Friday, September 30, 2011

Gradius II (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1992

In the second game for the PC Engine, the Gradius series was promoted to CD quality stuff by Konami. As a consequence, Gradius II turned out to be one of the highlights of NEC's CD add-on. It's a superb game in all aspects and an outstanding conversion of the arcade original, with the only difference being a slight reduction in the challenge level. And just like in the Gradius HuCard, the sequel also received an extra stage, which in turn was used as the basis for the first level in Gradius III. Another extra is a completely new intro sequence showing Vic Viper getting loaded with weapons and launching into space to kill alien spaceships and destroy their cores.

The original intro makes it clear that Gradius II follows Salamander and incorporates several gameplay aspects introduced by the spin-off series. This is the main difference from the concept created in Gradius, where you had only one weapon array defined by speed-up, missile, double shot, laser, option and shield. Gradius II spices up the experience by allowing the player to choose from four weapon arrays, as well as two types of shields.

Dude, what did they do to you?

Now there are also spread bombs, photon torpedoes and 2-way missiles as alternatives to the regular surface-crawling missiles. Meet the new ripple "toothpaste" laser, the tailgun (replaces double and fires forwards/backwards, ditching the 45ยบ shot) and the force field (replaces the regular shield and guards the whole ship, but is weaker and disappears at the mere contact with an obstacle). These enhancements are rigidly combined into the four available weapon arrays. Experimenting with all possibilities is quite fun, but eventually I settled with the original configuration as my favorite (type 1 + shield).

Unless you've been living under a rock you probably know the drill about powering-up: collect capsules left by enemies and light up the weapon bar. Push the button to activate the desired power-up and increase the speed and the number of trailing options (up to 4) or activate missiles, double/tailgun, laser/ripple and shield/force field. It's simple, intuitive and opens a whole world of exquisite planning, especially when you make progress and realize some parts of the game should be approached more carefully than others. Make no mistake, Gradius II is tougher than the first one and demands a good deal of strategy and memorization if you want to see its ending. Blocking people from winning cheaply is the main reason why checkpoint-based shooters are hated by many, and Gradius II is a prime example of that.

It's not just the gameplay that sets this sequel apart from the first entry in the series. Konami infused the game with a lot more graphical flair. After you play the first stage a few times it starts getting repetitive, but fortunately the second stage puts the game back on track with awesome music and bold level design. It always reminds me of the Alien movies, with all those cocoons and facehuggers (shiphuggers?) coming out of them if you avoid shooting for a brief while. After that comes the dreaded crystal stage (die there and you might as well reset), a new volcano area, the mandatory moai stage (I hate it), the new sphinx-themed level, a high-speed section where you'll get nowhere without memorizing a safe route, the nerve-wrecking boss rush from Salamander (die anywhere and start the level again) and the final fortress incursion with the mechanical spider prior to the last boss. As a whole, the journey is fantastic and still stands as one of the best designed shooters of its time.

Snakes amidst flaming suns and evil alien nests
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

With a more generous extend scheme (first with 20.000 and another for each 70.000 points afterwards), Gradius II for the PC Engine CD stings a little bit less than the arcade game. Rank is still a concern and raises according to the number of options you activate, and even though some people don't take the fourth one to avoid the stealing scorpion from appearing I don't really care and always go for maximum power because, you know, I want to destroy them all! Isn't that what the announcer says at the beginning of the game?

Contrary to what happened to Gradius, slowdown in Gradius II is considerably reduced and only kicks in during the parts with tentacles in the second stage. Loading times, however, are rather inconsistent and might make you wonder if the console has frozen - it's annoying at first but fear not, stars will fade in and pre-stages will eventually start scrolling for you. Sit back and enjoy the great music, focus hard to cope with the difficulty and be prepared for a massive challenge increase in the second loop.

In order to access the options screen you have to press ↑, ↓ or SELECT at the start screen. Some observations about the options: every difficulty has its own unique ending; VERY HARD is labeled as PROFESSIONAL, and is the only mode that doesn't allow you to activate continues or change the starting life stock. My new high score is an improvement of 15% over my previous one, again playing with Type 1 + shield on NORMAL. This time I reached stage 2-3.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Insector X (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1989
Published by Taito in 2005

Midgets have turned insects into cyborg creatures and are planning to conquer the Earth. To save mankind from disaster an insect-sized warrior named Yanmer is sent to battle the enemy. That's the backstory of Insector X, a horizontal shooter released by Taito in 1989 and included in the Taito Memories Vol. II compilation for the Japanese PS2 (for the record, the game is also available in the west in the Taito Legends 2 package). I'll be honest here, if I were to walk into an arcade joint back then this would be definitely my favorite machine. Come on, what's not to like about an insect-themed horizontal shooter where you take control of a flying insect mini-slayer? It doesn't matter that you never get to see the evil midgets, but damn it would've been cool!

That was then, but today it's virtually impossible to carry such enthusiasm for Insector X. The game aged badly, and does not offer anything beyond quirky aesthetics and food for nostalgia. I have yet to find a game with such bare bones scoring system, where I know beforehand what my score will be like when I reach the last stage. It's total old school stuff, in the sense that you shoot your way though a predetermined, mostly easy linear progression, fighting an even easier boss in the end of each level. Old farts like myself can get a mild kick out of it for the memories, but adrenaline hounds should stay away - there's no reason to even try it if you're expecting the intensity of contemporary horizontal shooters such as R-Type, Gradius or even Taito's own Darius.

They never forget my activities

Yanmer the insect slayer fulfills his mission wearing boots and gloves, just like the wasp, the grasshopper, the moth, the spider and the praying mantis bosses. Together they're the cream of the crop of the game's goofy design, which also encompasses the childish music and the overall cartoony presentation. Stages are divided in two or three sections with different single backgrounds (desert, garden, city, jungle and hive) with no graphical frills of any kind, not even parallax scrolling. Regular enemies are represented by smaller creatures such as bees, flies, ants, frogs, fish, ladybugs and even possessed mushrooms. Most of them offer no real danger, but upon dying they may fire single bullets with varying speeds, resulting in overlapping patterns that leave no space to evade if you're not correctly positioned or constantly moving. It's safe to touch any part of the scenery, just be careful not to get crushed behind an obstacle as the screen scrolls (it's pretty common to die like this in the hive section).

The main shot is upgraded with the P icon. Besides the regular firepower, our insect warrior can also shoot two types of special weapons, which are provided and powered up by an icon that looks like an insecticide can and cycles colors. The blue can activates a forward attack, while the orange can deploys ground bombs. These special weapons have four very distinct power levels each, and once you max out both the main shot and the special weapon you're practically a powerhouse. Autofire gets activated with the A item, and speed-ups come in the form of the S item. Other icons consist of the screen wipe-out (lightning sign), power-up preserve (interrogation mark), hazelnuts (worth 1.000 points) and occasional 1UPs. Score extends are given with 100.000, 400.000 and 660.000 points, and dying strips you down to the default power/speed, a situation that's pretty hopeless in later stages.

Promo material, PCB and gameplay
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

It's not really the simplicity or the lack of challenge, what ultimately kills Insector X is the absolute absence of a scoring scheme. Even the one that's implemented seems to be faulted, since you get 100.000 points for every stage you complete except for the last one. You get absolutely nothing by defeating bosses, so the fight against the final enemy in stage 5 is useless if you're playing for score. This leads to an obvious conclusion: in order to maximize score you need to sacrifice lives and exploit the checkpoint system. Hint: look out for the "?" sign in the last stage, that's the best point for checkpoint milking. Seeing as the game is pretty short, milking all lives doesn't take too long.

Insector X saw ports released for both the Famicom and the Mega Drive. While the Famicom version preserves the goofy graphics of the arcade, the Mega Drive game had a completely different approach towards graphical design, which infused it with a much more serious tone and made it superior to the original in pretty much all aspects. Only the music is debatable, mostly because both soundtracks fit their respective themes quite well although none of them is remarkable in any way.

Click for the option menus translation for Insector X on Taito Memories Vol. 2

In the 1CC high score below (NORMAL) I milked the second-to-last section of the last stage as far as I could, beating the last boss in my last life. Don't forget to return to the main screen if you want your scores to be saved!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Super Raiden (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu
Published by Hudson Soft in 1992

Following the experience with the FM Towns port, I felt it wouldn't be too bad to seize the momentum and revisit the PC Engine CD release of Super Raiden. I also wanted to compare the difficulty between them, because in my mind I always felt that Super Raiden was tied with the SNES port as being the easiest rendition of Raiden on a home console. It took me a few days to recollect some of the related intricacies, but eventually I suceeded in surpassing my previous high score in 32%. Having renewed my awareness on the game, the first conclusion I can draw is that Super Raiden is one of the most fun home ports available - besides being leagues away from the difficulty of other versions it also comes with two brand-new very cool extra stages.

Even when comparing only the eight original levels present both here and in the HuCard version, it's quite clear that Super Raiden is a tad easier than its base mold (less and slower bullets). Hudson Soft reserved the well-known, expected challenge for the new stages, with more aggressive snipers and faster bullets everywhere, all of this while keeping the same atmosphere all Raiden fans love about the first game in the series. It's a much better treatment than the one that was given, for instance, to the "beefed up" CD port of Zero Wing - the extra stages in that game just failed to capture the excellence of the original material.

Opening screen for Super Raiden

With that said, aside from the addition of the new stages the best improvement this version has is the awesome CD-quality rearranged soundtrack, a well deserved step-up from the rather weak music of the HuCard port. It's got a very particular groove, quite different from all other arranged BGMs available in other CD-based ports (PS1 and FM Towns). Graphics up to the 8th stage mirror the ones found on the HuCard, and the game mechanics remain exactly the same: vulcan shot (red) and laser shot (blue) combined with straight (M) or homing (H) missiles, with bombs (B) available for delayed but powerful destructive blasts; medals collected × bomb stock × 1.000 is the bonus you get at the end of a level; there's no limit to how many bombs you can stock, even though the maximum shown is 9; all surplus power-ups are worth 5.000 points; hidden fairies are worth 10.000 points and a batch of extra power-ups if you die; score-based extends are given with 100.000, 500.000 and then for every 500.000 points afterwards; 1UPs will appear randomly.

I'm sure everybody will agree that the original Raiden is a hard game. Some people won't have the endurance to see it to the end, but if format isn't a problem, a Turbo Duo is available and they're still in the mood to play it, my advice for everyone is to try Super Raiden. Sure it has checkpoints, but dealing with the game as a whole is considerably easier than, let's say, trying to suceed in the Mega Drive port or even the HuCard version itself, with one condition: do not use the laser weapon (if you do, the speed of enemy bullets will increase drastically). The extra levels are great and pump up the challenge as you reach the end, demanding a lot more from the player's dodging abilities without being overly cruel. There's even a real alien final boss, something that fills the void caused by the large tank boss of the regular Raiden – if I'm battling an alien race, why not have an alien final boss instead of another bloody super-armored tank?

Playing this game again gave me the chance to refine my strategies, especially on bosses. Now I refrain from bombing until the 6th boss, simply because those two tanks are plain evil. The 5th boss isn't that hard now - I stay on one side and avoid destroying both of his lateral wings, damaging his central body with the vulcan shot and homing missiles. The new final boss puts up an epic fight, but eventually I was able to take that beast down even if I died on him.

Die, aliens, die!
(courtesy of YouTube user AmazingRetro)

Just like in the HuCard version, here the game doesn't save or buffer high scores, but it's possible to pause right after dying if you want to take note of your score. Perhaps due to the inclusion of the extra stages and the fact that there's no limit to the bomb stock, the famous million point completion bonus is absent in Super Raiden. Another noteworthy gameplay aspect concerns the second loop. Contrary to what happens in other loopable ports, here the increase in difficulty is minimal, almost negligible.

The first death in my new best run happened in stage 2-9 (believe it or not, I was rather sleepy and did a stupid mistake). It was really tough to recover then, and my credit ended in stage 2-10.

And that's it, after so many Raiden ports I guess it's finally time to move on to Raiden II!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Power Strike (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1988

The Aleste series of shooters was born on the Japanese MSX home computer with a game called Aleste, which was in many ways very similar to Compile's own Zanac, the company's first shoot'em up. Aleste was ported to the Master System soon after its debut, and out of Japan it was renamed as Power Strike. From what I've seen in videos of the MSX game, the SMS version went through some graphical changes and completely ditches the original cut scenes. I can't say anything more to compare both versions, but as far as ports go Power Strike seems to be a decent conversion. What I can state right now is that I don't agree with its fame of being an extremely difficult shmup (it's hard but not that much). Granted, I might be biased by having previously experienced Zanac on the NES, a much harder and intricate game to play and master.

In fact, Aleste/Power Strike seems to be a stripped down version of Zanac. Both games share the same vibe, flow and gameplay basics, but Power Strike has none of the secrets and details that make Zanac such an elusively rich shooter. Moreover, the famous AI that generates enemies based on the player's performance is totally absent from Power Strike. In a nutshell, the game can be described as a straightforward take on Compile's original Zanac formula, and history is proof that it was the concept chosen by the company to be further fleshed out in future games. After all, Zanac never received a proper sequel apart from Zanac Neo on the PS1, while the Aleste series continued in several other titles and platforms.

A lone spaceship against plants gone mad

Power Strike is an intense, frantic game. Shoot your main weapon with one button and the special weapon with another. The main shot is upgraded by taking the P chips left by small spaceships that come hovering from the top of the screen. It takes lots of them to achieve maximum power, and the most interesting detail about this is that they also increase the ship's speed, fortunately never to a level where it gets too fast. Special weapons are numbered from 1 to 8, and you always start with the default special weapon 1, a stream of energy balls fired in the direction you've moving. These extra weapons are selected by taking the numbered ground icons or by collecting the ones that come flying from the top at regular intervals. Special weapons have the ability to block all types of enemy shots, but they vary greatly in style and effectiveness. Thankfully it takes just a few rounds for everybody to figure out which special weapons better suit their play style.

The catch is that with the exception of the default special weapon all others have limited ammo. This ammo starts with a counter of 80, which decreases as you use it, and to refill it you have to pick another special weapon icon (if the counter reaches zero the special weapon gets back to type 1). Sticking to the same special weapon will increase its range and power, but changing it when you're maxed out will activate the next weapon at its initial power level. Eventually it becomes clear that you gotta be a little stingy when using your special weapon if you want to keep it powered up. Hint: special weapons always come from the top consecutively, one after the other, so you will always have the chance to refill the counter with the same one if you're patient. If you have the chance to prolong a boss fight to gain some time there's no reason why you shouldn't do it.

Monster plants with super intelligence and waves of flying machines piloted by zombie human slaves are what your enemy is supposed to be (taken directly from the game's manual). Enemy design is rather simplistic and, just like in Zanac, a bit generic - all bosses are basically sets of turrets grouped together, with later stages including more and more mid-bosses as you approach the end of the mission. Endless landscapes scroll by at varying speeds while a non-stop barrage of resistance is unleashed on the screen, providing for a good level of gameplay intensity and decent shooting fun. A certain amount of slowdown as well as a bit of flicker are to be expected, but fortunately none of them impairs the final result of the game. And even though the music is run-of-the-mill 8-bit stuff, the BGM for the 4th stage is definitely a highlight in awesomeness.

First two stages of Aleste/Power Strike
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Challengewise, Power Strike is above average and demands a bit of strategy to be won. It's nothing extraordinary, but dying later into the game can lead to successive cheap deaths until you're finally able to recover. There are lots of score-based extends, which start with 20.000 and 100.000 points and keep coming at intervals of 100.000 points. Sometimes you even get two extends at once, I just don't know why it happens. Scoring is simple and consists of killing everything and getting all P chips because they're worth something (170 points each). Strangely enough, the final boss is the only one that does not time out, therefore it can be milked to no end if you're able to not kill all of his seven eyes.

My copy of the game is the US private release, which wasn't found in store shelves and was distributed exclusively by mail. The cover art is all monochromatic, as opposed to the colorful versions found in other regions. Power Strike received a sequel on the Master System that's completely different from the MSX Aleste II and also holds the distinction of being the rarer and most praised shmup on the platform.

I did milk the last boss in order to get the 1CC high score shown below. My favorite special weapons were 6 (wave shot), 8 (staggering laser) and 2 (charge blast). Once the game is beaten, selecting the CONTINUE option at the start screen will activate stage 0, which is nothing more than an accelerated version of stage 1 with a different color palette.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Media Rings
Published by Media Rings in 1992

Exploring the world of video games is a fascinating hobby. The amount of distinct experiences to be had is neverending, but digging deep into the more obscure stuff often leads to bizarre discoveries such as Toilet Kids, a shmup that's all about toilet seats and turds of all colors and sizes. Behold the awesomeness of the HuCard cover, for that's the turd god you must ultimately defeat in order to leave the magical toilet world. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself! How do you get there in the first place? Watch the intro to the game right after you press RUN: a sleepy kid seats on a toilet to take a dump, but suddenly he's sucked into it in a flash of light. Damn, this is no ordinary toilet at all.

If you're really into gaming, then you know that I'm stating the obvious when I say Japan can be a wicked place. The turd motif is fleshed out completely in Toilet Kids, making it one of the most bizarre games ever made. Though limited by the graphical boundaries of the system and marked by the cartoony design style, the resulting atmosphere successfully conveys an excrement-ridden world, so you can expect a few laughs and WTF moments as you plow through the astounding four stages of crappy fun (yes, it's that short). Kitsch? Bad taste? Any way you see it, it's undoubtedly unique. Unfortunately, Toilet Kids does not deliver on the aspect that matters most for us, which is gameplay. It's simple and straightforward, but it's also annoyingly stupid at times.

God of War is a pussy! Behold the jawsumness of the God of Crap!

After the nocturnal abduction, the kid acquires magical powers and starts flying on a toilet seat. There are initially five extra toilet seats for him to use, and when all of them are gone he apparently drowns in the world of poop down below. He's got a main weapon and drops ground shots in the exactly same fashion as in Xevious. If you hold down the main shot button for a little while a powerful charge blast will be fired upon its release. However, due to the constant stream of enemies coming from all sides I found this charge shot to be useless, it's much better to use the turbo function for continuous fire.

Practically all enemies will attack the toilet kid with some sort of turd ammunition. Monkeys, camels, spiders, bats, fish, turtles and other unrecognizable animals all attempt to shit on him while he's attacked by strange flying things such as slippers, turds, helicopters with butts farting all over the place, etc. Red balloons are the regular carriers for special items, and most of them give temporary effects such as a screen clearing bomb (the blue star), a magical toilet paper that cleans nearby enemies with spiralled attacks or an egg that works as a frontal shield. Items will also be uncovered by targeting specific poops with the ground shots (they blink when hit), and these will sometimes release extra toilet seats (lives). Another way to achieve extra lives is by destroying 40 of those golden, shiny small poops you see everywhere. Some of them are hidden and must be uncovered before being collected.

Looks funny, right? Well, I thought so for a few minutes.

What I haven't described yet is how power-ups work. They're there, but they're hidden. In order to uncover them you must hit certain areas on the ground so they will pop up. The power-up icon looks like a little bottle (maybe bleach?) and provides two very useful upgrade levels to the main shot (if you get hit you lose a life and your weapon gets back to its default condition). Now for the additional quirks: all items bounce once they're uncovered; shooting will make them bounce back, but the problem is that they often bounce off-screen and it gets really easy to miss them because of the sluggishness of the magical toilet seat you're flying; to make things worse, whenever you get hit you become invisible for a long time, so any item coming towards you will go by and get lost in the turd world. That's extrememely irritating, and if it happens just prior to the last boss you're pretty much screwed against the pair of evil planaria.

Why so slow, turd-boy? Oh, it's a credit in 50 Hz!
(courtesy of YouTube user djvatio)

Toilet Kids isn't a hard game at all, but the power-up scheme is kinda retarded and leads to unfair situations. Most of the danger comes from the small flies hovering on feces - they disband and keep circling around as you get close to them, sometimes shooting from below and off-screen. Hidden symbols that can be uncovered with the ground shot give special score bonuses, so besides finding the power-ups this is another reason why you should be shooting the ground at all times.

Harmless and annoying, this game barely escapes being a total waste for its goofy art alone, which of course lends itself to being a good subject for geek talk. The greasy grain of corn on the turd's surface is the fact that there's no high score buffering at all in the game, and you can't even pause after you beat the last boss. The screen fades really fast, so I had to make special arrangements to register the high score below. You can take a peek here if you want to know what happens at the end of this shmup-crappy story!