Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hypership Out of Control (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Fun Infused Games
Published by Fun Infused Games in 2010

One of the most controversial aspects of the XBLIG platform is the complete lack of graphical demands towards developers as to how they should present their games. It's because of this that the system is plagued with appalling stuff from A to Z, but at the same time you might find interesting material such as Hypership Out of Control. It's a nostalgic throwback to the 8-bit days, where graphics were more simple yet the systems often couldn't handle the graphical stress imposed on them, hence common problems such as slowdown and sprite flicker. Of course this shouldn't happen at all if such a game is released in the consoles of today, so the pleasure of enjoying a genuine graphical homage to the 8-bit days in high definition is irresistible for those who lived that era.

Hypership Out of Control is a little vertical shooter with a "racing" heart to it. No, I'm not trying to shove another subgenre definition, it's just how some people like to refer to games where one of the main gameplay concerns is to dodge incoming obstacles. In the case of this one it's a little bit different since scrolling/ship speed cannot be arbitrarily controlled and you can certainly shoot and destroy stuff (button A). There isn't a single enemy bullet in the whole game though - danger is solely imposed by static and moving obstacles, treacherous coins that will lead you to hairy situations and a fast and smooth scrolling speed, which picks up a little more every time the game is looped.

Oops! One of the four ships just died!

The idea behind Hypership Out of Control is that the brakes for the spaceship were trashed, so you will always accelerate and peak at some maximum speed. Truth be told, unless you get to later loops it's not really thaaaat fast, but you get the picture. With a general look that's reminiscent from the blocky terrains of Star Force/Soldier, stages are seamlessly connected to each other although each one of them represents an isolated challenge in memorization, best route planning and scoring. Scoring is, in fact, what takes the game to a new level and puts it above its competitors by default. Don't die and watch every collected coin add to a multiplier that will give a ×5 bonus for the base value of everything you score. Die and lose lots of points by resetting the multiplier. Every 100 coins you collect increase the multiplier by 1, so it takes 500 coins to max out at ×5. Regular coins are yellow, red and green coins are worth more points. There's also a "fun sloth" hidden somewhere in the loop, supposedly worth a lot more.

Not only the graphics are a homage to the 8-bit era, the music also resembles good old 8-bit chip tunes. If the ship (not the scrolling speed) feels a bit too fast it's probably due to the wide horizontal stretch of the HD presentation. It takes a bit of getting used to, especially when adapting to the notion of space and timing as blocks approach from the top of the screen. Even the destructible ones might get you off guard if you don't anticipate the trajectory well. Fortunately the 8-bit style gives great visibility to blocks, fired bullets and items, which are invaluable both for scoring and survival. Here they are in a short list:
  • bomb (button B): you start with no bombs, but you can get them by taking the appropriate item; they produce a screen-clearing explosion and serve both panic and scoring functions quite well (remember, every destroyed block is worth something).
  • power-up: firepower will be upgraded for a while, allowing you to destroy even the normally indestructible blocks.
  • shield: protection against one hit (it increases the hitbox a little bit).
  • invincibility (blue star): crash against everything for a few seconds, a sound cue will play briefly before the effect is gone.
  • speed-down: brakes the ship instantly, after which it will start accelerating again.
  • max speed: instantly catapults the ship to the maximum possible speed.
Besides shooting and bombing you can also perform quick side dodges with the controller bumpers. Initially I tried to use these commands but I eventually gave up.

The game has no bosses and there's no randomness to the stages themselves, so items will always appear in the same exact place in every loop. After maxing out the multiplier a compromise must be made between greed and self-preservation, since staying alive is definitely more important than collecting coins. Hypership Out of Control is fun and it does feel good to get a long streak of points out of a single life, but beware: restartitis is right around the corner as you get the stage layouts memorized and start dying early in the game for the most stupid reasons. There are no extends at all, so it's just those four tries followed by GAME OVER. Thankfully cutting some learning corners is possible by practicing all waves separately if you want to.

Wave 6 played in reverse
(courtesy of YouTube user Kriswd40)

Lighthearted humor is present throughout the whole game, and if you feel there's not enough color you can always activate "fun stars" at the start screen, which changes the shades of the backgrounds every two seconds and is prone to give everybody seizures. Extra game modes include Hardcore (only one life), Super Speed (no max speed limit, accelerate forever) and Coin Down (starts with 100 coins that decrease with time, the game ends only when the counter reaches zero). In every mode it's also possible to activate a Reverse switch, which makes the player fly through each wave in reverse order, and in all of these modes you can have up to four players in cooperative action.

Though not a difficult game by any means, I recommend everyone to try and reach later loops for the sheer sensation of speed you get: when the last life is gone and the game halts on that mocking laugh you might experience a brief optical illusion where the screen seems to still be moving - only then you realize how fast you were travelling! Simple, score-driven and fun. That's what every XBLIG shmup should aim for, isn't it?

Another nice aspect of Hypership Out of Control is that it saves high score stats with time stamps for all game modes. Below is my high score on the normal game, wave 28 corresponds to stage 3-8. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find the fun sloth... Where might the damn thing be?

Note: there's also a sequel released for XBLIG and portable platforms that follows the exact same formula, aptly named Hypership Still Out of Control.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Xenon 2 Megablast (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by The Bitmap Brothers
Published by Virgin Games in 1992

Oh gosh, where to start with Xenon 2 Megablast? The sanest choice would be to not even touch it, this game is one of the reasons why sometimes I wonder if my love for shmups makes me go too far into the realm of mediocrity.

Xenon 2 is a disaster, by and large the worst shooter in the Mega Drive library. Yet there are people who will defend it with rugged compassion due to its heritage as an Amiga game and receptacle of music from Bomb the Bass. Whereas this has absolutely nothing to do with gameplay, any other reasonable sources of praise Xenon 2 might have had back in the day are unknown to me. It could be argued that the genre was still in its infancy when the original game came out in 1989 (one year after the first Xenon) and the game pretty much represented a newborn style that spoke to the sensibility of lots of people. I just find it downright awful, and I guess nostalgia's to blame for keeping this turd afloat within a few cult gaming circles for all these years.

Of course this text is aimed at the European exclusive Mega Drive port, not the original version. The Amiga game doesn't seem to have the atrocious jerkiness that plagues the Mega Drive version, which appears to run in permanent slowdown. That alone should make the original game a less inept effort, because Xenon 2 for the Mega Drive is so sluggish that during the first stages you have to virtually pray for your ridiculous weapon to take out the smaller enemies. Most of the time they'll just dance and weave in between the shots before fleeing. The fact that the majority of the enemies fly around in completely erratic patterns also adds to an ominous feeling of general schizophrenia. So here's tip number 1: memorizing these erratic patterns actually means 50% of the success in Xenon 2.

Parallax with murky backgrounds sets the tone for a sci-fi painful ordeal

Xenon 2 is a unique vertical shooter in that it allows the player to reverse scrolling direction briefly whenever he/she feels like doing it. There's a limit to how far you can go and how long you can do it, with the exception of boss fights, a few unique sections and dead ends that allow you to reverse scrolling until you can take the opposite side of the split. Thankfully dead ends aren't everywhere. Splitting pathways are a sign that the game has lots of walls that the megablaster ship must navigate through. There's no harm in touching them, damage is only taken by getting shot at and by colliding with enemies. When the health bar is gone you get sent back to one of the six checkpoints within the stage.

With a general motif that involves organic environments and several types of biocreatures, the Mega Drive version is in fact very close to the Amiga original from a graphical standpoint. Flames, plants and snakes protrude from walls while other enemies arrive in several formations. These are mostly worm, fish or insect-like flocks that move around and shoot back every once in a while. Every stage is divided in two parts with a boss waiting at the end of each one, except for the starting half of the first level. Bosses are huge and often need to be destroyed piece by piece - weak points show damage when hit and certain spots can only be destroyed one after the other. The boss gallery includes a nautilus shellfish, a spider, a crab, a chameleon, a behemoth with snake heads and other indescribable monsters.

In order to increase the chances of survival it's necessary to power up the ship. Capsules float into the screen and release items once destroyed - the most important ones, a pair of speed-ups (S), appear very early in the game. Real power-ups taken from capsules are rare, most of them need to be bought from Colin the alien, the owner of the shop you go into when a section is finished. Currency consists of the bubble cash left by enemies, so take as many of them as you can (small bubbles are worth $50 and large bubbles are worth $100, bosses release lots of bubbles upon death). Once inside the shop you're first given the chance to sell any item you have already installed on the ship. Afterwards you can buy upgrades and enhancements, and it's perfectly possible to build a powerhouse on multiple weapon add-ons. Beware though, some of them will exclude others without warning: rear shot can't be used at the same time as the side shot. Just like other annoying traits regarding power-ups this isn't explained anywhere in the game or the manual, so prepare for some stupid and unnecessary trial and error.

Essential items to buy are autofire and small/large hearts (partial/full health recovery). Autofire comes in two steps (you need to buy it twice to get the faster rate of fire) and is the only upgrade you lose when dying. Don't worry about advices (A), they're useless. Another useless item is the super nashwan power, which activates a superpowered ship for 10 seconds only. Other upgrades include cannons, lasers, mines, electroballs and the so-called dive, a 10 second invincibility window activated with the B button. Button A is used to fire, and both buttons control the process of selling/buying stuff at the shop.

Attract mode for Xenon 2 Megablast on the Mega Drive
(courtesy of YouTube user koosterveld)

<Hard, fast coin-op quality destructive action with a hot soundtrack to match> This is the message that tries to lure the player into the game, printed on the back of the box. The only part of it that's true is the "hard" statement, for reasons exclusively related to an unfriendly power-up scheme, painfully slow bullets/gameplay and bad collision detection. It's not rare to get stuck in the scenery and be hopelessly bombarded by an oncoming enemy wave. Until you've memorized things enemies will frequently swarm from behind the ship and drain your health in kamikaze fashion. Visibility is guilty on this since it's impaired by the weird scrolling and by a few odd choices for the color palette. As for the soundtrack, the only tune in it isn't bad - it's actually based on a Bomb the Bass song called Megablast, hence the game's subtitle. It's hard to endure the same song playing over and over throughout the whole game, but fortunately there's an option to turn it off and hear the disappointing sound effects only.

The brief moments that felt good while playing this torture were when the zapper item (Z) appeared. It works as an instantaneous smart bomb, obliterating everything on screen with a neat effect provoked by a big flash. I came up with a quick strategy to minimize the grinding: get two autofires as fast as possible, sell rear shot after the first boss, buy side shot and power-up, spend the rest of the cash on lasers and the necessary refilling hearts. I take all items from destroyed capsules except for the rear shots that appear at the beginning of stages 3 and 4 (keep on one side and wait for them to go away).

Another sign of the crappiness of the Mega Drive version is that it excludes the original fifth stage completely. Well, at least the overall pain is shortened so you get to see the wonderful ending and the special message from Colin the alien a bit earlier. If you're the kind of guy who cares about endings be prepared for a surprise. Suffice it to say it's in line with the quality standard of the rest of the game... I got to see it twice as I reached stage 3-1 on NORMAL, and this new high score is 27% higher than my previous one. Xenon 2 Megablast has no extends, allows up to three continues and loops with stronger enemies. The game is region-locked to Europe and requires an adapter to be played on consoles from other regions.

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

Saturday, March 10, 2012

200 1CCed shmups!

Time for a brief celebration on 200 blog entries for shmups I 1CCed on video game consoles. From the last hundred 88 of them were brand new 1CCs, whereas in 12 I just went for a new high score in previously 1CCed games.

A few current blog stats on the milestone reached -

Shmup distribution by platform:

Shmup distribution by sub-genre:

Vertical shooters are closing in, there were far less compared to horis the last time I checked the numbers...

Top 5 hardest 1CCs, in no particular order:
Top 5 easiest 1CCs, in no particular order:
I don't have anything new to show you people, so I wrote something as a response to suggestions given by a few blog comments. These are just general, silly observations and thoughts based on my gaming routine at the moment. Feel free to comment on them and also to share yours. :)


Choosing the game
The amount of shmups available everywhere includes stuff for all tastes and skill levels. Sometimes a review or an honest opinion will tell if said game is more suited to one's liking, but I always thought it was best to try it out for myself regardless.

Establish goals
Whether it's a single level, a 1CC or a 1CC + a minimum acceptable score, goals should be defined prior to each campaign or gaming session. It helps to keep things under focus and tends to give a better sense of accomplishment. At times I play just to get better against a boss or to perfect that section that's giving me trouble.

How long to achieve the goals?
How long should someone expect to play before reaching the abovementioned goals? In my opinion the answer is closely related to time available, dedication and focus. Therefore it varies, so we should never feel under pressure to do it within a given time frame. Of course this doesn't apply to contests and such.

Gaming cycle
There are three steps/phases I always envision when I start to play a new shmup.

The first phase is game recognition: play a few credits with no other objective in mind than to grasp the basics about controls, gameplay and scoring. Some games take 5 minutes, the most complicated ones might take a couple of hours.

The second phase is the learning ladder: I play at my own pace to learn the game, how to beat bosses, how to preserve/gain lives and how to perform both safely and risky (if I'm going for a higher score). At this moment it's pretty common to establish how far I want to shoot scorewise because risk thresholds arise naturally. I believe these thresholds are different for each person, and pushing them is both the primary source of one's improvement as well as the main cause of frustration when shmupping. Beware of early burnouts.

The last phase is the final showdown. Every credit is aimed towards the definitive goal. As such, focus is the most important aspect of all. It's important to avoid distractions - I've already failed in mighty runs because I had to answer the phone, scratch my back, address someone or even take a dump. During this phase failure is a constant companion. However, even if I spend one hour in utter failure I'll consider the session successful if I manage to improve at least a bit in a certain positioning strategy, in one of the tightest bullet patterns or in a new way to amass a few more points. There's always room for improvement, and practice always leads to better performances. Nevertheless walls should be treated with respect. Beware of full throttle burnouts.

--- Common quirks ---
1. Practicing
Before emulation was born practicing and beating games used to take longer. These days you can always fire up MAME or an emulator in order to practice hard games by sections, thus saving some precious time in the whole process. There are people who are against this, but I think it's a perfectly fine resource. Credit feeding for practice is just as useful.

2. Walls
As much as I'd like to be able to crush every game I play, sometimes I just can't do it. In these cases you can search for help in superplays, exclusive hints, strategy threads in forums, etc. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I watched superplays to beat Radirgy, Prehistoric Isle in 1930, Layer Section and Gradius II. If it still doesn't cut it just step away for a while. Come back later with a cooler approach and better skills. This happened to me with Shienryu, Giga Wing and Air Buster. And I've yet to have second rounds with DoDonPachi and Judgement Silversword.

3. Burnouts
As you all know, it happens when walls are not respected and the player incurs in anger, (excessive) swearing and an irredeemable sense of failure, which leads to gaming feeling like work. A few times I came close to it, but I was smart enough to step back and let the game rest for a while (Robo Aleste and Strikers 1945 II).

4. Boredom
Is the game a little boring? It’s hard to tell if it’s temporary or if the game just hasn’t clicked yet, or if I’m just too tired to concentrate. So I choose two or more different games and try to play them all at once. Sometimes they even help each other in their appreciation. Besides, tough games followed by easy ones help me keep my spirits high (if I’m too tired I choose something not too taxing – any XBLIG shmup is often a perfect fit). If it’s still boring go do something else completely different. Maybe shmups aren’t for you in the end, who knows?

5. Available time
Play when you feel like, never the contrary. I usually like to spend two or three credits after lunch with the toughest game I’m playing, usually a bullet hell. It facilitates digestion and keeps me sharp for an afternoon’s work. If I have time during the evening I’ll play other games for a longer period – bullet hells will only occupy the slot if I’m in their final showdown phase.

6. Easy or hard games?
I love them all, and I have absolutely nothing against easy shmups. Do they make me a better player? Probably not, but I will always be fond of game design in whatever form it appears. Trouble Shooter and Thunder Force III are incredibly easy, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. It’s the magic that drives people who love video games, is it not?
What isn’t exactly healthy, especially for those who want to get better, is sticking to easy games only. Challenging ourselves is the only way to improve, and 1CCing a shmup (or any game for that matter) we thought was impossible for our skill level gives us one of the best sensations a person can have in any video game experience.

For high level discussions on the subject you can always go to this great thread at the shmups forums. I recommend paying close attention to the links in the first post. :)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gatchaman - The Shooting (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Warashi
Published by D3 Publisher/Bandai in 2002

Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, or Gatchaman for short, is an anime series originally created in the late 70s and sporadically reborn over the years. Considerably obscure for most Westerners, it never achieved any success that went beyond a restricted cult fanbase. The series was created by Tatsunoko and its characters appeared in a few video games, the most recent one being the Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom - Ultimate All-Stars brawler for the Nintendo Wii. As its name implies, Gatchaman - The Shooting is a shmup rendition of the anime. I guess it comes as no surprise that it's also a Japan-exclusive title, right?

Just going by the looks it's clear that the game is reasonably faithful to the TV show, even though it came out at the end of the Playstation's life as another entry in the infamous Simple 2000 budget label. The budget side of it rears its ugly head when you notice that the game offers almost nothing noteworthy for shmuppers. It's a serious contender for easiest shmup in the Playstation library and will pretty much bore anyone who doesn’t care about the TV show or anime in general. We’re talking about pure fan service here, something that was obviously aimed at a target audience that doesn’t or shouldn’t care about challenge.

What Gatchaman does wrong as a shmup? The lack of autofire isn't much of a problem, but how about a very generous health bar that gets refilled every section you play, extremely slow enemy bullets, naive bullet patterns in boss fights, repetitive design, some inexcusable slowdown and an overall lack of challenge?

Entering the enemy's lair

The Gatchaman team is comprised of five fighters/ninjas with a wise professor as the leader. He's the one who briefs/debriefs the missions and assigns each one of them to specific stages. The player has the option to choose any order for the four initial stages/characters. They start the level by walking and upon defeating the mid-boss they embark on powerful vehicles to take on the last waves of enemies and the stage boss. Initial sections are practically the same for all characters up until the mid-boss. The only exception is the last stage, a single level with psychedelic backgrounds where you fly the Phoenix ship piloted by Ryu "the Owl", the fifth member of the Gatchaman team. This last ship is formed by the fusion of the four previous vehicles piloted by the other characters.

On foot, Ken "the Eagle" has a thin shot with homing missiles. He pilots a spaceship with a vulcan spread pattern. While on ground Joe "the Condor" has a straight, slightly wider shot, and pilots a racing car. Jun "the Swan" has a ground weapon that resembles a yoyo and pilots a hoverbike. Jinpei "the Swallow", the youngest hero, uses a short-range weapon on foot and pilots a bomb-spreading tank. As expected, given the nature of the game there's absolutely no room for them to show their ninja skills or superhuman abilities. Dialogue interaction is done by text only, with no voice work and completely static pictures. All other graphics are shmup-oriented, and even though they lack depth and detail they're at least quite colorful. The music is probably taken directly from the show, although I can't confirm that.

During gameplay our brave ninja team will face a majority of mechanical creatures, turrets, robots and flying enemies. Medium-sized ones will release medals that work as power-ups, which max out once the fifth one is collected and afterwards are worth 5.000 points each. If you get hit you're punished by powering down one level while losing some health. There's no health recovery anywhere, but it's practically impossible to deplete that huge health bar since it gets refilled every time a new section starts. Bombs will increase firepower by adding shadows to the characters for a brief while. Stage completion bonus is based on remaining health, bomb stock and the number of hidden G items you have collected. These items appear when you hit a specific part of the scenery. Most of the time their areas glow when hit, the only instance where this won't happen is with Jun's yoyo. Beating a stage second half unharmed (100% health) will grant a special bonus of 50.000 points - the first half is mercifully disregarded on this PERFECT bonus.

Gatchaman - The Shooting complete game
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Gatchaman's snoozing ability is undeniable. Probably the only places where the player will be put under pressure are Jun and Joe's mid-bosses and Jun's boss, mainly due to the amount of displacement needed against a few denser bullet clouds. However, the pressure's completely gone as soon as the next section starts. You even get free power-ups during a boss fight if you happen to get hit. The game has no difficulty adjustments but offers an option to activate a "sudden death" mode, where you die instantly at the first hit taken. As cruel as it might seem it's actually possible to conquer the game this way, it's just a matter of being more conservative and starting in the trickier levels (Jun and Joe's) to avoid the rage from late failures. I didn't have the will to try it.

When I dispatched the last boss on my first credit I still had hopes of another killer stage with a huge mechanical beast and at least a tiny increase in challenge. But alas! A short romp over only five levels and an almost absolute lack of challenge is what I got. It was fun for five minutes only. What a disappointment, if it weren't for the common first halves in 80% of the stages Gatchaman would be even shorter. Maybe it wasn't the case back in 2002, but today even fans of the TV show might be in for a letdown.

Below is the high score from the embedded video for my best run. I played the game in regular stage order and used a turbo controller. Note: there is a load/save function on the disc, but you have to do everything manually.