Monday, August 30, 2010

Avatar Squadron (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Raoghard
Published by Raoghard in 2010

There are days when you get home after work and you're so tired that all you want to do is spread out in a comfortable sofa and rest. I had one of these days last week. But what if you have an Xbox 360 controller on the couch while you're lying there doing nothing? Chances are you'll turn on the video game and browse through whatever new games there might be available for download. That day I came across this little shmup with hideous cover art called Avatar Squadron. I was too tired to get off my ass and go to the gym, so why not give it a try in the comfort of my couch as time dragged by? What I didn't expect was to beat the game in my first sitting.

Just like 98% of the Indie Games catalog in Xbox Live, presentation in Avatar Squadron is pretty bare bones. The differential here - and I've just learned there are other games that do the same (duh!) - is that your console avatar is taken as the pilot of the hero airplane. I guess there are people out there who're into this, but for me it's irrelevant. Much more amusing is the in-game dialogue between Beano the airplane and the control tower every time a stage starts. Yes, shooting stuff in a cute setting with some light humor is definitely not bad if you're tired and not feeling game for more complicated challenges.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

In the course of all 12 stages of Avatar Squadron, the player faces variations of the same enemies over and over: biplanes in all sorts of formations, tanks, cars, dirigibles, missile launchers, helicopters. Backgrounds are presented with simple 3D rendering in cities, beaches and landscapes alternating between day and night. The overall style is cartoonish and deliberately lacks any level of detail, going instead for a fluffy, lighthearted tone that's completed by a soundtrack that tries to evoke a heroic epic feeling. Almost all sounds are also displayed as comic book-like onomatopoeias that luckily don't get in the way of the gameplay. The hero airplane is animated nicely, bending and swerving all around as it moves. Every stage starts with the airplane taking off and ends with either a boss fight or a landing sequence. Some of them drag a bit for being longer than others, but all things considered I think it's decently put together for such a budget title.

Simplicity aside, there are some neat ideas thrown into the gameplay. All you have as a weapon is a pea shot, with absolutely no progressive power ups. What you get as extras are temporary enhancements that vary in utility and duration, and these include a hammer, a 1-time smart bomb that detonates in contact with the ground, a deflector raquet, a pinball launcher, an invincibility cloud and a magnet to capture up to three tanks/cars to take advantage of their firepower. Whenever one of these items appears for the first time you get a briefing of how it works in the dialogue that precedes each stage.

Destroying a big enemy or a complete wave of smaller planes releases a medal, and by collecting 20 of these the player gets an extra life. Starting on the second level, every time you get hit you just have to tap the shot button really fast to recover from death and keep flying. This gets more and more difficult to pull off, so it's not possible to do it indefinitely. Scoring is heavily based on collecting the colored diamonds: yellow for 5.000, green for 10.000 and pink for 20.000 points each. As for cosmetic touches, the Y button makes the avatar wave and R1 changes the airplane color.

A squadron of four where only one pilot is actually awake
(courtesy of YouTube user yumyumentertainment)

This is a kid's game, no doubt about it. If you get past the 1st stage chances are very high you'll get to the end without even thinking. Even in its functional interface this game is probably designed for 5-year olds. For example, stages are unlocked after being played and can be replayed at any time afterwards. The game refuses to reset any score you might have after a credit ends, so if you beat it and decide to go for another run you'll have the same score as before, even if you choose to start a "new game". If you want to start it over from scratch the only remedy is to access the memory manager and delete the save file. And I thought there wasn't anything more annoying than having to be online in order to play a game...

Avatar Squadron allows up to four simultaneous players, but they share the same life stock even though there's an individual scoring for each. That's just weird, and helps undermine a concept that could have been definitely better, as indicated by the stage reminiscent of the 80's. Played in shades of black & white, it has tons of music jokes in the dialogue and an A-Ha spoof as soundtrack.

Incredibly easy, almost worthless achievement, NORMAL difficulty, all 12 stages completed from scratch:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Espgaluda (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Arika in 2003

Espgaluda was one of first new shmups I was introduced to a couple of years ago when I started collecting video games. It is a Cave game, so back then I couldn’t help but be a little frightened by how it played. Eventually I got a little more experienced with Cave, and the time and necessary confidence finally came for me to face yet another bullet hell challenge. Coming after Ketsui and before Mushihimesama, Espgaluda is highly regarded among Cave fans for a number of reasons, such as the intricate scoring system and an assumed lower difficulty regarding the gameplay. Since I had to struggle a lot more than I had initially thought I would, I don’t agree with this second reason at all...

This game is supposed to be a prequel to Esp Ra.De., released in 1998. In both games the characters possess extrasensorial powers, hence the “Esp” in the titles. Gameplay similarities, however, are kept to an absolute minimum. The story in Espgaluda seems to be as convoluted as the gameplay, so I’ll recommend this article if you want to know more about it. What we need to know is that there are two playable characters: Ageha (the guy) and Tateha (the girl). Ageha has a straightforward shot pattern, whereas Tateha’s firepower works in a spread fashion. My feeling is that Ageha is best for scoring, while Tateha is best for survival.

Diving into this game isn’t such a big deal. If you want, just shoot everything down and enjoy your blasting fun. Learning how to score properly is a very complicated story though. Both Ageha and Tateha behave equally, and as in almost all Cave games they have a regular shot (button tapping, autofire) and a concentrated shot/laser (button holding) that also reduces character speed. Killed enemies generate green gems that are automatically absorbed and added to a counter (maximum of 500). And what do you do with these gems? You use it to fuel the famous Kakusei mode. Upon activating Kakusei, the character switches gender (Ageha turns into a girl and Tateha turns into a guy), the green gem counter starts decreasing and all enemy bullets will become pink and travel at a slower speed while the player behavior remains unchanged. Bullets from all killed enemies are converted into points and enemies are turned into gold, which is automatically absorbed and added to a secondary counter (maximum of 1000) that’s used as a score multiplier. Every killed enemy will also make the green gem counter deplete at a faster rate.

Espgaluda's start screen on the PS2

It’s possible to activate and deactivate Kakusei at any given time, regardless of the amount of green gems you have. However, when the green gem counter is empty, Kakusei will turn enemy bullets red and make them travel faster than normal, in what’s called Overmode. Overmode doesn’t turn bullets into points but does generate gold from destroyed enemies, with 4 stages of bullet acceleration and score increase (indicated by the circle around the character). The last type of attack available is the Barrier, whose stock is given by the green bar at the bottom of the screen. Pressing the barrier button makes the player invincible and involves the character in a ball of energy that starts increasing in size. Releasing the barrier button then unleashes a powerful forward laser - the larger the energy barrier ball the bigger the damage. Each barrier bar can provide 4 of these attacks if the barrier button is just tapped, so it counts as 4 smart bombs. One last thing: whenever the player is in Kakusei mode, getting hit will activate the barrier automatically at the cost of half the barrier energy bar.

So where’s the catch? Where’s the secret to big points? Simple: it’s not just a matter of entering Kakusei, melting bullets, getting back to normal and repeating the process. The longer you stay in Kakusei mode, the higher the value of the destroyed bullets. When you see those ×100 point tags you know you’ve reached a situation of scoring frenzy. In order to achieve this, a few things must be kept in mind besides the mandatory positioning and timing: (1) in Kakusei enemies also shoot more bullets, so it’s good to enter Kakusei mode and wait until you have the highest bullet density in order to take enemies down; (2) larger enemies should be weakened to the brink of destruction in normal mode and only then killed when in Kakusei; (3) popcorn enemies must be eliminated in normal mode and whenever possible avoided while in Kakusei, so that you don’t waste that precious stock of green gems.

Main shot is powered up with the P icon (get 5 for maximum), and barrier energy with the E icon. Extends are given with 4 million and 14 million points, and an extra life can be taken at the end of the 3rd stage if you destroy a particular chest while in Kakusei (not Overmode). The longer you stay alive and the higher you score more enemies and bullets will be thrown at you. This rank progression is rather subtle and is reset if you die. Dying takes 1/3 of the gold counter and returns you to the default power, but at least you can grab the scattered power-up icons, getting 250 green gems as a consolation prize.

Ageha's dramatic fight against Espgaluda's final boss
(courtesy of YouTube user fjigame)

As you can see, Espgaluda isn’t properly a "pick up 'n play" shmup. Sure the first couple of stages are quite easy, and Kakusei can make things easier at the cost of a decent score. If you’re at least a little like me though, it will be hard to ignore scoring. And this takes time to learn, believe me. Despite all the expected intensity and strategy-laden scoring techniques, everybody agrees that the most memorable aspect of the game is by far the last boss, definitely one of the most epic final bosses ever designed in a shmup. It just seems the beast won’t die! To make matters worse, in his last form barrier attacks increase his health instead of taking him down!

Pastel shades in a colorful design are what defines the graphical style in Espgaluda. Explosions are massive, and from what I heard the PS2 port is an excellent conversion of the arcade original. The music leans towards techno and fits the gameplay well, but it doesn’t really shine when listened out of the game’s context (like in Milestone’s Chaos Field). The PS2 release is packed with extras, the main ones being a special Arrange mode (with way more bullets and selectable characters that behave just like the ones from Esp Ra.De.) and a second DVD with two complete superplays. The game itself has some nice arcade mode replays that allow override and can be used for practice. These are all great tools to learn how to score properly, even though it’s really hard to pull off those strategies.

I have a suspicion that Espgaluda is an acquired taste, even among bullet hell admirers. I liked it, but not in the same level as, for instance, the marvelous Mushihimesama. Also I didn’t perform as well as I wanted, but the 1CC goal was achieved (Ageha, NORMAL) and it’s time to move on to the next challenge.

Espgaluda II on the Xbox 360? I still have a lot to learn before I try that one!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Axelay (SNES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1992

There was a time when I was a Segaphile and I very much preferred the Mega Drive over the SNES. I used to have heated arguments with Nintendo fanboys about it, and those who lived actively through the 16 bit golden era know exactly what I’m talking about. These days are long gone but the memories still linger with a warm, fuzzy feeling. And this brings me to Axelay, a special game in my personal story because it was the one that made me bow down to the hidden awesomeness within the SNES library. This exceptional shmup stood the test of time like few others did, and I still get that well known chill down my spine every time I start playing it.

Konami exceeded themselves when developing Axelay from the ground up exclusively for the SNES. The game extracts the best from Nintendo’s console, being well known for its use of the much famed Mode 7 effect. It was a novelty back then – and a worthy reason for general praise towards the game – but today Mode 7 is also the main draw behind the few specks of criticism Axelay gets. Some people claim it just doesn’t feel right, as I did when I started playing it. However, the core stage design and the overall value of the package far outweighs the cosmetic touches provided by Mode 7. What I mean to say is that Axelay is much, much more than Mode 7, and as a shmup experience it holds the distinction of being an absolute masterpiece.

WARNING - evil mother spider and baby spiders ahead

There are some rather unique ideas in the gameplay front. For instance, there are no power-ups or items at all to be collected. The ship can be equipped with three different weapon types every time a stage starts (a new weapon always becomes available in between levels). These weapons can be cycled with the shoulder buttons and work as back-ups for each other: every time the ship is hit the current weapon is lost and the next available one is automatically activated. Once all weapons are lost you’re left with a basic firepower capability - death happens when you get shot while using an empty weapon slot or whenever you collide against enemies, walls or bigger shots. Respawning brings back all three selected weapons again. This is an interesting concept that totally eliminates the main drawback of most power-up based shooters. In other words, dying isn’t nearly as bad as in 90% of the games in the genre. And with so many extends (first with 30.000 and then for every 70.000 points), blaming Axelay’s gameplay for not performing decently is something no serious player should ever do.

Main shot and auxiliary missiles are characteristic to all weapons and are fired with different buttons by default, but fortunately these can be mapped to the same button in the OPTIONS. And that’s it, no more explanations needed! To enjoy Axelay you just have to keep your thumb on a single trigger and your pointers on the shoulder buttons. What lies ahead is mostly getting acquainted with each type of weapon, thereby choosing which combination suits best for each stage. Following the classic mold created in Salamander, orientation changes in every stage: odd levels are vertical, even levels are horizontal. Vertical stages are where Mode 7 is extensively used in order to create an effect of rolling perspective to the terrain. The action, however, still stakes place in a flat plane. The resulting detachment is weird up front, but it never feels gamebreaking. Because of this the horizontal stages do feel a bit more polished and accomplished.

One thing that seems to bother at first sight is how the game forces the ship to stay in the centerline whenever the stage layout is bigger than a screen size. That's the rule in almost 100% of the vertical stages, but at least for me it became natural after a few plays.

Arms installation is completed... Good luck!
(courtesy of YouTube user Retroplay)

What makes Axelay a superb accomplishment in old school shmupping is the winning atmosphere that results from the combination of excellent graphics, music, challenge and gameplay. Visuals and stage/enemy design are top notch, with great ideas everywhere and huge bosses to boot. The music is outstanding, definitely one of the best game soundtracks of all time. If you ever wondered where you could experience the true essence of the shmup genre, look no further: get a copy of Axelay and try at least the first couple of stages. If you don’t like it, my bad - there’s no hope for you as a shmupper. If you do, try to get to the last level (6th) so that you can behold one of the finest stages ever designed in any shmup.

As far as challenge goes, I think it suits all kinds of players really well. Once you’ve mastered the game it will restart in the harder available setting – rumor says it that a run in NORMAL will have 3 loops, with further loops unfolding on HARD and on an extra VERY HARD difficulty. Gameplay involves everything I’ve already mentioned, but those who might value the narrative side of things should also know that there’s a brief intro that tells the backstory of the pilot and his quest for justice. As an odd side note, Konami also allows you to tweak screen brightness if you want to.

Besides being one of the best shmups ever made in my opinion, this is definitely my favorite title in the SNES shmup library. The only one that comes close as of today is Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie, but I would have to revisit that in order to draw a final conclusion. This time my goal when replaying Axelay was to beat my previous high score (achieved +39% ) and reach the 3rd loop (reached 3-4). Here's the result:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Legion (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 or 8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Telenet Japan
Published by Reno in 1990

If you are one of the people who lived through the 16 bit gaming generation, owned a Mega Drive and enjoyed shooters you’ll most certainly be familiar with names such as Renovation, Wolfteam or Telenet Japan. No? Okay, what about Sol-Deace, Gaiares, Granada and Arrow Flash? It rings a bell, right? If for any reason you ever cherished any of these shooters, I’m quite sure you would be thrilled to know that Revovation/Telenet also released a couple of shmups for the Turbo Duo/Turbografx-CD. Being a late guest to the PC Engine party I was certainly thrilled to know that. At least until I finally got in contact with Legion.

Legion carries the Reno(vation?) publishing seal of quality, developed by Telenet Japan itself (this company is a mess, really). It does not, however, resemble in any way its famous Mega Drive shmup siblings. The atmosphere and the gameplay are so different that it’s almost as if a totally different company had developed the game, which is often hailed as one of the worst shooters in the system, let alone in the whole genre. Yes, under certain points of view it is a tough contender for all lists of crappiest games ever released. At the same time, it isn’t a total waste either. Shall we start at some of the good aspects then?

Proceed immediately to that sector and destroy the robot! Jeez!

Graphics in Legion are fine for a PC Engine CD game. There’s some basic yet effective use of parallax, a good color palette and a variety of ideas that could have been explored a bit more. The music has no identity of its own, and fails to cause any lasting impression whatsoever. The best tunes seem to be reserved to the intermission screens showing the planets you’ll be flying through as you play, and at certain moments it does remind you of more famous competitors. The weirdness of the BGM for the 3rd stage practically makes you think this tune is a leftover from Taito’s Darius.

The last and most controversial positive in Legion is its challenge level, which I find to be quite unique. However, this is where part of the criticism abounds, since this crazy challenge is also one of the responsible factors for the game’s bad fame.
Right after you start the first stage, enemies sweep back and forth and shoot so fast that it will take lots of credits and practice just to beat this level alone. It eventually turns into a continued attempt to kill all enemies as soon as they enter the screen, or else you’re pretty much doomed. Cheap deaths? You’ll certainly need to try at least the 1st stage from Legion in order to know what they really mean. This kill-or-die gameplay behavior isn’t constant though, in what could be seen both as design variety or schizophrenic choices a.k.a. bad game design. Random difficulty spikes follow and culminate in a crazy scramble in the last stage, with blazing lasers being fired in the middle of the screen all the time and nearly impossible narrow passages to navigate through. Take it from me when I tell you to practice this a lot in an emulator before facing the real challenge. Unless you’re possessed by a shmup-god it’s just counterproductive to learn it by practicing in the real hardware.

I complain and I rant, but I'm still a hero in the end!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

You start out with 5 lives, with no 1Ups or extends in sight (it’s possible to continue three times if you want to go on punishing yourself after your lives are over). Three weapons can be switched by taking the C icon: the default vulcan shot (green), a blue spread shot (red) and a set of homing missiles (blue). Besides the odd color choices for the weapons (it’s common to mistake red for blue), the C icon cycles colors very fast and demands good timing to be grabbed. Other items include: power-ups (P, get five for maximum), additional missiles (M), shield/barrier (B) and special weapon (O). The special weapon can be deployed only once (sometimes twice, just don’t ask me how), and then again only after you get another O icon. Besides your own memory, there’s absolutely no indication of the special weapon’s stock anywhere. I couldn’t figure out the exact rules to activate its two different types (the smart bomb or the missile shower), though I think it works according to the stage you’re playing.
Honestly speaking, the above paragraph tells how messed up the gameplay seems to be. It’s not the end of the world, I tend to see it as different and uncommon. I do think skill lapidated by practice and perseverance are keys to win a difficult game. What kills Legion as a shmup isn’t this presumed impossible difficulty level. It isn’t the lackluster stage arrangement, which will see you playing one less stage if you choose the lower route after the 3rd level, also messing with the stage order and making you play the last stage as if it were the 5th. It isn’t the pilot’s narration either - it’s actually amusing and laughter inducing at times. What kills this game is the absolute lack of scoring (other examples: Barunba, Terra Cresta 3D). Where’s the purpose, where’s the motivation to destroy all those enemies and bosses? Once you finish this game there’s no coming back to it, and this awful feeling is inversely directly proportional to how much effort you have to put into the process of beating it.

Surely I’m proud of this 1CC. It felt good to do it twice. But I would’ve felt even better if the game had a proper score. I know it is highly unlikely, but if you ever decide to try beating Legion as well, the best advice I can give is to get to the last stage with maxed out homing missiles and at least 4 lives. This is what made it possible for me to see the following screen without continuing:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Air Buster (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kaneko
Published by Kaneko in 1991

For some very personal reasons, I always thought that jet/airplane-based horizontal shmups were the quintessential image of the genre. Maybe that’s related to my preference for horis and to my childhood memories of Top Gun, Iron Eagle and After Burner, but it sort of induces me to enjoy a bit more games like Air Buster – a very decent arcade conversion that’s also known as Aero Blasters (if we’re talking about the Japanese release). The name Air Buster does sound generic but in time I’ve come to like it, since this way it’s harder to mistake the game for Aero Fighters, which is the western name for the first title in the famed Sonic Wings series.

I don’t want to sound cliché, but at first sight playing Air Buster does feel like playing a generic, out-of-the-mill updated version from an old shooter of the Atari 2600 era. But soon enough you’ll realize this is a real 16 bit shooter, and as such it will present variety both graphically and challengewise. That’s one of the key differences between good and bad horizontal shmups, and fortunately this game follows the path of the enlightened, diverse iterations to the formula. Yes, the first stage is all colorful, with fine albeit simple parallax in the backgrounds and very easy enemies to dispatch. Should we expect the same for the upcoming stages? Definitely no.

Gotta protect this city at all costs!

While still being very colorful, sharp and well designed, with nice mechanical craft and machinery as enemies, further challenges throughout the game will demand a fine deal of skill if the player wants to reach the end of the journey. There’s a long and narrow tunnel in the 2nd stage, followed by a crowded flight into outer space in the 3rd level and an unexpected change of pace right afterwards. This change of pace is the reason why some people reject Air Buster as being badly designed or unfairly difficult. Since you’re in outer space, you’re out of gravity and the ship never stops moving. It makes maneuvering and dodging twice as difficult, and the only way to stop moving is to lean against the border of the screen. This is when you notice that the game unfolds in a very logical manner: (stage 1) fly over a city, (stage 2) invade a tunnel base, (stage 3) scramble into the stratosphere and (stage 4) make your way through enemies and debris in outer space!

Absence of gravity lasts until the boss of stage 5, when you re-enter a closed environment in order to play the rest of the game. That’s not much of a refresher because for the most part the Death Circus (stage 6) is an exercise in precise positioning through a moving maze.

In order to deal with all the baddies, the jet must be powered up. Though they might appear floating for free pick-up, most power-ups are released in groups of five items by destroying a chunky orange carrier. The player has to be quick to get the desired items because they fall off the screen very fast. Getting the best icons doesn’t come easily, so it will only get natural after a bit of practice. The main one is P (power-up), followed by the icons for secondary attacks/features: S (side fighters), R (rear shot), red M (straight missiles), green M (homing missiles), 6 (6-way shot), H (revolving turret), B (bumper, essential during the fast tunnel run in the 2nd stage) and $ (points). There’s also the chargeable "buster" flash (activated with buttons A or C) that disintegrates on-screen bullets and popcorn enemies – although weak and seemingly useless it can be very handy in certain situations, such as the glut of heat-seeking missiles in the last stage. There are no speed-ups, and the only extra life is gained upon reaching 200.000 points.

Air Buster's first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

Make no mistake, this is a game that tricks you into thinking it’s easy. It has a lighthearted feel that’s perfectly matched by the upbeat soundtrack (I love how the music picks up in synch with the action during the tunnel section). However, the truth is that Air Buster is a cruel, mean game. It has a deadly ability to rip you to shreds and empty your life stock in a snap. Getting stripped to nothing in busy parts is disheartening. And when you die you have to wait for the death animation and the repositioning of the jet, which takes a while and definitely pisses me off when a precious power-up carrier goes by. Those pesky globes that materialize out of nowhere are a pain in the ass, but the trickiest part for me is the first half of the 5th stage. Confession: I practiced this part in an emulator on my PC before playing in on real hardware (this part was the reason I gave up on the game months ago).

Air Buster is fun and addictive, as long as you can cope with the tricky challenge factor of later stages. Co-op play is possible, and it's just as fluid as when you're playing solo, with no slowdown or noticeable flicker at all. Compared to the PC Engine port the Mega Drive version of Air Buster seems to be the superior game, both in graphics and sound. There's a weird thing in the Mega Drive port though: it has a kind of short delay every time a stage starts, as if it was actually “loading”. Thankfully it’s nothing gamebreaking.

I’m really glad I could finally 1CC this after having given up on it once. Here’s my high score for the successful run (NORMAL):

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Planet Joker (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft/IMP
Published by naxat soft in 1997

There are games that have such a bad reputation that you almost feel guilty when you take them out of the box/case to finally try them out. It’s almost as if you’re commiting a crime or something, like “don’t let anybody see you doing this or else you’ll get flamed for being such a retard”. With so many good titles lying around, why would anyone want to play something like Planet Joker? Masochism, variety, guilty pleasure… All of these factors come into the mix, but in the end it all boils down to just one thing, at least for me: this game is a shoot’em up, and as such it deserves to be loved.

But alas! The fact that I love shoot’em ups doesn’t mean I love Planet Joker!

Naxat soft was a big name in the first half of the 90s, especially for PC Engine owners. Unfortunately, this game is a clear demonstration that their brand would never be the same starting from the 32-bit era. It is simply regarded as the worst shooter in the Sega Saturn library, a distinction that’s almost unrivaled and shows how the genre still wasn’t ready to embrace full 3D graphical rendering. The saddest thing is that this isn’t the only bad thing about Planet Joker. There are also the disappointing low-res cut scenes, loading times that are far from acceptable and a handful of weird functional traits that only serve the purpose of annoying the poor soul that for whatever reason decides to play the game. Since I had the guts to do it, you can take it from me when I lay down the facts about Planet Joker.

Wow! What a big laser you have!

The game plays in a vertically tilted orientation, very close to Silpheed. There are times when it tilts less or more, depending on the enemy you’re facing. Everything is rendered with polygons in a 3D environment, from popcorn enemies to bosses to backgrounds, with extremely underwhelming results. I believe the speed of the game contributes to this bad impression, beause if it moved faster and with a better framerate the poor graphics could be duly forgiven. Thus the real experience is that of a broken, ugly, unpolished and at times unfinished game that for some unbelievable reason got greenlit for release. It’s evident that Planet Joker carries an epic feel that’s ultimately unmatched by the game itself, with a general design that evokes old anime series such as Gloizer X.

After choosing one out of seven huge available robots, the player must go through seven stages of rather repetitive action. The mecha characters differ in power, speed, defense and “charge”, which is certainly related to how fast the shield function recharges after being used. This shield makes the player invincible while active, and can only be used again after the shield bar has been fully recharged. Another special attack is the bomb (C for a radius detonation and W for a straight wave attack), whose stock is replenished by appropriate incoming icons. The regular shot can be changed according to a power-up that comes down staggering and cycling colors (blue, green and yellow). I still don’t know what the 4th color (red) does, because it doesn’t change the weapon used and doesn’t seem to have any influence at all in the game. Lives are measured according to a health bar (again much like Silpheed), with sparse replenishers refilling 2 units of energy. Once this health bar is depleted it’s GAME OVER.

Most weapons in the game feel clunky and awkward. Three power-ups will max out the robot’s weapon – there seems to be some autofire after you pick the first power-up, but it’s always better to tap the fire button for a more solid shooting rate. The end of stage bonus is based in destruction rate, remaining health (refilled in the next stage) and remaining bombs. All boss patterns are very predictable, which makes the game pretty easy once you get used to them, and if being easy is a redeeming factor for such an awfully crafted game at least you can say something positive about Planet Joker. Maybe a couple of the BGMs can be considered nice as well, but that’s it.

Ravles mecha piloted by a cute heroine in Sega Saturn's Planet Joker
(courtesy of YouTube user superdeadite)

Beating the game will unlock Boss Attack mode to join the other two extra modes: Score Attack (3’) and Time Attack. According to the manual, there is a hidden 8th robot named Randall, but I have no idea how to unlock him. Not that it matters anyway. Some of the annoying factors I mentioned above are the intruding dialogue that takes place in several parts of the game (they can be skipped but are nonetheless bothersome), the fact that the score doesn’t reset when you continue and the impossibility to pause during boss fights. If you have to answer the phone, scratch your back, kill that annoying mosquito, drop an emergency turd or run for your crying baby during a boss fight you can pretty much consider your credit lost...

Planet Joker’s direct competition as worst Saturn shmup is Terra Cresta 3D. For a brief moment I thought of trying the latter right away, but I figured I’d had enough pseudo-3D crap for at least two months.

My 1CC run was done with the robot named Karshow, namely the most powerful one, and here’s the final score I got: