Thursday, April 30, 2009

R-Type Complete CD (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1991

Originally released as two separate HuCards in Japan (stages 1-4 in one and stages 5-8 in the other), Irem's most classic shooter got a while later a complete release for the PC Engine CD add-on entitled R-Type Complete CD. It's a great game in its own rights, and deserves a place in history as one of the best home conversions of the original arcade blaster. I'm just not fond of the "Complete" in the title, since very basic features in any quality shmup - and a dead serious one in the case of R-Type - are sorely missing from the package. More on that later.

Unless you are a complete neophyte to the world of video games, I assume you already know or at least have an idea of what's the deal here. R-Type defined standards for the horizontal shooting genre, and was probably one of the most cloned games in the shmup industry. Everything in it revolves around the Force, a glowing globe that can be attached to the sides of the R-9 spaceship after you get the first power-up, evolving in shape, size and power as you collect more of them. It's invincible, protects the ship from small bullets, inflicts damage to enemies and can be launched away for special attacks. It's also able to fire 3 kinds of weapons: a straight staggering double wave (red), a triad of bouncing lasers (blue) and a side-crawling "snake" shot (yellow). There are orbs that can be docked above and below the ship to provide some help against approaching enemies, and the lame default speed can be upgraded with the appropriate icon. When the fire button is held, a powerful beam is charged and shot upon its release.

Entering the enemy's womb

My previous experience with R-Type was only with the Master System port (not considering some sparse plays on R-Type Final for the PS2). R-Type Complete CD showcases a remixed soundtrack with CD quality, but other than that and some boring cut scenes with Japanese dialogue I heard it's graphically identical to the HuCard versions. It's still the same hard game, with an easy start but an overwhelmingly difficult set of final stages. If you haven't found your wall in checkpoint based shmups, I definitely recommend you this one. You won't want to die while playing the 7th or 8th stages, trust me. If death gets you, you'd better hit SELECT + START and get back to the beginning, as nothing will help you through the impossible conditions of the game - not even unlimited continues. What's the result of that? Simply put, this is a shmup that demands a 1 life clear. I'm not saying that lost lives mean a lost run... Unless we're talking about the second half of the game, that's for sure!

Yes, it's that difficult. So what's the reason for such a cult following on a game that's so old? Detractors tend to mention its slow pace, a true fact that can't be argued. I myself have nothing against slow pacing, provided you're treated with great design and cool music. And that's thankfully the case here. I consider R-Type to be a very charming game, with level designs that embrace a great sense of vastness and variety. The first level is as classic as it is cool to play, a perfect example of how to make a stage that totally lures you into the game and keeps you going all the way through the rest of a very hard journey. It's nothing less of awesome.

Now I see what goes on in between the levels!
(courtesy of YouTube user C'zka Utatane)

There are just a couple of things missing here, and it's a shame that these things detract a lot from what this particular port could actually accomplish. First of all, R-Type Complete CD does not loop. Now come on! Even the Master System version loops! Why, oh why does it have to stop on a THE END screen with no extra loop like the original? What was the problem in having it? To make matters worse, there's no buffering of high scores anywhere in the game. A major sin in any shmup, and a serious deadly one in a game of this stature.

If you don't mind scoring/looping, R-Type Complete CD will certainly satisfy you. I haven't put my hands in the R-Types compilation for the Playstation yet, but I heard that's the right choice if you're a score-driven player.

The photo below shows my score moments before defeating the final boss on NORMAL, on a no-miss run. The detail to the left is the last screen you see before the game gets back to the title screen.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Xevious (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
16 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Bandai in 1988

As a shmupper, I have developed certain methods that dictate which and how many games I play. Generally I'll have 3 or 4 different games at hand for instant play - games remain inserted in the consoles themselves and boxes are displayed on my rack to remind me how long it's taking me to win them. Nonetheless it can happen that a particular game decides to give me a serious beating, in a situation that not rarely leads to stress. That's when I'll pull out the "special choice": a game to be played with no specific purpose other than relax and not focus too much on the much desired 1CC.

The "special choice" I had for weeks now was the NES port of Xevious. Now what most people don't know, including myself until very recently, is that this game actually loops. It surely seems to go on and on randomly, but as you play it repeatedly and get hold of the patterns not only you get better, but you also realize there's a defined set of stages/areas to overcome. These areas are separated by a dense dark green forest, in a total of 16. After the 16th area the game gets back to the 7th (the one with the rotating ground turrets in the beginning) and loops forever in this fashion, with no special ending screen whatsoever. In fact, if you're not paying attention you won't even notice you've looped the game. It's also important to mention that all areas overlap vertically in a single giant map (that can be seen here).

Xevious is heralded as an absolute classic, in the sense that it started the vertical scrolling shooter genre. It was the first of its kind, and it boasted great new features at the time of its release. Besides being able to fire a main shot, the player can also hit ground targets with bombs that can be aimed with the aid of a crosshair. Ground targets can be flown over with no harm, and most airborne enemies will leave the screen if you don't kill them. As you fly over forests, lagoons and enemy bases, all you can count on are the same basic weaponry, for Xevious has absolutely no power-ups! The only icons you're bound to collect are the hidden flags that can be uncovered with your bombs and are worth 1.000 points and an extra life. I read that these secrets supposedly extend to hidden towers, but I could never find any of these while playing the NES game. There are 4 huge boss bases (the Andor Genesis) spread out in the first loop - they cause the scrolling to stop for a while, giving you the chance to bomb them amidst relentless incoming fire.

There's no denying that this game hasn't aged well at all. It certainly delivers in the basic aspects of a decent shmup: smooth scrolling, well implemented collision detection and fierce difficulty. However, Xevious falls short in all the other aspects that make a shooter great. It's clear from screenshots, for instance, that the graphics appear to have only 3 colors: green, orange and blue. The music is the same annoying ringing tone played over and over, and gives you an urging feeling that something is always about to happen - it eventually does, in the form of an utter death blow fired by an enemy craft. It can be truly said that the game offers no variety at all apart from some different enemies that show up in later stages. These new enemies come in bigger waves and fire more and more bullets as you reach the final area, so you'd better be prepared for it, memorizing and killing ground targets as fast as you can.

The checkpoint system here is rather original though, and I've never seen it anywhere else in the shmup world. If you die in the last part of an area, your ship (the Solvalou) gets respawned in the beginning of the next area. Since the hardest enemies are always in the last part of a stage, this works as sort of a reward for when you keep yourself alive long enough.

Xevious is the oldest school of old school verts and obviously has its importance in shmup history. New audiences might try it, but enjoying such an old and limited shooter is a whole different story. I'm done with it by reaching area 18 (loop 2-2), so I hereby take note of my puny score on this run:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fantasy Zone (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1986

Keeping up with my campaign to play all the classics I never had the chance to play in the past, this was the time for Fantasy Zone, one of Sega's most beloved franchises ever. I started my journey with the Master System port, since the Master System was one of the platforms in which the game succeeded the most.

Let me start this by being honest and saying I always thought this game was not worth my time. Back when the SMS was on its peak, either I wasn't able to have access to a copy of the game or it didn't attract my attention that much. What a fool I was, my friends... Not only have I really enjoyed the time I spent with this shiny, addictive little title, but it also ignited my hunger for all other existent ports and sequels, most of which I already own.

Any screenshot will tell you how colorful Fantasy Zone is. Combine it with the catchy music (love the music for the 6th stage!) and the twitches in gameplay and you have a very original shooter. For starters, scrolling is controlled by Opa-Opa the player, who can go left or right in his quest to destroy the enemy bases (or generators, some might say). When all of them are gone, the boss appears and must be defeated for the next stage to be played. Weapons can be upgraded with the coins you get when you go into the shop - an icon that appears from time to time. The most powerful items can be used only once or for a limited amount of time, and that gives the game an strategy feel that must be honed if you really want to perform well.

Trying to convey in words how addictive this game is ain't no easy task, I'll tell you that. I have no idea whatsoever of the most intricate differences between the SMS port and the original game, I just know they exist (main one: the bosses for the 4th and 6th stages change from their original forms to a big fish and a giant turtle - EDIT 6-NOV-2010). In the original, for instance, you have a radar that tells you how many enemy bases are left to destroy. Here the boss fights take place after the stage fades, an obvious constraint imposed by the hardware. Being as simple as it is, the SMS version still amazes for its ability to suck you in. There are no continues, so when you start out you can definitely expect lots of game overs followed by new plays.

It took me a little while to figure out which special weapons were best. This is of course part of the fun, so I won't tell starters which ones they are. There is something I learned from the web though that is not mentioned in the manual and I think everybody should know up front: in order to have infinite ammo on all main special weapons (except bombs), buy all the speed power-ups when you have enough money (big wings, jet engine, rocket engine, etc.). It's possible to adjust the speed before leaving the store!

At the end of the game each remaining life is worth 1.000.000 points. That's why it's easy to get to the situation you see below, where the score counter stops at 9.999.990. So I'm adding two photos here, one for my frozen score and the other showing which round I reached (21 equals loop 3-5).

Next: Fantasy Zone II.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Insector X (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Sage's Creation in 1990

How would you feel about playing a shooter were you have to fight an army of insects? Even though there are some cases where the game is partly insect themed (Kolibri, Bio-Hazard Battle, Bee 52), the only title that really uses this to the extreme is this one. Insector X appeared first in the arcade scene (see the PS2 version), and was later ported for the NES and the Mega Drive. From what I could gather, this last port differs from the others for cointaining a serious overall tone, as opposed to the goofy sprites found in the arcade and NES versions. I'm not in the position to compare them any further, since I never played or even saw those ones live.

Gameplay here can be described as a series of small enemy waves intertwined with slightly bigger enemies with bigger shots and followed by a huge boss at the end of the stage, over the course of five increasingly difficult levels. You can power up your initial shot and get two kinds of special weapons: red gives you a wave/spread shot and blue gives you a bomb that shoots anti-air capsules. There's also a lightning attack to wipe enemies, speed-up, power-up preserve and 1UP icons. It's just the standard fare you already know from the shooters made in the late 80s or starting 90s.

The checkpoint system is what makes this game a tad difficult for beginners. If you die mid-stage in later levels, be prepared for some serious beating from an overwhelming number of enemies and bullets while you try to figure out how to evade using your default pea shooting capability. I remember I suffered a lot to beat this game when I was a kid, and since very recently I thought it was a very, very hard game to 1CC. Well, I changed my mind after I completed it with no concentration or proper setting at all. My brother was playing Street Fighter IV on an adjacent TV and I was playing this game with no volume. Even so, that doesn't mean Insector X is the easiest of the accomplishments.

Insector X for the Mega Drive is a game that looks great on screenshots. And it looks damn cool too. Getting into the real thing, however, is a bit of a letdown. There are no parallax layers at all, and the large hitbox of your character is prone to make you swear from time to time (at least you don't die if you touch walls). While the music is fitting with the theme, my opinion is that it doesn't get you in the mood for a decent shooting. Added to the checkpoints, this all sums up to diminish the replay value, making this game more suitable to MD hardcore shmuppers or collectors.

Most of the difficulty here is in-stage, so we might as well enjoy what this game has best: the boss battles. All of them, the wasp, the grasshopper, the moth, the spider and the queen bee are huge and menacing, though not so hard to defeat.

This is the score I got this time, playing on NORMAL:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Einhänder (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Squaresoft
Published by Squaresoft in 1997

When I started collecting video games, I remember telling myself that one of the first shooters I would try to beat on the Playstation was Einhänder. However, as soon as I got it (US version) for some reason I couldn't play the game for too long. I wasn't hooked enough from the first play sessions, so it was kept on hold for months until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally decided it was time to face it once and for all.

Upon getting back to the action against the Earth (you're a fighter from the Moon, how cool is that?), I finally figured out why I didn't like the game in the first place. It was the music! The music in Einhänder is basically techno and electronica evolutions that do not stand out in any way during gameplay. But then came the day when I turned on the TV with the volume cranked up. I noticed the game got a lot better, and I even started appreciating the soundtrack. So if you feel underwhelmed in a similar fashion, try playing it with the volume adjusted a little bit higher than the way you have it for your regular shmup. It worked for me.

Regardless of music, I do comply that this is a very beautiful game. It's remarkably crafted, with gorgeous graphics, great level design, slick 3D backgrounds and amazing boss confrontations. In addition to that, it also brings something new to the hori-shmup table, in the form of the gunpods you must get from enemies so that you can, well... defeat them. There are lots of gunpods to choose from, and also a bunch of them which are secret and can only be acquired if you reach certain criteria while playing. Therefore, a whole new level of strategy is necessary if one wishes to clear the game with one credit.

From all the ships available for play, in this 1CC I decided to use the Endymion-2, which allows you to carry 3 gunpods at a time but use only 1 of them. After playing for a while, the game let me equip the ship with one of any available gunpods from the start screen, but I went bare handed as it's supposed to be from default. My favorite gunpod is the Grenade, which was used together mainly with the Vulcan, the Wasp or the Cannon, although in some parts the Hedgehog and the Spreader were very handy as well. You can position your gunpod below and above the ship, and each gunpod will behave differently (I was able to unlock all of them except for Juno).

The basics of gameplay I just went through certainly give you an idea of how intricate it is to master Einhänder, and that reminds me I haven't even scratched the surface here. Using any of the other 4 ships (2 being secret ones) will definitely require different approaches, and the unpredictable nature of enemies and bosses will certainly demand a good deal of play time in order to see the real ending again. I say "real" because there's a giant spaceship that must be stopped within a certain time frame in the 6th stage, or else you fail your mission. And that's just a hint of how diverse and varied Einhänder is in terms of game design. From a gameplay point of view, the scoring system awards killing multiple enemies as fast as possible or destroying several parts of bosses at the same time, while giving special bonuses for unlocking the secrets within each level. It's not as easy as it sounds, trust me.

Another interesting aspect of this title is the dark tone of the first stages, which goes against what I believe to be a slight genre convention. In most cases you have first stages that are clear, bright and cloudy, as opposed to very dark and oppressive last levels. In Einhänder it's the other way around, so the ramp in difficulty as you reach brighter sceneries is a welcome addition. It's also really cool that you never see your ship disappear between stages (until the 6th mission), so it all feels like a great big non-stop adventure.

I don't care for RPGs. In fact, I can't even stand to watch an RPG recording. On the other hand, it's just beautiful to see someone playing Einhänder properly. That's a great contrast for Squaresoft, since this is their only shmup in a myriad of crappy RPGs released year after year.

So here's my final score, with no starting gunpod:

Monday, April 6, 2009

Parodius Da! (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1992

Weird and wacky are qualities that come to mind when someone thinks about the Parodius series. Only recently I knew that it was actually born in the MSX computer game roster, and that Parodius Da! was the second outing in the series. The important thing to have in mind here is that, for its time, Parodius Da! was a huge step in terms of graphics and gameplay, no matter in which of the various platforms it ran on.

For Gradius fans, this Gradius parody was a wonderful idea. Why? If you don't bother the way things are set in a Parodius game - theme, design, music - it's certainly sure that you have another Gradius game in your hands! Later on the series started making fun of other Konami titles as well, but the emphasis on Vic Viper's adventures was never abandoned. Lucky me!

It can be said that the PC Engine port for the arcade game holds up well, besides the fact that 2 out of 10 stages are absent (the moai spaceship and the penguin ice cave stages). It's got everything gameplay-wise, and while the graphics lack lots of parallax they don't take a huge hit. The only part where the lack of parallax really bugged me was in the volcano stage... I died a lot crashing on volcanos and trees because it was a bit difficult to separate foreground from background. And you know, Parodius games are well known for being very colored!

Having beaten the superior SNES version with Vic Viper, this time around I approached the game with Pentaro the Penguin, one of the four characters with which you can play. I didn't know you can only get 3 options with him instead of 4 - this also happens with the Twinbee ship. I didn't have much time to see if it's the same with the Octopus, as I really don't like that ripple laser at all. Pentaro's daggers are a lot more effective. For me bells are exclusive for scoring (worth 10.000 points after the 5th bell in a row), but sometimes it's nice to get the one that gives you temporary invincibility.

Over all the characters I still prefer to play with Vic Viper, for the Gradius-like atmosphere you get. Additionally, Vic Viper's options will just follow your ship without sinking back to the hitbox when you stop moving. This happens with all other characters, something that's annoying and gives you trouble in places like the candy wall of the 3rd stage. There's an extra special stage that you can play out of the main game, but I really didn't bother trying. I noticed though that it contains music from the stages that were left out of this port.

A quick look into further entries in the series will tell you that the formula presented in Parodius Da! was improved a lot in later titles. I like to play game series in chronological order, and I definitely look forward to when I finally get the chance to face Otomedius Gorgeous in the Xbox 360. It's gonna be a long and fulfilling ride, I'm sure!

My high score on NORMAL, playing with Pentaro (loop 2-3):