Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sengoku Ace (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo in 1993
Published by Taito in 2004

Psikyo is a shmup developer that emerged when Video System, the makers of the now classic Sonic Wings, collapsed. Much of the formula used in this title was to be passed on to Psikyo's library, starting exactly with the samurai-themed Sengoku Ace, aka Samurai Aces. This PS2 version that I played is the Japanese one, which was published by Taito bundled with the sequel Sengoku Blade in a single edition. Both titles were also released separately for the PS2 by another different company in Europe.

Being the first game released by Psikyo, Sengoku Ace surely seems subpar when compared to their subsequent titles, some of which I have already played and looped. The graphics aren't as detailed or polished, and the Japanese samurai themed music does not help to keep things moving. As primitive as it is by today's standards though, it certainly established some features what would practically become Psikyo trademarks in the shmup world, like the power-up and bomb icons (used to exhaustion in countless other titles) and the solid combination of short and intense stages with fast, varied and hard-to-dodge bullet patterns.

The character roster here is comprised of 6 fighters: two kids (Koyori and Jane), two adult samurais (Ain and Tengai), a scientist (Gennai) and a wolf (Kenoumaru). Each one of them has different characteristics for speed, bomb, main shot and charged shot. You start the game and fight 3 out of 4 initial stages, proceeding then to play 4 secondary stages, with 7 in total. From what I've noticed, the unplayed stage appears in the second loop. While CONTINUES will allow you to resume gameplay where you died in the first 3 stages, in the second part of the loop you will get back to the beginning of the level, which adds to the challenge and avoids stupid unaware people saying "the game is too easy".

You can only say Sengoku Ace is an easy game when you compare it with other Psikyo vertical shooters. Yes, it was the first, so it's reasonable they would eventually try to make things harder. However, we must be honest here: Psikyo was a lazy developer for the most part of its lifespan. If you analyze some of their releases you will notice exactly the same structure, and sometimes even same enemy designs. Here I refer to the Gunbird and Strikers series, and one of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the last stages of Sengoku Ace, which have enemies that are shamelessly reused in Strikers 1945, almost in a sprite-by-sprite reproduction! What is most astonishing is how Psikyo survived all these years sticking almost exclusively to a single formula and, more surprinsingly, achieving a respectable status among hardcore players. And to that I see only one reasonable explanation: challenge.

Sengoku Ace is challenging and offers what I already experienced in other Psikyo shooters. The learning curve is comprised of an initial wall (fast bullets, fierce rank system, shuffled stages, only 1 extend at 600.000 points), an incubation period that includes memorization and character adaptation (knowing your player, where to stand, when to charge and when to bomb) and finally something that resembles fluid gameplay. It almost seems easy after all the hard work that's put into learning how to play the game. The bonus here is that the 2nd loop is not as unforgiving as other Psikyo's 2nd loops - if you can call it a bonus anyway... Oh, and unlike the Strikers collection, Sengoku Ace & Sengoku Blade does allow high score saving.

When I started playing I used Kenoumaru the wolf, due to his spread shot and panic-style bomb. Unsatisfied with my performance, I shifted to Koyori and finally sticked with Ain for the rest of my runs. He's a weird type - I can swear he says "Heil Hitler" during the character selection screen - but his shot is very powerful at close range and his bomb also works as a panic attack. The real action started for me when I figured out some of the larger enemies could be flown over!

The high score below was achieved with him (difficulty 5 - NORMAL), playing until stage 2-3:

Friday, June 5, 2009

TwinBee (NES)

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

I’ve heard and read somewhere that TwinBee (or Twinbee, Twin Bee, etc.) was one of the best selling shmups for the Famicom in 80’s Japan, alongside Xevious and Gradius. By this statement one cannot overrule the importance it had in the beginning of the genre’s history, even though its popularity waned over the years to the point of nobody caring much about it anymore. As usual I arrived rather late to the party, and only got acquainted with the series a few months ago with Pop’n TwinBee for the SNES.

On the Famicom, TwinBee revealed itself as a standard shooter that surely provided some innovative gameplay concepts for its time. The series trademark is the bells, which can be retrieved by shooting the clouds and then be converted to power-ups when shot a number of times. Special bells include speed-ups (blue), options/shadows (blinking red), shield (red) and double shots (?). The catch is that the power-up is up for grabs only until the bell takes the next shot, when it will change back to the initial white bell. If taken as they come, in the white color, bells are converted to points. These evolve to a maximum of 10.000 points for each bell if you don’t let any of them fall down the screen – if this happens, the bell multiplier will restart at 500 points (if the bells are shot repeatedly they will be destroyed and replaced by a Galaga-like insect). Additionally, the player can drop bombs just like in Xevious, using his "hands" and a fixed target in front of the ship. Most ground enemies will yield fruit when destroyed, but sometimes a special item will appear, such as the star (screen wipe-out), a candy (3-way shot) or a bottle (I don’t actually know what it does).

There’s a story behind the name TwinBee and the character you play with here, with a special nod to the fact this game offers a co-op feature. I had no partner to play with me, so I’ll leave this out of this text. Regardless of how it plays in co-op though, the Twin Bee series is regarded as being a flagship of the cute’em up subgenre, but it’s important to note that this characteristic does not apply that much to the Famicom game, mainly due to its somewhat washed out color palette and the raw and primitive nature of the graphics. Even not so flashy though, subtle weirdness lies everywhere: fruit in weird landscapes, flying knives and forks, flying crabs and impossible-to-identify bosses are good examples… It’s obvious Konami improved these crazy ideas later on when launching the Parodius series, even including Twinbee itself as a playable character in the game (bells and most power-ups included).

Besides the fact that you can play TwinBee with a friend, a few other pros here are the lack of slowdown and the simple albeit solid sprite manipulation. It’s also cool that the music changes after you get a blue speed-up bell, reverting to the slower paced theme when you die. When you’re hit by a bullet you lose your arms and bombing capability, but instantly a healing icon will drop for you - don’t lose it, or you’ll be unable to bomb until you die. And you can use it only once, mind you.

Where this little game tries to shine is in the scoring system, which is rather intricate for such an early shooter and represents the reason why people will love it or hate it. I’m not in either category: the bell power-up system is not my cup of tea, but I do get the rush when all those 10.000 bells keep coming my way. The challenge in my play style is to power-up my Twinbee to the point I feel comfortable maneuvering (for me it’s 3 speed-ups + options or 3-way shot) and only then concentrate on bell scoring. If I’m lucky enough to get a shield then it’s all heaven for a long while, especially in the cluttered and overlong 5th stage.

So here's the main problem with the NES/Famicom TwinBee: bell power-ups are a chore to get, and it really feels like it's always a gamble. Luck seems to play a strong part for you to go well in any run, and it does get frustrating really fast if you keep getting crushed while waiting for those valuable bells for options and shield.

The high score below was obtained in one of these lucky runs. Here I played up to stage 2-5.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fantasy Zone (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by NEC in 1988

Yet another port of Sega’s classic side scroller, and yet more of the surreal cutesy fast paced action! This is Fantasy Zone for the PC Engine, my friends, and it’s just the second game in the series that I decided to play seriously, after the great initial experience I had with the Master System version.

Essentially it’s the same game, just improved due to the superior PCE hardware. The most notable highlights are the better graphics and some gameplay elements that did not show up in the SMS port: improved score/money display, a stage radar with all the enemy generators to be eliminated and a damage indicator in each one of them (in the form of a built-in blue sphere that turns red as the generator health is depleted). Other significant changes are the bosses for the 4th stage (here a 2-armed beast instead of the giant fish) and the 6th stage (here a revolving wheel instead of a giant turtle), which are actually no changes at all and retain the characteristics of the original arcade version.

One can argue about how superior this port of Fantasy Zone is to the SMS game, and I agree with that to a certain extent only. Since this port still lacks the gorgeous parallax of the arcade, one of the points that bugged me is the color palette in stage 5, which makes it difficult to distinguish the somewhat smaller enemy bases and made me crash into them a lot. I also feel the music could’ve been better, and I still prefer the more simple SMS tunes for the sheer fun of it. It’s hard to explain, but if I put both games side by side and pay attention to the music I’ll definitely be more motivated by the SMS BGM renditions.

The PC Engine version is also harder. Like the arcade, now it allows a bit of vertical screen displacement and adds an extra bit of difficulty as you roam across the stage to find the bases. The game doesn’t have the "all speed engines" trick to gain infinite ammo, and that also says a lot about difficulty. Therefore, using the turbo function present in some later PCE controllers is a huge temptation, because it does make the game a lot easier to play. Facing the challenge without it required a completely different approach from the one I used when I beat the SMS port. It’s still a lot of fun, but then again… I would certainly stick to the Master System Fantasy Zone if I had to choose between one of them!

Some last notes about the PCE game: upon completion, your remaining money is converted into lots of points (I could not figure out how exactly, sorry) and the game leaves you completely stripped down for the 2nd loop: just your current life, no money. The worst thing in my longest run on the 2nd loop is that the only shop icon I saw was the first one - when I had ZERO $ - and then no shops until I died on the 3rd stage!

I have included 2 high scores here: the first one was achieved WITHOUT autofire, and the second one WITH autofire. That said, the next step in my Fantasy Zone adventure will be on the Sega Saturn. Arrivederci.