Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mamoru-kun (Xbox 360)

Unscrolling Vertical / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
2 to 6 Stages
Ship speed variable / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gulti
Published by G.rev in 2009

Mamoru-kun wa Norowarete Shimatta! is the complete name of this Japanese release, and translates to something like "Mamoru-kun is cursed!". Given its name, nobody should take the game for granted as far as its Japanese quirkiness goes. This is a very, very weird shmup, one that doesn't really abide by the rules we all know and love but still manages to hedge itself deep into the genre. The structure isn't conventional, the scoring system either, and the leap of faith it demands to be appreciated is huge. I couldn't really connect to it. I played it on and off for weeks, never feeling the urge for that extra credit and never willing to actively improve my score.

Something isn't quite right when the strongest quality in a shmup lies in the character design. Quoted from the game description by the fellows at NCSX: "Mamoru-kun follows the adventures of a lad named Mamoru Tomoka, who's been involved in a car accident. After he's hit by a speeding vehicle, his soul is immediately spirited to the underworld by a priestess who calls herself Fululu Jigokudani. As the story goes, the gateway to the underworld is under attack and the spirits who reside there have been cursed by malevolent forces. Since Fululu can't fight the oppression by herself, she has summoned Mamoru and three other heroes to fight on the underworld's behalf."

The above story is somehow conveyed by a cool sequence from the game's attract mode, and immediately hints at a cute'em up aesthetic soaked in vibrant colors and marred (for us Westerners) by lots of Japanese text. That's really odd considering all menus and options are displayed in English.

Damn, which one should I curse first?

There are only two buttons to be used in this game. One of them shoots, the other one fires a "curse" circle. You can aim where you're going to shoot in a 180º span in front of you, never behind you. Your fire direction is locked while you're shooting, so if you want to aim at another direction you have to stop shooting, aim and resume. Enemies and chests release colored stars that add to a combo/chain meter, and that's where the curse attack comes in, since it's the heart of the scoring system in Mamoru-kun. You can either drop a local curse or charge the curse in order to shoot it forwards. It lasts for a short amount of time only, but every small enemy that gets inside this circle gets cursed, becomes darker and plummets towards you while shooting many more bullets. Casting charged curses in small enemies kills them intantly, but larger enemies will block the curse and increase its radius, affecting every popcorn enemy that gets close to it. All items dropped are sucked into the character automatically if you briefly stop shooting.

Regardless of how you curse an enemy, all of the bullets shot by cursed enemies will turn into stars when they die - and that's the key to longer chains and higher scores. To keep the chain going you must do one of the folllowing: (1) get a star approximately every 2 seconds, (2) cast the curse in a larger enemy or (3) curse yourself. This third maneuver is done by dropping the curse and stepping inside its radius. While cursed you turn red, get faster and have an increase in firepower, but once the curse time is up you need to wait for it to recharge in order to cast another curse. Rank goes up depending on survival time and chain progress. The higher the rank the more enemies are spawned, thus you get more opportunities for an even higher score.

Another major concern when you play Mamoru-kun is time. The game doesn't scroll automatically, so if you want to just sit still and do nothing it's up to you. However, upon start you get a 5 minute timer. This is the time you have to reach the final boss. To increase the time you have left you can collect items and speed-kill the bosses from the unlocked "missions", recovering more than what you usually get by playing a regular stage. These missions are unlocked after you beat a stage, and are just boss battles with increased difficulty. If the timer runs out before you reach the final boss, indestructible death heralds will materialize and painfully kill you. Managing time is very important because depending on how you do it you won't play all stages. In fact, it's possible to beat the game by playing just one level, ending it with a low timer and going directly to the last boss fight. Speaking of which, there are two of them. Final Stage B has a huge battleship as final boss, whereas Final Stage A has this gigantic evil flower. I couldn't figure out the exact rules to get each one, but it seems that you have to play most of the game if you want to fight last boss A.

A trailer dedicated specifically to Story mode
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

As I said, this is a weird game. I don't blame the convoluted scoring system for not liking it, my problem was actually with the controls. I didn't like the way you deal with aiming at all. And why not let the player shoot backwards? Another issue here are the loading times, which aren't really optimized and can get on your nerves. Some of the voicing is also childishly annoying, it would've made me uncomfortable if an adult saw me playing the game. What I did like is the art design and presentation, even with all the Japanese text getting in my way until I could figure out stages from missions.

When starting a game in Arcade mode you select between a tutorial and a prologue stage where you can already rack up some points (and also lose lives). Besides Mamoru and Fululu, the other characters available are Mayuno, Kinya and Beniko. They are all followed by these tiny demons that appear when you collect power-up pills, behaving differently for each character. There's the spread pattern, the forward pattern, the Gradius-like option style, etc. There are also two downloadable characters (Nowa and Luchino), but I didn't check them because I refuse to pay for something that should've been already on the disc or should be given for free to everyone who plays the damn game. This really pisses me off.

The game itself comes with the original Arcade version and a Story mode, where you play with all characters amidst lots of dialogue, rearranged stages and a score that's limited to a star counter. In Practice mode you can adjust rank and character power level. The Xbox 360 limited edition also comes with an arranged soundtrack CD (7 tracks in 25'08") and an Insanity DVD with some expert plays, including a speed run with Fululu and a high score run with Kinya. Watching this footage made me feel like shit with my rock-bottom 1CC high score. :(

My favorite character is sexy Beniko Higatera. Her adjustable spread pattern won me over. In the run below with her in full defaults (diff. 3, timer 5:00) my world/stage order was 4/M4→1/M1→2/M2→3→Final stage A. I could never get to the 5th world in time, but maybe that's for the best because the game gets nasty if you survive that much.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Paper Sky (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by CrimsinRaven
Published by Native Studio in 2011

I am into casual games, as long as they're shmups. Recently, casual shmups have been pouring like crazy in the XBLIG section of the Xbox 360 online service. There has been at least one release per week for some time now, and admittedly most of them are quite bland. The most casual of casuals don't really interest me, because I like to dedicate myself to games that have an ending - even casual ones. And again, like it happened a few times before, last Friday I was bored but too tired to dig deeper into a full-blown bullet fest. So I thought it would be okay to give a chance to one of the latest indie shmups I downloaded. Paper Sky seemed to be interesting enough to hold my attention for an hour or so.

In the past there have been attempts at including artsy concepts in the shmup realm, from which one of the most intriguing is Platypus. Following a similar idea, Paper Sky tries to build a specific identity to itself, based on several layers of paper collages applied to both backgrounds and enemy design. It's visually eye-catching (that's the main reason why I decided to play it), but since this is a budget title it's really hard to demand anything more than a hastily made novelty, a passtime shooter that doesn't do anything beyond the very basic in order to leave a decent impression in the audience. It's got a certain value from an artistic standpoint, but it disappoints in the gameplay department and definitely fails on the programming side of things: this is what happens when developers make a shmup without being familiar with simple albeit crucial genre traits. It's about time devs realized that fun doesn't exclude concepts such as performance and competition, and it astounds me how such simple yet extremely effective programming routines are just ignored by the majority of indie developers out there, routines that would otherwise elevate the game above its peers for immediate and - possibly - long lasting fame and appreciation.

Release the Kraken!

In Paper Sky the craft you fly with is a paper plane, just like the one everybody learns how to carefully fold as a child. It bends as it moves, but the firepower is always directed forwards. Destroyed enemies turn into green dots that get drawn to the plane and increase the XP bar, and when this bar gets full your power level is upgraded. There are five power levels to be reached, but the only improvement you get is that you move a little bit faster and shots get a little bit stronger. The SP bar fills up automatically with time and feeds the special attack, a forward thick burst of bullets I like to call “power fart”. Its primary function is to take out multiple targets in a row. The main shot can be upgraded with two types of items: the double shot and the triple/spread shot. Both have limited ammo and must be refilled for continuous use. Besides that, the game also throws auxiliary option planes that hover above and below the ship. Dying is a matter of taking one or two hits - if the plane escapes death on the first hit it starts smoking, but if you manage to survive long enough it will self-repair.

It’s interesting to notice that when you start playing the first couple of stages seem a bit hectic, but this impression comes from the confusion you get with the green dots that add to the XP gauge. It takes a while until you stop trying to dodge them, and then you realize how empty these stages actually are. Destruction animations are done with flying dot debris and look kinda cool, but you can’t help but feel that the action drags, especially when the scrolling stops and you’re left shooting waves and waves of popcorn stuff. The pace starts picking up only in the sewers of the 4th stage, as well as the challenge. By then it gets important to preserve the power fart stock for a number of reasons: enemies increase in number, parts of the screen become hazardous, bosses decide to give trouble and the game ceases to grant 1UPs every minute or so.

Official release trailer for Paper Sky
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user NativeStudio)

Graphical exquisiteness is great, but again it’s not enough to overcome the flaws of Paper Sky. I enjoy the fact that enemy bullets are all rendered like little worms. Some of the cartoonish enemy designs for each specific stage are charming. I really wish the intensity you experience during the last boss battle was applied to the rest of the game, but unfortunately you’re stuck with snoozing action for more than half of it. It’s so boring that Paper Sky actually takes you by surprise when the increase in difficulty kicks in.

Even though it’s great to see an indie shmup that doesn’t give you the ending on a plate (the game has no continues and no saves whatsoever), it bugs me that the score display keeps coming and going randomly and there’s no high score table of any kind. If you’re not fast enough to pause you won’t see how much you scored after beating the last boss. As expected, everything else in the game’s presentation is bare bones, down to the poor ending screen. It’s a real shame, because I think it wouldn’t take much to add a nice scoring system to the basic idea. Allowing co-op play doesn't count.

I wasn’t able to beat the game on the first day, so I gave it another try on Sunday. Below is the resulting 1CC high score:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dead Moon (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by T.S.S.
Published by T.S.S. in 1991

A meteor is heading towards the Earth, but before it crashes cientists are able to divert it to the Moon. Later on they discover that it wasn't an ordinary rock from outer space. Our dear natural satellite has been infested by an alien race, and it's up to you to stop them from extending their evil claws over our blue planet. So what do you say, are you up to the challenge?

The backstory to Dead Moon is a cool one, and is presented in its full glory in an atmospheric and lengthy sequence that's preceded by huge fonts animated just like in the opening from The Terminator - excerpts from Brad Fiedel's awesome soundtrack would've been welcome, but they're not there. With such a great opening it's natural to expect the same amount of awesomeness from the gameplay itself, but unfortunately this isn't the case. Dead Moon unfolds with no big frills along six stages, starting on Earth and ending inside the Moon. For a shmup, this loose story progression is nonetheless satisfying and also includes a depart from the stratosphere, a surface approach on the moon, a lunar cave and a lunar hidden river. The game just doesn't tell you in the end if you were able to revive the Moon from its dead status, but I guess that doesn't matter much, does it?

No, this is not Darius!

Controls in this game are fast. This probably happens due to the ship's speed, which is considerably high even if you select the lower speed when pausing. Just like in MUSHA, in this case you need to pause in order to choose up to four different speeds... The good thing is that you're allowed to move anywhere around the screen because there are absolutely no obstacles besides enemies and bullets. As well as the impressive parallax scrolling, this free gameplay style tries to cover up the simplicity in the overall design, which when seen under an isolated perspective is fairly mediocre to be honest.

Battling the multitude of enemies is made easier by the power-ups, brought by a tiny yellow ship you have to destroy. Main weapon power-ups are color-based: yellow (default) is the vulcan spread pattern, red fires a series of rings that also have a spread capability, blue fires lasers and green results in a wave cannon. It takes three power-ups of the same color to reach full power. Once maxed out, a new power-up of the same color will give you an extra bomb (each life comes with 3 bombs by the way). Ancillary power-ups include guided missiles or defense orbs - selecting one deactivates the other, and they're also upgraded when new icons of the same type are taken. Sometimes a blinking item will appear, and its function is to wipe out all on screen enemies. Every time you get a new icon the ship gets invincible for a split-second, an invaluable help during cluttered situations. On the other hand, every time the ship gets hit it loses one power level, eventually dying if it gets shot while you're with only a primary/default weapon.

Generic as it might seem, I do see in Dead Moon some vivid inspiration from the Darius series. You have lots of enemies arriving in formation, a green weapon that's the equivalent to the wave power level of the first Darius and the ability to turn the ship around during boss battles. You even get to play underwater during the 5th stage and fight a huge coelacanth reminiscent of good old King Fossil. The bosses, by the way, are all inspired in animals, with weak points generally protected by exposed skeletons. There's a pterodactyl, a turtle, a dinosaur, an ostrich, the aforementioned fish and an undescribable floating skull at the end of the game.

Dead Moon's intro on the Turbografx-16
(courtesy of YouTube user kingarthurpendragon)

Dead Moon feels cheap, but it suits a fast shmup romp where you don't want to think too much about what you're doing. Don't be shy to pause and change the speed of the ship, some enemies get a lot easier to deal with if you do so. If you manage to kill all enemies within a stage you get a bulky bonus of 500.000 points, just bear in mind that if you want to get a 100% destruction ratio you can't dispatch enemies using the smart bomb blinking item. Extends come with 200.000 points and then for every half million afterwards.

The trick to get extremely high scores is to destroy the meteors during the second stage, because each meteor is worth a huge (I mean HUGE) chunk of points. This is probably the most extreme case of scoring system unbalance I've ever seen in an old school shmup. If you think about it, that's where the whole rush lies if you want to play this game competitively, even though I heard that it's possible to milk one of the bosses forever in a safe spot and counterstop the game. I didn't bother checking that and I did no milking whatsoever in all my Dead Moon runs.

My final result is probably a good one, but it's definitely possible to amass an even higher score.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stahlfeder (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Santos
Published by Santos in 1996

Such a cool name, and yet such a wimpy game... That's Stahlfeder, a german word/expression that means "steel feather". Let's be honest, guys, don't you agree that both the name and the package ooze coolness? They won me over completely as I was trying to select a new Playstation shmup to play last week. I just didn't think I would be completely done with it in less than two days, but I guess that beating the game in my first credit wasn't really a good sign of challenge, was it?

Let me be honest and tell you all up front that this is one of the easiest shmups in the Playstation library. If you want to get a 1CC blindfolded look no further, Stahlfeder is the game for you. It's an extremely watered down mix of some very well known series such as Raiden, Strikers 1945 and 19XX. In its default settings, it's that kind of game that takes you by the hand and before you know it you've reached the end. Most of the time you're heavily overpowered, you don't get punished when you get hit and a handful of health recovery items should help even the most inept shmup player to conquer victory. That's a real shame because the game's artistic values are kinda decent, and for most of the time the music is excellent.

Lippenstift unleashes her bomb over the 1st boss

All four available pilots have unique characteristics to the standard attacks. Each one has a wide shot and a laser, both fired with different buttons and powered-up by icons of different colors. This is cool because there's no hassle to keep selecting the weapon you want to use, just pull the trigger and be happy. The third attack is the smart bomb, which as expected melts bullets and makes you invincible for a few seconds. All items, including health recovery cells, color-cycling power-ups and extra bombs, are brought by a carrier that has to be destroyed. Both wide and laser shots have five power levels, and each one must be properly upgraded by taking the related power-ups.

The most interesting trait regarding the graphics in Stahlfeder is that all the terrain area is sprite-based, while bosses and big structures are all made of polygons. There's nothing outstanding about them, but the combination of both techniques isn't a disaster either. The game has some mild parallax and uses zooming effects to a great extent, which is neat, but bosses could've used a little bit more animation. Slowdown ensues generally when you're using the wide weapon and there's too much enemy action going on. However, the real failure in this game occurs for a completely different reason, and that's the lack of challenge. It materializes in several different ways: lack of enemy bullets, main character gets too strong too soon, quite a few dead zones where absolutely nothing happens, too many health aids, too many extra bombs, etc. In the NORMAL difficulty, an extra health point is granted at the start of a new stage, and you never lose your power level when you get hit. Rarely have I seen such forgiving gameplay in the shmup genre.

Part of the difficulty - or lack thereof - can also be related to the pilot you choose. Blau stern has the best wide weapon (vulcan from Raiden), a decent laser and five health cells. Lippenstift has a good wide shot (3rd level pod weapon from Axelay, without the bending), the strongest laser and three health cells. Both Weiβ nacht's weapons lack side reach, but he's the fastest pilot, with four health cells. Schwarz Wind flies the slowest ship and has shitty weapons, but comes with seven health cells. For obvious reasons, my favorite characters are Blau stern and Lippenstift.

Stahlfeder's full run on HARD with pilot Blau stern, no hits taken
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Scoring higher is dependent on surplus power-ups and end-of-stage bonuses. If you're maxed out in one of the items (bombs are stocked to a maximum of 8), every new icon will yield 5.000 points. Get through a stage unscathed with lots of bombs and your bonus will be bigger. The rest is simple: kill everything. Stahlfeder is so easy that even in the HARD setting it doesn't give much trouble. In this mode bullets get just a little faster, you lose one power level for the weapons whenever you get hit and there's no health recovery between stages. You do get a bulkier no-damage bonus, so at least the possibilities for scoring are better on HARD.

One of the reasons why some people still remember Stahlfeder is the fact that it lets you change the color of enemy bullets to your liking. There's nothing wrong with the default color scheme, but it's pretty neat to see a few pink bullets flying everywhere. Other than that, the game is pretty much forgettable. I know the only thing I'll probably remember in the future is that it has good music. And that it's stupidly easy to beat, unlike Santos's other Playstation shmup Airgrave.

I got my highest score playing the game on HARD. It was a perfect run, I din't get hit even once. Didn't I tell you this was easy as hell?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rayxanber (FM Towns)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data West
Published by Data West in 1990

The FM Towns is a Japanese home computer released by Fujitsu in 1989. By the time it was still struggling in the market, in 1993 Fujitsu had the idea of launching the FM Towns Marty, a video game console based off the FM Towns hardware and compatible with most of its games. As both PC and console markets grew Fujitsu eventually dropped out of the scene, but its legacy remained thanks to a dedicated community of computer geeks and video game collectors. As you can see from this post, I'm a proud member of the second category, and today I conclude my appreciation of Rayxanber, an exclusive horizontal shooter whose sequels for the PC Engine CD are a bit more famous worldwide.

Rayxanber was, in fact, one the the reasons I eventually tracked down a FM Towns Marty (this "Marty" thing always reminded me of Back to the Future by the way). I guess I'm a bit too stubborn in my idea of playing game series in chronological order, so I had to begin where it all started. And since it runs on the first 32-bit console ever released, it was natural to expect some mind blowing orgy of graphics and sound. This isn't the case though, and it's probably due to the fact that the game was released for the FM Towns PC in 1990. It runs on the Marty due to PC-backwards compatibility. Therefore, as refined and put together as it is, Rayxanber barely exceeds what was being done graphically on the outset of the 16-bit generation.

What to get next? The battle cruiser, the fireball power-up or the spider?

Fans of the methodical shmup school created by R-Type will feel at home with this game. Slow pace, exquisitely crafted stages, good music and... checkpoints. This concept is dead today, but there was a time where it was the cream of the crop in the shmup world. With the exception of stage 6, in Rayxanber there are two checkpoints per level. Fortunately, all stages aren't that long, and recovery is perfectly possible when you die. Of course it takes a bit of practice to get back on your knees, but here it never gets painfully unfair or downright impossible. Blame it on the weapon system, which despite its simplicity is very effective and has a charm of its own.

All you have as a default attack is a measly pea shooter, but a ship that looks just like yours and moves slowly from right to left releases colored power-ups when destroyed. These power-ups come with a dial that keeps turning and dictates how your special weapon will work when collected, that is, in which primary direction it will fire in conjunction with the pea shot. There are three of them: blue (ice daggers), orange (fireball) and green (lightning). Each color also provides a charge attack: blue will fire an 8-way dagger blast, the orange fireball will have a homing ability and the green lightning will turn into a powerful energy circle. You'll know when the charging is ready to be released by checking out the yellow status to the sides of the "dash" bar.

The function of this "dash" bar is obvious: it's there to compensate for the sluggishness of the spaceship. It's true that the fixed ship's speed suits the pace of the game really well, but there are times when a escape maneuver is definitely needed. The second button in the controller is then used for a dash displacement that accelerates the ship through a determined distance. Its use, however, overheats the engine, so there's a limit to how many times you can dash in a row, and this limit is indicated by the "dash" bar.

Selected moments of an intergalactic fight against a bad alien space breed
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Much of the game's design is clearly inspired on Gradius, especially the bosses and their core weak points. All stages have very unique settings that range from wide open space to considerably claustrophobic challenges. The 6th level, for instance, is only a moving maze of seven square blocks trying to crush you. Enemies are presented as an alien race formed primarily of insect-like creatures and organic battleships, frequently arriving in formations that try to overwhelm the player. As for the soundtrack, it's equally diverse and definitely got me in the mood. Just like in all games of its kind, memorization and good positioning are of utmost importance if you want to succeed, as well as a good knowledge of how to effectively use the special weapons (trust in the great homing ability of the fireball!).

Rayxanber is a delightful rarity that will definitely please old school shmuppers, even with its tiny flaws. One of them is that the play field doesn't take the whole screen area - it doesn't bother after a while, it's just weird in the beginning. Another issue is the milking possibilities made available by one of the checkpoints, which unfortunately breaks the scoring system. When fighting the 7th boss you can get points to no end by destroying its several side turrets. Since it's only vulnerable during a split-second between his different turret arrangements, hitting him by accident is nearly impossible. The first time I reached him I think I battled for 10 minutes straight because I didn't know how to take him down. He's a cool boss though, I like to think of him as one of those high noon wild west duels. One bullseye shot and he's gone!

There are absolutely no options in Rayxanber. What you see is what you get: one difficulty, 3 starting lives, one extra life for every 50.000 points and unlimited continues for the sake of practice. So here's my 1CC high score:

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Master of Weapon (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1989
Published by Taito in 2006

Going deep into certain campaigns sometimes leads into situations where a way out might be seemingly impossible. You feel like you're about to drown, consuming yourself in pain and agony while your feet are being dragged down by an octopus and all your efforts to rise to the surface are useless. During the process of 1CCing Master of Weapon I've been through a few of these moments, for this is a game that seems to be programmed to punish players, be it for the excruciating challenge or for one of the most unfortunate set of design choices I have ever seen in the shmup world. All of these harsh traits do make for an outstanding struggle for life, which is directly proportional to how unfair, annoying and disheartening this game can be. If I had to define it in one word, it would definitely be "nightmare".

Master of Weapon is an obscure vertical shooter released in the Arcades by Taito in 1989. Its presence in the PS2 library is equally obscure, since you can find it only in the Taito Memories II Vol. 2 (Gekan) compilation, released exclusively in Japan in 2006. It wasn't a popular game back then and it sure isn't now, but I've been wanting to play it since I laid my eyes on the Mega Drive port a few years back, the one that's regarded by some as the worst shmup for that system. Judging from what I was able to see in MAME, the PS2 version is arcade-perfect and should cater to arcade lovers because it has a proper TATE option. So here's some good hardcore motivation to get to know the game, even though I'm aware that its crudeness will repel most people in a matter of minutes.

Flying heads over a crimson sea

For a 1989 title, the graphics in Master of Weapon are a little washed out but OK overall. They don't stand out in any way, aside from some weird, creepy bosses. What it does wrong in so many levels is in its sound design. By now I'm pretty much used to the sound effects, but I'm sure that here you have to endure some of the most irritating bleeps ever recorded for a video game. And the most irritating sound is the one that rings when you die. The music fares a little better, with some catchy and haunting tunes here and there. In spite of this, the BGM for the 5th stage has to be one of the worst songs I have ever heard in any video game. Seriously, it's borderline retarded... At least that's how I felt whenever I would end my credit in this stage while this crappy music was playing, as if it was mocking me even more than the game already did by calling the stage "CRY".

Gameplay is derived from the classic concept of Xevious, in that you have a main gun and a ground weapon that's used to hit ground enemies. Power-ups appear when you destroy flying chips that show up from time to time. In order to upgrade and get autofire for the main gun you must collect the F icon (the default gun has no autofire). Four Fs are needed to achieve maximum power and a 5-way spread gun. The ground weapon can't be upgraded, only changed into a different one. There's P (piercing, default), L (laser), W (wide), G (guide) and H (H-bomb). In order to use them you have to be firing the main gun at the same time, because pressing only the button for ground attack unleashes a series of fast ground shots. When a ground weapon is used it takes a while to recharge to its maximum power, according to the four green blocks at the right lower edge of the screen. It can still be fired when it's recharging, but at a lower power level. The only exception to this is the H-bomb, which can be used only once. G is the best ground weapon by far because it will chase and destroy most ground enemies. When it's not available, the next best weapon is W. I think the default P is a bit more useful than L because you can fire it and retreat to a safer position. And then there's S for speed-up. The brief afterburner effect you get with a speed-up can damage airborne enemies, but be aware that some of them will release suicide bullets when killed.

There's no doubt that Master of Weapon is a very tough game. All enemy shots are aimed at the player, who pilots a ship with a considerably large hitbox. Bullet patterns are exclusive to bosses, as well as some lightning fast huge beams that often catch the player off-guard. Bullet visibility is also a serious issue, with bullet speeds getting ridiculously fast in later stages due to rank progression. The combination of unpredictable enemies and aimed/fast/intensified bullets demands extreme knowledge of enemy behavior and a very aggressive play style if you want to succeed, but there are a few other aggravating things you need to worry about. One of them is the way power-ups are handled: every power-up appears and descends very slowly as it develops a wide circle movement. It's really common to have to painfully avoid an unwanted P or L while you're being bombarded from all sides. Another issue is the treatment of background layers. In certain areas, the layer right below the ship moves so fast that dodging becomes an exercise in anticipation and patience. On top of that, in these cases bullet trajectory is affected by lateral movement, making it even harder to move around in safety.

After four areas cleared with no losses, Yukiwo meets his doom in area 5
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

During the time I spent with this game I had two major revelations that I feel obliged to share. The first one came when I was able to get to the 5th area, the one with the large enemy spaceship. As if the game wasn't punishing enough, in this level the AI goes berserk on you. Bullets are twice as fast and twice as frequent, with an onslaught of those green ships that fly unpredictably between layers. Right there and then I realized that if I were to play Master of Weapon on the PS2 only it would take me years to beat the game because I'd have to play the whole thing again every time I got shafted in the 5th stage. Of course the only reasonable thing to do was to fire up MAME and practice stages 5 and 6 with savestates, and I think I did this for a couple of days. The second revelation came to me when I had already shifted back to the PS2: speed-ups. In a normal shmup you normally stick to the ship speed you feel most comfortable with, and in this case I thought I only needed two S icons. The problem was that the game kept sending those damn speed-ups, making me struggle to avoid them like the plague. One day I got a third speed-up by accident, and guess what happens? No more speed-ups for the rest of the game! Oh, how I wish I knew this before I started playing... So there you have it: get used to grabbing three speed-ups up front and be less annoyed by the power-up system.

If there's one thing you can't complain about in this game is its fast, frantic pace. It keeps you on your toes all the time. I really think you gotta be "in the zone" here, because the game calls for heavy memorization, sharp reflexes, cautious ground enemy point-blanking and extreme adaptation. Most of the difficulty lies in the fact that popcorn enemies are randomly generated and often behave erratically. If you kill some of them fast enough they can increase in numbers and virtually clutter the screen, leaving you no room to maneuver. I might be wrong here, but I think it helps to lower rank when you kill that tiny bug that shows up below those blue crawling beetles. In any case, the only definitive way to reduce rank is by dying, and that's when the extends given with 500.000 and 1 million points become helpful. Also helpful is the fact that certain ground targets will always release the same power-ups. And depending on how rank goes, sometimes some enemies will not appear at all (such as the red snake in the middle of the 5th stage).

Click for the option menus translation for Master of Weapon on Taito Memories II Vol. 2

In Master of Weapon stages are "areas" and have very diverse lengths as the player fights in a nuked, mutant-ridden planet. The 1st area takes less than a minute, while the 5th one seems to go on forever. Credit feeding will not allow you to see the creepy and easy true last boss. The score is not reset if you continue, but the number of continues is shown in the high score table (in the PLAY column). Despite its torturing difficulty, Master of Weapon is also known for a cheesy shameless plug: Yukiwo, the name of the main character, is also the name of the main programmer. And a weird note: the in-game opening message shows September 11 as the date of ship departure, but if the year shown was 200X instead of 199X then we would have a real shmup omen in our hands...

My 1CC high score, playing on NORMAL on a straight TV (YOKO):

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Omega Five (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Natsume
Published by Hudson Soft in 2008

So here we have one of the highlights of the Xbox Live Arcade shmups! Omega Five is a twin stick shooter, and with the exception of this gameplay aspect it unfolds much like the classic Forgotten Worlds, meaning you control a flying character who’s able to shoot in all directions as the screen scrolls mostly in a horizontal fashion. This concept isn’t for all tastes, but once you get into Omega Five the potential for fun is unveiled first as you attempt to survive the stages, and later as you start grasping the correct way to use each character and - maybe - get higher scores.

The strongest quality of this game definitely lies in the polished, stylish and flashy graphics. It seems most of the efforts from the developer went to the graphic design, since Omega Five has only 4 stages and leaves you starving for more once it’s over. The game is beautiful, working as a homage to those pure 2D old school full-fledged shoot’em up adventures we all loved so much back in the 16-bit days, with great character design, cool weapons and lots of large enemies to defeat. Since it doesn’t have a proper manual, I can’t tell much about the story. Not that I care about it anyway, after all I play these games to blow up stuff. And in a game that starts against a snowy background and has evil Charles Xavier as last boss it’s pretty hard to concoct any reasonable storyline on my own.

Fire in the swamp!

I think Omega Five is not only a fine shmup, but also a worthy example of a decently programmed game. Casual credit feeders won’t get much of the game, but those who care about 1CCing or winning achievements will be forced (in a good way) to learn it well, and that’s where things start getting interesting. First of all, the achievement list gives away two more characters besides Ruby and Tempest, the default stars of the game. In order to unlock RAD, it’s necessary to finish the game with sexy Ruby (RAD is a faster version of Ruby). To unlock Sensei, you have to finish it with bulky Tempest. And to access extra challenge and retro modes you gotta complete the game in several different ways. Extra credits beyond the initial 3 come automatically with play time, and after 300 minutes free play is granted. One might see this as a way to add value to a rather short game - it’s great to avoid naive newcomers from disregarding Omega Five as “just another lame old-fashioned 2D shooter”.

All characters share the same basics: move them with the left stick or the D-pad, shoot with the right stick. Three weapons are interchangeable with colored power-ups (red, blue and green), with three power levels activated by taking icons of the same color. Defeated enemies leave pink chips behind, that when collected fill up the "ultimate burst" stock (up to 3). These work as smart bombs (L2), wiping all on screen bullets and damaging enemies in the process. There’s also a "dimension field" resource (R1) that makes you invincible for a split-second so that you can escape hairy situations, at the cost of a little health. The health bar can take 6 hits before the character dies, but energy icons will replenish around 40% when collected. And last but not least there’s a special feature to each character, triggered with the R2 button. Ruby and RAD will launch a claw that can latch onto certain enemies and damage them; this claw also blocks regular bullets. Tempest will toggle his red/blue weapons between two different behaviors and launch a homing version of his green weapon. Sensei will send his dog to any lockable target and fire special weapons automatically (a mix between Ruby’s claw and the dog from Shadow Dancer).

While it’s okay to play Omega Five for survival only, learning to chain will lead to a more rewarding experience. The multiplier meter can be filled up to ×10 by killing successive enemies without taking too long between each kill (approximately 1 to 2 seconds, according to the small dial to the right of the multiplier bar). When enemies run out it’s possible to preserve the chain by hitting any bulky opponent with any weapon. The chain is broken when you take too long to hit something or when you get hit. Does this sound familiar? That’s because this is the exactly same chaining concept of the DoDonPachi series! The difference is that chaining in Omega Five is a lot easier and more forgiving. With stage layouts that help a lot and a difficulty level that’s not that taxing, anyone can experience this kind of scoring rush. It’s even possible to milk bosses for high multipliers!

First level with in-stage changes to Retro mode and Female voice mode
(courtesy of YouTube user ErickDamon)

On the surface, it might seem that Ruby and RAD are the best characters of the game, but my favorite one is Tempest. He might be bigger and slower, but his weapons are ultra cool (love the acid/oil launcher - looks great and is excellent for chaining) and he’s also able to slow down bullets and reflect them by ceasing to shoot for a brief moment. Sensei's weapon has no long range ability but it blocks bullets by default, and you can unleash different sword attacks by doing crazy moves with the right stick (including a 360º sword slash). This shows that each character has a very specific set of abilities – even Ruby and RAD differ, in that Ruby’s shot is locked onto the enemy she clutches to, while RAD is free to shoot in whatever direction she desires.

As you progress in the game, eventually you will unlock several extras, including a mode called Arcade++. This special mode plays just like the regular Arcade mode, but here it takes only one hit to get killed. And then it’s GAME OVER, no matter where you are, with no CONTINUES allowed. How’s that for perfection and hardcore? In order to encourage you to try it, in this mode the maximum multiplier is ×30 instead of ×10. How’s that for extra motivation? Now for the only real flaw I see in Omega Five: even though Arcade and Arcade++ are different modes, the leaderboard tables for both are shared! This is stupid in lots of ways, and helped me give up on mastering Arcade++ for the time being. I beat regular Arcade mode with all characters and won 100% of the achievements, but going the whole way in Arcade++ is too daunting a task for me right now.

In a nutshell, Omega Five is a superb game, possibly the most accomplished original shmup on Xbox Live Arcade. It’s tons of fun for casual and hardcore players alike (alone or in co-op), with excellent presentation and a pumping soundtrack to boot. Totally mandatory if you have your 360 connected to the Internet.

I believe I squeezed the Arcade mode quite decently with Tempest, since as of now the 1CC result below is the top score in the leaderboards with him in this particular mode.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Arrow Flash (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Renovation in 1990

Arrow Flash was one of the earliest shmups to grace the Mega Drive library, back in 1990. I didn't have the chance to play it back then, but the name always struck me as being cool, and definitely lured me into trying it. A couple of years ago I finally had the chance to do it, and much to my dismay it wasn't what I expected at all. I didn't hope to come back to it so soon, but thanks to a recent discussion at the Sega-16 forum page for the game this last weekend I felt the urge to play it again and try to top my previous 1CC high score.

Macross and Gundam fans never got any of their games on the Mega Drive, but Arrow Flash is the closest you can get to these beloved series. You pilot a spaceship that's able to switch between a jet and a robot, and the firepower behaves differently with both forms. Inside the cockpit is heroine Zana Keene, who bears the responsibility to save the Earth all by herself from vicious outer space Viking terrorists. This was taken directly from the manual, but don't get your hopes up just yet. After all, there's absolutely no Viking motifs whatsoever in the game design!

A deadly encounter against the 4th Viking guardian

Speaking of design, all 5 stages are comprised of at least two sections, the first one with a unique scrolling background and the second part with a more ellaborate course. The exception to this is the first level, where you fly above the clouds and halt for some seconds as a huge spaceship crashes in the background. Three aspects stand out throughout: (1) the simple yet abundant parallax, (2) the aggressive use of colors and (3) the distracting, oddly implemented backgrounds in some stages. In the second part of the 2nd stage the background layer scrolls backwards, and both first sections of the 3rd and 4th stages are so flashy and confusing they might make you dizzy. It takes a while to get used to them and not die due to the colors swirling and blending everywhere.
While graphically Arrow Flash doesn't do anything wrong, it's reasonable to say it oozes the term "generic" when you consider the music. It's downright bland, corny and at times plain grating. This is a vivid example of a game that gets self-shafted by a lousy soundtrack. The only glimpse of coolness in the music is the BGM for the first section of the 4th stage, it's just too bad inspiration was lacking in the development team.

Lack of inspiration can also be associated with the challenge level, even though the gameplay aspects are not so bad. Initially, both the jet and the robot fire the same type of shots. They only start differing when you get F icons, which add Gradius-like options to the ship (maximum of 2). When in jet form, the options follow it around as shadows, while in robot form they remain in a fixed 45º rear formation. Each form also has its specific way to deploy the AF special attack (the "arrow flash"). When in jet form, a series of quick forward shots is discharged, while in robot form an energy aura surrounds the ship and makes it invulnerable for a little while. AF can be set to stock or charge in the OPTIONS menu. As its name implies, in charge mode it's possible to use the AF any time you want, but you need to charge it first by holding the activation button. Stock mode causes several A icons to appear throughout the game, adding to the overhead AF stock for immediate albeit limited use.

Opening and initial levels of Arrow Flash
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)

The main weapon can be selected among three types of laser with the appropriate power-ups: (I) forward blue lasers, (II) yellow shots and (III) wave laser that resembles the red shot in R-Type. They can be upgraded three times by taking the same power-up. Other icons include S (speed-up), E (3-hit shield), M (guided missiles, up to 2) and 1UPs. Score-based 1UPs come for every 150.000 points. There's nothing special about scoring in the game, with the exception that every single power-up collected is worth 1.000 points. However, taking too many S icons will certainly make the ship harder to control.

The opening animation and the cool ending picture are a valid attempt at giving Arrow Flash a little more flair, since the game itself doesn't do much to stand above mediocre. It plays by the book and refuses to do anything beyond the basic. And when it tries to do it what we get is an exaggeration of swirling and confusing backgrounds. At least the game is quite easy so there's no potential for hate, instead resulting in another commonplace, easily forgettable shooting experience.
My new high score shows an improvement of 10,5% over the previous one. In the 1CC run from the picture below the game was played on NORMAL, stock mode, and no lives were lost.