Thursday, July 29, 2010

100 1CCed shmups!

Dear readers, this extra post celebrates 100 blog entries for shmups I have 1CCed!
84 of these were brand new 1CCs, whereas in 16 I just went for a new high score in previously 1CCed games.

Let's now freeze time and take a snapshot of some blog stats.

Shmup distribution by platform:

Shmup distribution by sub-genre:

Top 5 hardest 1CCs, in no particular order:
The above games either demanded an extended time span to be properly learned or were just more brutal than others in their difficulty. In one of them I think I was really lucky and actually got the clear before I was supposed to. Can you guess which one it is?

Top 5 easiest 1CCs, in no particular order:
Two of the above games were beaten in just one quick sitting. They're all so easygoing you might finish them without a single hint of sweat.

And below is a special picture for my somewhat messy albeit very functional game setup. This is where all the action happens!

I wonder if I'll be able to get to 200, maybe 300 1CCs?
Hopefully so!

Tell me if you have a game in mind you'd like to see me try. I promise I'll consider anything from my personal collection, as long as it has an ending and you don't mention stuff like DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Zero Wing (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by naxat soft in 1992

Undoubtedly, Zero Wing is much more famous in the Mega Drive than in any other existing format, including the original arcade game. The only other version of one of the finest Toaplan shooters is this one for the PC Engine CD, and while it does not live up to the standard established by the earlier Mega Drive port it's still a decent shmup all around. Some people might even consider it superior due to some juicy extras thrown in with the package - which is not my case.

What you say!

No, there's no "what you say" here. The famous Engrish intro is exclusive to the PAL Mega Drive version. The PCE CD port has lots of cut scenes that try to concoct a story for the game, for which I have absolutely no clue at all as to what it's supposed to mean. These cut scenes are what you'd expect from a 16-bit CD based system, but I really wish there was some accompanying music to them. They all go by with only dialogues and absolute silence, so boredom certainly ensues for those who can't understand a word of Japanese.

A lonely "zig" ship fights for galaxy peace in the first stage of Zero Wing

Board your "Zig" spaceship and cruise through 10 stages of old school shooting fun! Wait... 10? Yes, this port has two extra stages included right in the middle and at the end of the game. The first new level comes after Aquese (4th) and Submarine Tunnel (5th, now 6th) and is called Deeva. It seems to be a set of background/enemy leftovers from both Zero Wing and Hellfire, Toaplan's contemporary flagship horis. It takes place in a scarlet rocky planet, and towards the end it serves as a preamble to the more claustrophobic Barricade Zone (now displaced to the 7th stage). The last level is called Vacura, and consists of a single fight against a new final boss - maybe an attempt at giving the game a proper climax since the original final boss always escapes in his pod if you're not bold enough to take him down.

Basics of the gameplay remain the same. Destroy carriers to release power-ups. Despite increasing the level of the vulcan weapon, the first red power-up spawns two satellites above and below the ship. The blue icon changes the weapon to a laser beam, and the green icon activates the homing weapon. Almost all enemies can be captured, used as a 1-hit shield and released forward with the tractor beam, a feature that's very useful during crowded sections. It's like a simplified version of the force from the R-Type series, with the difference that it cannot be latched to the back of the ship. At times a special bomb will appear: keeping it attached to the ship works as a more powerful shield, which in contact with any enemy (or after absorbing too many shots) will go off in a great explosion

The last icon available is the speed-up. Getting the same weapon power-up three times will max out the ship's power, and every subsequent icon of the same color will be worth 5.000 points. A new life is awarded for every 100.000 points, and I did not see any 1UP or the much famed super-ultra-rare-power-up from the arcade/MD versions.

For great justice!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Compared to the Mega Drive port, this version is just slightly inferior. Graphics seem sharper, but they lack lots of the detail that's present in the MD cartridge, let alone almost all of the original parallax. The PCE game is overall easier, except for the 8th stage boss - if you die there you might as well reset the game, because his roaming spheres cannot be thrown with the tractor beam (hint: carry a bomb with you). Finally, the most unexpected difference between versions is the music, which one would assume to be superior in the CD version. Something very wrong must have happened though, because with the exception of the song for Aquese (stage 4) all BGMs sound far better on the Mega Drive. All compositions are still catchy because they're just genius, but I just can't believe how Naxat Soft was able to trash the arrangement for the BGM on the Submarine Tunnel stage. It reminds me of 8-bit music, honestly! Moreover, sound effects are too loud and make listening to the music a bit difficult while playing.

On a final note, Zero Wing for the PCE CD does not loop. The high score display has a minor malfunction where it will not register the score you achieve when fighting the last boss (it's no big numbers anyway, but I figured it would be interesting to mention). Scoring higher might depend on exploiting checkpoints and the many extra lives you can achieve, but I didn't venture into this kind of strategy. For now, my new high score for this game is a rough 11% improvement over the last one I had.

Now would any brave developer be up to the task of making Zero Wing 2? If only dreams came true...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bio-Ship Paladin (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by UPL
Published by UPL in 1991

Released exclusively in Japan, this weird shooter isn't what's commonly expected from a horizontal shmup. The original name is Uchuu Senkan Gomora (something like "Spacechip Gomora"), which defaults to Bio-Ship Paladin when the cartridge is played on a Sega Genesis. As with the majority of Japanese games, this one has a great box artwork that immediately keeps you guessing what it will be like even before seeing it. However, experiencing this game is almost always quite different from expectations, simply because it just doesn't fit the norm at all. It's deliberately slow, requires almost no dodging and is renowned for scaring everyone at first sight due to the huge amount of enemies that clutter the screen very early in the game.

That said, this one falls in that often damned category of games that demand more patience than usual in order to be played. Peel off the initial layer and a brave new world will open up for you, that's what I always say. By no means I'm stating that Bio-Ship Paladin will blow you away, the chances are quite the opposite actually. Since I tend to appreciate what's different I do have a small place in my shmupping heart for oddities, so I eventually learned to appreciate the dying pace and even came to enjoy the overall tone of this game. Sometimes we can get tired of relentlessly shooting wide energy beams and bombing everything to shreds, you know? If you ever feel like you need a different kind of shmup mechanic to quench your gaming needs, here's one of my sincere recommendations.

This is so slow I think I can fly through that flame arch and get back for lunch!

Gomora, the player's ship, seems to possess some sort of organic structure because it grows in size according to the extra health it collects. The ship's arsenal is quite varied: the main shot/laser (button A) can be charged for a thicker energy burst. Holding down the beam function (button B) will activate a crosshair and turn the main shot into a beam launcher just like you remember it from the classic Missile Command. Lastly, button C toggles between two types of crosshair/ship movement. Unlike the regular shot, beaming can damage anything in any area of the screen while blocking almost all incoming fire (the only exception I saw were those huge white energy balls). This is where the catch of the game lies: it's not about dodging, but instead positioning and quickly getting rid of all possible threats. Most enemy bullets are very slow and can be cancelled with no sweat. Sure you have to move from time to time, but if good strategy is used the old fashioned dodging we're so used to is only mandatory against a few bosses.

Ship speed is the worst problem once you start to play the game, and in order to boost the engine to a decent degree a couple of S icons are necessary. Power-ups are released by killing a certain wave of enemies, and sometimes they come floating for the player to pick'em up directly. There are instances where a power-up can be changed by shooting at it with the main gun, all it takes is trying. Besides the S for speed-up there are also L for health (which also increases the size of the ship), A for auto beam (not really that helpful) and a special orb that attaches to the top and the bottom of ship in a maximum of 3 on each side (they fire diagonal shots in conjunction with the main gun, additionally protecting the ship as long as they don't take enough damage to disappear). Gomora doesn't seem to get any more powerful when L icons are collected, it's just a matter of accumulating more health/energy and showing that size does matter. Of course getting hit will revert the ship back to its original size before it disintegrates to pieces when the health bar is depleted.

The worst case scenario in any credit is dying during boss fights, because then you get back to the default crawling speed and it gets really hard to evade from boss attacks. And boy, they love to trap you in a corner! Preserving health is very important, especially against powerhouses such as the 3rd boss, whereas memorization is the best aid for success. Knowing in advance when and where large spaceships are coming from represents a considerable advantage against the enemy forces, which depending on the situation can get really overwhelming and kill you by sheer desperation. The resulting slowdown, in this case, is absolutely no help.

Unfortunately not a happy ending for this Gomora battleship
(courtesy of YouTube user mathowlett)

Any screenshot should tell how well colors are used in Bio-Ship Paladin, and that's a testament to the decent graphical quality of the game. Stage design goes back and forth from crowded and mildly claustrophobic sceneries to open outer space environments, in a varied selection that unfortunately does not extend to the soundtrack. BGMs eventually repeat themselves, but at least they do the job of mirroring the grandeur evoked by the game's scope, one that's clearly geared towards the colossal clash between huge warships - namely yourself and the bosses.

If the whole game moved at a faster pace (as it does in the original arcade version) it would definitely be a killer. Since it doesn't, its appeal ends up restricted to shmup addicts or to those who share a minimum connection with the theme. People say playing it in co-op is more fun, but that's probably due to the fact that the game gets easier. I don't have one, but I assume controllers with turbo function on the A button will do wonders for those who find the game too difficult. Against all apparent odds, it does get fun after the player nails how to effectively use the beam weapon.

Every time one credit is started you have to select your options. Bear in mind that continuing doesn't reset the score (perhaps that's why there are no extends whatsoever). My best 1CC result is in the picture below, another proud no-miss run!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Raiden (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu
Published by Hudson Soft in 1991

And another Raiden port bites the dust. Yeah!

There are a few more to go, but I'll get to them eventually. As for the PC Engine's, it's important to mention that whenever you look for online information on it you'll much likely find references about Super Raiden instead - the superior version released one year later for NEC's CD add-on. It doesn't matter a bit for us shmup lovers, because every shmup is an opportunity for celebration, regardless of when, how or in which platform it was released. Provided it is, of course, playable and beatable. No matter how bad or butchered... right?

I don't mean to say that this particular version of Raiden is bad. The PC Engine was one of the lucky consoles to get a port of this now classic, unmistakable vertical shooter, and whether it is the best 16-bit version is a debatable issue. Personally I prefer the Mega Drive port, and let's not go as low as bringing the SNES port to the conversation... What matters most for the PC Engine is that the transition from the arcade original is decent. It gave all PC Engine owners a good glimpse of what it was like to play a hard, punishing arcade game at home. So there we have my first conclusion about it: the challenge is still high up in the difficulty scale.

Farmville beware, I'm coming to bomb all cows !!!

Sharpness and vibrant colors are what this port has best when looking at how graphics were handled. The stage design was inevitably rearranged in a few parts so that the game could fit in the space of a HuCard, but all major components are there. Some of the most noticeable changes are the absence of those dangerous popcorn enemies during boss fights, the reduced number of passerby snipers (like in stage 7), the relocation or elimination of a few key enemies and the obvious impact of having the playfield stretched to fit the whole screen. This last observation probably stems from the fact that in my initial credits I had a hard time adapting to the gameplay in Raiden, mainly because I had just come out of playing an aggressively oriented vertical shooter (PS2's Dragon Spirit).

At this time and age, everybody knows how to play the game. Explode carriers to get red and blue power-ups for vulcan and laser shots. Destroy special ground boxes to get power-ups for straight (M) or homing (H) missiles. Get extra bombs by grabbing the triangular B icon. Collect medals for a special end of stage bonus (number of medals × bomb stock × 1.000). And that's it. No further complications, no deep scoring techniques, no bullshit whatsoever. Shoot, dodge, nuke! Am I forgetting something? Oh yes, the fairies! Uncover hidden fairies for 10.000 points! They are located in special areas of the terrain in stages 1, 4 and 6 - these areas seem to get "hit" as you shoot. If you've collected a fairy you get an extra batch of power-ups upon a respawn. Last bits of info: every extra power-up collected when the ship is already with maximum power is worth 5.000 points; the P icon will give instant maximum power or 10.000 points if already at max; the random blue "miclus" might appear for extra 3.000 points. And that's it! Shoot, dodge, nuke!

The start of an epic journey to stop evil aliens from conquering the Earth
(courtesy of YouTube user DigiHatesMakingNames)

The few criticisms than can be actually made about this port are related to the music, which is pretty substandard (especially when compared to the renditions on the MD/SNES), and the presence of screen flicker whenever things get too hectic. Basic rank is simple to control, just avoid getting the laser so that you don't have to face enemy bullets that are clearly faster than usual. Further rank seems to lean much more towards enemy resilience than bullet speed, and an example of this was when I reached the 5th boss without dying. I always bombed that beast away, and it took lots of them for him to die. If I died and got back to the pea shot, 2 or 3 bombs would easily waste him.

As the port of a classic, Raiden on the PC Engine is good fun. I might be wrong here, but I think the ship is slightly faster than in other versions, which makes the game just a tiny bit easier. No matter how it stands though, it's just straight pure old school vertical action recommended for everybody craving a break from the frantic shooters of today.

The game doesn't save or buffer high scores, but at least it gives you a few seconds to pause right after dying. Did I mention that completing a loop awards the player with 1 million points? That's some great motivation for not continuing, isn't it? Here's my final high score, when I reached level 2-3:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Darius Twin (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1991

On the verge of finally entering the 16-bit video game scene, Nintendo surely had a lot going for it when releasing the SNES back in 1991. Several companies were more than keen on investing in this new and groundbreaking console, and Taito was surely one of them. After all, the SNES was their choice to run the first exclusive Darius game developed for a home console. Not only that, this was the first console Darius that allowed two people to play simultaneously, just like in the famous arcade counterparts. I remember fondly of images and footage of Darius Twin being advertised side by side with heavyweights such as Super Mario World and F-Zero, and while I wasn't a shmup nut back then I know my dormant shmupper self was definitely smiling at the possibility of playing such a cool looking game.

It's been nearly 20 years now, and finally getting the chance to experience Darius Twin to the fullest is something I cherished to a great extent (for whatever reasons I hadn't done it yet). As such, I was more than prepared to be exposed to new doses of space fish blasting, exciting pursuits for that beautiful golden shield and more epic showdowns against massive marine creatures. With the exception of this last part - wimpy bosses all around :( - I believe I got what I hungered for. As seen in the game's attract mode, many years passed after the last battle had ended, and planet Darius is once again attacked by Belser's evil forces. What's left but to draft all Silver Hawks in another mission to bring peace back to the galaxy?

"Finally I am the main boss!", roars Killer Hijia as he approaches the Silver Hawk

Darius Twin is a special chapter in the series for various reasons other than what I just mentioned above. Let's start with the power-up system. It bears a close resemblance to the one adopted in Darius II, in that you collect single power-ups only. All power-ups are carried by waves of cubes — those same pesky ones that appeared if you took too long to beat the bosses in previous games — and come in different colors. The red one powers up the main shot, the green one powers up the bomb/laser (bombs develop into lasers) and the blue one powers up the shield (classic green → silver → yellow). There are extra icons for 1UPs, instantaneous smart bombs and a special one that's responsible for "switching" the style of the main weapon from the energy beam to the wave shot and vice-versa. It only appears twice throughout the whole game, but it's advisable not to get the 2nd one because the wave shot is a lot more powerful than the starting shot type.

Now for the most unexpected of all changes: with the obvious exception of the shield, you don't lose power-ups when dying! Isn't that great for those people who always complain about being stripped down to nothing when they die? Indeed, great it is! At least until you get to the last stage, where you'll be swarmed by lots of mid-bosses/captains who will put your shield to the test and crush you as if you were an insect. You can only get two extra lives with the 1UP icons, so your best chance to survive is getting there with all four spare lives, a powerful shield and exquisitely developed/trained reflexes.

Scoring in Darius Twin is very straightforward because, unlike previous games, there isn't any bonus for killing complete enemy waves. I read somewhere about the fact that the design in this chapter is mostly comprised of leftovers from Darius and Darius II. That, my friends, is correct. With a few expections, every stage is a somewhat more colorful version of previously seen backgrounds. At least the enemies are more diverse, but they strangely don't fire that much at the player. Actually, bullet count in this game is extremely low, and all most dangerous enemies will prefer to ram into you or blindly attack with bulky fireballs. The hitbox suffers a bit from the "expanded boundary syndrome", so it's necessary to get used to that awkward feeling that the enemy wasn't close enough to kill you during that nasty collision. Hardcore Darius geeks might also frown upon the reduced number of stages, with only one final level to play as opposed to the multiple final battles that were possible in previous entries. On the other hand, the music is quite faithful to the well-known weird quality from Taito's Zuntata development team.

Stage B of Darius Twin played on the EASY setting
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Maybe as a compensation for the letdown of having only one final stage, Taito included five different endings in the game. Unfortunately, the way to achieve any ending beyond the regular one is quite lame, since you must remain restricted to one path only (ACDFHKL). The endings differ according to how many lives you lose, with a special version for timing out against final boss Super Alloy Lantern. He is, by the way, one of the wimpiest final bosses ever. In fact, almost all bosses are revamped versions of pre-existent Darius bosses. Alloy Lantern's sidekick Killer Hijia, for instance, was promoted to boss of area A, while Great Thing resurfaces with an updated movement pattern as Hyper Great Thing in stage L.

This game surely doesn't set any Darius fan's world on fire, much less the average gamer's. Nevertheless it does remain true to the atmosphere of the whole series, representing a fine console link between the Darius games of old and the more demanding Darius Gaiden. As a bonus, this is the first instance where you're able to play with a green Silver Hawk (single player mode only, you can only play with the classic red/blue ships in co-op). The good news, at least for me, is that the green ship is back again in Super Nova/Darius Force, the next chapter of the series and also on the SNES. Yeah, Taito did show some love to Nintendo's 16-bit console, didn't they?

Here's my 1CC high score on NORMAL, flying route ACDFHKL. EDIT: new high score logged on Nov 6th 2016 for route ABDEGJL:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sonic Wings (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Video System in 1993

When four nations are summoned to avoid a tragic fate to the planet and the concerning game is a vertical shooter, what we have is a semi-classic shmup called Sonic Wings. Two pilots from each country collaborate to bring down the filthy bad guys, but alas! They can't team up with a hero from another country! In fact, in their quest for justice/revenge the player or the team must bomb all other nations to shreds. Why is that necessary anyway? Oh yes... Even if a shmup credit is in most cases very short, it's a good idea to have more than just four stages to go through. So there you have it: blast through all other three nations and take off to complete the remaining four challenges to save the world from total destruction!

Who cares about story anyway? In the SNES, Sonic Wings plays a lot like the original arcade game, so props go to Video System for giving the 16-bit generation a taste of what would become a rule in the vertical subgenre for years to come: fast and dense bullet patterns and an overly aggressive rank system. Say what you will, I think the SNES port is even harder with the rank progression, making it definitely one of the trickiest games to be 1CCed in this particular console - not the hardest, but one that will demand a great deal of patience to be won. So what do you say? Want to try some genuine pre-Psikyo stuff in your 16-bit favorite (or 2nd-to-favorite) system? Just a quick reminder on this: the US release, renamed as Aero Fighters, is outrageously rare and expensive, so you might want to put your hands on the much more accessible Japanese version - as I did.

This is Japan being devastated by a rival nation in Sonic Wings for the SNES

The transition to the Super Nintendo is well done but could have benefited a bit more from the console's capabilities. Surely the graphics and explosions take a hit, but there are several sections with an extremely bland color palette, which carry an overall washed out aspect that's downright depressing. Therefore it’s clear that regarding graphics this version of Sonic Wings has aged a lot. Fortunately the gameplay is intact, so no more severe worries here. As expected, the screen is stretched to fit a regular TV size. Combined with the fact that the game requires some exquisite tap dodging, maybe that's the reason why the whole game feels more difficult than the arcade original.

All characters have unique features such as firepower, bomb and speed. Upon collecting three power-ups the plane is upgraded to its maximum capacity, only to be downgraded after a while so that you have to collect another power-up. If already powered up to the max, surplus power-ups are worth 2.000 points each. Bombs work in the classic way, some of them have instantaneous panic function but are weaker and others are more powerful but come with a slightly annoying delay. After analyzing all characters and ruling out Kohful (the Swedish guy with whom I beat the PS2 port), my choice for alter-ego went to Hien, the Japanese ninja who fires shurikens/knives. He's reasonably fast, and the homing missiles are a nice addition when his plane gets powered up.

Straightforward gameplay with dialogue intermissions between stages are what the game is all about. Autofire is only partially implemented, since each press of the fire button shoots a burst of short duration. There's no need to mash the button like crazy, just tap it calmly for a continuous and efficient fire stream. The order of the first 3 stages is always shuffled, and each one of them will add more enemies/bullets the further they appear in the game. That's our elusive rank kicking in! It's pretty manageable at least until you reach level 5, when getting there without dying will make enemy bullets so fast that avoiding death becomes an extremely daunting task. My main strategy was to die in the beginning of the 4th stage in order to keep things under control. The occasional slowndown is very handy during some hairy boss fights, but don't expect this to happen against the final rocket boss or the final flying monkey. Extra points are obtained through money uncovered from ground targets, and apart from killing every possible enemy that's basically what influences a bit more in scoring. An extend is granted with 400.000 points, and if you’re very, very lucky you might get a random 1UP from one of the power-up carriers.

English nobleman William fights the boss from the Sweden stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Igdopus)

Sonic Wings was heralded at the time of its release on the SNES for allowing co-op play. However, as I mentioned above, both players get stuck with the same pair from one nation only (not a problem for 1CCers anyway, we always play on our own). When playing solo, pressing start on the 2nd controller allows the selection of the 2nd pilot from each nation instead of the default guys, so there you have some flexibility as far as the options for different airplanes go. It doesn’t matter how you decide to play it, the game is great fun anyways and has that special quality that always makes you come back for more, at least until you can nail the much anticipated 1CC. Note: Aero Fighters (US version) does not loop, but Sonic Wings (Japan) does.

Now for some secrets! Want to play with the bunnies from Video System's first shmup Rabio Lepus? In the character selection screen, hold R and press ← ↓ → X Y A B ← ↓ → ↓ X Y A B. Both bunnies have overpowered weapons, with bombs that home on enemies but completely lack any panic function. Their money currency is carrots and they're also allowed to play eight stages since they don't represent any nation. Want to play a special boss attack mode? In the character selection screen, hold R and press A ← Y → X ↓ B ↑. This mode also includes a time counter and a completely new BGM.

Functionally speaking, in a simple yet very annoying oversight from the developer, this version isn't friendly at all to dedicated players because it has no buffering of high scores and it's just impossible to pause the game after dying. The high score below was immortalized just before I fought the boss with Hien in stage 2-1, on NORMAL.