Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gaiares (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Telenet
Published by Renovation in 1990

Very few shmups inspire such fear in people's hearts as Gaiares for the Mega Drive does - or at least this is the impression you get when you read most reviews written on the game since its release in 1990. I was always remembered of how controversial it is regarding its awesomeness or its overrated status among those who played it, and finally decided to see it for real after receiving a few inputs from some fellow shmuppers. Keep reading if you want to know how it went.

As I was playing Gaiares it was inevitable to relate the game to two other Renovation titles, even though they were originally published by other companies: Arrow Flash (Sega) and Whip Rush (Vic Tokai). It's a bit awkward to explain why these 3 games represent an unnoficial trilogy to me, one that starts with the somewhat disappointing Arrow Flash, improves but still presents rough edges with Whip Rush and then reaches full potential with Gaiares. The Renovation tag on them is the first obvious reason for this, but I do think these games (all Mega Drive exclusive) are graphically and musically related, with unexpected similarities in stage/weapon design.

Two indestructible ground gunners on the beginning of the 2nd stage

From the story shown in the attract mode, your name is Dan Dare and you're out to stop the evil ZZ Badnasty's army in order to return the original green status to a destroyed Earth, and Alexis is the co-pilot lady that operates the "TOZ" system. This TOZ is the core aspect of Gaiares - a feature that allows you to throw your single option (one that follows the ship around and absorbs bullets) on enemies to mimic their weaponry on your own ship. The possibilities here are many, since there are over 15 different weapons to be acquired. Moreover, each one can be powered-up twice by using the TOZ again on the same enemy. The greatest sort of fun here, and in some cases of stress, is to figure out which weapon serves best for each situation, and the important thing is to try to steal weapons from everything that moves, even bosses or mid-bosses. Combine this with the selection of 3 very distinct speed adjustments and the availability of shield icons spread throughout the stages and you're ready to face the increasingly difficult barrage of baddies.

It takes some runs to see what Gaiares has best, but after you've been sucked into the gameplay there's no denying it is a strong and addictive 16-bit shooter. I don't find the first stage to be that appealing: the graphics aren't special, nor is the music. The music in the second stage still isn't that convidative enticing, but the challenge picks up a little. Finally by the 3rd stage the game reaches full load, with an awkward but very pleasant graphical mix (massive black holes followed by a castle with guillotines, deadly pendulums and fire-spitting wall gargoyles) accompanied by a great pumping BGM. When you notice that the music gets even better while you're fighting homing missiles, lasers and massive enemy crafts amidst all the exploding fireballs and ice debris that populate the whole 5th stage you definitely know you've got an excellent, if not downright awesome, shmup in your hands.

How to not play the first stage in Gaiares
(courtesy of YouTube user mathowlett)

As far as horizontal checkpoint shooters go, this one excels in being intense and extremely versatile from a gameplay standpoint. And the best thing is that its difficulty cult status is a lie. It's not an easy game by any means, but I don't think it can be included into the hardest category either (try Hellfire or Truxton for some serious beating). Here go some reasons why:
  • Most of the time it's not impossible to recover after you die, like in some other well known checkpoint shooters (R-Type, anyone?);
  • ALL enemies have defined and fixed patterns, which is something that rewards those who stick to them play after play;
  • While the normal shield adds 3 extra hits to your ship, absorbing it with the TOZ will give you 5 hits instead (!). It's like having 5 extra lives, while managing shields is the key to a great performance;
  • Some weapons are far more powerful than others and using them makes the game considerably easier (the fun is in identifying these ones!).
You start the game with 5 lives, but there are absolutely no extends while playing. My favorite weapons are the H-Laser and the T-Missile, but I also used the G-Beam and the S-Laser a lot. Another minor thing I found out is that those tiny missiles your ship fires can acquire a homing ability by absorbing a tiny ground enemy during the 1st stage. The secret weapon (acquired by throwing the TOZ at nothing 5 times and then against any enemy) resembles the Hunter weapon from the Thunder Force series, but it must be enabled in every stage (not an easy task in later levels) and isn't really that helpful.

I was able to beat the game on NORMAL without losing any lives, with the high score shown below. By the way, to access the options screen it's necessary to press either A, B or C with START during the start screen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tiger-Heli (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Acclaim in 1986

Despite being ignored by Nintendo during the majority of its lifetime in Brazil, the NES had a whole line of clones that filled in for the original hardware for a long while, with such names as BitSystem, Dynavision, Phantom System and Top Game, all of them coming from different local manufacturers. The Top Game in particular had a very early influence in my gaming formation, because every console package came with a 60-pin cartridge named Tiger-Heli. It was, as much as I can remember, my first shmup love affair with an NES setting, and the time has come to revisit this absolute classic from my childhood.

I believe I have digressed a few times into recollecting the reasons for why I eventually became a shmupper. Tiger-Heli was one of the few NES shmups I had the chance to play back then, simply because they weren't so popular or readily available in rental/retail shops, and maybe that's why it played such an important role in my shmuppy coming-out-of-the-closet process. After all, it ocuppied my attention side by side with NES heavyweights such as Contra, Battletoads and Mega Man, and was the first complete NES game I bought when I started collecting more than a decade later.

Two little helis increase firepower to the sides of the helicopter

Developed by Toaplan, originally distributed by Taito and finally published by Acclaim in the US, this enjoyable helicopter shooter is one of the genre's foundation stones. The transition from the arcade game to its 8-bit version is of great quality, as it does retain all of the original gameplay characteristics while adapting the aesthetics graphically and musically to the home format. Basically, you pilot a chopper through various scenarios (streets, city, ocean, desert, etc.) and shoot down terrestrial targets along the way. Interesting detail: no bullets are fired from the few airborne craft seen here and there. Bomb for more destructive effect and get "little heli" power-ups to increase firing capabilities. Please refer to my writing on the PS1 port for a deeper description of the gameplay, because it's exactly the same.

Some remarkable aspects of the NES port are the good use of colors (the game never feels washed out like so many other games for the platform), the improvement on the helicopter's speed (which moves a little faster than in the somewhat painful arcade game) and the nice music rendition. The screen is obviously stretched out for the regular TV aspect ratio, while the difficulty was toned down a lot, as there are in general less enemies to destroy and a considerably lower number of those tanks appearing from the bottom of the screen. All enemies present a defined interval between firing consecutive shots, during which it's safe to get closer and dispatch them. This interval decreases as the game progresses, getting really short in later stages of the second loop. To the player's advantage though, enemy bullets are able to travel only in 8 directions (horizontals, verticals and diagonals), so it's always feasible to herd bullets and do the killings during the shot intervals.

Early 8-bit helicopter justice
(courtesy of YouTube user MetalsGeek)

It's not due to nostalgia alone that I think this version of Tiger-Heli is better than any other out there, including the arcade original. It's a very basic shooter, in such a way that it fits the constraints of the NES hardware better than in the arcade or the PS1. In fact, it feels tailored for Nintendo's 8-bit machine. The original version is also too difficult up front, while the NES title only truly shows its claws in the second loop, providing for a more comprehensive and overall better challenge slope - something like "warm up during the 1st loop and fasten your seatbelt for the real thing in the 2nd". It does have everything that the original had, so one should expect no complaints for lack of faithfulness, missing key enemies or different extend settings.

The only gripe I have, at least with the US release of the game, is that it's got a bug in its score display. Whenever a credit is finished, both your score and your high score should be buffered to the start screen. However, after the 1st attract mode round is over, both the score display and the first digit of the high score are reset. If you managed to get 150.000 points, for example, your high score would then show 050.000 points. That's pretty annoying when you want to keep track of performance, so be prepared for it. I don't know if this also happens with the Japanese cartridge.

So here's my high score, game played until stage 2-3:


Friday, December 11, 2009

Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Toaplan in 1991

There are certain games that are capable of warming our needy hearts regardless of time, setting or platform. No matter how long you've been away from them, when you play these games you are transported to a very particular oasis of fond memories and undeniable fun. Zero Wing is such a game for me, one that every so often I insert in my Mega Drive with the volume in my speakers cranked up above 20. After all, having the earphone jack plugged to a stereo system is the way to go for those who have a model 1 machine, for the music in this title is in my opinion one of the best ever made for any video game.

Reasons for why I have Zero Wing in such high regard aren't restricted to music. Going back in time, it was no wonder that this game caused a strong impression in my still incipiently shmup-oriented mind. Subcounsciously I was already hooked, and while still playing platformers and racers I was constantly drawn to this rocking shooter and its punishing difficulty (for a 15-year old teenager, mind you). Besides the awesome soundtrack, the graphics were great, the weapons were extremely cool and the overall feeling of cruising through the vastness of outer space was conveyed like few other shooters managed to accomplish at the time. Take the 1st stage, for instance (Natols - all stages have names!): you take off of an exploding mothership, blast your way through a surface base, face a creepy skull mid-boss and end up fighting a whale-like boss, all of that to the sound of great pumping shmup music. It's an easy level alright, but it sets the tone perfectly for the more difficult - and awesome - stages to come.

Further stages are also preceded by their proper names: Legrous, Pleades, Aquese, Submarine Tunnel, Barricade Zone, Bellon and Gerbarra. Don't they all sound like cool names for stand-alone games? They feel very different and unique and, despite having a slow scrolling speed, the action is never boring due to the decently varied enemy design. I absolutely love the music in Legrous and Submarine Tunnel, but all BGMs carry a top notch pumping rock aura (this is no techno, I don't know how some people have come up with this) that even surpasses the original tunes from the arcade version or, in most cases, from the music found in the PC Engine CD port. Yes, it's that amazing.

Facing the boss of the 7th stage - check out the super vulcan power-up!

There are 3 weapons to choose from: the red (vulcan), the blue (laser) and the green (homing). They can be interchanged with the appropriate icons left by destroyed carrier ships, and after collecting the first one (the red, not the blue/green!) two pods will materialize above and below the ship. They are an essential part of gameplay, as they increase the ship’s firepower and absorb all bullets, automatically squeezing in tight passages. Sticking three times to the same color will upgrade the weapon to its full power. Further icons of the same color are worth 5.000 points or, in rare cases, 1UPs, 2UPs or even 10UPs (seriously, I got this one a few days ago). A speed-up icon appears after each power-up cycle, being occasionally replaced by a sphere that works both as a front shield and as a bomb that can be tossed onto enemies with the B button. Normally the B button works as a tractor beam that's used to capture small and mid-sized enemies, latching them to the front of the ship. These captured enemies can be used as 1-hit shields or just tossed away as you will, but beware of heavier hijacked craft/objects - their increased mass will pull the ship down!

With a default difficulty set to EASY, it's necessary to go to the options in order to activate NORMAL or HARD. Following the trend of its time, Zero Wing is checkpoint-based, thus presenting some rather harsh sections in later stages. They will make you angry but at the same time a lot better in dodging enemy heat-seeking missiles. Though difficult, the overall challenge does not reach the extreme heights of Hellfire, also developed by Toaplan at around the same time.

Stage 2 - Legrous
(courtesy of YouTube user Stovepipehat)

I have come to the point where I can say I know Zero Wing inside out. I have memorized every single section and strategies in the NORMAL setting, being able to recover even if I die in the hardest possible checkpoint. However, I still don't know how to trigger the super-mega-power-up that materializes randomly. It's a big pink pulsating icon that increases the pods to 3 times their size, gives the ultimate final upgrade to the ship and boosts the blasting fun to the stratosphere. You can play the game for days without getting it and then, all of a sudden, the damn thing just falls in your lap when you least expect it.

The one thing I finally grasped when having this last gaming session was how to achieve a monster score in the first loop alone. As much as it hurts my feelings towards the game, I have to admit that this spoils the immaculate brilliance it once had before my eyes. I refer to the fact that the gameplay is broken in the last stage. Die in the last boss before the final pod leaves the screen and play the last checkpoint again. Each time this is done you get approximately 200.000 points, which also means 2 additional lives (first extend with 70.000, then one for each 100.000 points). I don't know if this is inherited from the arcade original, but you can counterstop the Mega Drive port by doing it.

If you're still reading this and wondering why I didn't write a word about the ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US meme, that's because all my glory days with this game were spent with a Japanese cart. I wasn't aware of the Engrish debate over Zero Wing until much later in my life, and it irks me to see so much incongruent bashing of people who will dismiss this incredibly fun game based on this AYBABTU crap alone. Come on, you play a shooter to blast and explode stuff, not to gaze upon an intro (a cool one, but just an intro anyway).

I died in the last stage and took advantage of the last boss to see how many points I could get with each checkpoint. Funny thing is that when I decided to move on he gave me a hell of a beating! The game was played in NORMAL until stage 2-5 (in that section with those impossible blue tanks).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deathsmiles (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2009

When shoot'em ups for the new generation of video game consoles (namely the Xbox 360) began to finally trickle, things only gained full steam for me when I laid my eyes on Deathsmiles. It had been a long time since I was instantly blown away by any video game as I ran it for the first time, solely on the merits of how good the game looked. For someone who doesn't have any access to the world of arcades, it was nothing less of stunning.

Horizontal shooters allow for a far deeper and more intricate game design, and Cave's renowned expertise really stands out here. The original arcade incarnation is included in the Xbox 360 port, but the top cream of the game are the new modes, which were properly revamped to high definition standards and look amazing on an LCD screen. As a lovely take on a gothic halloween theme, Deathsmiles delivers a great, intense and at the same time light-hearted experience that's aimed both at casual/novice and hardcore players alike. And that's probably the best thing Cave managed to accomplish while developing the game.

Rosa makes her way through the volcano stage (C2)

Four teenagers (lolitas for the initiated) battle in 7 or 8 stages to rid their world of hordes of devilish creatures. Their ages vary from 12 to 17 (Casper, Windia, Follet and Rosa), and their strength and firepower are very distinct from one another. Each one of them flies with a familiar, a small creature that plays a very important role as it adds to the firepower and absorbs some types of bullets. The girls shoot both ways (left and right), varying the attacks between button tapping (shot) and button holding (laser) - the familiars behave differently according to this, as does the character's speed (Casper and Rosa have shot = fixed familiar and laser = free/moving familiar, while Windia and Follett are the opposite). The only part of their bodies that can be hit (the hitbox) is their glowing and pulsating heart. When colliding with an enemy they'll lose only half a life, while incoming shots will take a full life cell. Maximum life stock is 5, which can be achieved with the extends on 20 and 45 million points, but there are also life replenishers that can be triggered inside the stages. Each life comes with 3 bombs/spells, and extra spells can also be obtained in the correct stages.

Certain enemies drop items that add to a counter on the lower left side of the screen. By pressing both shot buttons the familiar performs a lock-on attack and homes on enemies while the counter decreases. However, if the counter has hit 1.000 and this attack is performed, the character enters the "power-up" mode. Once in this mode the player remains invincible against enemy collision, while the counter goes down - however, its instantaneous value is first buffered and then increased with the new items released by all enemies. When this hidden counter reaches 10.000 you enter "fever" mode and your score will skyrocket with all those golden crown items. Power-up/fever mode ends when the item counter reaches 0.

Suicide bullets come towards Windia in the graveyard stage (A2)

Now here's where the game starts to show its intrincacies: besides letting you choose the order of the 6 initial stages, Deathsmiles also lets you choose with which rank you want to play them, from levels 1 to 3. Higher rank means a higher difficulty, but also more enemies and more scoring opportunities. Sticking to rank level 1/2 is the way to go for starters while, on the other hand, playing only on level 3 will activate "death" mode. On the 5th stage played on rank level 3 suicide bullets will appear from each defeated enemy. That's when the familiar comes in handy, because it absorbs the suicide bullets and by doing that also increases the item counter. Yes, Cave did find a way to include one of the trademarks of their second loops for the hardcore people! After completing the 6 initial stages, you're offered the option to go straight to the last level or to go through the Extra stage. Going straight to the final stage with no death mode is the way for starters, since playing Extra adds +1 to death mode difficulty. That means if you already have death mode active after 6 stages, you'll enter Extra in death mode level 2, facing the last stage in death mode level 3 (with ludicrous amounts of suicide bullets!). Going into Extra with no death mode activates death mode level 1 and a final stage in death mode level 2.

The action is relentless, with creatures and bullets coming from both sides all the time. As I mentioned, the game will definitely please non-hardcore players with the implemented rank selection. It seems complicated, but after just a few plays you'll see it's definitely not. My goal was to achieve the 1CC with the Extra stage, and in my quest I stumbled upon two learning phases. The first one was getting used to the suicide bullet swarm of the last stages (with the aid of the useful training option). Once this was out of the way I started playing for the 1CC, but then I got greedy and had to learn or refine my gameplay even more, since minor details affect a huge deal of the scoring.

Deathsmiles official game trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Here are some of the greedy stuff you're likely to come across by yourself:
  • enemies yield more items depending if they are hit by shot (tapping), by laser (holding) or by the lock-on attack;
  • the familiar's laser pierces larger enemies and generates more items;
  • position and movement of the familiar is crucial in order to perform well and increase item counter faster;
  • some enemies must be attacked in increments for maximum item bonus (the forest stage!);
  • timing the end of the fever mode to get more items for the next power-up round is a great bonus;
  • the start and the end of a power-up/fever mode wipes all on-screen bullets (very useful!).
That's enough for gameplay! For an extremely detailed description, the best source is this wonderful page.

Saying that Deathsmiles is reason enough to purchase a Japanese Xbox 360 is no understatement. It's beautiful, has a great soundtrack for its theme and will definitely provide endless hours of fun. Additional modes include versions 1.1 (a much more difficult game with different controlling aspects) and MBL (Mega Black Label, a downloadable version with an additional stage and an additional character, Sakura, boss of stage B2). The package is rounded up by a good deal of options for special adjustments, online play and replay saving, and the limited edition of the game includes an arrange soundtrack CD.

Here's my high score on the Xbox 360 mode, default difficulty (2), playing with Rosa in initial route B1-B2-A1-C2-C1-A2. B1 and A1 were played in rank level 2, with all others in rank level 3 and Extra stage included. The best thing about it is that I feel I can still improve a lot!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Darius Alpha (PC Engine)

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

Collectors are a strange breed indeed. I am one of them, and I know that my hobby sometimes makes people around me wonder if I'm too wound up in this neverending gaming infatuation. You realize that things have reached a new plateau in your collecting habit when, as a shmup collector, you get to the point where you can say something like "I own Darius Alpha".

I say that because Darius Alpha is not only the rarest PC Engine game ever released, but also one of the rarest games ever. It was manufactured in extreme low quantities in Japan, being granted only to those who purchased both Darius Plus and Super Darius and mailed the publisher the attached special coupons. In result, there are only two categories of people who would be crazy enough to go after it these days: the hardcore collectors (the ones who don't collect to play but buy as an investment instead) and the hardcore Darius lovers. Those who have read some of my takes on the series will immediately know which category I belong to, so it's unnecessary for me to once again pledge my appreciation for everything Darius.

Tiat Young isn't in the game, but pays a visit to represent Proco Jr.

Forget about branching paths and space/sea environments here. This game is simply a boss rush, a progression of 16 straight boss battles based off the engine from Darius Plus. Presentation is bare bones, with just a title screen that alternates with the high score table. The Silver Hawk starts its journey with no power-ups, but these are automatically applied to the spaceship after each defeated boss, first in sets of 3 but soon in sets of 1 orb for each power-up category (missile/bomb/arm). I would've loved to see the names of the bosses appear on the screen as in other Darius games, but here you don't even get the famous WARNING messages. Shoot, kill, power-up, repeat. Simplicity is inversely proportional to how rare the HuCard is.

I had no trouble at all beating Darius Alpha. In my first run I was stopped by My Home Daddy, a creature that's as nasty as its stupid name. In the second run I cleared the game without dying, taking advantage of my previous experience from playing the other ports of the original Darius. I guess it isn't that easy for someone who never played them, so I don't feel all comfortable in calling it a walk in the park. Darius fans will certainly devise a higher fun factor than casual players, but even for them the experience should feel short and nothing more than an extremely expensive guilty pleasure. There's no difference in audio, however owners of the Supergrafx console are supposed to see graphical improvements when running the game.

The battle against the almighty Tough Spring

Let me now share some of my thoughts about the bosses:
  • 1. King Fossil - Classic and iconic first boss that's actually not as wimpy as some others in the game. Avoid staying in front of him with no space to dodge, and destroy his upper and lower fins for point bonuses.
  • 2. Electric Fan - One of the easiest bosses ever, and a recurring presence in the series.
  • 3. Big Rajarnn - The uppermost part of the screen is a safe spot against his attacks. He gives a hint to when he's about to shoot, in a subtle improvement from the Darius Plus mold.
  • 4. Little Stripes - Since he appears really early here, it seems his rock-splitting attack got easier to avoid. Again, his fins are worth a good deal of points.
  • 5. Dual Shears - He's frightening, but don't fear. Stay on the top hitting him with the "twin" missiles. When both his claws are gone target his mouth.
  • 6. Guard Savage - He fires 3 consecutive fast but easily dodgeable blasts from his mouth before homing on you. Just don't stay put and you'll be OK.
  • 7. Red Crab - Target his big claw heavily, beware of the spreading pattern and stay low to avoid the yellow lasers. His homing bubbles are not hard to dispatch.
  • 8. Hard Mollusc - It's good to stay just below the line of his mouth, concentrating first on his tentacles. Don't go up, or the lasers will crush you.
  • 9. Tough Spring - Visually impressive, this one needs a good beating with lots of dodging in the lower part of the screen. Priority should go to the small drones he leaves on the ground when halting for a second.
  • 10. Keen Bayonet - Going up and down is the best way to obliterate him. Avoid getting slow in the upper part, because those blue lasers are deadly.
  • 11. My Home Daddy - Definitely the most treacherous boss in the game in my opinion (it's him in the game cover). He throws a lightning bolt from his tail with almost no signal at all, and it's really hard to evade safely with all those bullets popping up from below. The good news is that after the bolt source is gone he's not much of a threat anymore.
  • 12. Mystic Power - Again, close to his mouth line is where you oughta be. The yellow arch swings back after leaving the screen, but other than that there's no severe menace.
  • 13. Fire Star - From here on, all bosses are large and impressive. The first parts to be taken down here are the 5 tips, then it becomes a really easy kill.
  • 14. Green Coronatus - His bullets are fast, and it's pretty much better to avoid them by going up and down while paying attention to the laser from his tail.
  • 15. Octopus - His tentacles shoot nasty bullets everywhere. By then you should be good at dodging, and if you didn't die the wave weapon will do the rest for you.
  • 16. Cuttle Fish - He's got a series of deadly attacks, but good anticipation, vertical movement and careful dodging should do the work.
As usual, don't take too long to beat any of the bosses, or you'll be disturbed by the homing rotating cubes.

Besides the main game, Darius Alpha offers a time attack "pseudo-caravan" mode of 4 minutes. It's activated by pressing SELECT instead of RUN in the PCE controller, but it's sort of pointless because there isn't a separate high score table for this mode. My high scores are shown below, both for the main game (table) and for the time attack mode (to the left of T- 0:00).