Saturday, November 20, 2010

Super Nova (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 to 7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1993

And the Darius saga lives on in another chapter developed exclusively for a home console! Super Nova, known in Japan as Darius Force, is the second outing for the SNES and the direct follow-up to Darius Twin. Never mind the name change in the west, what matters is that Darius fans and non Darius fans are in for more of the same thrill that made the series famous: blast outer space evil fish to oblivion as you fight yet again to restore peace in the cosmos. What more motivation do you need anyway?

It’s perfectly understandable that this game was ignored back in the day due to the change in the title, but it’s hard to judge whether people who enjoyed Darius Twin will also enjoy Super Nova to the same extent. I’m on the fence here as to which one I prefer. Super Nova is a bastard entry in the series for a couple of reasons. Even though it was released two years after Twin, in my opinion the game does not carry any graphical improvement whatsoever. In fact, some might say the visuals are a step back from the colorful sprites of the previous effort. On the other hand, the idea of remixing concepts from both Darius and Darius II is taken a bit further, going deep into the realm of gameplay and providing a welcome alternative to the well known style defined by the chapters that came before it.

First of all, I was allowed to play with a green Silver Hawk! How cool is that? Upon starting a credit, you’re allowed to choose between three types of spaceships:
  • Type 1 (green): main weapon evolves to the final wave cannon reminiscent of Darius;
  • Type 2 (blue): main weapon evolves to the large glowing plasma pattern reminiscent of Darius II;
  • Type 3 (red): main weapon turns out to be to a brand-new cross-firing double laser, and in its final stage a series of straight-piercing lasers.
Should I stay or should I go?

Besides the different types of main weapon, all ships share a same secondary shot that’s selectable - with the R button - between bombs/missiles and laser. Super Nova is unique among other Darius chapters because using both main and auxiliary weapons at the same time reduces the firepower for each - as if splitting the available energy between both weapons. Therefore, at certain points it is advantageous to use only one of them in order to get better results.

The main shot for each type of ship is drastically different from each other, but there are also differences in how the auxiliary weapons evolve during the game. To increase shot power for both weapons you need to collect the red power-up. The blue power-up activates and upgrades the shield (green → silver → golden). The green power-up icon, which only appears during meteor showers, yields random points or 1UPs. There are no score-based extends, and no special considerations whatsoever for scoring. Killing complete enemy waves can result in some small bonuses, but this doesn’t happen all the time. An interesting side note might be the fact that all bosses give very few points. With no bonus for extra lives upon game completion, the implementation of checkpoints (the only console port to do so) makes Super Nova a victim of checkpoint-milking whenever you think about getting higher scores.

Smart bombs appear in two ways: either they explode or they provide a thick laser beam that lasts for 3 to 4 seconds, making the ship invincible. A trademark of the series, stage branching is arranged in a strange way here, meaning that it’s possible to beat the game by playing only five stages (just stick to the lower choices, route ACFIL). What happens is that every time you move up in the map you can’t come back down. Six stages are played by finishing the game in stage N, and seven by going all the way up and fighting final boss Galst Vic in stage O. Each final stage has a different ending, and my impression is that the game gets harder as you go up in the map.

Opening and stage A of Super Nova, also known as Darius Force
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

It’s not that hard to figure out why Taito pledged allegiance to the SNES and delivered not one, but two custom-made Darius games to the platform. The temptation of using the technical advantages the console offered (mode 7) was a wonderful development opportunity - in Super Nova it’s used to accomplish some neat rotation effects like those shown in stages C and J. However, there’s not much more when it comes down to style or eye candy. Backgrounds are for the most part quite drab, especially when you’re flying in one of the open space levels. Even with the coolness of Peace Destroyer and Galst Vic (bosses from stages H and O), as far as graphics go the game certainly stands as the least successful 16-bit Darius. Moreover, the screen fades when the boss WARNING message is displayed, contributing to the feeling of slow pacing both in-game and in-between stages. The soundtrack fares a bit better, though it doesn’t get really good until you reach the final stages. The song for stage M is great!

One thing that does stand out is the challenge factor. Thought not nearly as brutal as the likes of R-Type, the checkpoints in Super Nova help increase the focus in memorization and careful gameplay. All Silver Hawks were designed in a way that you never feel overpowered, and weird as it may seem the best choice for firepower is type 3. The large bosses are still the greatest visual asset, with decently varied attack patterns that are on the most part far from wimpy, at least until you figure them out. Milking bosses for extra points on those tiny missiles is a temptation, but beware of the time-out rotating cubes.

I did not do any checkpoint milking in my best 1CC run because I didn't lose any lives. Choosing route ABEHKMO, this is my 1-Life Clear final score for Super Nova, playing with the red Silver Hawk (type 3):

Monday, November 15, 2010

Layer Section (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1995

On the matter of games that hit the market with new, fresh ideas, RayForce is certainly one of the most mentioned. It is a natural evolution to the seminal style created by Xevious, where besides the main regular shot the ship is also capable to hit ground targets with a secondary weapon. RayForce's contribution lies in the generally named "lock-on" system, which allows the player to lock on multiple enemies and then unleash a single attack to damage them all. Although rather common place by today's standards, this was a quite unique feature back in 1993, when the original arcade machine was released. It was so endearing that its influence can be easily noticed in future titles, such as Raizing's Soukyugurentai.

Layer Section is the same as RayForce - the title was altered due to some obscure reasons upon release on the Japanese Sega Saturn. It would be again renamed as Galactic Attack for North American audiences, and it also bore the alternate title of Gunlock in European arcades. What a mess, really! If you stick to Taito's original arcade designation, the right name should indeed be RayForce, also having in mind that its sequels carry the "ray" part in the title as well. While RayForce saw an exclusive port for the Saturn as Layer Section, the sequel RayStorm was published for both the Saturn and the Playstation, with the subsequent prequel RayCrisis seeing the light of day only on the Playstation. Here's some more mess for us shmup fans to deal with!

The RVA-818 X-LAY

Aided by a nearly flawless execution, the whole idea behind the gameplay in Layer Section is irresistibly enticing. You have great 2D sprite work with excellent effects from start to finish, shit loads of multiple parallax levels (which is unusual for vertical shooters) and two layers of action - that's where the Saturn name for the game certainly comes from. The classic outer space setting immediately sucks you in, leaving you in awe and sheer anticipation for what's to come in later stages. Soon enough you learn that regular enemies are dealt with in the same plane as the spaceship. On the other hand, enemies located in the lower/deeper layer, such as tanks, bombers and all kinds of emerging threats, have to be targeted with the lock-on crosshair. Needless to say, the more enemies you have locked when you unleash the laser blast, the higher the score achieved. You can lock on to any on-screen target in the lower layer, but all lock-ons last for only five seconds. After that the lock-on is lost, so it's not always easy to get the maximum number of lock-ons for bigger points.

Initially you can lock on to a maximum of five enemies, but after getting the appropriate power-ups this limitation soon maxes out at eight. The main gun is powered up with red and yellow items. Three reds are needed to upgrade one power level, while only one yellow will upgrade one power level instantly. Maximum power is reached when the shot gets thick red. Surplus power-up items increase in 1.000 steps until they max out at 10.000 points each. During most of the game all power-ups are brought by floating harmless carriers or by destroying red colored enemies. Dying reduces only one level of each weapon, and the two available extends are obtained with 500.000 and one million points.

And that's it for gameplay. It's by all means pretty basic and pretty straightforward. In the land of Layer Section, however, appearances can be deceiving, and it doesn't take long for anyone to realize that this game is cruel. It's actually evil because it lures you into a situation where winning is an option for which the game will fight with you until the very last drop of blood you have in your shmup veins. In other words, be prepared for a fierce, almost unfair rank system. This is a tough beast to tame.

This is the control tower. Make a left turn. Over!
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

One example of how tricky the game gets is if you play well enough to get both extends before the 2nd stage ends. Enemies enter a sort of overdrive mode where they will increase attack speed and ratio, in an exceptionally aggressive effort to bring you down. It's as if the game got angry at you. It's not like the subtle difficulty increase of most games out there, here the challenge spikes really fast if you try to score decently and if you don't die. Dying softens things a bit, but later on it doesn't matter, things will get tougher regardless of life stock. Halfway into the game you'll certainly miss those dear smart bombs that are so helpful in saving our asses when we get cornered, but here there's no easy way out. In order to avoid being taken by surprise or getting horribly cornered it's mandatory to get used to the large hitbox and to hone the abilities to tap, to herd and to safely point blank, with careful and meticulous study of boss patterns and enemy spawning criteria. In Layer Section it isn't enough to dodge, you have to know where to stand and how to overcome the game's elusive AI. And even then, this is one case where I firmly believe you should be in the "zone" in order to have a chance at seeing the end on one credit.

I briefly mentioned above that Layer Section's execution is nearly flawless. This statement derives mostly from the soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with the music, but at the same time it isn't as memorable as the other aspects in the game, such as the graphics. Another minor complaint of mine is that part of the color palette of the 3rd stage feels awkward and makes some enemy lasers hard to see. Otherwise there's no doubt that this is a solid and extremely challenging shmup. The Saturn edition is packed with a TATE option and also the possibility to rotate the pad, which turns the game into a horizontal shooter (yuck!). The soundtrack is remixed and the original arcade music isn't included (not much difference here, really). I did notice that some game details are different when played in YOKO, such as a few missing animations and a shorter gap for the crosshair. Note: to toggle the HUD on and off and play with a cleaner screen just press the L button.

And below is my proud 1CC high score for Layer Section, played on NORMAL (YOKO). For my skill level it was plain epic, I had to go through the whole last stage on my last life!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fantasy Zone (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Reprogrammed/published by Sunsoft in 1987

I've come a long way since I started dedicating myself to shmupping. Back then I had never played any Fantasy Zone, and I didn't even know it had come out for the NES, Sega Master System's sworn enemy. It was a Sega game after all, why would it be released for the competition? Sega was definitely a software/arcade-oriented company before its console history started, that's why. You couldn't see, for instance, any of Nintendo's most famous franchises in other consoles, but that's a long and polemic story not suited to the scope of this blog.

Two versions of Fantasy Zone exist for Nintendo's 8-bit console. The best and most sought after is the Japanese one, reprogrammed and released by Sunsoft in 1987. The other one is an unlicensed version released by Tengen for the NES two years later in the west. My aim was always to get my hands on the Sunsoft Famicom cartridge, and this is the one I played these last few days. For the sake of a basic comparison, I've only seen a bit of the North American version through emulation, and indeed it is the inferior one. Besides the different hud, the biggest letdown is the washed out color palette, followed by an overall slower pace and unnecessary minor changes. If you have the chance to choose between these ports, don't bother to try out that one.

Opa Opa turns to the competition for some more surreal shooting action

On the Famicom, Fantasy Zone holds up surprisingly well. Gameplaywise it's on par with the Master System port, but it's also considerably more difficult. Opa-Opa still has to go through a set of increasingly harder stages shooting and dropping bombs against enemy generators and huge bosses. He can
can go left and right and walk on the ground, halting screen scrolling while doing so. The basic idea in every stage is to kill all generators first and then go for the boss. In order to make the journey possible, get coins from defeated enemies to increase the money counter and buy items from the shop balloon that floats on screen from time to time. There are several levels of speed-ups, several main shot types, several bomb variations and even extra lives. Prices in the shop increase drastically as you keep buying more of the same items. Special weapons are all temporary, and dying strips you off of everything you have bought so far.

Everybody knows that one of the trademarks in this game is the multitude of colors, and it's good to see that the Famicom port preserves this even with its limited color specs (when compared to the SMS). I guess I could bitch a little about collision detection, especially when I remember the tentacles of that dreaded 4th boss, but it wouldn't be fair because the game is just plain tough. It doesn't have any autofire, so you have to tap that button hard in order to stand a chance against some of the trickiest bosses. Talking about bosses, they are all preserved from the arcade original, so this makes the Famicom version overall more faithful than the much loved Master System port (which replaces the 4th and 6th bosses for counterparts that are
less demanding for the hardware). Another aspect that makes the Famicom port more faithful is the radar that tells the player the number/location of generators, which is absent in the SMS. In both versions, however, generator damage is not shown at all.

Stages Dolimicca, Polaria and Mockstar pulverized with the help of autofire
(courtesy of YouTube user GMIX6809)

I had a much harder time clearing the game on the Famicom than on the Master System. I have the feeling the game is slightly faster with more random enemy attacks, and the absence of a device to get permanent upgrades demanded some exquisite strategies to get past later bosses. For example, I had to rely on buying multiple shot upgrades and correctly time the appearance of the SEL balloon (it's just like the shop, but only to switch/select weapons) with the destruction of the last generator in order to succesfully beat the expanding boss (7th). As usual, there's a great end bonus waiting for the player once the game loops.

All in all, NES fans don't need to despair. Japanese Fantasy Zone is a great little game that besides a reduced number of colors isn't in any way inferior to the more famous Master System port (or the PC Engine's for that matter). And the music is as catchy as ever. If you're a fan of Opa-Opa, you can go after this blindfolded.

Here's my final score, reaching stage 2 of the 2nd loop while playing with no autofire/turbo at all:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heavy Weapon (Playstation Network)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
19 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by PopCap Games
Published by Sony Online Entertainment in 2009

It's interesting to see reactions from modern gamers when they're exposed to such an old school shooter such as Heavy Weapon. Initially indifferent to how you're just allowed to move left and right and shoot, soon enough they realize it's actually "quite fun" and end up having a great time with it. I know I did, but I'm totally biased because I love (real) shooters. And this little, unpretentious title is definitely one of the most fun I ever had the chance to play in the so called downloadable portfolio of modern video game consoles. Don't take the simplicity for granted here, give this a chance and I assure you'll be exposed to a nicely designed, extremely fun and even quite challenging game.

Heavy Weapon was born on the Windows PC, being later ported to PSN, XBLA and Qualcomm/Tectoy's Zeebo, also appearing in retail compilations available for the PS2 and the Xbox 360. Despite the flashy albeit cutesy, simple HD graphics, it is infused with the same classic gameplay created decades ago by Taito for its Space Invaders series. This means you're only allowed to move along a horizontal line, shooting upwards to score and survive. However, the developer did something very simple that immensely enhances this basic idea: they added background scrolling. The resulting sensation of movement is a delight, and added to the small funny details and the intensity of the gameplay (imagine Air-Sea Battle on steroids) it helps to create the perfect scenario for a casual shmupping session. Casual because it's incredibly easy to grasp and also because it uses a simple twin stick control scheme - move the tank with the left stick, aim and shoot by moving the right stick.

Give me my megalaser, dammit!

An "atomic tank" stars as the hero craft, fighting an enormous amount of enemies in order to defeat communist forces that threaten to overrule the world. Initially there are 9 stages to go through, but once these are finished you're told it was just a diversion, and that the real deal is about to begin when you have to go through everything all over again with many, many more enemies. Once all 9 extra stages are finished you finally face the 19th and last level of mayhem and chaos in the Red Star HQ. In between stages you're given the chance to activate/upgrade one of the available special weapons: defense orbs, homing missiles, laser, rockets, flak cannon and homing thunderstrike. Each one of them can be powered up three times, and choosing which ones to improve first is important for survival early in the game.

Every level consists of a campaign whose length is displayed in the upper map. In all campaigns a white helicopter carrier will go by releasing items, and this is the only aircraft you're not supposed to kill - if you do you're penalized and lose some points, being deprived of a part of the end of stage bonus as well. The items left by the helicopter and sometimes by killed enemies consist of spread shot (until you get 5 streams), speed-up (1 level only), rapid fire (increases fire rate slightly), gun power-up (1 level only), nuke (smart bomb), shield upgrade and 25% of megalaser. Nukes, which are deployed with the R2 button, can be stocked up to three. A huge temporary megalaser is activated once you get four megalaser items. With the exception of the power-up helicopter, it will kill everything in the screen instantly regardless of size or power level (unfortunately it's impossible to reach the bosses with an active megalaser).

Shield upgrades increase the number of shots the tank can withstand before dying (not to be mistaken with defense orbs). Every life starts with one shield and the tank is able to accumulate two more, thus making for a 3-hit shield when this aspect is maxed out. The catch is that there's no explicit way to tell how many shields you have left. The only indication is the green "aura" surrounding the tank: the greenest it is, the strongest the shield. If there's no green aura at all you're 1 hit away from being obliterated. When you die you never lose the upgrades applied before starting a mission, but you do lose all items collected within a stage. Besides this, Heavy Weapon is very generous because it always gives reinforcements if you lose up to two lives in a stage, meaning you always start a mission with three lives. When a mission/stage is completed, debriefing will tell and grant score bonuses depending on kill percentage (anything below 100% will cut this bonus in half), friendly fire (don't kill white helicopters) and survival (don't lose any lives).

Prepare for battle! The action starts in Tundra Flats!
(courtesy of YouTube user techmonsterz)

I really think it's amazing how much fun it's possible to be had with such a simple game concept, and in this sense Heavy Weapon exceeded all expectations I might have had regarding downloadable games (it was one of the first games I downloaded after all). It starts out really easy, but it's a mistake to think it will remain like this. As the game progresses it adds new enemies, all of them with new attack patterns. While the first stage is very short, all subsequent stages are lengthier and certainly contribute to make Heavy Weapon a long game, thus incurring in potential repetition. However, when stage 10 starts the number and the multiple combination of enemies literally go through the roof, so you'd better have honed by then the art of dealing with all kinds of attacks if you want to avoid dying in a horrible explosion. Continuing is possible, but trust me when I say that aiming for the 1CC will require a few number of credits in order to maximize the chances of survival and master the techniques needed to go for a higher score.

Besides the main game, which is dubbed "mission mode", it's also possible to play a "survival mode" and a "boss blitz", your common boss rush credit. The game allows up to four players in co-op action both offline and online, so there's tons of fun to be had in every way you can imagine.

For a long while I played Heavy Weapon just to kill time whenever I had the chance, without ever considering the 1CC. That's good advice for everyone who enjoys old school shooting fun, but be warned: this game is highly addictive. The rocking music aligned with the military motif, the adrenaline rush and the anticipation to get that next special weapon and build a powerhouse out of your atomic tank might make you lose track of time and miss appointments!

My final high score is the 21st in the picture below. I tried my best not to die, but I lost two lives in stupid oversights...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

PC Denjin - Punkic Cyborgs (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red
Published by Hudson Soft in 1992

The Master System had Alex Kidd, the NES had Mario, the Mega Drive had Sonic. And the PC Engine had Bonk. All mascots, starring their own series of games and helping carry forward the good name of their console brands. While big-headed caveman Bonk was the star of a platformer series, his image was also present in a couple of shmups starring futuristic sibling Zonk, for all purposes Bonk's more advanced, flying-capable cyborg counterpart. Air Zonk is the name of his first shmup in its western incarnation for the Turbografx-16, while PC Denjin - Punkic Cyborgs is the original PC Engine name. According to wikipedia, the "PC" part of the Japanese title stands for "Pithecanthropus Computerurus", a fictitious species name for Bonk. The main cosmetic differences between both characters are the lightning on Zonk's forehead (my brother asked me if he was supposed to be Harry Potter...) and his stylish dark shades, which seems to be the source of all his magnificient powers.

Close in spirits to the wacky ideas from the Parodius series, PC Denjin is remarkable for its bold sprite work and great graphics full of several layers of parallax. The cartoony style lends itself to a lighthearted adventure where Zonk faces a series of multi-colored, crazily designed enemies and bosses until he can face the evil King Drool, his nemesis, a green mean tyranosaurus rex who also reincarnates as a huge cyborg-creature in the end of the game. The action is fast, dynamic and most of the time relentless. Seeing this game in action is such a delight that you can't help but wonder how fun it must be to actually play it. Sure it looks like kid's material, complete with goofy yet extremely catchy tunes, however the challenge isn't what we could easily call a piece of cake. In my opinion, it's a perfect example of what the PC Engine was able to deliver, a well balanced mixture of ideal fun factor and old school eye candy.

Woo-hoo!!! Somebody stop me!

Every game is started by first selecting the difficulty level. Here you have spicy mode (default/normal), sweet mode (easy) and bitter mode (hard). Then there's another selection to the made, the escort/helper cyborg. It's possible to set it to: (1) auto, where the game will randomly assign one of the 10 escorts to you per stage; (2) manual, where you pick one of the 10 escorts every time a stage begins; and (3) alone, where no escort is used at all during the whole game. It's not possible to select the same escort twice, so once it's used it won't appear again for the rest of the game (escorts that were already selected show up with the dark shades during the selection screen). Once the difficulty mode and the escort type are chosen, Zonk starts his journey over the sea.

There are two kinds of power-ups to be collected:
  • The first one is the weapon power-up, which appears when a specific carrier is destroyed. Weapons are fired with button II and the upgrades may come as a shrinking power-up, laser, cards (my favorite), deadly gloves, 8-way lightning, chomping teeth, guided missiles and boomerangs (actually shadows of his own shades). With the exception of the shrinking power-up, which reduces your hitbox while adding a weak homing shot, they also provide a 1-hit shield. If you're hit you'll revert to the default pea shot. You can also use a charge shot for each of these weapons by holding button I and releasing it as soon as Zonk starts sparking electricity. If the charge button is held longer he will eventually burp a bomb that falls off the screen and explodes with great destructive power. Again, the shrinking power-up is a bit special because it has no charge blast whatsoever.

  • The second power-up comes in the form of small smiley faces, released by killing enemies and worth 1.000 points each. After collecting five or six of them a bigger smiley with dark shades will pop up. As soon as you get it the escort will appear from behind and follow you while shooting a standard missile. Upon collecting a new series of small smileys another big smiley will come, and if the escort is still alive (it can be damaged and killed, mind you), the new big smiley will cause Zonk and the escort to fuse into a new powerful cyborg whose form will depend on the escort's form. If the escort is damaged (smoking) the big smiley will only restore its health instead of creating the new cyborg. After this powerful cyborg is created Zonk is also granted with a short window of invincibility. Once vulnerable, cyborg forms will vanish as soon as you take the first hit. While active they don't have charge shots or bombs and ignore any power-ups you take.
Last but not least, whenever an enemy comes up from behind Zonk automatically activates a rear burner. This is very useful to take out popcorn enemies and damage larger ones, and although it feels awkward in the beginning chances are you will rely on it a lot more when you get more experienced.

A quick credit of PC Denjin
(courtesy of YouTube user AmazingRetro)

Most of the challenge in PC Denjin comes from large enemies and their attacks, some of which leave little room for evasion or dodging. All stages have at least three sections with a mid-boss in between. The more you get to know the escorts, the more you'll be tempted to have those whose combined cyborg forms are more useful, such as the cow or the cat. Some of the cyborg forms are plain useless, and when these escorts come up I just avoid getting the second big smiley. Extends are awarded with 70.000, 200.000 and then for every 300.000 points afterwards. What I couldn't grasp really well is the scoring system. It's pretty straightforward during most of the game (you earn extra points for getting repeated power-ups, that's it), but the score inflates like crazy as you defeat the final midbosses and the last boss, and I have no idea how it works.

Even though PC Denjin excels in all fronts as a great cute'em up, it didn't strike me as having such a solid lasting appeal. It isn't hard to beat at all, but at the same time it offers plenty of stuff for dedicated players to try out. In any case, I believe it's a mandatory experience for all cute'em up fans out there. My favorite aspect in the game is the music - I love the tune for the 2nd stage! Those who enjoy the game might want to check the sequel CD Denjin - Rockabilly Paradise, released the following year on CD format.

And below is my 1CC high score in spicy mode (NORMAL), with escort mode in AUTO. The ending sequence halts in this last screen once the game is beaten.