Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exed Exes (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
16 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Tokuma Soft in 1986

I believe most people will agree that insects are always a cool subject for any video game. I was always intrigued by the timeline of the insect theme in shmups, but never really paid any attention to Exed Exes until very recently, when I had the chance to dedicate some time to the arcade version. Excluding the primitive insect-like alien enemies of the unscrolling classic Galaxian, this game is probably the legitimate forefather to later stuff such as Cyber Core, Apidya and Mushihimesama. Coming after Vulgus and 1942, Exed Exes (also known as Savage Bees in the West) was part of the initial batch of arcade shooters developed by Capcom and, as such, presented extremely challenging gameplay despite its primitive looks. At that time the only port to appear in home consoles was the one for the Famicom, with no counterpart ever released for the NES.

The Famicom version squeezes the original arcade content and turns it into an extremely watered down game. At least it retains the hypnotic minimalistic music and the hexagonal hive-like texture that covers most of the ground areas - both distinctive aspects that define the aural/visual concept of Exed Exes. Sure, parallax scrolling is gone and those lovely buzzing sounds of insects dying are replaced by common beeps, but that was to be expected in an 8-bit port. What leaves a lot to be desired is the poor frame rate, the washed out colors, inherent flaws related to flicker and an overall feeling that the game is marred by poor programming. Well, online info points that the company behind the port is infamous Micronics, even though no mention is to be found anywhere in the game itself, nor in the box or manual…

Do bees sting harder than wasps?

A life in the world of Exed Exes starts as soon as the several parts of the ship are put together. You’re equipped with a forward double shot with limited reach, so if you want to kill enemies as they appear from the top of the screen you’re forced to stay far from the bottom line. Powering up is done by taking colored Pow icons inside a circle: there are only two of them, and the upgrades consist solely of a power increase in the default double shot or a thicker triple shot. Besides shooting (button A) the player is also able to deploy a smart bomb (button B) whose sole function is to get rid of all on-screen bullets. Enemies suffer no damage from it whatsoever.

Other items serve different purposes than powering up, such as the inverted Pow. Inverted Pows send the ship back to its default shot level, granting 10.000 points for the sacrifice in firepower. The yellow Pow transforms every enemy in different kinds of fruit for some valuable extra points (the bigger the enemy the bigger the fruit/reward). Yellow Pows appear mostly within the “hi-point areas", which consist of specific sections in odd-numbered stages where enemies aren’t allowed to shoot back at you. Hi-point areas are preceded by a screen blinking effect and end with a proper –END– message. Stars will pass across the screen once specific score milestones are met, and besides adding new smart bombs to the stock they’re also worth 5.000 points. Last but not least, some ground turrets might drop fruits with varying bonus values.

There’s a rhythm to how enemies are spawned in Exed Exes. Ground turrets have little variation (some shoot, some don’t), but it’s important to observe three things about flying enemy flocks: (1) every enemy has the same specific behavior, (2) enemy types are never mixed within the same wave and (3) the next wave of the same enemy type will only appear when the last one of the current wave is destroyed or leaves the screen. Bees, for instance, are the most common type of enemy and follow the single pattern of appearing, shooting two bullets in a V-spread fashion and disappearing on the other side of the screen. Dragonflies appear from the bottom and drift up after shooting three spread bullets. Beetles rush into the screen trying to crush the player, and flee after a while without shooting. Flies come down in a staggering pattern and might shoot as they’re about to leave the screen. Stingrays line up on the top and dive towards the player, but don’t shoot. Skulls might appear isolated or in spinning circles, while big bugs move around the screen in the most diverse patterns dropping destructible bombs (they’re the ones that take more shots to destroy). If you don’t destroy the cross-formations of orbs known as “desura” when they initially show up, as soon as they reappear in a different place they will shoot. Finally, one of Capcom’s famous benign items (the yasichi, a colored circle that looks like a lollipop) assumes a rare malevolent role, descending upon the player in groups of four.

A brief snippet of Exed Exes on the Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Most of the time spawning places and trajectories of flying enemies are dictated by the player’s current position. Although they don’t get mixed in the same wave, multiple waves of different enemies get increasingly more common as the game progresses, and they even start coming during boss confrontations. Bosses might appear more than once in a stage and consist of different floating formations with a varying number of four types of turrets: skulls, radars (both 5 shots to kill), guns (10 shots to kill) and dark guns (25 shots to kill). No shots are fired from radars, but if any radar or dark gun is left for last the boss might descend upon you and escape. Due to the amount of bullets fired, bosses definitely pose the biggest challenge in the game, almost giving Exed Exes a semi-bullet hell feel. Unfortunately it’s just too much for the Famicom to handle, and the result can instead be labeled as "flicker hell". The game is already very slow, so I didn’t really care about any extra slowdown.

Even though this port does nothing wrong besides being slow and boring, poor graphics and awful color options are also to blame for its lack of punch. Omissions from the arcade version are kept to details (ship thrusters moving, reduced number of fruit icons, no indication of damage on larger enemies and radars, less configurations for bosses). Flicker abounds, but at least the hit detection isn’t dodgy. You can only see your life stock when you die or when an extend is achieved (first for 50.000 points and further ones at the hundred thousands). As in the arcade original, killing complete waves of some enemies results in extra points.

In order to consider the game looped you need to beat stage/round 16. This last stage is notorious for having lots of bosses, with the final one being the hardest configuration of all: a SUPER EXES armed only with dark guns. Exed Exes for the Famicom/NES does not have autofire, and since it prevented my turbo controller from working I had to mash those buttons all the way until round 20. Here's the result:

Monday, January 28, 2013

Strikers 1945 (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1996

Seeing Strikers 1945 in action immediately brings to mind Sonic Wings and 19XX, shooting game series that came before it and served as direct inspiration. In the case of Sonic Wings heritage goes beyond inspiration, since the guys behind Psikyo were part of the team that developed the first Sonic Wings. Strikers 1945 uses the same structure of Gunbird and Sengoku Ace, the previous shooters from the company: shuffled short stages guarded by bosses with increasingly faster/denser bullet patterns. Despite the similarities amongst them all and the stench of constant recycling, we all know these games established a particular style that’s unique to Psikyo, slowly gathering a strong following within the most dedicated fans of the genre over the years.

Strikers 1945 does pack some minor improvements over its predecessors from the other series, such as a slightly higher difficulty and a more developed, albeit incipient, scoring system. From my own previous experience I can say it takes dedication to start enjoying the pacing of a game like this, and sadly most people give up in the process. Endless credits don’t cut it here, for credit feeding sends you back to the start of the stage in the second half of the game. Come to think of it, that’s a nice way of adding fake replay value to a shmup (fake in the sense that unaware people will not beat it in 20 minutes, call it quits and say the game is too easy).

Once the war ended in 1945, an alien race thought it was the right time to unleash an attack on planet Earth. Nations ally and deploy six planes to fight the menace. These planes have a varied arsenal comprised of main gun, charged shot and bomb attack, with differing characteristics for speed and firepower. They strike in four locations before taking on the alien base (stage 5) and rocketing to outer space in stage 6. The only hint of alien activity in the first half of the game are the Decepticon-like creatures that pop out from bosses, which are initially just heavily-armored military craft. Later on a myriad of strange machines and outer space creatures (scorpions, puppets, crabs, etc.) take their places as the hero planes drift even further into outer space territory.

Swallow my fire, alien scum!

Each plane can be powered up four times (P items) and expand its bomb stock (B items). Each power-up adds an option whose function differs according to the craft. A fully powered-up plane will therefore carry four of these options, which combine somehow to provide the charge shot (using the charge shot requires at least one option). Charging time varies from plane to plane, as well as the effectiveness of the bombs – some of them have a panic effect, providing instant protection from death. My favorite planes are the BF-109, the P-38 and the Spitfire, since they have good combinations of firepower, charging time and bombs.

Straightforward blasting is the rule, careful item collecting is the fuel. Fuel for what, you say? Fuel for a higher score and fuel for an even higher level of frustration as you try to maximize gold bar value only to die like an idiot where you absolutely shouldn’t. The game gave me much more trouble to loop than before, when I wasn’t aware of the different bonuses related to the ground items (GREED is indeed a bitch). Gold ingots are uncovered from selected ground enemies and have a variable shining glow. Collect them at the exact moment when they’re at their brightest and you get 2.000 points, do it in their dullest hue and you get 200 points. Middle bonuses might be 500 or 1.000 points. It’s easier said than done, obviously.

Strikers 1945 is known for being swift and intense, with average graphics that are put to good use in explosions and boss animations. Regarding music, the soundtrack does a good job at establishing a military feel even though I can't say it's a remarkable one. From a standalone point of view the overall design is definitely creative, but it all falls short when you consider how much graphical recycling this game shares with Gunbird and Sengoku Ace. All these games are good fun in their own rights, and thankfully all three series were able to find respectable different paths in their second chapters. It might seem an eternity since I was able to loop Strikers 1945 II when I started this blog, therefore it’s not that surprising how my mindset (and general approach towards Psikyo) has changed since then.

Opening and attract mode for Strikers 1945 on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user koosterveld)

Shuffling the initial stages seemingly wasn’t enough to keep Strikers 1945 fresh at every credit, so Psikyo also added an aggressive rank system that makes each one of these starting levels play differently depending on the order in which they appear. The basic idea is that the longer you stay alive, the more powered-up you are and the more bombs you stock the harder the game will get, with enemies firing faster bullets at a higher rate. Once the opponents get too tough one of the strategies the player can use to lower rank is to collide against an enemy, this way you lose one power-up level and enemy aggression is immediately reduced. To keep things under control and have better survival chances I did this at least once in the game: prior to the fight against the 4th boss or as soon as stage 5 started. There are no timed power-downs as in Gunbird, so once maximum power is achieved every further P will be worth 4.000 points each. Surplus bombs also give extra points (maximum bomb stock is 6).

Gold bars and extra items are the main source of score boost, but other strategies can also be used to score higher. One of them is to destroy all parts of a boss and milk its destructible projectiles. Another is to procrastinate a boss fight to capitalize on the popcorn waves that appear regularly (be careful though, all bosses eventually time out and explode in a dangerous bullet spread). And then there’s the secret train in the Doramascher stage, activated by refraining from shooting and hovering over a particular tree for one or two seconds. This train (supposedly from Gunbird) releases a handful of power-ups. For more information refer to this great little page with explanatory pictures.

On the Saturn Strikers 1495 appears with a new animated intro and can be played in two YOKO resolutions (Original 1 and Original 2) and TATE (Arcade). The difference between both Originals is the vertical wobbling that's present in Original 2. Apart from some slowdown, the Playstation port is supposedly equal to the Saturn version. This time I played the game in TATE and was able to improve my personal Saturn best in 16%, again using the Spitfire (difficulty 5 - Normal).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Coryoon (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft
Published by naxat soft in 1991

Once there was a baby dragon who adored his princess. He loved her so much he even launched himself in a quest to avenge her being turned into a midget troll by a mindless fiend. That’s the story to the Japan-exclusive cute'em up Coryoon - Child of Dragon, an impressive but at the same time disappointing game that also carries the fame of being one of the PC Engine’s rarest and most expensive shooters. A colorful, fast and incredibly easy experience awaits those who’re bold enough to own it or comfortable enough to emulate.

If you’re familiar with the much cheaper Air Zonk/PC Denjin you’ll feel right at home with Coryoon, simply because both games seem to have been developed over the same mold. They’ve got the same vibe and excel at the same technical aspects, even though Coryoon takes the cake as the most accomplished of the two. Suffice it to say that despite the hectic action the game remains almost absolutely free of slowdown, something that Air Zonk wasn’t able to avoid during its most intense sections. We’re talking about really impressive programming here, especially considering how technically limited the PC Engine is when it comes down to graphical effects such as parallax scrolling. You need to really overload pixel manipulation to see Coryoon start to choke with sprite flicker, and that's not easy to do.

Baby dragon meets all kinds of crazy flying creatures across eight stages full of bosses (two per stage and a boss rush in the final level). He can certainly do lots of things for such a little creature loose in a nasty magical world, and one of them is to spit three types of attacks defined by the cycling orbs brought by storks (button II): flame (red), wave laser (blue) and lightning bolts (yellow). Sticking to the same weapon type will increase its power in three steps. Upon switching to a different weapon the power level is properly preserved, but if you get hit the weapon is lost and you’re left with the default basic pea shooter. This is the only condition that results in death if baby dragon takes a hit, and half the reason why the game is so easy. The other half comes from the fact that the game grants extends like candy in Halloween. Seriously, I didn’t even bother to take note of the extend interval, if you don’t die you might as well come out of the first stage with 8 lives in reserve instead of the starting 4.

"I'm not bored of the action, I'm just blinking!"

Baby dragon can also fire a charged flame attack if you refrain from shooting for a little while, as well as toggle between two different flying speeds with the SELECT button. Four special powers are at his disposal according to the card suits released by certain enemies, but you can only use/activate one suit at a time. Hearts adds two rotating options that lock in vertical position when button I is pressed. Diamonds shrinks baby dragon but doesn’t let him use the charge attack anymore. Spades is your good old smart bomb, detonated with button I. Finally, clubs works as a fruit magnet as long as you keep button I pressed. Fruits, by the way, are what give Coryoon its visual intensity: all enemies release varying sizes of fruit, and since they’re worth lots of points the game soon turns into a collecting frenzy.

A last item to be collected appears when you destroy a white chicken. It gives the player a homing little dragon that hovers around the screen shooting and causing random damage. You don’t lose it even if you die, but the thing will flee whenever you meet a boss. The chicken doesn’t appear often though, unlike the storks that bring power-up orbs. It should be noted that whenever an enemy is killed with the charge shot it won’t release any fruit or item, so killing the white chicken this way will not give you the little dragon-option.

Being visually impressive is Coryoon’s best trait, with color schemes that change constantly throughout several standard motifs for stages (forest, castle, fire, water, caves, etc.). Baby dragon itself is always switching colors according to the weapons he's carrying. The open world of the game lends itself to a fast paced journey where the screen is almost always full of stuff flying around. Besides having to deal with fruits falling everywhere, players can be easily confused by dying enemies that vanish in distracting explosions. It takes a little while to grasp what’s going on and fully understand how all extra items work (I beat the game on my first try and didn’t even get to understand the meaning of all items). Card suits appear after you destroy a certain number of enemies, but you can never guess exactly when or where they will materialize. Consequently it’s pretty common to accidentally switch to a different suit. Losing clubs made me upset because the fruit-sucking ability is easily the coolest thing about the game. Out of sheer pride I’d rather die than pick up another card suit (dying strips you off every power and item you’re carrying).

A quick sample of Coryoon's intro and gameplay
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

While Coryoon boasts lovely artwork and implements neat gameplay details, such as giving points for shots landed on bosses, extra bonuses for every surplus items you collect and a very brief invincibility window every time you take a power-up (useful to escape incoming attacks), it disappoints by not imposing timeouts on bosses. You can theoretically counterstop the game by milking fruit from their attacks, which hurts the experience for those who enjoy chasing higher scores. Had it had time-limited boss fights and less extends Coryoon would certainly be one of the best PC Engine shmups out there. Just for the sake of comparison, it looks and plays better than Air Zonk, only losing in the soundtrack department. The music doesn’t hurt but doesn’t stand out either, with no memorable tunes whatsoever. Baby dragon has a healthy array of voices though, and he really seems to like pineapple!

Caravan lovers will appreciate the fact that the game has additional 2-minute and 5-minute score attack modes (press SELECT at the start screen to cycle through all options available in the menu). Secret codes can be input at the sound test to gain access to other game variations, such as an option with black & white graphics and a no-fruit mode.

Once the game is beaten the credits roll and halt at an ending screen, but resetting the console (SELECT + START) adds to your score a final bonus of 2 million points for each remaining life. Assuming the result surpasses the highest score that’s displayed in every screen that doesn’t belong to the credit you’re playing, it will replace it and be saved for eternity as long as the internal battery of the console doesn’t die. Here’s my final result:

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cho Aniki - Kyūkyoku Muteki Ginga Saikyō Otoko (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
12 (14) Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Masaya
Published by NCS in 1995

After two shooter entries for the PC Engine CD and a fighting game for the Super Famicom, in 1995 the most explicitly gay video game series of all time received a fourth title released simultaneously for the Playstation and the Sega Saturn: Cho Aniki - Kyūkyoku Muteki Ginga Saikyō Otoko. Allow me to shorten the name to Cho Aniki, we don’t need all those weird words, there’s weirdness enough in the game itself. So much that I consider this the most bizarre shmup ever developed. Even though it’s far from delivering a remarkable gameplay, 32-bit Cho Aniki is a tour-de-force in homosexually inspired graphical design, as wacky as it gets and going beyond what a regular onlooker would consider “normal” for any commercially released video game.

Much of the in-game graphics carry a bizarre touch, especially bosses, but most of the impact in weirdness comes from cut scenes in the introduction and in stage intermissions. Digitized graphics of real actors are all over the place, but in these segments they’re complemented by indescribable voices and groans of typical Japanese overacting. Many people wouldn’t be comfortable playing it in front of an audience. I know people who are sensitive to this sort of thing (lolis are another less extreme example), so if you don’t mind the subject matter prepare yourself for a very… standard shooting experience! Yes, despite the imposing aura of wackiness Cho Aniki is actually a rather straightforward shmup. The formula is pretty simple, much like in the original Cho Aniki for the PC Engine CD.

Now you two traitors get back here at once!

Adon and Samson are back to supporting roles after starring in Ai Cho Aniki. They are the aiding pair of Idaten the guy. Benten the girl, on the other hand, has the help of two child angels. Apparently, Idaten and Benten are summoned by an elderly pervert to stop an evil muscular man with a horned helmet who’s coming to destroy their world. You even get to control the other side of the conflict by guiding the huge muscular man in two intermission levels where you only fire a huge beam from his head while killing stupid little creatures. These intermission levels take place at the very start of the game and between stages 6 and 7. You get no points at all from them, but the most interesting thing is that the muscular man has only one life - if you let him die the credit is lost. Well, if he’s dead there can be no real fight against a final boss, so perhaps that’s why the game ends.

Cho Aniki on the PS1 uses almost all controller buttons. Fire with □, use a special attack with × and toggle helper position between fixed/moving with ○. Shoulder buttons control speed selection (L2 /R2) and special attack selection (L1/R1). Most larger enemies release protein globs that must be collected to power up the character and its helpers, and as you collect protein you also acquire successive special attacks (seen below the score counter). The more powered-up you are the more specials you have, kinda like what Psikyo did on Sol Divide. Special attacks vary from the trademark Cho Aniki laser attack to smart bombs or sheer firepower enhancement. Frankly, I used only the laser because it’s extremely powerful and provides instant invincibility, but feel free to try the others.

Benten seems to be slightly more powerful than Idaten, but playing with her has a few disadvantages. One of them is that while all other characters appear half naked she is shrouded in rags from head to toe, almost as if she was wearing a burqa. Okay, seriously now... Her speed range goes from 1 to 5, whereas Idaten can select speeds from 1 to 8. Adon and Samson are larger, consequently they offer better protection against incoming bullets than Benten’s smaller angels. Be careful when using them as shields though, if helpers absorb too much damage they will quit shooting and enter a sleeping state. If you get to the boss with a sleeping helper he/she might fall in love with the enemy, leaving you and taking his side in the fight. It’s pretty funny!

Cho Aniki's intro: just a taste of things to come in the game itself
(courtesy of YouTube user PrehistorikMan)

Speaking of funny, Cho Aniki is decidedly known for constantly making the player giggle at the scenery and enemies alike. Imagine a world where the opposition is made mostly of bald men, thin and fat, black and white, their torsos attached to all kinds of animals and mechanical apparatus, sometimes in a disturbingly shady fashion. Voices abound and more often than not blend with the music with mixed results. The game’s soundtrack is great, ranging from typical Japanese tunes to uplifting pseudo-techno compositions. In that sense, the creative excellence of the game is undeniable. Granted, some background graphics are lacking, but at least most of them have several layers of parallax scrolling, or even 3D effects that create planes above and below the player. On a side note, a few bosses clearly hint at how Masaya’s design evolved since the days of Wings of Wor on the Mega Drive.

Excluding the fact that a credit starts with three lives and the game offers absolutely no extends, there isn’t much in the way of pressure. It takes lots of protein to achieve maximum power, but provided you take them all you’ll never be underpowered (getting to the wave shot that pierces through everything is a sign that you’re nearly or you've already maxed out). The game is on the easy side, with only a few challenge traps here and there and bosses that become a joke once you've figured out their patterns. In my opinion the trickiest stages are the 8th (cars throwing grenades) and the ones that have lasers (beware of the cheap ones that might take you by surprise, as in the 3rd and 6th bosses). Dying has no influence in firepower, but using a special attack reduces power level by a little amount. Other than that the gameplay is pretty much down to cruising across amusing/creepy settings, marvelling at the bosses and enjoying one of the most unique guilty pleasures in shmup history.

Click for the option menus translation for Cho Aniki on the Playstation

All main characters in Cho Aniki were based off real people, as seen in one of the options in the starting menu that contains a video showing actors posing for the game’s image capture process. I still don’t know how the Playstation game compares with its Saturn counterpart, but I assume they must be pretty equivalent to each other (those who own a PS3 can play the PS1 version since it was re-released for the console’s online service in 2010). Following an obscure RPG entry for the Bandai Wonderswan, the next shooter installment in the series is Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu for the Playstation 2, released eight years after this one.

Since the game does not buffer or save high scores, the following picture was taken immediately after I defeated the last boss. I played with Idaten on NORMAL and had great campy fun!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Hellfire (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by NCS/Seismic in 1990

From all Mega Drive games, Hellfire holds a special place in my gaming life. It was one of the first titles to arrive in the mail as I went on a buying spree to build up my collection from scratch, and the first shooter I played during the time I was starting to realize that shmups were my favorite genre of all. I dusted my old console from the closet and played the game non-stop for a few weeks, but eventually I moved on to other games because I couldn’t beat it. In a sense, having looped it now feels like finally bringing some sweet unfinished business to a close. Yes, I know that combining “sweet” and Hellfire in the same sentence sounds awkward. After all, this is a case where the game definitely lives up to its name.

First of only two horizontal arcade shooters ever released by Toaplan, Hellfire held the distinction of bringing something really fresh to the table with its emphasis on directional firing. Soon the game was ported to the Mega Drive and the PC Engine CD (as Hellfire S). In the case of Sega’s console it also found its way to Europe and the Americas, unlike what happened with NEC’s port. This was a slightly better fate than what happened with Mega Drive’s Zero Wing (the only other Toaplan horizontal shooter), whose great qualities were deceptively overshadowed by an Engrish-ridden European port. Both titles share similar graphical designs, but all things considered perhaps the most interesting distinction of Hellfire on the Mega Drive is that the game is seen by many as an improvement over the arcade original.

Once the ship takes off from a large cruiser, enemy drones provide the initial resistance and destroyed turrets start releasing the first items, including speed-ups (S), power-ups (P) and bonuses (B). Controls work in a three-button arrangement: fire with button A, switch firing direction with button B and release the hellfire laser beam with button C. There are four color-coded firing directions that cycle in the following fixed order as you press B: (1) forward/pink → (2) rear/yellow → (3) verticals/green → (4) diagonals/blue → (1). The hellfire laser (button C) melts bullets and damages whatever is in its path as an extremely fast energy beam is discharged by the opening of the ship’s rotating flaps. Stock for hellfire is limited and independent of life count, with new ones showing up every once in a while for you to take them.

Freeing the forest colony

There are a few other items besides the abovementioned ones. In every life you come across a small option that has a mind of its own and attacks enemies at random, sometimes blocking bullets as well. I like to think of it as Hellfire’s luck factor – it’s not uncommon to notice you’ve just been saved from death by its providential help. There's also a 1-hit shield that makes the ship glow. Once lost, if you live long enough a new shield will eventually come by. And if you’re in a lucky streak a 1UP (extra life) might also grace your way, generally as you fly over the shrimp/volcano river of the fourth stage.

For those who like to rack up high scores the single most important item of all is the score bonus. By taking successive Bs they will eventually be worth 10.000 points each (you get 40, 80, 160, 640, 1.280 and 2.560 from the first six). Powering up increases shot power up to five levels, and once you’re fully powered the P items cease to appear. Assuming the shield is active and you’ve already got the option, as soon as you're maxed out all items will come in sequences of one speed-up and three Bs, with the occasional hellfire laser in between. That’s good motivation to try and get through the game on one life, right? Getting back up once you die becomes increasingly tougher, to the point where dying in the last stage makes you want to reset the game in disgust. If you’re already underpowered when maxed out, how in hell are you going to take out those alien battleships at default conditions? That’s why memorization and strategy (meaning proper usage of directional firing) are essential to succeed against one of the most brutal checkpoint systems I’ve ever seen. Note: die again quickly and you’ll be sent even further back than the currently reached checkpoint.

Probably because there are only six of them, levels in Hellfire are a bit longer than in the average horizontal shooter. The game is full of mid-bosses (sometimes more than one per stage), and the design might change several times before you reach the actual bosses, most of them with weak spots that resemble the cores from Gradius. The enemy roster is quite varied and includes turrets of all sizes and shapes, waves of robot walkers and saucers that close in from all sides and corners, mechanical machines that release deadly heat seeking missiles, alien puppets jumping out of nowhere, sphere arrangements from hell, volcanoes amidst treacherous shrimp-like creatures, giant rockets, biomechanical battleships, etc. The second level is especially amusing for its full-blown Egyptian motif, complete with pyramids, a myriad of statues and idols and a sarcophagus boss. The music also shines is this particular stage, and while it’s not my favorite soundtrack Hellfire’s collection of tunes is likable enough.

In a few parts of the game, most notably in middle sections, the scrolling speed picks up considerably as a boss enemy or a series of obstacles goes by really fast. It's important to notice how this acceleration seems to heighten the difficulty as you must weave through a cloud of aimed bullets (take out the fast scrolling and you'll see the simpler picture). Though no flicker is to be seen the game slows down in a few parts, thankfully it's not jerky or gamebreaking at all. Difficulty choice is kinda cruel since it goes from EASY (default) to HARD. VERY HARD (also known as "Yea Right") can be activated without looping the game by letting the difficulty rest on HARD for one minute in the options menu.

A loop completion on HARD that was nearly lost due to a stupid mistake

I can think of a few reasons why Hellfire on the Mega Drive might be considered superior to the arcade game. With the exception of some sections in the last stage it does retain the original layouts (textures, shades and colors non-withstanding), but the simple fact that the ship changes color according to the weapon you’re using is an awesome improvement. Originally the B item granted a single value instead of the cumulative bonus of this version, which also has the option, the hellfire beam and the checkpoints as exclusive features (the most interesting thing is that I always thought the game’s name came from the hellfire attack...). Another change is that the Mega Drive port ditches the laser aspect of the regular shot and gives it a more common stream-like nature.

Hellfire is definitely brutal, but never cheap. Brave players prepare for an incredible sense of achievement. Toaplan's finesse is all over it, with solid gameplay and impeccable hit detection. There are, however, some differences between the Japanese and North American versions of the game. I noticed that the large battleships of the last stage are immune to the hellfire beam in the Genesis version (damn!), and a few of the saucer waves in the last section of the 4th stage have different arriving positions. The Genesis game gives the first extend at 70.000 points and further ones with every 200.000 points, whereas the Japanese cyclic extend interval is reduced to 100.000.

I played the Genesis version. Once I looped the game on Hard I died somewhere after the mid-boss in stage 1. "Yea Right" is pure evil and turns an already brutal game into a nightmare! Final high score below:

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bullet Soul (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by 5pb
Published by 5pb in 2011

Following the dreadful commercial scandal of DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou Black Label Extra and the successful porting of Ketsui, in 2011 Japanese company 5pb figured it was finally time to release its own shooter on the Xbox 360. The result is Bullet Soul, a game that is in lots of ways a homage to the intensity that marks Cave shooters. It doesn’t actually play like Cave (it’s easier) or either looks like most Cave outputs (it’s generally darker), but the heritage is strong in ship behavior and, to a lesser extent, bullet patterns. Other influences are definitely there, such as the largest mechanical beasts bearing close resemblance with those from NG:DEV.TEAM's Fast Striker. Whatever the inspiration truly was, it’s reasonable to say that the high definition sprite-based graphics and explosions are home to a somewhat controversial shooting experience, and that comes from the good old contrast shmuppers inevitably face every once in a while: should you play for survival or play for score?

First and foremost, there are two important elements in Bullet Soul’s gameplay. The most visible one is the fact that all bullets fired by an enemy disappear when said enemy is destroyed. Disappearing bullets continue their original trajectory with a fog-like aspect, in a purely aesthetical effect with no further impact on gameplay. The other important element is the fact that the closer you are to the top of the screen the faster the score multiplier will rise. As one would expect, the combination of these two elements is what defines playing for score, in a risk/reward ratio that encourages aggressive behavior. On the other hand, sitting back and destroying enemies/bullets will make way for a much easier experience, at the cost of measly scores and no access to the second loop when the game is beaten.

The basics are very akin to the trademark Cave style. Tap the fire button to get regular shot and hold the button to achieve a stronger, concentrated shot that reduces ship speed. As usual in these types of shooters both attacks are mapped to different buttons, which is the best way to approach the game after all. Bombs are available at the press of a third button, and an autobomb feature can be activated at the character selection screen by pressing Y. P items power up the ship (4 needed to max out) and B items add extra bombs to the stock (they always appear prior to the boss encounter). The game roster includes three pilots/ships: Yun is a female cop who pilots a blue ship with a straight shot and locking lasers; Zen-ichi is a warrior who pilots a red ship with a wider shot and spreading needle cannons; Sadaharu is the elderly of the bunch and pilots a yellow ship with a drilling shot and locking laser swords. Zen-ichi is the fastest pilot and has the weakest firepower, Sadaharu is the slowest one but pilots the strongest ship and Yun stands in middle ground when compared with her colleagues.

Zen-ichi and bullets, bullets and Zen-ichi

To the left side of the screen a large vertical bar keeps track of the score multiplier, the so-called “soul gauge”. It fills up according to how high in the screen you are when you destroy the enemies (point-blanking also seems to have influence on this, albeit in a smaller percentage). The resulting multiplier is applied to the base value of every enemy destroyed within the level. When the level is completed extra points are awarded for bombs in reserve (2 million each) and completion with no deaths (5 million × stage number × loop). The soul gauge can be affected by turning on the autobomb feature: the multiplier will increase at a slower rate, therefore score-driven players will obviously avoid it. Note that autobomb is useful only against bullets, it does not protect the ship from enemy collisions.

More enemies and nastier/faster bullets await the player in the second loop of Bullet Soul. However, earning the access to the loop requires a minimum level of performance from the player. If you play well enough you get “stars” at the end of every stage, and provided you achieve at least seven of these the passport for the loop is guaranteed. No-missing or dying only once yields 1 star, and doing that while accomplishing a minimum number of tasks within the stage (secret/destruction/special/mystery bonuses) gives 2 stars. 3 stars will be awarded if you also achieve a certain multiplier level. For example, getting 3 stars on the first stage requires a maximum of 1 death, at least 8 of 10 hidden bonuses and a multiplier of ×30.

Since the first stages are easier, very early on I worked on boosting the multipliers and getting all the bonuses I could so that I’d come out of stage 2 with six stars. By doing that even if I missed a life in stage 3 it would be enough to enter the loop. Some of the hidden bonuses require that you stay in the lower half of the screen to get them, thus compromising the multiplier. Therefore getting the necessary stars for the loop early on eliminates the need to get the hidden bonuses in later stages, allowing the player to risk more and focus strictly on scoring (a higher multiplier is always better than hidden bonuses). Score extends are awarded with 60, 120 and 300 million points.

While the scoring system does require a methodical approach to be fully enjoyed (heavy memorization is definitely needed to play aggressively, restartitis victims be ready), this is a shooter that can be appreciated by everybody, even those who normally avoid bullet hell. I dare say it’s one of the best console introductions to danmaku: bullet patterns aren’t overly fast or tough and the difficulty curve is linearly perfect (easy start, reasonably challenging final stage). It’s also good that bombing doesn’t do much damage, serving almost solely as a panic resource in a game that allows all kinds of players to have fun. If you want to blow shit up and just dodge, serve yourself. If it gets boring and you start fancying higher scores the risk factor is totally in your hands. To have an idea of how aggressively you are or you should be playing just go to the online Leaderboards, find the highest ranked players with a “replay” to the side of their scores and watch their runs.

Platinum performance: achieving 3 stars in the first stage of Bullet Soul
(courtesy of YouTube user Korszca)

Probably spoiled by all Cave ports and their multiple game modes, many people criticized Bullet Soul for being a supposedly bare-bones release. Besides the regular game the only alternate mode on the disc is Score Attack (Banchou mode), a stage-based variation where you start at full power and scoring rules are changed for the stage bonus (you need to go left or right at the select screen for the main game to find and play Score Attack). Gameplay refreshments include a fully customizable training option for the main game, local and online leaderboards segregated by character for both modes, TATE orientation and the possibility to remap the controls. I guess the main reason for the abovementioned criticism is that in both modes there are no difficulty tweaks available, so everybody is bound to play at the same difficulty standard over and over. Honestly, I don’t see any problem with that since I always play at defaults. The game is reasonably fun as it is, and 5pb should at least be commended for putting out a decent first-time region-free effort, with top notch art design and balanced difficulty for all types of players.

The original Xbox 360 package includes a CD with the game soundtrack - an uneven collection of synth-rock tunes that fit the game’s atmosphere but fail to fall into the category of remarkable. A nice animated intro in the boot process shows the characters, and further presentation/navigation is pretty functional and easy. A few months after the game was out 5pb tried to address the complaints by releasing extra download content for Bullet Soul in two DLC packs. From a quick online research I found out that the extra stuff consists of a 2-minute Caravan mode and a new take on the main game (version B) with a 4th character, rebalanced difficulty and easier requirements for the loop. I haven’t bought the DLC (against my principles), but for those who like these kinds of things I guess the new modes are a valid purchase.

After testing all characters I settled with Yun. Her speed is just right for my dodging abilities and I like the spectacle of her lasers latching onto the parts of bosses. The high score below came from a botched run with an awful 4th stage (died 3 times there), to which I got extremely angry but refused to give up. I entered the loop on my last life and still got to stage 3 again. At the time of this writing this score ranked me 21st on the leaderboard for Yun.