Friday, October 29, 2010

Cotton 100% (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 2003

Cotton 100%, also known as Märchen Adventure Cotton 100%, was originally released for the Super Famicom in 1994. For all purposes, it is a special take on the first Cotton game, meaning you have the same basic stage structure but with a lighter, more colorful aspect to the whole design. I honestly have no idea of the reasoning behind porting the game to the Playstation as late as 2003. Why not have the real sequel that came out for the Sega Saturn? Anyway, with the exception of some insignificant details Cotton 100% is exactly the same game from the 16-bit era, so there's really no reason for casual players to own both titles.

Coming out only under the Superlite 1500 budget label (no need to search for a black label edition - this is the black label), Cotton 100% for the Playstation preserves everything from the Super Famicom original, down to the available options, Japanese text and occasional Engrish, such as "twincle star" and "barrior". You don't even get anything more advanced such as high score saves or a single mention to a 2003 copyright on the title screen. In fact, if you're not listening to the music it will be hard to tell which version you're playing. If you've got sound it gets easier, because then you'll notice the only meaningful addition made by the developer: a slightly remixed soundtrack with a rockier edge.

Ssshh! Don't tell anyone this is just like the Super Famicom Cotton 100%!

Since the gameplay is unchanged, I won't write about it again (please check my entry on the SNES title). What the Playstation port actively does in order to improve it is eliminate the little original slowdown, that's all. After giving it a go I got back to the SNES in order to check for other possible differences, so here's what I found out:
  • a minor bug on the PS1: if you set your fairy options in a straight vertical formation - the one where they shoot behind you in a fixed position - and keep yourself at the leftmost of the screen, the fairies won't be seen and won't shoot anything, so you lose some precious firepower aid if you stay put. Weird, huh? This doesn't happen at all in the SNES game.
  • there are only two sizes of crystals in the PS1 version. On the SNES you get three sizes of crystals. The fat, chubbier crystal is completely absent from the PS1. I didn't get it even once during all my credits.
  • Datam Polystar was the publisher of the original Super Famicom game. While its copyright was duly erased from the PS1's title screen, it still appears in the ending credits. Budget title laziness? Then again, why bother?
One important thing to have in mind if you want to go for the 1CC in this game – definitely one of the easiest 1CCs ever – is that the stock for magic spells isn’t lost when you die. Therefore, more important than not dying is to preserve a good batch of magic spells for the fight against the last boss. As a rule of thumb, the fire magic is extremely powerful and should take care of bosses pretty quickly.

Bring me my willows!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

This time I was able to repeat the accomplishment of avoiding all tea cups in the tea time bonus sections, which gave me a huge tea cup worth 375.000 points at the end of stage 6. I’m quite happy because I beat my previous high score from the SNES with the following outcome (NORMAL):

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Raiden Trad (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toei Animation / Micronics
Published by Electro Brain in 1992

Starting from the 16-bit generation, almost every home video game console got its own port of Raiden, the game that defined developer Seibu Kaihatsu's portfolio and marked the lives of a whole generation of arcadegoers. The SNES was included in this porting batch one year after the Mega Drive and PC Engine versions came out, so it was sort of expected that it would top the competition. However, something must have gone awfully wrong during the process because the results left a lot to desire. Maybe the coolest thing I can mention about it is that it has the "Trad" in the title. Only recently did I get to know that it relates to "traditional". And I love this title... Raiden Trad. Way cooler than just plain Raiden, but I guess I've already written about it, haven't I?

There are 8 stages of vertical action in this game. You play 5 of them on Earth and the rest in outer space, after finding out your base has been destroyed by the baddies, an alien race known as Carnassials. And that's all that's needed to know about the story. Gameplaywise, the SNES version preserves from the arcade original a couple of essential aspects: (1) the lack of checkpoints and (2) the possibility for co-op play. On almost everything else, the developers responsible for the port did a heck of a shitty job. Simply put, Raiden Trad on the SNES is a simplified, watered down, butchered conversion that unfortunately smears the good name of the game with utter shame.

Behold the Black Void of Death

Sure the basics are all there. Vulcan (red) and laser (blue) weapons, straight (M) and homing (H) missiles, bombs (B) and flags for end of stage bonuses (flags collected × bomb stock × 1.000). This is Raiden 101 indeed. Execution, on the other hand, is a mess that's even worse for those who are familiar with the original game. One of the most noticeable things is the awkward frame rate. I guess they tried to counterbalance this by making the scrolling speed faster. This faster scrolling isn't all bad actually, there are times when even I get the feeling the original game should've scrolled a bit faster.

But then you arrive at the first bunker with a missile power-up, you take the H icon and go WTF on your SNES. Yes, those charming green homing missiles were degraded to dull, mud-colored chasing rockets that look like shit. They won't change, they won't get any closer to how they should look. Then maybe one or two stages down the road you get the feeling something is wrong with the enemies. Those mid-sized and even the big tanks die too fast, sometimes they don't even have time to shoot. The power-up carriers and the missile power-up boxes will always release vulcan and homing missiles when destroyed, so the expected unpredictability (odd expression this one, I know) is simply gone.

That's not all though. Extends are only given by 1UP icons, there are no extra lives based on score. Most of the flags you collect for points are absent from the game. Stage 3 has only one flag, and stage 6 has none (more on that later)! The location of the fairies, which grant you a fresh offering of power-ups when you die, is completely rearranged, and you get no points by taking them. The same happens with the full power icon (P), which is worth nothing when you get it while at maximum power. It doesn't matter where you deploy the bomb, it will always explode in the middle of the screen and nulify all bullets within and outside its range (extra bombs are also very scarce). Now check this out: with the exception of the meteors in stage 6, you don't die by colliding with enemies. This means you can fly over them and you just won't die! Gosh, why do I smell a pre-historic Takumi influence here?

I feel weird because this text feels like a rant. But alas! In essence, you can live with all of these changes I have mentioned. They don't break the game, they don't make it unplayable. However, we must not forget that this is a port, and comparisons to the original or to other ports are unavoidable. That said, the worst thing about Raiden Trad on the SNES is how easy it is, especially if you've beaten one of the other available versions. Nevertheless it has peaks of unbalance such as the 2nd boss, whose small planes also shoot bullets and make this particular boss fight a lot harder than all other bosses. I dare to say he's the toughest one of all.

Welcome to interplanetary world war!
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

There are other changes to the game besides the ones I pointed out above, but I will mention just one more: the Black Void of Death. That's the name of the 6th stage, as printed in the game's manual, and it nails it in the head. This particular level consists solely of tiny stars in a flat background from start to finish, so no ground enemies and ground power-ups, sorry... All the terrain was removed! Or was it perhaps sucked by a giant invisible black hole? We'll never know!

I can't really stress how disappointed I am with this game. I think I could've tried to figure out a way to no-bomb the 2nd and 3rd bosses in order to boost my score a bit, but things such as having stages with practically no flags to collect helped kill my motivation. In the 1CC high score below I beat the game with no bombs left, but I didn't lose any lives.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Solar Jetman (NES)

Gravity Arena
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
12 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rare
Published by Tradewest in 1990

I often get asked by some people why I don't play adventure/action games anymore. It doesn't matter what I answer, I inevitably end up labeled as an "elitist" or a "weirdo" for my tastes in gaming. Well, this post is for them. I gotta say I finally went into some adventure time, complete with deep exploration and secret-finding. And it was all intertwined with the shooting aspect of Solar Jetman - Hunt for the Golden Warship, one of the cornerstones of the gravity arena subgenre. While some will disregard this game as being a real shmup, my feelings towards it are very clear: you pilot a spaceship and shoot to make progress - associated with the fact that the ship is seen in its entirety, this is the basis for a game to be called a shmup, borderliner or not.

Solar Jetman is, in fact, the third in a trilogy that has Jetpac and Lunar Jetman as first installments, both appearing only on the ZX Spectrum. They seem to have nothing in common with the NES title except for the pilot, the spacesuit and the idea that you have to fulfill a mission in order to go on to the next level. Solar Jetman is probably the first full blown game to arise from the seed planted by Gravitar, which was the first gravity arena shooter to see the light of day. As with almost all gravity shooters, it is widely considered to be extremely difficult, a general misconception related to this fascinating subgenre and here exacerbated by the fact that Rare/Tradewest were responsible for its creation. If this doesn't ring any bells, these are the same people who would release Battletoads in the following year...

The basic story in the game is that you're a member of the Federation of Space Loonies, and you fly across the galaxy to get the necessary pieces to assemble the golden warship. Each planet/stage has one piece of this golden warship, which you will find by piloting a "pod" that always departs from a stationary mothership. In order to get to the next planet it's necessary to gather enough fuel so that your mothership can blast off. In all missions the hero will face lots of menaces, but the most dangerous one is gravity. Every planet has its own gravity level, sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, as well as its own set of perils and treasures to be collected. Exploring is a must, as well as memorization and a certain dose of strategy.

Federation of Space Loonies on the go!

As an NES game, there's no denying that Solar Jetman is an outstanding achievement in gameplay. It uses the NES controller like very few other games do: button A is shoot, button B is thrust, SELECT + A uses special weapons, SELECT + B activates boosters (stronger thrust), ← and → rotate the ship, ↓ activates the shield, ↑ deactivates the shield, START + SELECT shows a map of the planet. These inputs are all essential for survival, and some of them must be unlocked by collecting special items. But that's not all, the gameplay goes way beyond that! There are two energy bars, one for the pod's power and another for the selected special weapon (special weapons and upgrades can be bought in the shop that appears prior to all even-numbered planets). Pod power is consumed by thrusting or by being hit. Getting hit by an enemy bullet will instantaneously destroy the pod and leave you in your spacesuit, but even though this spacesuit has a full power gauge and better maneuvering capabilities it can't activate shields or special weapons. Therefore, it's just a weak albeit useful means of displacement. To get into a pod again you have to fly back to the mothership or fly into a small wormhole, which then sends you back to the mothership. In fact, the mothership is where you want to go whenever you're low on power - it will always refill both meters. Lives are only lost when your power meter is depleted while in the spacesuit.

Another important aspect of the gameplay is the ability to drag objects. As long as the shield is down, a tractor connection is activated automatically whenever you're close to an object that can be carried. Fuel cells, crystals and treasures all have to be brought to a collecting point, which can be the mothership or one of the small wormholes spread around the planet. Once you have enough fuel cells, look for the big wormhole so that you can fly through it and get the piece of the golden warship.

I could go on and on talking about specifics on Solar Jetman's gameplay. It's that dense and rich. Fuel tanks to replenish pod power, spare ships, improved pods,
water areas, inversed gravity, gravity spheres, cyberzones and warpzones. At least one warpzone was important for me, because I adopted it as part of my strategy to beat the game. Right at the start of planet 8, I took it to travel to the extra planet (13) and continue the journey on the last planet (12). And even doing so, I think my complete playthrough clocked in almost 3 straight hours.

Preludon, the 1st planet - spacesuit + special zone + shield probes + crystal + fuel + WIN
(courtesy of YouTube user Ferret5317)

The technical highlights of Solar Jetman, besides the addictive and challenging gameplay, are the music and the sound effects. Sometimes minimalistic and increasingly haunting, the songs surely get you in the mood for serious deep space adventure. Graphically, the game is decent. You can see that a good deal of effort was applied to the design of every planet, to the point you can face each one of them as a sort of mini-game to be won. I only wish there was more detail in the backgrounds other than the star dots, because when you're flying through vast spaces it's hard to know exactly where you're going to. The game is also known for having bugs, but the only one I ran into is when you accidentally let go of an item when it is inside a wall/rock. Depending on how it happens, it gets impossible to reach it again, and if we're talking about a fuel cell this might disrupt and ruin the whole game. It happened to me twice, but fortunately I got smart after that.

When I started playing the game I thought it was a little slow, but then it came to me that it was running on an NES. And later on I was thankful that it ran at that speed, because when things get nasty you'll want to have control over that little oval ship. After weeks of sparse plays I finally gave Solar Jetman the proper attention during part of my vacation, with the FAQ provided by
the StrategyWiki on the game (a big thanks to everyone involved in it!). I would play one stage per day in an emulator, practicing it to exhaustion and even recording my runs. For such a heavy exploratory shooter, it worked wonders and gave me the confidence to go for a 1CC on the real thing (since the game gives passwords for each stage, it's still possible to practice in a real NES). No matter what your choice is, you're up for a hell of a ride, and that makes this definitely one of the best and most fulfilling NES games ever released.

Solar Jetman is not the hardest game ever, but it's got its hairy moments. The highest tension comes with the fight against the last boss, when you finally get to fly the golden warship in a jerky horizontal scrolling section. Regardless of life stock, you have only one shot at succeeding! Don't go chickening out after all the hard work, OK?

Instead of a proper score, progress is measured by a money counter, and in the picture below when I'm about to beat the last boss my standings are $ 7.904. If I consider all the items I bought, such as anti gravity (most important special weapon in the game), the super map and the two
permanent pod upgrades, my total wallet would be $ 55.904. I played stages 1 through 7, warped from 8 to 13 and continued till the end. 1CC mission accomplished!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wonder 3 [Chariot] (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom in 1991
Published by Xing in 1998

Contrary to what I had thought when I first heard about it, Wonder 3 (referred to as 3 Wonders outside of Japan) is a full blown arcade game instead of a compilation of separate titles. Once a coin is inserted you’re given the choice of three games. The first one is the platformer Roosters (or Midnight Wanderers), which plays and feels like an improved version of 16-bit Hook. The second game is the horizontal shooter Chariot, which sees the same ugly dudes/elves from the first game being summoned by a fairy to rescue a captive princess. Both games share the same overall colorful style and sort of complement each other. Don't Pull, the third game, is a puzzler. I can’t say much about Roosters or Don't Pull, since I haven’t played them at all, but a few weeks ago I did play Chariot for a couple of days.

As the story goes, the ugly heroes (co-op possible) receive a powerful self-propelled chariot and embark on the mission to rescue the girl. On the verge of the cute’em up subgenre, the game does boast a nice use of colors upon a fantasy setting across seven unevenly designed stages. While the backgrounds are competent, the best thing in the graphics is definitely the array of bosses, most of them being very creative, large and visually menacing. All stages are designed around them, in a strange mix of mythology and astrology that sort of helps shift the experience from the run-of-the-mill feeling that hovers over the whole package. Since most people don’t even know that a genuine shooter is hidden in Wonder 3, it doesn’t help that Chariot doesn’t offer too much to attract the average gamer’s attention.

Co-op action: two elves to the rescue!

In addition to the regular shot (which doesn’t have autofire but is implemented in short bursts and favors mild tapping), the hero has a charge shot that’s activated by a separate button. The power of this charge shot is directly proportional to how many options (or tail beads as I call them) are full of energy. When the charge shot is fired the options are emptied and then slowly refilled for a new blast. Starting with only three of these, it’s possible to collect items and achieve up to seven options, thus resulting in a rather long charge tail. This tail is also useful for damaging enemies from behind and blocking incoming fire, but it also gets depleted by doing so. That’s why it’s not advisable to use the tail as a means of attack/defense when it’s empty after a charge shot has been fired.

The charge shot is dependent on the type of regular shot you currently have. There’s the spread pattern (red power-up) and the straight wave beam (green power-up), and both can be powered up four times when you stick to getting the same icon. The spread shot results in a more concentrated charge blast, while the wave beam (named as “rapid shot” in the game) yields a twisted energy discharge that hits a broader vertical area. Both regular weapons are equally useful, but the spread shot can be more efficient at point blank distance. Since the player is rewarded for fast kills on bosses, I did try to reach them with the spread shot whenever possible to get a better chance at a higher end of stage bonus.

The last component of the firepower is the bomb, which is dropped forwards in a Darius-like fashion and upon the second item collected causes a destructive wave to sweep the targeted surface.

In Chariot, one hit kills the player instantly. Initially there are only two lives, but extends can be obtained by collecting the heart items (big hearts = 5 points, small hearts = 1 point). A heart counter keeps track of how many hearts are left for the next extend, starting with 50, then 70 and finally 90 hearts. I never managed to get the third extend (90), but at least the heart counter is converted into points when the game is beaten. You can also see the 1-hit shield as a kind of extra life – this shield appears once in the stage on the 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th levels, and grants the hero with a dragon-shaped chariot that he flies like a hoverbike. Getting hit will revert it back to the regular chariot. The large hitbox isn’t much of a problem, because the game is intelligent enough to not use it as another difficulty factor.

Stages 2 and 3 of Chariot, played in MAME (note: the real game is fullscreen, not widescreen)
(courtesy of YouTube user MamePlayer)

The last thing about the gameplay is scoring. It is mainly dictated by the coin item, which ranges from 100 to 4.800 points. The catch to increase its value in each level is to always collect a coin before the next one appears on the screen. Some observations:
  • when the mid-boss is destroyed it releases lots of items - always get the coin of the highest value after all other items have been collected, or else the value chain can be ruined. If the last collected coin is worth 100 points, the next one will be worth only 200 points instead of the expected higher value in the progression.
  • as with all other items, coins are released by destroying the flying chests or special enemies. However, it’s also possible to get coins by killing a complete wave of five generally small enemies (this is especially true during the 1st stage).
  • all surplus power-ups are worth a good deal of points, so sticking with the same shot type when getting the power-up icons will give a big chunk of points in the long run.
  • try to kill bosses quickly!
You can’t really say there isn’t substance in Chariot’s gameplay because, well, it even has a scoring system! At the same time though, it does come with some minor annoying issues, such as a few cheap deaths that will require strict memorization and the color of the option item, which is practically the same as the enemy bullets and can confuse the player for a while. After you get a hold of how the game works, greed for coins becomes the main cause of failure, and can turn an otherwise easy game into an unexpected angering experience.

Here’s my 1CC high score for Chariot on NORMAL:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gradius II (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami in 1988
Published by Konami in 1996

Since the end of Vic Viper’s mission in the groundbreaking Gradius, it was just a matter of time until it would again be called up for battle. It took three years for Konami to release a sequel, a game that expanded on the original concept in every possible aspect but mostly with an improved graphical design and a considerable increase in the challenge level. If the core gameplay remained the same the result couldn’t be less than awesome, right?

On the Sega Saturn, the sequel appears in the Gradius Deluxe Pack compilation, alongside Gradius. As much a classic as Gradius was/is, it’s clear that the evolving arcade scene needed a more juicy game. Therefore the scope of Gradius II, as far as sequels go, is nothing less than a full blown improvement. Every stage has a unique boss, as opposed to the multi-purpose Big Core. The volcano (4), moai (5) and fortress (8) stages are back, together with fire snakes amidst flaming suns (1), a mesh-filled alien base (2), crystal debris roaming everywhere (3), a high speed scramble (6) and a boss rush with returning bosses from Gradius and Salamander (7). The power-up system is unaltered, but now it’s possible to choose one out of four available weapon arrays, with different types and combinations of missiles, lasers and double shot + the option of selecting between two shield schemes. Every array has its pros and cons, but my favorite is still the classic one from Gradius. As part of the batch of influences from Salamander, the ripple laser makes its debut in the series. Some people like it, some people don’t. I prefer the good old regular laser and the original frontal shield. :)

Opening screen for Gradius II

One of the most prominent aspects in this game, which carries the subtitle Gofer No Yabō (meaning "Gofer's Ambition"), is how it leaves progressively little room for error as the stages unfold. The first couple of levels are fine, even relaxing, but then you arrive to the crystal field and face the first real threat. Upon dying in this section, it’s so hard to survive that restarting is a much more feasible option. It is possible to continue through the icy blocks completely underpowered, but the chance of success is practically null. Some further checkpoints are equally hard to recover from, but by then you’ve come past the point of no return (I felt this way at least) and recovering from scratch after dying becomes a job in patience and perseverance. You even get to incorporate the “carryover” power-up capsule into your survival strategy - if one of the cells in the weapon array is lit when you die, the unused power-up becomes instantly available upon respawning, even if you use continues. The last stage is particularly brutal in this regard.

The ever-so-hated/loved rank, which is basically related to how many options you have activated, is deepened by a new special enemy that appears whenever you survive long enough with 4 options. A scorpion-like creature comes from behind and sweeps forward after a few seconds, trying to take the options away. It’s not possible to destroy it, so it’s necessary to maneuver the ship in order to flee from its claws and avoid the inevitable loss of firepower. The worst scenario is when the creature grabs the option that’s closest to the ship, since in this case all options are lost. While it’s easy to avoid it when the screen in relatively empty sometimes the thing appears in pretty hairy situations, such as during the fight with the third boss or during the vertical cylinder of the moai stage. Everything considered though, there are instances where losing one or two options isn’t that bad, simply because it lowers rank while still leaving enough firepower to deal with difficult sections and bosses.

Pursuing the 1CC in Gradius II is a much harder task when compared to Gradius. This happens because regardless of how much power you have the game will always present itself as an overwhelming, oppressive challenge. Enemy fire is relentless, and all the trickiest parts of the stage design demand perfect positioning if you want to survive. On top of that, Konami eliminated the extend fest that was Gradius by allowing extra lives only with 20.000 and then for every 150.000 points afterwards.

Flames, alien nests and crystals
(courtesy of YouTube user ReplayBurners)

In essence, Gradius II is a damn fine example of a tough shooter, one that’s nice enough to keep you coming back but brutal to the point of frustration, forcing you to devise a strict, reliable strategy for every stage and keeping you on your toes all the time during the process. Dull moments are very rare and for these I can only name the first couple of stages and the intermissions in the boss rush of the 7th stage. By the way, dying anywhere in this level sends you back to the beginning to fight all bosses again. How cool is that for a checkpoint based shooter?

Beating the last boss with no power-ups isn’t good at all to start the second loop, because chances are you’ll be instantly crushed by the first drone waves of the pre-stage. This is what happened to me in the high score below. [EDIT 2012-10-05] Regardless of how powered up you are when you beat the game, you'll always start the next round with a bare spaceship. I played on NORMAL with WAIT CONTROL OFF (arcade slowdown disabled - contrary to what happens to Gradius, where you have to unlock this option by beating the game, here it’s available up front).

I’m not proud of this miserable, shameful score, but alas… the 1CC mission was accomplished!