Thursday, December 23, 2010

Papillon Gals (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Joy Van (Sachen)
Published by Kinema Music in 1989

Oh my, the pleasure (?) of digging into obscure stuff... It's always a risky endeavor, for you never know where you'll be getting at. The world of unlicensed games isn't what we could call a superb exploration field, but once you start checking out stuff you can definitely expect to find in the least cool subjects for conversation. Sachen, one of the most prolific unlicensed developers for the NES, is often bashed and trashed by critics and gamers alike, and with good reason. After savoring the wonders of - aham - Metal Fighter and reading a bit about the company's history, I figured I could try another shmup made by them just to take advantage of this brief thrill of mine. And the chosen one was Papillon Gals, also known as Galactic Crusader in the US.

Now let me get one thing straight up front: Papillon Gals is a hentai themed shmup. As far as I know, it's the only one of its kind on the Famicom. I say Famicom because, apparently, all hentai references were removed for the USA release of Galactic Crusader, which makes the Japanese version the obvious choice both for collectors and shmuppers. Papillon is a French word that means "butterfly", which is the shape of the ship/character and makes the western title stupid because the in-game sprites were not changed and still resemble a space butterfly (Mothra, perhaps?). The title screen of the Japanese cartridge only displays Pappilon, and this makes me think that the "Gals" might have been added to the box art after someone in the company had the clever idea of inserting the hentai pictures in the game, sadly with no one around to revise the title screen.

Godzilla prepare! I'm coming for you, you slimy ├╝berdeveloped lizard!

Papillon Gals starts out against a pretty basic background, and you'd better get used to it. All levels are just the same star-filled black void punctuated by little planets or meteors of various colors. Additionally, you'd better get used to the tunes on the first stage because even though the music fits the action well they just won't change for all subsequent levels. The good news is that these observations are the only criticism I have to say about the game. Papillon Gals is surprisingly fresh on the gameplay front, drawing heavy inspiration from two classics of the genre in order to deliver a fairly decent challenge rush.

Initially equipped with a single pea shot, the huge butterfly must destroy waves and waves of all sorts of enemies, and here comes its first influence: Galaga. Most but not all of the threats will arrive in several different formations, presenting danger both by shooting and by moving erratically on screen, and the influence goes even further with the same sound effects from Galaga's beeps and shots. The butterfly will shrink as it gets hit, reaching minimum size after two hits and dying on the 3rd hit. However, it will grow again upon grabbing the appropriate regeneration icon. Every time the butterfly is hit it also loses one power-up level for whatever weapon it's using. These weapons are changed by taking colored capsules: red (laser), blue (straight shot), yellow (revolving shot) and orange (wave). All of them have three levels of power, accessed by sticking to the same capsule. Taking a different capsule will activate the new weapon at its initial power level.

The second big influence of the game comes with the docking pod. And, of course, I'm speaking of R-Type. Sometimes a slow enemy will arrive - kill it and avoid the spiral bullets to safely collect the pod. This is when the other button in the controller becomes functional, as it can be used to summon the pod and detach it both up and down. This pod shoots an additional stream of bullets and also protects against incoming enemy fire, disappearing as soon as you get hit. It also has a second power level, obtained when you get the pod icon twice. A weapon winning combo for me was having a level 2 pod with level 3 lasers with a mid-sized ship (the big butterfly is too large to avoid the enemy onslaught).

A butterfly fights for peace in the galaxy!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Who would have guessed that an unlicensed shooter could have such rich gameplay? On top of that, every stage has a unique set of enemies. Collision detection is very well implemented, slowdown only sets in during a few seconds in heavier parts and I didn't notice any flicker. The first couple of bosses are easy but they offer quite a fight later in the game - the overall difficulty isn't very high but it's not a piece of cake either (take advantage of the occasional 1UPs and the blinking invincibility capsule, it lasts almost 15 seconds!). You don't see your score while playing, but every killed enemy is converted into points after the boss is beaten.

And what of the hentai? You only start seeing it after you beat the 3rd stage. One lady will show up alone in a sexy position for half a minute (unskippable) for each defeated boss. And that's it. I just wish I could understand what they say in those word balloons... If you're able to accept the poor background graphics and the lack of music variety, Papillon Gals is definitely worth checking out. It's the best unlicensed shmup I have played so far, and I've played a few already. It's better than a handful of regularly licensed NES games and gameplaywise it ranks really well amongst the ones in the high tier.

And here's my 1CC high score!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Metal Fighter (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Joy Van (Sachen)
Published by Color Dreams in 1989

What are the impressions you get when you hear about a game called Metal Fighter? With such a name I thought it would probably be a badass crazy robot shooter, with beeps and clanks all over the place as you fight successive hordes of mechanical foes. The truth couldn't be more far from that, as Metal Fighter on the NES is nothing like it. According to the story in the manual, you are MCS-920 aka Metal Fighter, and as you return home from three centuries of intergalactic missions you get caught by surprise with an alien infested planet. Okay, now I get it! I'm actually a badass robot who needs to do some house cleaning even though my MF rank qualifies me for much grander and more honorable intergalactic missions.

Well, I guess that's a valid way to see it, right?

Metal Fighter is an unlicensed game, one of many that were made for the NES by infamous rogue developer Sachen. Surprisingly, the expected low quality aspects of such a product don't show up right away, since there's nothing really wrong or terribly off with the game. It is as generic as they come for NES standards, lacking any flair that could make it stand out (except for its cool name) and catering for masochistic audiences or bored people with no expectations whatsoever. I guess I'm a little bit of both in this case.

A laser-shooting metal bird cruises the urban landscape

The first thing I noticed when I started playing Metal Fighter is the design of the main character. It's supposed to be a robot, but in my eyes it just looks like a bird. A big-headed humming bird to be exact. I guess the idea of playing a precursor do Sega 32X's Kolibri is what ultimately attracted me to the game. And this 8-bit bird is so primitive that it must first learn to fly before it can actually do something! The very first item released by destroying a weapon capsule is the letter F, which allows the character to take flight and relinquish the jump 'n shoot abilities he starts with. Therefore, when flying the second button in the controller (used to jump) is rendered useless.

In order to deal with all incoming threats, our bird is able to shoot left and right. He can charge the shot for a supposedly more powerful blast, but this attack has almost no advantage at all over regular firing. Further weapon capsules will release different kinds of items. S is for speed-up, while all others will send the hero to a separate room so that he can fight a clone robot for the rights of taking his weapon (much like the special robot fights of Atomic Robo-Kid). These weapons are: M for a short-range 360┬║ multi-shot, D for a set of double straight lasers, L for a set of three
bouncing lasers and U for an auxiliary orb that's placed above the character and fires an additional regular shot. Getting weapons M, D and L overrides the previously used weapon, and each duel against a clone restores one dot in the health meter. Getting the same weapons again won't result in any upgrade at all.

The health meter starts with three dots, which means you can take 3 hits before dying. There are 3 lives upon game start, and score-based extends are given for every 30.000 points. All of these amenities make for an easy challenge once you have figured out enemy patterns and how to kill bosses quickly. Due to the character's ability to shoot both ways, some of them can be slaughtered from behind, but it's important to notice that
being touched by a boss means instant death. Another minor advantage on the player's side is that the upgrade orb placed above the character absorbs enemy bullets. And even though the game has checkpoints, they don't seem to send you any further back in the stage.

Oh my, why is it so damn hard to get that F icon so that I can fly?
(courtesy of YouTube user mistyfreak)

While noticeably poor overall, Metal Fighter can be mildly fun because it gets kind of intense in later levels, without being unfair. Graphics lack detail and enemy design is totally
uninspired (with the exception of some bosses), but the existing parallax adds a fine dynamic characteristic to all levels, which take place in several different environments. This variety, however, isn't enough to avoid the game being repetitive. You have to endure the same eastern-flavored song for all stages, but thankfully it's not grating to the ears.

In my runs I came accross some bugs, such as all of a sudden not being able to fire the regular shot, or dying without being hit by nothing during a boss battle. Behold,
at last some real traits of unlicensed material! Each of these bugs happened only once, so they weren't that critical. What's more disturbing for me are the total lack of score buffering and the fact that your health/score isn't displayed when you're fighting a clone or some of the bosses. Furthermore, destroying bosses doesn't give you any points, so the maximum possible score is the one you get prior to battling the 7th and last boss.

And that's the exact moment shown in the picture!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mars Matrix (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Capcom in 2001

I always hear from naive onlookers that bullet hell shooters are "all the same". Besides, you always get comments such as "impossible", "too hard to be fun" and "stupid". There are two sad misconceptions here, in that (1) they are not the same at all and (2) they are definitely not impossible. The point I'm trying to make is that underneath all the fear Mars Matrix instills in eager and not-so-eager shmupping hearts lies an engaging and addictive shooter, one whose scoring system is an excellent example of how to infuse the genre with a tough yet flexible gameplay concept. It's a natural evolution of the ideas originally created in Giga Wing, and in my opinion it stands as a golden staple of bullet hell design.

The Dreamcast port of the arcade game is a perfect conversion that seems to have improved the original material by slightly rebalancing scoring details, excluding the possibility of counterstop and adding a control functionality that takes away the pressure of doing everything with just one button. Theoretically the game can still be played by using a single button, but on the Dreamcast the piercing cannon (a powerful burst of energy) is mapped to a different button with built-in autofire. To use it in the original control scheme you have to press the fire button once and wait a little bit to do it again, whereas tapping it will result in the regular main shot. Furthermore, holding down the button will activate the mosquito function, a vortex that makes you invincible and absorbs all incoming bullets. While active, the mosquito vortex empties an energy gauge and ends up in two different ways: either you hold the button until this gauge is depleted, triggering a GHB explosion (Gravity Hole Bomb), or you release the button before the gauge is depleted and cast away all absorbed bullets. The longer you hold down the button the longer it takes for the mosquito attack to be available again.

All attack basics are covered in the previous paragraph, but the best way to use them is a whole different story. It's okay to play the game just shooting, piercing and absorbing bullets, never mind all those shiny golden cubes that fall from defeated enemies and reflected bullets that hit them. However, these same cubes are the core aspect of scoring and, to a certain degree, survival.

Mosquito 1 absorbing bullets for great justice

Going beyond the basic mechanics of shooting and dodging, focusing on golden cubes opens up a whole new world for Mars Matrix players. Each collected cube gives you a chaining window - shown by a dynamic bar below your score counter - and if you collect another cube before this window expires its value is added to the chain, which in turn keeps going with a new time window. All values from chained cubes add to the EXP counter, which is then used as a permanent multiplier to be applied over everything you're able to kill. Cubes come is several sizes and grant from 1 EXP to 50 EXP points, which equals 1 second to 8 seconds of chain time. Chain value is always displayed in tiny numbers for each cube you collect, and the challenge during most of the game is to keep the chain going to reach higher EXP values faster. After all, a valuable extra life is awarded with 100.000 EXP and ship/shot upgrades are only given upon reaching certain EXP values (up to level 8 with 1,6M EXP). Note: the only other extend is achieved by killing the mid-boss in the 4th stage.

EXP is so important in this game that after I while I just measured my performance by it instead of the actual score, which by all means is a consequence of the EXP value. There came a point, for instance, where I wouldn't be satisfied with less than 400.000 EXP by the end of the 1st stage. Mars Matrix is also special as a shooter because you don't die by colliding with enemies. You can fly over everything, from rocks to bosses, and you only die when hit by a bullet. Both available ships behave slightly different from each other: Mosquito 1 (orange) is slower but has a spread shot pattern, and Mosquito 2 (blue) is faster but comes with a straight shot. M1 is definitely better for survival, while M2 offers more possibilities for scoring as a compensation for being the hardest ship to control. Due to their different speeds, each one demands slightly different strategies for chaining.

What I love most about this game, especially in comparison with other danmaku titles, is how flexible the gameplay and the scoring system are. There's no defined route, every run can be made different from the other, there's always room for improvement. If I screw up during a chain it's not impossible to recover, even at the expense of losing some cubes. However, if I deviate just a little bit in a game like DoDonPachi I immediately lose my whole chain... The feeling of standing up against the odds in Mars Matrix is also amazingly conveyed by the overwhelming bullet count. In the last stage it's like all enemies are gateways to a pressurized parallel dimension, spewing bullets like uncontrollable fountains as if the universe was about to consume itself in chaos because the gates of hell were opened. It's a thing of beauty and it's mesmerizing just to watch someone playing it, let alone play it yourself.

Expert play: how to not break the cube chain during the whole 1st stage (MAME)
(courtesy of YouTube user apatia77)

There isn't really any rank in the game, it just gets increasingly brutal regardless of how many lives you lose. On the other hand, dying won't power down the ship at all, it will merely break any ongoing chain. The game does respond to the player's actions in a dynamic way, meaning when some enemies are killed very fast new ones will take their places. This can lead to lots of extra opportunities for chaining, including some precious cube fountains to considerably boost the EXP counter. Every stage has a unique feel to it, as well as secrets for scoring better. Lots of practice are needed in order to maximize the results from memorization, strategy and those split-second decisions required for higher chains and scores. As of the time of this writing I can get full chains in stages 1 and 5 and do some decent chaining in stages 2 and 4, but I totally suck in stage 3. Chaining in stage 6? Forget it!

My preferred method of playing the game on the Dreamcast is to use only two buttons: the auto-piercing cannon (R) and the normal shot (A). I don't need autofire for the normal shot (X) because when I need it I just tap A - most of the time A is just used to activate the mosquito vortex anyway. Besides, A overruns R, which overruns X, thus making X hard to use and ultimately useless.

Even though the graphics in Mars Matrix aren't what could be considered top notch, stage layouts are really diverse and provide the perfect arena for an outstanding shooting experience. Seeing those beautiful bullet patterns amidst the falling plethora of cubes is what pumps up the graphical qualities of the game, which almost never slows down. When I first started playing I wasn't really fond of the offbeat techno soundtrack, but as expected when you spend so much time with a game I grew to like it. The Dreamcast port is often praised for the inclusion of a great animated intro and a neat package of "extras". All of them have to be purchased, based on the amount of points you have scored. There are extra lives, more credits (eventually free play), extra modes, score attack for all levels (great for practice), sample expert gameplay for all levels (watch & learn!), art galleries and a handful of special tweaks to alter practically all gameplay mechanics.

My new 1CC high score was achieved with Mosquito 2 in full defaults (diff. 4). Such an epic run for me: 1.411.529.390.060 points, 2.854.230 EXP. It's an improvement of approximately 83% over my previous 1CC high score with Mosquito 1.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Panorama Cotton (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Sunsoft in 1994

Panorama Cotton has several distinctions within the Cotton series of games. It's exclusive to the Mega Drive, it's one of the rarest titles for the console and unlike most chapters it eschews the horizontal scrolling and makes that cute little witch fly into the screen in an on-rails adventure, a concept that would be later revisited in Rainbow Cotton for the Dreamcast. Due to its rarity, Panorama Cotton is often hailed as one of the holy grails for Mega Drive collectors (especially if the teacup is included in the package), and is deemed by some as one of the most impressive technical achievements on Sega's 16-bit platform. In the past, whenever I thought about this I couldn't help but wonder if the game actually lived up to its hype.

A few days ago a had another go at the game, in order to relax a bit from the evil clutches of Master of Weapon and as a bridge between the first chapters and the subsequent sequels released for the Sega Saturn. I was also willing to top my previous 1CC high score, and I was able to get roughly a 10% improvement on it.

The greatest asset in Panorama Cotton is that it transports all gameplay aspects from the previous horizontal titles in the series to a frenetic, fast paced rail shooter scheme. Nothing is lost or neglected. Everything is there, from colored crystals and magic spells to the fairy sidekick that can be tossed forwards by holding the fire button. And let's not forget about the teatime shower bonus!

How did I end up on the outside?

With all things in place and having played it to the fullest, I feel obliged to say that Panorama Cotton is a bit overrated. I firmly believe that most of the praise the game gets, as far as technical excellence goes, is derived from people playing and being amazed by the scaling in the first stage alone. You see, as Cotton the witch approaches the ground and a rainbow-like river/road scrolls smoothly from inside the screen it's hard not to be impressed by the effect. The problem is that this is the coolest part of the game, and it is never topped or equaled for the rest of the following five stages. Sure they remain colorful, varied and filled with all kinds of creatures and obstacles, but the overall scaling effect isn't much better than what you get in other rail shooters in the system. One example is that I prefer the scaling results in Burning Force, even though that game doesn't even come close to Panorama Cotton in charm value.

So what we all have here is another cute adventure with the red-haired witch who's obsessed with those candies called Willows. It should please both Cotton fans and casual gamers/shmuppers alike, provided they don't expect the out-of-this-world experience many people make it out to be. Just like in previous Cotton games, there are lots of cut scenes with what seems to be very goofy Japanese dialogue. The music remains faithful to its roots, with upbeat compositions and at least a couple of stand-out tunes.

Shooting is pretty basic with semi-autofire enabled, in that pressing and holding the button will fire a short continuous bullet burst. If the button is held longer Silk the fairy is summoned and tossed forwards as you release it (this is a pretty useless attack by the way). The basic shot gets stronger with time and as long as you don't get hit, but it does power up faster if you get yellow crystals. All other crystal colors provide magic spells and are piled up in a 6-slot LIFO stack: blue activates a series of rotating orbs, red creates a homing dragon and green replaces the main shot with a series of missiles (avoid!). And here comes one of the major gripes of the gameplay... Crystals approach the character automatically if you stay put, but if you shoot them they bounce back and change colors - therefore, in order to get a crystal you have to stop shooting and stop moving, which is counterproductive both for survival and scoring (it's possible to get them while moving, though it isn't easy). Furthermore, lots of crystals on screen get really troublesome in busy sections because they stand in the way and block you from hitting enemies.

Opening, dialogue and 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user jinjinnim)

New to the gameplay is the selection of three scrolling speeds in the Z axis with the A button - you can't really move around any faster. Higher speeds can lead to a better time bonus at the end of the stage, but make dodging a bit harder. They're only mandatory as you chase the final boss in its last form, otherwise I recommend going slow all the time. As usual, you can score higher if you dodge all the teacups in the teatime bonus part, but here this is a lot more difficult to pull off due to the scaling effect not being really acurate. Strangely enough, teacups fall normally from the top during the last teatime shower... Why couldn't they have done this for all stages?

Panorama Cotton comes with a perfect length, with all five stages being comprised of various distinct sections. The game is on the easy side because there are initially 6 energy cells, and a new one is gained for every 50.000 points. Fun factor is enriched by nice touches such as direction changes that make you fly sideways/diagonally or a few parts where you're offered the choice to fly through alternate paths, complete with different graphics and enemies. Some transitions between different settings are awesome - I love the descent between the clouds in the last stage. Upon beating the game you unlock Silk as a playable character in both the main game and the score attack mode, it's just a shame that she's gone as soon as you power off the console!

And here's my 1CC high score on NORMAL:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Zanac (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by FCI in 1986

In shmup history, Compile stands as a company that’s both ditched by some and missed by others. Almost all of their shmups were extremely faithful to a very specific design concept, one that involves fast paced action and a plethora of weapons, but also very long stages/games and a presumed lack of challenge. Fan conflicts aside, I do enjoy variety in my shmups and I think Compile’s catalog is very much capable of standing on its own, even though I haven’t played it much. In order to fill this gap in my shmup education I finally decided to start my Compile journey by playing Zanac, for all purposes their first shmup released for a mainstream video game console.

Zanac was originally a MSX game, which was then reworked and tweaked for the NES. It established the whole feel most of Compile’s future shmups would have, but it is also a landmark for the NES itself due to the boldness of its programming: the game generates enemies based on which weapons you're using and how well you perform. This isn't quite like common rank, where the game just gets progressively harder as it unfolds. In Zanac enemies respond instantaneously to the player's actions - aggression level can reach overwhelming heights if you decide to take, for instance, special weapon 2. Most amazing is the fact that everything is so well done that there's practically no slowdown, in an excellent showcase of how to successfully design a shooter in such an early, theoretically limited platform.

Is that cheese? Am I flying over the moon?

It will be hard to remember any of the graphical aspects in this game for a number of reasons. Even if the length of stages varies throughout, this is a long experience that can get tiresome depending on how it's faced. Graphics in general aren't elaborated, it's pretty much an endless series of open space landscapes with no obstacles and wide variations in color. However, they always scroll very fast, which adds to the feeling of intensity primarily provided by the AI. The music is much better represented though, with catchy tunes that kept my blood pumping for the action most of the time. Some of them are borderline epic!

So what makes this one of the best and most impressive NES shooters out there? Gameplay! Weapons! Intensity! Fair challenge! Zanac's ship can fire two kinds of weapons. The basic shot is upgraded by taking the so-called power chips from boxes that appear after a certain number of enemies is killed. The catch is that to achieve maximum power on the basic shot you have to hold on to the same special weapon. Changing it to any of the other seven special weapons resets the power chip counter to a lower level. Special weapons are numbered from 0 (default) to 7, and appear after destroying ground bunkers or special carriers that arrive from the top and hover on screen for a little while before disappearing. To increase their power you just have to keep getting the same number, and when you switch to a new weapon everything's back to the default level. Playing with all of them is mandatory to check which one suits best your style or serves a particular stage better - my favorites were type 7 (forward shot that bends slightly to the sides as you move), type 5 (back-and-forth energy ball that evolves into a mean piercing laser) and type 0 (yes, the default weapon is actually pretty decent). With the exception of type 0, all of them have limited/timed ammo.

As a rule of thumb, the more defensive the special weapon is the more aggressive the game gets. Special weapon 2 is hardly an option if you want to keep things safe and avoid death by sheer outnumbering. As if the game didn't have enough substance already, it also tosses in a respectable set of details and tricks that make a huge difference if you want to go the whole way and clear Zanac on one credit. These include stage warping, smart bombing, fairy uncovering (no, not like Raiden!), split-second invincibility windows and special enemies that allow for ways to power up faster. Figuring these out on your own could take ages, so my advice is that you head over to the great Strategywiki page on the game and read at least the sections about weapons and the walkthrough for the 1st stage. The hints displayed in these specific pages are invaluable and DO make a difference.

Expert play of Zanac's stage 10
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

I feel that Zanac is one of those shmups that have a sharp gameplay turning point. If the player's competent enough to survive the first couple of stages and power up wisely, the initially steep challenge becomes perfectly manageable. It still takes a lot of effort in getting familiar with enemy attack patterns and better ways to deal with mid-bosses and boss fortresses (destroy the round turrets first!), but in the end practice and persistence are rewarded with one of the best shooting experiences it's possible to be had on the NES. Want more motivation? How about a very generous extend scheme? A first extend comes with 20.000 points, a second one with 80.000 points and then an extra life for every 80.000 points! Do you picture yourself having 40 or 50 ships in stock? Well, in Zanac you can! It's very reasonable to say that Zanac stands as as a true highlight of the 8-bit shmup era. In a nutshell, it's difficult without being unfair, you hardly notice any flicker, there's no slowdown of any kind, scrolling is smooth and hit detection is flawless.

Once the game is beaten it halts in the following screen until you press START. There's my humble 1CC high score!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shoot 1UP (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mommy's Best Games
Published by Mommy's Best Games in 2010

Shmups are by definition a relatively simple genre with solid, etched-in-stone rules that are unfortunately also a grounding for the noobish belief that these are stagnated games, with little or absolutely no room for innovation. However, every once in a while there comes a game whose content fiercely defies the norm, expanding the established standards in ways rarely or never seen before. Shoot 1UP is one such game because it subverts one of the well known genre foundations - the 1UP, also known as the "extra life" - in order to provide a fresh new look at how a shmup should be played. In essence, here you don't control just one single ship. In Shoot 1UP you control your whole spaceship stock in a massive destructive phalanx.

In a great number of shoot'em ups the extend or extra life is the most cherished prize you can get from the game, above power-ups, speed-ups or whatever upgrades you might get for the ship. Sometimes remaining lives will be converted into valuable points upon game completion (Mushihimesama original), sometimes they're necessary for that last stage or final fight against a dreadfully cheap last boss (Acrobat Mission) and sometimes they play an integral part in the game's strategy (Battle Garegga), but mostly it's just damn good to know we've got that extra chance that helps us go the distance. The good news is that in Shoot 1UP you get plenty of them. And they become instantly controllable, joining your armada and increasing your firepower to crazy heights if you're capable of keeping them alive long enough.

Fear no evil and trust our almighty plasma auger, for we are many

As far as I know, this phalanx concept is unique to this charming indie shmup. Beyond the simplicity of the tiled graphics and the considerably short length, the highlight of this game lies completely in the nature of its gameplay. In all three main modes/difficulties you choose one type of ship (Caduceus or Ovoid) and start the journey with a phalanx of 3 ships. These ships can be grouped together or spread out with the shoulder buttons, and for tight spots it's also possible to use a "break" button to reduce speed. Whenever at least two ships get separated by a certain gap, the act of shooting for a few seconds will generate a huge central beam, the plasma auger. Its destructive force is proportional to the number of ships and the gap between them. Weapons upgrade automatically as you keep adding 1UPs to the phalanx, with the possibility to control a maximum of 30 ships.

The basics I described above are enough to enjoy the game, but there's more to it if you want to score higher. Depending on how enemies are destroyed they drop score tablets that have to be picked up for them to be added to the score. The value of a tablet is directly related to how you kill the enemy, and by far the biggest points are obtained from using the flash/burst shield. Whenever you stop shooting, a shield will materialize around all ships: pressing the shot button will make these shields explode, causing a huge amount of damage to everything within its radius. The resulting multiplier applied to destroyed enemies is proportional to how many of them are simultaneously killed and how many ships you have in the phalanx. The amount of points you can get from these shield attacks can be outrageous. In fact, after a while it changes the focus of Shoot 1UP completely - shooting becomes second nature to the shield attack, and only gets advantageous during boss fights or when you come across Mommy's Best Games pie, an icon that drops point tablets like crazy when hit with the plasma auger.

Each killed ship in the phalanx goes off in a big explosion and damages nearby enemies, also serving as a protection for the rest of the flock. The good thing is that if you keep scoring high new 1UPs are constantly appearing, so it's not really hard to rebuild the armada. You'll only see the GAME OVER screen if you lose your last ship. There are no CONTINUES in Shoot 1UP, but they aren't needed anyway. Bullet count only gets high in later stages and during boss fights, which are the most impressive graphical achievements of the game. All bosses are huge and detailed, covering most of the screen and leaving less and less room to evade and dodge. The boss that attracts most of the attention is the woman that shoots bullets from her mechanical boobs. Yeah, you read it right, but don't worry, it's quite tame material and she's not even the final boss.

Official launch trailer for Shoot 1UP
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user MommysBestGames)

Playing safe in any of the default modes often leads to an easy clear, even with the "drifting" effect that comes with a large fleet of over 20 ships (they get harder to control without breaking and contracting). For those who crave a tougher game, the developer did add a special option that doubles game speed for a much faster experience. If it's too hard, you can decrease the game speed down to 25%. Still on the subject of innovation, some of the extra ideas in Shoot 1UP work well, others not so much. The intermediate areas where you're offered the option to change scrolling direction are very cool. On the other hand, the scoring system feels a bit unbalanced with the whole burst shield gimmick, and I just wish there was an end-of-stage bonus. The special mode - entitled Score Trek - sees you in control of only one ship on a single life in increasingly harder stages/loops, with the game saving your progress for every beaten stage. Chilling purposes aside, it's a pretty useless mode for dedicated players because of the way it treats scoring.

The soundtrack is probably the least inspired aspect in Shoot 1UP. However, the overall result is excellent because it's a genuinely fun game, be it played solo or in co-op. It's a perfect fit for a relaxing session where you can play for an even higher score without much hassle, but there are also in-game trophies for those who value achievements. The inherent accessibility for both newcomers and score addicts is a big plus, and besides the great fun factor that's probably the main reason for its success within the indie community from Xbox Live.

While I was able to beat the game in all difficulty modes, my highest 1CC score was achieved on NORMAL with the Ovoid ship, default speed (100%):

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Super Nova (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 to 7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1993

And the Darius saga lives on in another chapter developed exclusively for a home console! Super Nova, known in Japan as Darius Force, is the second outing for the SNES and the direct follow-up to Darius Twin. Never mind the name change in the west, what matters is that Darius fans and non Darius fans are in for more of the same thrill that made the series famous: blast outer space evil fish to oblivion as you fight yet again to restore peace in the cosmos. What more motivation do you need anyway?

It’s perfectly understandable that this game was ignored back in the day due to the change in the title, but it’s hard to judge whether people who enjoyed Darius Twin will also enjoy Super Nova to the same extent. I’m on the fence here as to which one I prefer. Super Nova is a bastard entry in the series for a couple of reasons. Even though it was released two years after Twin, in my opinion the game does not carry any graphical improvement whatsoever. In fact, some might say the visuals are a step back from the colorful sprites of the previous effort. On the other hand, the idea of remixing concepts from both Darius and Darius II is taken a bit further, going deep into the realm of gameplay and providing a welcome alternative to the well known style defined by the chapters that came before it.

First of all, I was allowed to play with a green Silver Hawk! How cool is that? Upon starting a credit, you’re allowed to choose between three types of spaceships:
  • Type 1 (green): main weapon evolves to the final wave cannon reminiscent of Darius;
  • Type 2 (blue): main weapon evolves to the large glowing plasma pattern reminiscent of Darius II;
  • Type 3 (red): main weapon turns out to be to a brand-new cross-firing double laser, and in its final stage a series of straight-piercing lasers.
Should I stay or should I go?

Besides the different types of main weapon, all ships share a same secondary shot that’s selectable - with the R button - between bombs/missiles and laser. Super Nova is unique among other Darius chapters because using both main and auxiliary weapons at the same time reduces the firepower for each - as if splitting the available energy between both weapons. Therefore, at certain points it is advantageous to use only one of them in order to get better results.

The main shot for each type of ship is drastically different from each other, but there are also differences in how the auxiliary weapons evolve during the game. To increase shot power for both weapons you need to collect the red power-up. The blue power-up activates and upgrades the shield (green → silver → golden). The green power-up icon, which only appears during meteor showers, yields random points or 1UPs. There are no score-based extends, and no special considerations whatsoever for scoring. Killing complete enemy waves can result in some small bonuses, but this doesn’t happen all the time. An interesting side note might be the fact that all bosses give very few points. With no bonus for extra lives upon game completion, the implementation of checkpoints (the only console port to do so) makes Super Nova a victim of checkpoint-milking whenever you think about getting higher scores.

Smart bombs appear in two ways: either they explode or they provide a thick laser beam that lasts for 3 to 4 seconds, making the ship invincible. A trademark of the series, stage branching is arranged in a strange way here, meaning that it’s possible to beat the game by playing only five stages (just stick to the lower choices, route ACFIL). What happens is that every time you move up in the map you can’t come back down. Six stages are played by finishing the game in stage N, and seven by going all the way up and fighting final boss Galst Vic in stage O. Each final stage has a different ending, and my impression is that the game gets harder as you go up in the map.

Opening and stage A of Super Nova, also known as Darius Force
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

It’s not that hard to figure out why Taito pledged allegiance to the SNES and delivered not one, but two custom-made Darius games to the platform. The temptation of using the technical advantages the console offered (mode 7) was a wonderful development opportunity - in Super Nova it’s used to accomplish some neat rotation effects like those shown in stages C and J. However, there’s not much more when it comes down to style or eye candy. Backgrounds are for the most part quite drab, especially when you’re flying in one of the open space levels. Even with the coolness of Peace Destroyer and Galst Vic (bosses from stages H and O), as far as graphics go the game certainly stands as the least successful 16-bit Darius. Moreover, the screen fades when the boss WARNING message is displayed, contributing to the feeling of slow pacing both in-game and in-between stages. The soundtrack fares a bit better, though it doesn’t get really good until you reach the final stages. The song for stage M is great!

One thing that does stand out is the challenge factor. Thought not nearly as brutal as the likes of R-Type, the checkpoints in Super Nova help increase the focus in memorization and careful gameplay. All Silver Hawks were designed in a way that you never feel overpowered, and weird as it may seem the best choice for firepower is type 3. The large bosses are still the greatest visual asset, with decently varied attack patterns that are on the most part far from wimpy, at least until you figure them out. Milking bosses for extra points on those tiny missiles is a temptation, but beware of the time-out rotating cubes.

I did not do any checkpoint milking in my best 1CC run because I didn't lose any lives. Choosing route ABEHKMO, this is my 1-Life Clear final score for Super Nova, playing with the red Silver Hawk (type 3):

Monday, November 15, 2010

Layer Section (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1995

On the matter of games that hit the market with new, fresh ideas, RayForce is certainly one of the most mentioned. It is a natural evolution to the seminal style created by Xevious, where besides the main regular shot the ship is also capable to hit ground targets with a secondary weapon. RayForce's contribution lies in the generally named "lock-on" system, which allows the player to lock on multiple enemies and then unleash a single attack to damage them all. Although rather common place by today's standards, this was a quite unique feature back in 1993, when the original arcade machine was released. It was so endearing that its influence can be easily noticed in future titles, such as Raizing's Soukyugurentai.

Layer Section is the same as RayForce - the title was altered due to some obscure reasons upon release on the Japanese Sega Saturn. It would be again renamed as Galactic Attack for North American audiences, and it also bore the alternate title of Gunlock in European arcades. What a mess, really! If you stick to Taito's original arcade designation, the right name should indeed be RayForce, also having in mind that its sequels carry the "ray" part in the title as well. While RayForce saw an exclusive port for the Saturn as Layer Section, the sequel RayStorm was published for both the Saturn and the Playstation, with the subsequent prequel RayCrisis seeing the light of day only on the Playstation. Here's some more mess for us shmup fans to deal with!

The RVA-818 X-LAY

Aided by a nearly flawless execution, the whole idea behind the gameplay in Layer Section is irresistibly enticing. You have great 2D sprite work with excellent effects from start to finish, shit loads of multiple parallax levels (which is unusual for vertical shooters) and two layers of action - that's where the Saturn name for the game certainly comes from. The classic outer space setting immediately sucks you in, leaving you in awe and sheer anticipation for what's to come in later stages. Soon enough you learn that regular enemies are dealt with in the same plane as the spaceship. On the other hand, enemies located in the lower/deeper layer, such as tanks, bombers and all kinds of emerging threats, have to be targeted with the lock-on crosshair. Needless to say, the more enemies you have locked when you unleash the laser blast, the higher the score achieved. You can lock on to any on-screen target in the lower layer, but all lock-ons last for only five seconds. After that the lock-on is lost, so it's not always easy to get the maximum number of lock-ons for bigger points.

Initially you can lock on to a maximum of five enemies, but after getting the appropriate power-ups this limitation soon maxes out at eight. The main gun is powered up with red and yellow items. Three reds are needed to upgrade one power level, while only one yellow will upgrade one power level instantly. Maximum power is reached when the shot gets thick red. Surplus power-up items increase in 1.000 steps until they max out at 10.000 points each. During most of the game all power-ups are brought by floating harmless carriers or by destroying red colored enemies. Dying reduces only one level of each weapon, and the two available extends are obtained with 500.000 and one million points.

And that's it for gameplay. It's by all means pretty basic and pretty straightforward. In the land of Layer Section, however, appearances can be deceiving, and it doesn't take long for anyone to realize that this game is cruel. It's actually evil because it lures you into a situation where winning is an option for which the game will fight with you until the very last drop of blood you have in your shmup veins. In other words, be prepared for a fierce, almost unfair rank system. This is a tough beast to tame.

This is the control tower. Make a left turn. Over!
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

One example of how tricky the game gets is if you play well enough to get both extends before the 2nd stage ends. Enemies enter a sort of overdrive mode where they will increase attack speed and ratio, in an exceptionally aggressive effort to bring you down. It's as if the game got angry at you. It's not like the subtle difficulty increase of most games out there, here the challenge spikes really fast if you try to score decently and if you don't die. Dying softens things a bit, but later on it doesn't matter, things will get tougher regardless of life stock. Halfway into the game you'll certainly miss those dear smart bombs that are so helpful in saving our asses when we get cornered, but here there's no easy way out. In order to avoid being taken by surprise or getting horribly cornered it's mandatory to get used to the large hitbox and to hone the abilities to tap, to herd and to safely point blank, with careful and meticulous study of boss patterns and enemy spawning criteria. In Layer Section it isn't enough to dodge, you have to know where to stand and how to overcome the game's elusive AI. And even then, this is one case where I firmly believe you should be in the "zone" in order to have a chance at seeing the end on one credit.

I briefly mentioned above that Layer Section's execution is nearly flawless. This statement derives mostly from the soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with the music, but at the same time it isn't as memorable as the other aspects in the game, such as the graphics. Another minor complaint of mine is that part of the color palette of the 3rd stage feels awkward and makes some enemy lasers hard to see. Otherwise there's no doubt that this is a solid and extremely challenging shmup. The Saturn edition is packed with a TATE option and also the possibility to rotate the pad, which turns the game into a horizontal shooter (yuck!). The soundtrack is remixed and the original arcade music isn't included (not much difference here, really). I did notice that some game details are different when played in YOKO, such as a few missing animations and a shorter gap for the crosshair. Note: to toggle the HUD on and off and play with a cleaner screen just press the L button.

And below is my proud 1CC high score for Layer Section, played on NORMAL (YOKO). For my skill level it was plain epic, I had to go through the whole last stage on my last life!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fantasy Zone (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Reprogrammed/published by Sunsoft in 1987

I've come a long way since I started dedicating myself to shmupping. Back then I had never played any Fantasy Zone, and I didn't even know it had come out for the NES, Sega Master System's sworn enemy. It was a Sega game after all, why would it be released for the competition? Sega was definitely a software/arcade-oriented company before its console history started, that's why. You couldn't see, for instance, any of Nintendo's most famous franchises in other consoles, but that's a long and polemic story not suited to the scope of this blog.

Two versions of Fantasy Zone exist for Nintendo's 8-bit console. The best and most sought after is the Japanese one, reprogrammed and released by Sunsoft in 1987. The other one is an unlicensed version released by Tengen for the NES two years later in the west. My aim was always to get my hands on the Sunsoft Famicom cartridge, and this is the one I played these last few days. For the sake of a basic comparison, I've only seen a bit of the North American version through emulation, and indeed it is the inferior one. Besides the different hud, the biggest letdown is the washed out color palette, followed by an overall slower pace and unnecessary minor changes. If you have the chance to choose between these ports, don't bother to try out that one.

Opa Opa turns to the competition for some more surreal shooting action

On the Famicom, Fantasy Zone holds up surprisingly well. Gameplaywise it's on par with the Master System port, but it's also considerably more difficult. Opa-Opa still has to go through a set of increasingly harder stages shooting and dropping bombs against enemy generators and huge bosses. He can
can go left and right and walk on the ground, halting screen scrolling while doing so. The basic idea in every stage is to kill all generators first and then go for the boss. In order to make the journey possible, get coins from defeated enemies to increase the money counter and buy items from the shop balloon that floats on screen from time to time. There are several levels of speed-ups, several main shot types, several bomb variations and even extra lives. Prices in the shop increase drastically as you keep buying more of the same items. Special weapons are all temporary, and dying strips you off of everything you have bought so far.

Everybody knows that one of the trademarks in this game is the multitude of colors, and it's good to see that the Famicom port preserves this even with its limited color specs (when compared to the SMS). I guess I could bitch a little about collision detection, especially when I remember the tentacles of that dreaded 4th boss, but it wouldn't be fair because the game is just plain tough. It doesn't have any autofire, so you have to tap that button hard in order to stand a chance against some of the trickiest bosses. Talking about bosses, they are all preserved from the arcade original, so this makes the Famicom version overall more faithful than the much loved Master System port (which replaces the 4th and 6th bosses for counterparts that are
less demanding for the hardware). Another aspect that makes the Famicom port more faithful is the radar that tells the player the number/location of generators, which is absent in the SMS. In both versions, however, generator damage is not shown at all.

Stages Dolimicca, Polaria and Mockstar pulverized with the help of autofire
(courtesy of YouTube user GMIX6809)

I had a much harder time clearing the game on the Famicom than on the Master System. I have the feeling the game is slightly faster with more random enemy attacks, and the absence of a device to get permanent upgrades demanded some exquisite strategies to get past later bosses. For example, I had to rely on buying multiple shot upgrades and correctly time the appearance of the SEL balloon (it's just like the shop, but only to switch/select weapons) with the destruction of the last generator in order to succesfully beat the expanding boss (7th). As usual, there's a great end bonus waiting for the player once the game loops.

All in all, NES fans don't need to despair. Japanese Fantasy Zone is a great little game that besides a reduced number of colors isn't in any way inferior to the more famous Master System port (or the PC Engine's for that matter). And the music is as catchy as ever. If you're a fan of Opa-Opa, you can go after this blindfolded.

Here's my final score, reaching stage 2 of the 2nd loop while playing with no autofire/turbo at all:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heavy Weapon (Playstation Network)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
19 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by PopCap Games
Published by Sony Online Entertainment in 2009

It's interesting to see reactions from modern gamers when they're exposed to such an old school shooter such as Heavy Weapon. Initially indifferent to how you're just allowed to move left and right and shoot, soon enough they realize it's actually "quite fun" and end up having a great time with it. I know I did, but I'm totally biased because I love (real) shooters. And this little, unpretentious title is definitely one of the most fun I ever had the chance to play in the so called downloadable portfolio of modern video game consoles. Don't take the simplicity for granted here, give this a chance and I assure you'll be exposed to a nicely designed, extremely fun and even quite challenging game.

Heavy Weapon was born on the Windows PC, being later ported to PSN, XBLA and Qualcomm/Tectoy's Zeebo, also appearing in retail compilations available for the PS2 and the Xbox 360. Despite the flashy albeit cutesy, simple HD graphics, it is infused with the same classic gameplay created decades ago by Taito for its Space Invaders series. This means you're only allowed to move along a horizontal line, shooting upwards to score and survive. However, the developer did something very simple that immensely enhances this basic idea: they added background scrolling. The resulting sensation of movement is a delight, and added to the small funny details and the intensity of the gameplay (imagine Air-Sea Battle on steroids) it helps to create the perfect scenario for a casual shmupping session. Casual because it's incredibly easy to grasp and also because it uses a simple twin stick control scheme - move the tank with the left stick, aim and shoot by moving the right stick.

Give me my megalaser, dammit!

An "atomic tank" stars as the hero craft, fighting an enormous amount of enemies in order to defeat communist forces that threaten to overrule the world. Initially there are 9 stages to go through, but once these are finished you're told it was just a diversion, and that the real deal is about to begin when you have to go through everything all over again with many, many more enemies. Once all 9 extra stages are finished you finally face the 19th and last level of mayhem and chaos in the Red Star HQ. In between stages you're given the chance to activate/upgrade one of the available special weapons: defense orbs, homing missiles, laser, rockets, flak cannon and homing thunderstrike. Each one of them can be powered up three times, and choosing which ones to improve first is important for survival early in the game.

Every level consists of a campaign whose length is displayed in the upper map. In all campaigns a white helicopter carrier will go by releasing items, and this is the only aircraft you're not supposed to kill - if you do you're penalized and lose some points, being deprived of a part of the end of stage bonus as well. The items left by the helicopter and sometimes by killed enemies consist of spread shot (until you get 5 streams), speed-up (1 level only), rapid fire (increases fire rate slightly), gun power-up (1 level only), nuke (smart bomb), shield upgrade and 25% of megalaser. Nukes, which are deployed with the R2 button, can be stocked up to three. A huge temporary megalaser is activated once you get four megalaser items. With the exception of the power-up helicopter, it will kill everything in the screen instantly regardless of size or power level (unfortunately it's impossible to reach the bosses with an active megalaser).

Shield upgrades increase the number of shots the tank can withstand before dying (not to be mistaken with defense orbs). Every life starts with one shield and the tank is able to accumulate two more, thus making for a 3-hit shield when this aspect is maxed out. The catch is that there's no explicit way to tell how many shields you have left. The only indication is the green "aura" surrounding the tank: the greenest it is, the strongest the shield. If there's no green aura at all you're 1 hit away from being obliterated. When you die you never lose the upgrades applied before starting a mission, but you do lose all items collected within a stage. Besides this, Heavy Weapon is very generous because it always gives reinforcements if you lose up to two lives in a stage, meaning you always start a mission with three lives. When a mission/stage is completed, debriefing will tell and grant score bonuses depending on kill percentage (anything below 100% will cut this bonus in half), friendly fire (don't kill white helicopters) and survival (don't lose any lives).

Prepare for battle! The action starts in Tundra Flats!
(courtesy of YouTube user techmonsterz)

I really think it's amazing how much fun it's possible to be had with such a simple game concept, and in this sense Heavy Weapon exceeded all expectations I might have had regarding downloadable games (it was one of the first games I downloaded after all). It starts out really easy, but it's a mistake to think it will remain like this. As the game progresses it adds new enemies, all of them with new attack patterns. While the first stage is very short, all subsequent stages are lengthier and certainly contribute to make Heavy Weapon a long game, thus incurring in potential repetition. However, when stage 10 starts the number and the multiple combination of enemies literally go through the roof, so you'd better have honed by then the art of dealing with all kinds of attacks if you want to avoid dying in a horrible explosion. Continuing is possible, but trust me when I say that aiming for the 1CC will require a few number of credits in order to maximize the chances of survival and master the techniques needed to go for a higher score.

Besides the main game, which is dubbed "mission mode", it's also possible to play a "survival mode" and a "boss blitz", your common boss rush credit. The game allows up to four players in co-op action both offline and online, so there's tons of fun to be had in every way you can imagine.

For a long while I played Heavy Weapon just to kill time whenever I had the chance, without ever considering the 1CC. That's good advice for everyone who enjoys old school shooting fun, but be warned: this game is highly addictive. The rocking music aligned with the military motif, the adrenaline rush and the anticipation to get that next special weapon and build a powerhouse out of your atomic tank might make you lose track of time and miss appointments!

My final high score is the 21st in the picture below. I tried my best not to die, but I lost two lives in stupid oversights...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

PC Denjin - Punkic Cyborgs (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red
Published by Hudson Soft in 1992

The Master System had Alex Kidd, the NES had Mario, the Mega Drive had Sonic. And the PC Engine had Bonk. All mascots, starring their own series of games and helping carry forward the good name of their console brands. While big-headed caveman Bonk was the star of a platformer series, his image was also present in a couple of shmups starring futuristic sibling Zonk, for all purposes Bonk's more advanced, flying-capable cyborg counterpart. Air Zonk is the name of his first shmup in its western incarnation for the Turbografx-16, while PC Denjin - Punkic Cyborgs is the original PC Engine name. According to wikipedia, the "PC" part of the Japanese title stands for "Pithecanthropus Computerurus", a fictitious species name for Bonk. The main cosmetic differences between both characters are the lightning on Zonk's forehead (my brother asked me if he was supposed to be Harry Potter...) and his stylish dark shades, which seems to be the source of all his magnificient powers.

Close in spirits to the wacky ideas from the Parodius series, PC Denjin is remarkable for its bold sprite work and great graphics full of several layers of parallax. The cartoony style lends itself to a lighthearted adventure where Zonk faces a series of multi-colored, crazily designed enemies and bosses until he can face the evil King Drool, his nemesis, a green mean tyranosaurus rex who also reincarnates as a huge cyborg-creature in the end of the game. The action is fast, dynamic and most of the time relentless. Seeing this game in action is such a delight that you can't help but wonder how fun it must be to actually play it. Sure it looks like kid's material, complete with goofy yet extremely catchy tunes, however the challenge isn't what we could easily call a piece of cake. In my opinion, it's a perfect example of what the PC Engine was able to deliver, a well balanced mixture of ideal fun factor and old school eye candy.

Woo-hoo!!! Somebody stop me!

Every game is started by first selecting the difficulty level. Here you have spicy mode (default/normal), sweet mode (easy) and bitter mode (hard). Then there's another selection to the made, the escort/helper cyborg. It's possible to set it to: (1) auto, where the game will randomly assign one of the 10 escorts to you per stage; (2) manual, where you pick one of the 10 escorts every time a stage begins; and (3) alone, where no escort is used at all during the whole game. It's not possible to select the same escort twice, so once it's used it won't appear again for the rest of the game (escorts that were already selected show up with the dark shades during the selection screen). Once the difficulty mode and the escort type are chosen, Zonk starts his journey over the sea.

There are two kinds of power-ups to be collected:
  • The first one is the weapon power-up, which appears when a specific carrier is destroyed. Weapons are fired with button II and the upgrades may come as a shrinking power-up, laser, cards (my favorite), deadly gloves, 8-way lightning, chomping teeth, guided missiles and boomerangs (actually shadows of his own shades). With the exception of the shrinking power-up, which reduces your hitbox while adding a weak homing shot, they also provide a 1-hit shield. If you're hit you'll revert to the default pea shot. You can also use a charge shot for each of these weapons by holding button I and releasing it as soon as Zonk starts sparking electricity. If the charge button is held longer he will eventually burp a bomb that falls off the screen and explodes with great destructive power. Again, the shrinking power-up is a bit special because it has no charge blast whatsoever.

  • The second power-up comes in the form of small smiley faces, released by killing enemies and worth 1.000 points each. After collecting five or six of them a bigger smiley with dark shades will pop up. As soon as you get it the escort will appear from behind and follow you while shooting a standard missile. Upon collecting a new series of small smileys another big smiley will come, and if the escort is still alive (it can be damaged and killed, mind you), the new big smiley will cause Zonk and the escort to fuse into a new powerful cyborg whose form will depend on the escort's form. If the escort is damaged (smoking) the big smiley will only restore its health instead of creating the new cyborg. After this powerful cyborg is created Zonk is also granted with a short window of invincibility. Once vulnerable, cyborg forms will vanish as soon as you take the first hit. While active they don't have charge shots or bombs and ignore any power-ups you take.
Last but not least, whenever an enemy comes up from behind Zonk automatically activates a rear burner. This is very useful to take out popcorn enemies and damage larger ones, and although it feels awkward in the beginning chances are you will rely on it a lot more when you get more experienced.

A quick credit of PC Denjin
(courtesy of YouTube user AmazingRetro)

Most of the challenge in PC Denjin comes from large enemies and their attacks, some of which leave little room for evasion or dodging. All stages have at least three sections with a mid-boss in between. The more you get to know the escorts, the more you'll be tempted to have those whose combined cyborg forms are more useful, such as the cow or the cat. Some of the cyborg forms are plain useless, and when these escorts come up I just avoid getting the second big smiley. Extends are awarded with 70.000, 200.000 and then for every 300.000 points afterwards. What I couldn't grasp really well is the scoring system. It's pretty straightforward during most of the game (you earn extra points for getting repeated power-ups, that's it), but the score inflates like crazy as you defeat the final midbosses and the last boss, and I have no idea how it works.

Even though PC Denjin excels in all fronts as a great cute'em up, it didn't strike me as having such a solid lasting appeal. It isn't hard to beat at all, but at the same time it offers plenty of stuff for dedicated players to try out. In any case, I believe it's a mandatory experience for all cute'em up fans out there. My favorite aspect in the game is the music - I love the tune for the 2nd stage! Those who enjoy the game might want to check the sequel CD Denjin - Rockabilly Paradise, released the following year on CD format.

And below is my 1CC high score in spicy mode (NORMAL), with escort mode in AUTO. The ending sequence halts in this last screen once the game is beaten.