Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Flying Hamster (Playstation Network)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels (1 unlockable)
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by The Game Atelier
Published by The Game Atelier in 2010

During Easter time I went in a relaxation trip to beautiful Aracaju, one of the state capitals in Northeast Brazil. The flight has two connections/stops, so the problem of finding what to do is mostly solved by reading a good book or playing a good game. Guess which one was my choice this time around? The PSP was fully charged when I left, and the chance to finally try one of the PSN/PSP Minis was at hand. Minis are downloadable games that run both on the PS3 or on the PSP, and if it wasn't for the fact that these games are designed with the PSP in mind you could easily say that they are the equivalent to Microsoft's XBLIG titles. Cheaper, supposedly more simple games to be enjoyed with casual purposes.

In this sense, The Flying Hamster is a perfect fit for shmup lovers who want a quick burst of shooting action. The design is cute, the colors are plentiful and the challenge is pure old-school, so anyone who ever had a chance to play a horizontal shmup will feel right at home. More experienced people will immediately recognize the influence of Parodius everywhere in the game, from the nonsensical story to the multitude of penguins in the egyptian stage. Watch the whole animated intro, get your powerful leaves spinning and expect humorous bits all around. Although a lot less complicated and not in the same difficulty level of Konami's stellar franchise, it's refreshing to know that The Flying Hamster isn't a walk in the park, requiring a reasonable amount of practice in order to be beaten.

Penguins in the Sahara desert want bananas

Newton's girlfriend was kidnapped by an evil bird, so he flies off to rescue her. Being a hamster, supposedly a small animal that can't carry any weapon while flying, Newton relies on a single spit-like shot and whatever lies ahead of him, including berries, bee hives, sunflowers, beer cans, bananas, torches, hot food, rose thorns and bird nests. He's also able to fire a more powerful charge shot for all weapons, including his default spit. Special weapons have limited ammo, but all accumulated ammo with whatever weapon you're using is preserved for the next one. Most weapon sources are also respawn after a brief while, so it's often possible to fill your weapon stock more than once using the same source. Getting crushed by a wall means instant GAME OVER regardless of lives left, but the good news is that every stage starts with three fresh lives. On top of that, random refills also provide some welcome recovery aid - you can't have more than three hearts at any given time though.

The inherent gameplay simplicity gets put to the test by a stage design that presents a nice variety throughout. Goofy enemies abound and provide good laughs, with background graphics that include skies, forests, sand landscapes, pyramids, cluttered Japanese streets, stormy seas, underwater vaults and an appropriately named "hamster defense force" fortress in the last stage, complete with undescribable creatures, futuristic machinery and an alien last boss to boot. The scrolling speed picks ups every now and then, with a high speed scramble obviously inspired by Gradius II in the last level. Some weapons are more suitable than others in a few sections, with my favorites being beer and bananas.

As straightforward as it is, The Flying Hamster still has a few secrets. The biggest one is the hidden level accessed by hitting the X spot in the lower part of the pyramid in the second stage. Regarding scoring, it's important to mention that killing bosses fast with powerful weapons results in less points than by hitting them with the default spit shot (try doing this with the mushroom mid-boss in the first stage and see what happens). The penguin boss in stage 2 can also be theoretically milked forever by destroying the concrete beams and the smaller penguins he summons.

Learn how to use the fire weapon, rookie
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user GameAtelier)

With the exception of the hidden stage, all levels can be played directly once you reach them, which is great for practicing. A few parts need solid memorization to be won, and these are probably the bulk of the challenge in the game. Once you beat it an extra Hard mode is unlocked, with a different color palette and much more enemies to deal with. Whatever difficulty you choose, the fun factor in The Flying Hamster is enhanced by an upbeat soundtrack that perfectly matches the relaxed feel of the game. The lighthearted epicness is impressive and makes it a worthwhile investment if you're into cheap downloadable content or just want a solid handheld shmup romp. Thankfully the in-game humor is quite lovely and not nearly as dark as in this heavily warped preliminary trailer.

The 1CC high score below was achieved amidst several cups of coffee while waiting for departure in Brasilia's airport. Props go to my girlfriend for helping me figure out the laser from the feather attacks during the first boss fight!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Master of Weapon (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1991

Master of Weapon is a no-brainer in any list of worst outings in the Mega Drive shmup library. That's a fact. Ask anyone, chances are pretty high someone with good knowledge of the genre will point it out as a flagship of horrid gameplay. My approach towards Master of Weapon has changed since the last time I played it a few years back, thanks to the fact that I recently beat the arcade-perfect PS2 version. This gave me a whole new mindset, which allowed me to deal with the most difficult parts of the Mega Drive port with less struggle - and also made me see how relatively easier it is when compared to the original game.

Trying to understand the reasoning for a developer to release obscure and unsuccessful titles in the console market is useless, but it's important to know that the Mega Drive is not to blame for the crappiness herein. After all, everything in the game is faithfully inherited from the arcade original. The overall cheesiness, all the annoying sound effects, every bit of the painstakingly harsh (though softened) gameplay. Taito's arcade and console history is full of glory, but Master of Weapon doesn't do anything to get itself included in this legacy. It seems to do the opposite, but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Standing up to the challenge requires a lot of tolerance to pain and frustration, and in order to enjoy this game you have to dig deep, I mean deep into its guts.

Damn, these aliens are ugly!

Pilot a lone spaceship against hordes of alien scum, and defeat a few crazy bosses along the way. Such a simple concept is also one of the strongest ideas about shmups in general, but the execution in Master of Weapon comes with some tricky details. First of all, the spaceship is so slow it almost hurts. The only way to make it maneuverable is by getting a few S icons brought by the green chips. The problem with this is that power-ups are completely random, and you might have to go through the first couple of acts/stages with absolutely no speed-ups. This also applies to the main weapon power-up, represented by the F icon (four Fs will maximize the spread of your main gun). Complementary to the main gun there's also a ground shot reminiscent of Xevious, with a third weapon acquired with the rest of the power-ups: P (pier, short for "piercing"), L (laser), W (wide), G (guide) and H (H-bomb). They are triggered by a different button and with the exception of the H-bomb they need to recharge for another blast. Lastly, the ship's exhaust can also damage enemies, and its reach is increased whenever you collect a speed-up icon.

For those who haven't played the game, the weapon variety seems actually decent. It almost justifies the title. But then there's the way power-ups are handled. Adding to their annoying random nature, power-ups come down very slowly in circles that take a big part of the screen, and by forcing players to avoid the bad ones (P, L or S for excessive speed-ups) they incur in extra stuff you have to dodge. There is a workaround for this, and I will mention it shortly. Other than the annoyance with power-ups, Master of Weapon is remarkable for the complete absence of divisions between stages. These are labeled as "acts", they blend into each other without notice and not all of them have bosses. If you count the number of bosses, for instance, the game would have only five stages instead of the nominal nine acts. Scrolling alternates between fast and slow and kind of diverts the attention from the bland graphics, which are rather simplified but succeed in establishing the offbeat atmosphere. The soundtrack and sound effects, on the other hand, are extremely close to the arcade version, with the same grating, ear-bleeding noises.

There are three points that I consider the most important ones for those who want to have a shot at this game:

  • Power-ups: do not avoid them, get them all; I know it sounds crazy, but the sooner you get used to maximum speed the better; it eliminates the need to dodge unwanted items and makes it easier to fight bosses; besides, every collected icon is worth 100 points;
  • H-bomb: if you get one, don't use it, save it for the second form of the bosses; H-bomb is very powerful and overrides any special weapon you might have, but it can be used only once; it's perfectly possible to deal with stage enemies with just the main and ground weapons.
  • Fly over bosses: you don't die when you fly over them (had I known it years ago the game wouldn't be as tough back then); this levels things in the boss fight from act 5 (second boss), the one that fires that green spread pattern that's very hard to dodge.

A huge spaceship is approaching fast in act 6
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

Watching out for enemies coming from behind or from the sides is important to survive. Thankfully these don't come very often, so the memorizing aspect isn't that severe. The huge ship's hitbox rears its ugly head when you have to deal with boss attacks. Boss fights, in fact, are the most difficult parts of the game, and everything in between can be reduced to easy navigating with a bit of practice. Dying is only an option up until the second boss, because coming out of the third boss fight with only the pea shot makes it virtually impossible to go on. Extends are awarded with 30.000, 80.000 and then for every 100.000 points after that.

I can honestly say that my appreciation for Master of Weapon improved this time around. I think it's not just a matter of being pure crap, as it's widely known, but instead the game demands a very specific style of play in order to be enjoyed (besides masochism, of course). Moreover, being able to see the ending of bad/hated tough games on one credit seems more fulfilling than doing it on your regular beloved shmup. Right? Uhh... Okay, no.

The 1CC high score below was achieved in a no-miss run, on NORMAL. The starting difficulty is EASY, so remember to go to the options and switch it accordingly before playing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Firepower 2000 (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sales Curve
Published by Sunsoft in 1992

First the good things about Firepower 2000. Graphics and music are decent. Very nice boss explosions. Short albeit cool introduction sequence. Ability to play with two different “ships”. A little variety in the weapons department. Given all these positive aspects, it wouldn’t be expected for someone to not like the game, but in the current state of my shmup affairs I found it just plain boring. And I shall disclose the reasons why in some of the paragraphs below.

Spiritual sequel to the much better Silkworm and the computer based only SWIV, Firepower 2000 preserves the main idea of playing either with a helicopter or an armored jeep (or both in co-op) while keeping SWIV's top down vertical style. The game is also known as Super SWIV in Europe, having received a port for the Mega Drive under the title Mega SWIV (an European exclusive release by the way). In any existing incarnation, there’s no doubt that this game looks promising from the outside. In fact, I had already played the Mega Drive version before trying this one, and I honestly don’t recall being so utterly stricken by boredom. This could derive from two possible reasons: (1) I’m older and as a consequence I’m demanding more from my games, or (2) the SNES version just isn’t as fun as the Mega Drive port. Whatever it is, I had a hard time finding the motivation to play Firepower 2000 in the past weeks. I only did it in order to let my fingers rest from the strain of slashing devilish creatures in Sol Divide (material for a future post ahoy!).

Only three against one? Get serious, please

Upon starting you must choose the craft you want to pilot by pressing SELECT at the opening screen. The jeep is immune to flying enemies and is able to fire in any desired direction, but is hindered by ground obstacles. The helicopter flies over all the scenery but can be destroyed when crashing against airborne enemies. Opting for the jeep will make you play with a boat during part of the 3rd stage, and regardless of your option the 4th stage has a long section where you’ll be flying with a yellow jet. All of these vehicles/aircraft share the same weapons throughout the whole game though. These are activated and powered up by chips released when yellow boxes are destroyed, in five different types: bullets, flame, plasma (blue spread, Twin Cobra-style), laser and ionic (straight shots that split in two when an enemy is hit). They are selected with the shoulder buttons.

Other items include limited special weapons, stars and bubbles. Special weapons are released by the same yellow boxes and are triggered by a separate button: X (straight missiles), S (scorching ring of fire) and H (homing missiles). It's possible to stock lots of them. Stars appear from certain destroyed enemies and are worth 1.000 points each upon stage completion. Once a bubble is sighted, shoot to release it and fly into it to get a temporary shield (12 seconds) or keep shooting if you want to detonate a screen-clearing bomb. Extends are awarded with 50.000, 100.000 and for every 100.000 points after that.

Choosing to go with the jeep or the heli is mostly a matter of personal taste and gameplay style. I prefer the helicopter because I feel more comfortable with it. They both travel at the same speed, but with the heli I don't have to jump when I'm stuck (yes, the jeep is able to jump). Regardless of which one you choose you'll be at the mercy of the same things that irritate me, such as the wide horizontal stretch of the screen, which lures you into sweeping from side to side just to be fried by an off-screen missile or fast jet. The unpredictable pattern of early enemies is also annoying, especially in the first stage, but the design aspect I dislike the most is the sound you hear when your weapon hits something... It feels unfitting and slightly grating to my ears.

I'm rarely prone to such antipathy towards a game, and in the case of Firepower 2000 my attitude seems out of place given its obvious aesthetical quality for 16-bit standards. I know this sounds like I'm being excessively picky, but I can't help myself. I will not dismiss the game for everyone out there though because I know some people enjoy it, and if you haven't tried it yet there's no reason why you shouldn't.

Firepower 2000's 3rd stage with the jeep
(courtesy of YouTube user DarthRiko)

I will comply that co-op play is more fun than your usual equivalent shmup, since each person gets to control a completely different machine. Unfortunately, co-op doesn't go hand in hand with 1CCing habits.

Completing the game will add a considerable bonus to the final score. This bonus is based on the number of lives you have in stock when you beat the last boss, but I wasn't able to figure out precisely how it works. On a minor scale, it's also possible to milk most of the bosses for extra points on popcorn enemies. Regarding the final boss, once you've destroyed the bunker and uncovered a black hole in the ground you have to wait for a special weapon to come in order to beat him (quite like the final shot on the Death Star from Star Wars Episode IV).

Since Firepower 2000 has no continues you're forced to go for the 1CC if you want to beat the game. It's not that hard to do it with the heli, but playing with the jeep is a completely different challenge in itself. I used the helicopter, and I guess my high score was at least mildly decent in face of my overall lack of enthusiasm.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cyber Core (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by IGS (Information Global Service)
Published by IGS in 1990

One day someone asked me about shmups which were insect-themed, and the only ones I could think of back then were Insector X and Mushihimesama. I've just now discovered another one: Cyber Core. I would never have guessed insects are all over this game just going by its title or the generic HuCard box insert. As a name, "Cyber Core" is quite deceiving, since there isn't any really strong emphasis in cybernetic stuff or cores for that matter. What you get is an average PC Engine title that doesn't stand out, except for an unfair challenge spike everybody's bound to encounter in the eighth and last stage.

Developed and delivered by a rather unknown company, Cyber Core's main influence is definitely Dragon Spirit, in that the normal shot is complemented by ground shots that are fired at a fixed distance from the ship's hitbox. It works exactly in the same way, and the similarities even extend to the story: in Cyber Core, the huge insect you control is actually a transformed human, the hero who must rid the planet from the alien bug infestation. The intro to the first stage even includes his metamorphosis and the ship's departure into the battlefield.

The battle of the bugs

With a default insect-ship you die instantly by colliding with a bullet or an enemy, so don't hold yourself once the green bug that brings power-up icons passes by from one side to the other. Hit it non-stop so that it leaves behind four types of icons: the red, the blue, the yellow and the green. Getting one of those will immediately increase the ship's firepower and add a shield cell to the shield bar. Keep getting items of the same color in order to upgrade the current shot type and fill up the shield bar. By doing this the red weapon will turn into a spread pattern of large yellow circles, blue will result in a thinner but even wider spread, yellow will evolve into straight laser shots and green will add surrounding arches that are capable of stopping bullets. The downside of powering up is that the ship's hitbox increases enormously, making it difficult to dodge and preserve power. Getting hit consumes one shield cell, and when all shield cells are gone the ship starts losing its power-up levels until you die if hit when you're back to default conditions.

What's neat about the power-up scheme is that each one of the four weapon types gives the ship completely different sprites. Some of the final forms clearly resemble a mite, a beetle and a grasshopper. What's not so neat is the fact that once you take a different power-up color you change the weapon but you also get back to just one power level above the default. It doesn't help that power-up items descend quite slowly once they're released, often causing the player to pick one up unintentionally during busy sections.

Other items might appear randomly by killing regular enemies. There are screen wipe-outs, temporary invincibility (15 seconds), extra shield cells and 1UPs. Speed can be adjusted in three steps up and down by pressing the SELECT button.

Pesticide bug-ship to the rescue!
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

There isn't much to be said about the background graphics, aside from the fact that they look generic and unremarkable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the music. The variety in enemy design is a bit better though, with all sorts and sizes of ground and flying bugs to be killed. Some stages have mid-bosses, but both mid-bosses and bosses are overall on the easy side. In fact, the game is pretty undemanding until you reach the last couple of stages. On the other hand, the developer clearly broke the difficulty knob in the very last stage, with all those tiny blue thingies that blaze across the screen at an incredible speed. It took me a long practice session until I was able to get through the whole stage with only one checkpoint. Oh yes, baby, die in the boss and play the whole stage again!

Besides random 1UPs, the regular way to increase life stock in Cyber Core is by winning an extra life for every 100.000 points. Fortunately the game doesn't encourage checkpoint abuse when you try to play for score, since it gives you a substantial completion bonus based on the number of lives you have left. It's amazing how such a simple routine is capable of increasing the replay value of a potentially drab shmup. It takes Cyber Core out of the ordinary and serves as a lesson of basic yet effective design criteria to be adopted by all serious indie developers out there.

All things considered, I can't really recommend Cyber Core except for shmup-nuts or for those who really love the PC Engine/Turbografx-16. Below is my high score, picture taken during the end credits shown after the bug hero managed to save the planet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Twin Cobra (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Banpresto in 1996

Here it is, the spiritual sequel to Toaplan's seminal Tiger-Heli, or at least half of it. Half, you wonder? Yes, Twin Cobra is none other than the US/world version of the Japanese Kyūkyoku Tiger, which by all means is the "legitimate" spiritual sequel. Imagine the same relation that exists between Konami's Salamander and Life Force and you'll get the picture, even though the differences between Kyūkyoku Tiger and Twin Cobra are much more subtle, graphically speaking. The main draw for me, however, is the fact that Twin Cobra is the easier of the two, and therefore a much more approachable game for regular shmuppers. That doesn't mean it's a walk in the park though.

Twin Cobra is 1/3 of the Toaplan Shooting Battle compilation released for the Japanese Playstation, which also has Tiger-Heli and Kyūkyoku Tiger. Publisher Banpresto provided a nice home package that makes this disc a very sought after item for shmup fans, especially those who appreciate the early Toaplan verticals. The game is entirely customizable (TATE available) and includes an additional option for an arranged soundtrack, complete with a new set of sound effects. I will gladly join the choir that preaches that Kyūkyoku Tiger/Twin Cobra is one of the cornerstones in the history of vertical shooters. A perfect evolution from Tiger-Heli, it established the mold to be used for years by Toaplan and a handful of other companies, with an undeniable influence that makes it a mandatory experience for everyone who wants to really get to know the genre.

This is what I call a bomb, dawg!

The PS1 port of Twin Cobra is just like the Arcade original, and the game stood the test of time gracefully. Take off from a base carrier and blast your way through ten stages of relentless enemy forces. Tanks, choppers and deadly turrets await you, all of them firing this very same yellow bullet of death. It's old school challenge for men, it's brute force against the hardest military odds, and it's definitely up there if you want to select a game to represent Toaplan's finest hour. You could say that Twin Cobra is all about gameplay and challenge, but the soundtrack is definitely one of the most memorable early displays of great shmup music. Graphics are not fancy, but they're decent for a 1987 game and that's fine by me.

On its way to victory, the hero chopper has four weapons at its disposal: vulcan (red), laser (green), spread (blue) and a four-way shot (yellow). Changing the weapon from the default vulcan to any of the others is made by taking the cycling colored circle released by the carrier choppers, which also bring the S power-up and the B item for extra bombs. It takes a good number of S icons to max out the weapon, while bombs have a delay between their deployment and the time they hit the ground, neutralizing bullets and damaging everything within its radius blast. And that's it for basic gameplay: fire with one button, bomb with the other. As a rudimentary but effective scoring mechanic, get stars released by ground targets in order to win an end-of-stage bonus (number of stars collected × 3.000 points). Don't be greedy when things get hectic, the most important thing is survival through memorizing the terrain, learning enemy patterns and dancing around bullets in order to survive.

I say "dancing" because that's exactly how I felt whenever I died in later stages. You must anticipate the danger with extreme care in order to recover with a default vulcan weapon, and finding the zone in which you're able to move between those pesky helicopters is essential to go on if you die after the 5th stage. There doesn't seem to be any kind of rank, only a steady progression into overwhelming hell as the game unfolds. Twin Cobra is known for killing the player in the most frustrating ways, such as a stray bullet fired from a surprise sniper tank or a single enemy helicopter with the most erratic movement possible. It's as if the game knew where you're going, and that's part of its undying charm (a suitable euphemism for raw difficulty?). And if you think it's too hard, just try experiencing the checkpoint-based Kyūkyoku Tiger, which has an even tougher difficulty progression...

Twin Cobra's classic first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user MamePlayer)

Taking the blue power-up and sticking to it during the whole game is the best strategy to use if you want to get the loop done. Later on it's just stupid to use vulcan or laser, there are so many enemies attacking you at once that blue - or yellow to a lesser extent - is the only way to go. Don't mind stocking more than seven bombs because that's the limit, so bomb away if one of those huge airplanes decides to get in your path, point blanking it during the bomb blast for a faster kill. Be careful with bosses though, they are armored beasts that spew bullets like crazy, so it's not really a good idea to try point blanking them. Fortunately you're allowed to stock more than the ten lives displayed on the top of the screen by getting score-based extends (first with 50.000 and then for every 150.000 points). Additionally, surviving long enough within a stage turns one of the later stars into a 1UP (this doesn't happen if your life stock is at ten though). "Wow, more than 10 lives?", you ask. Believe me, you'll need them!

Aside from the lack of checkpoints, the possibility to play in co-op with a friend is the most distinctive departure from Kyūkyoku Tiger, the original game. For a list of all differences between both titles you can go to the bottom of this nice page. Even though the Playstation version of Twin Cobra is the reference for home play due to its arcade-perfect nature, most of the many other ports are also very solid games in their own right, and deserve all the love we shmuppers can give.

I was able to loop this version until stage 2-2, playing on NORMAL with game speed set to "Arcade". The synth-heavy arranged soundtrack is a nice extra, but I still prefer the original tunes and sound effects, and that's what I listened to during all my runs.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ironclad (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
4 to 6 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Saurus
Published by Saurus in 1996

Initially available only for the Neo Geo CD, which made it exclusive for the platform for a while, Ironclad would later appear as a cartridge conversion for the AES format, as well as a downlodable title on the Wii Virtual Console. Also known as Chotetsu Brikin'ger (a very cool Japanese name in my opinion), the game is part of the Neo Geo batch of shooters that pay homage to the classic R-Type formula, combining both aggressive and defensive play styles into a memorization-ridden adventure. It seems deceptively easy up front, but eventually it turns into a fierce, demanding and brutal challenge for lovers of old school horizontal shooters.

Ironclad is also the first shmup I beat on my Neo Geo AES, which means I played it with a conversion cartridge. From what I could see in videos and pictures, it's identical to the CD version with the exception of the music, which takes a severe hit and doesn't sound as good. Nevertheless, even though the soundtrack lacks the CD flair it's still solid enough to warrant a decent pumping background for the several challenges you face in the game. Another novelty for me was beating my first shmup by playing solely with an arcade stick, in this case the iconic stock Neo Geo controller. I thought it would be harder to get used to it, but now I'm seriously contemplating the possibility of getting one of those fancy sticks for some of the other consoles I own.

Don't sweat too much with this bastard, he's merely an illusion

Given the nature of how it plays, Ironclad isn't a game you're naturally inclined to like straight away, at least that was my impression. Getting the hang of any of the three ships available takes a while, as well as learning how to deal with the multitude of power-ups. Moreover, the graphical style, rather unique at the time of the game's release due to the oblique orientation applied to backgrounds (a precursor to the future and more famous Progear), has a tendency of using color palettes that focus on a single tone, which results in ups and downs of great looking sections intertwined with a few muddy and uninspired landscapes. The whole burning city of the first stage is one of the letdowns - the idea is great as a starting point, but the graphics surely could've used a bit more color to lure the player into the action. Thankfully the game gets better right afterwards, picking up the pace and putting the player in increasingly harder scenarios. I'm particularly fond of the parts where you fly through shafts and tunnels.

The bulk of the gameplay demands only two buttons. Fire your guns with A, manipulate an indestructible pod/orb with B. This pod is attached and controlled like the "force" in R-Type, but it will only dock in front of the ship. Mastering the use of this pod is the key to performing well in Ironclad. When the pod is attached, the main shot changes according to the current L icon you've got (blue, green or red). Holding down the fire button will activate three levels of charge, and releasing it will toss the pod forwards according to these charge levels, inflicting a great deal of damage to whatever stands in its path. When detached, pod behavior is determined by the current R power-up (blue, green and red). It will also fire a few additional shots in synch with the ship's regular firepower. The normal shot (podless ship) is upgraded with P icons in three levels, spanning 11 possible enhancements, while the act of shooting is also accompanied by a somewhat delayed single homing missile that's able to hit ground enemies.

As a last resort in moments of despair, pressing button C causes the pod to explode in a powerful burst similar to the one that happens right as the game starts. You're invincible while it lasts, but as a consequence the pod pales and loses its power completely afterwards. Once you grab another R power-up it gets back to normal, again ready for a new bomb/burst. Note: I never use this, I prefer to have an empowered pod all the time.

Surviving is gauged by an energy bar with 4 "lives". You can only take damage by getting shot at, so it's okay to lean against scenery or enemies. When latched, the orb is able to take a few number of hits to protect you, eventually self-detaching and "resting" for a few seconds before allowing the player to summon it back (no permanent shield yay!). Energy recovery items are pretty scarce, but you do get an extra energy bit every time a boss is killed.

The mission starts, amidst fire and flames
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Underneath the apparently straightforward look and the slightly clunky controls lies a complex gameplay structure that's not really easy to grasp, especially when you notice how to score more points by killing enemies with pod attacks. You'll make them release more medals (silver for 1.000 and golden for 3.000 points each) and even extra items - later bosses can increase the energy bar to six "lives" if you kill them with a charge shot. That's why it's important to time their deaths by looking at their health meter on the top left of the screen. Another very important hint for scoring: the pod is also able to hit and kill most enemies by contact if it's attached and charged to the max.

Ironclad is a tough game and has its share of walls (such as the 3rd boss) but on the other hand it presents itself with a wealthy deal of variety. Stage branching is implemented in a Darius-like fashion, and you rarely fight the same boss in parallel routes - it's also possible to reach the end by playing from 4 to 6 stages. The main weapon is powered up differently for all ships, which also vary considerably in speed and weight (the faster the lighter/weaker, the slower the heavier/stronger). Even though Ironclad has a knack for occasionally flooding the screen with enemies, the rather large hitbox is never an issue. Bosses often threaten you with menacing messages before unleashing the most diverse attack patterns, and some of them provide epic fights. The last boss in stage 6C is certainly one of the trickiest bastards I've ever fought in any horizontal shooter. It might be brutal, but it's fun and, as expected, quite rewarding.

The attract mode tutorial in the conversion cartridge I got appears in Spanish, but all other messages are displayed in English (North American console). Some mild slowdown can be expected, but other than that there are no other gameplay issues. Technically, the product is perfect and I definitely recommend it to those who shun the dreaded Neo Geo CD hardware but still want to play the game.

My path of choice was 1A-2A-3B-4B-5B-6C, and the difficulty was set to MVS. I used the Bristol mk. 0 ship (the middle one) for its balanced performance on all levels. My favorite power-ups were green/blue (L for shot while attached) and green (R for pod behavior). And here it is, my first and proud 1CC result in a Neo Geo shmup: