Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Attack Animal Gakuen (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pony Canyon
Published by Pony Canyon in 1987

When Sega’s Space Harrier came out in arcades in 1985 the rail shooter formula as we know it today was practically born. Soon other companies joined the wave of pseudo 3D sprite manipulation with varying effects and not only in arcades, with a few unique rail shooters being developed and released for less powerful hardware such as the NES. Attack Animal Gakuen, translated either as Attack Animal Academy or Attack Animal School, is one such effort. It hardly gets any different from the standard gameplay pioneered by Space Harrier, but the theme of this strange little game certainly is as wacky as it gets.

In this game the player takes control of a schoolgirl named Nokko. For whatever obscure reason she was given the power to fly, which helps her on a mission to save her kidnapped girlfriend from the clutches of an evil animal rebellion. Yes, animals have taken over the world and are now holding people hostage. Trying to come up with a reasoning for such a crazy setting is useless, it's as if George Orwell went all nuts on Star Wars and Japanese fetish culture. I personally loved the idea. Applying it to a rail shooter is the icing on a cake of weirdness, but you know what? Gameplaywise it's not as bad as it sounds, it can actually be pretty fun if you're able to overcome some of the more prominent limitations of the format.

Sky stage and kangaroos

What struck me most when I started playing Attack Animal Gakuen was the slow speed of Nokko's weapon. It takes a while to get the timing right to hit whatever you want - and even when you're done with it you still need to adapt to the slightly iffy collision detection. Tapping the fire button like crazy won't help much because the rate of fire is limited to buffered streams of two consecutive single shots (strange note 1: some people say she fires flower petals; strange note 2: the turbo function in my Competition-PRO controller did not work with this game at all, so there was absolutely no autofire for me this time). Nokko moves rather slowly around the screen, but still fast enough to dodge 99% of the incoming shots and obstacles. How do I know this? Keep reading...

Each one of the six stages develops as a series of specific enemy waves separated by a brief dead space, and then the screen flashes for some seconds prior to a boss fight against some huge animal/creature. It's a simple scheme because there are never two types of active enemies on screen at the same time (meaning enemies that move and have the ability to shoot). All areas do have this one type of obstacle to be avoided, such as trees, cactuses, little volcanos, seaweeds, bushes and pillars. Therefore, basic gameplay will always consist of avoiding indestructible obstacles while anticipating and dealing with each wave that's thrown against Nokko. Very few of these waves are randomly generated, which helps to reduce the frustration with stupid deaths caused by poor scaling and cheap enemy attacks. Crows, spiders and bats are the worst offenders on this matter.

Is there a way to increase the chances of winning? The answer is yes, but I only found out after looping the game once. In a specific point in every stage three Buddha statues will scroll by on ground level. Shooting at them will make you think they cannot be destroyed so the natural reaction is to avoid. What a way to help the unaware Western player, Pony Canyon! These Buddha statues are there to be taken as power-ups! The first one will increase the rate of fire to 3 shots per stream, the second one will increase Nokko's speed, the third one allows her to shoot streams of 4 bullets, the fourth is a further speed-up and the fifth statue will give her with the ability to destroy even the regular indestructible stationary obstacles. Dying will strip away all upgrades you might have taken. I did not figure this out alone, guys, credit should go to this great strategy page. The only thing to have in mind about the statues is that their position is always random, and sometimes it's tough to get them because they're either too far apart or they appear right behind a cactus or some other deadly obstacle.

Even if you don't have the enhancements provided by the Buddhas Attack Animal Gakuen isn't impossible. As with all rail shooters, the rule of thumb is to keep moving. There's only one instance in the sky stage (6th) where a turtle will shoot one single unavoidable bullet. I know this because initially I practiced in an emulator without knowing about the power-up statues. Default speed isn't a problem anywhere else, in fact it's actually more desirable against some of the bosses.

A quick credit of Attack Animal Gakuen
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

Deeper details in gameplay are related to how to deal with bosses and how to approach some of the more intricate waves. Whenever the bouncing armadillos come I always flee to the top right of the screen where they can't reach me. Beware if you can't kill kangaroos and starfish fast, they shoot off the screen very quickly and might take you with them. Orbs and mines might be stationary, but it's common to crash against them because your bullets are slow. Aside from movement pattern all bosses behave similarly and die only when their minions are destroyed. As you destroy minions the boss's rate of fire increases. Later bosses are tougher, but since minions are worth so many points and it's pretty common to earn one or more extends per boss you can take advantage of the brief invincibility window of each new life to waste away many of them. By the way, 500.000 is the amount of points you need to score in order to gain an extra life.

Attack Animal Gakuen also has a 3D option to allow the game to be used with the Famicom 3D system (activate it by pressing SELECT at any time). I don't own the goggles, so I can't say how it feels in 3D. The game is colorful, with crisp graphics that complement the scrolling checkerboards and upbeat, albeit repetitive music. It doesn't feel choppy, it doesn't ever slow down and flicker is insignificant. Some details are neat, such as the heroine's outfit changing as the stages unfold - watch as even the life stock display changes accordingly. She even wears a swimsuit in the underwater level! This is one of the reasons why despite the inherent ripoff stench this game is actually a charming one if you fancy rail shooters and the NES.

Once you lose your last life the game is over, no continues allowed. However, once you memorize the tougher enemy waves and figure out how to beat bosses more confidently the game becomes manageable due to the constantly earned extends. That's good and bad at the same time, since after the end credits roll and the game strips you off your lives for one million points each Attack Animal Gakuen restarts with no change in difficulty whatsoever. As I noticed nothing would change upon reaching the 4th loop I decided to crash against the first enemy and die. The resulting score is shown below.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dezaemon [Daioh Gale] (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1994

Second in Athena's series of shmup creation engines, Dezaemon is the title of choice for those who want to build their own shooting game for the SNES. It's the only one of its kind for the console, obviously improving upon the NES first outing with more colors and some new features. Once more everything about the building engine is in Japanese, so unless you're really patient with both the language and the limited (by today's standards) options offered by the editing tools the only reason you'll ever want to own Dezaemon is to play the sample game made from its own resources, a little vertical shmup called Daioh Gale.

Daioh Gale is a basic shooter with six stages and some characteristics that can be remotely associated with Athena's prime arcade shooter Daioh. Some people are eager to call it a pseudo sequel or a direct sequel, but I beg to differ. The truth is that it's a rather conventional short game and a considerably easy clear, so calling it a sequel to the excruciatingly tough Daioh sounds like utter heresy. Daioh Gale is a complete game, but it's also supposed to serve as a taste of what the tools in Dezaemon are capable of delivering. Being developed by Athena, it's perfectly understandable why it uses some of the concepts of Daioh while borrowing its name.

Both Daioh and Daioh Gale are thematically close to Raiden, but Daioh Gale is heavily toned down in difficulty and bullet count.

I think I've seen this somewhere?

Selecting "GAME PLAY" on the start screen and going to any of the two choices after that will start Daioh Gale (the lower choice corresponds to the editable version of the game). Luckily, all further in-game options are in English. Simple and straightforward, gameplay is based on powering up and selecting between three types of weapons. P items increase the ship's power, S items increase the ship's speed, SH adds a 1-hit shield to the ship and B adds one bomb to the bomb stock. Colored icons are used to change the weapon you're currently using: red corresponds to a vulcan spread pattern, blue activates a mix of straight and (slightly) homing missiles and green consists of a constant stream of homing bubbles. It takes just a few power-ups to reach maximum firepower, extra bombs appear often and you can get at least one shield per stage. Extends are granted with 200.000 points and then for every 500.000 points afterwards.

Despite being a checkpoint-based game, the checkpoints in Daioh Gale are rather generous in that they're not too spaced and will always allow you to restart in front of some enemies that spawn items. You will also start the next life with the weapon you were using when you died. Bombs behave differently depending on the active weapon: with red you get a round blast, with blue you have a column-shaped energy discharge and with green all targeted enemies will suffer more damage. All bombs are bullet nullifiers and serve as panic relief. Since they don't count for any sort of bonus, feel free to bomb away if you get cornered by some of the tighter patterns in the game. They're few and far between, but depending on the weapon you're using it can certainly happen. Speaking of weapons, my favorite for the first four stages is the homing shot (green). By the time I have to face the fifth boss I switch to one of the others because he's got this annoying blue ball that's immune to the green weapon. The last boss does this as well, so the game pretty much forced me to give up on the best weapon.

So what are the similarities between Daioh Gale and Daioh? Besides the name the only ones I can think of are the sprites for the ship and the way weapons work. They resemble the original weapons from Daioh, even though the awesome lightning shot was horribly downgraded into those relatively ugly green bubbles. Everything else is quite different and not related to Daioh at all. The same progression from earthly environments into outer space exists, but it's done with a completely different and simplified design. The music is unrelated, and although Daioh Gale doesn't hurt my ears I can't say it stands out in any way.

Toying around with Dezaemon + two stages of Daioh Gale
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Unlike me, there are people out there who have actually taken their time with Dezaemon to build something. Here's one example of a user-created game, another one made by a Gundam fan and a music homage to King of Fighters 2002. Both game examples clearly show some of the limitations imposed by the available tools, such as the user not being able to change the fonts for the HUD and the limited assortment of enemies and weapon types, which are basically variations on the stuff existent in Daioh Gale. The interface is supposed to be considerably more versatile than it was in the Famicom version though, including the possibility of using a mouse. Unfortunately you're still restricted to creating only vertical shooters. It's impossible to share them with others, and as far as I know every user-created game turns out to be a unique personal baby in that lonely Super Famicom cartridge (for more details you can always check this awesome Dezaemon article/hub).

But fret not, regular console shmuppers, Daioh Gale is included in the cartridge to quench our volatile shooting needs. As expected for such a title and quite unusual for an ordinary 16-bit shmup this one has a save function that preserves high scores. Below is the 1CC result I got for Daioh Gale on NORMAL.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dezaemon [E.D.I.T] (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1991

Talk about obscure Famicom stuff!!!

For some time now I've been willing to give a chance to Dezaemon on the SNES, only to see what that sample game Daioh Gale was about. Blame it on Daioh, Shienryu and Athena/Warashi. After accomplishing this mission I went online looking for more info on the SNES game, only to find out I should've started the series on the Famicom version - an oversized cartridge that made me devise a special hinge to make it fit into and work in my classic NES console.

I could try to come up with something to properly describe the Dezaemon series, but I really can't understand any Japanese so details would suffer greatly. Fortunately the guys from the Hardcore Gaming 101 website made an outstanding article that should give a great insight into these games, complete with technical information. On my part, suffice it to say that the purpose of a Dezaemon title is to allow gamers to build their own shmups using a predefined set of tools. Every release also comes with one or more sample games, which are actually the only reason I own them. In the case of Dezaemon for the Famicom this post is more of the documenting kind, for the sample game is some kind of a joke and can't actually be considered a shmup worthy of anyone's precious time.

Want to draw your spaceship, 8-bit style?

The name of the sample game is E.D.I.T, at least that's what shows up when you select the first option from the initial menu written in Japanese. PLAY GAME will allow you to move the ship and shoot against a black screen (testing?), EDIT GAME will send you back to the starting menu and SAMPLE GAME starts the actual gameplay with promising huge characters displaying STAGE 1 and a score of 000.000.

E.D.I.T looks like an early beta for a Star Soldier game. You can shoot with either button A or B. The game starts with almost no color, with black backgrounds and a succession of drone waves intertwined with power-up carriers. The items that emerge can be speed-ups (S), shields (B), options or weapons. Whenever you choose to take the option you relinquish any weapon you might be using, but then you're allowed to have three trailing options at once if you stick to the same item. The shield gives the ship protection against three hits. Weapons are powered up by sticking to the same letters: vulcan (V), laser (L) and missiles (M). Laser is by far the best alternative, apparently also with many more upgrade levels than the others. I say "apparently" because the game just wasn't long enough for me to test it out. Besides, item appearance is totally random and it's completely normal to go through a whole stage without coming across a single speed-up to help you move faster.

Not only does E.D.I.T have very poor gameplay, but it's also extremely shoddy with essential details such as the score display. When you clear all three stages on one credit the last glimpse you'll ever have of your score appears between the second and third stages. During gameplay it's not possible to see the score (or the number of lives for that matter), and after the last boss is done the credits "roll" and the player gets sent back to the start screen. The highest possible score is only seen if you lose all lives and suicide on the last boss.

E.D.I.T in all its crappy glory
(courtesy of YouTube user amagishien)

A sample game being poorly designed and laughably easy is a capital sin in any creation engine, but obviously this first version of Dezaemon could not offer much more due to the limitations of the hardware. One of them is that you can only design vertical shooters. I didn't bother to check other constraints in the construction kit, but if you want a little more info on that you can check that precious link I posted a few paragraphs above.

For a little while I tried to figure out how to improve the score in E.D.I.T and how much each major enemy was worth, but it was useless. I ended up pretty disappointed on the whole thing. Below is the highest score I was able to record by purposely dying on the last boss. Of course the 1CC was done, it just doesn't lead to any score once the game is over.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

3rd Blog Anniversary!

And here we come to three years of logged shmupping.

No big additions to the collection besides the fact that after taking the plunge for a Neo Geo AES I finally dedicated myself to playing some games on it. It might seem that three titles weren't that much of a dedication though, but I assure you that each one of them was totally worth it. Ironclad and Viewpoint were both enlightening tough rides, and Andro Dunos served as a colorful throwback to less powerful 16-bit systems. For my next Neo Geo achievements I have my eyes set on Prehistoric Isle 2 and Sonic Wings 2.

This last year a good portion of the shooting games I played were chosen because I took part in competitions with fellow gamers around the globe. It certainly fuels the motivation to play stuff I wouldn't dare to approach on a regular basis, such as Sol Divide. I was able to 1CC all of them, not always within the given time frame though, with the exception of Judgement Silversword. This game is simply a beast, I shall throw a party for the closest friends at my place if I manage to clear it someday. As for the competitions themselves I believe the most important thing is to have fun. Shmupping is a rather lonely hobby, so having someone somewhere sharing the game with you is some kind of a gaming miracle.

As always I appreciate all the support and constant motivation from comments and constructive feedback. Special thanks go to fellow gamers and shmuppers Jorge, StarMist, Battletoad, Ben and Ben - for the partnership, corrections, contests, hints, shoutouts and occasional tomfoolery. As promised to Nick in one of my previous comments, pretty soon I'll write something about my personal methods for shmupping. Not that they matter much, I just want to throw something different to celebrate 200 1CC posts.

Let the 4th year begin.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fire Shark (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Dreamworks in 1990

Also known in Japan as Same! Same! Same!, Fire Shark is the supposed sequel (spiritual or not) to Flying Shark, called in some parts of the world by the name Sky Shark. The game represents an early peak of one of the branches in Toaplan’s creative styles, the one related to an earthly aircraft battling all sorts of enemies in a war setting. Graphically rooted in reality and far from the growing sci-fi trend that was taking over arcades at the time, Fire Shark features more of the same familiar environments and enemies previously seen in its predecessor and in titles such as Twin Cobra, Taito’s Fighting Hawk and Capcom’s 194X series.

The Mega Drive port was handled by a company named Dreamworks, which has absolutely nothing to do with the more famous Dreamworks, maker of animated movies. Regarded by most people as a good conversion, Fire Shark for the Mega Drive is certainly the more colorful vertical Toaplan port in the system alongside Truxton. The long levels, the slow pacing (only Twin Hawk feels slower) and the milder difficulty all make it one of the best choices to get acquainted with Toaplan’s vertical shooters on the Mega Drive. As a consequence, boredom is a risk some of the more seasoned players are bound to face. Biplanes and tanks might be a bit out of fashion these days, but those who cherish the blossoming days of the scrolling shooter will feel right at home here.

Fire Shark, the superpowered biplane!

Items are released by small zeppelins that approach slowly from the top and by selected medium-sized enemies. Three power-ups (P) are needed to increase the plane’s firepower, with a total of three upgrade levels. This means that you have to collect nine P items to achieve maximum power. Surplus power-ups will serve as future upgrades when you die, so instead of starting the next checkpoint with a bare craft you’ll actually respawn with a slightly more powerful plane. Selecting the type of weapon is independent from the upgrading process and is only possible with the colored icons that bounce around for a while before leaving the screen. Blue (default) is the regular vulcan pattern, red generates a menacing fire beam and green activates a wave shot. At maximum power most people tend to prefer the red weapon due to its side and rear coverage, but my favorite one is the vulcan. It’s simply devastating at point blank distance, with a great performance against enemies coming from the top (red has dangerous dead zones and green lacks side reach).

Autofire is disabled by default but can be enabled at the options screen. Fire Shark is a bit weird with autofire because the shooting rate given by the game is awfully slow, especially with the blue weapon. The red flame is naturally immune to this, while the green wave is powerful enough to override it. In later power levels, however, vulcan becomes a killer weapon regardless of the autofire rate. In general, having a favorite weapon leads to tense moments because the game eventually throws lots of unwanted colored items on you. Take'em or dodge'em? Either way things will heat up a bit, at least for a little while.

Speed is increased by taking annoying S items that tend to bounce closely around the edges of the screen. The good news is that speed-ups stop coming once three of them are collected, so don’t worry about getting too fast. B stands for an extra bomb and is the most important aspect of the scoring system. When a stage is completed the bomb stock serves as a multiplier for the amount of bolt-shaped icons you have collected. Huge bonuses can be achieved if you manage to reach the maximum bomb stock of 10. On the other hand, zero bombs mean absolutely zero bonus.

Powering-up, stocking more bombs and not dying are great for scoring. However, a good performance is always followed by the inevitable rank progression: enemies shoot more often and their bullets get increasingly faster. This is particularly noticeable after you die and have to restart with reduced power levels. More than anything else though, death has a devastating effect on scoring. This happens because extra lives are obtained by the dozen... Besides granting a first extend with 70.000 points and a new one for every extra 200.000, the game will kindly throw 1UPs and 2UPs every once in a while. As you gain more experience life stock gets so high that it might take a long time until those red planes start disappearing again. It's this benevolence that takes Fire Shark down a notch in the difficulty meter for Mega Drive Toaplan ports.

Stages 1 to 3 - note: red weapon does not appear correctly in the video capture
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Occasional slowdown hiccups will happen if too many enemies come down on you at once. These don't affect gameplay at all, I'm always a bit more worried about the confusion caused by the animation of dying biplanes. They don't explode right away when hit, instead their wings start flaming and they spin a little out of their regular trajectory for one or two seconds before disappearing. Even though they're harmless during their death animation the chances of having a visual mess for a brief while can lead to a stupid death. Once this happens the player must watch as his own craft goes through a similar death animation before gameplay is resumed in a previous checkpoint. The checkpoint system gets really tough in the last third of the game, mainly due to the sluggish default speed of the biplane and the fact that the first speed-up takes some time to appear. Warning: dying too soon will send you further back in the stage. Where have I seen that before? :)

Musically Fire Shark is no disaster, but it certainly falls short when compared to Flying Shark. Themes start repeating in stage 6, but despite that they serve well as a fitting background for the heroic quest of the red biplane. It's nothing out of the ordinary but gets the job done. Some of the tunes remind me of the music in Truxton.

My best run on NORMAL with autofire ON saw me dying my first (stupid) death at the start of the last stage, as a green weapon came my way and I panicked inside the biplane corridor (don't move horizontally when the stage starts and you'll be safe). I was still able to make it to stage 2-6 with the result shown below. Remember that the default starting difficulty is EASY.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Under Defeat (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by G.rev
Published by G.rev in 2005

One of the latest games released for the Dreamcast and also one of the most beautiful designs ever conceived in the shooter genre, Under Defeat saw the light of day in 2005. Back then it was remarkable for swimming against the tide of the bullet hell style, as it brought old school shooting back to the spotlight for a brief while. When I played it for the first time I never imagined how much of a beast this game really is, in every technical aspect you can think of. I often think of myself as being in the middle of the 1CC × score debate, but the urge to perform as best as I can always takes me over when a game like Under Defeat falls under my radar. Playing just for survival doesn't cut it.

Being taught the meaning of defeat is rarely as much fun as it is while playing this game (the joke is irresistible but it's actually quite true). Once I got sucked into Under Defeat's pace and mechanics it was hard to let go. Beautiful graphics, simple yet addictive gameplay and an excellent presentation makes it an outstanding title that's often compared with Psikyo's Zero Gunner 2, the other staple helicopter shmup available for the Dreamcast. Both are excellent and very different in their core, that's why I feel any opinion will lean towards personal taste instead of pure technical achievements. Zero Gunner 2 is more over-the-top in its colorful design, while Under Defeat sticks to a grayish palette and more realistic compositions.

One of the trademarks of Under Defeat is the bullet sprite fired by enemies, a single thin shot used in several deadly and organic formations. "Organic" is my way of seeing how these bullets are generated (based on rank) and how random certain gameplay aspects turn out depending on your performance. And much like in Rayforce the ground shots seem to have a life of their own, taking some time to reach your altitude. With the slight tilting applied to the vertical axis this leads to a unique style that's pleasing to the eye but at the same time extremely deceiving: death comes with a crushing explosion that seems to freeze the screen for a split second, and when I learned the game had absolutely no extends or 1UPs I realized that the word "difficult" had found a new home.

Two player co-op badass havoc

There are no upgrades available for the main weapon. What you're allowed to manage is the type of special weapon currently in use: vulcan (yellow), cannon (green) and rocket (blue). Certain enemies release items that bounce around the screen cycling through these colors and also red (extra bomb). Upon starting the game you need to choose between Normal or Reverse control for the helicopter inclination, which is adjusted by moving left or right as you refrain from shooting. The act of shooting locks the helicopter in place, allowing the player to strafe safely while the fire button is kept pressed.

Unlike the main gun, special weapons work in a different manner. When a special weapon is deployed it fires automatically until its ammo is depleted, recharging right afterwards provided you stop shooting. Vulcan is the weakest and recharges faster, rocket is the most powerful and takes longer to recharge. Special weapons will initially lock onto the target that's closer to a tiny red crosshair in front of the chopper, and it takes a bit of practice to aim correctly. While rocket is a one-shot attack, vulcan and cannon will automatically chase the closest enemy around the screen towards the direction of the helicopter once their initial target is destroyed. Destruction caused by vulcan and cannon is localized, whereas hitting something with the rocket results in an explosion that's capable of hitting everything in a wider radius. All enemies killed with a special weapon have their base values doubled (multipliers appear briefly under the score display) - this is one of the keys to score higher, and the main reason why rocket is the best special weapon overall. Another nod to the superiority of the rocket is that hitting more powerful enemies till they barely break and then using the rocket to make an adjacent kill allows the destruction of multiple foes at once. On top of that, every single shot landed on something is also worth some points.

A score bonus is awarded when a stage is completed, based on time left during the boss fight, bomb stock and contribution %, which is close to but not really the same as destruction ratio. Not all enemies need to be destroyed, but losing one of the essential ones won't let you net that precious 100% contribution number. Crush all major turrets and watch out for the tanks that shoot three bullets in a row (the ones with a slightly different color). Do not kill them by bombing. Beating a stage with 100% adds a ×2 multiplier to the contribution bonus, which is then multiplied by the number of times you died (!). How do you feel about suiciding for the chance of getting a higher score?

Attention to detail is what makes Under Defeat a real gem. This goes both ways, in that the player must refine his/her gameplay to the standards set by the game. In other words, the more you advance the more important a good strategy becomes. Death awaits in every corner, often ruining a perfectly planned run due to the slightest mistake imaginable. Some of the most frustrating things are running into a stray bullet or missing the target with the rocket. This last one spoils the strategy completely, either incurring in risky moves to get things back together or in the use of a bomb. However, getting a 100% contribution ratio based on a well-executed plan is a wonderful payoff. It makes you feel powerful in a way very few other shmups are capable of. The fact that the pilots are fragile girls speaking German is nothing but the apex of a non-loli teasing contrast.

Bridgehead - the first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user laboss708)

Under Defeat is loopable, but the second loop is only activated if the player gets a contribution average of at least 95% over all five stages. In a rather unique twist, besides being a lot harder the second loop also has mirrored levels and a less grayish color palette, leaning towards green fields and sunset shades. Once the first loop is beaten you unlock a start option for the second loop on the main menu.

Of all graphical goodness the one that stands out the most is definitely the smoke effect. Bunkers, tanks, battleships, surveillance towers, helicopters and turrets of all shapes and sizes go out in clouds of debris and beautifully rendered smoke. But graphical polish isn't the only thing G.rev nailed in the head while developing the game. The soundtrack might not be that great when listened out of context, but it fits the game like a marriage made in heaven. The Dreamcast port is what every hardcore shmupper desires: several screen resolutions available at the press of a button (R), an outstanding practice mode that breaks stages down to 8 sections and allows rank adjustments in steps of -10 to +10, information on play time and the ability to watch and record replays of individual stages in practice mode. Even the VMU is made useful by showing the current contribution percentage (you'll know if you screwed up before the stage ends). With the addition of a gallery mode, arranged BGM and limited credits that eventually evolve to free play, Under Defeat for the Dreamcast ends up being one of the most complete porting jobs I've ever seen. Some of the extras have to be unlocked, but there are no stupid prerequisites whatsoever.

My copy of the game is the limited edition, the one that comes with a CD of the arranged soundtrack. In my best run I looped the game with 100% contribution on all levels except one: after so much practice I still don't know why sometimes I can't reach 100% contribution on the 3rd stage. I reached stage 2-3 on NORMAL difficulty with Normal controls, red helicopter side (player 1).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

P-47 - The Freedom Fighter (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Jaleco
Published by Aicom Corporation in 1989

P-47 - The Freedom Fighter is a port of the arcade game P-47 - The Phantom Fighter. In the realm of shooting games with a World War II theme this one isn’t as well remembered as US AAF Mustang (Fire Mustang on the Mega Drive), which came afterwards and practically eclipsed Jaleco’s earlier effort. The PC Engine version isn’t that faithful to the arcade but still manages to retain its main aspects, at least in a way that makes it recognizable as a legitimate port. Though not in the same league of Fire Mustang or UN Squadron, P-47’s obscure arcade origin is what ultimately puts it above similar PC Engine offerings such as Power Gate and Hawk F-123.

According to Wikipedia, the P-47 Thunderbolt was one of the main US Army Air Forces fighters of World War II, and served with other Allied air forces such as France, the UK and the USSR. Mexican and Brazilian squadrons fighting alongside the US were equipped with the P-47. I don’t know if I would’ve played it with more enthusiasm if I knew this beforehand, but the game is decent fun regardless. It doesn’t have any sort of smart bombs so the player must rely exclusively on his/her skills and the assortment of special weapons provided. There are no power-ups available for the main gun, therefore gameplay emphasis is completely shifted to these special weapons and how they work.

Yamato unleashes its fury in the middle of the night

Items are released by small helicopters or by hitting secret spots during the large battleship stages (4th/8th). These can be speed-ups (S), extra lives (1UP), continues (C) or any of four special weapons: radial blast (E), downward shards (T), air-to-ground bombs (B) or straight missiles (M). Each special weapon can be powered up three times if you stick to the same item, while dying will power it down one level. Missiles and shards have natural autofire, but the same doesn't happen to the ground bombs. And since the autofire for the main gun isn't enough to take care of all enemies during busy parts, activating the turbo function for both buttons (if available) is quite welcome.

P-47 is colorful and boasts some decent parallax effects. The sound design puts the regular stock of PC Engine explosions against a set of easily forgettable tunes. While the action is severely lacking during the first couple of stages it picks up nicely by the time you reach stage 4 and have to deal with a large battleship full of turrets and deadly cannons. From that point on the game starts demanding some memorization and a speck of strategy to be properly won. Nazi planes arrive in larger numbers and overlap their attacks with tanks coming from both sides of the screen. Some special weapons work better in certain situations, even the apparently useless shard shot that shifts direction briefly as you move and rests at a downward 45ยบ angle (T) has good use in later stages. In fact, picking up the wrong special weapon for any given section can make the game a bit harder since enemies start mounting like flies, at times incurring in a little harmless slowdown. It doesn’t happen often, but bullet count can overwhelm the player if a few selected enemy flocks aren’t taken down fast.

Even though there is enough substance to keep both PC Engine and old school shooter fans interested, P-47 is a bit lazy for repeating the 4th stage with only a color swap in order to turn it into a night raid. It’s not shown anywhere, but every group of two stages is supposed to take place in a different location around the world. All enemies are at the service of the Third Reich.

P-47 - The Freedom Fighter running on 50 Hz
(courtesy of YouTube user djvatio)

Despite being obviously easier than the original arcade game the PC Engine version is still enjoyable in its own terms. There are no intricacies with scoring, no item or power-up bonuses to be found and no secrets to be unveiled. The constant supply of 1UPs is completely absent in the second half of the game so it becomes important to preserve as many lives as you can if you want to survive the onslaught of the fight against the last battleship. The C item is very precious while learning the game and practicing because it provides one more continue to be used besides the initial two you're given when starting a credit.

Unfortunately P-47 - The Freedom Fighter is also one of those annoying shooters with no high score buffering and no possibility of pausing right after a boss dies. The end credits halt at a still of your plane and soon you realize the only way to see it gone is by resetting the game (RUN + SELECT). The picture below was a lucky one, and the 1CC was achieved with the turbo function activated.