. It's great to introduce kids to the genre we love so much. It's fast, it's charming and it's fun while it lasts. It's cool to play with the special weapons, but my favorite is definitely the "lightning storm".

My counterstop score is shown below. There is a catch in how to get it, and the only advice I can give is to pay attention to how many points you get from each enemy. I can't tell any more, the game is already too easy! I heard that the sequel Battle Mania 2, a Japan exclusive, is supposed to be better and more difficult. Well, we'll see.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Choplifter (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1985

A few days ago I was driving home for lunch when my car was hit and had its rear bumper displaced (at least it wasn't as bad as when my previous car was completely trashed in a similar accident in 2004). The following day I took the afternoon to look for a decent repair shop to fix it, and left the car for the necessary works before lunch. The shop was relatively close to my place, so instead of waiting there I just went home to spend those couple of hours in the comfort of my living room. "So what can I do to kill time?", I asked myself, and thought of relaxing with a good old game I had already mastered, just for the fun of it. The choice was Choplifter, one of the best games you can get for the Sega Master System.

Choplifter is definitely one of my favorite 8-bit shmups. It makes remarkable use of the 1 Meg space in an adaptation of the arcade original, which in turn was inspired by the famous Apple II game released a few years earlier. It's a fluid, relentless little game that combines shooting with some strategy in a flawless manner. You pilot a helicopter that must rescue hostages in several environments, taking them back to a hedquarter base. Addictiveness starts with the simplicity in the controls - one of the buttons is used to fire, and the other to turn the chopper around in 3 positions: left, right and facing the screen, from where the regular fire becomes a bomb dropper used to kill tanks. The chopper will tilt forwards and backwards as you move around, also tilting shot direction, and if you try to land while tilted you'll die. To rescue the tiny people you have to hit the enemy building, land to allow them to board and fly back to base to drop them. In the SMS version you can carry 16 hostages at a time, and when you rescue at least 40 you'll advance to the next stage. If you manage to rescue these without killing any hostages, regardless of lives lost, you'll be rewarded with 100.000 points. The hostages will be killed if shot or when you land the chopper right above them as they flee their prison, run around and wave.

Beginners generally find controlling the helicopter a bit difficult. That's understandable, since scrolling is the player's responsibility and the implemented physics (such as incorporated momentum) demand good coordination to survive. However, after learning how to fly, land and move about the game becomes a blast to play. There are 6 stages and, while the last half of them are repetitions of the first half, the 4th stage happens during the night. The desert in the 1st stage is the easiest one, followed by the ocean battleships of the 2nd stage and the caves in the 3rd stage. During further loops the situation between the 2nd and 3rd stages is the opposite, since those out-of-nowhere missiles in the ocean level are almost impossible to evade and appear more and more frequently. There was an instance where two of them hit me consecutively right before landing at the base with 16 hostages in the second loop. Seems unbelievable, huh? Yeah, tell me about frustration...

That doesn't mean Choplifter is unfair. It's actually too fair in the sense that there's no considerable increase in difficulty as you clear loop after loop. Today I find it extremely easy to go on and on. Aircrafts are only a bit more aggressive (some of them will attack while you're delivering hostages) and those dreaded missiles can definitely be a pain. Gone is the fuel bar meter from the arcade version, and every stage starts with 3 lives, even if you manage to complete the previous one on your last life. When 20 hostages are rescued an extra life is granted for that stage. Pressure rises mostly when you die carrying 16 hostages, because killing 25 of them means immediate GAME OVER (after all, there are 16 POWs per enemy bunker, with 4 bunkers in each stage). That's why it's good practice to pick up only the necessary number of prisoners to complete the stage when you're about to fulfill the quota of 40 rescued - dying with a packed chopper brings you closer to permanent death.

Here are some simple yet effective secrets and tips:
  • When landed to pick up hostages, keep tapping the directional up slightly just to make the chopper leave the ground for a bit. This will avoid the appearance of the tanks.
  • To make the cave stage easier, fly backwards to avoid the falling rocks and exploding lava.
  • Shooting 10 of those staggering missiles in the 1st and 4th stages will release Superman. If you do so, hostages will run faster to the helicopter, and some of them might even be saved when the chopper is hit while airborne. There's also a similar point in one of the ships in the 2nd/5th stage, although I can't point it precisely.
  • Delivering 16 hostages to the base on the 4th stage makes ET and Elliot fly their bike in the sky from left to right - it's visually cool, but it's got no impact on score or anything else.
Occasional bursts of slowdown and a little flicker here and there do not take away the immense fun Choplifter for the Master System is able to provide. The graphics are great and the music is incredibly catchy. Believe me when I say this game deserves to be included in every SMS or shmup collection out there. It would be interesting to see a proper sequel made in the same fashion as this port (the NES port is really bad, while the SNES Choplifter III is more beautiful but less dynamic).

My high score was improved 127%, in a run where I was able to reach stage 6-2:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gradius (Saturn)

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

So here we have it, one of the classic milestones of the shoot'em up genre. It is indeed one of the most influential shmups ever created, a game that undoubtedly defined trends and paved the way for later titles in the genre. Shmupper or not, if you never heard of it then you're probably too young or you've been in suspended animation since the 80s. On the Sega Saturn, Gradius is one of the two titles available in the Gradius Deluxe Pack compilation (the other title included is Gradius II), and by all means represents a faithful conversion of the arcade game, down to the original screen format (a bit narrower than the fullscreen 3:4 ratio) and inherent slowdown. Therefore, it's one of the best options in order to have the original experience at home (the other is the equivalent Playstation version).

It's not hard to understand why Gradius was so successful. The main reason behind that was obviously the innovation in how power-ups were applied to the Vic Viper, a spaceship that starts its journey with just a pea shooter and almost no speed at all. Killing a complete wave of small drones or differently colored enemies releases an orange glowing icon that, when collected, shifts the position in the power-up bar/array (the occasional blue icon works as a smart bomb). Pressing the power-up button causes the corresponding lit array position to be activated, thus enhancing Vic Viper's capabilities. The array is cycled through speed, missile, double, laser, option and ? (shield), and some of these enhancements can be activated only once (missile) or as long as needed/wanted (speed and ?/shield). Double and laser are alternatives to the main weapon: double will add a 45° forward shot to the normal firepower but cut its shot ratio in half, and laser will replace it with, well, a laser beam. The "option" adds a glowing orb that follows the ship around and mimics everything it does. Up to 4 options can be activated.

Other reasons for the Gradius legacy of coolness are the now classic music tunes, the unforgettable stage design and the way difficulty was handled: it is directly proportional to the number of options you have, so activating more options means faster bullets coming your way. As you reach the end part of the game though this doesn't make much difference, and dying in certain areas might encourage you to give up and start over again - no matter if extra lives are granted with 30.000 points and then for each 80.000 points after that. The truth is that Gradius isn't as brutally punishing as R-Type, but it's very hard nonetheless. Those pesky bullets that every single enemy ship shoots before leaving the screen are a nightmare, since the shield only protects you from bullets coming from the front! Yes, the game is old, but make no mistake, it will demand time and patience to be won.

I think Gradius has aged fairly well despite its (by today's standards) shortcomings. There's a same boss for five consecutive stages, the now legendary Big Core, and some of these stages can be considered somewhat stiff and a little unbalanced (stage 4 is already a nightmare with four options, stage 6 is easy and stages 5 and 7 are impossible if you die). However, they all feel very distinct and chapter-like, even though you just keep on flying between stages after the scenery fades. Practically all enemies and motifs reappear in the sequels, and from all of them the only theme I really don't like is the area with the Moai heads. People in general tend to like them, but I'm so glad they were left out of Gradius V!

Just how much Konami did it right when developing Gradius can be measured by how many sequels or related games were released afterwards. Almost all of them used the same unmistakable structure for the stages: a brief introductory section where you can collect power-ups (the "pre-stage"), the main stage itself and the boss fight. All sequels do it, the Salamander series does it, and Parodius games are nothing more than Gradius taken to wacky heights.

The Gradius Deluxe Pack has an animated intro, and Gradius itself can be played in 3 screen modes (arcade, arcade zoom and full frame). Upon beating the game a special mode called NO WAIT is added to the title screen - it eliminates the original slowdown completely! In the puny high score I got in the picture below (NORMAL) I managed to no-miss the first loop, but that's no refresher when the game starts again. You restart completely stripped down, which makes matters worse due to the heavily increased difficulty! By the way, this time I was able to reach stage 2-2.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sonic Wings (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System in 1992
Published by Hamster in 2005

There was a Sonic Wings arcade machine available in my neighborhood when I was a kid, I just can't remember which one. It's been a long time since I last saw the game in action so it's no surprise that, having now beaten the PS2 version of the first Sonic Wings, it striked me as the actual start of the Psikyo way of shmup development. I had no idea it is so damn close to later series such as Gunbird, Strikers 1945 or Sengoku Ace - despite being a Video System title, it has the Psikyo brand all over it. This happens because the team behind the game left and funded Psikyo a few months later, shamelessly recycling the same successful idea over and over. While the new company experienced relative success, the fact that they were always copying the formula created in Sonic Wings is in my opinion rather disappointing.

Don't get me wrong, for those who breathed the arcade scene in the beginning of the 90s, or even had the chance to experience the SNES port of the game, Sonic Wings (or Aero Fighters in the west) was nothing less than stellar. It was fresh, quick, action-packed and allowed the player to take control of up to 4 different characters, with the possibility for co-op play with a forced 2nd character for each main one. The most recent port appeared for the PS2, courtesy of the budget Oretachi Game Center series, released only in Japan. The purpose of the series is to provide the closest possible rendition of real arcade games from the old days, with standard goodies included with every package - Sonic Wings was the 6th entry in the series. This disc has a tate mode available, but unfortunately I can't vouch for how accurate a port it is...

As a playable PS2 game, Sonic Wings is your basic vertically scrolling shooter. The mechanics that would become a Psikyo trademark appear in the power-up scheme (3 for maximum, automatically power down once after a while), bombs and stage lay-out. The first 3 stages are shuffled and the last 4 are fixed. As a fighter from either USA, UK, Sweden or Japan, you have to initially bomb all other nations (hence the 3 starting randomized stages), which means you never play the level related to your pilot's country. All fighters have different weapons, bombs and speeds, and soon enough you'll find one that suits best your style of playing. My favorite is Kohful, the Swedish guy. He's overall stronger and faster, with the minor drawback that you cannot use his bombs one after the other - it's necessary to wait for the missiles to leave the screen, and this is a major pain during the fight with the mid-boss in the last stage. Argh!

Graphics are decent but not outstanding, and so is the music. There's an emphasis on the military theme, which might fall apart completely when you get to the last boss and is presented to the flying monkey instead of the evil rocket. Sincerely, the guys who made the game must have been on acid or something to come up with this. Everything is fairly easy and manageable until you reach the last stage, when things get really nasty and bullets will swiftly crush you as if you were an insect. The only help you can get is a decent bomb reserve (maximum of 6) and an extend that's granted with 200.000 points. There's not much regarding scoring, just shoot everything and collect the icons that resemble money (dollar, pound, kronor and yen) for 1.000 points each. All excess icons are also worth 1.000 points. There's no apparent rank, so the game will get more difficult regardless of survival or life stock. That also makes it hard to recover once you die in later stages. Bomb, bomb, bomb!

Inside the box for the PS2 CD, game publisher Hamster has included a music mini-CD with the game's soundtrack (22 tracks with 22:46 of total time), a mini-DVD (with several ads for the 6 first games in the series, a music demo and a complete - albeit poor - demonstration run) and detailed colored manuals/folders that include info on the original arcade board. The game itself is presented in a bare bones fashion, down to the INSERT COIN message - to add credits just press SELECT, and to go to the screen for OPTIONS just press L1+R1. Everything there is in Japanese, and here goes a quick translation for present and future reference:

Click for a larger picture of the menus translation for Sonic Wings for the PS2

And here's my high score on NORMAL, playing with Kohful (loop 2-3):

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Metal Black (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Ving in 1996

The fact that this game was once supposed to be Darius III gives me the creeps. Yet it is displayed within the game itself as a so-called "Project Gun Frontier 2". The truth is that Metal Black is nothing like Gun Frontier, giving me the certainty that this statement exists solely to indicate that the same development team worked on both titles. The games couldn't be more different and, in the case of Metal Black, the style couldn't be more unique: a short horizontal burst of awkward design and undeniable cheapness, and a potentially frustrating experience for those who decide to play it for score.

The reminiscence of Darius is more than obvious from some enemies that pop up as early as the 1st stage. There's a hermit crab that surfaces below a wrecked building, followed by things such as an altered huge snail and a green flying fish. The theme isn't predominant though, being mixed with biomechanical creatures and landscapes that create a very distinct atmosphere. It's graphically decent, close to but not in the same league of Darius Gaiden, for example. In a reality where the Earth is dead, you pilot a "Black Fly" aircraft against the alien forces, patrolling one of the planet's dead cities before rocketing to outer space while collecting power-up energy bits known as "newalone". These energy bits increase shot power and provide fuel for the Black Fly's beam, a devastating weapon that can also be deployed by the bosses in the game. After all, they are able to collect newalone as well. This is an outright interesting concept, especially when you figure out that both beams (from your ship and from the boss) clash to create a huge ball of energy. The one who has a higher stock of newalone will win the clash and send this energy sphere in the opponent's direction for great destruction effect.

Newalone get!

With only 6 stages, Metal Black might feel short, but it's a deceiving idea to consider it easy. The main reason for that is how the game tosses enemies at you in later stages. There are some highly unpredictable and fast thingies that have the nasty ability to crush you, even when you think you're flying a section that's been long played and mastered. Of course this means more practice is necessary, but it doesn't take out the related annoyance. I've had my share of cheap deaths in similar cheap games, so I can safely declare that Metal Black ranks on the top tier of such frustrating shmup moments. Another annoyance factor appears when you play it for score. The two 3D shooting bonus areas that come after the 1st and 3rd stages are severely flawed in a sense that (1) hit detection sucks and (2) sometimes the enemies will remain off-screen for a long while. In the end, these horrible sections are purely based on luck. It's unnerving when, for instance, you finish the 3rd stage with a nice score and get shafted by the bonus stage, failing to kill the 10 necessary aliens for the 20.000 bonus points because the game REFUSED to lock onto the damn aliens even though your cross-hair was right over them. But wait! Am I playing this game on the Sega Saturn? A+B+C+START, yeah!

If we don't take the above paragraph in consideration, then we have a shooter that plays considerably fine. Normal firepower gets wider with more newalone energy collected, and actually has a nice reach above and below the ship that offers a good advantage over enemies that come from these directions. The semi-rapid fire demands the fire button to be tapped for a continuous firing stream (hint: tapping A and C alternately will give best results). The B button triggers the beam attack, a move that drains the energy bar completely and should be used carefully. Knowing when to use it is mandatory for surviving. When the beam is used at maximum level, a brief series of lightning bolts will wipe the screen of bullets and minor enemies, while mid-level beams will only fire in a straightforward fashion. Collecting newalone while the beam is discharging will replenish its energy on the fly and keep the beam alive. Last but not least, it's necessary to tap the B button during beam duels with bosses.

Stage 2 in co-op
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

Basic opportunities for scoring higher in Metal Black are (1) killing everything that can be destroyed and (2) having lucky runs on bonus levels. Each newalone is worth 10 points, so collecting them in excess won't really boost the score. Waiting for some enemies to split before killing them is a good strategy. However, waiting for the 4th boss (the giant rocket) to open up completely is tempting but too risky, since the small creatures that come out of it are a pain in the ass. Mostly I beam the boss twice with maximum power and he's gone, at the expense of almost no score at all. I didn't notice any rank in the game, it just gets unfair by the end of stage 2 and remains like that for the rest of the journey, regardless of performance or score (or number of CONTINUES used). Point-blanking is very useful and should be done whenever possible.

I have heard general praise for the Zuntata soundtrack here, but for me it's just average and almost "meh". The BGM for the 3rd stage is very good, but in contrast the song for the 1st stage is so underwhelmingly cheesy that it fails to establish the correct mood for space blasting. I do enjoy the fact that all levels and BGMs have proper names though, as it adds to the coolness of the package. Too bad Taito included those dreadful bonus stages.

Here's my 1CC high score on NORMAL: