Monday, April 30, 2012

Twinkle Star Sprites (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by ADK
Published by ADK in 1997

Some of the most intriguing shooting games are those of the versus kind. The Senko No Ronde series is today's most recognizable take on the formula, but since Space War started it on the outset of the genre other games also contributed in bringing something new to this rather obscure table. One of the most popular titles in Japan was Twinkle Star Sprites, a vertical shooter that was born on the Neo Geo and received several ports across multiple platforms over the following years. Even within the most dedicated shmup community it never had much of a fanbase outside of Japan, and having played it for a couple of weeks now I can understand why. Just like the latest iteration of Street Fighter, Twinkle Star Sprites is aimed at versus combat and that's where the whole fun and the real juice of the game lies. On the other hand, the solo campaign is nothing more than a feeble and easy accomplishment marred by an unpredictable AI.

In Twinkle Star Sprites a roster of cartoony characters battle over colorful backgrounds of pastel shades and cute surroundings in a split-screen setting. The Saturn port includes the original arcade game with all the slowdown intact and also an exclusive "Sega Saturn" version. Both versions include three modes of play: in Story mode you play as Load Ran, the blonde heroine; in Character mode you can choose from any of the 10 regular characters to tackle the game's seven stages; in Versus mode two people battle each other to see who's best. Story and Character modes are the same and even share the same high score table, the only difference is that Load Ran (misspelled as Load Run in the Saturn version) gets more detailed cut scenes in Story mode. Since I couldn't find anyone willing to learn and play it with me on Versus mode my time with the game was spent mostly on the arcade game's Character mode.

From the quick rounds I had at the Sega Saturn version it plays just like the original arcade game with minor gameplay differences, a few graphical enhancements and fully voiced extra cut scenes thrown in, as well as considerably reduced slowdown. That alone makes this version a lot harder than the arcade original. The nicest addition is that in Character mode it's possible to choose all bosses from the start (arcade version requires a button code). Saturn version also has an exclusive new character called Meirin, a Chinese girl who rides a panda and shoots colored chalks.

Arthur Schmitt under pressure from one of Realy Till's special attacks

Two buttons are used to control the character: a shot button and a bomb button (the Saturn port also offers a very handy autofire button that overrides the regular shot button). Gameplay basics involve killing waves of incoming objects so that fireballs and special attacks get sent to the other side of the screen to create mayhem and consequently hit the opponent. As a rule of thumb, a destroyed object creates a localized explosion and each explosion creates another explosion if an object or a fireball is close enough, with successive explosions resulting in a chain/combo. Every stage has a specific type of object (birds, clams, snowmen, chests, stars, etc.) which might require more or less shots to be destroyed depending on their color (purple > blue > green > yellow > red). Therefore, careful shooting is important to weaken stronger waves and prepare them to be obliterated at once or in succession for longer chains (the color changes according to the inflicted damage). Sometimes objects arrive with shields, which must first be destroyed before you can actually make the kill. The longer the chain the higher the number of fireballs sent to the other side. Reflecting fireballs in succession can generate special attacks like the ones achieved with charged shots.

The better you play the faster a three-stage charge gauge fills up. Level 2 charge shots that hit something will produce special attacks on the opponent's side, small creatures that behave according to the chosen character. Level 3 (MAX) charge shots will generate boss attacks, which are larger creatures with several attack patterns that flee if the opponent isn't able to destroy them. Charging time varies from character to character and often expose the player to more danger because it halts shooting. Fortunately creating special attacks and boss attacks is also possible by chaining and reflecting multiple fireballs back to the opponent. Because of this I rarely used the charge shot. I would only do it if I was attacked by a boss, so that my first hit could be a level 2 or MAX charge blast on its nose.

Bombing works like in all standard shooters: use them to escape when you're about to get hit. Getting hit by an object takes away one heart from the player's health, while an opponent's blow depletes three hearts. If the player collides with an object he/she is "stunned" and frozen for a brief while, at the mercy of further enemy attacks (bombs don't work when stunned). After recovering, the player is still impaired in speed and firepower for a few seconds. If the player is in his/her last heart object collision won't inflict any more damage, so the only way to die is by getting rammed by an attack from the opponent. Half of any lost health is immediately sent to fill up the opponent's health bar.

Whenever two exclamation signs appear one of two things might happen. If a glowing blue orb arrives within a formation, hit a nearby object to explode it and activate "fever" mode. While in fever you fire many more fireballs per explosion. If a flipping coin appears and starts bouncing against the edges you can either opt to take an extra bomb, a star or a score bonus. The star removes all shields from the present objects. The first $ sign is worth 10 points, and provided you catch all subsequent coins while showing the same $ sign they will grow in value to 100, 1.000 and 10.000 points. After that all next $ coins are worth 10.000 points, but missing just one coin or taking the extra bomb or the star will reset the next $ bonus to 10 points. This is the first and only hint for a concrete, actually doable scoring strategy. Exclamation signs (hence more fever and $ opportunities) appear faster the more efficient you are in your kills: get higher combos and kill object waves without wasting any shot, for which a message saying PERFECT will flash for a few seconds. If the fight drags on death will appear alternately for both players, getting stronger and descending increasingly faster until it touches one of them and executes and instant kill.

Story mode for Arcade and Saturn versions on Twinkle Star Sprites for the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Everything about Twinkle Star Sprites is cool until you start playing it for score. The 1CC comes easily (on Arcade mode at least), but scoring higher is quite a tricky task. There is no consistency to the 1-player game, it's just too random and unpredictable to be tackled on methodically. In the first stages your opponent behaves like a retard, ramming into stuff and dying almost out of nowhere. Later on they seem to be on constant overdrive, speeding up their special attacks with almost no time for you to react. This is mostly true with Mevious and Memory, respectively the sixth and seventh (last) opponents. And even these last enemies wuss out sometimes, dying with ease when they should show more resistance. The only bonuses you get in a round are for maximum chain and time remaining, so there's no motivation to achieve a flawless victory or to speed kill the opponents. Therefore scoring higher happens when fights last longer and you reach the end without losing any round (losing a life). Extends are given for every 500.000 points, and remaining lives are worth 100.000 points each when the game is completed.

All characters are given grades for speed and power, ranging from 1 to 3. Some of them have stronger shots or charge shots. The efficiency of special sttacks and bosses is pretty much irrelevant when you're playing alone, so I won't comment on those. My character of choice was fluffy Nanja Monja because of its reasonably powerful shot, medium speed and, well, furball fluffiness. None of the slower characters were really my cup of tea, but other good choices to play were Load Ran and Tinker & Linker.

The Saturn port of Twinkle Star Sprites is an excellent package that includes a second CD with lots of extra material about the game, which by the way received a whole new intro in the Saturn version (besides the original one included in the Arcade mode). Character dialogue is all in Japanese, so it's a bit hard for Westerners to enjoy the story bits in all their humorous glory. Harmless loading times precede stages and cut scenes, voices and art come in typical Japanese anime style and the music is equally anime-charged. My favorites tunes are the ones that play in the 3rd and 4th stages.

I cleared the game on both versions in the default difficulty (4), but I spent most of the time with the arcade mode. Saturn mode was cleared with Meirin and Arcade mode with Nanja Monja, with the results shown below.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Heavy Unit (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kaneko
Published by Toho in 1990

Spaceships turning into robots (or vice-versa) is always a good thing to have in any cartoon, movie or video game. Is it an infallible formula for success? Probably not, but on the outside every single product built upon this concept looks extremely cool. Unfortunately, Heavy Unit belongs to the lower half of the success spectrum within its mecha-based shooter siblings. It's not as bad as BlaZeon, but putting it above material with more coverage such as Arrow Flash also sounds like a far too generous stretch.

Originally born on the arcades, the game saw its first console port on the PC Engine, then the Mega Drive version followed. Before venturing into its own publishing venue Kaneko was under the wings of Taito, that's why Taito's stench is all over the Mega Drive version of Heavy Unit even though there's no mention to the company anywhere in the game package. The port was instead handled by Toho, which added a "Mega Drive Special" subtitle to the game's start screen - perhaps to give a hint at how different it looked when compared to the arcade game. After all, on the Mega Drive Heavy Unit comes with more color and a better array of graphical effects, making some spots look even better than the original. Don't get your hopes up though, these aesthetic upgrades aren't any more impressive than the standard 16-bit shmup of the era. What hurts the overall assessment of the game is how easier and watered down it is when compared to the arcade original or the PC Engine port, definitely the most faithful between both home versions.

"A giant snake? Where are the 'toads?"

The game starts out with a pleasing contrast in colors and some nice space music, followed by a couple of large serpents that hurl on screen and fall apart in segments that hover there for a while after being shot at. One of them releases the single most important item of the game, the first speed-up (S). This first speed-up is important because depending on where you die the game descends into brief hell as you need to cope with the extremely slow speed of the ship. Later on other items can be taken from small capsules, ranging from power-ups (P), shields (B), extra lives (E) and transformation switches (T). The starting spaceship form allows the player to shoot (buttons A or C) and drop bombs/missiles (button B) in a style similar to Darius. As you take power-ups the regular shot evolves to a spread pattern and missiles will eventually fire from both sides of the ship. Once the transformation switch (T) is taken you change into a robot. He's larger than the spaceship but he's also more powerful: the main weapon narrows down to a straight shot and missiles acquire a homing ability. Getting back to the spaceship form is only possible when another T item appears, and the cycle goes on and on.

While I do like the use of color in Heavy Unit, the graphics aren't really creatively fleshed out. Dragons and fire-spitting creatures are mixed with enemies of the organic kind, and bosses are generally huge albeit devoid of much movement. Parallax is parsimonious, as well as bullets. In fact, bullet count in this game is quite low, most of the time you'll only have to do some dodging when fighting bosses. Either regular bullets are non-existent or too fast to be avoided (closer to laser beams), and the ones fired by enemies are there because the player often lets them live long enough to shoot. Stage design is mostly straightforward, with the best parts being the ones that show influence from H.R. Giger (first boss) or Konami (with its growing walls, the organic stage is a more than explicit take on Salamander). Although it's quite short, Heavy Unit seems to last longer because of the checkpoint system and its inherent trial and error learning scheme. A few enemies can be pretty cheap in the way they attack, and experiencing that painful burning death is quite common as you start to play the game. Some levels have a vertical width that spans more than one screen size, and depending on the path you take the hazards and environments can lead to unavoidable death.

As I mentioned above, everything changes for the better once you get a speed-up. Be careful though, taking more than one speed-up makes the ship/robot move too fast, and since rubbing against anything in the game means instant death and restart at a previous checkpoint I just avoid all speed-ups after the first one. Transforming from spaceship to robot has advantages and disadvantages. Facing the third or sixth bosses with the robot is plain suicide due to the boss's narrow attack patterns, but the robot is obviously the best option to take down the fifth boss. Damage on larger enemies, including bosses, is recognized by a faint metallic clanking sound.

The initial perception from most people is that Heavy Unit is a tough game. However, despite some tricky sections such as the third boss fight there aren't many hindrances to beating the game once you get a hold of how and when to switch from spaceship to robot. The spaceship is weaker all around but it's a must in tight spaces, whereas the biggest worry with the robot, besides its larger hitbox, is that its homing missiles will lock on to the nearest power-up and stay there spinning until it leaves the screen. Unless you intend to take said power-up the extra firepower from the missiles is temporarily useless.

Another lone Transformer in the vastness of outer space
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)

Some interesting features can be found in the Options screen for Heavy Unit. One of them is the ability to play the game with a bit of inertia applied to the ship by switching Control to "Equalize". There's also a password option that allows some cool tricks such as stage select, checkpoint tracking and game save/replay (provided you don't turn off the console).

Avoiding the feeling of emptiness is almost impossible once the game is finished. It's a shame that Heavy Unit feels so hollow, because given the few graphical improvements the potential was definitely there for the developer to deliver an experience on par with or even better than the arcade original. Instead we're presented with a cheap checkpoint memorizer that lacks excitement (due to the low bullet count), has a broken scoring system (it's possible to counterstop the game by hanging above the dragon head halfway the first stage) and on top of that feels unbalanced (in certain spots you're better off resetting the game if you die). Another example of sheer unbalance is in the second boss fight. That poor creature doesn't even shoot if you get to it with a fully powered robot, and is probably one of the greatest jokes in the history of 16-bit shmup bosses. At least the music has some very catchy themes, generally with more than one BGM per stage.

Since the game has no high score table of any kind, the picture below was taken a split second after I dispatched the last boss. I played on NORMAL difficulty and did absolutely no milking on the first stage.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CD Denjin - Rockabilly Paradise (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red
Published by Hudson Soft in 1993

Everywhere you go online you hear lots of people shitting on CD Denjin and stating how inferior it is to PC Denjin, the previous Zonk shoooter released for the HuCard format. Allow me to start this text by saying that this is not really true. In some aspects the sequel loses to the original, in others it shows visible improvement and overall it's just as fun - if you've enjoyed the first one, of course. Hudson Soft futuristic mascot Zonk returns to do more justice against the wacky enemies led by his arch-enemy, which this time joins forces with a fellow who's got a big brain.

On the Turbografx-16 the game was aptly baptized as Super Air Zonk. The subtitle Rockabilly Paradise gives away the musical emphasis of the excellent soundtrack, which serves as a perfect backdrop to the action. The compositions themselves are as engaging as they were in the first game, albeit with a different flavor and with the technical advantages of the CD format. Zonk's iconic sunglasses are back and his attitude hasn't changed. His head is still big and his verve is still cool. Enemies and environments are as crazy as ever, maybe even more influenced by Parodius because this time there's this recurring enemy with a buckethead that seems to be the hardworker pawn of the bad guys (remember the penguins in Parodius?). Even though the settings and the whole feel of the game remain the same, gameplay was changed slightly towards a more straightforward and simpler approach.

Look out, punks, I'm gonna drop a bomb on your filthy heads!

The initial four stages can be played in any order (sea, river, factory, TV), after that there are three more stages to go through. Zonk starts the game with his weapon in the second power level. If he gets hit the weapon will degrade to its lowest level (weak lightning), with the next hit meaning a lost life. Grabbing a meat on a bone will upgrade one power level, also giving him one more hit to sustain in the case of damage. Initially there are only three power levels, but two more are acquired when you defeat the bosses from stages 5 and 6. The meat on a bone appears when you touch one of those static purple heads with dark shades. All heads contain something useful: yellow heads (the most common) release one smiley face, purple heads contain the meat on a bone, green heads generate a quick shower of smiley faces, blue heads release an extra life and blinking heads give way to a baby bottle that shrinks the character and turns him into mini-Zonk until a new baby bottle is collected. Upon shooting at these heads they change their color, so from the initial yellow ones you can always get a meat on a bone. However, if you hit them too much you'll lose their contents as they turn into a small spider.

Here's where the most important of the scoring techniques lies: any meat on a bone you collect when you're maxed out in power is worth 1.000 points. The same happens to extra lives once you already have 9 lives in stock. Therefore the main rule is to not get hit and to aim for purple and blue heads only. Another source of extra lives is the smiley face left by almost all destroyed enemies. For each 100 smiley faces collected Zonk wins an extra life - occasionally a bigger smiley face will appear, which is worth 10 small ones (the number of current smiley faces collected can be checked by pausing the game). Watch out for when the boss dies, he will turn into a popping fountain of power-ups and smiley faces for a few seconds!

Gameplay is completed by the escort power-ups that upgrade Zonk to a powerful cyborg. Like in the original game Zonk is still able to acquire escorts and merge with them, but the mechanics have changed in the sequel. A fixed escort is assigned to each level, so there's no more automatic or manual selection of helpers. You can still play the game without them, it's just a matter of not freeing the escorts from their captivity when they appear within the stage (most of the time it's quite hard to miss them, but I did miss my helper in stage 6 once). The lack of randomness and escort variety might be a letdown, but the way they work is nothing short of an improvement. With button II you fire the regular shot, and by pressing button I you can set the use of the escort in three different ways: as a cyborg (it will merge with Zonk), as an option (it will follow Zonk around) or as a bouncing weapon (the escort will bounce around the screen). Once activated the cyborgs aren't lost even if you lose a life, so they will remain with Zonk until the boss is defeated. Mini-Zonk is also a lot more useful than before because it does not affect regular fire nor does it replace the cyborg's firepower.

Introduction sequence for CD Denjin
(courtesy of YouTube user kingarthurpendragon)

Bombing in CD Denjin is also implemented with improvement, since it will charge automatically just by regular shooting. When Zonk's life count avatar blinks you know the bomb is ready to go, so all you need to do is release the shot button for a moment. Bombing does lots of damage and is excellent to take out enemies behind walls, as well as clear the screen when it gets too crowded. The rear burner that fires automatically whenever an enemy passes behind Zonk is back and it's also been improved. Both the bombs and the burning farts are some of the prime examples that the gameplay was, in fact, enhanced over the slightly convoluted controls of the first chapter.

Even though the game is easy to the point of allowing a 1CC in the first try if you play carefully enough, it's still heaps of fun with its relaxed pace and great music. It's almost of the same length as the PC Denjin HuCard, but a lot easier and also more friendly to pick up and play. The lack of parallax in the majority of the graphics might be a letdown for some people, but they're so colorful and there's so much going on at times that it becomes irrelevant. And a minor bonus of the sequel is that the slowdown is completely gone.

All texts in the Japanese version of the game are, well, in Japanese. Upon pressing RUN at the start screen the first choice in the upper line corresponds to the NORMAL difficulty (second choice to the right is HARD). The lower line is a sound test. Thankfully there are no other critical choices to make, so brace yourself for a laid back, joyful ride with Zonk. Never mind the bashing from fanboys of the HuCard original, this is a great and honorable follow-up. My final result on NORMAL is shown below, just after dispatching the final boss (sadly there's no buffering, that's the last time you'll see your score).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sonic Wings 2 (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Video System in 1994

Following the debut of Sonic Wings in 1992 and the disbanding of part of the staff that developed it (they left to form Psikyo), Video System pledged allegiance to the Neo Geo hardware for a while. That's why the follow-up Sonic Wings 2 is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio and doesn't bear the common vertical orientation of the arcade games of its time. Yet it still retains everything that made the first game a shooter hit, often being confused as a Psikyo-developed product due to the strong similarities in gameplay to later Psikyo titles (I guess the people who were behind Video System must get really annoyed when their game is labeled as another Psikyo shooter). Blame it on both companies for being so lazy. What matters for us is that Sonic Wings 2, known in the west as Aero Fighters 2, was also released for the Neo Geo AES. This brought the arcade experience home, proving that the series was kept in great shape with a few unforgettable tidbits of weirdness to the formula.

Only a few characters return for the sequel, which has the same alien race emerging again to threaten the world. It seems the job wasn't really done the first time around. Mao Mao and Hi-en, the Japanese team, are back, as well as a robotic version of the US pilot Keaton. All other characters are new to the roster, including the first dolphin pilot to have ever flown an aircraft in any shooting game. Spanky is his name, and bullet-blocking mines are his surname. Young Cindy and her tutor Ellen fly the same aircraft, and just like Spanky are attached to no real nation. A punk rocker named Steve fights for France and a baby (!) defends the UK flag. Silver is an older flight captain from the US, the slowest of them all and quite useless to be honest. All these names refer to the English language version of the game, and a few of them are different in the Japanese version. Take note: in Japan Spanky = Whity, Bobby = Arthur and Steve is actually a woman named Angela!

The good news is that there's no more attachment to the nationality of the first ship if a second player joins the game. It gives more freedom and leads to different interactions and endings for multiple character combinations. However, seeing all of them is a lot harder than before because Sonic Wings 2 received a substantial boost in difficulty.

Mexico was never this dangerous before

While there are still some dull graphics in this sequel (France stage) they're far less frequent than what was present in Sonic Wings. The music is also marginally better, ranging from picturesque themes to the same haunting tunes in the final levels. There's a total of ten stages, and in the first half of the game levels 2, 4 and 5 might appear in any order. Starting out in Japan, the journey proceeds through the US, France and Brazil, the randomized countries. Stages 3 and 7 are breathers and can be considered bonus levels, in that there are no bosses and the only enemies you'll face are easily destroyable choppers and missiles that release power-ups and other items. Stage 6 takes place in Australia, stage 8 in Mexico and stage 9 in Hawaii. The last stage is in another dimension, guarded by a returning monkey boss from the first game and three random occurrences for final boss: an evil eye, a giant ghost from Video System's Rabio Lepus or a very rare giant fish. There's absolutely no way to figure out in advance which one you'll face, so be prepared for anything.

Preserving the series trademark of fast paced action and gigantic bosses, Sonic Wings 2 pumps up the challenge by adding progressive difficulty to the game. This is directly related to survival time, bomb stock and power-up level. It takes three power-ups to achieve maximum power, but after shooting at maximum power for a while the aircraft will inevitably power down. Every ship/pilot has its own shot pattern associated with an auxiliary side attack activated as soon as you take the second power-up (can be missiles, mines, lasers, napalm bombs, homing shots, etc.). Likewise, every character has his/her own bomb animation, with extra bombs appearing every once in a while. If you're already at max power every extra P will be worth 2.000 points - an F means full power and yields 10.000 points when the plane is already maxed out.

Basic scoring consists of killing everything, destroying all boss parts, reaping bonus stages like crazy and being greedy on ground items. Ground items are, in fact, the only addition to the original Sonic Wings formula as far as scoring goes. Certain ground enemies release bonus points in the form of the country's currency. If you uncover and take them as soon as they appear at the top of the screen you get 10.000 points for each one. This value decreases the longer they remain untaken, ranging from 4.000 to 100 points at the bottom line of the play area. Since rank makes it harder to stay in the upper half in later stages the optimum choice for a second level is Brazil, which can net up to 72.000 or 74.000 points. France has no ground items so it's a dead stage. USA has some ground items as well, but they're less than in Brazil. If Brazil appears later on the only way to safely collect the bonuses is by suiciding at the start of the level so the turrets won't fire in your face. Deliberately losing one life like this in a score-driven credit is okay, you can get it back with the single extend won with 200.000 points.

One of the things that differentiate Sonic Wings 2 from the diverging Psikyo output of the time (Gunbird, Sengoku Ace, Strikers 1945) is the number of tiny bullets mixed with large ones. Until sinking some decent practice into the game it's fairly easy to get surprised by the smaller bullets. The overlapping is dangerous, so bullet patterns must be carefully dealt with during boss confrontations. Rank is evil and will spawn more enemies, making them fire faster bullets and even adding new patterns and enemies all of a sudden (an example is the evil eye randomly showing up after the Mexico boss goes down).

Intro and first stage with the lonely ninja Hi-en
(courtesy of YouTube user NeoGeoForLife)

Sonic Wings 2 is also famous for the humorous phrases from the characters and a few occurrences of some hilarious Engrish. Right before the Brazilian stage starts Spanky the dolphin goes with my favorite: "I never thought I'd be frying over a jungle". Indeed, getting fried by an enemy over the jungle isn't unlikely at all. Hi-en starts the game stating that "he's a ninja and his life is lonely and difficult". I'm no ninja but I can relate to the difficult aspect of trying to master the first loop of a such a tough game. Baby Bobby has probably the funniest sentences of all characters with stuff like "my name is Bobby and I am one tough baby" or "I miss my mommy". It's practically impossible not to burst into laughter, and I haven't even seen what the interactions in a 2-player game sound like.

Choosing a character that worked best for scoring wasn't too problematic because Hi-en is clearly the best choice. Even though he doesn't pilot the most powerful ship his homing shurikens are perfect to get virtually all items from the bonus levels. Spanky and Bobby have stronger firepower, especially at point blank distance, but lack side reach. They're pretty fun to play with, as well as Cindy/Ellen. As a whole the game is quite intense and really enjoyable, but it does require a lot of memorization and aggressive play in later levels.

My time with Sonic Wings 2 ended with the score below, achieved when I looped the game and died in stage 2-1 with Hi-en on difficulty setting MVS. For a while I used the Saturn controller with an adapter, but eventually I moved on to my precious Hori Fighting Stick Neo II for its turbo function. Next stop: Sonic Wings 3!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Phalanx (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Zoom Inc.
Published by Kemco in 1992

I always wondered who that grandpa in the cover of the US version of Phalanx would be within the game. “Maybe he’s the pilot of the spaceship”, I once thought. A quick glance at the manual dismisses that and gives absolutely no clue of the elder’s presence in the artwork, so I conclude he should represent the people saved by the heroic efforts of the pilot that’s sent to a colonized planet to fight an alien race that’s possessing humans to fulfill their evil deeds. Grandpa’s probably playing a victory chant in the honor of the A-144 enforce fighter ship that’s taking to the skies in the background. Its codename is Phalanx and its mission is called Operation Climax.

Originally released for the Sharp X68000 computer in 1991, Phalanx found its way to the SNES one year later. A horizontal shooter with a rather imposing length, it drew inspiration from other titles to offer a wide variety of outer space environments. This is by far the most positive aspect of the game, in that every stage doesn’t feel like the previous one(s) at all. You can count on levels amidst clouds, levels over dead landscapes, organic and robotic caves, underwater passages, descents towards alien planets, a high speed scramble and a mandatory huge spaceship that needs to be blown up from the inside. There’s even a dark area ridden with outer space advertisement boards. At times the third stage will halt in a screen with three passageways between the rocks: each one of them will make the level unfold in a different manner (take the upper one twice for an extra high speed challenge).

Phalanx isn’t aesthetically outstanding but it’s not lacking either. While the graphics do not exhibit any outrageously shiny effects (mode 7 is reserved to the intro and end-of-stage stats only), the parallax in a few levels is nicely done and the overall amount of details and color is quite pleasing to the eye (the ship changes sprites as it cycles weapons). On the other hand visibility can be an issue for some people due to the reduced size of most enemy bullets. Slowdown is a constant gameplay companion especially on bosses, but the interesting thing about it is that it’s not abrupt or jerky at all. It’s as if the developer had either deliberately applied slowdown (like in modern danmaku shooters) or adapted the game’s engine to the SNES well-known slower processor in order to obtain controlled slowdown. In any case, the result isn’t gamebreaking but does make the game easier.

Lasers in hyper space!

There are two types of weapon items, one for the main shot and another for missiles, all of them being designed by letters. Three types of missiles can be used according to A (homing), B (straight) and C (guided, follows ship movement). Shot types appear as L (laser), H (homing/hunter), E (energy charge) and R (ricochet). The P capsule is the power-up that upgrades one level of the main shot and refills one cell of the energy meter of the spaceship. A life is lost only when all three health cells are depleted. It’s quite clear that this health bar is a concession that takes away the pressure of the 1-hit death, but there’s a counterpoint to that. Depending on how you stand when you eventually die the ship will be too underpowered and the game suddenly becomes a painful chore.

Controls use four buttons: shot (A), speed selection (R), weapon selection (X) and special attack (B). There are three speed settings, and all of them are equally useful. Once more than one weapon is acquired choose the one you want to use with X (missiles aren’t selectable and are normally fired with the regular shot). Triggering a special attack unleashes a brief stronger attack animation for the weapon currently in use, sacrificing it in the process. The weapon is then gone and no longer available.

Everything is fine with Phalanx’s weapon system until you have to stock more than three weapons. The awkward weapon stock rule isn’t that complicated, but unless you have extreme familiarity with the game it leads to constant error in the heat of the battle. Take note: with three weapons already in stock, taking a fourth one will make the leftmost weapon in display disappear. It works as a FIFO stack (first in/first out), so in order to preserve the oldest weapon acquired you need to get rid of one of the others before taking any new weapon. That’s when the sacrificial special attack comes in handy. Since these special attacks are mostly useless they serve no other practical purpose, and it’s just ironic that the most powerful special attack comes from the most useless weapon, the energy charge (E).

All this talk about preserving weapons is just to justify the most important advice for those who want to play Phalanx: under any circumstance don’t lose the laser (L). If you’re on your last energy bit and you’re about to die select any other weapon, for the only weapon you lose when you die is the one that’s currently active. Dying will strip you down to almost no firepower and can be pretty tragic during boss fights, thus making the game even longer than it already is. My approach was to get laser, homing and ricochet and stick to them for the whole game, avoiding any other incoming weapon offers. Laser has rear shots in full power and will pierce through anything, inflicting double damage if you align at least two of its streams over the enemy. Homing is great for popcorn stuff and ricochet is the best at point blank distance. As for missiles, my favorite type is the homing (A).

A cool display of Phalanx's box art, followed by the game's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

There are slight design unbalances throughout the game (length/difficulty of boss or mid-boss fights), but they are completely overshadowed by the fact that you’re doomed if you die. Therefore it’s no surprise that the game gives away extends as if they were cheap candy. The first one comes with 10.000, the second with 30.000 and then there’s another one for every 30.000 points afterwards. The less you die the better it is for scoring because extra lives and credits are converted into substantial bonuses upon game completion, which are also influenced by difficulty. The hidden sections in stages 2 and 8 don't contain much in the way of scoring, but they’re a nice addition for those who dig finding secrets. That last one with the girl is a bit bizarre!

Almost all levels in Phalanx seem to last longer than the average for a 16-bit shooter, some of them have up to two mid-bosses and the forced delays in between stages (loading?) are totally uncalled for. However, people who are keen on longer shooter campaigns generally consider Phalanx to be a fun game. It was a bit too long for my taste, but nonetheless it’s a worthy entry in the SNES shmup library. I personally liked the way the game often makes the player move around the whole screen in order to survive, even when you’re fully powered. The soundtrack does its job, with the highlight definitely being the BGM for the last stage. Despite never having received any sequel, Phalanx was recently honored with a makeover in a WiiWare version. It also appeared with less stages under the name Tiny Phalanx, a hidden game within the obscure Playstation brawler Zero Divide, also developed by Zoom Inc.

I played on NORMAL and finished the game on one life with the result shown below. I chose the middle path in stage 3 and didn't get into any of the hidden areas. Note: the starting difficulty is EASY.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Muchi Muchi Pork! (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010

Most Cave fanatics went nuts when the Muchi Muchi Pork! & Pink Sweets bundle was announced for the Xbox 360. Designed by Shinobu Yagawa (of Battle Garegga fame), both games were highly anticipated by shooter addicts. The package is irresistible for any fan of the genre, even though the retail treatment it received is somewhat lacking when compared to all other Cave ports for the Xbox 360. Exhibit #1: graphics were not redone in high definition. Exhibit #2: awkward interface that cripples a few peripheral aspects of an arcade game (attract mode, high score initials). Verdict? Still a great purchase, full of value despite the rumors that both games had been designed with an XBLA release in mind, in line with what had been previously done with Guwange.

The lack of HD motivated me to dig out the composite cable for the 360 and hook it to my 29" CRT. Don't get me wrong, the games are perfectly playable on an HD set, but to enjoy them to the fullest a CRT is undoubtedly the best option. It's still necessary to set it right though, going down at that first selection screen to find and change "Wide mode" to OFF and get rid of the horizontal bars. Once Muchi Muchi Pork! was selected (left) I just had to go to the options and adjust the screen size to the orientation I wanted to use. The game looks great in whatever setting you choose (YOKO/TATE), but the interface menus might appear slightly chopped. It's a bit annoying but it's nothing gamebreaking. Real loss is reserved, as mentioned above, to the attract mode, which is shrunk in a mock-up of an arcade cabinet. It's not possible to see it in full because once you choose the game mode the screen zooms in directly to the character selection.

Muchi Muchi Pork! is best described as a colorful steampunk styled cute'em up bullet hell. It's filled with extremely detailed and animated designs, weapons and bullets, the typical shooter eye candy one would expect from Cave. Pacing and bullets aren't exactly fast, the game prefers to overwhelm the player with several layers of slow bullet clouds intertwined with lasers, mines, flamethrowers, all sorts of thin projectiles and kamikaze planes for a great destruction spectable. Every once in a while, mainly on bosses, bullet fountains will flood the screen as you try to deal with them armed only with a main/regular shot (A), lard shot (B) and bombs (X). That's all that any of the three pig-transformed fat chicks can count on to battle an alien ruler who's about to take over the world. The girls are surely heavy, those flying bikes they pilot must have very good propelling engines.

Momo takes on the first hateful enemy!

Rafute (yellow) is the fastest but less powerful of the girls. She fires a straight shot and her lard shot is a ball of energy that latches on enemies. Momo (pink) is the most balanced one, she fires a spread pattern with a wide laser beam as lard shot. Ikuo (blue) has laser trailing options that home on enemies and her lard shot is an impressive drilling laser. Rafute's bomb has the longest duration of them all, Ikuo's the shortest. After a few tries I decided to go with Momo. Her speed suited me better, as well as the wide reach of her fully powered lard shot. Unfortunately Christina Ricci's Penelope isn't in there. Even though she's not chubby she'd make a great fourth character, wouldn't she?

Getting acquainted with the game isn't as straightforward as chosing one of the characters. Muchi Muchi Pork! has a very pleasing and engaging scoring system, but it takes a while to fully understand it due to the amount of details involved. If you want to score higher the first thing you need to learn is the interaction between both types of shot. Destroyed airborne enemies release P items and parachuting piggies, ground enemies release crawling piggies. Collect Ps to power up the main shot and piggies to fill the lard gauge. Note #1: if you're using regular shot parachuting piggies within a certain radius are automatically sucked into the ship. Note #2: piggies will only add to the lard meter if you collect them after having used or while using regular shot (button A). Note #3: you need to get a minimum number of Ps to start using lard shot (button B), and to activate it at least one little bit of the lard meter must be filled. All enemies killed with the lard shot produce cubes/medals that get sucked in when you switch from lard shot to regular shot. Successive waves of cube-sucking will increase cube values in the following manner: 100-200-...-900-1000-2000-...-9000-10000.

On 1000 cubes get bigger, and when 10000 is reached all cubes will turn into precious gold snouts - that's when the scoring adrenaline rush starts. Raising cube value as fast as possible is a must, but beware: if one cube falls away and there's no other cube on screen the chain value is reduced to 1/10 of its original value. Note #4: it's the act of switching from lard to regular shot that makes the cubes get sucked in, not the act of using regular shot. Note #5: cubes are also absorbed if the lard meter gets depleted while lard shot is being used. Note #6: when used with an empty meter, lard shot results in a weaker piercing stream whose sole advantage is to produce more piggies than usual. Note #7: new cubes increase value only if the screen is empty of previously released cubes (wait until a cube wave has been totally absorbed to "lard" cubes of higher value).

Whenever a bomb is triggered (button X) a bomber character is summoned. During the whole time the bomber is on screen the player is invincible, every bullet/enemy destroyed by its firepower is turned into parachuting piggies and lard shot reaps Ps instead of cubes. Every life starts with two bombs in stock, but it's possible to get more by collecting bomb "hams" to fill a special meter. The catch is that hams appear only from ground enemies destroyed with the lard shot. Once the special meter is full a new bomb is added to the stock. If there are no bombs left and the meter is half full, triggering a bomb will fire a localized blast in front of the character, which is useful for cancelling nearby bullets.

Going from the basics to more advanced gameplay, eventually everybody has to face the nasty subliminar challenge of rank. By default, the Xbox 360 port offers a difficulty gauge that keeps track of the rank for you. As much as I tried to like it there came a point where I couldn't bear to see that gauge max out by the half of stage 4, so I turned it off. It made more sense from a psychological standpoint (not knowing is not worrying about it, right?). From all things that affect rank and tend to make the game even harder the worst one is increasing the number of lives. You earn an extra life for every 10 million points you score, but having more than three lives in stock will send the rank through the roof. The only alternative to this is suiciding, a gameplay aspect that defines shooters designed by this Yagawa guy. He's also responsible for bosses not having health bars, which annoys the hell out of me. Therefore, timing boss kills is imperative if you want to milk them correctly: (1) destroying parts makes them angrier so they shoot more and more bullets, (2) bombing these bullets produces lots of parachuting piggies, which are worth many points, and (3) killing a boss or mid-boss with the lard shot will turn all on screen bullets into gold cubes. It's not easy to do it right, and it's fairly common to ruin a boss kill because of bad timing. The only occasion where dying is irreversibly detrimental to scoring is if it happens during an absorbing animation, because then the cubes will hopelessly accelerate off screen. If you die while cubes are falling (not being absorbed) it's still possible to preserve the combo: quickly get some recover power-ups and hit something to produce at least another cube before the pre-death ones disappear.

My best run on version 1.01

Of course the simple act of staying alive also contributes to the progression of rank. Further detailed strategies consist of optimum paths for cube harvest, a single 1UP if you kill the midboss in stage 3 with lard shot on an empty lard meter, special attention to crucial enemies that must be killed quickly or else will plaster the screen with bullets, targets that release more/less piggies and tricky enemies that can take you by surprise. Some of these tricky enemies are the random fat plane platform on the nose of the first boss, those planes that fire straight bullets first then plummet down on you pretty fast in circling patterns (stages 3 and 5), the powerful bombers that storm into the screen if you kill the second mid-boss in stage 4 too fast, the passage with yellow hatching eggs that explode into blazing fast three-way patterns (stage 4) and the laser turrets in stage 5. Let's not forget about the annoying random cubes that drop from time to time and might break the combo - do a quick shot switch to absorb them on the fly.

Muchi Muchi Pork! is beautiful in its attention to detail, I'm just not a fan of the anime artwork, it feels a bit rushed and unpolished for my taste. However, I absolutely love the uplifting, almost fluffy pop soundtrack. There are lots of great moments in the game, but the section I like the most is the windmill field in stage 4, a level that is in many ways harder than stage 5. One noteworthy conclusion is that the smooth nature and style of the animation makes the game visually less intense than other Cave contemporary titles (it was originally released between Mushihimesama Futari and Deathsmiles). That's why seeing it in action gives the misleading impression that it's an easier shooter. As you start playing you realize things aren't so simple due to the level of control you need to have over rank. I tried to avoid the idea of suiciding but after being crushed over and over for a couple of weeks I finally caved in.

Both games in the package default to the so-called 1.01 versions, which are tweaked takes on the arcade originals. Muchi Muchi Pork! 1.01 is easier than version 1.00 (arcade) because the lard attack lasts longer and the lard gauge refills faster. The looping criteria was loosened completely: in 1.00 you have to 1-life the game with five spare lives to go to the second loop, in 1.01 the entrance to the loop is free (no criteria at all besides 1CCing). On everything else both versions are virtually equal but make no mistake: even with the lard attack tweaks version 1.01 is a hell of a challenge. After selecting ARCADE mode go to the options to choose which version you want to play (1.00 or 1.01) and, if desired, special "courses" Harahara (2nd loop) or Manpuku (enemies shot a ludicrous amount of suicide bullets unless they're killed at point-blank distance). There's also an ARRANGE mode and a MATSURI version accessible with a download code included in the 1st print of the game. The main difference in the MATSURI version is that it adds bosses from Pink Sweets after all regular bosses. A deeply customizable practice option for all modes is included, the only downside is that you can't go directly to specific parts of a stage (e.g. bosses). For more details about differences in modes you can check EOJ's insightful review (unfortunately this review is no more :( ).

Local and online leaderboards for all modes complete the package, with the possibility of recording your runs and uploading replays if you play in SCORE ATTACK mode. Beware of using the X button in local leaderboards and replay screens, since all messages are in Japanese you can easily erase important stuff by accident (happened to me twice!). Unfortunately it's not possible to input initials in the local high score table, which is retarded beyond belief in this day and age. Muchi Muchi Pork! & Pink Sweets is region-free, and the limited edition comes with a double CD with arranged soundtracks for both games. I played the regular 1.01 course of Muchi Muchi Pork! on NORMAL with Momo and reached stage 2-2.