Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twinkle Tale (Mega Drive)

Unscrolling arena / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toyo Recording Co.
Published by Wonder Amusement Studio (WAS) in 1992

As much as I have tried (and I did try) I never liked RPGs. They are the exact opposite of shmups as far as pure gameplay goes, and I just can't afford spending so much time on a game I will probably never touch again once it's over because it's so damn long. I'm mentioning this because visually Twinkle Tale bears a strinkingly familiar look for those who enjoy 16-bit RPGs. The overhead perspective, the graphical flare and the heads-up display all give people the wrong idea, but the truth couldn't be more different, for Twinkle Tale is plain shooting fun in its purest form. No EP, HP, puzzles or talking bullshit, you just blast everything with your magical powers while in control of a cute witch heroine.

The game came out only in Japan, and was developed by a really obscure company. It is a highlight within the Mega Drive library because it mixes the multidirectional shooting style (reminiscent of Commando and Kiki Kaikai) with pure vertical sections, namely the boss battles and the whole stage 7, where the game turns into a sort of vertical Cotton. The whole fantasy theme is coherent and remarkable, with lots of creatures, both cute and demonic, represented in a multitude of colors over an exquisite art design. With no frantic gameplay, the relaxed pace of the game combined with the great atmosphere works perfectly to provide a nice, easygoing challenge.

Attack of the evil gargoyles

Controls in Twinkle Tale are pretty functional. One button fires, another button cycles between three types of shot and the third button activates one out of two magic spells. The shot types include the obligatory spread pattern (which fires tiny stars), a straightforward weapon (the most powerful one) and a stream of homing spheres. All of them are powered up by collecting the small star icon - the current shot is powered up first, but it's not necessary to switch to the others in order to power them up. Magic spells are stocked and stacked up to three by collecting magic items. The fire magic will cause three columns of fire with dragon heads to wipe the entire screen, while the ice magic will fire three huge ice spheres with some mild homing capability. Both are very useful in tight situations because they block all enemy fire that's caught within their range.

Getting hit makes you lose one block of health, and as soon as the last one is depleted it's GAME OVER. Thankfully, health replenishers are spread out everywhere. After defeating some bosses senior wizards will appear and also grant permanent extra health blocks, so by the time the last boss is reached you have 8 bits of health. These wizards seem to give the heroine a few advices in the form of text dialogue, but luckily these can be properly skipped. Speaking of which, the game does have a somewhat detailed story going on, but I can't figure out anything because I don't know Japanese. However, if you're into playing through emulators, there's a translation patch provided by this M.I.J.E.T. guy/group for your emulating pleasure.

The whole adventure from start to finish
(courtesy of YouTube user cubex55)

Besides all of its pleasing presentation and spot-on controls, Twinkle Tale does come with a severe flaw regarding gameplay. There's a point in the game where it's possible to just stay put and milk enemies forever until you reach the counterstop. So it doesn't matter if all surplus health and power-up icons are converted into points, because this kills the validity of any scoring. It's in the middle of the 3rd stage, just before the moving platforms high above in the sky. The trick is definitely gamebreaking, but since this is not a checkpoint title, arrangements can be made for low score challenges or speed runs. I must also point out that continuing doesn't reset the score, even though it sends the player back to the beginning of the stage. There's some slowdown here and there when the screen gets too cluttered, but it's nothing really serious.

On the Mega Drive, shmuppers craving for something similar but a bit more manly or aggressive have the option to go for Undeadline or Technosoft's Elemental Master, which I consider to be superior games. Twinkle Tale's fantasy-driven settings and competent albeit unremarkable musical arrangements are still a treat though, rarity ratings obviously not considered.

I did not do any milking in the 1CC high score below, playing on NORMAL.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Xexex (PSP)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami in 1991
Published by Konami in 2007

About a month ago Xexex was chosen as game #2 in the STGT annual tournament at the shmups forums. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Ever since I laid my eyes on this game, while briefly testing my recently acquired Salamander Portable on the PSP, I was equally amazed by how good it looked and how uninformed I was for not even knowing about its existence. I think the reason why the game was included in a Salamander compilation is its graphical similarity with Salamander 2, even though it hasn't got anything in common with the Gradius universe at all. It's quite different actually, in a way you wouldn't really expect: in a closer look, Xexex is Konami's obvious take on the R-Type formula.

Xexex has this special flavor that R-Type fans know really well. It's a gorgeous game to look at, but it's also punishing to the point of frustration. I started playing it on MAME for the tournament, but as I got away from the computer I shifted to the PSP version, which is exactly like it with the advantage of being able to turn off the slowdown (thus making it an even harder challenge). I wasn't able to deliver a good performance because I got stuck with the odds from the 5th stage, and only recently I returned to it with some reasonable time for practicing and no peer pressure.

Menacing weapons against spikes and brains on the 1st stage

The story in this game seems to revolve around rescuing a girl from the claws of this androgynous blonde bad guy. After receiving her intergalactic cry for help there goes the insect-like spaceship, cruising through a boundless green sky landscape with only a pea shooter. However, soon enough upgrades arrive. One thing to notice about weapons in this game is that there are no power-ups. There's a good array of weapons, but they don't evolve and are changed with icons released by killing blinking enemies or by hitting some secret spots (they also release speed-ups). The "flint" - which is the equivalent of the "force" in R-Type - is the only thing that can be powered up: an organic, indestructible living pod that grows an extra arm with each new power level (up to 3), and can remain attached to the front of the ship or released so that it can kill enemies on its own. While the flint is attached you can charge the weapon for a destructive organic blast (imagine Marrow's special attack in MvC2). If the flint is detached while charging it will be tossed forwards; with no charge, it will just be released to wander off close to the ship. Autofire is enabled whenever the flint is detached, a subtle yet very welcome and functional gameplay aspect.

Knowing when to release and how to influence the flint's behavior for attack and defense is a key factor for winning. I say "influence" because it's not really possible to control how the flint behaves. Once this thing is deployed, it moves a bit approximately every 3 seconds, in a visible attempt to reach the closest enemy. Its arms will embrace the enemy if possible, thus inflicting a great deal of damage. Sometimes this is impaired by walls, scrolling or conflicting enemies, leading to erratic, unpredictable maneuvers. Another thing: once the flint is called back, you can't release it again until it has docked.

What makes the design of Xexex special are the several details spread throughout the whole game. One of them is this brain energy source that's present in all major enemies. It represents their weak point, and is fiercely embedded in the game's design from start to finish. The insertion of enemies and backgrounds constructed around the X character is another subtle touch (during boss confrontations especially). Xexex is also remarkable for having a very diverse set of environments, enemies and bosses, as well as lots of rotation and warping effects applied to them. The whole 2nd stage, for instance, feels like a Skittle-flooded candy oasis, while the whole 5th stage takes place inside a virtual reality environment, with all the enemy armada dangerously materializing out of nowhere. Note: I had a hard, hard time mastering this level!

The soundtrack doesn't have any standout tracks, but it complements the game's atmosphere with very good results.

A superb playthrough of Xexex's 3rd and 4th stages (MAME)
(courtesy of YouTube user saucykobold)

The biggest criticism I can mention on Xexex is the way power-ups are displayed. The icons are very confusing for beginners, and it takes a while to get used to all of them. I recommend waiting for the whole attract mode to run so that you can see a very comprehensive tutorial on how each of the weapons work. This is important because some of them offer a huge advantage when playing certain parts of the game (homing laser for stage 4 is a classic example). Another conflicting point is the nature of the extends. They are totally random and only appear from one of the secret icon spots. It's very hard to come across one of them, so don't count on extra lives if you want to see the end of the game.

All hori fans, especially R-Type additcs, owe themselves at least a look at Xexex. It's regarded by some people as the most unique of all Konami shooters, and as such it alone makes the Salamander Portable compilation a worthy investment. Never mind the European and North American arcade versions, which added a health bar to the ship and disfigured the original game horribly.

Here's my high score on NORMAL, frame drop OFF, reaching the 1st level in the 2nd loop. It's a lot better than my best result during the 2nd week of STGT 2010. By the way, let it be known that way before Psikyo introduced those crazy second loop dificulties Konami did it first with the second loop of Xexex. It's that crazy!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

R-Type (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1987
Published by Ascii Entertainment in 1998

I know it sounds repetitive, but one just can't write about a game like R-Type without mentioning its classic status. It is unquestionably the flagship of the shooting genre for the 80s, and it's just impossible to have a conversation about shmups and not remember the revolution introduced by this little albeit brutal spaceship adventure. Alongside Gradius, R-Type established how a horizontal shooting game should play and feel like, and for years the mold created by the guys at Irem would remain the norm for countless other companies. Just to have an idea of its influence, the gameplay in R-Type is probably one of the most cloned styles ever, ranging from somewhat poor and obscure copycats (Katakis, Rezon) to more famous and established explicit homages (Pulstar, Last Resort, Last Hope).

There are lots of reasons for why R-Type is considered to be a staple in shoot'em up history, and if you have a Playstation lying around you can check it for yourself through the R-Types compilation. Here it's possible to experience an arcade perfect port, in a package that also offers the sequel R-Type II in all its glory. To make things even better, in this version there are separated buttons for single shot and autofire, which is in fact the ideal control scheme this game truly deserves.

R-Type's 1st boss: one of the most iconic images in the shmup genre

Back to why the first game is so memorable, here are the key winning reasons in my opinion:
  • Excellent game design: graphics and music unite in order to provide one of the best atmospheres ever conceived for a shmup. If you like the genre to a minimum extent, it's almost impossible not to get impressed and totally drawn in by the time you reach halfway the first stage.
  • Variety and challenge: every single stage has an ambience of its own, ranging from pure blasting open arenas to extremely claustrophobic sections where precision and memorization must come together if you wish to succeed.
  • Trademark gameplay: after the R-9 Arrowhead spaceship blasted off to strike the evil Bydo empire and the famous "force pod" was unleashed, honed and used as the ultimate weapon/shield, nothing was ever the same in the shmup world.
From basics to a full-fledged destructive weapon: the R-9 spaceship starts out with only a pea shooter and the ability to charge its weapon for a more powerful blast. The first colored power-up released by a small flying droid causes a small energy globe to appear from behind - that's the famous "force". The force can be attached to the front or the back of the ship, working as a shield against regular bullets, damaging everything it touches and also providing a special weapon as soon as a second power-up is collected. The red icon gives a wave shot, the blue one gives a group of 3 bouncing lasers and the yellow icon gives a pair of surface crawling energy bursts. The force evolves with each power-up collected until it achieves maximum energy after the 3rd power-up. Besides being latched to the ship, it can also be detached and tossed forwards/backwards with a separate button, but then it will only fire regular shots until it gets summoned back to the ship. I wonder how fresh and groundbreaking it must have been to see such a different mechanic in a shooter back in 1987!

Additional items to be collected comprise speed-ups (at least one is mandatory in order to not die horribly due to sheer sluggishness), bits/options (maximum of two, hovering above and below the ship) and a pair of guided missiles. Even with all these power-ups collected, the R9 is still quite vulnerable due to the relentless enemy firepower and the stages themselves, which represent a tough, sometimes extremely frustrating challenge. In order to overcome this natural difficulty, docking and detaching the force is essential for both survival and scoring strategies. This is the foundation of what lots of people refer to as a "memorizer shooter", of which R-Type is the first and ultimate example. It's as much an established shooting style as an acquired taste, since it's not rare to find people who despise the checkpoint system exactly for being exposed to the gripes of playing this game. After all, it is notorious for becoming virtually impossible if you die in later stages. My limit for not giving up and restarting is the first half of level 4, where I'm still able to fully recover my firepower by the time I reach the boss.

Blast off and strike the evil Bydo empire!
(courtesy of YouTube user KobayashiBR)

As I mentioned above, the best thing about the PS1 version of R-Type, besides its faithfulness to the arcade, is the mapping of a different button for autofire in addition to the regular shot and force dock/detach commands. It just feels great to play it this way, with absolutely no slowdown or flicker, as opposed to other existing home ports (I've already tried the SMS and PCE-CD ports, as of today). The PS1 disc comes with a great animated intro, several settings for screen adjustment and a nice gallery mode with info on the history and all enemies for both games - this is where I found out that the 7th boss is worth 0 points, so no more guilt for hiding below him and focusing on the falling debris... The game also allows any previously reached stage to be played directly, so practicing is made pretty easy for everybody.

I love this game not only for its overall excellence, but also for everything it represents as one of the pillars of the horizontal shooting genre. You can't call yourself a true shmupper if you haven't played R-Type yet, it's a game all shmup fans should experience at least once in their lifetime. My outcome after several intermitent sessions in this version is the one shown below, where I was able to reach stage 2-3 playing on NORMAL.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Parodius (PSP)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 2007

Even though this game is no easy achievement, I feel sad about it. I feel sad because I was frightened by the perspective of burning out on the original MSX game, which I played extensively on the PS1 until I finally “beat it”, but alas!!! Only afterwards I came to know that I had done it in the EASY setting (the game is all in Japanese), so to have a genuine victory I would have to do it all over again on HARD. I was shocked. I knew I would eventually come to hate the game, something I absolutely didn’t want to happen. So for the second time in months I gave it a break, while suddenly remembering the PSP had an enhanced port for it. And that’s where we come to my beating of Parodius - Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū, the first game in the Parodius series. This one was released before Parodius Da!, which is sometimes mistaken as the first, and was born on the MSX, not in the arcades.

I mentioned I was sad because I know it sounds as if I had run away like chicken to the easier, redrawn version that’s present in the Parodius Portable compilation. I am being true to myself here, folks. The smooth-as-silk scrolling of the PSP version is like pure heaven when you come straight out of the MSX original – a fiendish nightmare of a game that will haunt me for months – and those who have tried both will certainly corroborate this. Konami could’ve ported it like it was, but whiners and incompetents like myself are surely grateful they remade the game according to acceptable as-of-late standards, heavily rebalancing everything during the process.

Start screen in original resolution for Parodius - Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū

Coming after Salamander, Parodius was the second spin-off to emerge from Gradius. As its name implies, the game consists of a parody on everything Gradius-related, but other games such as Twin Bee and lesser known Konami titles are also mocked at. It plays just like a Gradius game, with a similar weapon array and power-up system. Regular power-up capsules must be collected to light up the weapon array, which is comprised of the following functions: speed-up → missile → double → laser → option → oh god! → shield (western players must memorize this order, since even the power-up names in the game are shown in Japanese). Oh God! is the brand new power-up created for the game, and its (bad) function is to wipe out all power-ups collected so far. It's possible to have up to two options, while missile and laser can be powered up twice. And beware of the several crazy item capsules spread throughout the game that trigger the feared "russian roulette": the weapon array starts cycling very fast, and it takes perfect timing to activate the desired power-up. While the russian roulette is active, any new capsules collected are disregarded.

The second type of power-up icon is the bell, which always "falls" to the left of the screen and must be shot so that it keeps bouncing back. For every couple of shots the bell changes its color, and each different color provides a special power to the character. There are eight colors to choose from, color changes occur in a preset order and the most important colors appear first: yellow for points and for wiping out all on-screen enemies and white for activating horizontal screen warping for 30 seconds. Contrary to what happens in future Parodius titles, where you can play without ever worrying about bells, in this game you must rely on a specific bell color in order to get past at least one part of the game. You see a blocking wall in front of you? No worries, just collect a white bell and warp from left to right.

Selecting one of the five available characters is just a matter of taste, since there's not much difference in how they play. The only changes are the sprites for shot, power-up capsules, options and shield, which vary according to the chosen character. There's the mandatory Vic Viper (from Gradius), Penguin (from Antarctic Adventure, supposedly Pentaro's father), Popolon (from Kightmare), Goemon (from Legend of the Mystical Ninja) and Takosuke, the octopus and main character of the game.

It's just unfair to lose a rock-paper-scissors match when your opponent knows your move in advance...
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Having played both versions one after the other, here are the most notable differences I noticed in the upgraded PSP version when compared to the MSX original:
  • improved graphics;
  • choppy scrolling corrected (thank you, Konami!);
  • enemy count and positioning slightly rebalanced;
  • laser got weaker, to the point of not being advantageous at all over the regular or the double shot;
  • russian roulette speed is slower;
  • arranged soundtrack available (though I prefer the original);
  • three difficulty settings instead of only EASY and HARD;
  • more checkpoints within a stage;
  • miscellaneous:
    • the moles in stage 3 don’t block the whole way in the tight corridors;
    • bosses take more hits to die but are overall easier;
    • rock shower in stage 3 is faster and harder to dodge;
    • second part of the graveyard stage is harder, but it’s perfectly possible to get through the last tombstones without the white bell for warping;
    • the brain midboss in the last stage also shoots regular bullets with its normal, ahm... brain thingies.
Everything else in the game remains the same, including hidden areas and extends for every 100.000 points (for a deeper overview on the original check this great page). The graphical overhaul definitely helps bring the game closer to its usual cute’em up labeling. However, the atmosphere is just as oppressive due to the high difficulty (it’s still a hard game, mind you), in a strong contrast with the goofy enemies and bosses, which are heavily influenced by Japanese folklore. There are several wacky highlights here, such as the space pink tapir that tries to stop you in the last stage or the rock-paper-scissors boss (win and boss self-destructs, draw and fight him or lose and play the whole stage all over again). And let's not forget about the penguins, they're everywhere!

After a lot of effort I was able to loop Parodius until stage 3-2 on NORMAL, playing with Takosuke. The 2nd loop doesn’t add much to the challenge, but in the 3rd loop the game unfolds just like in the HARD setting.

And I'm not finished with the MSX version yet. One day I'll nail it. I will.