Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ordyne (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco in 1988
Published by Namco in 1996

As ordinary as it comes, I guess Ordyne must have been a good choice of entertainment at any Japanese arcade joint back in 1988. It was different and colored enough to attract attention, representing a valid step-up from Namco's previous horizontal shmup Sky Kid. Unfortunately, it didn't age well. The game has a very childish atmosphere and doesn't offer any severe challenge until you reach the final stage. It's too childish to be honest, but this impression is certainly related to how the game is designed: threats are posed mostly by enemies and scenery rather than bullets, in a lethargic pace that never changes and rarely puts the player under pressure. Just to have an idea, even though Fantasy Zone shares the same fluffy graphical style I would never say it's childish in the sense I just stated, since it's a much more demanding game all around.

It's possible to play Ordyne on the Playstation if you get your hands on the Namco Museum Vol. 4 compilation. This version is arcade-perfect, but having the US disc is preferred because all the text in the game appears in English. The only other port I know came out for the PC Engine/Turbografx-16, which by all means is the perfect platform for a game like this. The underwhelming feeling that comes with the arcade version seems to be reduced when you play the 16-bit port.

Flying saucers, hamburgers or oysters?

Ordyne is about a guy on a mission to rescue his kidnapped girl. He pilots a red flying car, and if someone joins the game as player 2 he/she will play with a green flying car. The attract mode shows all the tragedy surrounding the start of their journey, and in each of the seven stages a series of multi-colored enemies and obstacles will try to stop them. Basic controls consist of two buttons, one for the straight shot and another for dropping bombs (Darius style). Selected enemies release floating crystals used as currency inside the shop that appears from time to time, where you'll be able to buy upgrades such as speed-ups and special weapons. These crystals can also be used to bet inside the "Dream Co. Ltd." roulette in order to get extra prizes, which can be even more crystals or special weapons.

A nice gameplay aspect is that you don't lose the speed-ups you purchased if you die. Autofire isn't implemented, but you can get it temporarily by purchasing the "vulcan shot" upgrade (thankfully I had a turbo controller available). Most of the upgrades and special weapons last for a limited amount of time only, however the best one of them, the "stock bomber", will remain activated until you die. It shoots a stream of fireballs and works together with a shield that absorbs enemy bullets. Bonuses for score and crystals are awarded when you finish a stage, and upon beating the game all lives and crystals are converted into points. Therefore the final score is heavily influenced by luck, simply because winning at least one special prize of 100.000 crystals makes a great difference towards the end result. In some cases you're allowed to buy extra lives inside the shop, but it's not worth it in the long run because they're too expensive and you get less points from them in the end. As for extends, they come with 40.000, 120.000 and 240.000 points.

If you're used to more frantic shmups, Ordyne is sure to be a dramatic shift in intensity (not to mention disappointment). For the most part it's too soothing, instead of being hit by a bullet you're often taken by surprise by dying in iffy hit detection situations. The game gets really claustrophobic in the last stage, and those rotating sections are definitely the most dangerous parts to be navigated. Supposedly bullet count doubles when you play in co-op. It must be more of a challenge, but who else in this day and age would be willing to play such an old game with me?

First two stages of Ordyne
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

All things considered, the best design aspect in Ordyne is the soundtrack. The BGM for the second level is incredibly catchy, and is probably what I'll remember most from now on. The Parodius-infused graphics and the mild parallax are pleasing to the eyes, yet there's nothing special about them. Due to its primitive, colorful and easygoing nature, the game is perfectly recommended as an introduction to the genre, especially for kids.

In line with all other releases in the series, the Namco Museum Vol. 4 comes with a Museum mode where you can explore details on the several games included in the package. It might have been a nice novelty back when the PS1 was still alive, but today all those virtual rooms just feel slow and cumbersome. A much better feature is the Records section, where you find lots of saved information on all games including play time, 1CC count and even stats on items collected and how fast you've killed bosses. While in the game, credits are added with the SELECT button and options are always accessed with the triangle button - remember that you have to leave the game if you want your session to be properly saved.

The score for my 1CC run (NORMAL) was rather crappy. It's possible to get much more by not dying and by having better luck on the special prizes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Raiden Trad (FM Towns)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu
Published by Kid Corp. in 1991

In the huge box the printed name is Raiden Densetsu, but the in-game title appears as Raiden Trad (during the initial loading screen) and also Raiden (during the attract mode). Since this is a port, for the sake of language standardization let's keep it as Raiden Trad. Released for the FM Towns computer in 1991, this was in many ways the most faithful conversion of the original arcade game until the Playstation port came out in 1995. It's perfectly playable in the FM Towns Marty console, and for a few months it enslaved me in punishment as I painfully - but pleasantly - learned my way through it. Pain & pleasure is a deadly combination, one that applies perfectly to what I consider the toughest rendition of Raiden I have ever played. In its default difficulty it even tops the arcade game.

Let's recap the basics: a slow ship, two types of main weapons (red for spread vulcan, blue for straight laser), two types of auxiliary weapons (M for straight missiles, H for homing missiles) and a limited stock of bombs. Weapons are switched/powered up and extra bombs are achieved by taking the appropriate icons from destroyed carriers. Collect medals for bonuses at the end of a stage (bonus = number of medals × number of bombs × 1.000). Eventually a miclus (a blue thingy) might appear instead of a medal, it will count as a medal but also give you a few more points. Uncover hidden fairies by hitting their location, rescue them and an extra batch of power-ups will appear after you die. The maximum number of bombs you're allowed to stock is 7, and all items collected in excess are worth 5.000 points each. Win extends at 150.000 and 400.000 points, get lucky and you might win 1UPs as well.

It wasn't long after I started playing it, there came a time when I thought of giving up on this game. I was being demoralized credit after credit and feeling like shit, and the mere act of getting to the 5th stage was a nightmare.

The blue ship has the power

I started picking up details to try and control rank, and finally came down to something: if you stock more than three bombs enemy bullets will soon become faster. But it wasn't enough, I was still getting crushed in the most horrible ways. Then came the first moment of truth, as I remembered that using the blue mk-IIb ship piloted by player 2 resulted in a different game altogether. Simply put, that extreme rank slope is gone when you use this second ship. There's no crazy increase in bullet speed regardless of bomb stock, and on top of that you fight less enemies. It's as if the alien forces underestimate the blue ship, whereas the red ship puts them in a state of constant overdrive. The trade-off is that when you play with the blue ship it's not advisable to activate the laser weapon. Laser weapon with blue ship equals large bomb stock with red ship, and the result is once again indecent levels of enemy aggression.

Using the blue ship gave me a new hope. I was finally able to consistently get past the 2nd stage without dying. Slowly I came down to reliable strategies to navigate the levels and safely deal with all those sneaky snipers coming from the sides. Success seemed within reach and soon enough I was face to face with the last boss, only to find out he was the second and definitive wall in the game (the first wall is the fifth boss). I lost count of how many times I approached him with five bombs only to fail over and over, no matter what type of missiles I had on me. I even killed him once but got hit by one of the last bullets to emerge from the final explosion - if you've ever experienced such failure then you know this is one of the worst feelings you can have as a shmupper. I was devastated.

Provided you're sharp enough and don't die where you shouldn't, the first loop of Raiden Trad takes roughly more than 30 minutes. Since this version has checkpoints, you can practically kiss your credit goodbye if you die while fighting the last boss. It's virtually impossible to recover. I tried a few more times, but eventually it became too time-consuming to do it. Once again against the ropes, the second moment of truth came to me when I decided it was time to learn about FM Towns emulation in order to practice. Therefore I found and installed UNZ (a great emulator by the way) and trained hard with savestates on the most diverse ship configurations. Only when I was able to better anticipate the nasty patterns of the last boss and 1-life the last stage I got back to the console for more serious attempts.

Quick credit with the red mk-II ship
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Here's the breakdown of my final game strategy: select blue ship with autofire (done in the start screen), stick to vulcan shot all the way, choose M missiles in the 1st level, switch to H missiles when starting the 3rd level, switch back to M missiles in the middle of the last level (8th), reach the last boss with 5 bombs. Stay sharp, stay focused, don't die in stages 5 or 8.

This version of Raiden Trad is extremely tough, with a huge potential of turning itself into a frustrating experience. Thankfully it never felt like grinding, which is the worst thing that can happen to a relationship between the gamer and the game. Vivid colors, an awesome remixed soundtrack and above all a faithful representation of the original arcade design were decisive in keeping the fun factor always on top of things.

Disregarding the cruel use of checkpoints, this version of the classic loses to the Playstation port because of an inexplicable framerate loss that happens during a large section of the 2nd stage (I suppose it has something to do with the parallax). Also noteworthy is the lack of a TATE option, even though the game looks great the way it is. Besides the regular Arcade mode there are also Competition modes A and B, but beyond some very slight color changes and starting the game with just one life I have no idea of the differences between both.

I have to say this is one of the toughest 1CCs I have ever accomplished. It was a long way until succeeding and reaching the 2nd stage of the 2nd loop (NORMAL). The first loop was cleared with no deaths.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Space Invaders - Infinity Gene (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels (3 unlockable)
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Square Enix in 2010

It was a sunny and lazy afternoon when I turned on the Xbox 360 at mommy's. I was a bit weary from getting my butt kicked by Divine Flow in Judgement Silversword, so I decided to cool off and sample something from the shmup buffet of the titles I had downloaded. That's when Space Invaders - Infinity Gene found its way into my routine during the final days of my vacation. Released first for the iOS, the game later appeared both on PSN and on Xbox Live, reportedly with a few enhancements. My guess is that Sony's and Microsoft's versions are identical to each other, so the experience on PSN should be the same.

Infinity Gene suceeds the Extreme iteration of the formula, but it doesn't follow on its footsteps. Surprisingly, it seems to take a few steps back towards the roots of the series while at the same time taking a whole new direction. Minimalism sets the tone, with evolution as the concept behind the entire game design. Imagine the first, primitive Space Invaders developing into a more elaborate game stage after stage, those few tiny enemies being joined by a massive fleet of outer space creatures that will eventually try to kill you in high definition 3D renderings (which fortunately still move over a good old 2D plane). It feels fresh and it certainly delivers as another much expected innovation within such an old, somewhat tired franchise.

Infinite invaders taking over the galaxy

However, my opinion is that the biggest innovation isn't really in the design. Finally Taito allowed the ship to move everywhere in the screen, ditching the fixed dodging and opening the doors to a flexible chaining system! The core gameplay remains unchanged: a lone ship and a single weapon, which can be powered up by taking the DNA-shaped vitamins left by flying saucers - for those who've seen it, they look just like the newalone power-ups from Metal Black. But alas! Regardless of how many DNA the ship absorbs it will never reach a substantial amount of firepower, and that's the oddest design decision in the game: if the whole theme revolves around evolution, why doesn't the player's ship evolve accordingly? What you get is just a sprite makeover and small increases in shot power and autofire rate. The enemy's fleet, on the other hand, will evolve continuously. Maybe that's the point of the game actually, they're the most adaptable to change so they should survive, yet your mission is to prevail over them and achieve victory in the end.

On the player's side, evolution takes place differently. Completing successive levels will unlock extra weapons, features and BGMs to be listened out of the game. These extra weapons become available for selection when starting a credit, but be warned that you have to stick with it during the whole game. It's not possible to change it, and this was a serious letdown for me since I always played with the stock/default weapon, the one called "rapid". Practically no evolution for me...

From the initial ordinary ship in stage 0 you begin stage 1 already evolved with the weapon you have chosen, dealing with some invaders in different formations against a monochromatic background. There are five stages to complete, every stage has 6 sections and starting from 1-6 all of them have end bosses. Every 6th section comes with a main boss, and stages themselves get longer and more complicated. By the time you reach stage 5 most of the larger enemies are modeled in 3D, with backgrounds and obstacles shifting all the time, as well as various degrees of screen tilting. Fans of the franchise are in for a treat, since the game is populated with all sorts of invaders in the wackiest possible formations and sizes. All levels have names, as well as most of the larger enemies, which shoot lasers, bullets and beams while moving in lots of different patterns. Those ominous gigantic UFOs are very cool, but my favorite boss is the one called Hornet (the huge cube that you have to dismantle).

Chaining works according to a basic principle: kill enemies in succession to increase a multiplier. The chain meter is shown below the score counter, and whenever it starts blinking it means you should kill another enemy/bullet soon if you don't want to lose it. It's just like a more forgivable DoDonPachi chain (note: you do more damage by shooting without moving, because in this condition the firing rate is higher). Another scoring hint is the Nagoya attack, which consists of moving the ship amidst enemy bullets soon after they are fired, during a period where these bullets don't harm the player (they are colored in gray). Each Nagoya attack is worth 3.000 points.

Official trailer for the PSN and Xbox Live versions
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Space Invaders - Infinity Gene is mostly an enjoyable experience. The soundtrack will please those who dig electronic music, but those who don't will not get annoyed by it at all. As for the game, minor problems appear as you start to play and chain more often, such as cheap deaths (enemies lure the player into a situation of unavoidable failure), foreground/background confusion (it's common to crush into a wall without seeing it) and a few lengthy sections with no action at all, which break the pace of the game and make it seem even longer than it already is. I didn't grasp the Nagoya attack at all, sometimes you get none when you try it, only to achieve more than 30 Nagoya attacks in the very same place afterwards. Since the game gives you only 3 lives with no extends at all, Nagoya attacks are quite a risky maneuver when you're aiming for the 1CC, so I avoided doing them.

Besides Normal mode as the main game there are also additional modes called Bonus, Challenge and Music. Bonus mode is just a collection of a few additional stages (unlocked by playing Normal mode), Challenge mode is comprised of 99 stages that are randomly generated and in Music mode stages evolve according to the music from any playlist saved in the console. It's possible to replay any stage you've already reached in most of the modes, which is great for training, and if you're online you can track how well you're doing in the global leaderboards through the dynamic "rank" display on the upper left corner of the screen.

My 1CC run was done in full defaults on NORMAL, so I played with the "rapid" weapon type. It's a pity that the leaderboards allow no distinction between weapons, I would love to know how I stand when compared to other "rapid" users instead of all those "field" whores who occupy the highest ranking positions. Further difficulties are unlocked by completing the game in the current higher setting (continues allowed).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Grind Stormer (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Tengen in 1994

A few weeks ago a couple of friends told me that their cartridges for Grind Stormer (sometimes spelled as Grindstormer) had died on them. It is widespread knowledge that there's an apparently huge defective batch of these carts released for the Sega Genesis in North America, and since I recalled my copy was okay I figured it would be a good moment to enjoy it before the thing died on me as well. Fortunately my cartridge was fine, but if you’re interested in getting it and you don’t want to incur in the risk of buying a defective product I recommend getting the Japanese version (it was never released in other regions).

Classic vertical action is the name of the game in Grind Stormer, the second-to-last Toaplan shooter. It came out before Batsugun, and the influence of both games on Cave’s first shmup DonPachi is undeniable. The Mega Drive port of Grind Stormer preserves the dreaded use of checkpoints from the arcade original, therefore it's a relatively tough game. Rank is also implemented, and even though Sega’s machine can’t quite handle all the sprites it’s supposed to, the dynamic result is at least engaging. Colors and graphics take a severe hit and look rather washed out for the most part, and for a game released so late in the console’s life this is a tad disappointing. Practically all earlier Toaplan ports such as Truxton, Fire Shark or Twin Cobra have more polished visuals.

Don't get too excited, it only looks like DonPachi

A great treat about Grind Stormer is that the game can be actually seen as a two-in-one package. There are two modes that can be selected at the start screen. Grind Stormer is one of them, and consists of a straightforward shooter with specific power-ups for each weapon or extra item. Then there’s the V-V mode (pronounced V-Five and sometimes written as V-5), which is basically Toaplan’s take on the Gradius weapon array formula. The main game is almost the same (there are a few differences), but all power-ups are handled as if you were playing a Gradius game. Homage or plagiarism, it doesn’t matter, both modes play quite differently, and mastering one of them isn’t any guarantee you’ll be as proficient in the other.

In the Grind Stormer mode, the ship is equipped with two pods that amplify its firepower and behave according to the type of weapon you have chosen. Later on two more pods are acquired as you take power-ups to increase the weapon’s strength. As with weapon activators, POWER items are released by destroying specific carriers, which also bring speed-up capsules (S-UP). The weapons available are SHOT, HOMING and MISSILE. With the shot weapon you can alter the angle of pod fire by refraining from shooting (for more damage always keep a straight/forward alignment). With homing, pods will automatically chase and lock onto enemies at will, whereas missile will make all pods follow you around like a shadow. A diamond represents an extra bomb. When triggered, bombs make you invincible for a brief while.

An interesting detail is that upon dying you always get back with +1 speed and three bombs instead of the initial two. All items collected that don’t have any effect on the ship (same weapon or taken when their function is maxed out) are worth 10.000 points. Whenever the bomb stock is full (6) the score will automatically start increasing like a counter at full speed, stopping momentarily if the screen comes to a halt, as in some boss fights. The score will only cease to raise if the player bombs or dies. On the other hand, a maxed out bomb stock also triggers maximum rank, so you can expect the ultimate leap in bullet count/speed from all enemies. Aggression level does start to increase prior to that, especially if you reach maximum power and get the extends at 300.000 and 800.000 points (more extends will be granted for every 800.000 points afterwards). It’s possible to get a 1UP in the third stage by destroying the yellow bunker at the end of the bonus scoring field (in a rare occasion I also got a 1UP by destroying all turrets after the large head that sucks bullets in stage 5, but I was never able to do it again).

Although quite simple, the scoring system is enriched by the aforementioned max bomb counter and by score fountains spread throughout the game. The first kind of fountain is a ground icon that cycles fast between 500, 1.000, 5.000 and 10.000 points. The other one is a pink block that releases random score bonuses as it gets hit - most of these are found during the 3rd stage. Together with the fact that this level has the coolest BGM in the game, that makes it my favorite stage. The rest of the soundtrack is rather unremarkable, but the collection of sound effects is surprisingly varied and carries a bit of the PC Engine syndrome – it often overshadows the music, making it hard to hear it properly.

Brief samples of Grind Stormer and V-V
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

I didn’t play the V-V mode much, but here’s a summary of the differences I noticed: all items are power-up capsules (diamonds) that light up the weapon array - wait for the desired function to get lit and activate it; there are no bombs, but you can activate a shield that can take up to two hits; there's an end-of-stage bonus based on how many items you collected; enemies are more aggressive, some of them even have extra/different attack patterns than those seen in the Grind Stormer mode.

Practicing different stages is made easy with the training feature from the OPTIONS screen, where you can also deactivate the PAUSE button permanently for a more arcadey feel . As a whole, the game is enjoyable but suffers from a lack of flair that screams “average”. Flicker sets in as you fight large enemies, as well as slowdown, but fortunately none of them get in the way of gameplay, which has pretty fast and intense action. With a few tough sections reserved in its second half, I’d say the learning curve is fair and in line with the Toaplan style, however it’s a shame that the best parts of the graphic design show up only much later in the game.

I was able to loop the Grind Stormer mode up to stage 2-4 on NORMAL (MODERATE). The second loop came with the expected increase in difficulty, changes in bullet sprites, a more powerful ship and score fountains that spew multiple bonuses of 10.000 points only!