Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tiger-Heli (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan in 1985
Published by Banpresto in 1996

For those who grew up shmupping during the 80s and 90s, Toaplan is a name that demands respect. One of the major companies in the genre, it established and developed concepts and trends for over a decade before closing its doors and giving birth to well known names like Cave, Raizing and Takumi. That's why for each DoDonPachi, Battle Garegga and Giga Wing we have to bear in mind that there once was an embrionary game such as Tiger-Heli to pave the way. It sure is a change of pace to go from one end of the spectrum to the other, since Tiger-Heli was already slow by the time it was released and doesn't seem to belong at all in today's frenetic shmup reality. Does that make it an easy game? Hell, I don't think so. Are you willing to try it?

Banpresto was really nice to Playstation fans and included Tiger-Heli in the Toaplan Shooting Battle 1 compilation, together with its sequel Twin Cobra/Kyuukyoku Tiger. From what I heard, the game is a perfect emulation of the arcade original, a shooter that puts you in charge of flying a helicopter through urban terrain, ocean and a little bit of forest in order to blast everything that moves. Since there are no aerial opponents (airplanes appear either stopped or taking flight, but never shooting), the bulk of the enemies consists of tanks and turrets, either ordinary or heavily armored. Houses, civilian cars and other harmless targets such as a bonus racing car can also be destroyed for score. Though not clearly stated, each stage starts with the chopper taking off and ends when it reaches a landing point, where the stock of two bombs will be replenished. There are four stages in total, after which the game will restart in the 2nd stage and forever loop through the last 3 stages. However, in the high score table you also have your performance measured by "areas", which is probably related to checkpoints.

Wait there, airwolf, that's my neighborhood!

Whenever I think about a slow vertical shmup I think about Tiger-Heli. There are no speed-ups, and from early on it's necessary to get used to the sluggishness of the chopper and the aimed shots of your enemies. It's really common to die from a surprise bullet shot by a tank that appears from behind or from the sides, since there's no such thing as point blanking and the bombs aren't of much help. There's one bomb on each side of the helicopter, and even though they will self trigger when hit by a bullet there's no guarantee the explosion will protect you from harm. The explosion does nullify bullets, but besides having a limited radius it's also deployed with a painful delay that not rarely costs the player a precious life. Another feature that has a considerable annoying factor is how your shot only covers part of the screen and forces you to remain roughly in the centerline if you want to hit stuff coming from the top.

The only way to increase firepower is by hitting the colored blinking crosses that show up. They release special "little helis" that can be docked on the sides of the helicopter: the white cross gives a straight-shooting little heli, and the red cross gives a side-shooting little heli (a green cross gives an extra bomb). The little helis can be shot down and destroyed, and sometimes it's just impossible to keep them when maneuvering through the bullet concentration. If you manage to reach the landing point with little helis, each one is worth a bonus of 5.000 points. This bonus extends to the number of bombs as well, with a maximum bonus of 20.000 points per stage completion. In-stage excess items are worth 5.000 points. The other icon that appears from time to time is a pulsating yellow square that's worth some points and adds to a counter on the right lower side of the screen. When this counter reaches 10 the player is granted with an extra life. Score-based extends are given with 20.000 points and then 80.000 points after that (beware that the Toaplan Shooting Battle CD has this defaulted to 50.000/150.000 points, which should be properly adjusted prior to playing).

A helicopter legend series is born!
(courtesy of YouTube user crazyclimber80)

I have to admit Tiger-Heli is an acquired taste. By all standards it's a very primitive shooter, one that goes just a little beyond the very basic. There are only two music tracks in the whole game, one that's played while you have a solo helicopter and one that plays as long as you have a little heli. At least these songs are catchy and fit perfectly with the helicopter motif. As a shmup experience, I tend to like the NES port better, since the difficulty of the PS1 version is a lot more punishing and the quality of the NES version is outstanding by 8-bit standards. I remember I did enjoy the 8-bit version, and I should be replaying it in the near future just for the sake of knowing exactly how it measures up against the original game.

My high score on the PS1 version of Tiger-Heli was obtained on NORMAL, with game speed set to ARCADE (general options menu) and heli speed set to FAST (specific game options menu), reaching stage 2-2. In reality, I didn't notice any substantial difference when changing these speed settings. I played it in yoko, but the CD allows tating on all included games.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Submarine Attack (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1990

What a pitiful game this is. Not in the sense of technical accomplishment, but rather in the challenge offered to the player - it's a major disappointment overall and can certainly be included in the not-so-memorable category of easiest shmups of all time. Just for you guys to have an idea, not even an hour had passed when I looped it with a minimum of concentration while talking to somebody!

As its name implies, Submarine Attack is an underwater themed shooter where you pilot a sub and fight the usual water baddies you'd expect from such a setting. At times it feels a bit like Darius, but the core nature of the gameplay doesn't let this sensation stick for long. For Master System standards the graphics are decent, and the scrolling never gets too affected by some scarce and almost unnoticeable slowdown. There's a refreshing enemy variety throughout all 6 stages, which succeed in presenting different scenarios while trying to avoid the feeling of complete mediocrity that you get after reaching the end of the game and being offered the choice to play or not to play the second loop.

The 2 buttons in the SMS controller fire 2 types of shots. One is a straight oriented type of torpedo, and the other is an upward hyperbole descending torpedo. Both shots can block enemy bullets and must be used at the same time for maximum firepower, which can be upgraded with the "A" power-up that pops up from differently colored ships/subs. It's possible to upgrade twice, in that you starting firing two torpedos instead of just one for each button. The submarine can withstand 3 hits and starts flashing red when you're about to lose a life. The "H" icon restores this health completely, but if you kill a boss while flashing you'll also have it fully restored for the next stage. The last icon is the "S" for speed-up, and that's the best aspect of the gameplay since the speed-up icons appear only twice for each life, meaning it's not possible to get too fast. One of the annoyances you have to get used to right from the start is how these icons are released - whenever a carrier is destroyed, the power-up goes up, falls and disappears really fast. If you're not close to it or you're not fast enough you'll lose the icon, so some careful shooting is necessary in order to get that desired H when you're about to die.

Extra lives can be obtained only by collecting the pink octopuses that appear randomly from destroyed enemies. Again, you have to be very alert for them because they sink and disappear very fast, reminding me of the way dynamic extra lives are released in the Megaman series. This extra stock is useful for the game's last boss, which is the only one that puts up a mildly decent fight and can really knock you down. All other bosses have clear safe spots or can be wiped out with easy twitch dodges. Although the submarine can touch walls and such without being damaged, sometimes it will annoyingly bounce back (spicing up the fight with the last boss, for instance).

The sound in Submarine Attack doesn't stand out in any way. The music is regular 8-bit fare with no memorable tunes. I just wish Sega had used more of that cool sonar sound effect that plays when the game is starting and right before the boss confrontations.

To display the current/high score it's necessary to either pause the game (pause in SMS consoles? noooooo...) or wait until you die your last life. Adding to the easy challenge, the increment in difficulty for the second loop is negligible. Generally I don't like to mention anything about replay value, but due to its lack of challenge and awkward scoring display, Submarine Attack has one that's close to none. In the high score pictured below I reached stage 2-6, dying before reaching the last boss for the second time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mushihimesama (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable / by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Taito in 2005

In my rush to complete my shmup collection I have bought many, many more games than I'm actually capable of playing. All of them remain untouched after I test them, and are only played when I think to myself "OK, now it's your turn to bow down to my not-so-mighty skills". The reason why I choose certain games to beat generally relates to something I read, a conversation with a friend or a challenge thrown by a peer shmupper. However, in the case of Mushihimesama, I had absolutely no intention at all to try clearing it because - talking about Cave - I'm still stuck with DoDonPachi. Until the day I got home after work and I thought "damn, I want to blow things up today" while firing up Mushi and DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou.

I have to admit that from that day on I was irreversibly hooked. I never thought once before that I would be enjoying a Cave game so much, maybe even more than the awesome Deathsmiles. Set upon a fairy tale world where an insect princess must ride a deadly beetle and battle an endless bug infestation, Mushihimesama has the Cave trademark all over its gameplay, while being a lot more forgiving than the company's killer app, which is considered to be DoDonPachi. The Playstation 2 version is also considered by hardcore players to be not as faithful a port as DDP DOJ or Espgaluda, but from my standpoint it plays beautifully, in any of its 4 included play modes - a treat that can be considered as being actually 4 games in one package.

Arcade mode offers 3 options of play: ORIGINAL, MANIAC and ULTRA. While the first one corresponds to the initial arcade release main gameplay mode, MANIAC has much more dense and somewhat slower bullet patterns, with ULTRA standing as an impossible bullet curtain rape that only the really gifted dare to face. With the exception of the setting for extends, they all share the same options. ARRANGE mode is exclusive to the PS2 port, consisting in a game that resembles MANIAC mode, but makes things easier for the player as every hit will automatically trigger a bomb. This means you only die when you get hit with no bomb stock. In ARRANGE there's only one difficulty setting, no continues, 2 more available options/lasers (total of 6) and it's possible to change the weapon you're using by the press of a button, something that's not possible in any of the arcade modes.

I beat the game in ORIGINAL, a mode that has fewer but way faster bullets, in what could be described as a more intelligent Psikyo style of shooter. It's not such a twitch fest as MANIAC , but it was the first version ever released and therefore the one to be beaten.

ORIGINAL is also the mode with simpler scoring system. There are no special quirks, it's just a matter of killing everything, getting the highest possible number of golden jewels and timing the death of larger enemies, because their explosion turns all on-screen bullets into jewels. If we venture into any of the other modes though, we have to also deal with a hit counter that works like in the DonPachi series. Throw in the so-called "child counters" that come with each laser/option and all the special rapid fire settings and one has to be prepared to go through a very complicated set of strategies in order to fully understand how the scoring system works. As I'm a busy guy, I don't have time to delve deep into it and I learn it as I play, that's why I can't be too specific on it. For details on how the scoring system works a good source is the Shmups Forum strategy thread.

The rest of the gameplay in ORIGINAL consists of choosing one of 3 weapons (red=wide, green=medium, blue=concentrated) that are powered up by icons throughout the game and can be switched by these same icons, which cycle between each weapon type. The lasers/options come with icons as well, can be stocked up to 4 and can be arranged in formation (fixed) or trace (shadowing like in Gradius). By holding the firing button, ship speed is reduced and all options gather around the character, providing for a more concentrated firepower and more adequate speed to weave though complicated bullet patterns. Every life starts with 3 bombs that have panic function. Extends are given according to score, and a 1Up can be obtained right before the 3rd boss by destroying the 8 segments of the bug creature and then its central head. Lives are very important here, since each one is worth 10 million points upon game completion and corresponds to roughly the amount of points you get by playing the whole game!

There's no denying Mushihimesama is a beautiful shmup. Even more beautiful is the fact that Cave hit the spot with the awesome soundtrack. Action and music blend in such perfection that I always yell "woo-hoo" every time the climax of the 5th stage BGM kicks in, coinciding with the most hectic moments of the game and showcasing the true essence of shmup rush. It's an extremely powerful and addictive experience once you start digging it. Furthermore, evolution in this game is endless, and even in ORIGINAL there's room for improvement, such as correctly milking the plants for golden jewels in stage 2. There is a True Last Boss that does not appear in ORIGINAL and is reserved only for ARRANGE mode - together with the ULTRA mode, that's when this title achieves its status of one of the most difficult games ever created.

As mentioned above, my 1CC was achieved in ORIGINAL mode, NORMAL difficulty with default settings, using the M weapon (green). I doubt I will be able to easily top this high score, so I'll be focusing on playing MANIAC whenever I get back to it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bomber Raid (Master System)

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

A few days ago I felt the urge to experience some 8-bit action again, so I picked up Bomber Raid for an afternoon. I left Action Fighter aside because that game is just too damn hard and was gathering a third layer of dust inside the cart slot. And what a difference in difficulty, I must tell you!

Bomber Raid was distributed in US by Activision - a situation that's rather rare for a Master System title - but there's no mention to this company anywhere in the European release, which is the one I have. It's a very standard vertical shooter that borrows a lot from 1942, with some added features that try to lend some special flavor to the gameplay. The resulting mild challenge is suitable for a few relaxing sessions, provided you can stand a single military march as background music for all stages except the last one, in a total of 5. Loopable, yes, and with a decent increase in difficulty in the second loop.

While you shoot down planes, tanks, ships and subs, the main weapon can be powered up with the P icons released by an orb that flies by from time to time. It takes lots of P icons to power up but in the end it's worth it, because the maximum power-up gives you a bird-like shot (a phoenix, so I heard) that can even block regular bullets. The same orb also releases speed items (S) and numbered icons that grant auxiliary planes or "bombers", as the manual calls them. Each number from 1 to 4 adds one bomber (maximum of 2) that stays arranged in formation. 1 puts them ahead of the plane by 45º, 2 puts them on the sides, 3 puts them behind the plane by 45º and 4 aligns both bombers in the back of the plane. These bombers shoot additional bullets whose direction can be toggled between 2 available options by pressing both buttons 1 and 2 simultaneously - something that cannot be done accurately if you're using the rapid fire unit like I did. [games like these not having autofire is just stupid, because the lack of autofire is only justified when the game uses a charge shot scheme!] On a last note, the bombers can take some hits but are ultimately destroyed by enemy fire.

A third kind of item is also left by the flying orbs, but that's a harmful spike-like thing that must be avoided or destroyed. Completing the arsenal of your plane there are also the bombs, which also serve as smart bombs and are deployed differently according to how many bombers you currently have. Their stock is automatically increased by 3 for each new stage. Unfortunately, the response of the bomb button is really poor, sometimes it takes too long to activate once you press the button.

The brief scenes of the airplane taking off and landing in the beginning and at the end of the game are there just for some superfluous eye candy. Bomber Raid is decent fun for 8-bit standards, but I think it's got too much blue in the graphics. It seems you're always flying over the sea, and the only real change of scenario appears as the game is about to end! 2 or 3 speed-ups are enough to handle the enemy swarms later on, as too much speed will definitely hinder the gameplay, while dealing with the numbered icons for formation bombers can get chaotic and frustrating in later levels, as you most certainly have to stop shooting in order to get the formation you want. At the end of each stage you're awarded a bonus based on the percentage of enemies killed. Extends are given with 50.000 and 100.000 points, and then for each 100.000 points after that.

In my second loop I reached the 3rd boss again, and here's the score I was able to get:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Darius Plus (PC Engine)

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

Of all classic shooter series that emerged during the 80s, Darius is by far my favorite. It's a little odd to explain why I feel this way about a game where you shoot space fish. Yes, FISH. Of course if you like shmups you already knew this, right?

Darius Plus was the first port of the awesome Darius arcade released in 1986, which was remarkable for having 3 screens combined to offer an incredibly large play field. Just try to imagine the impact this had on arcade goers at the time. As a home video game, however, I heard lots of people complain about how the title was cramped and had lost its charm - "if it ever had any to start with". I think these comments are preposterous for a number of reasons, and I stick my head out there to defend the game as a true classic. After all, it established a style of its own regarding graphics, design and music, with an uniqueness seldomly achieved by other contemporary shooters. Maybe that's why enjoying the Darius games comes down to a matter of taste, no matter how well or badly crafted people think they are.

I have already praised the series when I wrote about Sagaia (Darius II). Strangely enough, that's where I got my introduction to the world of Darius, and only recently was I able to play the first game, the one that started it all. From what I heard, Darius Plus has some differences from the arcade original, such as new original bosses and the elimination of the checkpoint system. The alphabet branching design was preserved and offers 7 stages of steadily screasing difficulty, in such a way that you must strive for a one life clear - losing a life when you're about to have the ship upgraded to the next level of main shot, bombs or shield is nothing less than frustrating.

In Darius, enemies always arrive in wave patterns. It's a trademark of the series, and killing all enemies in a single wave will add extra points to your score. Since Darius Plus was the first one, general gameplay is rather straightforward. The rule of thumb is to shoot everything and be smart to get the colored power-up orbs, because sometimes they just fly off the screen! Power-ups are released by colored enemies and come in 3 types: red is for main shot, green is for bombs and blue is for shield. It is necessary to get 8 power-ups for each one to upgrade to the next corresponding level, and dying when you have 7 power-ups and are about to get the last one sends you back to the start power-up in that level. There are also special orbs released when certain areas of the terrain are hit: the yellow orb kills everything on screen and nullifies bullets, and the white one provides extra points (though they are random and range from 50 to more than 50.000 points - it's a lottery!). Occasional 1UPs will also appear when shooting special parts of the scenery. No extends are given based on score.

Graphic parallax uses just one layer, but this single layer is always effective. However, one of the gripes one might have with Darius Plus is the repetition of graphics throughout the game. Later stages use the same backgrounds from earlier stages, with the intention to show different scenarios just by slightly altering the color palette. Considering the fact that the stages themselves are comprised of repeating sections, this does make the game feel as an out of the mill effort from Taito. But that's when the music and the enemy design comes into the equation, elevating the game above the level of average and giving it the special flavor it is well known for. The music, although also being reused towards the end, represents really well the other-worldly fish environments with its weird, unconventional and inexplicably pleasing (to my ears at least) compositions. As for the bosses, they are all very big, and are always announced by the now classic message "WARNING - A HUGE BATTLESHIP x IS APPROACHING FAST". Darius Plus is special in that all bosses are named and stage-referenced as well (like "Big Rajarnn-D", for instance, meaning the big boss from the D stage). Here's a word of advice: never stand on the screen centerline after killing a boss - choose one side or you'll crash into the dividing wall!

Silver Hawk is the name of the main ship, and even in this first incarnation and without any animation frames while moving it is still a very imposing spaceship. The shield in this game is raw, thick and seems to be sparking electricity all over its borders. Its beauty is simply unmatched in the shmup world, and besides all other great features in the Darius series it's probably the main reason why I truly love to play or see any Darius game footage. Gosh, I'll never get tired of saying this...

The challenge in Darius Plus is fairly decent. The branching system can lead you to tricky stages, and while the game seems to start on the easiest of settings, it does get difficult towards the end. I stuck to the top path this time (ABDGKPZ) and achieved a no miss high score. Note: the existing Super Darius title for the PC Engine CD shares the same memory save information with Darius Plus! They're not exactly the same game though, since there are different bosses for each in some stages - I wonder if the scoring is the same? Anyway, I had to erase the data before playing and recording the table below for posterity.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Gleylancer (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
11 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by NCS Corp.
Published by Masaya in 1992

Shmup addicts who have a knack for the whole 16-bit era and style definitely owe themselves a shot at Gleylancer. The problem with this is that the real cartridge is one of those whose price skyrocketed since ebay took over the video gaming collecting world as the main source for retro stuff. After all, there are people who think spending more than 100 dollars on an old game is insane. I would say it's well spent money, especially on an age where those crappy easy PS3 games come out for 50 USD a piece.

So there you have it. Gleylancer is rare, expensive and until recently vastly unknown unless we're talking about emulation (it got a re-release for the Wii downloadable service). Of course I played it on real hardware, simply because emulation and downloadable shit piss me off.

Right after the console is turned on, the player is granted with a lengthy attract mode showing the game's backstory. Soon you'll know that the pilot of the spaceship is really a teenage girl named Lucia that seems to be called upon in the heat of battle to, you know, do that normal thing you do in shmups: save the universe. She takes off and, as the game starts, you must choose how you want to operate your pods. There are six options available, ranging from straightforward firing to homing, shadowing and rotating pods. My favorite is the MULTI-R, where you can inverselly fix your pod's direction in a 3-way fashion according to your D-pad with the C button.

Gameplay also includes 4 ship speeds at the press of the A button. I used all of them, but mostly I would leave my thrusters in speed 2. Lastly, there are 7 types of weapons available with incoming icons. Even though they feel somewhat unbalanced, the game is designed with several parts where each one of them is more recommended than the others. The best ones are the laser and the flamethrower, but the bouncing green vulcan is also quite neat. With 100.000 and 200.000 points you get extra lives, and then for each 200.000 points after that. There's also a solitary 1UP that appears in stage 4.

The thing that impressed me most about Gleylancer is the complete absence of slowdown, something all 16-bit shooters struggled with. It feels great to weave through the stages without a single hint of hardware pushing. Then there's the stage design - despite some uninspired ones like the huge spaceship fight (stage 5) and the preamble to the final showdown (stage 10), all of them are very well done graphically and showcase great atmosphere for a space shooter. I love the ice stage (7) and the debris from the ice block explosions, and it's great fun to use the green bouncing weapon in the caves of stage 3. Parallax abounds, in some cases to the point of distracting the player and adding to the difficulty - the first stage is a classic example in this regard, with all those asteroids and flying ship wrecks. The music could've been better, as well as the sound effects (which sound muffled sometimes), but at least it's not bad.

Until midway into the game the boss battles are ridiculously easy. The challenge picks up in the middle, but the real threat is only posed by the last boss. He puts up quite a fight to compensate for the wimpy ones that come before him. Overall the challenge level is well balanced and, while the game offers unlimited continues, clearing it with one credit will take a small degree of methodical approach and half a dozen dedicated runs. Scorewise there's not much besides killing everything that moves, but stage 9 offers the possibility of racking up lots of points (see picture above). Just die facing the boss, and you get back right at the start of those red blocks section. Since this part is designed to yield approximately 200.000 points, it's possible to earn an extra life every time you play it up until the boss. Life stock will only decrease from premature deaths, but it's theoretically possible to counterstop the game by doing this.

Extra features are comprised of some cut scenes between stages showing Lucia in her cockpit and a handful of scratchy voice messages when you start the game and prior to important sections or boss fights. The ending is very detailed, just like the opening story, too bad the accompanying music is a complete letdown. In any case, Gleylancer still remains as a very solid and fun shooter that all shmup fans should get to know, especially for people who are into titles like Thunder Force IV, Eliminate Down or Hellfire.

In my 1CC run on NORMAL I did the stage 9 milking maybe 3 or 4 times and then moved on. So here's my final score: