Saturday, June 30, 2012

Space Harrier II (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
13 (15) Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1988

Witnessing the dawn of a new video game system must have been the shit back in 1988. The expected leap in graphical and processing quality of the Mega Drive was meant to provide a much better gateway for more faithful arcade ports, but just doing ports wasn't enough in a few cases. Launch titles needed a punch so Space Harrier received a direct sequel instead of a conversion. As such, it develops over the ideas of the arcade game and provides new enemies, bosses and music to another adventure on the "fantasy zone". Never mind the fact that the story takes place in the "fantasy land" this time around, but who cares anyway?

As a launch title Space Harrier II was certainly able to showcase the power of the new video game system, even though it isn't as technically impressive as the original arcade game. On the outside it seems just like it, but the dubious attempt at providing scaling effects on a console that wasn't designed for it and the reduced frame rate are proof of the inevitable gap between both platforms. Yet the game is fun enough to warrant some involvement for those who liked the first chapter. After all, it isn't anything close to what happened to Thunder Blade's sequel Super Thunder Blade, one of the other launch titles for the Mega Drive.

Shiny sea creatures ahoy!

Harrier has the same abilities of the previous adventure, running and flying around with his plasma cannon over colored checkerboard grounds. Every now and then another checkerboard surface will appear above him to provide a slightly clausthrophobic experience. After areas 4 and 8 a new bonus stage appears: for obvious hardware limitations Falkor is gone, replaced by a hoverboard while the hero destroys harmless seashells and dragons. The last stage (13th) brings back the boss rush and presents the most visible improvement on game variety: all bosses are preceded by their names and a final enemy awaits, the Dark Harrier.

Despite having less stages than the first game Space Harrier II gives the impression of having the same length. Challenge level is a completely different story though. Every time the player scores 1,5 million points he/she receives an extra life. That's an awful lot of extends in the long run, which definitely helps everyone to beat the game and read its backstory (in a weird move Sega decided to reveal the in-game storyline right before the end credits instead of showing it up front). Space Harrier II also comes with more empty room, even during the heavy parts with lots of pillar barriers. With a lower number of sprites and enemies on screen, the overlapping of incoming waves isn't as frequent. When this happens the game's frame rate rears its ugly head and leads to painful deaths - the pseudo-scaling is far from perfect, and you often wonder why an enemy that was far from you suddenly hits you in the face. The golden rule for old school rail shooters still applies: provided you have room, keep moving and you won't get hit.

A good portion of the hazards in the fantasy land are new, and some of them are just simple sprite rearrangement. Bushes became seashells, for instance. Small spaceships, trees, orbs, robots and rocks are back, joined by toads, dragons/gargoyles, knights and flying men, among others. Tiny extra details such as the lightning that strikes the background prior to a boss's appearance or the Harrier's departure from inside the cockpit of a spaceship are unique to the sequel. They don't add anything substantial to the game, but it's still nice to see that Sega put them in. Contrary to what I would've expected, the most controversial aspect of the game is the music. Blame it on the BGM for the first stage... It goes a little bit against the atmosphere. Later on the music gets better and starts to resemble the first game, with some good new boss themes to boot. The famous voices for the character's death (AWWWWW and GET READY) are back.

Space Harrier is back into action!
(courtesy of YouTube user FMFlameNinja)

To access the options press and hold A at the start screen. There it's possible to activate autofire, a feature that may not be that helpful at times because the Harrier's rate of fire is limited to bursts of four consecutive shots. This becomes a problem in the busiest areas of the game, since it's quite common to get rammed by enemies who are right in front of your autofire-enabled plasma cannon and should've died already. Getting killed this way is probably the most annoying thing about Space Harrier II. Difficulty selection alters the extend interval: 1 million points for the Easy setting and 2 million points for Hard. The game itself plays the same way in all three difficulties. Upon start the player is allowed to choose the initial stage by pointing to the sides while Harrier looks at the horizon and the stage name is displayed on screen. You still need to play all other stages before going to the final boss rush though.

Die hard arcade lovers may look down on Space Harrier II and label it as a lesser and useless effort, but in the realm of sprite scaling rail shooters it's really not that bad. Heritage surely helps in its appreciation (it does for me), as well as the watered down difficulty that sets it apart from Space Harrier (which would receive a proper port for the 32X add-on more than five years later). I wish there was some kind of bonus for a large life stock at the end of the game but there isn't, so there's no need to worry too much about losing lives while getting there. My 1CC score on the HARD difficulty is shown below.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Varth - Operation Thunderstorm (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
30 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2006

For all purposes Varth – Operation Thunderstorm can be considered an offshoot of the 194X series, one of the most emblematic series in the shooter genre. Points in common are the biplane protagonist, colored wave formations bringing power-ups and a very long game campaign with nothing less than 30 stages. The main departure from the old formula is the concept of using auxiliary “pods”, an idea that echoes somehow in Taito’s Grid Seeker. Full of detail and as tricky as it gets as far as a Capcom shmup goes, Varth is a beast of a game that definitely exists to teach players the meaning of failure. That is, until you conquer it and get the Ryu shower in the end credits.

Excluding the PSP compilation, the only port on home consoles is included in the second volume of the Capcom Classics Collection, available for the Playstation 2 and the Xbox. Even though the PS2 version lacks a TATE option, the game itself is virtually a perfect emulation of the arcade original, down to the inherent slowdown (based on my experience with MAME). If you’ve got a big TV set there isn’t a single reason not to play it on Sony’s console. The only note I can share to make it a better experience is that I had to reduce the contrast and color levels to improve visibility – for some strange reason the game appears to be more colorful than usual.

There’s a natural thematic progression in Varth, which starts on the city and evolves through skies, harbors, ocean, deserts, forests, railways and several different bases. The game throws every sort of enemy one would expect from a war themed title: tanks, planes, choppers, turrets, trains, ships, lasers, walls, missiles, bombs, flamethrowers, smoke, storms, sand storms, enemies coming from behind, huge bosses and secrets. Lots of them, to be exact. Varth can be made even tougher than it normally is if the player wants to take risks and find the goodies. Since the campaign is a long one, figuring out the secrets is also half the fun, so for most players it’s not just a matter of coming up with the best route to be followed in order to merely survive.

Wide shot, smart pods and missiles against Spider

Finding the weapons that suit you best is the best thing to do as soon as you start playing. The three main weapons are switched with dedicated icons: machinegun (starting weapon), wide shot or laser. The pod icon cycles between three choices, and taking it activates the pod while giving/upgrading the auxiliary firepower as missiles (M), homing (H) or napalm (N). Pods provide protection against all incoming regular bullets and can be either smart (they have a life of their own and move around the plane to block bullets, separated by a 180ยบ angle) or fixed (stationary pods that protect only the plane's front). Even though pod type can be switched with the pod icons, pod behavior is selected at the start of the game and cannot be changed.

Other normal items to be collected are the power-up and the extra bomb. The main weapon is also powered up if you take the icon of the same weapon type, maxing out at level 8, while pod power is increased only by taking another icon of the same type (3 upgrade levels). Bombs work according to the main weapon you’re using: machinegun generates a set of plasma bursts with homing capabilities, wide shot fires a double beam that ricochets and explodes on the top of the screen and laser creates a lightning mesh all over the visible area. They recharge over time until the default stock of three is refilled, but you can recharge them faster by wiggling the joystick. Extra bombs from icons can increase the stock temporarily, thus giving better bonuses if you can keep them at the end of the stage (5 bombs = 30K, 4 bombs = 20K, 3 bombs = 10K, 2 bombs = 3K, 1 bomb = 1K, no bomb = no bonus).

Regular items are released by destroying a characteristic helicopter, enemies with different colors or hidden ground spots. Hidden areas also lead to the discovery of secret items that either increase the score or provide an important aid to survival. Secret items can be:
  • a flag: worth 5.000 points each;
  • a falling racing car: worth 10.000 points each;
  • a blue helmet: worth 5.000 points each;
  • a tower station: hover over the location to uncover and destroy it for 2.000 points;
  • a miniature of the character from Side Arms: a screen-clearing smart bomb;
  • a green duck: after uncovering its spot in stage 20, it keeps changing into other items until it's taken (quite a useless secret, to be honest);
  • Ryu: yes, it's a cameo from Street Fighter's Ryu; uncover his location in stage 4 and hit him to get a shower of items as he performs a shoryuken.
There are times where a yasichi (looks like a lollipop) will appear if you die, granting maximum power for the weapon(s) you're carrying. Keeping the plane always at full power is good for scoring because every surplus power-up is worth 5.000 points. It increases rank dramatically though, making enemies much more aggressive. The evil helicopter that throws a pair of energy circles that follow you and latch onto the pods is the staple of a maxed-out rank. Those damn circles are awfully strong and nullify the bullet-blocking ability of the pods. My strategy is to atract them and bomb as soon as they latch. Besides rank, the unpredictable AI is the other factor that contributes to the insane difficulty you're bound to face: even though every stage seems to have the same patterns for enemy waves, every now and then the game will send a completely different wave to mess up the player's strategy. That's why it's never a good idea to stay in the upper half of the screen or too close to the sides, not even in the early stages. This unpredictable nature is also applied to the scoring system to a lesser extent, since sometimes different bonuses are awarded to certain waves and I have absolutely no idea why (example: first white waves of stage 5 are normally worth 10K each, but can randomly get down to 4K). The game does have a huge bug in the 4th boss: kill it within a certain time frame to get 27.000 or 29.000 points and watch this bonus get multiplied by ten (real score increase is 270.000 or 290.000). It takes some practice, but it's perfectly repeatable after a while.

Varth's co-op action (Japanese version!)
(courtesy of YouTube user ReplayBurners)

Another risky source of points is the absence of pods upon stage completion. The reward is 50.000 points and far outweighs any other bonus you might get. Playing the game without taking any pods is possible but requires an even higher level of commitment because it's necessary to avoid the pod icons at all costs, let alone deal with enemies without any pod protection. I've only tried to do it on the first stage, after that I'm always thankful to have my homing pods with me at all times. My favorite main weapon is the machinegun because of its much superior bomb. I can live with the wide shot, but the laser is downright awful. Since the icons take very long to leave the screen it's pretty common to get the wrong weapon by accident and ruin the credit. I was devastated when it happened to me once as I was about to face the last boss.

Varth is a lengthy, almost physically draining game. As you get closer to the end you start to realize that a full run clocks in at about an hour or more, so late failures tend to hit harder than usual. Thankfully both graphics and music are compelling, and the game never gets repetitive despite its massive duration and the boss/music recycling of its second half. At first I thought the plane was too slow, but once I sank some time into the game I realized it's adequate for the proposed challenge. It allows perfect manipulation of the plane's hitbox, which consists of its axis only and excludes the wings. Knowing where the hitbox lies is essential to deal with the lasers that flood the screen later on. Speaking of challenge, it's interesting how stages are unsymmetrical in length and intensity, alternating between true hell and relaxing moments and most of the time not even including bosses. Stage 6 is the first real soul breaker since it's common to get to it with rank at maximum level. Stages 9-10, 12-14, 16-18 and 26-28 must be navigated and dealt with with extreme caution, that's where most of the danger is. The remaining stages are either boss fights (each one appears more than once) or a bonus area (20). Extends are score-based and come with 600K, 2M and 4,5 million points. Every remaining life in stock is worth 100.000 points upon game completion.

I heard the Japanese version of the game has checkpoints, so everybody should feel fortunate that the one included in the PS2 compilation is the World version. When playing the game on the PS2 look out for the options. Leaving them at their defaults brings up one high score table, switching to the "hardcore" setting activates another different save slot and messing around with the options gets you a third save routine labeled as "custom". It's always good to turn off continues because the firing button will trigger them and ruin the score display for single credit purposes, therefore I was always using a "custom" high score table. The rapid fire option is neat but isn't really that good in the long run, so I used a turbo controller to get better autofire capabilities. My 1CC was achieved on the NORMAL difficulty, with fixed pod type.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prehistoric Isle 2 (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Yumekobo
Published by Yumekobo in 1999

It took ten years for a sequel to come out for Prehistoric Isle in 1930. The first one had its design firmly set in ancient surroundings dominated by dinosaurs and extinct creatures. Prehistoric Isle 2, on the other hand, puts the gigantic lizards as destroyers of modern landscapes and slayers of the contemporary human kind. It's a puzzling thematic shift that not only doesn't make sense but also sets both games apart in regards to gameplay and difficulty. Those who've been exposed to the first chapter, for instance, will find the second one a breeze to play as its challenge level was considerably toned down. Everything else received an aesthetical boost provided by prerendered graphics and nifty animation frames applied to practically all enemies across six stages of relatively straightforward shooting fun.

Prehistoric Isle 2 was originally only available for MVS arcade boards, but thanks to technical aspects of the SNK hardware it can be converted for direct play on an AES console. That's how I got to experience the game. I wonder what Yumekobo (Aicom) had in mind when making it at the brink of a new millenium, a time when most developers were incorporating more advanced ideas such as danmaku, polygons and overall a more aggressive approach to difficulty. The company was strongly swimming against the tide by squeezing such an enormous amount of prerendered pixels into an old school shooter. It's visually compelling, but not in the same level of excellence as Pulstar or Blazing Star, which were released by the same team before Prehistoric Isle 2.

Following a nice introduction that shows dinosaurs invading the city and the military coming into action, two choppers take flight to battle them. Type A is blue, faster and has a straight shot pattern. Type B is green, slower and has a spread shot pattern. Both are well rounded and balanced as far as their characteristics go, but we never get to know the names of the brave pilots. Once one of them is chosen the helicopter goes straight above a street raided by a tyrannosaur, and the building crumbling down under the attack of two pterodactyls perfectly establishes the mood for what’s to come.

YUM! Green chicken-lizards for dinner!

Enemies will regularly release stars that must be collected for points, and actual power-ups appear mainly from crates brought by a flying dinosaur. There are two main weapons to be selected with the icons that cycle colors (C=blue and G=red), as well as the type of missile to be used: M (straight), H (homing), N (napalm) and S (like the missile, but with a much more powerful rocket-like aspect). If you keep the fire button pressed you get a slower firing rate with occasional spread bursts that can be "directed" with the helicopter itself. Tapping the button adjusts the firepower to its fixed, more concentrated pattern. For all purposes tapping is better than holding, that’s why most people play the game with autofire enabled.

Sticking to the same power-up will increase the weapon's firepower until it maxes out. Smart bombs (instant detonation) and extra bombs complete the set of items to be collected. Each helicopter has its own animation for the bomb, which follows the nature of the main weapon (straight/spread).

When the main shot is at its maximum power the player is offered the chance to exploit one aspect of the scoring system: the next extra/surplus power-up of the same color will trigger a timer indicated by the hearts appearing below the score counter. While this special period is active the base value of every killed enemy is initially multiplied by ×2 and eventually maxes out at ×16. Certain parts of the game are key areas to trigger these bonus multipliers, and that’s where smart bombs come in handy. Smart bombs appear only during the sections where you have to DEFEND PEOPLE as they’re collected by a rescue chopper. Don’t take the smart bombs right away, wait until you have more enemies on screen: every enemy will be turned into an extra item, be it a star or – in the interest of a higher score – another power-up item to activate the bonus timer/multipliers.

Some people will signal with a large HELP sign and hang onto the helicopter with a rope once you fly over them. It’s possible to rescue up to 5 people in stages 1, 2, 4 and 5, and if you want to get the best end-of-stage bonus do not deliver them to the rescue chopper that appears before the boss with a TOUCH ME balloon. That chopper gives away items in exchange, but the score bonus will be severely reduced. People hanging on the rope don't add anything to the hitbox and give a very funny vision as you approach ground level: they won't let go of the rope, instead they keep walking after you! The remainder of the end-of-stage bonus comes from stage completion, stars collected and life count.

Dinosaurs are on the move, dinosaurs are loose!
(courtesy of YouTube user ImbuedGold)

Even though there’s a lot going on at all times and everything is extremely colorful, backgrounds are visibly flat with no noteworthy special effects. A few transitions will show the helicopter following creatures into crumbling buildings, and if you don't pay attention you might think parallax is completely absent (it's either very shy or just ugly, as in stage 3). However, what lacks in background treatment is duly applied to the animation, as I mentioned above. The fourth boss (killer bee) gives me the creeps every time its butt inflates to a horrendous size. It’s a short sequence that instills real fear in my mind, an awesome sensation that many shmups aren’t actually capable of achieving (or maybe it’s something about insects that bugs me, I can’t be sure). As for the music, it seems to have been lifted directly from one of those old sci-fi TV serials. The resulting mood is outstanding, and my favorite tune is the one that plays in stage 5.

What makes Prehistoric Isle 2 an easy ride, especially when compared with the first chapter, is the absolute lack of randomness to the gameplay, which is devoid of rank and cheap enemies. It seems as if the developer wanted to compensate for the excruciating difficulty of Prehistoric Isle in 1930. In the sequel, bullet count is never overwhelming and benefits those who are able to keep even a low degree of cool under the heavier curtains (the baby dinosaur at the end of the first stage, the tyrannosaur before the fifth boss). Mild slowdown is also to be expected. You don’t get score extends, but you even get to keep the bomb stock if you die (note: a single 1UP can be found if you manage to protect all 30 people in the rescue section of the fifth stage). This is of course based on the game running on US hardware; in Japanese machines life stock is replaced by a health bar, and aside from the game being the same I have no idea how lives/extends work in that version.

Dinosaur/history geeks and old school shmuppers should all play Prehistoric Isle 2, it’s a mandatory game that effortlessly caters to both fan bases. It’s fun and it’s not too tough, the only problem is that the entry ticket to see it running in real hardware is rather steep. Alternative solutions aside, it’s totally worth it. In my best run I scored the amount below, playing with the type A chopper (blue) on the MVS difficulty setting with autofire. I died one life on that huge laser beam from the last boss.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Magic Carpet 1001 (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1991

For a video game, being boring goes hand in hand with me being bored. Lately that's something I'm starting to firmly believe in: you have to be bored to some extent to play stuff like Magic Carpet 1001, an unlicensed horizontal shooter that perfectly fits the bill as a boring video game. Half an hour of shooting boredom was enough to see the end, and nothing changed about the general idea I have towards unlicensed games. I get the impression that this one caters to the sensibilities of children because of the arabian setting and the idea that you control a kid with a bow flying a magic carpet. Therefore it must have garnered a mild degree of exposition and success in the more underdeveloped corners of the world (it supposedly came out in 1991), even serving as the basis for a late Harry Potter-themed hack.

Gluk released the game in Europe under the title La Alfombra Magica (The Magic Carpet) without changing anything in the game itself. It still shows Magic Carpet 1001 in the title, and the instructions are printed in the back of the box instead of coming in a proper manual. Mega Soft, the original developer, was well known for its activities with unlicensed software, and apparently made no effort to stop the game from spreading in different ways throughout the market. Later on the game appeared in a 6 in 1 multi-cart published by Caltron, as well as in pirate cartridges under the alternative name Aladdin 3. Just like many other NES unlicensed shooters, all "official" releases of the game are quite rare.

A shadowy battle against the third boss

Deserts and outer space are the only backgrounds you'll see across the four stages of Magic Carpet 1001. There are no obstacles in sight so feel free to move all around if you want. Also feel free to refrain from shooting if you have no turbo controller and you're too tired of pressing the button like crazy to get that puny rate of fire provided by the character's bow. Why not shoot, you ask? Actually that's not the right question, for the game has no scoring system. I'm an adult now so I'm in my right to complain, but I assume I would take it for granted if was an innocent child. An unrelated example: I was deeply disappointed to find out, after all these years, that Decap Attack has no scoring system either... How picky do we get when we get older, huh? As with a handful of other cases, seeing the end is the only motivation you'll ever have to play this game.

Upon start it's only possible to shoot one arrow at a time (button A), but better firing rates and a three-way shot will eventually be available by taking successive P items. These power-ups are released randomly, just like speed-ups (S), extra lives and health hearts. Each heart allows the character to avoid instant death by granting 4 extra defense hits against bullets and 2 defense hits against enemy collision (a single heart is displayed on the lower left side of the screen, regardless of how many you've already taken). Dying strips the character off one power level, that's why collecting lots of hearts is important to survive difficult parts and quite essential if you get to the last boss, a disappearing Parodius-inspired mouth that fills the screen with bullets. Interesting information taken directly from the "manual": if by any chance you're lucky enough to get the treasure from the magical lamp in the last stage you become invincible. My guess is that this "treasure" is somewhere inside one of those enemy formations shaped as a big heart - you'll know you're invincible when the character keeps blinking non-stop. Talk about a cheap way to grant a free passage against the last boss!

Another unexpected tip given by the manual is that you can increase the "energy" by pressing SELECT + B. That means the shot power is increased to its maximum level, but in order to accomplish that the main shot button (A) must also be pressed. Even though it seems to be a good idea, pushing all these buttons at the same time isn't comfortable at all.

You go right and try not to die (Caltron 6 in 1 version)
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Only a single song is used on all stages, and the bulk of the enemy gallery is comprised by insects, ninjas, birds, bats, rocks and meteors. It's a complete thematical mess given the middle eastern setting and the misleading opening screen, but at least it's a rather colorful one. Incoming bullets are on the slow side, and provided you don't allow enemies to live long enough the game never gets overwhelming. Regarding bosses, prepare to face a witch, an alligator in a flying jar, a skull and the aforementioned outer space mouth. A curious note: the death animation is taken directly from Toilet Kids, and the hero sprites seem to be a rip-off from one of the characters in Doki Doki Panic. We all know, originality is a trait often reserved to licensed games...

Without incurring in any disastrous aspect but an uneven distribution of power-ups (hit detection is okay, gameplay isn't compromised by the character's large hitbox, no jerky scrolling), Magic Carpet 1001 is a miserable but playable oddity. The lack of scoring is a shame and further cements its underground, collector-only status. It seems War in the Gulf (one of the other three NES unlicensed shooters by Mega Soft) shares the same fate, but that's something I can't and I'm not willing to figure out right now.

I had the honor of savoring the game in its Gluk incarnation, La Alfombra Magica. The ending sequence halts at the screen below after showing the reward given to the kid flying the magic carpet. Patrick, Julia and Ruth, thank you for half an hour of NES obscure shmup history. I won't thank Martino because he was already thanked.