Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Parodius Da! (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1994

After a confined debut in the MSX scene (much later ported to the PSP), Konami's parody series on everything Gradius reaches its second chapter in Parodius Da!, released originally in the arcades and soon ported to all major home video game consoles of its time. All of the "inferior" ports (NES, PC Engine and SNES) have something unique to them, but the original adventure in its full graphical/aural glory is to be experienced only in one of the Parodius Deluxe Pack compilations for the Playstation or the Saturn (Parodius Portable for the PSP is a valid handheld alternative though). The 32-bit packs also include Gokujou Parodius, the third game in the series, and is definitely a must-buy for any shmup fan. EDIT OCT-2014: This port of Parodius Da! is considerably easier than the arcade version, even though it's spot-on on graphics and sound.

These last weeks I've been doing some very relaxed runs on Parodius Da! on the Playstation. Whereas the first Parodius played like Gradius but consisted of an all-original design, this second game parodies Gradius and its spinoffs to their core. This is made evident by the opening screen, which shows a flock of penguins glaring at the evolution of the series, and by several aspects which will be immediately recognized by those who played Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius III and Salamander. A huge exotic dancer resembles the dreaded mechanical spider of Gradius II, and the "uncle Sam" bird mocks the Phoenix boss from the same game. Viva Core is a lively pinball boss version of Big Core from Gradius, which is also parodied with new volcano and fortress stages. Moai statues populate a huge battleship, in a clear homage to Irem's R-Type. Fairies fly inside bubbles that seem to come out directly from Gradius III. The game even revisits the original Parodius with the boss made of multiple mouths and the cemetery stage.

Vic Viper to the rescue

With the new processing power of the arcade board, the nonsense is heightened and takes over in every tiny detail of the game. Parodius Da! is a real delight and a blast to play, not only because it's funny but also because it's a tad easier than its more serious siblings - at least until you reach the ice caves of the ninth level. Vic Viper is back and its weapons are just like in the classic Gradius. Twinbee's behavior resembles the game it comes from, weapons for Pentaro the Penguin are close to one of the configurations found in Gradius III and Takosuke the Octopus uses the famous ripple laser originally presented in Salamander. Choose one of the four and power-up wisely in manual mode, never mind the auto power-up option you're given when starting the game. Collect power-up icons and activate them according to the weapon array gauge, collect bells for special powers and points (yellow ones) and get on board for ten stages of pure cute'em up action.

What's interesting about the series from this chapter on is how differently the game plays depending on the character you choose. If you pay close attention, right at the start you notice that each character has its own music during the pre-stage (that brief part before the main level where you destroy small enemies to get power-up capsules). Some sections are made easier or harder depending on the character because their weapons differ considerably. Vic Viper's double shot is excellent to take down enemies in the ceiling, Twinbee isn't good for the destructibe cells of the 3rd stage, and Takosuke's tail gun is perfect to deal with those bubbles of the 8th stage. My character of choice was Takosuke, mainly because I have beaten other versions of the game with Pentaro and Vic Viper.

Dealing with bells is quite fun, but in the long run you'll want to get them all yellow to boost the score. If you don't let any of them fall to the left eventually each yellow bell will be worth 10.000 points. EDIT JAN-2015: Both PS1 and Saturn ports have a serious scoring bug regarding yellow bells (the 10.000 tag actually corresponds to 25.600 points, for example). Of all other bell colors my favorite is green because it gives you a brief window of invincibility as your character gets zoomed in. However, acquiring any bell that's not yellow immediately deactivates the shield. The "roulette" effect caused by specific power-up capsules is back, making the weapon array go crazy and demanding perfect timing to activate the next power-up. When you get good at doing it it's a great way to power-up faster, just be careful not to activate the !? cell, which removes all your power and speed.

Slices of Parodius Da! with four different characters (roulette disabled)
(courtesy of YouTube user FranckoSabbath)

Just like in Gradius, rank plays an important part in Parodius Da!, even though it's not as aggressive. It's directly related to how powered up you are, and materializes through more enemies and more bullets. In my opinion the game is quite manageable even with maximum rank. Every stage has a particular structure and some of them seem easier than others, but I can handle the game well with only one speed-up until that water section inside the ice cave. Besides increasing enemy and bullet count, the second loop also adds one suicide bullet for each enemy you kill, and demands a lot more from the player's dodging skills. The only extends come very early in the game, with 20.000 and 80.000 points.

As I was searching for a video to embed in this post I stumbled across a secret stage that's accessed in the beginning of the second level. To do it you have to destroy the first row of enemies in the pre-stage and kill only the first enemy on the next row of enemies. I didn't try it myself, but it's great to know that this port also has its own special touch, which is in line with all other ports provided by Konami. From what I've briefly seen, the Saturn port is exactly like the Playstation's, so the fun factor is guaranteed in both collections.

I managed to reach stage 2-2, playing with Takosuke the Octopus (difficulty 4 - MEDIUM).

P.S. Allow me to express a particular appreciation for the GAME OVER theme in Parodius Da!, simply because it's one of the greatest GAME OVER songs ever composed. It pumps me up and really makes me want to try the game again!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hani in the Sky (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Face
Published by Face in 1988

I'm quite sure that commending Hani in the Sky for its bizarre nature isn't enough to appease the confused minds of those who pay close attention to the cover of the game, let alone for the people who will eventually try it themselves. I did a bit of research and found out that the main character is a "haniwa", a type of clay figure made for ritual use and buried with the dead as a funerary object during the 6th century in Japan. In modern society haniwas appear as souvenirs and cute objects spread around the land of the rising sun, and one of the most common types of haniwa is shaped exactly like the game's protagonist Hani (sometimes written as Hanii or Hany). Therefore, you can rest assured you are not controlling a flying dildo while playing Hani in the Sky, is that clear?

My process of getting acquainted with this obscure shmup had three phases. The first one came with that WTF feeling related to thoughts such as "where are the power-ups?" and "this damn dildo thing is too slow!". The second phase came with the euphoria of enjoying the genuine fun factor while figuring out how to activate power-ups. And the third phase saw me tumbling down as the small hindrances all came together to spoil what could've been a smash PC Engine hit. I mean it. It's just sad to witness so much potential and great ideas wasted to a series of unfortunate design choices...

Am I upside down? I feel dizzy!

Hani in the Sky is essentially a vertical shooter, even though the character possesses the ability to turn its firepower in 8 directions - one button in the controller shoots and the other provides clockwise rotation only. Scrolling speed can be accelerated by staying in the upper third of the screen. Hani starts out very slow, but as soon as a few enemies go down it's possible to increase speed by pressing RUN followed by button I, which grants the player access to the game shop, much like the one you have in Fantasy Zone. The difference is that here you can access the shop any time you want except during boss fights. It's in the shop that you buy upgrades and activate/select them, as well as teleport to any stage you have already played. Since the game has no score you might think it's not necessary to kill everything in order to get to the end, but alas! Shopping requires "money", and money is only obtained by killing enemies.

Japanese is the only language used here, so it takes a while to get used to all options found inside the shop. Navigating the menus is a bit cumbersome due to how buttons are mapped: after pressing RUN, button I activates options/items and button II always sends the player back to the starting menu. Once in the shop you're allowed to purchase speed-ups (flame icons), autofire, a three-way shot (don't buy, you'll get it eventually), extra health, invincibility bubbles and homing special weapons. Once bought or won, these must be enabled to become active. You win items by defeating bosses (new weapons/armor) and by getting the interrogation marks found in one of the two sides of a splitting pathway. When this happens Hani is sent back to the splitting section so that you can choose the other side to continue the game. Don't bother trying to get the same item twice, it doesn't work. A few of these interrogation marks result in unexpected effects, such as turning the game black & white, making it go silent or sending you back to the first stage.

The journey of a heroic flying dick haniwa, with turbofire
(courtesy of YouTube user piko2advance)

The teleport function is quite handy when you're low on health and money, providing an easy escape as long as you're not fighting a boss. It's practically cheating, that's why I made the decision to not use it when going for the 1CC. This can be done with a little practice, provided you avoid getting hit at all costs (each health cell costs $7.500) and you make the right choices in the split sections. The biggest challenge is definitely the last boss, even when getting into the fight with full health, an invincibility bubble and a homing shot. And again, similarly to Fantasy Zone, using the controller's turbofire feels like cheating because the shot gets much more powerful than the one you have with the autofire item you buy in the shop.

Although technically simple, graphics in this game definitely shine in a few parts of the stage design and in some of the sprite manipulation found in a handful of bosses. Corridors are mixed with abstract landscapes, the first boss seems to have been kidnapped right out of Fantasy Zone, and a few later bosses spew loads of bullets without a hint of slowdown (which is not to be found anywhere in the game). I personally enjoyed the broken perspective and the endless Escher-like staircases of the 6th stage. The definitive winning aspect of Hani, however, is the soundtrack. It's catchy, moody and uplifting at the same time. I think I found myself humming the BGM for the third stage for hours after I played the game for the first time.

Click for the option menus translation for Hani in the Sky

Everything considered, the lack of scoring in Hani in the Sky is what ultimately kills its appeal, combined with the scrambled menu structure, the slightly awkward rotation gimmick and the unnecessary teleport function. Money can't be considered score, especially with the fact that the game loops but removes all the money you collected in the first round while inflating shop prices by 100%. Where's the motivation to go on?

The game is fun for what it is, but there's a limit to the dedication I can give to a challenge that's devoid of numbers, even when I'm playing with a honorable penis haniwa. I cleared it without turbo fire and without warping back, I guess I had almost $200.000 when I started the last stage.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Donpachi (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Atlus in 1995

Getting exposed for the first time to the shooting genre these days can be a traumatic experience, simply because the bulk of the games being released is of the bullet hell type. Within this style, Cave is undeniably the master developer, and every neophyte WILL eventually come across one of its offers. For those who think they're too over-the-top and their games are impossible to get into, let it be known that the scenario wasn't always like that. Donpachi, Cave's first title, is a fine transition between the shooter of old and the dawn of a new era, namely the so-called "danmaku" or "bullet hell". Imagine the overall style of Truxton or Grind Stormer and spice it up with new elements and more dense bullet patterns. The similarity isn't a coincidence, for Cave was one of the offshoot companies to arise from the ashes of then defunct Toaplan.

As I wanted to warm up for Dodonpachi (the sequel), I returned to Donpachi two months ago on the Sega Saturn but I had an unpleasant surprise: my Action Replay cartridge died on me as I was about to reach my goal of 10 million points. After weeks of waiting for a new cart I was finally able to resume play, rejoicing to the massive lasering and the fantastic destruction rush this game is capable to provide. You only need to overcome the inexcusable loading times of the port, by far the biggest letdown of an otherwise great package.

There are three ships to choose from: type A (red) has a forward shot and is the fastest one, type B (green) is a helicopter with medium speed and a pair of side turrets whose fire bends when you move, whereas type C (blue) is the slowest ship and comes with a spread pattern (all colors change for player 2). I adopted type B as my favorite because the turrets are great to take down enemies that arrive from the sides, plus its laser bomb is devastating, probably the most powerful one from all ships.

Type A ship wreaking havoc in the second stage of Donpachi

With this game, a legendary series and a trademark gameplay style was born. The basic concept is that you use only two buttons to play. One button is used to fire your weapon, and the other to drop bombs. Tapping the fire button results in the regular Shot, while holding it slows down the ship and makes it fire a concentrated beam of energy we all call Laser. Bombs behave according to how you're firing your weapon: combined with shot, what you get is a regular screen-clearing powerful blast; combined with laser, the result is that the laser beam is boosted for a brief while for an even greater destructive effect. Take the P icons to increase power and B icons to increase bomb stock, die and you're back to the starting power level. When you're maxed out, surplus items are worth 10.000 points each. And that covers the basics! Playing the game on a console gives you better controls because you can map shot and laser to different buttons, with laser overriding shot for a smooth gameplay experience.

I mentioned above that Donpachi is a good example of the transition between old school shmups and the more cluttered, fear inducing danmakus of today. In the first couple of stages there's nothing really taxing about enemies and bullet count, but stage 3 starts giving some trouble. By the time the player reaches the 4th stage it's necessary to combine memorization skills (enemies come from below and from the sides without notice) with techniques such as tap dodging and bullet herding, with a growing concern about correctly placing the ship, squeezing that tiny hitbox between clouds of bullets and taking out some of the enemies as fast as you can if you want to stand a chance at surviving. In my opinion it's a perfect difficulty ramp, suited to those who're willing to get into Cave's portfolio without burning out on an overwhelming challenge level. But wait, don't go thinking Donpachi is an easy ride. You also have to consider its famous scoring system, which starts showing itself when those big numbers appear close to the score display.

The chaining system in Donpachi and its sequels is extremely simple yet hard to master: kill enemies in succession (intervals of approximately 0,5 seconds max) and the combo multiplier will rise. The first enemy killed is the most important in the chain, because its value is the one that will be multiplied by the combo counter. In busy sections the "aura" that surrounds the ship when you're firing laser becomes very important, since it kills all popcorn stuff and doubles the damage inflicted if you stay pretty close to the enemy. Unlike its sequels though, Donpachi doesn't have enough enemies to allow the player a stage-long chain, so it's mostly a matter of getting a series of combos in every level. That's why chaining in Donpachi is a lot less frustrating than in the sequel Dodonpachi, a game that almost made me peel my skin off in disgust whenever I tried to play for score years ago.

Other scoring possibilities are related to end-of-stage bonuses, collecting stars for points and uncovering/collecting hidden bees by hitting their spots with laser (it's possible to get a glimpse of them by using shot). Get all 13 bees in a stage without dying to amass a bonus score of 266.500 points. Bonuses at the end of a stage are based on bomb stock and items collected. Refraining from using bombs is great to boost the score, but be warned that when you reach the 4th stage on one life and no bombs the game shifts to the HARD difficulty, making things even more hectic. On the other hand, using bombs will eventually grant you more bomb slots, however with much lower bonuses. The only extend comes with 2 million points, and a 1UP is obtained by destroying the central turret on the platform of stage 4 without using bombs.

Wing leader to base! Commencing operation! 3... 2... 1... Go!
(courtesy of YouTube user Madroms)

Besides all the innovation in the gameplay field, Donpachi is also a significant shmup as far as graphics and animations go. There's a great use of colors, an abundance of explosions and an overall sense of design that must have taken people by surprise back in the 90s. Another great asset is the bossy announcer and all his spoken messages, such as "keep your finger on the trigger, rookie" and "fire at will, kid, fire at will". I love it when he shouts "bomber" whenever I get a B item. He's the perfect match for the nice soundtrack, which has some of the best military-driven BGMs ever and highlights the gritty feel of the action. Unfortunately, as the series evolved the emphasis on manly military design would be left aside thanks to the loli characters introduced in the storyline.

By the way, the story has something to do with playing the game again once you beat it because the whole first loop seems to be a kind of simulation. Unlike further games in the series, there are no special criteria to fulfill in order to go to the second loop. This comes with increased difficulty, suicide bullets for everything you destroy and a true last boss (Hibachi) awaiting if you manage to beat the game again. The only way to avoid suicide bullets from appearing is to point-blank enemies, which means playing as close to them as you can.

Besides the problem of the loading times, the Saturn port of Donpachi is known to have a bit of slowdown (negligible) and more pixelly explosions, making it supposedly inferior to the Playstation version. However, it still kicks ass and is the best choice if you are restricted to playing in YOKO. Sure there's a TATE option included, complete with the possibility to rotate the d-pad and turn the game into a horizontal shooter. Lastly, a Score Attack mode makes it possible to practice specific stages.

The default difficulty setting of the game is "LITTLE EASY", so I switched it to NORMAL prior to playing. I was able to surpass my goal of 10 million, beating my old score by 17% and reaching stage 2-3, with a maximum combo of 54 hits.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Shikigami No Shiro (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Alfa System in 2002

32 women were murdered in Tokyo, all of the assassinations apparently linked to demonic reasons. I'm pretty sure this is further clarified in the various in-game Japanese dialogue sections and shooting action of Shikigami No Shiro, Alfa System's debut of its most cherished franchise for us shmuppers. I like to see this game as a representative of one of the three big branches in the evolution of danmaku: the "bullet grazing" shmup (Psyvariar also included). The other big ones would be the "bullet reflect/absorb" (Giga Wing, Radirgy) and the "enemy chaining" shmups (DoDonPachi). Sure there are many other branches/combinations, but whenever you think about bullet hell with the most recognizable scoring systems these are the kinds of games that come immediately to my mind, hence the association.

I generally don't care about the story, but there seems to be so much care built into it that I feel a little disappointed for understanding bollocks of Japanese. My copy is the Japanese one, since I refused to go after the localization with atrocious cover art and the title of Mobile Light Force 2. It was released in the US and in Europe, but I heard that it's a butchered port with missing artwork, lots of Engrish and no TATE option, so obviously the Japanese disc is the right way to enjoy the game to the fullest. Those who value extras will also have access in this version to an art gallery (unlocked by beating the game) and a special option with lots of Japanese text called "side story".

[ Just for the record, a first Mobile Light Force exists for the US Playstation and corresponds to the first Gunbird ]

Character design is strong in Shikigami No Shiro, and each of the six available characters is very different from the next one. Playing with all of them requires completely different strategies, so choosing the one that suits your style is mandatory to start the journey. They all share the same basic inputs, which are the main shot (tap fire button) and the shikigami/concentrated shot (hold fire button), for which your moving speed is drastically reduced. Besides that, bombs provide the necessary panic function for tight situations. The results of these inputs are completely different for each character.

No, this is not Mothra!

I don't really like the fact that you can't control the behavior of Kohtaro Kuga's familiar, which homes on enemies when he uses his shikigami attack. He's the protagonist of the story, and probably the easiest character to play with. Sayo Yuuki is nice, she reminds me of Sengoku Ace's Koyori without the voluptuous cleavage. After comparing all of them I decided to stick to Gennojo Hyuga, apparently the most mature of the bunch. His shikigami attack is a set of three awesome energy balls that latch onto enemies, in a connection that's broken only if (1) the enemy is destroyed, (2) the enemy leaves the screen, (3) you let go of the button or (4) you get hit. His bomb is probably his weakest asset, where he'll turn into a wolf and howl as he blazes across multiple on-screen targets.

Shikigami No Shiro takes place over cities and abstract sceneries, and the complete absence of ground targets leads to a detachment between action and backgrounds that was a bit off-putting for me when I first started playing the game. Here all entities have the ability to fly, and to fly only. Bullets are in most part slow but come in overwhelming numbers, and in later stages they force you to weave your way out of seemingly impossible curtains of death. Lots of bullets are good in Shikigami No Shiro, because then you can easily achieve higher multipliers and increase your score accordingly. The core aspect is the tension bonus system (aka TBS), a gimmick that applies multipliers from ×2 to ×8 to whatever you kill, based on how close you are to a bullet or an enemy. Additionally, grazing bullets will add an awesome boost to your firepower, also leading to more items/coins left by enemies if you're using the shikigami attack.

Coins are automatically sucked into the character while using the shikigami, and their values are increased the more you collect them. Collecting coins is also the only way to power-up the shikigami attack, which goes through four levels until it maxes out. If you get hit you lose exactly 360 coins and one power level, being deprived of the increased number of coins you would collect if you were at a higher power level. The main point is that you must be as close as you can to the danger in order to maximize the score. This is probably the most extreme risk-reward mechanic in bullet hell shooters, and an obvious hint to how hard they can get if you try to score well. Damn, Shikigami No Shiro is already a tough game even if you don't give a shit about the TBS!

Another important aspect of the gameplay is time. Each stage is divided into three sections, and each one has a boss that must be defeated. Though tempting, you just can't milk some bosses forever. If the timer runs out, red indestructible demons of death will materialize and quickly clutter the screen. The game starts with 150 seconds, and for every section you complete you get an additional of 70 seconds. Upon completion of a stage section, bonus points are awarded based on time, items collected and tension average. For me it's clearly advantageous to kill most bosses the fastest I can so that it's possible to get more points from other bosses (5-1 is the best example) without having to deal with the timeout demons in the final sections. Most of the time you don't worry about the timer, it only gets critical when you're about to clear the game, after lots and lots of practicing sessions in the tough parts.

Kim De John credit feeds until tiring off
(courtesy of YouTube user teh2Dgamer)

The game allows you to get extends, but the maximum number of lives you can have at any given time is three. Therefore, you won't get a new life if you reach the extend points with a full life stock (extends are granted with 150 million and every 300 million afterwards). A frustrating moment is when you just went pass the 150 million mark and get hit, losing a precious life you just missed for "scoring too much"... Two extra bombs are quickly obtained by powering up at the beginning of the game, with new bombs granted only if you get hit or if you reach the extend milestones.

When played for score Shikigami No Shiro can be turned into an exercise in frustration, beyond what's already offered by the increasingly harder stages and bosses. However, it's refreshing to know that every new section you reach without continuing is unlocked for training in Practice mode. It's a character-based unlock, but still a great way to allow improvement without incurring in grinding. I enjoyed the difficulty progression and the fact that there are always safer ways to go through the mayhem of enemies and bullets. Finding these paths and surviving the odds while grazing bullets is quite a rush. I just think the designs in stages 4 and 5 are graphically lacking, especially when compared to the starting skyscrappers of Tokyo at night. At least bosses remain interesting throughout the whole game, firing all sorts of bullets, lasers, energy beams, fireballs and needle shots in widely varied and intricate patterns. And let's not forget about one of the craziest mixes I've ever seen for regular enemies: teddy bears, butterflies, ballerinas, ninjas, leaves, drums, statues, skulls, etc. The voices in the game are subtle yet effective, but sadly there's nothing spectacular about the music. Nevertheless, one tune I did enjoy is the BGM for the second stage. It's impossible not to tap my feet to its rhythm when I'm waiting for boss 2-2 to arrive.

My 1CC run with Hyuga was done on NORMAL (difficulty 3), with "wait" set to OFF. This wait option is supposed to replicate the original slowdown of the arcade, and having it in OFF completely excludes all slowdown from the game. I could've tried to play more aggressively to increase my score, but I was too lazy. Let's say I'm saving my bullet grazing drive for the sequel!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Crossfire (Xbox Live)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels (1 unlockable)
50 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by radiangames
Published by radiangames in 2010

When you think that fixed vertical shooters are dead or restricted to the likes of Space Invaders or Space Invaders wannabes, there comes one game that recycles the formula and rises above the rest. This game is Crossfire, an addictive indie title that hooks you once you start playing it. I don't know much about radiangames, but judging from Crossfire and the overall ratings for their games you can rest assured you'll have guaranteed fun when downloading them. For a few nights I lost track of time while playing this, having to force myself to sleep after starting innocently with thoughts like "let me just have a quick play to relax before going to bed". Yeah right.

Moving alongside a fixed axis has made tons of people happy throughout years of arcade shooting, but what if you could actually teleport behind those pixelly aliens and give them some serious backdoor beating? Well, in Crossfire you can do it. This is actually the game's main addition to the classic Space Invaders structure, a feature that adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay. With the lush of HD graphics at hand plus smooth animations and explosions, getting cornered and warping up and down was never this much fun. Although the effects for sparks and glow are quite flashy, colors are used parsimoniously and never saturate the screen, so the experienced intensity comes from the fast action, which in conjunction with a minimalistic art design keeps things interesting and intense. It works wonders.

Vitamin-filled invaders get!

Upon starting, the first wave is pretty straightforward and has just these two lines of drones shooting directly at you. All subsequent 49 waves/stages will add new enemies, new formations and a myriad of enemy combinations that will test the player's reflexes. To deal with them you shoot (A) and warp up and down (bumpers/triggers), but you can also fire a more powerful shot (X) that uses the ammo you collect from crystals, shown in a bar right below your ship. When you warp you're invincible. It's as simple as that, the rest is up to taking the few items for power-ups (P) and speed-ups (S), memorizing a few patterns, practicing those dodging abilities when it serves a faster wave clear and staying alive as long as you can. Sure, you can just sit back and relax, but staying alive and destroying stuff fast is your only objective if you want to shoot for higher scores.

Clearing the screen faster yields a better end-of-wave bonus, and sometimes more crystals to refill the ammo for the supershot. You also earn 5.000 points for each wave you clear without dying. For every 20 enemies you kill you get an increase of ×0,1 in the score multiplier, but dying sends you back to ×1. Therefore, a balance needs to be found in how you approach the game - it's better to take more risks in the first half (faster kills) and remain progressively cautious in the second half (don't die) in order to harvest the results from a high multiplier. This is easier said than done, of course. Later in the game you have to deal with loads of exploding stuff, shield barriers and drones that shoot sideways and/or fire lasers. It's not uncommon to die by having bullets reflected in your face or by falling victim of what I like to call the "Nightcrawler" syndrome, which means you have just teleported right into a bullet on the other end of the warp tunnel.

Special enemies that sweep from side to side release two different items when destroyed: the red one refills the ammo gauge completely, and the green one slows down enemies (not bullets) for a few seconds. You start with three lives, but extends are obtained with 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. thousand points.

Crossfire's launch trailer
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user radiangames)

Once successive stages are played you're allowed to start the game in a few of the later ones, a handy feature for practicing. Extra modes are unlocked as you manage to reach certain milestones. A hard difficulty is added in the form of Turbo mode, which is the same as Normal mode, only much faster paced. Another extra game mode is the Megawave, comprised of harder enemy formations from the get-go and divided in "parts" instead of "waves".

Crossfire is extremely fun to play, even with minor details that could've used some fine tuning, such as the ammo gauge being located right below the ship. It's almost always hidden by what's happening on screen, leaving you blind as to where you are regarding supershot stock for the next wave. There isn't much variety in the techno-flavored music, but it more than fulfills its purpose of providing a good action score. I suppose everything gets pumped up a notch in the sequel, which I have yet to download and play. In any case, if you have access to XBLIG don't hesitate, get either one of them and be happy with some solid indie fixed shooting action.

Below is my completion high score on NORMAL. I wasn't able to 1-life the game, in one of the last waves I got fooled by one of those yellow saucers... The tricky bastard made me teleport right into one of those diagonal red shots!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sol Divide (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by XS Games in 2002

There's nothing like forcing yourself to play a game you hate. Now we all know there are several ways to do this. You can force yourself out of sheer OCD or masochistic tendencies. You can lose a bet. You can be left in an empty room with nothing but the dreaded game to play. Or you can enter a competition where your peers genuinely love the game you hate. This last option is an interesting one, and by now I believe it's the best way to really wade through a game you despise. You might see beyond what frustrates you so much and even come to enjoy it for what it is. Every game has a comfort zone where its reason to exist starts showing itself, and during these last weeks I was able to reach such zone in Sol Divide, one of my early disappointments with the gaming genre I love the most.

Right after my gaming habits shifted completely to shmups, Sol Divide for the Playstation fell on my lap. For whatever reason I gave it a chance, and the experience left me nearly traumatized. It was definitely one of the worst shmups I had ever played, and for me it was hard to contain the disappointment when talking or writing about the game. I saw it as a failed experiment in merging a shmup with a beat'em up, a foray into unknown territory that was nearly unplayable for a newbie such as myself. Seriously, this game haunted me in my dreams.

Today I am aware that Sol Divide requires a very specific mindset to be played. Don't think that shooting will take you where you want to go - this was my main mistake back then. And bear in mind this is a Psikyo game. Though not quite visible to the eye, the company's trademarks are buried deep within, and being familiar with Psikyo in general definitely helps to break the ice here.

Tyora uses her freezing spell against a group of knights who say Ni

Graphics and sounds are probably the best features Sol Divide has going for it. Characters and bosses are very nicely animated, and the music suits the atmosphere really well. Backgrounds are rich and colorful, even if they don't scroll even one entire screen per stage (by the way, stages in this game are some of the shortest ever designed in any shmup). The rule of thumb is that you must go through just a few enemy waves and then fight the boss. The medieval setting involves a wizard doing all sorts of evil deeds, which prompts the three selectable heroes to fight his army of undead and mythical creatures (the starting stage changes depending on the character you choose). It does resemble an RPG, but the game is actually quite relentless in its awkward pacing and overwhelming challenge. If you're used to only holding the fire button from start to finish in a shmup, be prepared for a whole new experience when trying Sol Divide.

Almost every defeated enemy leaves an item behind, and these can be either magic spells, healing herbs or power-ups for the main shot. All heroes seem to move at the same speed, and besides the main shot you're also allowed to cast spells (selectable with another button) and slash enemies in up-close combat. Learning how to perform the slash combos represents 90% of success in this game, and here's the command sequence for each character:
  • Vorg: slash, slash, slash, , slash;
  • Kashon: slash, slash, slash, , slash;
  • Tyora: slash, slash, slash, , slash.
While Vorg and Tyora have stronger combinations for shot + magic, in my opinion Kashon is the best character not only because his combo feels more natural, but also because he's got the best reach. Performing these combos is also of great importance for scoring, since killing an enemy in the last slash adds a ×4 multiplier to the enemy's base value. Holding slash with diagonals results in different attacks that are powerful but add nothing extra to the score.

Mastering the use of magic spells is another important part of gameplay, but it becomes less critical as you start to get familiar with enemy attack patterns and their related timing. In my final strategy I only used "phoenix" in the stone griffon, "freeze" in the dinosaur form of the last boss and "fire" extensively in several parts of the game. The magic stock is represented by the meter right below the character's health bar and is slowly filled by killing enemies with the slash attack, but it does fill faster when you take potions left by defeated enemies. Not all spells are useful for every situation, and a few of them can only be used once, so knowing when to use them is essential to make progress in the game.

Arcade and Original modes on Sol Divide for the PS1
(courtesy of YouTube user teh2Dgamer)

Keeping in mind that it's safe to touch an enemy as long as it is not attacking in any way, a good gameplay strategy is: (1) try to take out everything you can by using the slash combo, (2) shoot when it's not possible to slash and (3) cast spells when things get too cluttered. Performing combos is where the game pisses people off, since the control scheme is pretty clunky and often leads to frustration, especially when enemies close in and overlap their attacks, draining your energy pretty fast. It's because of stuff like this that Sol Divide is prone to giving headaches and rage fits. On its defense one could say the game is ridiculously short, even for shmup standards, so the rage factor gets diluted when playing successive credits. My moment of truth came when I finally nailed how to anticipate enemy moves and block them with combo attacks. And I must confess - because nothing is etched in stone - that I started enjoying the game after that. A game that I used to hate. Yeah, I know...

XS Games ported Sol Divide to the PS1 in the west very late in the console's life, complete with its well known poor quality standards on localizations. Even though the gameplay is intact, the port is aesthetically butchered because it lacks all the brief dialogue that should be displayed whenever a stage starts, while the few remaining texts shown in the ending screens were not translated at all. There is an Arrange mode that focuses on the RPG elements and supposedly increases the game length considerably, but with the lack of any saving functionality you won't be able to preserve stats and checkpoints. I didn't even bother to check this mode.

Going to the options screen allows you to activate the display of in-stage score, which also enables you to see the multipliers you get from slash combos. My time with the game resulted in the high score below, reaching stage 2-2 with Kashon on difficulty 5 (NORMAL).