Sunday, February 28, 2010

Space Invaders Extreme (PSP)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2008

I'm sure a lot of people out there share the same opinion I have towards the Space Invaders series. Taito created the first game in 1978, and it soon "invaded" every single gaming platform that came along ever since, eventually saturating the market with endless ports or variations that didn't actually add anything noteworthy to the basic formula (with a few exceptions only known by hardcore players). Of course I do acknowledge the importance it had to our beloved genre, but at the same time I'm obliged to confess that the vast majority of the Space Invaders titles represent nothing more to me than pure boredom. Imagine our surprise, mine and of those who also find the series boring, when we laid our eyes on one of the available versions of Space Invaders Extreme.

Released to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original game, Space Invaders Extreme simply materializes a lot of what I believe should've been done years ago with the series. It's a major departure from the slow moving aliens from before, but it also preserves the core aspects of the gameplay that made so many people happy during the 80s. There lies the secret Taito unleashed on both casual and hardcore players alike, since this awesome title can be enjoyed by both factions to great extent. It's a visual and aural feast for the senses, a massive overhaul with a huge potential to please everybody.

Invaders of all types, sizes and colors populate Space Invaders Extreme

On the outside, the game plays just like a regular Space Invaders chapter. With the exception of the barriers, which are totally absent in this version, all well-known invader sprites are there hanging above your lonely ship. The first notable difference, besides the pumping music in synch with your shots (much like in Rez), are the crazy psychedelic backgrounds. Then you have the aggressive use of colors. A few invader waves into the game and you get intermission screens such as "bonus", "roulette" or "boss", this last one followed by a huge invader that must be hit on a weak spot. Oh yes, you have just found out Space Invaders Extreme has stages, five to be exact. And starting on the 3rd stage the game branches much like in Darius, depending on how good your performance is.

And while the game can be played for fun only, its intrincacies regarding scoring are what elevate it above its predecessors. Each division in the HUD means something and since covering them all would take too long, let me just point out the most important things I learned in this brief playing period:
  • Hitting a series of 4 invaders of the same color will release a power-up. You can preserve it if you don't want to use it right away by pressing any of the shoulder buttons (not many people know about this because they just don't read the manual or, if they do, they own the Japanese game - like me!).
  • The "round" is a special challenge where you have to fulfill a certain task; if you succeed, you get back to the game in "fever" mode, with augmented firepower and bonus points to collect while this mode lasts. To trigger a round you have to hit the blinking UFO on the top of the screen, and to make the UFO appear a combo of 8 invaders has to be shot, the first 4 in one color and the last 4 in another color. The colors selected will dictate which bonus round you'll be playing. Note: you don't die by getting hit in a bonus round, instead your time there is just shortened.
  • The background has indications that light up when you fulfill certain combos: same row, same column, same shape and same color. Fulfilling all these combos in the same stage without dying will grant the player an extra life.
  • When the "rate" gauge to the left surpasses the ×5 count you enter BREAK mode, and the multiplier is boosted to ×10 for a brief amount of time. Killing invaders fast is the key to trigger BREAK faster and, if fever mode is activated during a BREAK, it lasts more than usual.
  • Roulettes are triggered by hitting the yellow UFO. Hitting the yellow invader inside the roulette grants an extra life, and hitting the red one brings up a random round.
  • White invaders have no effect in combos, so they can be shot amidst any combo you're trying to accomplish - just don't mistake them for the gray ones;
  • Enemy shots are destroyed by the player's shots and, more importantly, they keep the overall chain count going - very useful when the aliens are too far for you to reach them.
All other quirks in Space Invaders Extreme are not so hard to grasp. There are people who complain about all the stuff going on in the backgrounds, but it didn't bother me at all. Fortunately for the unhappy ones, background brightness can be set to zero.

1st stage gameplay with bonus round + fever time
(courtesy of

At the end of a stage the player's performance is given a rank note. After stage 2, a rank of at least B will allow you to choose a different path for the 3rd stage, 3A or 3B. All alternate routes from here on are considerably harder, so mastering the A routes first should sound as good recommendation. Every stage that's completed in the main game (Arcade mode) is unlocked in Stage mode for isolated plays. Beating Arcade mode will unlock Extra mode, which is in fact a much harder version of the game. Continuing sends you back to the start of a stage but preserves the score - not a manly way towards a better achievement at all...

The default high score is awkwardly high, and it's perfectly normal to beat the game and still not reach the 5.000.000 top score. My best run through the upper route resulted in the following number:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Global Defense (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1987

One of the best part of the good old Atari 2600 days for me was spending long spells playing Missile Command. Those who tried it know how different it was from other games in the genre, since it's a fixed shooter leaning towards vertical orientation. Missile Command wasn't about shooting everything in sight though, for it demanded from the player both aiming and timing skills. I always found it very amusing, but didn't see the same concept very often in subsequent shooting games. As of now, the only other title besides Global Defense that I remember using it is Bio-Ship Paladin on the Mega Drive.

In Global Defense, also known as SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), your mission while piloting a satellite is to protect bases in several planets from the solar system, starting on Earth and travelling beyond the rings of Saturn. Every stage is comprised of two "halves", the offensive one and the defensive one. In the offensive half the screen scrolls horizontally while enemies attack from all possible directions. The defensive half sees you defending a base from space attacks, very much like Missile Command itself. Moving the satellite around the screen and shooting down enemies will feel odd at first sight. Button 2 shoots the plasma cannon according to the position of the firing cursor, but the satellite remains stationary. To move it it's necessary to press button 1, but then the firing cursor will remain stationary. Does it seem to be difficult? Do you miss the ease provided by the analog sticks of today's controllers? Afraid of a game that's over 20 years old?

Arriving in Saturn during an offensive half

There isn't just a single way of dying in Global Defense. First, getting hit by a bullet or a fighter/satellite will make you lose a regular life. The success of your mission, however, is gauged by the damage meter in the bottom of the screen: during the offensive half every time a flying enemy leaves the visible area unharmed a tiny dot of this meter will be filled (a very characteristic noise rings whenever this happens). The damage received is carried on to the defensive level, where every missile that hits the base will increase it further. Now here's the bad news... If you play badly and the damage meter gets full, the game ends in a big nuclear explosion, regardless of how many lives you have!

I wish there were more than just two BGMs that alternate throughout the whole game, even though they're not bad. Simplicity is the rule when it comes down to graphics, but at least there's no flickering. Just like the game's scrolling, the satellite's starting speed is very slow, which makes you yearn for the yellow power-up for better maneuvering capabilities. Other power-ups include the white (damage reduction) and the pink one (power upgrade). No matter how the satellite stands in the end of a defensive half, in the next offensive half the player always starts slowly. While generally each power-up appears only once in every stage, there are instances where a certain power-up won't appear at all.

What surprised me most in this little game was the neat scoring system. Upon completing a defensive half, you get bonus points for destruction rate in each enemy category (missiles, satellites, fighters and bases). If you manage to kill all enemies from an offensive half you get a bonus of 20.000 points and an extra life, skipping the defensive level and going directly to the next offensive assault. Failing to obtain another PERFECT in this next offensive half will yield 5.000 bonus points, but another consecutive PERFECT will increase the special bonus by 10.000 points, giving you the precious extra life and advancing you to the next offensive campaign. And it keeps going like that. This opens a neat range of scoring possibilities that invites the player into perfecting the gameplay for higher scores, something rarely seen in an 8-bit shooter.

Opening and 1st stage of Global Defense, which takes place on Earth
(courtesy of YouTube user coenak)

Global Defense gets fairly tough during the last couple of stages, so here's some general advice I can give to the brave ones who might want to check it: take advantage of memorization for better positioning of the satellite; you can fly over missiles, asteroids and planetoids, they don't do any harm at all; pay attention to very small bases in the asteroid belt, they might go unnoticed and spoil the PERFECT bonus; sometimes it's better to just keep the firing cursor fixed while moving the satellite in order to deal with multiple enemy waves.

Poor presentation aside, I enjoyed Global Defense for its unique gameplay (and related challenge) derived from Missile Command. Only after I beat it I learned that the original arcade game is also available on the PS2 under the name SDI, as part of the Sega Ages series. It will be interesting to play it after experiencing the Master System version first.

I believe I got 3 or 4 PERFECT offensive halves in the high score below. On a last note, besides celebrating victory with a sight of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by flying pidgeons, you're also awarded with a bonus of 100.000 points upon game completion.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

1st Blog Anniversary!

Today this blog is celebrating its first anniversary. Yay!

I am rather proud of some of my accomplishments in this first year, and maybe not so much about others. Stinkers and masterpieces were mixed with no specific order, I just went through the games as influenced by opinions, reviews and sudden attacks of shmup deprivation. At some point I decided to play the most classic series in chronological order - this means that I'll be taking my time in following up their development until their latest incarnations. Darius, Gradius, Raiden, Cotton, Cho Aniki, Giga Wing... If I'm competent enough you might be reading more about their ports and sequels this following year.

As for my collection, I'm slowly filling the final gaps in it. I know it's gonna take a long time to see a good number of high scores and links in my shmup list, but the perspective of having tons of shooting fun available for the rest of my life warms my gaming heart in a way only those who share this same passion truly understand.

During this year there were two significant additions to my mindset regarding collecting. One of them was finally surrendering to downloadable content (bear with me I was seduced by screenshots and videos from Söldner-X). My US PS3 is already online, and I have yet to connect my Japanese Xbox 360. I know I'm eventually gonna be very disappointed when my HDDs die, but whatever... The second change I went through involves the acquisition of a Playstation Portable. One year ago I would never have imagined buying a handheld console, simply because it never crossed my mind to seriously play a shooter on such tiny screens. After the announcement that Darius Burst would grace the PSP library, however, I didn't have any option but to get it. Of course knowing that I could play it on my LCD TV helped cement the decision.

I would like to thank everyone who wrote comments or who decided to follow the blog in this first year. I also thank the great feedback I received from a few shmupper peers, I really appreciate it. I think you'll all agree that the final accomplishment for all of us would be effectively luring more people into this fantastic, fulfilling and ever so rewarding gaming genre, and I just hope I'm able to keep contributing with my humble share.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Platypus (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Idigicon
Published by MumboJumbo in 2006

For my first beaten shmup on a handheld console, I think Platypus is OK. It's a port of a budget PC title, and from what I've noticed it surely preserves the original feel and core gameplay, with a few minor diferences in bullet count, character sizes and score display effects. In a world where everything is supposed to be designed and molded with clay, this game stands as a very traditional and completely old school horizontal shooting experience. There's nothing wrong with that, really. Nevertheless, taken as it comes, it's advisable not to carry high expectations when playing this little colorful game, be it for the fun factor involved (which varies heavily depending on what kind of shmupper you are) or for the inherent duration of a desired run (which takes over an hour for the full game).

According to the map shown as the game starts, the adventure of the yellow ship against the forces of Collosotropolan takes place in 6 stages, each one divided into 5 areas where the last one is always inhabited by the inevitable boss. Charm and uniqueness is the main contribution provided by the claymation technique, a characteristic that stands out in the flashy colors, in explosion animations, in a few backgrounds and in the growing damage shown by larger enemies. Every stage has a unique theme to it, developing as the game unfolds with no interruption between areas. However, as this design choice is stretched along a rather lengthy duration and chunks of backgrounds replicate themselves in a tiled fashion, the overall sensation is that there's not much variety to the game. This isn't helped by the fact that Platypus is populated by a handful of recurring enemies from start to finish (mainly flying saucers and stray airplanes) with a few intruders in-between. Boredom and tedium aside, at least I think everybody agrees that this game has great music. Too bad it's not possible to listen to it properly due to the loud sound effects and the lack of a volume adjustment option.

Flying through a factory-type stage and blowing clay enemies into pieces of... clay?

The concept for the gameplay couldn't be more simple, since there's only one button to be used. Destroying a particular series of enemies releases the star power-ups: yellow for spread shot, blue for rapid fire, green for a bullet-cancelling arch and red for rockets (the color of the star changes as you shoot it). It's pretty standard fare, except for the minor detail that all single power-ups last for 20 seconds only. To keep using them you have to collect more stars, adding to the power-up timer up to the limit of 99 seconds. There aren't any bombs or shields but, as a compensation, power-ups are not lost when the player dies. All larger enemies yield fruit after exploding, and these can be worth a great deal of points.

When the screen gets too heavy with fruit and enemies the most severe flaw of the game comes up: bullet visibility. Bullets are so small that it's pretty common to get confused in the mess of collecting fruit amidst exploding clay. Some people will definitely find cruising endless landscapes with the same power-ups plain boring, to the point of not having patience to go beyond the 1st stage. But for those who are patient enough, level 2-3 brings up a little bit of motivation to go on. A small box carried by a tiny balloon hides an icon that gives you two pods that rotate around the ship, making your firepower 3 times more effective. In stage 3-3 another box/balloon with a golden crown inside grants a ×2 score multiplier. Getting these special items is a bit tricky, because you have to be very careful not to shoot the balloons and see the boxes fall back to where they came from. Careful shooting is especially recommended prior to boss battles, which is where these balloons are most easily obtained.

With a naked ship the only good power-up is the rapid fire (blue), but playing with the additional rotating pods feels like a whole different experience. You'll be angry if you lose them, because facing later bosses with no pods takes forever. Let's not forget about the special mega powerful green lightning laser available in the last stage, acquired by collecting the permanently green star. It's the ultimate power-up!

1st stage of the PC version, with a slightly larger ship and slightly different sound effects from the PSP port
(courtesy of YouTube user HuMoDz)

I don't know if it's just me, but I feel that the hitbox in Platypus in a bit unfair at times. The ship's fast fixed speed obviously helps, but I can't avoid thinking that sometimes the yellow hero is sort of "attracted" to enemies and bullets, in situations where I die horribly when I'm almost sure I shouldn't have. Well, it takes a bit of getting used to, just like in every other shmup... And in Platypus, as soon as you get a hold of patterns and enemy placement, breezing through the game becomes routine. Collision with walls inside the cave stage is harmless, and bosses become strangely easier as you get closer to the end.

Area bonus is based on destruction rate, and the maximum value is 10.000 points for a 95% to 100% ratio. The game is pretty crazy about extends, starting with 5.000, 10.000, 20.000 and for each 20.000 points for a while, extending this interval as you rack up hundreds. I couldn't figure out how the end of game bonus is calculated, but it's rather substantial. Besides the main game (story), with possibility of co-op play when hooking two PSPs together, there's also a survival mode available.

This is my Platypus 1CC high score, playing on NORMAL:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Giga Wing (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Capcom in 2000

The Sega Dreamcast was released in 1999, but I only got mine roughly 2 years ago. I had never seen one in action, and Giga Wing was the first shooter I bought for it. Imagine my reaction as this game was my introduction to bullet hell, one that gave me countless days of fun and punishment as I strived to beat it. By then I was unaware of genre conventions, so I was only able to do it while tweaking the starting number of lives and bombs. Of course there was no merit in that accomplishment, but I didn't know it then. And that's the reason why recently I dove into Giga Wing again in my pursuit for an honorable default 1CC.

At the time of its release, Giga Wing was memorable for standing as a separating line between those who understood the new era of shmups and those who didn't, simply because it was the first bullet hell that got a decently localized US home port. Casual gamers and stupid reviewers trashed it as having no replay value, simply because you're allowed to breeze through the game in less than 20 minutes on the basis of unlimited continues from the get go. Misconceptions exist in any media, but believe me when I say I get furious when I hear or read stuff like this. Players felt cheated for the wrong reasons, all of them showcasing the growing gap that would eventually exclude shooters from mainstream gaming. They should've felt cheated, for instance, for not knowing there's a 7th stage accessible only by beating all 6 stages on one credit.

But then... Who am I trying to fool here??? Let's be honest, the only ones who play stuff like Giga Wing and have fun with it are shmuppers and sympathizers. We all know that what drives us is the search for a higher score, the rush, the excitement of weaving though crazy difficult bullet curtains!

Preparing to deal with the 2nd phase of the boss in the Volcano stage

There are 4 available ships/pilots in Giga Wing, all of them with their own reasons for destroying an evil medallion. The war takes place against a huge horde of enemy craft that fires relentlessly and lays down all sorts of bullet waves against you, in an explosion mayhem that not rarely overloads the senses. The player counts on his/her own firepower, on the obligatory force bombs and also on the Reflect Force (henceforth referred as RF), a shield that's activated by holding the fire button - it reflects all bullets that touch it and renders the ship invincible while it lasts. RF triggering isn't instantaneous (there's a slight delay), and once deployed the RF bar has to be refilled before it is again available for use. That's the basics of what the player can do, and lots of enjoyment can be had just by shooting, reflecting and bombing. The real fun, however, starts when you get a hold of the scoring system and realize how to get even more points than what the inflated display already shows you.

All flying enemies release medals, and all reflected bullets that hit something are also converted into medals. These medals vary in size and value, and collecting them will increase a multiplier that's used to calculate everything from the bulky end of stage bonus to the points given by a measly popcorn airplane. Every stage has a multiplier counter that starts from zero and continuously adds to the overall multiplier. This stage multiplier is reset after each boss battle or when the player dies. The higher the multiplier the higher the score, so there you have the motivation for collecting/extracting the highest possible number of medals from enemies and bullets. It's such an addictive mechanic that soon I found myself to be measuring my performance not by score, but by the score multiplier alone.

The main weapon can be powered up 3 times with the bouncing P item, and extra bombs are also granted in specific points in the game. Under regular circumstances, there are no extra lives at all. The only possible 1UP can be acquired by destroying all outer orbs and then the red central orb in a certain part of stage 4 - only if you are in your last life. Otherwise, this strategy generates a series of huge medals worth 200 multiplier points each. This is one of the most important secrets (from many) lying around in the game, and I must say I didn't bother discovering the majority of them. I know there's rank in Giga Wing but I don't perceive it that much, especially when comparing it to other bullet hell shmups. There are theories saying that dying in the beginning of the game makes it easier later on, but I can't imagine myself doing that when I'm able to clear the game without suiciding.

Sinnosuke and Isha unleash havoc together in Giga Wing
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

From all available characters, my favorite one is Ruby. She flies the fastest and strongest ship, and her weapon is great to collect medals. Weak and slow Sinnosuke is worthless; Isha is cool, but her homing missiles confuse me a lot; Stuck's ship is also very strong, but I don't like the fact that his bomb pods move whenever you stop shooting. The order of the first 3 stages is changed depending on the selected character, and co-op play results in a different storyline for the character duo. Exclusive to this port, there's also a 5th ship that's unlocked after beating the 7th stage - it's the fastest and strongest of all, and its pilot is Sinnosuke. All voice acting during intermission dialogues was removed in the US release, but can be found in the Japanese version. Not that it matters much, but at least Giga Wing didn't get the kind of treatment Shikigami No Shiro II received when it was released in the west as Castle Shikigami 2 for the PS2.

Graphics in Giga Wing are pure 2D bliss, with great settings soaked with bullets of all colors. Though it doesn't push any of the well known 2D design boundaries, it's one of those titles that proves how much of a processing powerhouse the Dreamcast is. Slowdown only sets in during brief spells of overwhelming screen bullet count, and do not affect gameplay at all. While the music isn't outstanding, some tunes are really cool and stick like glue after just a short listening (volcano stage, end of stage bonus). One excelent extra in the Dreamcast port is the addition of a Score Attack mode for isolated stages. They are unlocked as soon as the levels are reached in Arcade mode but, more than its original purpose, Score Attack actually served me as a welcome training aid. An art gallery and a brief tutorial are also included in the disc, which is, as far as I can tell, one of the noisiest discs I've ever played in my life. While this does not happen to any other Dreamcast game I own, the console seems to be scratching all its innards when reading Giga Wing. So far it's been harmless to the hardware, but it's sort of scary when you boot it up for the first time.

My 1CC high score on default difficulty (4) was achieved on a NO MISS run, playing with Ruby (52.468.919.722.250). Next: Giga Wing 2!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Android Assault (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Human Entertainment
Published by Big Fun Games in 1994

On an overlooked system, overlooked shooters tend to be even more underrated than your usual underappreciated game. And among the glut of 16-bit shooters that found their way to home consoles during the 90s, Android Assault is one of the prime examples of what I've just written. There seemed to be some indecision as to how the publisher wanted it to be named in North America, because actually the game title screen doesn't display Android Assault, instead showing the Japanese original Bari-Arm. And then again, the US release has The Revenge of Bari-Arm as a subtitle. Let's call it Android Assault then, just because it's the cooler name.

Everyone who wants to know what a good 16-bit shooter is about (especially younger gamers) should take a look at Android Assault. It is a very good representative for the genre in its time period, with a great futuristic setting, a decent challenge level and the most important feature of all when it comes down to playing video games: providing instant fun from credit 1. Some games take a handful of credits to grow on you, some only start to get compelling by the 3rd stage and others won't give you a break at all into their sometimes intricate designs. The fun in Android Assault, however, is guaranteed up front by competent graphics, spot-on gameplay and an outstanding rocking soundtrack. As much as I would like it to happen, you just don't see this kind of music quality in today's shmups anymore. Android Assault sort of remains as a moment frozen in time regarding video game music, a void between chip tunes and the digitally orchestrated stuff that would become more prominent in the next gaming generation.

You are the red robot, and the blue guy is one of the several robots that tries to spoil your mission

Starting out as a regular spaceship tripping through a forest planet, soon you will transform into a robot after you acquire the 3rd power-up. The robot form reminds me of a larger version of the character from Lords of Thunder, but the transformation isn't merely aesthetic. Not only do you get an extra protection (like a shield, for which you revert back to the ship form when hit), but you'll also charge the currently used weapon at a faster rate. Weapons are available in four variations that can be exchanged with the proper icon. There's the vulcan (yellow), laser (green), homing missiles (red) and straight daggers (blue). All of them have more powerful blasts that can be activated just by restraining from shooting, which fills up to 3 levels of the charge meter. Triggering the fire button after that will then release the weapon's strongest attack. These charge attacks were, in fact, key points for me to weave through the game, so take this as a hint if you want to. :)

Powering up happens by collecting the "Pow" icons or icons of the same color of the current weapon, whereas the gray icon transforms the ship into the robot regardless of the current power-up level. There are 4 speeds to select at the press of a button, which gives good maneuvering possibilities inside fast passages or claustrophobic parts. While the game generally scrolls at a slow pace, there are some enemy clustering in later stages and a few dead zones here and there (I like to think of them as the game's way of telling you to stop shooting and charge the weapon for whatever menace comes next). The important thing is that you never feel bored.

Experienced shmuppers will certainly recognize a series of references to other shooters of the time, such as Eliminate Down (start of stage 3), Thunder Force IV (the whole stage 4), Gradius II (the high speed section of stage 5) and Down Load (stage 7 - you even get to destroy two hoverbikes from the game as soon as the level starts!). Bio-Hazard Battle also comes to mind as you descend from outer space to the ground in the 6th stage. This is one of the levels that have mid-bosses, which frequently join the enemy armada headed by the sometimes gigantic bosses. They start as large robots, evolve to large ships and culminate in a very nasty bio creature in the last level. Most of the bosses are better handled with specific weapons, and some of them will die very fast when attacked with the charge shot.

Android Assault's 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user MinaseTakix)

With 5 spare lives upon game start and extends granted with 100.000, 500.000 and for all million points afterwards, it would seem that things are on the easy side for the player. Appearances are deceiving though, since you'll certainly need these lives during the last couple of stages. Enemy fire leaves less and less room for movement and demands precise positioning of the character's hitbox, especially in the robot form. Completing a very well rounded package, Android Assault comes with a nice narrated/animated intro. Seeing all that's put together here, I just wonder what Human Entertainment could've achieved had they continued in the shmup development business. As it is, this game stands as a great Sega CD exclusive, one that's fortunately reasonably priced and therefore deserves a warm place in every retro collection.

This was my best high score on NORMAL: