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: