Friday, December 30, 2011

Sqoon (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Home Data
Published by Irem in 1986

I love the name of this game, it rolls off the tongue nicely despite its impossible phonetical self. And I don't know why exactly, it gives me this fuzzy feeling related to freezing, ice-cream and food. It's one of the least known games published by Irem, and it's relatively obscure within any gaming community, probably due to the US NES release being outrageously expensive. I wouldn't say it's rare, unless we're talking about complete copies.

Sqoon is as much a natural evolution of Activision's Atari 2600 classic Seaquest as a predecessor to Irem's own In the Hunt. All these games have one thing in common: the fact that you control submarines in a shmup setting. In Sqoon the backdrop to the action involves aliens from Neptune raiding a submerged planet Earth in search of humans, which are imprisoned and used as livestock for their nutrition (the documentation refers to them as "man-ham"). The only hope for mankind is this pink submarine, whose captain is supposed to be a rogue pirate or something. And even though the game takes place completely underwater and features lots of marine enemies it's not nearly close in gameplay to anything related such as Darius, Submarine Attack or Deep Blue.

Each stage is a sunken city, and my guess is that some huge cataclysmic event must have happened to the planet because there's no separation at all between them - you just navigate from one city to the next with no interlude whatsoever. It all starts in Hawaii, then proceeds to China, India, Egypt, Greece, England, the North Pole and New York. Frankly, the graphics don't do much to help you distinguish the places, and with so much going on chances are you probably won't pay attention anyway.

A submerged India overruled by Neptunians

Being developed in the mid-80's, Sqoon was influenced by all the ideas that were still boiling in the shooting gaming scene, not all of them acceptable in the shmupping world of today. Besides shooting and rescuing human hostages, it's also necessary to manage fuel. The fuel concept makes the game really busy, and forces the player to devise some sort of strategy to survive in the long run.

There are two types of attack, the regular shot (button A) and the ice ball (button B) that goes down in an angle of approximately 45º. Fuel for the submarine lasts approximately 60 seconds and goes down in steps of 10, blinking fast when the reserve is about to run out - if this happens you lose a life. To get more fuel you must do three things: (1) rescue at least one hostage, (2) hit the pink crab with the ice ball and take the golden fuel cell from it and (3) approach the surface ship that appears once you've rescued the hostage and taken the cell. The surface ship will then drop a bubble that refills the fuel. The trickiest part in this process is the pink crab, which doesn't come by very often and allows only a brief time window for you to get its fuel cell. If you take too long to get it you might die because the crab will reappear in its place without notice.

Hostages are freed by hitting their bunkers with the ice ball. They're easily spotted in the scenery, but once the hostages come out they might be taken and eaten by the tiny orcas that swim around. These sharks are harmless to the submarine, so the only danger they really pose is eating all of the desperate humans before you're able to rescue them. The rest of the enemy gallery (shrimp, squid, turtles, mines, drills and all sorts of different fish) is hazardous and sometimes arrives in very crazy patterns, taking you off-guard with a series of sudden moves. In Sqoon there are no bullets fired from enemies, they're the bullets themselves.

Another instance where you can have the surface ship appear besides exchanging one hostage for one fuel bubble is after you rescue 9 hostages. Dock with the ship, keep pressing the fire button to deliver the hostages and a power-up will drop, upgrading the regular shot and renewing fuel supply at the same time. There are two upgrade levels, and in the final one you get a spread shot that's great to take down multiple enemies. Dying will downgrade one power level. You have to memorize how many hostages you have rescued because it's not shown anywhere in the screen, nor is the number of lives left. To increase speed just power up or hit the + signs that move back and forth over some of the large underwater bases.

Dude, why didn't you take the gold from the crab to refuel?
(courtesy of YouTube user nenriki86)

Starting from the 2nd stage the screen halts so that you have the chance to destroy the weak point of the boss base. As far as enemy formations go, the second half of the game (stages 5 to 8) is basically a slightly harder repetition of the first half with swapped color palette. Despite the primitive look, flat colors and tiny sprites, Sqoon is still a graphically charming game that hits a perfect point when you nail down the gameplay, especially how to preserve fuel (don't refuel if you don't have to, the surface ship will not go away unless you approach it). However, the game does get repetitive quickly afterwards, with no actual increase in difficulty during the second loop. On top of that there is only one tune that plays over and over, with brief interlude music between stages. Heavy slowdown happens briefly when you have the spread shot and there are too many fast enemies on screen.

Some advice to better enjoy Sqoon: don't be too close to the left when you resurface to refuel, sometimes the fuel bubble or the power-up will be unreachable when it falls; the only way to destroy mines is with the ice ball; be on the lookout for extra lives (the cross at the church in the first level and all kinds of weird objects such as a panda, smiley faces, sea tokens and even a surfer on the top of the screen); hit the snail that appears once the level starts for more points; after a few shots the snail will turn into a necklace, so stop shooting and take it for an extra life; if you keep shooting the snail will reappear, and if you manage to get the necklace again you'll get more than one life from it; don't lower your guard though, getting more lives is cool but it's just as easy to lose them in a snap; if you have a turbo controller use it, the game has no built-in autofire.

When I looped the game I thought things would collapse fast, but it didn't happen. In the run below I moved along and things fell apart from boredom in stage 2-7. I'm sure it wouldn't be like this if Irem had been the developer. With no real prestige in the shmup scene, Home Data's only other contributions to the genre are the obscure rail shooters Cosmic Epsilon and Tetrastar The Fighter, released only for the Famicom in Japan.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gekirindan (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment in 1995

If I'm not mistaken, Gekirindan was the last shooter Taito developed before going fully into 3D efforts (Raystorm, G Darius). As such, it serves as an amalgam of all that had been accomplished by the company so far, featuring graphical effects previously seen in earlier titles such as Metal Black and Rayforce while drawing inspiration both in house and from the competitors, in what many people see as a homage to Toaplan. You can see, for instance, that the variety in the selection of ships/characters clearly borrows from Batsugun, and some of the weapons are a throwback to lots of Toaplan classic stuff. With so many influences it was necessary to bypass the lack of originality with some sort of gimmick, and the one Taito chose is the good old concept of time travel. In fact, the subtitle to the game is Time Travel Shooting.

The story starts in the distant future. A time machine is stolen by a villain, and the player's mission is to race after him through several time periods. Each one of the five stages takes place in a specific year (1942 included!) and gets increasingly longer until you finally have the chance to blast the bad guy before he manages to activate a new time warp. The player ensemble includes pilots from several eras, and different pilots are assigned to each ship type (A, B or C) and controller side (player 1 or player 2). Blast off alone or with a friend, and be on your guard to weave your big hitbox between point-blank enemy fire.

Hokuto pursues his foe in year 1999

The Sega Saturn is home to many excellent Taito ports, but unfortunately Gekirindan isn't part of this batch. Taito didn't handle the port themselves, maybe that's the main reason, but it's disappointing to see the rotating effect of the background satellite tunnel from the 1st stage completely absent from the game, be it in YOKO or TATE. We're left with a static chunk of scenery that gets slowly zoomed in and then disappears. Besides other less noticeable graphic downgrades there's also some jerky scrolling during the final frames of the ship's takeoff. Gameplaywise the experience is marred by extensive vertical wobbling, and you constantly have to deal with bullets pouring out of enemies that haven't even come into sight yet. Normally screen wobble shouldn't be a problem (Psikyo and Atlus did it right in both Strikers 1945 games, for example), but here it's annoying to say the least. After all, not everybody is able to TATE their TVs to get rid of it.

Despite all of the above letdowns, Saturn's Gekirindan isn't broken in any way, so it's still possible to have fun with it. Playing is simple: fire with either A or C and bomb with B. Manage the items brought by carriers, collect medals and stock more bombs to increase the bonus when finishing a stage. Choose the pilot/ship that fits you best, with one glaring exception they're all pretty much equally effective. The exception is type C selected by player 2, which is twice as strong as the others and makes the game a lot easier to beat. Perhaps it's because type C+P2 is the only choice that has two pilots (Orsa and Mayoru) instead of one. Type C is an old style plane with two choices of main weapon: a spread gun and a wave pulsing cannon. Switching between both weapons is done by taking the C item, and it doesn't take long to realize that the wave cannon is useless, so avoid taking Cs if you decide to go with type C. How ironic is that?

Weapons for type A (a futuristic spaceship) are a soft blue pattern with mild spread and a group of locking lasers that resemble Truxton's. Type B (a helicopter) fires a straight shot, activating trailing options as its alternative main weapon. Main weapons are upgraded by collecting power-ups, and all ships can also use the same secondary weapons given by an icon that cycles between H (homing shots), N (napalm) and M (straight missiles). Napalm is the way to go since it's the strongest one and has a devastating effect at point blank distance. The skull inside both napalm's inner figure and the bomb animation for type A is another great nod at the mighty legacy of Truxton. The remainder of the items are extra bombs and, in some very rare occasions, a single score bonus token.

As straightforward and simple as it is, the scoring system has a few secrets beyond collecting surplus power-ups and regular medals. One of them is damaging the mid-boss in the first stage really fast to destroy a few more meteors and grab an extra bomb, maybe even a small bonus if you're fast enough. Another secret is to let the spider-tank crush all five houses in stage 2 in order to uncover five extra medals, killing it immediately afterwards to trigger a small train on the railroad. In the last level destroy the pink ship that fires lasers to get the only 1UP available in the game (there are no extends).

"Thou shall not pass", said the captain of the red ship in the 5th stage
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Depending on the selected ship dying in Gekirindan is traumatic because you're left quite underpowered, even with the giveaway power-ups that emerge from the dead ship. Besides the wobbling, other minor annoyances appear in the form of a few dead sections where nothing happens or where the game deliberately stops so that an unskippable animation can take place. At least the music is nice and complements the laid back nature of the game, which has a very tame rank system. I can't say it's negligible, but it's a far cry from the agression levels seen in Layer Section. I did enjoy the great use of color and the decent enemy variety in Gekirindan, and its overall simplicity is very welcome if you're not looking for flashy, intricate shooting mechanics.

Since the PS2 versions found in the Taito Legends/Memories compilations don't have a TATE mode, the Saturn port is still regarded by some as the way to go for a console alternative, even though it's slightly butchered graphically. In all versions it's widely alleged that starting the game with any ship as player 2 makes the game easier (remember that type C-P2 is a special case of overpowering). My character of choice was Hokuto, pilot of the type A ship, player 1 side. The score below was achieved with him on Normal.

I died twice at the final boss and missed the bonus from an inflated bomb stock (each one is worth 8.000 points at the end of the stage). And I still don't understand how to consistently get approximately 30.000 extra points on the second boss, sometimes I score even less than my usual share...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Retro Force (Playstation)

Vertical / Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1999

Have you ever wondered what a mix between Einhänder, Silpheed and Xevious would sound like? Let's be honest, no one has, and back in 1999 very few people outside of Europe must have had the chance to lay eyes on Retro Force, a possible answer to the question above. Brought to the world only in Europe by Psygnosis, prominent developer in the PC and Amiga scene but rather low profile in mainstream platforms, the game mixes vertical shooting during normal stages with rail perspective during boss battles. The scope is ambitious and includes a long campaign with a detailed story that starts with an alien invasion and involves time travel.

Before I continue, allow me to say that this game carries a few traits that are not very well seen within the most hardcore shmup community, those being health bars and inertia. "Euroshmup", you say? Well, it comes from Europe alright. Although I think health bars are a fairly mild design choice depending on the game, I do agree that inertia is awful - we definitely don't need that much reality in our dodging fun. Fortunately the level of inertia in Retro Force isn't so severe, and I could perfectly live with it after a few minutes of familiarizing. There are a few other aspects in the game that are more troublesome, so inertia and health bars shouldn't be reason enough to crucify this obscure and offbeat effort of the low-res 32-bit era.

An alternate version of Einhänder? Not actually...

Going from the rather cool animation intro into the game itself, the player must choose between four pilots, each one with distinct "aerial capabilities", as described in the manual. Paris and Hawtin are the human teenage duo, Pi and Sinclair are androids. These so-called aerial capabilities do not refer to flight speed, which seems to be the same for all of them, instead they're related to how high they can "climb" with their spaceships. Climbing (L1) and diving (L2) is necessary in order to reach certain areas in a stage. Thankfully there are just a few sections where you really need to use these commands, and you always get back to the default plane after a few seconds anyway.

The main weapon (X) is selectable with R1 and comes in three types: straight shot, spread shot and laser. The ground weapon (circle) that's used to hit ground enemies as in Xevious is selectable with R2 and also comes in three types, each one having a different distance reach and effectiveness radius. All weapons start quite weak and are powered up by their specific items, often released by destroying medium to large enemies. Weapon power level can be seen in the selection display in the lower corners. Special weapons have limited ammo and are triggered with the square button after being acquired by specific icons: rockets, homing missiles, side-shots, multi-bolts and plasma balls. Lastly, screen-clearing bombs are deployed with the triangle button.

Other items up for grabs are energy recovery cells, shields and colored crystals, which add more points the end-of-stage bonus. Orange crystals are hard to come by, but they're worth more than the regular green crystals. If you touch the cat face inside the blue light beams pointing up to the sky you activate a checkpoint, where you'll get back to in the case you plummet to death smoking when the health bar is depleted. Also watch out for 1UPs that look just like the checkpoint cat face inside an open arch.

Not only is every single button in the controller used (it's possible to reassign them), but the huge amount of items to collect and interpret also takes Retro Force away from the pick'n'play nature associated with the shmup genre. This game is a bit more complicated than usual, and sometimes there's so much going on that the only remedy to clear things up is to use a bomb. The visuals aren't bad for the most part, but they're predominantly dark and can get confusing at times. Pacing is slow and never changes, large enemies have health bars and some of them come with an invincibility shield that's energized by some ground targets you need to destroy first. It's kind of intuitive, but until you figure out what enemy does what it's pretty common to lose lives stupidly. On the other hand, you don't lose any energy by touching a wall or a cliff.

Travelling through time to stop an evil prophecy from fulfilling
(courtesy of Dailymotion user THAIRACER)

Retro Force has four very long stages divided into three sections each. After a short initial pre-stage you're sent back to the ice age, advancing in time until you return to the present to fight the cat-like final boss. Even though there's a lot of diversity in the game design and the extensive use of several levels of screen tilting adds to the notion of movement, Retro Force fails to cause a lasting impression because the stages feel cluttered, the second half of the game is full of cheap deaths caused by lasers, the music is totally forgettable techno stuff and a few bugs (for the lack of a better word) can lead to unfair deaths. The climbing/diving gimmick is frustrating because some pilots can't reach a few of the higher items, and in some instances I died because I got stuck during one of the climbing maneuvers. There was also one occasion where I died because the perspective changed from rail to vertical during a boss fight, making it impossible to dodge the bullet sprays that were designed to be dealt with in a 3D environment. The most irritating aspects of the game however are the awful loading times. They break up the pace badly, killing any sense of flow the game barely had to start with.

A special nod goes to the goofy character design, an obvious heritage of the early days of 3D polygon rendering in video games. Some people find it charming, others consider it downright awful. It's pretty irrelevant to me since it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay. However, the thing I will never forget about Retro Force is the ridiculous look of the cat creature that possesses the boss prior to each stage finale. It's unintentionally funny, you have to see it to believe how lacking, primitive and campy the animation is.

Co-op play is available, as well as auto-saving and the possibility to save a game in-between stages. I could never figure out how the extend scheme works because extends are most frequently awarded as you view the end-of-stage statistics and bonus screen (suffice it to say there are many available, but I think they might be related to the amount of crystals you collect rather than the actual score). I completed the game in one sitting during one hour and a half, playing with Sinclair in the NORMAL difficulty (MEDIUM).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Space Harrier [arcade] (Playstation 2)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
18 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 2005

Space Harrier is probably one of the most classic and emblematic representatives of the rail shooter subgenre, alongside After Burner. This happens because Sega practically pioneered this arcade and video game branch. Space Harrier was the very first arcade game to use a special technology that allowed smooth pseudo 3D sprite scaling, thus making it possible to have a full fledged shooter where the player’s avatar flies into the screen against oncoming bullets and objects. Freedom of movement is still two-dimensional, but the gameplay is in a league of its own because it often scares people away due to its simplicity, a supposed lack of the need to dodge ("keep moving and you’ll always be safe") and the consequential idea of mindless shooting.

I for one always thought the game was fun, but also pretty damn hard. Just three lives and only one extend with 5 million points? Give me a break... However, a couple of weeks ago I was testing a few games for some friends and took the chance to see what the Space Harrier Complete Collection (volume 20 of the Sega Ages 2500 series) for the PS2 was all about. It’s a compilation that comes with the Master System and Mega Drive entries in the series and also the original arcade game (not to be confused with the stand-alone remake with polygon graphics). A relaxed credit in the arcade version allowed me to get roughly past the second bonus stage, and it just crossed my mind that beating the game wasn’t really out of bounds if I kept at it with the same mindset, playing Space Harrier as a fill-in diversion from other games and obligations. It eventually worked out well. No suffering, no grinding, just pure and relaxed fun, with the realization that there’s a little more than meets the eye when it comes down to this old classic.

"Hmmm... How big and menacing you guys are... And those big, beautiful red eyes!!"

Checkerboard scrolling surfaces and objects coming fast towards the player must have been quite a vision back in 1985. That’s where the bulk of the design went to, given the fact that there’s probably few shooters, rail or not, with such a rudimentary gameplay. The character is able to move all around the screen and shoot a single plasma cannon that he carries under his arm. There are no power-ups of any kind. And that’s it. Drop that quarter/coin and be greeted with “welcome to the Fantasy Zone”, as the announcer puts it once the credit is started (an obvious nod to another very famous Sega franchise). Every time you die screaming (it’s one of the most painful deaths of any game ever) you hear a very familiar “get ready” before you get back on your knees – it’s the same sound that plays in Out Run, which was built upon the same scaling engine used in Space Harrier.

Fantasy zone is a suitable definition to the world and setting of this game. Surreal landscapes with a gorgeous palette of pastel colors, a wide variety of threats (clouds, jets, orbs, trees, mushrooms, maggots, insects, robots, spikes, stone faces, those goddamn PILLARS, one-eyed mammoths, etc.). There's absolutely no rest for our desperate hero, he runs and flies through 18 stages that are seamlessly connected to each other, and the only breathing room he gets is in the two bonus stages (5 and 12) where he boards the back of a flying creature that resembles Falkor from The Neverending Story. In the bonus stages you have to destroy as many trees and pillars as possible for more points. Trees? Yes, Space Harrier isn't exactly an environment-friendly shmup. The fact that the game takes place in an alien planet is no excuse, see James Cameron's Avatar.

It’s a bit unfair to point the finger at someone for labeling the gameplay as “mindless shooting”. At first sight that’s what it is, I gotta be honest. The first stage is a breeze, you just stumble on those bushes instead of dying and the boss gives you a perfect idea of what to expect from further bosses: with no exception, they’re all piss easy. Things start to go from “mindless” to “what the heck” when those freakin' PILLARS and larger creatures get in your way, demanding instant adaptation to the notion of proximity provided by the sprite scaling effect. The challenge is to correctly move around them, avoiding obstacles and taking down the enemies as fast as possible in order to reduce the number of aimed bullets. These can be pretty fast and take you off guard, especially when there's too much stuff appearing at once. As far as I can tell, there aren't any non-aimed bullets, but some bosses tend to shoot slower projectiles. Be careful, if you adhere to the usual strategy of circling around like crazy while shooting you'll probably rush into one of them.

Most people don't notice, but the Harrier's cannon shot has a mild attraction ability (I can't call it homing): it will also hit any enemy that's sufficiently close to its line of fire. Just pay attention and watch as the shot "bends" a little to make the kill.

Trailer for Space Harrier Complete Collection on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user 快樂街)

Credits work differently in Space Harrier. Every time you press "triangle" and add a credit/coin, three lives are added to the player's stock, therefore you can never activate more than one credit in any given run for a legit 1CC. A minor gripe I have about the game concerns its original analog controls. I can't imagine why some people prefer to play with this analog thing, it keeps bringing the hero back to the center of the screen if you stop moving. It's just awful, and going by the superplay that's included in the disc you notice clearly that the superplayer does not use it. Fortunately, in Space Harrier Complete Collection you can select the control scheme at will, with natural autofire in the "square" button. Other features are the ability to record/replay your runs, an art/poster gallery and the music notes for the game's soundtrack. Speaking of which, only now I noticed there are only three tunes that get repeated throughout the whole game (not counting the brief boss themes). The most iconic and most used, of course, is the BGM for the first stage. No variety at all, but the music is cool enough and tends to grow on you.

There were no arcade sequels to Space Harrier. Sega decided to continue the series only in consoles, with Space Harrier II on the Mega Drive and Space Harrier 3D on the Master System. The SMS Space Harrier port completes the package in Space Harrier Complete Collection, which also has the Game Gear version as an easter egg. And let's not forget about the 3D remake for the PS2 simply titled Space Harrier (volume 4 of the Sega Ages 2500 series). Other home sources where you can play the original arcade game are on the Sega Saturn, a hidden arcade spot in Shenmue and the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console. The 32X version is also supposed to be a valid choice, though it runs with a lower frame rate.

My final and humble 1CC score (NORMAL):

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shienryu (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Warashi
Published by Warashi in 1997

Although it’s perfectly fine to give up on a game you’re trying to 1CC, avoiding the feeling of personal failure isn’t easy. This is mostly related to the fact that we try to bite more than we can chew, and for some time now I believe the best way to deal with it is to step away for a while. I can’t stress this enough, but I’m into the hobby for fun and amusement, and continued sessions in a game that’s destroying the player aren’t healthy at all. Plateaus should be respected as an alert that you either need help or that you need to get better as a player (let’s not even talk about burnouts). For me Shienryu is an example of a successful comeback from one such moment.

About a year ago I was trying to play Geki-oh - Shooting King, Shienryu’s incarnation on the Playstation. It didn’t take long to reach a point where the game became impossible, I wasn’t even able to get past the fifth stage. Fast forward to STGT 2011 and the week I spent swearing at my laptop while playing Daioh, Shienryu’s spiritual prequel. I had the same issues and gave up halfway the competition, afraid of eventually throwing the computer out the window. According to some modern lines of thought it’s a given fact that the universe conspires to your advantage if you’re surrounded by positive stimuli, so here I am fulfilling something I set out to do more than a year ago. Granted, it’s in a different system but possibly the best option if you have to play it on a home console.

Shienryu was developed by some of the same people who worked on the arcade shooter Daioh. Both games share a lot of similarities, including one of the most punishing rank systems I have ever seen. Their main inspiration is Raiden, so if you’re into Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic you’ll most probably enjoy Shienryu as I did, provided you follow some very basic rules.

The power of thunder and lightning

One of the similarities with Raiden is in the stage structure, where the first four levels take place on Earth and the last four in outer space. Graphically the game is great, with good variety, fragments flying off destroyed enemies and bosses full of multiple parts that can be taken off one by one. Ship designs are similar, but fortunately in Shienryu you can abandon the sluggish initial speed of the ship by taking speed-ups. Three weapons can be used and switched with colored icons: red evolves from a forward single shot to a vulcan spread pattern, yellow equips the ship with a mixed set of straight and homing missiles and blue activates a lightning discharge that homes on everything that takes damage. Take P items to power up and B items to increase bomb stock. By the way, each weapon has its own bomb animation: red results in an energy beam that funnels from the sides to the front as it dissipates, yellow produces a localized blast and blue deploys a series of vertical laser bars aligned with the ship. All of them carry the ability to block bullets, but the red one is the best for panic purposes.

Checkpoints are implemented only during the stages themselves. With the exception of the last boss/stage, you respawn right where you die during boss fights. Also used in Taito's Gun Frontier, I think this is an interesting alternative for those people who hate checkpoints. Scoring devices appear as surplus power-ups, which are worth 5.000 points each, and end-of-stage bonuses for level completion, bomb stock and number of candles collected: some enemies will release these tiny items that look like candles, colored in red or blue (a few sources refer to them as LEDs, but they’re still candles to me). Each blue candle is equal to ten red candles, and the more of them you collect the higher the bonus.

Shienryu has a rank system that makes enemies shoot more bullets with increasingly faster speed as you make progress. Now for the crucial quirk: you can’t accept anything the game gives you that (1) nets you additional points or (2) gives you any extra protection. If you do take weapon items of the same color or power-ups in excess for those nice 5.000 points each you can expect a further difficulty increase that will never subside, not even when you die. In a similar fashion, you cannot take the rare pink power-up that gives you instant maximum power and puts a 1-hit shield on the ship’s nose (or splits into a plethora of other power-ups once touched). If you increase bomb stock beyond the initial three you will also be incurring in an irreversible rank boost. What’s the catch then? In order to keep the game manageable never collect any item that yields points once you reach maximum power, never have more than three bombs in stock and never, ever take the ultimate pink power-up. This last point is very important because once the pink power-up disappears natural rank will be reduced by a good margin. No worries on candles, they do not add to the rank logic at all.

By following the above recommendations Shienryu goes from a freakin' nightmare to a really enjoyable game, with fair bullet patterns and no walls of any kind. Provided you don't take repeated items it's possible to mess with the weapons at will, and eventually I chose the lightning (blue) for the first half of the game and the vulcan (red) for the second half. The missile (yellow) is nice to look at, but it's quite unreliable in that there's always one enemy that emerges from the firespray armed with a deadly bullet. Lightning is the weakest of all weapons, but it's actually the best one for scoring because it will take down anything in front and behind the ship, also netting more points by damaging larger enemies.

Intro and attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user koosterveld)

Music in this game starts out pretty corny, but it does get better as you play later stages. Even though it never reaches bullet hell status, at times Shienryu comes close to it because it's heavily bent towards twitch dodging. The last boss is one of the coolest I have ever seen in this respect. In one of his attacks the screen is forced to zoom out so that you can completely glance the epicness of the battle against a massively huge dragon robot. Another highlight is the 6th stage, which flows as a boss rush with at least four large spaceships to be destroyed before you face an skeleton-like mecha boss. It's pretty cool stuff and a testament to good game design. The crab enemy in the boss rush is the only one that will always give away an extra life (1UP). Other 1UPs (or 2UPs if you're lucky) can appear randomly, with score-based extends achieved at 1.5 million points and then for every 2 million afterwards.

The Saturn port is the superior choice for everyone since it comes with save functionality and an option for TATE mode + pad rotating. Moreover, it's virtually free of the slowdown that appears in the PS1 version. Shienryu is also present in a double pack along with its sequel in The Shooting - Double Shienryu for the PS2, and it's interesting to note that in the European release the game was renamed as Steel Dragon.

Props go to fellow shmupper Battletoad for enlightening my journey with a great post about Daioh on his blog. As pictured below, in my best credit I managed to reach stage 2-6 (NORMAL):

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Darwin 4081 (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data East
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1990

Back in 1990/91 I was 14/15 years old, and the crushing majority of Mega Drive games that appeared on rental shelves close to my place were awful-looking pirate copies, with the exception of a few titles from Japan such as Jewel Master and Darwin 4081. You could find originals of them everywhere, and I remember I really liked the texture of the Japanese boxes, which were a bit different and smooth on the tips of my fingers. However, in the presence of stuff like Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage these games were promptly ignored, especially Darwin 4081, which by that time was already considered by the kids around the block as run-of-the-mill material, unworthy of our precious time. Ah, kids...

Indeed, explicit technical highlights aren't to be found anywhere in this game, a port of Data East's arcade title Super Real Darwin, which in turn is the sequel to Darwin 4078. I think the name change was supposed to include the Mega Drive version in a series that eventually fell into the realm of the obscure. Despite its lack of punch and the somewhat generic graphical style, Darwin 4081 shouldn't be taken as a failure - if it sounds unimpressive, the arcade source is to blame. Sega did a very good job with the port, preserving the graphic quality, downscaling the difficulty and even improving the music, which is more varied than the arcade version. The excellence of the porting process is also hinted by the absolute lack of slowdown, something that very few 16-bit shmups were really capable of achieving (other notable mentions are Gleylancer and Wings of Wor).

Meet Bossgoste, the final enemy in stage 5

Darwinism and sci-fi are actually very close to each other as a wealthy foundation for artistic creations, and this connection is what drives the gameplay in Darwin 4081. The ship evolves as the player collects the so-called E-evol power-ups. These items are released by specific enemies, each evolution leap comes with a new main weapon and a visible change in the ship's sprites and the more you evolve the bigger the ship's hitbox gets. A secondary and rarer power-up called B-evol will apply a special upgrade that changes the ship into a whole new form depending on which evolution phase was originally active. Further evolution phases beyond the starting one are time-dependent, so if you do not take another E-evol item in a certain amount of time your ship will devolve one phase. Getting hit while evolved will send the ship to its weakest and most basic form, and any damage in this condition (or in the +1 starting phase) means death and restart at a previous checkpoint.

Building upon the classic ideas of Xevious, basic gameplay in Darwin 4081 is comprised of a main weapon and a secondary shot to care of ground enemies. This ground shot does not change, what evolves is only the main firepower. Extra items consist of speed-ups (S) and 1-hit shields (Ar). Just like power-ups they are always released by the same enemies, so after a while it gets easier to spot where they're coming from. They will wander off pretty quickly, and if you're not fast enough you'll lose them. Actual speed is indicated to the right, and its maximum value is 3. This happens because speed-up items cease to appear once you get the third one. There's no need to refrain from taking speed-ups since the maximum speed doesn't feel too fast and is actually quite useful against a few bosses.

Some players hate checkpoints in shooters, and the good news is that this game lets you power up instantly when you die. In order to do that you must collect DNA left from special ground enemies such as worms and lizards. Each DNA is worth 300 points and adds one evolution phase to your form as soon as you respawn after dying. If you manage to stock the maximum value of 9 DNAs you'll be boosted up to the second-to-last upgrade (the flame shot).

Graphics in Darwin 4081 aren't anything special. There are no special effects, no parallax and no huge explosions. However, one of the levels is quite remarkable for letting you fly over a landscape full of circuit boards and microchips that come to life all of a sudden. The music is decent but the sound design is definitely the standout, with specific sounds for each weapon and a rich set of the most varied sound effects. The game flows smoothly and keeps you on your toes without being too taxing, and with one glaring exception the stage structure is always the same. This exception is in stage 6: it has just one checkpoint (die in the boss and get back to the start of the level) and comes with the hardest boss in the whole game. The only way to hit him is with ground shots, and it's no easy task at all. In fact, this particular part of the game represents an odd peak of unbalance, especially when you consider the fact that most bosses are a joke if you reach them with full power. Sometimes they will die in less than 2 seconds!

Reaching the printed circuit board area in Darwin 4081
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Besides a justified albeit not too severe complaint on bullet visibility, other game aspects also contribute to impair enjoyment in Darwin 4081. I absolutely loathe the B-evol power-ups. The first bad thing about them is that it's really hard to distinguish these unwanted "offers" from the regular E-evol items, and I always end up taking one by mistake. The second bad thing is that they're mostly useless, giving the player more trouble than actually helping... Even the dragon that shows up in the start screen isn't worth a damn, and I curse the game whenever I activate that spider-like form that spits bubbles. If you manage to survive with one of these crappy weapons you get sent back to the weakest regular form once its lifetime expires, not really the best way out of an already awkward situation.

Getting past all of these little annoyances isn't really necessary to enjoy Darwin 4081. The interesting upgrade scheme with over 15 different ships/weapons makes it fun, and the fast paced action is sure to please those who always thought Xevious was too slow to begin with. The game is also very generous on the extends, which are given every time you score 50.000 points. A useful gameplay advice is to remain in the bottom of the screen when ground enemies start becoming more aggressive. They will all stop shooting once they've scrolled 2/3 of the screen, and that makes it easier to take them out if you're patient enough.

Since the starting difficulty setting is EASY, I went to the options screen and switched it to NORMAL in order to play the game. I'm not ashamed to say that I exploited stage 6 for a higher 1CC score, dying at the boss multiple times to capitalize on my life stock. Some missed opportunities didn't allow me to get a higher figure, but this one isn't too shabby either.

Note: this text was cross-posted with minor changes on Sega-16.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Recca (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft
Published by naxat soft in 1992

Recca, one of the holy grails of any Famicom collection, sure has an intimidating fame. Not only is it regarded as one of the rarest titles ever released for Nintendo’s 8-bit console in Japan, but it’s also widely revered as the best shmup in the system. It's an extremely expensive vintage item, and in a world where emulation works in a flawless manner the joy of inserting that charming cartridge into an NES machine is mostly restricted to "crazy" people willing to spend a lot of money to get the real deal. I could surely feel the anticipation as I played it for the first time. That’s the moment when hype takes its toll on people, and in the case of Recca I have to confess I expected more.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great shmup, with deep gameplay mechanics and a healthy array of extras to boot. It’s well known for pushing the hardware to the limit and for being the first game programmed by a guy named Shinobu Yagawa, who would make a stellar career in later titles such as Battle Garegga and Ibara. Recca is also considered by some people as the grandfather of bullet hell due to its frantic pace and high bullet count at times. I don’t agree with that, simply because all heavier bullet curtains can be blocked by a shield device that exempts the player from the need to dodge. Sure Recca is intense and fast, but this isn’t an exclusive trait - many other NES shmups, such as Zanac, are equally as rich and frantic.

What Recca has going for its strong reputation is a combination of three winning factors: challenge, bosses and music. We’re talking about a tough little shooter here, which while not reaching extreme difficulty levels still demands some time to be learned, beaten and eventually mastered (not talking about the arrange modes yet). There’s a great number of boss encounters of all shapes and sizes, and they help alleviate the asymmetrical structure of the stages. As for the music, it’s definitely one of the greatest collection of 8-bit shmup tunes I have ever heard, with dramatic, epic and even electronic undertones. No wonder the official CD soundtrack fetches high prices every time it shows up in online auctions.

A final boss to end all things

The most basic gameplay aspects to worry about are the power-ups. Once a certain amount of enemies is killed an item will appear. The blue one with a letter upgrades the main weapon, cycling in the following order: V (vulcan) → L (laser) → B (forward beam) → F (forwards/backwards, Star Soldier-type) → H (homing). The red item with a letter activates/upgrades a side pod, cycling in the following order: F (forward, slightly angled out) → B (back) → C (counter) → R (rotate) → S (search). With the main weapon (button B) it takes three of the same items to reach maximum power, and every surplus power-up is worth 10.000 points. Auxiliary pods (button A) fire a single smaller shot with less destructive power, and you also get 10.000 points for each extra power-up of the currently activated type. As for the blue items with no letters (medals that look like little eggs with wings), don’t let any of them go by and they’ll eventually be worth 2.000 points, starting with 50. Extra lives appear every once in a while, but you can't have more than 7 in reserve.

Ship speed can be selected between four available settings through the SELECT button. The slow first setting is a must against the first stage boss, but other than that the whole game should be managed in setting 2 or higher. The last and most important gameplay feature is the charged bomb: whenever you stop shooting an energy bubble will appear and grow in front of the ship, and as soon as the bomb meter is full just fire the main weapon to trigger the bomb. Bombing is the bane of all strategies in Recca, be it for survival or scoring. On the survival side, it blocks/absorbs all incoming bullets (a defense feature also provided by the auxiliary pods). On the scoring side, each absorbed bullet is worth 100 points, and every time a bomb remains charged you get 5 points per frame (1 point per frame while charging).

In a game where enemies will sweep by sometimes at blazing fast speeds, choosing the best weapons represents half the chance of surviving. My weapon of choice was the laser (L) because when maxed out it will home on anything ahead of the ship with great destructive power (excellent to take out those fast laser turrets in stage 3). F is also very useful, in fact it's the best weapon to upgrade first because of its coverage. The only really useful auxiliary pod is the search (S), since it will point and fire automatically at any on screen danger, and easily replaces the main weapon when the screen is not full of enemies. Besides all these resources, memorizing and getting used to enemy patterns is the only way to perform well, no need to worry about rank progression because there isn't any. Brute force works wonders, as well as anticipating the nastier sections with a charged bomb ready to detonate.

A credit in the normal game mode
(courtesy of YouTube user jinjinnim)

There are times when the scrolling speed is so fast that it's a bit taxing to keep up with what's going on. It's a neat dynamic effect that otherwise disguises the poor and overall generic graphics. The waving effect applied to the background from time to time is nice, but the first and fourth stages are basically comprised of cannon fodder and bosses against a dark star-filled or a static waving background. The HUD disappears completely during boss fights, obviously to allow for an optimal sprite manipulation, but it sucks not to know your speed setting or how many lives you have left.

Since Recca is such a busy game it's natural to have slowdown as well as flicker, though the latter is much more pronounced. There are no continues and the four stages in the main game take roughly 20 minutes to complete, but since there's no timeout on bosses it's possible to milk some of them for more points, as long as the whole run does not exceed 1 hour (remember that pausing the game doesn't pause the counter). Once beaten, resetting the game will set the main screen on fire and activate a harder arrange mode in the normal game selection. Comprised of seven stages with an outrageous increase in difficulty, this is where the NES gets really pushed beyond its limits, so prepare for a barrage of enemies and even heavier flicker. Though in the regular game it isn't so easy, in the arrange mode it's pretty much impossible not to reach the 9.999.999 counterstop value.

The extra modes are the main reason why the game's full name is Summer Carnival '92 - Recca. It was released in very small quantities as a competition cartridge which also includes some additional game modes: Time Attack (maximum score in 2 minutes), Score Attack (shortest time to achieve 1 million points) and Zanki Attack, a hidden mode accessed by a trick where the normal game is started with 50 lives and every killed enemy releases 4 or more suicide bullets at random directions. Zanki is pure craziness and feels totally unfair, but it's lots of fun just like the main game itself.

I clocked a little below half an hour when getting the following high score in the main game: