Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nexzr (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft
Published by Kaneko/Inter State in 1992

Outer space is the most iconic and preferred setting of the shmup genre, to the point where some people will ignore titles such as Espgaluda, Homura or Cho Aniki simply because they have people flying in them instead of spaceships. That said, Nexzr is probably a perfect fit for those who shun shooters with flying people. It fits the bill more than other games because its outer space setting is stronger than in the average shmup, with outer space vastness filling the backgrounds for the majority of the game. And while this could easily imply that this is an empty, drab looking product, the real picture is much more favorable. In fact, Nexzr is one of the finest shmups ever released for the PC Engine CD.

What makes this game such a delight to play is the high level of polish applied to every detail, from the highly emotional introduction sequence (images are everything, no words or translation are needed to understand the grief suffered by the ship’s pilot) to the final battle against a mechanized deadly foe. Graphics are crisp, the action is fast and diverse and the difficulty is in line with what one would expect from a decent 16-bit vertical shooter. It’s clear to me that this challenge level and the quality presentation are a successful way of compensating for the extremely simple gameplay. In Nexzr you only use a single button to play, there are no bombs of any kind and there are no selectable weapons or speeds. Progress might be halted by dying and getting respawned in a previous checkpoint, fortunately with reasonable ways of recovery.

Behold the 4th boss in Nexzr

The spaceship in Nexzr is allowed to fire two types of weapons at once. All weapons/items are delivered by tiny carriers that zap across the screen, sometimes so fast you can barely see them. Main firepower can be a straight shot or a 3-way spread pattern (3-way is weaker but obviously provides better coverage). Secondary firepower comes in four flavors: a homing laser, a pair of self-sentient drones that fly around the screen and home on enemies, two piercing lasers that spread outward in approximately 45 degrees and crawling missiles that explode upon contact with the enemy. The last item is the ever so important shield, which offers invaluable protection against one hit only.

Lasers and bullets comprise the bulk of the enemy arsenal. Cannon fodder arrives in waves while large spaceships and robots materialize in neat morphing or zooming effects as the first stage unfolds against a battlefield background. It’s nothing as crowded as Eliminate Down’s first or Border Down’s third stages, but the atmosphere is pretty well established and the enemy forces are just as relentless. At this point one might see how the game resembles Recca or Star Soldier, but at the same time it’s quite clear that Nexzr has enough personality to stand on its own. Creative design dictates what comes next, as in the corridor that’s guarded by a mid-boss and must be navigated at high speed while the boss’s core tries to bomb you before he finally decides to fight. All of this is presented with no slowdown and no flicker, to the sound of absolutely fantastic music. There's no doubt the soundtrack complements the several changes of pace with ease and enhances the action with pumping energy.

Challenge-wise the game starts to show its claws in the fourth stage, with narrow passages amidst large meteors, enemies that explode in bullets, energy field obstacles, drones that shoot fast/cheap straight lasers and a large battleship that hatches waves of hazards. On the player’s side is a merciful extend scheme that grants extra lives with 20.000, 50.000 and 100.000 thousand points, with further ones at every 100.000 points afterwards. The scoring system is pretty straightforward and if you play well enough it’s not hard to achieve more than 10 lives by the time you reach the 4th stage. The difficulty increase by then isn’t a coincidence, it takes careful maneuvering and wise weapon choices to go on in one piece. As a rule of thumb, homing firepower is a must so that threats behind walls can be dealt with accordingly.

Bringing peace to the galaxy in stage 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Ryusennin)

The attempt to give Nexzr an arcade flavor with the “arcade” resolution mode is a nice one. No, it’s not a TATE feature, it just shortens the horizontal span of the screen a little bit. This special mode doesn’t offer any advantage over the regular resolution but it still allows proper play and is far from the atrocious cramped aspect of a similar option in Burning Angels. Higher difficulty settings add more enemies to the regular game and can be practically considered "arrange" modes.

Since Nexzr was chosen by naxat soft to be re-released in the Summer Carnival series of competition shooters there's a little confusion as to which version is official or which one a thrifty gamer should buy. To keep it simple, Summer Carnival ’93 - Nexzr Special is just a special release that contains the main game and additional Time Attack and Score Attack modes. It's a joy for fans of caravan variations, but be warned that it lacks all the animated sequences of the original disc.

My final 1CC result in Nexzr is below (Normal).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dodonpachi (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Atlus in 1997

Ever since my first contact with Dodonpachi a few years ago I have always wondered why so many shooter fans had it in such high regard. By that time I wasn’t as mature as I am today, and had strong feelings of disgust towards the famous scoring system that supposedly required pixel-perfect positioning for the player to succeed at scoring well. Yet here I am, after having successfully looped the game and come to grips with Cave’s fundamental bullet hell shooter.

Arriving two years after Donpachi (the first chapter), Dodonpachi boosted everything about that game to a new level, in aesthetical and functional ways. Even though the ship roster remains the same, visible upgrades were made to the animation, explosions, bullet count, overall speed and scoring possibilities. The key word is intensity, a characteristic that would become synonymous with Cave as time went by. Shooting intensity in Dodonpachi can be enjoyed in lots of ways. Genre outsiders marvel at the amount of bullets, average players often try to play for survival and the more experienced can’t help but get involved by the intricacies of the scoring system. More often than not this leads to an interesting love/hate dilemma since the game rewards dedicated players who try to perfect their chains and punishes those who lack the patience to do so. In a sense, if you want to squeeze the juice out of the game you inevitably need to learn and follow predefined routes throughout the stages. This definitely creates a wall for many people since not everyone is willing to surrender to such a strict gameplay demand for the sake of a higher score.

Another reason to properly learn Dodonpachi is that if you want to loop the game playing for survival doesn’t cut it. Since my main goal was to loop the game I decided early on that I would chain and achieve the minimum hit count for the loop (keep reading). As a consequence I also learned how to score higher and came out of the experience with a new mindset, as well as a better understanding of the mythical status that surrounds this particular shooter. Dodonpachi might as well be the single most important arcade danmaku – the one that cemented the genre’s evolution and paved the way for all other companies to follow. Disregarding personal taste towards the scoring system, if there's one thing for which the game should receive honest criticism is the repetition of the music after stage 3 (it's a great, pumping soundtrack though). And maybe the change of the announcer, since voices are now female and are restricted to boss confrontations and the start of the game.

Type A - Shot

The basic gameplay did not change from Donpachi and ideally only two buttons are needed. Tap the fire button to get the regular Shot (S) and hold it to generate a constant energy stream known as Laser (L). Hit the bomb button to either activate a screen clearing explosion (when used with shot or without firing) or a deadly beam of destruction (when used with laser). The Saturn port is friendly to all players by mapping Shot and Laser to different buttons, so the final controller layout is A (laser), B (bomb) and C (shot). Regular items brought by destructible carriers or bunkers on the ground are P (power-up) and B (extra bomb). MP (maximum power) is only granted when the player continues once the credit is over.

The first additions to the previous formula appear at the ship selection screen. It isn’t enough to just choose ship type (A/red/straight shot/faster, B/green/bending shot/medium speed or C/blue/spread shot/slower). Now players must choose between Shot (S) or Laser (L) power. S gives a slight boost to shot and reduces its power only by one level upon death (laser returns to default), whereas L boosts laser power a little and provides only one level of laser power loss when the player dies (shot gets back to default). Therefore ship selection in Dodonpachi is always specified with ship type and power emphasis, as in B-S or C-L. From what I’ve seen the most popular choices are A-L and C-S.

Further changes relate exclusively to the much expanded scoring system. Even though the famous chaining scheme remains the same (killing enemies in succession with very short gaps between each kill), it’s been expanded in a way that most stage layouts allow for full stage chaining. One of the crucial points of improvement is that “lasering” a large enemy freezes the chain and keeps it alive. Additionally, a vertical bar below the score counter allows for quick chain tracking, so you know when the chain is going to break if you refrain from shooting. 13 hidden bees per stage must be uncovered by hitting their spots with laser, and provided you can get all of them without dying the bees in the next stage will have higher values (cumulative bonus). Adding surplus bombs to a full bomb stock activates the “maximum” bonus and applies a multiplier to the score, continuously increasing it as the game progresses. This multiplier is incremented as you get more extra bombs, which makes it the most simple (don’t die and don’t use bombs) but second best scoring technique besides chaining. Bonuses at the end of stage reward the player for boss kill, stars collected, boss hit count, and “no miss” (not dying). Boss hit count is different from chaining hit count in that it’s only applicable to bosses, getting slowly reduced instead of instantly zeroed if you don’t hit them with laser. Secret flower fields in stages 2 and 4 are the most obscure bonus items, with the hardest ones being the 10 million reward for each remaining life when the second loop is beaten.

As the previous paragraph makes it clear there’s much more than meets the eye in the scoring system of Dodonpachi. Deeper aspects will only surface for those who really dedicate themselves, such as the double damage inflicted by the laser aura that surrounds the ship, the fact that a fully powered ship will allow longer gaps in between hits while chaining, boss parts that release bigger stars or bees, “planted” bugs that can freeze a boss (4th  one) or the power-up item breaking a laser chain if you’re not within at least 1/3 of the screen close to the enemy you’re lasering (this doesn’t happen when you’re fully powered, so you only need to be careful during the first two stages).

Credit feeding with type B-S through the Saturn mode of Dodonpachi
(courtesy of YouTube user shaurz)

Extends are fixed at 6 and 20 million, and a 1UP can be extracted from the middle turret of the battleship in stage 3 if you manage to destroy all of the ship's lateral boxes without bombing. A big departure from Donpachi is the fact that Dodonpachi has no rank at all, it just remains brutal regardless of performance or deaths. The game is keen on mixing all sorts of bullet patterns to stop the player from succeeding. Aimed bullets, overlapping spreads, concentrated bursts, slow-moving bullet clouds, pulsing lasers, kamikaze enemies, you name it. Dodge, herd, point-blank, bomb. Obliterate multiple waves with the laser, kill some enemies faster to avoid getting overwhelmed by a bullet barrage, let a few of them live to sustain the chain. I find the difficulty slope to be quite reasonable as the action gets increasingly more frantic, but the second half of the game can be particularly brutal to newcomers. In a nutshell, building up consistent strategies in a game like this is a lesson in memorization, dodging and coordination between tapping and holding (even though you can use separate buttons for shot and laser on the Saturn controller I still find myself using just laser and tapping a lot).

Looping Dodonpachi isn’t a matter of just beating the first loop. Besides doing that you still need to fulfill one of the following conditions: lose up to two fighters; score at least 50 million points; collect all 13 bees in four of the six areas; get a maximum hit count of at least 270 hits (type A), 300 hits (type B) or 330 hits (type C). The second loop is way harder and comes with a lot more bullets (no suicide bullets though), and if you manage to beat the game a second time true last boss Hibachi will show its hideous face. Obviously my aspirations did not include a fight against Hibachi... Since my ship of choice was A-L, I decided that my passport to the 2nd loop would be achieving at least a 270 hit chain in the 2nd stage. The dedication paid off and I must tell you, it felt good to fully chain the 2nd stage for the first time. At that moment Dodonpachi finally clicked with me as a great shooting game. Of course it still took me some time to do it consistently, and that leads me to a definitive conclusion: in the land of games that live up to the old saying of “practice makes perfect”, Dodonpachi is right at the top. Opportunities for improvement are nearly endless. As a side effect, playing without proper focus can be extremely frustrating due to severe restartitis. And the Sega Saturn is especially friendly to restartitis victims because of the soft reset feature (A+B+C and START).

Many people look down on the Saturn port as an inferior way of enjoying Dodonpachi because of the slightly pixelly explosions, and that’s a real shame. The truth is that besides this single downside the game is extremely faithful to the arcade, as far as my experience with MAME goes. TATE is available and loading times are non-existent once a credit is started. You even get a dedicated Saturn mode with an extra starting level (dubbed stage 0, with remixed music from Donpachi), slower/easier patterns, no loop, Hibachi at the end of the game and a few nice tweakables (select loop 1/2, adjust chaining tolerance, etc.). I initially thought Score Attack mode allowed stage practice, but it's just like the Arcade mode only without continues. The Playstation port of Dodonpachi has its own issues, which shall be addressed as soon as I have spent some time with it.

This time I was able to reach stage 2-2 with the A-L ship, playing in TATE. I maximized the chains in stages 1 and 2, however my strategies for stage 4 weren't reliable at all and often ruined my runs. I had constant problems with the spawning green ships of stage 3 but if I got past them I could no-bomb up until the 4th boss. Stage 5 is a clusterfuck of herding, tap dodging and corner-bombing. Stage 6 lacked proper training so I just tried my best not to die there in stupid ways. This was the result:

Next: Dodonpachi Daioujou on the Playstation 2.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Magic Girl (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1993

Taiwanese companies like Gamtec were well-known for releasing unlicensed titles for various consoles, the majority of them with little to no redeeming quality whatsoever. Today Gamtec is an obscure footnote in gaming history, but not too long ago it was indirectly brought to the spotlight with the release of Super Fighter Team’s Legend of Wukong, a translation/reworking of one of the company’s RPGs. Gamtec’s contributions to the Mega Drive shmup library are still as obscure as ever though, consisting of Adventurous Boy (a rehash of Fantasy Zone), Thunderbolt II (with the company disguised as Sun Green) and Magic Girl, by far the single rarest Mega Drive title to be found complete with box. In over seven years of collecting I’ve yet to see a complete copy for sale (note: these games never had proper manuals). Good luck to all collectors who are still trying to find it.

Rarity definitely isn’t a sign of quality in this case. Magic Girl is a basic cute’em up, a colorful, linear, unimpressive title that won't bring any real excitement to those who fancy some 16-bit shooting action. This conclusion is mostly related to how the game plays as opposed to how the game looks. For an unlicensed shmup it’s visually not that bad and it successfully avoids being a rip-off, drawing loose inspiration from established franchises such as Twin Bee. If there’s anything that sounds explicitly derivative is the opening screen and its resemblance to a Looney Tunes cartoon title. A nice attract mode cycles permanently with this screen and shows the wizard girl being summoned to battle in order to save the world from evil, I guess. She's able to fire (button A) and drop spiralling bombs (button B). Unfortunately she gets no willows as rewards, unlike a much more famous flying witch.

No pencils are going to ruin my magic day!

Upon starting a credit the weakest aspect of the game becomes instantly clear: the choppiness of the animation/scrolling. There’s a constant feeling that several frame chunks are missing as everything seems to move faster than normal and bullets often catch you off guard. All players need to adapt to this, otherwise the little fun to be had here will quickly turn into disappointment. Once you get used to the bad frame rate you learn to avoid being too close to the bottom of the screen, for Magic Girl is yet another shooter where enemies will frequently spawn from behind the player’s frontal perspective. Hovering at mid level is the best way to go, other than that it’s just a matter of managing the items released by clouds that cross the screen from time to time.

Talking about optimum play in a shooter like this sounds a little overzealous since the gameplay is as engaging as, well, a snoozy autumn afternoon... Maybe that wouldn't be the case if some of the items weren't so confusing. Take blue, for instance. Light blue gives the little witch a single wave shot, dark blue adds three rotating orbs with additional firepower capability and dark blue with a faint crosshair inside activates a 5-way shot similar to the famous pattern from Star Soldier. It takes time to correctly distinguish them, and once you do you'll certainly avoid the undesired ones. The problem is that undesired items scroll down slowly and get in the way of dodging.

Besides the abovementioned wave and 5-way shots there's also a homing weapon (yellow), thus comprising three weapon types at the player's disposal. It's interesting to note that once you take the first weapon the initial default shot is gone as long as you don't die. Other items: a bubble shield that can take some hits (the Yin-Yang symbol), extra bombs (stars), points (purple) and full recovery for the character's health bar (heart). The rotating orbs (dark blue) also have a shielding function and don't allow the witch to take damage. Remember that the stock for bombs is unique to the whole game and is not renewed when you respawn after losing a life, which naturally happens when the health bar is depleted. Extra lives are obtained by scoring 50.000, 100.000 and successive 100.000 points afterwards.

It's raining over the desert
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

Stage progression in Magic Girl starts with a medieval village in a forest setting and goes through desert (level 2), a rocky landscape with weird statues that look like kid's heads on fire (level 3), outer space (level 4) and waterfalls (level 5). It's all pretty repetitive, with wave after wave of enemies prior to fights against corpulent bosses that move around and attack in predetermined, sometimes cheap patterns. The enemy gallery is varied but they're all bound to appear in similar waves, what changes a bit as the game unfolds are the bullet spreads they fire. Expect to come across flowers, smiley faces, baloons, fireballs, missiles, pencils, bats, aliens, hats, weird haniwas and a few unidentified flying objects. Everything is quite colorful, albeit unremarkable, and the action is at least intense enough to avoid instant boredom. The music is surprisingly catchy (the BGM for stage 2 is nice), but it tends to get overwhelmed by the loud volume of the sound effects.

Provided you can cope with the lame frame rate, Magic Girl isn't a hard game by any means. Of course this happens because of the health bar mechanic, but a few aspects weigh on the other side of the challenge scale. One of them is the high degree of item randomness. Sometimes it takes forever for the homing shot to appear. As a rule, the game seems to avoid granting shields and orbs when you use homing shot, as if excluding mutual advantages from these types of items (homing is definitely the best weapon in the game, with the 5-way shot as a close second). Unlike the norm in pretty much all shooters, bombing doesn't have any panic function here. Bombs do not help at escaping incoming fire, you need to dodge everything otherwise you will get hit.

Twinkle Tale might not qualify as a cute'em up to some people because of its dark undertones, and since Magic Girl is far from being a worthy title it's not hard to realize that the Mega Drive library of vertical cute'em ups is a rather poor one, in a strong contrast with its direct competitors. Magic Girl still stands as a cherished unlicensed rarity, but as a game is lacks substance and ultimately fails to establish any lasting appeal.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Psychic Storm (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan in 1992

How is it possible to ruin a game that has nice production values, excellent character design, good graphics and great bosses? Psychic Storm is the prime example of a practical answer to that. To put it in words is simple: just take away the challenge and ignore any sign of a scoring system. What's left of motivation for anyone to get back to a game like this? I rarely touch on the subject of replay value, but in this case it's necessary to emphasize how absolutely low it is. Shmup experiences are all about interaction and rewards, that's why I can't help but feel utterly frustrated when I beat a scoreless game in a single sitting twice. Legion, Hani in the Sky and Barunba at least offered some resistance.

Aliens invaded the planet, but hope exists in the form a super powerful spaceship known as STORM BRINGER. It endows its pilots with psychic powers, enhancing their spiritual strength and allowing them to face the "unspeakable" challenges ahead. This brief take on the story is conveyed in hilarious Engrish as nice animated sequences show the pilots preparing for battle. The insect influence on the design puts the game close to the thematic realm of Cyber Core, but the enemy roster also includes different creatures such as flaming dragons and organic worms.

Nastasia turns into a scorpion to deal with the second boss

One out of four pilots must be chosen at the start of every level. Besides having his/her own firepower (with auxiliary shots in the form of tiny missiles or short-range cluster bombs), each pilot is capable of activating a special "transform" attack that turns the ship into a powerful being for a brief while. No harm will be suffered by the main ship during the transform attack, which also allows you to take damage freely while it lasts.

Here's a summary of the pilots capabilities:
  • Alex "Duke in Scarlet" - Main gun: spread shot. Transform: a butterfly that shoots projections of its big wings.
  • Nastasia "The Blue Shooting Star" - Main gun: a drilling laser. Transform: a scorpion that shoots lightning bolts.
  • Joe "Pirates of Violet" - Main gun: a fire beam. Transform: a scarab beetle that fires lots of spread shots.
  • Charr "The Black Widow" - Main gun: a permanent sword. Transform: a crab whose maneuverable claws have charging abilities.

On the lower left corner the upper bar corresponds to health, and the lower bar is what I have baptized the "psychic attack bar". It fills up automatically, and once it's full you're able to unleash a smart bomb that melts all on screen bullets and kills cannon fodder. To do it you need to press both buttons at the same time, and the way I do it consists of holding the fire button first (II) and then pressing the transform button (I). This means that to use the transform attack you need to stop shooting. Blinking enemies are responsible for bringing upgrade items: successively collecting blue orbs powers up the main weapon, pills regenerate health and orbs with tiny arrows inside can extend the duration of the transform attack whenever its timer is active. Once the health bar is gone the game ends, but both the health bar and the stock for transform attacks (three, fixed) are replenished when a new stage starts.

Before beginning a credit the player has the chance to change the transform function from "auto" to "manual" at the start screen. Auto is the default, and it works simply by automatically activating a transform attack whenever the player gets hit and the health bar gets down to predetermined thresholds - an old fashioned auto-bomb feature, let's say. As expected, choosing manual hands the responsibility of activating transform to the player.

Complete run of Psychic Storm with pilot Alexander F. Linn
(courtesy of YouTube user cubex55)

All the good points about Psychic Storm slowly fade as you get through the game, despite the cool screens for stage introduction, the nice color choices, the abundant parallax scrolling and some impressive animations on bosses. Every stage is divided in two sections, where the second one unfolds as a close-up raid over the surface of the explored planet/spaceship. For some reason the first couple of levels last longer, with the order of the next three being selectable by the player. An extra stage is thrown in there as an unpexpected enemy appears from within the cosmos, so with the addition of a last level total stage count is seven. Being able to choose the pilot for each stage is made irrelevant in the long run because each pilot is powered up separately, and the only way to achieve maximum power with any of them is by sticking to the same character throughout the whole game. Switching pilots at the final stages isn't a wise move, for the new guy will face the increased challenge totally underpowered.

A good-looking shmup that's totally devoid of soul, Psychic Storm comes from the same Alfa System that would much later write its name in shmup history with the Shikigami No Shiro series. Amidst the forgetful experience what might linger on as an okay remembrance from this game is a slice of the music. It isn't remarkable by any means, but the BGM for the second stage is strangely soothing.

In my first credit (auto transform) I tested all pilots and settled with Joe for the final stages. After beating the game I did it again on manual transform, playing exclusively with Nastasia. Her transform creature isn't the best one, but her main weapon is excellent at higher power levels. Mission accomplished. The universe was saved and I was free to go to the next game.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Captain Planet and the Planeteers (NES)

Hybrid (Action / Horizontal)
Checkpoints ON/OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mindscape
Published by Mindscape in 1990

There were much more interesting cartoons by the time Captain Planet was airing on TV in my neck of the woods. In fact, Captain Planet was downright dull and boring, absolutely no kid in my circle of friends wanted to watch it. I never had any further contact with it until recently, when a friend brought to my attention the amusing death animation of the aircraft in Captain Planet and the Planeteers for the NES, a hybrid between a shooter and an action game (so there you go with the reason why I'm writing about it here). The game itself has a nasty widespread reputation that's totally undeserved, typical of people who have no clue about how gaming used to be during the NES days. By that time we needed to work our asses off to beat a game, and Captain Planet was just another tough title that demanded dedication.

An environmentally concerned cartoon, Captain Planet is about a blue superhero who's summoned by five teenagers who fight to preserve the planet against villains that want to pollute and destroy our natural resources. Each teenager has a magical ring with the power of an element (fire, water, earth, wind and "heart"), and by combining their powers Captain Planet will materialize to fight the evil menace. This same idea is used in the NES video game, which sees the teens controlling a ship of some sort to reach an enemy base, followed by Captain Planet taking over inside the base to defeat a villain. Therefore all five stages are divided in two sections each, all of them with increasingly tougher hazards to be dealt with. Mother Earth presents a briefing of the mission prior to each level, but trust me when I say the old method of trial and error might not be enough to really enjoy the game. I was almost cursing it in the initial flying section when I had the blessed attitude of reading the manual. Yes, that small booklet that comes inside game cases and people always take for granted...

Captain Planet and the Planeteers offers several kinds of challenge across its checkpoint-based shooting sections. In these areas controls work with shot (A), turn (B) and weapon select (START). All five weapons are always available: fire (straight shots), earth (rocks with hyperbolic trajectory), wind (circle of whirlwinds), water (wave) and heart (a vertical tractor beam, a.k.a. "be kind to animals" or "help me, you furry thing"). There's an ammo gauge for weapon usage, so it isn't wise to shoot indiscriminately. Fortunately destroying some waves or specific enemies releases items such as ammo recharge, weapon enhancer, speed-up, faster firing rate, forward/rear shot, 3-way spread shot and extra lives (looks like a small world map). Turning the ship around and changing the scrolling direction seems to be stupid but is actually essential in several areas, whereas some obstacles can only be overcome with the correct weapon.

No, this is not Choplifter...

Once inside the bases you control Captain Planet himself, a superhero that flies 100% of the time and never lands on anything. He's able to punch (A) and morph into (B) the currently chosen element (START). When he "morphs" his body turns into a living molecule with the element's capabilities. Note that there's a slight delay whenever you use an elemental power, so make sure you've turned into a molecule before advancing against an obstacle. Generally water and wind are used to get through nets/walls, with fire and rock actively damaging enemies that block your path. Heart has its purpose but is seldom used in these areas. While Captain Planet doesn't have a health meter he can sustain a little damage before dying and respawning in the same place, but I noticed that if he remains unscathed for a while he's able to take more hits before biting the dust. Remember that getting hit also depletes the element power gauge faster, and once the bar is empty it's impossible to use any power. At least there are lots of items frequently released by killed enemies, consisting of small/full power recharge, temporary invincibility and extra lives.

On graphical merits Captain Planet is kinda ordinary, but the overall design at least gets the job done. Even though the enemy gallery isn't that diverse, each level has its own set of perils. The biggest complaint someone might have about the music is that the game doesn't have any tune from the TV show. Apart from that the soundtrack fits the stage themes nicely, and I'm quite fond of the song for the third level. Gameplay often gets claustrophobic, but hit detection is never a problem. Here are some pieces of advice I gathered for the shooting parts, some of them taken directly from the manual:
  • Level 1.1 (spaceship) - You don't need to dodge the oil bursts from the 5 successive stacks in the first stage. Just use rock and plug them, carefully turning around as you get close to each one.
  • Level 2.1 (helicopter, Choplifter-style) - Fly low and stop the trucks by dropping a rock in front of them before they reach the oil spilling machines and kill you; in the last of the three trucks summon the bear with the heart power so that he can slow down the truck for you to catch up;
  • Level 3.1 (submarine) - Use rock to take care of mines; missile hatches can only be destroyed when they're open; use heart to make the whales hit the boats and free their babies; in the second boat hit the net with a rock after the whale leaves the screen; summon the octopus from inside the mud in the section where the boat keeps dropping bombs.
  • Level 4.1 (helicopter again) - Use heart to lift the elephants and carry them, fly in medium to high altitude to evade the enemy choppers and turn around to hit them if they get past you; release the elephants before the dishes that shoot missiles to proceed.
  • Level 5.1 (spaceship again) - A very hard level, and the best advice I can give is to memorize optimal paths; remember to use heart on the penguins so that they remove the ice sheets that fall from the ceilings in tight corridors.
Note that at the end of every flying section you need to "land" the craft in a specific part of the scenery. As for the action parts, it's always better to be careful than hasteful. Stages themselves can be tough, but bosses are wimpy and might go out with one punch (stage 4) or simply surrender out of fear (stage 3). I giggled the first time I saw Captain Planet showing off his muscles after beating a boss! The trickiest action parts for me were always the third boss (passing through the fan corridor takes practice) and the whole 4.2 level, which is even harder than the last part of the game (5.2). Those dark robots are too strong and will kill you 100% of the time, so I was always prepared to lose at least three lives in that area. By the way, keeping track of the score and the number of lives is done by pausing the action with the SELECT button.

Watch out for the ships from Planet Patrol!
(courtesy of YouTube user Waldimart)

This is a hard game, there's no doubt about it. Nevertheless it's possible to take advantage of a few aspects that can help the player get through more easily. Every section starts with 5 lives, and as soon as you complete each checkpoint in the navigating sections of stages 2, 3 and 4 an extra life appears. This doesn't happen during stage 5.1, but the penguin in the last checkpoint always gives an extra life - a deserved reward for getting so far in that extremely hard level (it's not possible to stock more than 5 lives though). In stage 5.2 the upper cap of the spinning stationary robot that guards some teleport doors hides an extra life, so be prepared to hit it after the fourth punch gets in. Lucky streaks of invincibility items can get you through long distances inside bases, and many areas have corners with items that cycle automatically for you to choose which one to collect. For other hints at how to perform better in the game I heartily recommend everyone to read the instruction booklet. Seriously.

I was able to 1CC the game in 40 minutes. If it weren't for those unskippable parts where you must wait for the planeteers to rejoice on their success before summoning Captain Planet with their rings a complete credit would take less than that. At least you can take note of the passwords to jump to specific stages if you want to practice. Milking checkpoints or respawning enemies is possible, but it's risky and time consuming.

Those who enjoy challenging 8-bit games should give a chance to Captain Planet and the Planeteers on the NES, regardless of genre preference or how faithful it is to the source material. The good mix of shooting, exploring and strategy keeps you interested in seeing what comes next until you're finally able to face the ultimate villain Duke Nukem (!). The power is yours!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Metal Black (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

Out of the ashes of the Darius series and with shady connections to the absolutely unrelated Gun Frontier, Metal Black graced the arcades in 1991. A few years later a port was released for the Sega Saturn, and it would take approximately ten years for the game to be available on the Playstation 2 by means of the first volume of the Taito Memories Japanese compilation, or the second volume of the Taito Legends Western disc. I chose to play it on Taito Memories Volume 1 because of rumors concerning a gameplay bug in the other version, even though it seemed to run fine from the few tests I did.

"Project Gun Frontier 2" is an alias written all over this game, but there’s nothing that really links both titles. There is, however, a handful of psychedelic images in the background of the fight against the last boss in Metal Black that definitely evoke the dark musings of Gun Frontier's story. The Darius heritage is a much stronger one, as hinted by the number of creatures with an aquatic flavor that populate the game. If it wasn’t for the general clunkiness of the gameplay anyone would mistake Metal Black as yet another Proco and Tiat adventure. The vibe is definitely different though, with an inescapable degree of cheapness that might spoil the experience for newcomers. I had some previous knowledge under my belt, so I knew where I was getting into.

What’s most interesting about Metal Black is that the game did try to innovate, and just like Gun Frontier it served as explicit inspiration for a much more polished later title: Border Down (in the case of Gun Frontier the evolution was Battle Garegga). Metal Black introduced the great concept of beam duel, but at the same time included those dreadful bonus stages whose sole purpose might have been to showcase that cylinder effect applied to some of the backgrounds in the game. Not only do these bonus stages break the natural shooting flow, but they’re also a pain because it’s not hard to fail and miss the much needed bonus points for a decent final score. It’s unnerving.

No enemy shall escape my wrath

So much about bitching, but what about the game itself? Stage progression involves a ship named Black Fly departing for outer space from a dead planet Earth. Its mission is to warp across the Solar System and annihilate the source of evil inside Jupiter. The ship was developed to hone stray energy from the enemy itself by collecting "newalone", molecule-like particles that float in space. Newalone is the source of the Black Fly’s offensive capabilities, upgrading its main firepower and providing fuel for a powerful energy beam. Main firepower evolves from a narrow shot into a wider straight shot, maxing out with a very useful range that hits things above and below the ship's horizontal axis. Firing the main weapon works in bursts, so it’s up to the player to keep pressing that button at regular intervals or to use some sort of autofire (not available). As for the beam, it comes with a strong laser discharge that consumes the whole power gauge, thus sending the main gun back to its default starting level (if activated with a maxed out gauge the beam will also create a series of lightning bolts that hit everything on screen for a few seconds). When the beam fades out completely it’s necessary to collect more newalone to regain power.

Pretty straightforward in execution, Metal Black is a mix of run-of-the-mill pixel art and a few nice graphical effects, such as the aforementioned cylinder-based backgrounds. Enemy and stage designs are decently varied, as well as the music. In fact, I believe I started to appreciate the soundtrack this time around, even if the best tracks are reserved for the second half of the game. However, where it actually shines is during boss fights, for that’s when the energy beam comes in as a valuable resource for victory. The catch is that bosses are also able to collect newalone and deploy their own beams, giving the player enough time to counter attack and create a powerful clash that quickly generates an energy sphere. Ideally the entity with the highest stock of newalone will end up sending the sphere against the opponent, but it’s also a good move to mash the buttons and keep collecting more newalone as the beam dissipates, hence sustaining it for a while longer. Also don’t let the boss stock more newalone or things will get nasty, especially against the dung beetle at the end of stage 3.

Death in stage 6 and bad ending to Metal Black
(courtesy of YouTube user khex74957495w)

And then there are the bonus intermissions after levels 1 and 3... The objective is to destroy aliens in a chaotic room where they’re all flying around at random. Hit the shot button when the crosshair is over one of them and watch as a series of guided missiles obliterates the creature. On the first bonus area there are 5 aliens to be killed within 30 seconds, on the second one it’s 60 seconds for 10 more aliens (the timer runs faster than normal). Kill them all and collect extra bonuses for time left and perfect destruction. Fail and go on with a miserable increase in your score and a growing anger against the scoring system. For me it was pretty common to do relatively well in these bonus stages for a while, only to get shafted in multiple credits afterwards. If this happens final scores suffer, regardless of how much milking you’re able to pull out from bosses. Well, at least it’s reasonably possible to reach the extends at 70.000 and every 150.000 points after that.

Tricky corners, closing walls, sticking bubbles and lots of things coming from behind complete the set of minor challenges the player is bound to face in Metal Black. Memorize the most critical parts to reduce the amount of cheap deaths and activate the energy beam wisely. Learn how to use the wide reach of a fully-powered weapon to hit enemies without aligning too close to them horizontally. Remember that starting from stage 3 most enemies are spawned and behave according to where you are on screen, therefore positioning is key for survival. Most of the time I prefer to stay on the far left. Rate of enemy fire is timed, so exploit the windows to take them out in safety. Getting greedy on newalone (each one is worth 10 points) is another reason for dying stupidly, so don’t get out of your way for them unless the horizon is clear.

Click for the option menus translation for Metal Black on Taito Memories Vol. 1

The real ending to Metal Black is only seen if the game is completed on one credit, and dying in the last stage triggers a bad ending. I consider the game to be a minor effort from Taito, but now I have a better idea of why it might represent a guilty pleasure to some people. The result of my comeback is below (played on Normal, with a turbo controller for the much needed autofire capability).