Monday, July 30, 2012

R-Type (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tozai/SouthEnd Interactive/Irem
Published by Tozai in 2009

Few shmups have reached such a legendary status as R-Type, a game that's considered both a staple of the genre as well as one of the most punishing classic titles ever. Newer generations of gamers might know it by name but are in most cases unaware of the truth behind its status. Thankfully, in 2009 owners of the Xbox 360 received a great gift in the form of R-Type Dimensions, a compilation of R-Type and R-Type II that updates both of them to the HD era while including a few aspects that try to avoid the anger of those who aren't initiated in the matters of checkpoint punishment. I'm still astonished to see so many young people disgusted by the fact that they're thrown back in the stage powerless once they die. Developer Tozai was sensitive enough towards these people and included an extra mode called Infinite, where lives are unlimited and you're respawned instantly once you die. Those who want to try the real deal should stick to Classic mode.

Graphical upgrades in high definition are the main reasons to get R-Type Dimensions. Everything received and HD/3D repaint that in some places went even further, adding details and background objects where there were none. The coolest thing about it is that graphics can be switched between the old sprite-based version and the new 3D renditions on the fly, at the press of a single button. Screen size can be set to widescreen or the original 4:3 aspect ratio, with an additional crazy 3D option that tilts the playfield horizontally. Retro 8-bit filter effects can also be applied to the 3D option, and another screen alternative allows playing the 2D game inside an arcade cabinet - just like the crazy 3D setting, it's more awkward than actually useful. All these settings can be played on Infinite or Classic gameplay modes and switched between 2D and 3D at will while playing. It's really impressive.

My choice to play R-Type on this XBLA compilation was to stick to the original 4:3 screen size but use the new 3D graphics from start to finish on Classic mode. A whole new graphical experience, let's say. Musically the experience remains the same since the soundtrack received no upgrade at all, unlike the great port for the PC Engine CD.

The glow of the force pod and the weapons can be seen all over the place!

Bydo is the name of the enemy race. Your mission is to blast off and strike them into oblivion. Board the R-9 arrowhead spaceship and prepare for 8 stages of increasingly tougher grounds. To make the journey possible an exquisite array of power-ups is available. While the bare ship can fire both single and charged shots, it's only when the force pod is obtained that its real power can be unleashed. A force pod is an invincible energy sphere that can be docked in front and in the back of the ship, damaging enemies by contact, providing protection against regular bullets and allowing the use of three different weapon types: a wave laser (red), a bouncing three-way laser (blue) and crawling energy snakes (yellow). It takes a first weapon power-up to activate the force pod, and two more to max out its firepower.

Additional items consist of the speed-up (at least one is essential to make the game playable), the bits (small semi-spheres that serve as options above and below the ship) and missiles (two guided missiles fired at a fixed low rate).

Successfully playing R-Type depends on how efficiently you use the force pod and the weapon items found along the way. Trial-and-error and memorizing are absolutely needed, and along the years this characteristic created a strong definition for games like this: memorizer. It's suitable but actually unfair, every video game is a memorizer to some extent. The reason it seems perfect for R-Type is the game's brutal difficulty: dying in the last couple of stages is reason enough to reset, for example. One of the worst cases of failure is to miss the last boss's mouth: he can only be hit if you manage to throw the force pod inside its mouth at the exact moment he opens it. Missing leads to certain death because the situation gets critical after the boss expels more of those annoying blue stars.

Is suffering fun? Of course it is! I'd say a little bit of suffering is needed to make victory sweeter. If you want to find your limit for suffering don't wait any longer, go play R-Type.

Blast off and strike the evil Bydo empire in Japanese!
(courtesy of YouTube user teruklsf)

R-Type Dimensions is a great package, there's no doubt about it. However, it comes with a few functional constraints that might let some people down. One of the most notable is the absence of difficulty settings (Infinite mode doesn't count). The other one is the impossibility to map the buttons in the controller. I was lucky to find them comfortable, with autofire on RT, regular fire on A, pod launch on X and 2D/3D switch on Y or RB. It seems they tailored them for me, yay! What I absolutely didn't like is that you can't play the game if you don't have an Internet connection. It's total bullshit because every other XBLA game I played so far allows that.

Extra features include the abovementioned graphic options, local or online co-operative play, extensive statistics for the whole package (meaning aggregating both R-Type and R-Type II) and leaderboard tables for every game mode.

R-Type on the XBLA is exactly like the arcade, but some tense moments while playing made me suspicious about tiny differences. Maybe it's psychological, but at one point I was unable to get past the fifth boss, Bellmite. I couldn't do it for days, in every credit he would move around like crazy and eventually corner me to a painful death (I use only one speed-up during the game, so that made it a bit more difficult). I only got through after I gave up trying to milk the segments from the snakes that move around in stage 5, holding the autofire button all the time and never breaking all of them in the middle. It could be a coincidence, but after I did it Bellmite was much less aggressive, which allowed me to go on and beat the first loop unscathed, surviving until stage 2-4 (stage 12).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Scramble Spirits (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1988

I was kinda bored a few days ago. R-Type was kicking my ass and I wanted something to keep me busy in a different way, so I thought it would be nice to keep with the Master System connected to my front A/V in the living room. I woke up early, dusted out Scramble Spirits and gave a quick read over the manual (something I never do, but as I said I was bored). I fired up the game and watched the intro telling the story of how the world was in peace after a global war but a new threat was at hand, courtesy of an outer space enemy. As expected, I was one of the fighters summoned to "scramble" and defend the Earth.

Scramble Spirits is originally a rather impressive arcade game made by Sega, which drew inspiration from Capcom's 19XX series and, to a minor extent, Toaplan. The Master System was one of the few early home consoles to receive a port, and although the game does a regular job at keeping the resemblance with the arcade (there's co-op play!) it's almost totally lacking in excitement and challenge. Bomber Raid, a Master System exclusive, came out at around the same time but did a slightly better job with very similar gameplay concepts.

What basically hurt this game are the drabness of the graphics and the excessive flicker. Flicker becomes less painful the more you play, but the graphics fail to attract any attention due to their simplicity. When they try to be a bit more complex the result is a cumbersome mess of colors, it seems the graphics went corrupt or something. The brief take-off animation inserted between stages works better although it halts the action, as well as the brief text messages prior to every section in the game. The music resembles the original compositions but doesn't stand out in any way, also failing to add to the game's overall assessment.

Mines and tanks in the desert

The basic weaponry is comprised of a main gun (for airborne enemies) and a ground weapon (for ground enemies) which are fired at the same time with one single button. The only upgrades available are the smaller planes/options released when you destroy the large choppers that remain stationary after appearing from the top. You can get two of them (one on each side of the plane) and with the other button in the controller arrange them in two formations: when positioned at the rear they add more firepower to the main gun (for airborne enemies), when positioned at the front they add more firepower to the ground weapon (for ground enemies). These options are vulnerable to attacks just like the main plane, so it's pretty easy to lose them. In order to trigger a bomb attack you need to have at least one option. Press both buttons (1+2) at the same time: this will launch the little plane forward and create a powerful explosion, after which the little plane will drift down smoking for you to claim it back. After that wait until the smoking is gone to repeat the attack, otherwise the little plane will disappear once the blast animation fades.

The above paragraph alone hints at least at a dynamic experience from a gameplay standpoint, right? Unfortunately the enemy forces are equipped with very slow bullets (maybe to compensate for the flicker and the slightly iffy collision detection) and the extremely powerful bomb blast makes bosses even easier to kill.

Prepare for the way Scramble Spirits deals with basic game information, it's a tad awkward. Only by dying it's possible to see the remaining number of lives. When all lives are gone a very faint CONTINUE message shows up instead, but in the heat of the battle it's pretty easy to miss it because any button press will trigger the continue function. Well, at least the score is reset and continues are only available up to stage 4.

Intercept the enemy's surprise party!
(courtesy of YouTube user shaurz)

Extends are score-based and come with every 500.000 points. The problem with the score is that it isn't shown during the stage itself or even registered if you don't make it past the boss. You need to defeat it if you want to collect the amassed points from the level and from the bonus areas, which appear in the middle of the odd stages only (1, 3 and 5). In these areas the plane's sprites are zoomed in a little bit and speed gets a slight boost so that you can try to take down everything ahead of you in a short amount of time. You don't die in these sections, but getting hit or crashing against something will freeze you for half a second. Crashed items won't count for the bonus: 100% destruction ratio equals 200.000 points, any percentage below that is applied over 100.000 points instead.

When the ending sequence is over the game loops with faster enemy bullets. It doesn't represent that much of an excitement increase because the game is still easy, not to say boring. There's a single point where it offers a bit more resistance: the third boss, a flying fortress that fires exploding bubbles and slow homing shots that leave very little room to move around safely. Other than that Scramble Spirits is a breeze.

A few recognition rounds and I was done with the game before lunch. I died my last life out of boredom in stage 3-3. Since there's no autofire in the game I used a Rapid Fire unit to get autofire on button 1.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Aerial Assault (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1990

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you one of the strongest candidates to the hitbox hell prize. I'm not the kind of guy who complains about the games I play, but Aerial Assault takes the cake as one of the most deceiving shmups ever. Sure, as with all video games it's once again a matter of learning the chops and dealing with the challenge ahead, but the process can be a bit traumatic. Unfair and unbalanced, Aerial Assault could've been a great Master System shmup if only Sega had applied a bit more polish to the game. Building a console title from the ground up to mimic the arcade experience should at least be commended though.

The plot is rather convoluted and goes against the simplicity of the gameplay, which seems to draw inspiration from UN Squadron and P-47 - The Phantom Fighter. It has something to do with an evil computer, environmental motives and an independent "freedom fighter" taking to the skies to save the planet from evil. Nothing out of the ordinary or as ordinary as it comes, with five stages of slow scrolling horizontal action. Just one quick note: in order to see the fifth stage you need to play on NORMAL or HARD settings. Playing on EASY is probably just as tough because the main cause for credit failure is in the fourth stage, but why reject an extra stage that seems to be more of an afterthought to the previous ones?

Enemy fire from clouds and ocean

Aerial Assault starts with few enemies over the ocean against a background of white clouds. There's even some parallax, which becomes bolder for the color-shifting clouds of the second stage. Parallax is a nice graphical touch across the whole game, but also of decent nature is the music, varied and totally in synch with the game's style. It tries to divert the attention from the fact that all stages are quite long. All levels have unique galleries of ground and airborne enemies, but nonetheless it's almost impossible to avoid the feeling that Aerial Assault drags most of the time. Half of the game is world-war based while the other half comes with a futuristic sci-fi feel.

The jet has the ability to fire a main weapon and to drop bombs (limited ammo). Every stage has a specific type of enemy that releases power-ups when destroyed: spinning planes, helicopters, stationary mines and space drones. The speed-up is both the most important and the worst power-up of all - you need one speed-up to actually do something in the game, but more than that can make the 4th stage unplayable due to the narrow corridors, the slow scrolling speed, unwanted power-ups (see below) and heaps of hitbox traps. Hitbox hell, remember?

Power-ups for the main weapon include the default pea shot, a 3-way shot, 5-way shot, 8-way shot, exploding shots, directional shots, needle missiles, laser and wave cannon. Bombs appear as single bombs, triple bombs, napalm (explosion bombs), crawling bombs and forward blast (the most devastating weapon in the game). Other items include a stone face for bonus (5.000 points each), 1UP (an exclamation sign), shield (starts appearing in the 3rd stage) and death (dark skull). The bad thing about all these power-ups is that they become an annoyance once you've reached the desired firepower. They always come swinging up and down towards the jet, forcing the player to constantly dodge them with the risk of being shot down or taking an unwanted item. Most of my failures in the fourth stage came from taking unwanted power-ups just before entering the boss's chamber. The good news is that power-ups aren't random, which allows for some strategy to take care of the trickiest parts.

One of the strangest things about Aerial Assault is how most weapons work within the context of hitbox perception: they aren't fired in front of the jet. The gameplay takes that into consideration in almost every possible way. The third boss, for instance, is more easily defeated with the needle missile because this particular weapon is considerably off from the jet's center line. As I mentioned above stage 4 is filled with hitbox traps on walls, but the worst part is the laser from the boss: it will hit you before you even get close to it. Dying there is as good as a GAME OVER because the damn thing can't be defeated with the default speed and firepower.

Evening skies of danger in Aerial Assault
(courtesy of YouTube user swekangaroo)

Once I was done with the basics of the gameplay I got intrigued by why I was randomly getting over 100.000 points in the first stage alone, when my normal score would be around 80.000 points. The reason for this is that the ground turrets give lots of points if you hit them with bombs as soon as they enter the screen. Doing it will accelerate the score counter and provoke a characteristic scratching sound (kinda like what happens with the first enemies of Mushihimesama). There was a time where I got nearly 200.000 points out of the first stage. The sad news is that the trick is useless in the long run because the scoring system is broken: it's possible to keep the jet below the second boss to milk its missiles for a counterstop. I couldn't find any safe spot on the first boss, but it's probably possible to do it as well.

Aerial Assault is a very challenging game for the wrong reasons, that's why the fun factor isn't as high as it could be. The path before the fourth boss is nerve-wrecking and can kill a perfect credit if you get the wrong item, let alone crash against a wall. The last stage takes place in open outer space and is a breeze to play, full of wave weapons and shields. That's also where the only 1UP in the game can be taken (there are no score extends of any kind). There are five continues that start at two checkpoints within a stage. Hint: do not use the stock Master System controller, it's awful! I used a Mega Drive controller instead (buttons B/C = 1/2). My best score with no milking at all is the one below, an improvement of 22% over my previous best. No lives were lost on this run.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gradius (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

If you're a shmupper life will never be boring nor easy if you have any of the Gradius games around. Almost all video game generations and consoles have at least one chapter of the series in their libraries. Being such an old franchise, it's no surprise that its first game still stands as the most ported of all Gradiuses. Looking back today it might pale when compared with the later chapters, but a single credit is all it takes to remind anyone of how well crafted, fun and challenging the game still is. Its age is only apparent when you put it side by side with its sequels. Thanks to the good chaps at the RG Forums I was once again drafted to pilot the bold Vic Viper against the forces of an evil space fleet controlled by a mutant brain and its team of energy Cores. Note: I actually invented this last part of brains + cores since the game never hinted at any actual story.

Gradius can be played on the Playstation by means of the Japan-exclusive compilation Gradius Deluxe Pack, which also includes the sequel Gradius II. For those wondering about the differences between this package and the Saturn version, I'll just spare the drama and tell you up front that there aren't any. None. Both discs seem to have the exact content, down to the animated intro and the NO WAIT option unlocked upon game completion - it completely removes the slowdown present in the arcade original, properly emulated during the course of the normal game. If you're a proud owner of any of these consoles you can settle with either package, only completists like myself are crazy enough to go after both of them for great personal justice/pleasure.

I hate Moai

If you want a more detailed rundown and some other notes on the gameplay of Gradius you can also check what I wrote about the Saturn port. Other than that all you need to know is that you're able to shoot and drop missiles (both actions can be mapped to the same button, with autofire if you will) while activating power-ups according to an weapon array comprised of speed-up, missiles, double, laser, option and shield. At least one speed-up and missiles are essential, double and laser depend on the pilot's approach to strategy and play style, options can be summoned up to the quantity of four and the shield is there for you to use as desired. The more options you activate the harder the game gets, and while options are the main cause of rank progression all other upgrades also have some part in the challenge equation.

Going into a strictly score-oriented campaign in Gradius was something a bit different. I confess I didn't spend as much time with it as I wanted, but I aimed at killing every possible enemy, allowing every hatch to release more popcorn and even exploiting checkpoints so that I could inflate the score a bit before looping the game. It felt a little cheap, the main reason being the steep difficulty increase of the second loop. Beating the first loop on a single life feels great (and I did it a few times), but the chances of getting a good score out of it are slim. Dying in the wrong place in the second loop can deplete that fat life stock really fast because the Vic Viper's starting speed becomes even more of a problem than it originally is.

Opening movie and title for Gradius Deluxe Pack
(courtesy of YouTube user Kennylblueplum)

A quick stage breakdown on the methods I used most this time:
  1. Get three options and activate the laser before the volcanoes; align the laser over them to fight the boss with over 80.000 points. Milking: die at the boss and milk the rocks from the volcanoes for more points - a risky thing that can lead to deaths with absolutely no pay-off;
  2. Max out the options and start activating shields;
  3. I HATE MOAI. Most of the stupid deaths happened here, in the last section of moai heads; often I would switch to double shot because I think they're more efficient to deal with overhead moai.
  4. Keep the double shot and be aggressive against the enemies in the ceiling;
  5. I keep the double shot because lasers are deceiving. Here's where milking seems to be possible as well, provided you can safely deal with the tentacles with no speed-ups at all;
  6. Go with double shot all the way;
  7. Keep double shot and sweep back and forth to take care of all enemies inside the fortress; during the cage section align all options to the left underneath it to avoid being killed from behind.
It's easier said than done, of course. The arcade original is still a great challenge to this day, in whatever console form you can get your hands on (Playstation or Saturn). There are three screen format options to choose from (Arcade, Arcade Zoom and Full Size) and as I mentioned above it's possible to map all controls to different/same buttons with/without autofire.

My best scoring credit this time ended in stage 2-2, as shown below (NORMAL).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dragon Spirit (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1988

Namco’s Dragon Spirit is as much a natural evolution to the classic Xevious as it is a forefather to fantasy-themed shmups, a shooting adventure born in the arcades but soon transferred to a good number of video game consoles. The PC Engine/Turbografx-16 port is often regarded as a good conversion, one that preserves most of the elements from the original despite the natural downscaling of graphics and music.

If you venture into the PC Engine game without knowing the original backstory it’s normal to think of Dragon Spirit as a shooter where you're merely controlling a dragon across several fantasy landscapes. In fact, it’s the story of a man turned into a dragon to rescue a captive princess – something that got lost in translation because the arcade intro was removed from the port. The ending also hints at this backstory, but seeing it is no easy task. Normally there are no continues, but it’s possible to activate them with a button code at the start screen. Even then I can’t say things are any more manageable, so prepare for a good deal of practice and perseverance if you want to pursue the 1CC in this version of Dragon Spirit.

Fact: controlling a dragon is the epitome of cool in any game. That should be enough to suck anyone in, but what about growing extra heads to breathe more fire over enemies? Destroying eggs with the ground shot (button I) or airborne blinking enemies with the regular shot (button II) will release items that float towards the dragon for a brief while. Initially the most important ones are the blue (grow an extra head) and the orange (increase firepower for every three collected items). Another extra head will eventually triple the dragon’s firepower, but it will also increase its size to the point where maneuvering through bullets and obstacles starts to demand even more anticipation and focus. Every life has three health cells, allowing the player to take two hits before dying on the third and getting sent back to a checkpoint. Don’t expect to find health recovery items because there are none.

Spitting fire for great justice

Auxiliary items appear at certain points in the game or at random. Some exclude others, so it’s important to have that in mind. The spread shot (W) will replace any other type of shot, and the same happens with the maximum flame item (green dragon). Homing fire bursts, the invincibility shield and the earthquake (destroys all ground targets as they appear on screen) are temporary. The shrinking item (S) won’t preserve the multiple heads, and collecting a blue item while shrunk will return the dragon to its normal size with only one head. The pink one (a heart) is precious: collect three of them to hatch a dragon egg and win an extra life (check the egg status beside the life count on the left corner). Most of the extra lives come from these eggs, but there are also score-based extends achieved with 50.000 and 120.000 points. On the bonus department, diamonds are worth 1.000 points and golden spheres are worth 10.000 points each. Watch out for the power-down black item, it becomes a real nightmare in later levels.

A new item introduced in this port is the speed-up (yellow). Absent in the arcade version, the speed-up starts showing up in stage 4 (desert) but only becomes crucial during the last stage, more specifically the final boss. I’m pretty sure Namco included the speed-up for that boss since at least one is essential to have a chance against him. Most of the game is expectedly easier when compared to the arcade, but that final boss isn’t there to fool around. I dare say that damn thing is harder than its arcade counterpart, if only for the spikes in the entrance chamber. I also had the impression that his boomerang attacks sometimes accelerate all of a sudden. Anyway, don’t underestimate him and keep the distance to avoid getting cornered.

Stage 6: deadly glaciers!
(courtesy of YouTube user DigiHatesMakingNames)

The most drastic change in the PC Engine port of Dragon Spirit is the exclusion of the underwater passage and the dark caves, with stages 7 and 8 sharing the same theme of the original final stage (castle). Other than that animations were properly preserved, with no missing elements across the remaining stages. These still seem a bit overlong, but in the end they all serve as a satisfying preamble to the unfair final section of the game. Sharp colors all around and decent music for PC Engine standards complete the package.

Since there are no extra points to be gained with surplus power-up items there’s no need to get out of your way for them, which in my opinion is the main cause for avoidable/stupid deaths. In any case racking up high scores isn’t worth it because Dragon Spirit has a flawed scoring system. Most of the points are to be won during the last stages, but don’t even think of milking checkpoints and lives for score. Here's a straight reason not to: on the fifth boss refrain from hitting the spider and keep destroying its webs for unlimited points.

Scoring aside, the game is fun (the magic is definitely spoiled by the frustratingly tough final boss though) and technically belongs to the upper tier in the PC Engine shmup library. In my 1CC run I lost a few lives in the castle but eventually reached the last boss with two heads and two health cells. I got hit once, succeeded in my last breath and took the picture below. Warning: the end credits halt at a final screen that can’t be reset, not even with SELECT + START. Therefore the score you get on a 1CC is lost forever once the credits start rolling (normally you just need to pause the game to check your current high score).