Monday, February 28, 2011

Formation Z (NES)

Hybrid (Platform / Horizontal)
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Jaleco
Published by Jaleco in 1985

Let's rewind time back to 1984, when shoot'em ups were still in the process of establishing an image as a proper genre. It was a golden era for developers that were starting to build a name in the arcades, such as Taito, Konami, Namco and a few others. In the case of Jaleco, Formation Z was its second contribution to the genre (the first one was the vertical inertia-based Exerion), a primitive and odd title that tried to make some ideas work in a time where the genre's foundations weren't yet etched in stone. It's probably the first of all shooters involving transformations from robots to jets, a very specific variation whose most famous representative is the Macross game series.

We must bear in mind that Gradius, probably the most influential horizontal shmup of all time, wasn't even out when Formation Z hit the arcade scene (outside of Japan it was known as Aeroboto), so don't expect the gameplay to unfold like your regular horizontal shooter. It starts as a weird auto-scrolling platformer where the robot can only shoot forwards/diagonally and jump. He’s not allowed to turn left, but holding the jump button will turn him into a fast moving jet. Pressing the jump button again close to the ground will revert him back to the robot form, slowing down the action to its original starting pace.

Bonus your energy!

Jaleco ported the game to the Famicom themselves, and did a very good job at retaining all the characteristics of the arcade. However, saying that Formation Z’s gameplay is unique is just a soft way to say it hasn’t aged well at all. It feels clunky, cheap and unbalanced. Playing it doesn’t feel comfortable in either form (robot or jet), at least in the first half dozen tries. If you don’t persevere you most likely won’t even approach the first boss, since there’s no explicit division between stages and the second section feels just like the first one.

One of the strongest early influences in the genre is the notion of fuel, and the fact that you need to burn it in order to fly. In this game you don’t burn fuel when you remain in robot form, but flying will deplete fuel stock pretty fast (display is in the lower right corner). Therefore, in order to keep flying you need to collect fuel canisters on ground level. The problem is that doing this in jet form is very difficult because by the time you see a fuel canister it’s just too late to collect it. It’s perfectly okay to relinquish the jet form completely, but there comes a point where you must fly to cross the ocean. By then you should have a decent amount of fuel because there are no fuel recharges in these ocean sections. This means that if you don’t have enough fuel to make the crossing the jet will plummet to death.

Despite fuel concerns, it’s also necessary to cope with a few other issues. When moving up or down, the jet shoots diagonally instead of shooting forwards. The closest you are to the ground the fastest you fly, but it’s pretty easy to touch the surface and die. There are no power-ups in the game, only a charge shot that fires automatically: keep the button pressed and it will fire stronger shots at regular intervals. This demands some timing, for example, if you want to take down tanks and bosses. By the way, you can only kill these enemies with charge shots.

A Decepticon treads the surface of a conquered planet
(courtesy of YouTube user Stafy)

I like to think of Formation Z as a three-stage game. Each stage ends with an ocean or an open space section where you’re not allowed to remain in robot form. The second and third stages have bosses, and the last one of them bears a striking resemblance to Big Core from Gradius (!). After he’s defeated the game loops, revealing its surprisingly short length. Just to have an idea, it requires less than five minutes to complete if you go for a speed-run. This weird stage structure is shared by very few other shmups, such as Transbot/Nuclear Creature for the Sega Master System.

Small enemies, missiles, tanks and weird flying objects compose the limited enemy gallery. Although simple to the point of dullness, the graphics in Formation Z at least have a few layers of parallax, which adds greatly to the sense of movement. There’s no music at all, only a poor selection of sound effects. In addition to that, strange gameplay quirks do not help in making this obscure oddity any more likeable, so it’s safe to say its appeal resides totally in the ranks of nostalgia-buffs.

I spent one night with it and looped it once. I guess that’s enough for me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Avenger (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Laser Soft
Published by Telenet Japan in 1990

Aliens are one of the most insistent brats of the universe, they're always trying to invade and conquer the Earth. If it weren't for the brave efforts of leagues and leagues of lonesome pilots the human race would be dead meat in no time. In the case of Avenger, lots of damage are inflicted by these outer space creatures before someone takes on the task of fighting them, as shown in the game's lengthy introduction. The pilot of the advanced hero helicopter is a red-haired heroine, and the battle is to be fought throughout eight stages of alien infested tanks, vessels and warships. That's a nice way to put it, I guess, but expectations shouldn't be held high because this is a fairly average shooter that does nothing to stand out from the flock.

In certain ways Avenger reminded me of the dreadful D-Force, even though it is relatively much more playable and enjoyable. You can see similarities in the way a few weapons and missiles are dealt with between both titles. Nonetheless, I believe the most vivid influence in Avenger comes from Taito's rather obscure Gyrodine, because it uses the same tilting mechanic for weapons: as you sweep left and right your shot "bends" in order to follow your movement. The catch here is that you can lock the shooting direction as you wish. You will also be able to choose three types of weapons before playing a stage/mission. Starting out with just a few weapon options, new ones are unlocked as you progressively beat the stages - much like in Axelay.

Where am I shooting at?

Flying through land, sea, cities and ravines, the avenging chopper doesn't go through anything that's graphically remarkable or mind-blowing. There's a stage where you fight a huge tank travelling at high speed, but aside from that the pace is mild and relaxing (or boring, depending on your state of mind). Overall, graphics are quite primitive and can get confusing with certain obstacles that kill you instantly. This means that hitting a wall leads to an instant GAME OVER, regardless of current energy/lives, so the error margin for this gameplay threat is null. Just like in a few other PC Engine games, the sound effects are too loud and don't allow you to listen to most of the music properly. Breathing sections are very few and far between, and without knowing them in advance you won't want to take your finger off the trigger just to enjoy the soundtrack...

In every stage the player starts with 4 lives in an energy bar. Items are carried by a specific destructible enemy and cycle through M (main weapon upgrade), S (sub weapon upgrade) and R (1-life/health recovery). Every new main/sub weapon you select needs to be powered-up, and some of them take more items than others to reach maximum power. For the main weapon you can have the default straight shot, a missile launcher and a laser. Sub shot can be chosen between homing missiles, directional wave shots and auxiliary pods. Both main/sub weapons are fired with button II, and the shot direction can be locked by continuously pressing button I. In order to trigger one load of the special weapon you need to stop shooting and push solely button I (weird, but that's the way it is). Selectable special weapons consist of 3 EMP discharges that eliminate on-screen bullets, a single invincibility device that lasts a few seconds and two smart bombs with great destructive power.
With the exception of the laser, the process of upgrading main weapons is odd because as you reach maximum power the spread range is increased but the rate of fire is reduced. Having them with intermediate power and a greater rate of fire is sometimes the best option from a gameplay standpoint, but then you won't get the 3.000 points for each additional item you collect when you're maxed out.

How to rid the planet of another nasty alien invasion
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

When a boss is defeated you're treated with a screen showing the helicopter fleeing from a massive explosion, followed by a briefing on the next mission and, sometimes, a choice between two options. Unfortunately, everything is in Japanese and it was impossible for me to figure out what was going on. The selection you make affects the order of the upcoming stages, as well as the order of the newly unlocked weapons, but in the end you'll always play the same cluttered, claustrophobic last stage (be careful with walls!).

Avenger has a rather tame bullet count, with just a few moments where dodging becomes intense, such as the final section of the aforementioned huge tank stage. The best way to take down some of the stronger enemies is to point blank them, but you have to do it carefully. It's pretty common to lose all lives and waste the credit during a concentration gap (thankfully CONTINUES are unlimited, albeit forced). Upon completion, the game gives you the following secret code: URDL2ULDR1. When input in the opening screen, this command sequence (↑ → ↓ ← button II ↑ ← ↓ → button I) lets you start the game with all weapons already available. A curiosity: pressing SELECT on the opening screen triggers a short sequence starring a blonde character from an RPG series released by Telenet Japan.

One detail that bugs me involves the high score display that's shown during the GAME OVER screen: don't rely on it to get the high score after beating the game. The damn thing shows only the high score for your current session if you continue, so remember to pause right after the last boss goes down. That's how I got the following still for my records:

Monday, February 21, 2011

R-Type (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1988

Blast off and strike the evil Bydo empire!

Being able to play one of the games that helped define the shmup genre must have been an exquisite pleasure for Master System owners, even if they were not aware of its importance back in 1988 (well, we were all kids back then). After all, at home R-Type was exclusive to Sega’s 8-bit system while the PC Engine version didn't hit the market, and worked as a kind of compensation for the NES having Gradius (later on an unlicensed R-Type hack would appear for the NES under the name Magic Dragon, but that doesn’t count).

Revisiting the game after being exposed to a few more advanced versions has some advantages, such as realizing how good a port it actually is, as well as being able to properly assess its lower difficulty level. The most impressive feat of the Master System version is how faithful it is to the original arcade game, down to every single important gameplay aspect. Practically nothing got lost in translation. Of course graphics and music had to be downgraded to 8-bit standards, but they are certainly of great quality given the hardware limitations. And they successfully play their role of materializing one of the most fulfilling and influential classic shoot’em up experiences.

The last Bydo master!

The classic R-Type gameplay is here in all its glory. You pilot an initially sluggish spaceship, the R9 "Arrowhead", that’s propelled into the screen as if it’s just come out of a warp drive. The pea shooter can be charged into a more powerful beam, and items are brought by these small drones that jump and bounce around the screen. The “force” is the most important item – it’s created after you get the first colored icon and can be docked both on the front or the back of the ship, acting as a shield and a special weapon generator after you get a 2nd colored item. The third one will max out this special weapon according to its color: blue gives you a set of bouncing lasers, red gives you a wave shot and yellow provides a pair of wall-crawling energy "snakes". The force can be tossed away, upon which it starts firing single shots instead of the special weapon. Other items include guided missiles (M), speed-ups (S) and orbs that appear above (1st icon) and below the ship (2nd icon).

R-Type’s excitement and rush come from the process of mastering each one of its stages and sections, in what most people call a “memorizer” shmup. The slow pacing is a trademark here, and speed-ups are a must for the game to become manageable. On the Master System, R-Type still poses a nice challenge due to these features and also the dreaded checkpoint system. However, unlike the arcade game, it doesn’t become impossible if you die in later stages, and it does run slightly slower in certain parts. It’s decidedly great fun, even more so when you consider the potential for a letdown caused by the huge amounts of flicker throughout the game, the only real glaring flaw in a port that preserves almost everything from the original. The flicker is annoying at first, but after a while you don't care about it anymore because the game just sucks you in completely.

Secret area accessed from stage 4, with some mad dodging skills at the boss!
(courtesy of YouTube user talbot1939)

What was left out in the conversion? The beam charge gauge is gone, as well as the permanent display for score and lives. You’re only allowed to see your score/lives in between stages and during the GAME OVER screen. The good news is that Sega was kind enough to add a completely new half-stage to the port, accessible through a secret passage in the last section of the 4th stage's destructible bits. If you take the passage you'll be able to play against a completely new set of enemies and a totally different boss. Don't mind trying again if you die in there, the passage only works once per loop.
Speaking of loops, there are two of them, just like in the original arcade game. Extra lives are awarded when you reach some score milestones (50.000, 150.000, 250.000, 400.000 points, etc.), which surely helps go the distance. The ending is just the same the second time around, but it doesn't take away from the fact that R-Type is a highlight of the Master System shmup library. An with an exclusive extra stage to boot!

My intention when replaying this port was to top my previous high score, but somewhere along the way I noticed it was feasible to go for the 2-ALL. Things turned out better than I expected, and I was able to complete both loops without dying. The improvement in the score was around 35%.

Friday, February 18, 2011

2nd Blog Anniversary!

Wow, it's been two full years already. Time flies indeed!

I wonder where I would be with this hobby had I not decided to write about shmups two years ago... I'd probably be playing them just as much, I just don't think my collection would've grown to the massive amount of games I own today.

If I hadn't started the blog some other things wouldn't be part of my current gaming routine, such as my increased awareness of the genre, the good friends I made along the way or the constant strive to become a better player. It's great when you're able to find such meaningful rewards from a hobby - yes, a hobby - and I am very grateful for all the talks, comments, forum discussions, MSN chat sessions and YouTube responses. I still have a lot to learn and I'm just lucky that there are lots of people out there in the shmup community who're more than keen on helping and sharing information.

In this past year I managed to add two new (old) consoles to my repertoire. The first one was the FM Towns Marty, a relatively obscure platform that holds the distinction of being the first 32-bit console ever released. A few weeks ago I had the honor to beat my first game for it (Rayxanber). The second console has just recently arrived: a Neo Geo AES. My library for it is quite small and should grow in large steps. As we all know, most of the games for it are both expensive and rare. I'm still thinking about which Neo Geo shmup I should try to play first.

In order to celebrate the occasion I filmed a short video to show my collection. It's no game room, you'll see I try to keep it as functional as possible. Posters, memorabilia and a dedicated room might appear in the future, who knows? Here it goes:

Writing this blog has been a real pleasure, regardless of how much awesomeness or suck was involved in each shmup I played. Even though writers tend to write primarily for themselves, the motivation I get from all the support provided by comments and feedback is invaluable.

Thank you guys, here's to another year of pure and passionate shmupping.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wings of Wor (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NCS Corp.
Published by DreamWorks in 1991

All I could think of when I laid my eyes and hands on Gynoug (corresponding Japanese release title) was that right there and then I had a Birdman game to play. How cool was that for a teenager grown up on Hanna-Barbera cartoons? Sure, it had nothing to do with the series except for a slight resemblance from the main character, a winged man/angel who's out to battle the most undescribable creatures from the Mega Drive shmup library, courtesy of the same guys behind the Cho Aniki games. You can rest assured though, there are no homossexual undertones in Wings of Wor. From an artistic standpoint, it's surely one of the finest shooters on the system, but it also offers solid gameplay and some decent challenge.

Other important reminiscence I have from this game is that I always found the song on the 1st stage to be awfully cheesy. This is quite unique for me because every other song in the game is great, with heroic motifs that greatly enhance the shooting experience. And you don't have to wait too long to hear them, since most stages have two songs - the second BGM starts playing right after you beat the mid-boss. Another nerdy note is that I think the first song on the 3rd stage could've been taken directly out of Sega's puzzler Columns. However, don't let the soothing music fool you in this level, stay sharp and look out for the blue weapon.

Gee, what kind of mutant experiment were you submitted to, buddy?

Superb art design is what defines the strongest asset of Wings of Wor. The atmosphere is predominantly dark, with very specific themes for each of the 6 stages and a handful of creepy boss encounters. The travel inside the bloodstream of a living organism in stage 5 and the flight among the clouds amidst beautiful parallax in stage 6 are certainly some of the most impressive 16-bit shmup graphics out there. The gigantic bosses are in a league of their own, and the works of H. R. Giger are always mentioned as an inspiration since you have all sorts of weird creatures with both mechanical and human-like traits (watch out for the infamous cock-boss!). Everything is amazingly crafted and original, and some boss attacks even approach a bullet-hellish feel, providing for some intense moments. They're not over-the-top difficult, nonetheless they surely put the player's dodging abilities to the test.

Basic gameplay is pretty straightforward. Items are brought by flying crystals. Destroy them and get naked red orbs to increase shot strength and naked blue orbs to increase the spread pattern. When these same colors appear in a slightly different and bigger orb they will change the shot style: red gives you the spread weapon and blue turns it into a straight shot that extends a bit to the rear, giving the character a short-range protection against popcorn stuff (very important in stage 3). There's also the yellow shot type, which gives you a forward/rear shot. Little feathers increase the character's speed, and hidden 1UPs are uncovered when you shoot their area. Besides these 1UPs, the game also grants extra lives for every 200.000 points.

Beyond the gameplay basics, what really stands out in Wings of Wor is the array of special weapons, which have limited ammo/time and can be very useful. They are labeled by alphabet letters. There's E (energy balls), S (aura shield), T (thunderbolt), L (lightning bolt), H (magic arrow), W (wild fire), G (ground attack) and O (option). You can stock up to 3 of them, always activating the oldest one you got with the A button. Once activated and applicable, the weapon is used by pushing C (autofire enabled). Two of them are time-based (S lasts for a few seconds, W is permanent until you activate the next weapon), five are ammo-based (E, R, L, H, G) and one is hit-based (O). Some special weapons only appear within a specific stage, but if you manage to stock the same weapon consecutively the icons will merge into a more powerful version of them upon activation. Three Gs in the 4th stage and two Os in the 5th stage are a good example of a much better use of the special weapons.

A credit ends before the first stage is over
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

With the exception of the last stage, which consists of a boss rush with all mid-bosses and a previous boss before the fight against the last creepy creature, Wings of Wor has long levels and fortunately a good deal of variety throughout. Well, maybe it goes a bit too far in stage 2, but that's okay because the difficulty ramp is well implemented - the action picks up right afterwards, as well as the need for more careful playing. I recommend point blanking bosses whenever possible for faster killings (and some more of that exquisite muffled sound you hear when your shot damages something), and don't be shy to use the special weapons. Extra scoring is obtained by sticking to the same weapon type, for which repeated items will give you a few more points.

I believe this game is quite underrated even among shmup fans, so I urge you to check it out if you're into the genre and haven't tried it yet. It loops and offers a second round with a slight increase in bullet and enemy count, but after you beat the last boss again the game ends. This is another case where the default difficulty is EASY, so remember to go into the OPTIONS screen to change it accordingly. You'll see there's a "hi-score" display in there, but it didn't work for me. Sometimes it would display a completely different hi-score, or even freeze in zeros. Therefore, if you want to keep track of your score remember to pause the game once the boss is beaten. The angel hero hovers there for a brief while before flying away.

Here's my high score on NORMAL, both loops beaten:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Darius Gaiden (Saturn)

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

The people from Darius emigrated to a new planet, but evil forces from Belser’s space marine army track them down and start annihilating everything, including a fleet of Silver Hawk spaceships. Having high hopes, Proco and Tiat Young once again board their Silver Hawks to fight the bad guys. If it depends on the player, the heroes will need much more than hope if they want to achieve their goal in Darius Gaiden, a direct arcade sequel to Darius II that was ported and released for the Sega Saturn in all regions (JAP, USA, EUR) - a treat rarely seen for this particular platform.

Even though Darius II is a great game in its own right, I guess Taito adressed the concerns people stated about it by infusing Darius Gaiden with a lot more color and variety, much more intense boss fights and a tricky rank system. The game is well known for raising the bar of the classic fish-blasting series, presenting quite a different challenge from its predecessors while introducing new gameplay and scoring mechanics. The new learning curve is steeper in the beginning, something that might scare people from it, but patience and dedication ultimately pay off, unveiling a perfectly manageable shmup that doesn't require the infamous rapid fire cheat in order to be beaten. What amazes me is that this widespread cheat is accepted as "normal" among shmuppers everywhere, but the truth is that it corrupts the experience by making the game a lot easier. Needless to say, I refused to cope with it and played Darius Gaiden with the default autofire.

Are you threatening me? I am the big Cornh... ahm... red Silver Hawk!

Going back to the roots established when the series started, weapons in Darius Gaiden are upgraded by taking colored icons that resemble badges. These appear from certain defeated enemies and power up the main weapon (red), missiles (green) and shield (blue). Dying won’t strip you down to a default ship: you lose only two levels for the main weapon, while missiles and shield are reset to the latest base power level, which are shown below the score display. Both main weapon and missiles are fired by the same button (at last!), with the second button activating the so called “black hole bomb”, a powerful blast that sucks all enemies and bullets and explodes in a lightning burst afterwards, making the ship invincible while it lasts. Extra bombs are obtained by taking purple badges, and other extra badges appear when you shoot a specific part of the scenery, including bonus points (black/grey) and a screen wipeout (orange).

Upgrading weapons is a cool thing to do (wait till you get two great options that shoot mild homing arches!), but caution should be taken because of rank. Enemies get more aggressive and resilient the faster you power up, and can become a pain very early in the game. In order to keep things manageable you should avoid grabbing some icons - my strategy is to let a red badge go by in the 1st stage and a green one pass in the 3rd stage, which leads to less demanding fights against Golden Ogre (A) and Folding Fan (D). And let's not forget about the capture move you're allowed to do on mid-bosses, also known as "captains". Each captain has an orb on his body, and by hitting it without killing him you're able to detach the orb. Once detached, get it and the evil creature will fight by your side for a little while!

Capturing mid-bosses also plays a big part when you play for score. Each captured captain is worth 200.000 points upon game completion, adding to the overall bonus comprised of remaining lives (1 million each) and remaining bombs (300.000 each). Therefore, aiming for a 1-life clear and maximum bomb stock (5) is the only way to get bigger points, aside from killing all enemy waves during the stages and milking destructible parts on bosses (you still have to beware of the time-out rotating cubes, even though they take much longer to appear in this chapter). As expected, some levels are easier than others, as well as bosses. My nemesis here was certainly Neon Light Illusion (stages H and J). He spews so many bullets that I'm always forced to bomb his initial form, and his yellow seeking lasers always find a way to touch my precious silver glowing shield...

Opening and first stage of Darius Gaiden's European release
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Don't trust what you see in the attract mode of the Saturn port, it shows the computer using the rapid fire cheat! Even though it's a considerably tough shooter, as I mentioned above Darius Gaiden is perfectly playable without it. It takes just the same amount of practice you would spend on any tough shmup, and even though you don't get extends based on score, hidden 1UPs can be uncovered by hitting certain spots in the terrain (every path has 2 of these hidden lives). Precious hint useful for cluttered situations and bosses: for a faster rate of fire, tap buttons A and C and you'll get something close to the rapid fire cheat.

I really dig the graphical design in Darius Gaiden. It's full of color and variety throughout, with some beautiful effects and parallax in the backgrounds. If you've already played Metal Black, which at one point in time was supposed to be Darius III, you'll notice that Gaiden builds upon some of the ideas originated in that game, such as boss explosions and a few of the revolving background effects. All bosses are a visual delight, they're all huge and fear inducing, and are always ready to give you a good fight. Even Golden Ogre, the easiest one of them, is quite capable to take you off-guard and hit your pretty green shield if you're not paying attention. Bosses are also the only creatures that cause very mild slowdowns, and the only other instance where you see this happen is when you trigger a black hole bomb.

Darius Gaiden's soundtrack is remarkable for its weirdness, but no matter how you see it it tends to grow on you since the best tunes appear later in the game. There's a certain cheapness in the sound effect department, but just like the music it gets better as you power up the ship and turn your main weapon into a wave cannon.

My chosen path in this port was ABDHLQV. In the high score below (NORMAL) I lost no lives and beat the game with maximum bomb stock, having captured 4 of the 6 captains. When I get the chance to play the other ports available for the Playstation and the Playstation 2 I will certainly try new paths. :)

Next: G Darius.