Thursday, August 27, 2009

Undeadline (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by T&E Soft
Published by Palsoft in 1991

From all shmups that deviate from the norm (the norm being spaceship or airplane shooters), Undeadline for the Mega Drive is one the most notorious "walk'n'shoot" games, a sub-genre that also includes the likes of Elemental Master and Twinkle Tale, if we stick to Mega Drive only titles. Undeadline's notoriety relates almost solely to a presumed extremely high difficulty, something that elevated the game's fame far above the high price it sometimes fetches in online auctions. Due to widespread strong reviews and negative bashing regarding its challenge level, the game is so feared that many people won't even try it. They'd rather play the MSX or X68000 versions - both came before the MD port and are considered a tad easier.

As the name implies, the gameplay in Undeadline revolves around killing lines of undead creatures. Hordes of them come your way relentlessly in 7 vertical stages of great 16-bit action. As Leon the warrior you must fight your way through the armies of the undead while evolving your power and speed to face Dracula in the end. The evolving part adds an extra difficulty and strategy feel to the game, as reaching the last stage in an underpowered condition means horrible and utter death.

When starting a game, don't forget to go to the OPTIONS screen and switch "Rensha" to ON, since without it you'll have no autofire! After that, I believe the secret to perform well in Undeadline is to understand as fast as possible how the icon chests work. Some people won't agree, but this is more important than the use of the shield that prevents the player from shooting but protects against incoming bullets (C button). There are 2 types of icons when the chests are open: the power-ups and the items. They cycle with each hit, so it's paramount to know the order in which they appear - almost always taking a wrong power-up or item will result in painful death. They also cycle only twice, after when you'll be left with a diamond that's worth some points. Soon you'll find out that most power-ups for weapons are useless, with the crossed/double knives being the most recommended 95% of the time. As for the items, only the 3-hit shield and the blue potion (+1 energy cell) are really useful - for instance, the transparent potion will give you back your default shot and the red potion will take away one of your energy cells. Each life starts with 3 energy cells that allow Leon to take 3 hits, and upon dying you're sent to the very beginning of the stage.

Each credit comes with 3 options that can be used at any time. The option is activated by the A button and surrounds the player with a rotating ball that blocks incoming fire and disappears after taking enough damage. This is a crucial resource that should only be used in certain parts of the game (I use it only twice). Since the first 6 stages can be tackled in any order, I had a lot to try and experience when I started playing. When I reached the boss of the Ruins stage I noticed I would have to use a different weapon to beat him. Enter the flamethrower and an option and voilá! He's history!

Overall I liked Undeadline's design and graphics very much. The enemies are well animated and there's a fine balance in colors that enhances the dark theme of the game without making it too grim. My favorite stage is the Cemetery, with all those skeleton warriors, ghosts coming out of the tombs, living dead surfacing, the thunderstorm and the creepy floating boss. This stage also has the coolest BGM from a soundtrack that's pleasing overall. Parallax is used in a very subtle way and adds to the charm of some stages as the Cave and the Castle. Every stage has an extra life that can be easily found, and each fairy collected gives you 1 point of experience to add to your stats at the end of the stage (ST = knives, MP = magic power, DX = flame, AG = speed). Upon beating the game every life left is worth 100.000 points, but since it's possible to get more than 100.000 points by playing the Drain stage some people decide to explore this in their search for higher scores.

Besides the whole thing with the power-up and item chests, other difficult aspects I can name here are the boss battles (some of them will see you fighting for minutes before they break down), the initial slow speed of the character and the lack of familiarity with the shield defense, which is something rather unique for a shmup (almost all enemy fire can be blocked, you just have to remember that!). Even with all these quirks, Undeadline's difficulty doesn't live up to the hype created by all unaware reviews I read out there. It's not even close to the challenge provided by games like Hellfire, Twin Cobra or Truxton.

I had a NO MISS 1CC run on NORMAL going through the route Ruins, Forest, Rock, Cemetery, Cave, Drains and Castle. Experience points went all to ST and AG in a 2 to 1 ratio from start to finish, which I think gave me enough speed to face some tricky bosses and also provided me with enough power to handle the Castle stage without being easily overwhelmed. Here's the score:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Phelios (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1990

Artemis was kidnapped by the evil Typhon and turned into stone by Medusa. You are Apollo, and to rescue your beloved you must ride Pegasus, beat a series of demonic bad guys and in the end defeat Typhon. This is Phelios, a Greek mythology themed shooter released in the early days of the Mega Drive. While the atmosphere of the game fits very well to the mithology figures, there seems to be no faithful relation to any of the stories involving the mythic characters depicted. I've got no problem at all with that, since what matters to me always boils down to pure shooting experience.

That' why Phelios feels cheap on the first runs. The gameplay isn't what you'd expect, since there's no autofire and you can't rely on the tapping attack, using instead a charge shot that by all means resembles R-Type. It's all very simple because there's just one button to be used: tap it and you'll have the pea shots, hold it and the sword meter on the right of the screen will fill, firing a more powerful shot upon the release of the button. Each life comes with an energy bar that allows some hits before you die and get sent to a previous checkpoint. The higher the difficulty selected, the less energy this bar has.

Special items come in the form of speed-ups, options, temporary weapon upgrades (Beam, Across and Homing) and a single energy replenisher that appears only during the 4th stage. It's possible to carry 2 options that work just like in Gradius and follow you around the screen. The best weapon of all was however reserved for the final part of the game: in order to fight the last boss it's necessary to collect all power-ups in the 7th stage to form the word PHELIOS, which upgrades the regular shot into a devastating wider energy wave.

The difficulty is selected when you start the game. Easy mode (NOVICE) has only 4 stages (herein called "chapters"), while Normal (ADVANCED) allows the player to play the full game (or 7 "chapters"). Upon completion of the full game a type of hard mode is unlocked (EXPERT). In this mode you start with only 2 energy bars and get less extra lives (one extend for each 100.000 points against 50.000 in Normal/ADVANCED). Extends in Hard/EXPERT are given until 800.000 points, while in Normal/ADVANCED until 400.000 points, so even if it doesn't seem to be so, there's a limit for the number of possible lives. People aiming to get easy high scores can do it during the fight with the 4th boss, just by standing on the lower right corner of the screen and shooting the fire bullets. It's theoretically possible to milk him indefinitely, which is unfair and showcases the only undeniable flaw this game has.

While musically Phelios is rather competent, with nice tunes that evoke the mythology theme with great effect, it's a bit of a letdown graphically. There are absolutely no graphical highlights, and everything is animated to a minimum only. The simplicity is sometimes enhanced by fast scrolling sections that pump up the gameplay, as in chapters 1 and 3, which are probably the best parts of the game from a graphical standpoint. Some stages seem to drag more than they should (the lava section of the 4th chapter), while others go by pretty fast (chapter 3). There are some tricky bosses, but all of them can be defeated after some few tries.

The game comes with packets of backstory that show up during the opening and in the options screen, in the form of brief text descriptions on the stages and the bosses. Artemis appears at the end of each stage to cry for help and cheer you up, and actually speaks in a digitized voice that's good reason for laugh and mockery! As cheesy is it may be, I still like the heroic overall tone of the story and how the relationship between Artemis and Apollo is presented, be it faithful to its mythical roots or not. The ending is especially cute, with that "be patient" interlock that prevents you from cancelling the image of Artemis looking at the player in blissful gratitude.

I managed to beat Phelios both in ADVANCED and EXPERT modes. Unfortunately, both endings are exactly the same. There's a catch on how to get higher scores without milking the 4th boss, and the secret lies during the final fight with Typhon. Believe it or not, I only noticed this while playing the game on EXPERT. The result is shown below - and I did not milk the 4th boss!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sol-Deace (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wolf Team
Published by Renovation in 1992

The Sega CD wasn't received with great reviews when it came out back in 1992 (1991 in Japan), mainly because people were expecting a huge leap in graphical quality from what they were used to when playing the stand-alone Mega Drive. Sol-Feace was a shooter that appeared amidst the first batch of Sega CD games and, just like Earnest Evans or Heavy Nova, was severely criticized for its overall lack of graphical innovation and an alleged failure in taking advantage of the Sega CD's new capabilities. This was extremely unfair to the game itself, in fact a very decent shmup that fell victim of an undeserved bashing that still hurts the game's image to this day.

Being true to the fact that Sol-Feace was no step up from the Mega Drive's standards, Renovation released Sol-Deace almost at the same time in cartridge format only in the US. Excluding the chip soundtrack and the absence of cinemas, it's exactly the same game. However, if you dig deep into it you'll notice that the cartridge version actually plays better than the original CD game, since they fixed some slowdown and flicker problems in the cart while correcting a couple of "Engrish" texts shown in the beginning of each stage. In fact, the most correct info is that Sol-Feace was an original Sharp X68000 title launched in 1990, which makes both the Sega CD and the Mega Drive versions secondary ports.

Forget for one second the cursed Sega CD heritage Sol-Deace has and start playing it. Most of the time people will admit it is a fun shooter. And for me, even though the graphics aren't overly superior to the stock games available at the time, they are still awesome and strike my 16-bit taste as being very well designed. The high scrolling speed of the 3rd stage and the spaceship race of the 5th stage are some of the highlights in this regard. I enjoy the way some enemies move - like the swinging arms in stage 2. The 4th stage sees you battling a giant enemy ship and provides a fight against a Gradius/Salamander type boss. You can call it derivative, but the variety that's present in the rest of the game definitely suggests otherwise.

With a simple gameplay concept, Sol-Deace is very easy to just pick up and play. First of all, you only use one button from the controller (A, B or C). You start every life with just a pea shooter, but soon a capsule comes and delivers a power-up when shot. The first and main weapon is a blue vulcan that equips the ship with upper and lower turrets. These can can be opened up to almost 45° when you stop firing - once you have the desired firing angle, just shoot and they will stay where they are. Later on two new power-ups will show up: the missile launcher and the laser. It's possible to combine all of them by touching the power-up icon conveniently: if you touch it with the lower turret, only the lower turret will acquire the power-up, while the other ones remain unchanged. It would seem that the best options are always triple missiles (because the missiles are stronger), but that's not actually the case.

Going to the options screen lets you choose how fast you want your ship to be during the whole game, out of 3 speeds available. I don't know why it could not be implemented in-game, but it didn't affect my performance that much (I only use middle speed). While front collisions with walls will kill you, side collisions will just have you bouncing forwards in a very neat effect.

is very generous when it comes to lives, for you start with 5 and earn lots of extends just by scoring. Don't expect a walk in the park though. It's not rare to lose lots of lives in a row during a difficult part or during boss confrontations. The 6th boss is a perfect exampe of a piss-inducing prick capable of depleting all your stock in a snap, so try to get there with at least one missile launcher.

One thing with which you can't go wrong in this game is the soundtrack. The music is excellent and keeps your blood pumping during the whole time. It's pure Wolfteam goodness from start to finish - courtesy of Motoi Sakuraba, composer of other great soundtracks like El Viento, Granada and the aforementioned Earnest Evans. In the end what you get is a fast and fun shooter that is much better than what most people like to admit.

Here's my 1CC high score, game played on NORMAL:

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Task Force Harrier EX (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
13 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Treco
Published by Treco in 1991

During the whirlwind of the 90's shooter frenzy several minor shmups were released for the most prominent platforms, and Task Force Harrier EX was a perfect example of this batch. For the most part it's a very standard vertical jet shooter, the kind that's easily overlooked by the regular shmupper or even completely avoided by the casual gamer. With no advertisement at all, it was indeed ignored by most people, but I did get a chance to try it at the time the Mega Drive was still rocking. And now I have just given it proper play and 1 credit clearing.

Contrary to what I had always thought, this title isn't exclusive to the MD. It's actually ported from an arcade game and includes different features or gameplay aspects (check Sega-16's review for a comprehensive comparison between the arcade and console versions).

I remember I had a very good impression of Task Force Harrier EX back in the 90's. There weren't so many shooters like it available for the Mega Drive, and it was fun to play. My opinion has shifted since then, as I do think the game hasn't aged well. While not so bad graphically, the absolute lack of parallax or similar effects adds negatively to the game's poor color palette, especially during the first 4 stages - where everything seems to be black & white. The music is okay and implemented in a weird way, meaning all BGMs are used for two consecutive stages. The game has 13 stages (the last one being the final boss confrontation) and because of that it feels a bit overlong. Considering the fact that the real challenge only kicks in after the 4th stage or so, you have to spend a lot of time mostly killing bogus enemies. After a few play sessions this makes the first part of the game extremely boring and repetitive.

The jet itself has a decent variety of firepower. The main shot is upgraded with the S icons, and as soon as you pick the first missile icon you also get the side options. These options can be arranged in four different formations, where each one makes the jet fly at a different speed (slowest = options on the front, middle speed = options on the sides × 2, fastest = options on the back). These options also serve as protection from incoming regular bullets. There are 3 types of missiles that the options can fire (guns, homing and straight rockets), and they are also interchangeable with particular icons. Bombs must be used to kill ground targets, and they can be deployed in 3 ways: horizontal line (type 1), vertical line (type 2) and cluster blast (type 3). It's necessary to stick to the same icon if you want to upgrade a particular kind of missile/bomb. My favorite picks were always homing missiles + type 3 cluster bombs. Last but not least, there's also a smart bomb that damages enemies and wipes out all on-screen bullets, triggered with the C button.

The stages alternate between aerial combats and exclusive ground attacks where your main shot can also destroy ground targets. There's a little rank but it's not really noticeable until you reach the 9th stage, and extra scoring techniques comprise only the 10.000 points for excess power-up icons. For those who enjoy an easy shooting challenge Task Force Harrier EX feels perfect for 2/3 of the game, and the available CONTINUES should help later on. You start with just 2 lives (weird for a regular shmup), but extends are given with 100.000, 500.000, 1.000.000 and 2.000.000 points. There are very cool opening and ending sequences that show a little bit more of your heroic fight against the communist terrorists (!), but besides that the game has nothing noteworthy. Overall I consider it bland and a little uninspired.

Knowing in advance that this game does not buffer high scores - which means you can't see how much you scored after the GAME OVER - I paused right after beating the last boss and took the picture below, therefore recording my official high score for Task Force Harrier EX (NORMAL difficulty).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Radirgy Precious (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Milestone
Published by Milestone in 2006

Radirgy was released for all main home consoles when Milestone decided to port it from the arcade. A while ago I decided to face the Dreamcast version, and now the Playstation 2 port got my attention in between my sessions of Mushihimesama. I still feel awkward when I think about the differently titled Radirgy Precious, even though I know it's the exactly same game. I practically had to sweat a lot less than I thought I would, but more due to how bad the game plays instead of how well I already knew it beforehand.

I will not go into gameplay details, for they were already covered when I wrote about the Dreamcast game. Check it out if you want some insight on the subject. The important thing to know is that in Sony's console the game core is exactly the same, from enemy placement to bullet count.

But why is the PS2 version so inferior if we're talking about the same game? Why do I still prefer my Dreamcast disc a hundred times more than the PS2 port, even if the PS2 edition comes with some new modes that should please those who value extras?

There are a few decisive things that really stand out in how badly accomplished Radirgy Precious turned out to be. The first one is graphics. I don't know what happened to Milestone, but the softened PS2 graphics look like shit when compared to the Dreamcast's crisply rendered sprites, both in YOKO and TATE modes. Of course you'll never notice this if you haven't been exposed to the Sega machine version, but right after I beat Radirgy Precious I fired up my Dreamcast just to check what I remembered to be a much better quality overall. And boy I was stunned... And deeply sad for my peers who have only the PS2 version to play.

The second disappointment with the PS2 port is the awful slowdown. It hurts the challenge beyond what's considered reasonable for a game to slow down, be it from programming concepts or hardware limitations. I'm not an expert on the subject, but it's hard to admit Milestone would do this on purpose. That's why my bet is this was indeed an outcome of bad programming, which in fact resulted in too much raw stuff for Sony's console to handle. Come on, we all know the Playstation 2 could do much better than this. The worst slowdown situation happens if you decide to use the green vulcan weapon - the game seems to almost come to a hault during the last stages!

New to the main game itself is the side display of points (?), items collected, enemies crushed, playtime and a counter for the score left for you to get an extend. Each playthrough gets a password in the end, but I have no idea of its purpose. After you beat the game you unlock a Score Attack Mode, which is very useful for training. Besides that, the package has the new Okawari Mode, which is basically a much harder game with faster and more bullets and no continues.

If you can cope with the worse graphics and don't mind the slowdown, Radirgy Precious will keep you entertained. After all, the gameplay remains the same although it's easier than its Dreamcast sibling (I would love to check the Gamecube version one day to see how it compares).

My high score with the laser mecha is shown below:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Barunba (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco/Zap
Published by Namco in 1989

Ask about run-of-the-mill ordinary shmups that are available for the PC Engine and 9 out of 10 answers will include mentions to Barunba. I've seen info where this game appears related to Ordyne as a sequel, but it's hard to see anything remotely common to both except for the people who developed them or, speaking of the game itself, the pilot's sprites inside de ship, which are very similar in both titles. While Ordyne embodies an overall psychedelic feel, Barunba takes a standard approach to its theme and gameplay, sticking to the basics in increasingly long 5 stages of slow-paced shooting.

Barunba belongs to a very special category in the genre - the one where there's absolutely no score in the game. This is a huge letdown for any hardcore shmupper, because the only challenge set upon the player is to reach the end of the game. Did I just say "only"? Be aware that you start with an energy bar that can withstand 5 hits, and when your energy is gone it's GAME OVER. There's no replenishing between stages, but there are replenishers during the stages themselves. If you don't mind the lack of scoring, you can always go for the mildly decent challenge, based mostly on memorization and wise choices of weaponry.

One thing that takes a little time to grasp here is the controls. Designed for play with the standard PCE controller, here you need to also use the SELECT and RUN buttons together with the I and II buttons. You fire with the II button, the I button turns your pod gun clockwise, RUN turns it anti-clockwise and SELECT cycles your firepower between the 4 types available: V (vulcan), S (blue spheres), L (laser) and N (explosion bomb). It's not a natural way of doing it, and it's prone to give people some hard time or even pain while stretching their fingers.

With graphics that are somewhat cartoonish, all 5 stages have very specific atmospheres to them (city/sky, underwater/sea, mountains, forest/cave and castle). The difficulty increases accordingly, as well as the length of the stages (stage 4 seems to drag forever). In every one of them you fight a mid-boss and a big boss, facing a considerable variety of small enemies in-between. The scrolling is always carried out at the same constant pace, but the direction shifts all the time. I did not qualify Barunba as an arena shooter though, for the simple fact that the player ship always faces forward - what rotates and changes the firing direction is just the turret attached to the ship.

There's a couple of not so evident gameplay aspects. When you collect power-ups for the weapon you're using you'll notice that it gets powered up but eventually powers down if you don't collect another power-up soon. You can still collect power-ups for all other weapons you're not using - when you select them they'll be already powered up! So if you have the chance, spare the best weapon for the boss, like a fully powered vulcan or laser. It's also good practice to be on the lookout for safe spots. And a last hint: yes, you can continue in the GAME OVER screen if you press UP + START!

The music in the game isn't bad, but don't expect ultra-inspired compositions. On the gameplay front, one thing that bugged me here was the hit detection during some boss confrontations. The 3rd boss is a perfect example, because it's virtually impossible to know if you are actually hitting him. On one occasion I kept fighting the bastard for five minutes before he would go down, but later I found out that a fully powered laser is the best choice to kill him. The S weapon is good to cancel enemy fire, but it's useless otherwise.

It doesn't matter if you beat Barunba with just one credit or continuing, the ending will always be the same. Here's a pic to showcase my scoreless 1CC achievement: