Monday, November 28, 2011

Viewpoint (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sammy
Published by Sammy in 1992

On the matter of unique shooters, Viewpoint certainly deserves a nod as one of the most interesting ever developed. Bearing a striking resemblance with Sega’s classic Zaxxon, it makes things more simple by restricting the playing field to a 2D plane only, presenting itself as a genuinely “tilted” top-down shooter. Whereas Zaxxon allowed full displacement in three axes, in Viewpoint the gameplay remains strictly two-dimensional, as if you took your regular vertical shmup and bent it in order to achieve a pseudo 3D feel to everything. Probably the most famous isometric shooter besides Zaxxon, Viewpoint was originally conceived for the Neo Geo hardware but also received a good number of ports in other systems, such as the Mega Drive, the FM Towns, the Playstation and the Sharp X68000.

Of course the Neo Geo AES version is the arcade experience at home, and my first choice to try this much anticipated classic. I have fond memories of staring at game magazines back in 1992 and wondering when such an awesome-looking game would grace my eyes for real. The time has finally come, and in my opinion it totally lives up to its hype. After all, it’s got fascinating design, an excellent challenge level and spot-on controls – the aspect I feared the most before actually playing the game. I always thought it would be tricky to control the ship in such an unusual perspective, but I was actually surprised at how good the Neo Geo stock controller performed. It worked like a charm, absolutely no autofire needed.

This is isometric shooting action at its best

Hovering just a little bit above the ground and gliding along surfaces with the most varied textures, the ship in Viewpoint faces all sorts of enemies. In fact, the enemy gallery in this game embraces all kinds of weird design choices, contributing to deliver a rather trippy ride through all six stages. Popcorn stuff comes in wave formations and consist of spinning discs, little insects, tiny blocks, destructible rocks, small planes, etc. Then there are the larger creatures, such as weird propellers, giant wheels, spring toys, big fish, snakes, turtles, maggots, insects, tanks, mechanical walkers, etc. Several types of turrets will also materialize all over the place. Bosses are always huge and mostly comprised of several forms: there’s a worm, a crab, a moth, a large hovercraft, an evil skull and an undescribable creature as the ultimate enemy. There’s always one weak spot that should be exploited when fighting bosses, and that’s the first indication of the advantage related to using the charge shot.

The only upgrade available for the main weapon supplies the ship with a pair of side pods/options that fire two auxiliary shots and have the ability to block bullets and damage enemies. It’s always the first item to appear from the one of the carrier circles. Holding down the fire button for a brief while and releasing it produces a charge shot that besides inflicting more damage is also capable of destroying several smaller enemies in a row. There are instances where tapping the button for regular fire is better, normally against a flock of enemies arriving from different directions, but using the charge shot wisely is the key for better results and faster kills.

Special weapons come in three forms: the fire wall (F - red), the shock wave (W - blue) and the homing missiles (H - green). You can stock three of them, and if the stock is full the next special weapon will replace the oldest one. They’re all equally useful, and since there’s no special bonus whatsoever for life/weapon stock, there’s no need to be stingy with them. Remaining items released by carrier circles can be a shield and a star. The shield changes its color as the player gets hit, protecting the ship against two bullets (enemy contact is always fatal regardless). Stars are the secret to score higher, and collecting them without dying makes their value increase up to 81.560 points each (500 > 1.000 > 3.310 > 5.000 > 10.000 > 33.100 > 50.000 > 81.560). Most stars appear by killing specific enemies or full enemy waves, and some of these waves can be triggered by fulfilling certain actions. The best example is the rotating blockade in the middle of the first stage: destroy it and an extra popcorn wave will appear to the left, for which a star will be won if you don’t let any of them escape. Enemy waves may also release special weapons in certain parts of the game.

Though it’s possible to milk bosses for their cannon fodder, this is highly discouraged because these beasts are quite nasty in their patterns, there’s no such thing as safe spots and the star bonuses are much more attractive. Extends are given with 50.000 and 80.000 points only, with a single 1UP to be grabbed in the last stage (the golden sphere amidst the lightning poles).

Montage with Viewpoint's automatic demonstration sequences
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

I enjoy the visuals in this game a lot. I can definitely see an overall emphasis in an insect theme, even though I can’t say that would be the main design motif. The music in Viewpoint is a chapter of its own, with a remarkably groovy, funky, offbeat soundtrack that’s both relaxing and awesome at the same time (baby!). Regarding the gameplay, there’s actually a reason why the ship seems to be a tad slow. With the exception of the bullet spreads from larger foes, all enemy bullets are aimed. Constant movement is paramount for survival, and combined with well placed charge shots and a few intense albeit short tapping bursts it makes for a nice approach towards the apparently daunting difficulty of the game. There is no rank, so every enemy pattern will always be the same. One thing I noticed is that it’s always better to escape enemies that chase you by doing lateral moves instead of forward/backward evasions (the centipedes, the fireballs from the third boss, the flame rings from the last boss).

Besides the design excellence, Viewpoint has flawless hit detection (nobody can blame the perspective for dying), an outstanding lack of flicker and only brief spells of slowdown when the screen gets too cluttered with moving sprites. It's a mandatory title for every serious shmupper out there, and deserves a place of honor as one of the defining games in the Neo Geo library. From the videos I've checked the Neo Geo CD iteration is basically the same as the cartridge, except for the loading times and seemingly more slowdown. Contrary to what one would expect, the music is no step up from the original though.

In the high score below I died before the 5th boss, playing in the MVS difficulty setting without autofire. I guess some of the star bonuses I lost were compensated by a few failed attempts at defeating the final boss, but I'm satisfied with this score for now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Xexyz (NES)

Hybrid (Platform / Horizontal)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
11 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Atlus
Published by Hudson Soft in 1989

Not too long ago my video game routine wasn’t restricted to shmups only, and platform and run’n’gun games were also an active part of my hobby. I can’t play them for the life of me these days, but I still cherish each and every one of my old achievements.

Recently I was able to reminisce those days by playing another genre hybrid. No other console has as many shmup hybrids as the NES does, and Xexyz is probably one of the most balanced mash-ups of platformer and shooter, in that it combines each genre in equal proportions in a story that takes place in the year 2.777. Xexyz is the name of the kingdom that represents what’s left of humanity. You play as Apollo, a lonesome fighter who battles an alien mechanical menace to save Xexyz. Heroic, you say? Sure, but we all know his real motivation is none other than rescuing a beautiful princess. And you still doubt the fact that women are behind every single act in a man’s life?

Going back to the ancient dynamics of jumping and shooting was nice and brought back some unforgettable memories, such as pit deaths. They’re all over Xexyz, especially from stage 5 onwards, where I would often lose lots of lives by badly timing my jump against the droplets falling from the ceiling. Exploration is intense, and the adventure side of it demands that you talk to a handful of characters and dealers in order to increase your firepower and advance to the next areas. I admit I was a bit scared of being overwhelmed by this aspect of the game, but fortunately it never felt like grinding – in that regard, the length of the adventure is fine and makes for a good old fashioned gaming session.

Riding a shark narwhal and shooting jellyfish

The quest takes place in 11 worlds/stages. Odd numbered stages start as platformers, where Apollo needs to battle enemies and take a hidden Force Star from a demon in order to have access to the mechanical castle. Once inside, he needs to go through a series of chambers, a brief interlude comprised of two to three sections of horizontal shooting, a few more platforming rooms and then the boss, for which he'll receive a flying platform for a shooter-style fight. Even numbered stages are short shmup levels where you fly a cyborg rider given as a gift by the people you just freed in the previous world. The boss has to be fought on this cyborg rider as well.

In the platform stages Apollo is allowed to jump and use weapons (shoot) and magic. The basic weapon is pretty weak, but better ones are revealed later: 45B Ball (appears already on the first stage), the wave ball (3rd stage), moon ball (5th stage) and the laser (9th stage). Even though the laser is the most powerful weapon, my favorite is the moon ball because of its built-in “crouching whip”: just duck and press the shot button once, and a short-range moving whip will materialize around you. It’s great for protection and powerful enough to take down all enemies. Magic can appear as foot wing (jump higher and fall slower), mirror (add a mirror image over Apollo’s head and double firepower) and typhoon (9 second invincibility). Foot wing and mirror disappear once Apollo takes three hits. Remember that it’s regularly possible to reach higher platforms by pressing ↑ at the same time you jump.

Every life comes with a health bar, and the game starts with a stock of 50 E-balls. E-ball is the currency/money used to buy items. Defeated enemies release E-balls for immediate pick-up, as well as L items for health recovery. Health is automatically restored before a boss fight and maximum health is increased right afterwards, when a new cyborg rider is boarded. By the end of the game that health gauge is completely full. As for money, it’s possible to get it faster by playing the mini-games found in some of the floating or the ground doors (press ↑ to enter). The doors also allow the hero to interact with other characters, which include fairies giving warnings, generous people who will give away magic, new weapons or money, a weapons/magic dealer, a healer frog, a lady that charges 40 E-balls to power-up your weapon and a useless information seller (he never got a dime from me). The mini-games can be a bet, a chest draw or a challenge to beat an enemy in order to free a captive lady/fairy (the girl in the hot tub is one of the greatest sights in the game). Now for a little trick: every time you go into a door with a luck game or a new weapon, return to it again to play the game one more time or to have said weapon powered up (you only power up once).

Compared to the platforming areas, the shmup parts are much more straightforward. During the odd stage interludes every section ends in two doors. One of them will lead to the next room, the other will loop Apollo back. Collect S for speed-ups and P to increase power. Every cyborg rider has its own weapon features, evolving either into a spread pattern, a 45ยบ auxiliary shot, an additional rear shot or a plain upgrade in the forward shot. All shmup parts are self-contained, so you always have to power up again once a new section starts.

Stages 5 and 6 of Xexyz
(courtesy of YouTube user syxx573)

Xexyz is heavier on the platform side, but that happens only because that’s where the real challenge lies. Other than those dreadful pits, finding the hidden star in the scenery in order to reveal the gate to the demon was the most demanding thing to do. Fortunately there’s only five of these in the whole game. Every stage adds new enemies to the previous gallery and subtle graphical details are pretty cool, such as the way Apollo changes color according to the weapon he’s wielding. Pit deaths and random items from killed enemies reminded me of the Mega Man series, and the round blocks in stage 5 seem to have been taken out directly from Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Shmup sections are very easy, and with rare exceptions so are the bosses, huge creatures with easily foreseeable patterns (that cheap shark got me once). Some of the brightest and coolest graphics appear in the shmup parts, and while flicker does kick in (mainly during boss fights) it’s never that much of a problem. I only experienced slowdown with the moon ball weapon during busy platform parts.

An extra life will be granted every time you score 500.000 points, but you can only see the number of lives when you die or when a new stage starts. Even as an adventure game, I wish the disregard towards scoring wasn’t so pronounced in Xexyz. There’s no time limit anywhere, enemies respawn aplenty during the platform parts and the last glimpse you’ll ever have of your score is in your final conversation with the elder god prior to the fight against final boss Goruza. For such a fun little hybrid it’s not such a letdown, but it’s obvious that taking the score system for granted is a sad, sad loss. As with any other game, a minimum concern with score would have boosted replay value way beyond the simple ideas of fun and amusement. And although not bad at all, the lack of variation in the musical score makes it sound as if the same tunes are playing over and over.

Once Goruza is dead you’re presented with a final showdown against the enemy’s base, in a Galaxy Force fashion. The aiming reticle is extremely awkward but it’s not a tough battle by any means, and the ending gives a nice closure to the game - remember Apollo’s real motivation! Below is my score before I entered the chamber to fight evil Goruza, playing with a turbo controller.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eliminate Down (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Aprinet
Published by Soft Vision in 1993

Shmuppers who love the 16-bit era of gaming know that Eliminate Down is a rare and expensive beast, and they often curse the powers that were for not letting the game leave its native Japan. The idiosyncratic title is a mystery that has no solution even within the game itself, a behemoth of 16-bit awesomeness with an organic theme that resembles Salamander but plays a lot differently, in a gameplay style that's closer to the likes of Thunder Force III and Hellfire. Talking Mega Drive shmups only, its rarity and market value are only rivaled by that of Slap Fight, and since the game was never ported to any other platform the only option left is either emulation or a good chunk of money (often >U$300 as of today). In my humble opinion it's totally worth it, it doesn't matter if you're a collector or a true gamer. Eliminate Down is definitely one of those cases where rarity goes hand in hand with quality.

Just taking a quick glance at the first stage is enough to have an idea of the game's bold scope of design. The spaceship appears amidst an ongoing battle with lots of other ships in the background, being welcomed by a space worm and descending on a planet right afterwards as a series of missiles is launched from its surface. The stage ends with a boss fight on a desolate desert landscape that scrolls by with a nice parallax effect. If you pay close attention to the music you'll notice there's a total of four BGMs in the first stage alone: one before the mid-boss, one during the mid-boss fight, one that starts after the mid-bosss is killed and another one that plays during the boss confrontation. Even though the music is the only aspect that deserves criticism on my part, this is a clear indication of how much zeal was applied to the whole game.

An undescribable creature with an arsenal of surprises

Getting the hang of how to use the available weapons is the first thing you need to do to enjoy Eliminate Down. There are three of them: (1) a forward spread pattern, (2) a missile launcher that drops bombs above and below the ship and (3) a rear shot. They are fired with B and cycled with both the A or C buttons, but always in the same order (1 → 2 → 3 → 1). Cycling weapons is essential and should become natural if the player wants to perform well in some of the trickier passages in the game. The use of two buttons with the same function is a bit of a waste because one of them could've been used to set the ship's speed - just like in MUSHA, here you need to pause the game in order to select the ship's speed. I restrict my approach to the B and C buttons since I like to play with the default speed 100% of the time.

Power-up items (P) are obtained by destroying a specific wave of drones, and for every 5 collected you upgrade one level of all weapons. There are two upgrades in total, so it takes 10 power-ups to max out firepower. Further power-ups will result in 100.000 points for every group of five. All other items are released by single drones that appear from time to time: the barrier/shield (B) grants the ship with a protection against two hits, and the energy cell (E) increases the power of the ship's forward single shot, which remains active regardless of the weapon selected. In its final upgrade it takes the form of a piercing laser that's capable of hitting enemies through walls. Whenever you die you lose one power level, so it's possible to recover pretty fast depending on how you perform during the next wave of power-ups.

Eliminate Down has a classic structure with very distinct stages and gameplay that rewards memorization and strategy. As long as you're able to keep the shield energized things always feel under control, but as soon as the shield is down a dreadful sense of danger kicks in, much like the feeling you get when you've got a naked Silver Hawk in any Darius game. Enemies are sneaky and deadly, and lots of dangerous situations are imposed by the stage design alone. Stage 7 is probably the most treacherous of all levels, with moving walls everywhere, inverted scrolling and a huge sudden fire beam prior to the boss. It's cheap just on the first go, once you get there again you can't help but feel the power as you anticipate everything towards victory. As for bosses, they're all large and varied, demanding lots of dodging and/or careful positioning in order to be defeated. As a rule of thumb, some weapons are more suitable than others in certain occasions, and aggressive point blanking is recommended in order to kill stronger enemies faster. Try doing it with the mid-boss in the first stage, he'll die before even turning back.

Three initial stages of pure awesome
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a rock-solid shooter with decent challenge and outstanding atmosphere. A little bit of flicker and slowdown must be expected, but it's nothing serious. Some BGMs are memorable (that wonderful 3rd stage!), but the compositions in general aren't on the same level of excellence present in the rest of the game. A few areas allow you to rack points forever (bosses), and while this detracts a little from the overall result it doesn't stop anyone from enjoying one of the greatest shmups of the 16-bit era. I never heard of any other Aprinet or Soft Vision product other than a racing game starring Satoru Nakajima, which makes me kinda sad.

If you go to the options screen you can play a mini-game where the objective is to bomb the moving ships within the board (no light gun support, sorry). Depending on how well you perform you're allowed to select from a certain number of stages upon starting the game.

Extends in Eliminate Down are score-based: the first one comes with 300.000 points, and for each 500.000 points afterwards you get a new life. Since every life in stock is converted into an enormous bonus upon game completion, the less lives you lose the more you score. I managed to achieve a no-miss run on NORMAL, and the result is in the picture below.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Shooter (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
13 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sorcery Games
Published by Sorcery Games in 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, behold one of the contenders for game with the most generic title ever. Any doubts about that? And the best thing about A Shooter is that it is, well, a shooter! Although this little game fails miserably to sell itself and is often object of mockery upon a quick glance at its cover, the truth is that it's actually quite decent given the budget constraints and the limited production values involved. Once again, it's an example that in order to do things the right way one needs no big money and no big name. Keep it simple, but keep it good and make it interesting.

In the shmup world there's nothing more classic and emblematic than a spaceship cruising the vastness of outer space shooting other spaceships. That's exactly where A Shooter starts, against a shy background of scrolling stars and punctuated with just a few enemies prior to an easy boss fight. It's pretty underwhelming, to be honest. But then the magic of the genre (and the cleverness of the developer) starts to rear its shiny head. With the exception of the scrolling stars in the background, which remain the same throughout the whole game, everything else will receive a welcome boost that turns A Shooter into a surprisingly challenging and fun experience.

It seems dull, but it's actually fun

Every level comes with one power-up hidden inside a pink meteor. Power-up effect is permanent, but don't miss one or you'll be slightly underpowered during the next wave. The initial firepower is almost a joke because it's so weak, only by stage 3 it starts getting better. Each level adds a new enemy to the ones you've already dealt with, steadily increasing the challenge and the need to focus in specific dangers. As for the bosses, they're basically the same small ship that shoots the most varied bullet configurations, also getting harder with every level. One of the best features in A Shooter is that the stages are short, so the slow pace never results in dull gameplay, rather instilling the will to come back for more. Even though there are no continues, the game saves your progress and allows the selection of any beaten stage when you start a credit.

The player is allowed to take two hits before dying, and this is indicated by the color of the ship's core: green means no hits taken, yellow means you've been hit once and red is a warning of imminent GAME OVER. This life/health reserve is reset in every stage, so you'll always be able to sustain at least two hits per level. At first I thought this made the game too easy, but by the time I got to stage 9 I didn't feel the same way anymore. Blame it on the ship's large hitbox and slow speed, which demand a strict adaptation to enemy behavior and bullet manipulation. Fortunately hit detection is implemented in a competent manner, so the game never gets unfair. Tough, yes, sometimes even close to bullet hell, but not cheap at all.

Starting stock for bombs is three, and for every defeated boss you get another one out of three types: the bullet nullifier, the bullet deflector and the bullet applefier (or fruiterizer, as the developer calls it). This last one is pretty cool, since it turns all enemy bullets into apples that are worth 500 points each. Scorewise it's the only type of bomb worth using (and only during the last stages), since unused bombs result in a better end-of-stage bonus. Speaking of which, a 100% health (green core) at the end of the stage yields increasingly higher bonuses, so don't get hit and watch you scores inflate. Other collectibles that are worth something are the stars (cumulative value within the stage, up to 10.000 points each) and the occasional bee (worth 10.000 points).

Bomb treatment could've been better. A full stock will not let you incorporate the new one you get from a defeated boss. The game always starts with three nullifiers, so if you want to get the applefier it's mandatory to bomb in order to gamble on new random bombs. There's a reasonable default autofire enabled, but if necessary you can get a slightly better firing rate by tapping the button.

Trailer for A Shooter
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer SorceryGames)

A Shooter is worthwhile fun and shows a near perfect balance between a humble indie spirit, length and challenge. The music is excellent and the loud sound effects for the explosions are great. If you want to mess with the backgrounds there are several sizes you can apply to the scrolling stars in the OPTIONS menu, it's even possible to eliminate them completely. I was slightly impressed with the written tutorial, because in teaching how to play the game it also gives very solid information on how to approach gameplay in any given shmup. It's especially useful for uninitiated gamers who want to get better at the genre. Who would guess such a nice lecture would be hidden inside a little indie shmup?

The local leaderboard does not make any distinction between difficulty levels, which is a shame. There is also a global table but it's disabled on my console, probably because I'm not a gold subscriber... And below is the 1CC result I achieved on NORMAL:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rez (Dreamcast)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by United Game Artists
Published by Sega in 2001

Among some of the most intriguing games ever designed and commercially released, Rez is certainly one to raise controversy, be it for its effectiveness as a video game or simply its genre labeling. Emerging from the legacy of the Panzer Dragoon series and infused with unique characteristics that provide a departure from the common rail shooter formula, Rez is seen by many people as an experience rather than a proper game. Sega’s marketing is partially to blame for this because the game debuted on the Dreamcast, but in all honesty there isn’t that much reason for such a fuss. At the end of the day, Rez is a game like any other, with strengths and weaknesses, and definitely worth a try regardless of genre conventions.

Now for the inevitable question: is Rez a shmup? If you agree that rail shooters qualify then the answer is yes. However, Rez is a very special type of rail shooter. Whereas in Panzer Dragoon you possess a mild ability to dodge incoming fire, in Rez you just don’t have it. Your avatar sits there in the middle of the screen, and with very few exceptions every enemy projectile that’s not destroyed will hit you and devolve your current evolutionary form. Therefore, basic gameplay is down to one simple rule: hit them before they hit you. The whole stage and sound design revolves around this concept, and every action the player takes has an influence in the music.

What the developers tried to create is a strong interaction between the player and the game, with the objective of establishing an aural synesthesia that’s supposed to “unite” both. Every shot fired inserts a beat into the rhythm, and every different form you assume (out of six) will change this beat according to a specific frequency. BPM evolves and accelerates as the stage sections unfold, following your invasion into a virtual reality. The character's main mission is to the breach the security of several layers of code (10 per stage) and free an imprisoned digital being known as Eden, all of this while going through a series of trippy, abstract landscapes to the sound of five electronic music tracks. Sound is so important in Rez that the relation between its quality and the overall experience is explicitly stressed even before the Sega logo appears when loading the game.

An ever-changing being inside a melting reality

The journey starts with the character in its primary form, a humanoid shape comprised of single geometrical forms. If you get hit you revert to the most basic and defenseless form, the sphere (another hit taken means death). Higher forms come in the shape of two more complete humanoid figures, a flying guru, a pulsating energy sphere and a fetus. In order to evolve you have to collect blue power-ups left by selected enemies - it takes 8 of these to advance to the next form. Destroying enemies is done by using a reticle. You can either aim and shoot or hold the fire button while you lock onto a maximum of 8 targets or hit points. Once locked, release the button and watch as the targets take damage. Besides the blue power-up there's also a red power-up that fills one cell of the overdrive bar. Overdrive is just another name for the screen-clearing bomb: use it to become invincible and kill everything in sight for a short time.

Rez is a deeply layered shooter, and it's not possible to tell it just by the main game mode alone. This mode, for instance, has absolutely no score - what you get at the end of every stage are just stats on the percentage of subareas "analyzed", enemies shot down and items collected. Progress is saved and you can repeat stages at will, unlocking a specific score attack mode for every level you beat, but you only get access to the last stage by achieving a 100% analyzation rate in the previous 4 stages (shooting down all the cubes that separates the layers). The real fun starts once the game is fully beaten, because then you unlock the "Beyond" mode, which includes two options called Direct Assault and Lost Area. Direct Assault is the proper game with scoring, stages in order and no continues. Lost area is just a single stage with different enemies, I wonder if it's the remainder of a beta version named K-Project (a homage to abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, a major influence on the whole game). There are many other unlockables in Rez, most of them cascaded with beating currently unlocked modes. Extra color schemes and extra music tracks and sounds are the most useful ones; Travelling and Trance modes are just to chill out, since you don't take any damage when playing them.

It’s great to know that Rez allows a proper scoring challenge with the Beyond/Direct Assault mode. Unfortunately, delving into the scoring system also exposes the inherent flaws of the game design. Scoring works in a simple multiplier scheme, in that the more targets you lock the higher the multiplier, up to ×8 (essential hint: enable the point display in the options to see your multiplier during any score-based mode). Going for a higher score means pursuing a maximum multiplier at all times, which increases the chance of letting enemies escape (if they leave the screen you lose the multiplier) and decreases the chance of getting the best endings. These endings are achieved by getting the best shot down percentage you can in stage 5, thresholds being 95% and 100%, with a final evolutionary form upon game completion. The worst thing of all is that you only know your stats after the stage ends, so it's impossible to evaluate how you're doing during the actual gameplay. When aiming for the best endings the best strategy is to kill everything on sight on the 5th stage, which totally goes against scoring. So which player do you want to be: a scorer or a killer?

Breaching virtual security and evolving in the 5th stage of Rez
(courtesy of YouTube user TeamAndromeda)

Abstract graphics with sections that blend with each other beautifully, a profusion of colors and the audio boldness are what make some people define Rez as an experience rather than a game. Sure you can take the easy route and target everything without worrying about the lock-on. Going through all stages and flying through all those sections and bosses feels great when you're in the right state of mind. However, things get a lot more serious (and a lot more fun in my opinion) when scoring is considered. For starters, the top score in the Direct Assault mode is one million points, which is considerably high and demands absolute focus and a lot more risk if you want to take over 1st place. Furthermore, performing well during a stage triggers a harder boss at the end of it. In any case, balancing lock-ons for a higher score while getting the best possible shot down ratio is the ultimate achievement you can get.

Regardless of the approach, Rez is one of those titles that must be tried at least once, even if you're not a fan of rail shooters. Alternative options to the Dreamcast version can be found on the PS2 and the Xbox 360. On the 1CC highest score shown below (Beyond > Direct Assault) I got the ending where Eden opens her hands and the screen fades to white. No butterflies yet, maybe in the future, in one of the other versions... This time I did beat the game in the final form, but the shot down ratio was 87,79%, with an item count of 70,59%.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Prehistoric Isle in 1930 (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK in 1989
Published by SNK Playmore in 2011

Coming out from SNK in its pre-Neo Geo days, Prehistoric Isle in 1930 is a dinosaur-ridden shooter full of creativity and heavily bent on destroying unaware players who refuse to approach the game in a methodical way. On my first sessions, while flying back and forth to Rio, it was excruciatingly hard just to get past the second stage. Sure I could blame the PSP format and its stinky d-pad, but even after I turned on to MAME for practice it took me a long time to feel comfortable with the game and get the confidence needed to return to the PSP.

The SNK Arcade Classics 0 compilation was released in April 2011 for the PSP in Japan, and a first round of testing quickly showed that Prehistoric Isle was the highlight of the game selection - for us shmuppers anyway. It was just too cool to be left aside, and really well made for a 1989 title. If there ever was anything game-related made with dinosaurs that sucked, the people involved should be hanged and sliced to pieces. There’s such a strong and fantastic aura about dinosaurs that even the most lackluster products involving these extinct animals aren’t really a waste. Of course that’s not the case here, so shooter fans who dig great production values and a good challenge will have nothing to complain about.

A biplane (or biplanes in co-op play) is sent on a mission to investigate strange occurrences in the area of the Bermuda Triangle, around a “Greenhell Isle”. The island is dangerous and filled with all sorts of prehistoric menaces, from insects to cavemen and large reptiles. There are no signs of civilization anywhere, and the only help you get comes from inside the flying eggs that carry power-ups.

A clunky stegosaur lurks inside the caves of the last stage

One of the most cruel facts about Prehistoric Isle is that it deceives the audience into thinking that the pod/orb you get once you collect your first power-up will be there to help you throughout the whole game. You're allowed to rotate it clockwise around the plane at the press of a button, taking advantage of its R-Typeish nature of blocking most incoming fire, damaging enemies and providing extra firepower. However, after a certain amount of beating the pod will lose its color (some people say it "rusts"), and the next damage taken will make it disappear. To restore the pod's health you must either take another power-up or collect a specific special item (keep reading). Problem 1: once you reach maximum power (5 Ps), power-ups cease to appear. Problem 2: the special items are random and sometimes don't appear at all.

Once the pod disintegrates, power-ups start showing up again. Then the whole process of activating the pod and further increasing its strength restarts, but depending on when this happens you're pretty much overwhelmed and screwed beyond belief by the prehistoric creatures and unforgiving bosses. It's sincerely disconcerting to see a great credit end in sheer desperation due to the loss of the pod. This realization is the bane of the gameplay in Prehistoric Isle: all the player's efforts must be aimed at preserving pod health. Let it take hits only when extremely necessary, such as during the fight against the second boss, and pray for one of the healing special items to appear at key points in the game. Besides power-ups (P) and speed-ups (S), destroyed eggs also bring money ($, worth from 100 to 1.000 points), a 5s time-bomb, a rapid-fire powerful cannon or an all-encompassing pod shield that makes you virtually invincible. Now here's the catch: only these last two items (the cannon and the shield) restore the pod to its full health once their temporary effect has passed. They may appear only at certain points in the game: twice in the 1st, once in the 3rd and once in the 4th stage. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, it's actually very common to play the whole game with none of them appearing at all.

Without the pod there's no chance at surviving in the game. Its protection function cannot be used when you're at full power, but the extra weaponry it provides should be exploited at all times. When pointing forward, it will replace the normal shot with a powerful cannon; diagonals down will release bombs like in Darius; pointing up and down unleashes a fire wave that bounces on surfaces; and diagonals up shoot energy balls in 45° that also bounce back. Anticipating the danger is the best way to use the pod's capabilities and have a chance at winning. Factor in the timing when moving the pod and you have yet another gameplay aspect to deal with, since turning it past the point where you want it to rest can be fatal. On the PSP you can configure the buttons at will, but unfortunately it does not offer an autofire option. We're talking about hardcore portable shmupping at its best here!

Though very hard, not everything in the gameplay works in favor of difficulty. Touching walls will only make you bounce slightly, and it's impossible to get too fast by taking successive speed-ups. Extends are score-based and come with 100.000 and 200.000 points only.

Watch out for the brachiosaur's bite!
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Some hints to score higher: kill all enemies in a single wave to get an extra bonus; certain enemies spawn smaller versions of themselves or generate insects, so letting them live is advantageous; wait to collect money until it's about to leave the screen, since it's always worth more points this way; rank is related to survival, and more enemies are generated the longer you go on without dying.

Prehistoric Isle in 1930 has tons of variety in its enemy and stage design. With the exception of the quick second stage all levels are quite long, with bosses and mid-bosses that are described by brief stat messages before they enter the screen. Cavemen will try to bring you down by grabbing the plane and inducing an extra amount of weight, never mind the lack of proportions between them and everything else you see. Every stage is unique in its setting, the use of color is outstanding, sound effects of animal growls abound (there's even a nautilus that barks!) and the music is so good and fitting it could be used in any Land of the Lost episode or remake with excellent results.

On the SNK Arcade Classics 0 disc, SELECT pauses the game and calls up the menu, and START initiates a credit. Prehistoric Isle can be played in its original resolution or stretched, and either one is fine. Extras include a sound test and a graphic gallery with posters and arcade flyers for all titles. I played the game with the PSP connected to the TV, and cleared it losing two lives in the last section of the caverns, just before the tyrannosaurus (the same one that growls in the game's opening screen and isn't as tough as a few of the previous bosses). Sequel: Prehistoric Isle 2.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gunbird (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1995

After its debut in the arcade scene as a full-blown company with Sengoku Ace, Psikyo gave birth to two new shmup series practically at the same time. While Strikers 1945 adopted a straightforward military theme, its sibling Gunbird invested in a fantasy setting with slightly wacky humor. Both share the same basic structure, therefore the "sibling" association and the undeniable stench of lazyness that pops up whenever people start digging deep into Psikyo's output. Yes, Strikers 1945 and Gunbird are indeed drawn out from the same mold, shmup soul mates that have been poorly scrutinized by critics and players alike. But that doesn't mean these games aren't worthwhile.

The truth is that value in Psikyo games is almost exclusively gauged by gameplay, unlike the majority of titles out there, even shmups. Unless you find that sweet spot where a Psikyo shmup starts getting compelling, more often than not you're left with a "very short game" and varying degrees of frustration. Appreciation for graphical design, though well deserved in its own right, is put aside in face of the game's merciless bullet patterns. What matters is that Gunbird is quintessential Psikyo, not overly tough but no walk in the park either, and offers a great burst of fun that's also a nice way to test if the company's style is your cup of tea. The Playstation port is a controversial choice to try it, but more on that later.

Choosing one of five characters will make the game more or less difficult, never mind their polemic characterizations. Ash is supposed to be a pedophile and Tetsu is openly homossexual, but that I derived from others who were able to read the Japanese text in the cut scenes. Too bad I can't understand them.

Yuan Nang floats on her cloud against one of the bosses

All characters have the same basic attacks, which consist of the normal weapon (rapid fire), a charge shot and a bomb. They all have varying speeds and mildly different charging times, with bombs that might make a difference between life and death when you're trapped - Ash and Tetsu were shafted with a noticeable delay on their bombs, so extra planning is definitely needed when using them (no panic function for these guys). However, Ash is the fastest and has the strongest shot, while Tetsu is the slowest and weakest with the exception of his powerful long-range charge shot, which seems to take longer than the others to charge. In the middle spectrum we have protagonist Marion, a Sailor Moon-esque teenager who rides a broom, controls a talking rabbit (obvious Alice in Wonderland reference) and whose average firepower is complemented by homing stars (good to take out random popcorn stuff). Yuan-Nang and Valnus both share devastating close-range charge shots, but since his bomb lacks power it's quite clear that Nang is the best character in the game.

Items are released by oval carriers, larger enemies or boss parts, and consist of power-ups (P) and extra bombs (B). Psikyo implemented a timed power-down scheme in Gunbird: it takes three power-up items to reach maximum power, but this maximum level only lasts for a while unless you take another P before this time expires, for which you also score 2.000 extra points. Probably in order to compensate for this and the increasing bullet count, whenever you touch an enemy one of your power-ups will get loose and wander off for you to re-take it (if you're at the default level you start expelling bombs). After a while you'll pretty much find yourself preserving power-ups on screen so that you can always be at maximum power and benefit from the score bonuses. Scoring can also be positively affected by taking ground coins and by destroying all boss parts before dispatching them.

The initial three stages are shuffled from four available ones, with the last four being played in a fixed order. Bosses are huge machines operated by a group of vile and funny thugs led by a femme fatale, who stole and broke a magical mirror that all heroes are trying to put back together in order to fight the evil last boss, as seen in the intro to the game. Dialogue is shown both in-game and between stages, and if you're playing in co-op they will change to reflect the interaction between the characters. I like the music and the way it goes from cartoony compositions to darker, more serious tunes as the game comes closer to the final sections.

The horrendous US port from XS Games
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Just like most Psikyo shooters, Gunbird rewards aggressive play and encourages point-blank strategies. Rank is dependent on survival, and the longer you stay alive the faster bullets will come towards you. Playing this game in short bursts is probably the best approach to avoid burnouts and ragequits, soon enough it clicks and the loop is reasonably within reach. There's only one extend at 400.000 points, and if you're able to beat the game prepare for a speedy bullet hell in the second loop. Remember that continuing doesn't reset the score, instead it adds a "1" to the last digit.

Regarding the Playstation ports, the copy I own is the Japanese one. It comes with character and art galleries as extras, and the game itself runs in a wobbling fashion that's not as bad as it sounds. Unfortunately there's no saving functionality and no TATE option either, both being the main reasons why Gunbird on the Saturn (Japan exclusive) is the superior port if you have to choose one. Please avoid the US localization for the PS1. Released by XS Games in 2003 as Mobile Light Force, it's an atrocity that disfigures the original character design beyond recognition, since it changes some of their names and removes all the in-game text. In this version Valnus is called Milf 2000! What were these people thinking?? They also removed the animated intro and all galleries present in the Japanese port. Well, at least the gameplay was left intact, if that counts for something...

Since I had already used Yuan-Nang when I beat the Saturn version, this time around I played with Marion. The final score below ended at the boss in stage 2-1, with the default difficulty setting (5).