Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Crossfire (Mega Drive)

Hybrid (Overhead action / Vertical)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kyugo
Published by Kyugo in 1991

Time for a revelation from my childhood: Airwolf was my favorite TV series as a kid. Every time I watched an episode I’d go out and find a way to mimic the action from the show in my backyard. Blue Thunder? Airwolf could trash that puny helicopter with a single fart! Born and dead within the 80s, the show was successful enough to give birth to a few video game adaptations, ranging from an arcade title to computer/console variations. Super Airwolf is the name of the Japanese Mega Drive entry, but Kyugo thought that by 1991 probably no one would remember the series in the US and renamed the game as Crossfire. Even worse, they removed all references to the show and replaced the characters with generic designations: Hawke became Billy, Archangel became an inane talk-show host figure, the Airwolf itself appears as the "Black Eagle" and the trademark musical theme was removed completely. As a result, many people who shun imports have no clue that there’s an actual Airwolf game for the system. Not that they’re missing much, at least from a gameplay standpoint.

Crossfire/Super Airwolf is an original game, not a port. However, the overall feel of a poor man’s Twin Cobra mixed with a pale imitation of Commando does not vouch much for originality. That’s not what really botches the game though, there are plenty of unoriginal but decently designed shooters out there. Aside from music and character's name changes, Crossfire is exactly like Super Airwolf, and both games suffer from floaty controls, lame hit detection, uneven difficulty and repetitive gameplay. The only aspect that should be important for any player/collector is how much you'd like to listen to the main theme and see the references to the TV show in the game. If that's the case, go for the Japanese version (Super Airwolf), otherwise any of them is acceptable. Crossfire is kinda rare though, that’s the one I own and played a few days ago.

Gameplay works in a mission-based fashion. In each mission the main objective is to rescue a kidnapped head-of-state that’s being held hostage in a country in Central or South America. The order of the first three missions is defined by the player (A - Guatemala, B - Cuba, C - Panama). Once they’re accomplished two other selectable missions are unlocked (second raids over Guatemala and Cuba), and after that the final strike against the narcotic king takes place in Colombia. The later the alphabet letter the bigger the reward, starting with $10.000 for Guatemala and ending with $200.000 for Colombia. These rewards are of utmost importance because you need the money to equip both yourself and the chopper with defensive capabilities and better weapons.

The beauty of a fully powered laser

Prior to the start of every mission you need to select shot and bomb types for the helicopter, as well as gun type for the ground campaigns. Starting in the second mission you’re also asked if you want to go into the shop to buy weapons/upgrades with the money you’ve already earned. Once started, all missions share the same structure: (1) fly over enemy territory, (2) reconnoiter the grounds outside the target base, (3) infiltrate these grounds on foot, (4) go inside the base to rescue the kidnapped head-of-state and (5) fly out to defeat the boss at the end of the stage. Phases 1 and 5 unfold as a regular vertical shooter, phases 3 and 4 are overhead action areas and phase 2 is a strange close-up vertical approach where the Airwolf itself is invincible. Some transitions between these sections come with a neat cut scene showing the chopper taking off or descending. Helicopters, boats, planes, jets and turrets comprise the bulk of the opponent forces, but occasionally you’ll come across flying discs imported directly from Xevious. Yes, those nasty terrorists are also using alien technology!

Controls change depending on which part of the game you’re playing. In chopper areas A is shot, B is bomb and C is “turbo” (stock-based temporary invincibility). In walking areas A is shot, B is jump and C is “transceiver call” (the guy ducks and the chopper appears to provide help, fleeing after a while). Whereas the faults in the game are less severe in the flying sections, in the overhead parts you really need to get used to the offbeat hit detection and the fact that you can’t shoot at what’s past you. The jump feature is pretty much useless, most of the time you try to use it you end up landing your ass on an enemy bullet. To increase the chances to get through these areas unscathed you have to destroy as many turrets as possible during the helicopter approach (all turrets destroyed in that part will not appear in the outside action area, everything else will). Don’t be greedy with the transceiver call, use it when too many enemies are behind walls or when one of those tanks threats to take you down. When inside the enemy base, be on the lookout for walls that can be destroyed.

In the flying section the shadow of a huge stealth bomber precedes the arrival of pick-up items. You can come across Ps (power-up), Bs (bomb), Ts (turbo) and 1UPs. Larger enemies will explode in money bills, and smaller planes might release ? items that upgrade the chopper faster than the P item does (each upgrade or new bomb/turbo/1UP stock takes two to three items to register). Adding to the awful implementation of enemy AI (you practically don’t dodge, you need to obliterate enemies before they cheaply do you), the items themselves often float in completely annoying patterns around the screen. As for the items in the walking sections, the only ones that might appear are $ coins from selected enemies and extra radio help (contrary to what happens in the flying parts, each item corresponds to an extra transceiver call).

A good strategy on the purchase of new weapons helps a lot in the long run. Since stage A does not result in a decent reward, starting from stage B or C is recommended if you want to buy a new weapon as soon as the first mission is completed. However, I stuck to the alphabetical order and adopted the following strategy: buy “laser” after Cuba, buy “protect” and “body” after Panama, and after the second raid in Guatemala buy “hyper” gun + a different bomb type (I like “thunder”). Protect and body add a 1-hit shield per stage to the helicopter and the pilot respectively – they’re probably the most important items to get because even after you’re able to avoid the trickiest attacks it’s not hard to get hit by the most unexpected bullet. As a consequence, the game is much harder in its first half than the second.

It's a promise: this is Super Airwolf for the Japanese Mega Drive
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

Engrish and cosmetic changes aside, the music in Crossfire/Super Airwolf lacks variety in both releases. There are only three themes playing for all stages, one for the vertical shooting part and two for the top-down action bits. The BGM for the shooting section of Super Airwolf is a rendition of the main theme from the TV show, but in Crossfire what you get is something completely different. Fortunately this one tune in the Genesis version is at least decent, with a 16-bit Toaplan vibe that could easily make it be mistaken as an unused track for Fire Shark. The problem is that, no matter what music you get, it does get repetitive after a while. Boss themes show some variation later in the game, but sadly they’re quite unremarkable.

While it fails to engage players because of the disappointing gameplay, Crossfire also misuses the only novelty that could help make it more enjoyable: the shop system. For example, the shop doesn’t allow you to buy more than one extra life per game, which is priced at $50.000. Therefore you can’t really spend all the money before the last mission, unless you’d like to get weapons you won’t use anyway. On top of that, the game will not register the score you achieve on the last stage: the highest score you get for your credit is the one that’s briefly shown as you collect the reward from the 5th mission. The apalling disregard for scoring is such that the only moment where you can actually see your highest score is during that 1-second opening screen for any of the selected missions. It’s as if the game didn’t have any scoring system to start with.

And below is my final 1CC result (Normal difficulty), with all missions executed in alphabetical order. I didn’t get to hear the awesome Airwolf theme, but I guess I did “make a success”.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Scramble (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1999

Considered by some to be the unofficial first game in the Gradius series, Scramble also holds the distinction of being the first real sidescrolling shooter in the history of arcade games. It's no surprise then that it's included in the Konami Arcade Classics compilation title for the Playstation (that's the US/NTSC designation, the Japanese counterpart is named Konami 80's Gallery). An interesting thing I found about about this compilation is that it is, in fact, a straight port of an arcade title called Konami 80's Arcade Special. I never even thought such compilations existed for arcade boards.

Konami Arcade Classics is one of those collection discs that comes with a fully animated intro based in bits and pieces of all games included in it. It's got a nice interface, historic notes on each of the 10 games, manual save/load capability and brief instructions while the selected game is being "booted". It's nothing fancy or out of the ordinary, but it's in line with the aspect of the games at display, all of them originally released between 1981 and 1985. My feeling is that they're all quite obscure at this day and age, at least the games that aren't shmups don't ring a bell with me at all (with the exception of Yie Ar Kung-Fu). Other shooters included are Time Pilot, Gyruss, Pooyan and Super Cobra (Scramble's direct sequel).

So what is Scramble about? A simple answer is that you're in control of a weird spaceship that resembles a Star Trek Enterprise model. Fly from left to right, blow up stuff and destroy the final base at the end of the loop, then repeat.

Meteors in the night

Unfolding on a screen whose height exceeds its width (meaning this is a horizontal shooter running in a vertically oriented monitor), Scramble is a straightforward game with primitive graphics, simple controls and tight action. With only 6 stages glued to each other, it's very short and loops roughly at every five minutes. Colors are constantly changing, in a cheap attempt to give the game a little more graphical flair. Infinite looping is prevented not because enemies get more aggressive, but due to the implementation of an increasingly more demanding need to refuel the craft. There are several buildings/tanks with the word FUEL on them, and in order to keep on playing you need to destroy them at a regular basis. Eventually it comes to a point where missing a fuel target means imminent, certain and unavoidable death.

Refueling and destroying enemy threats is accomplished in two ways: shooting with button ○ or dropping bombs/missiles with button ×. Bombs/missiles develop a characteristic arch in the air until hitting the ground, and since it's only possible to have two of them on screen at any time the player needs to time them carefully if he/she wants to hit targets in an orderly fashion. Getting used to the terrain and the movement pattern of incoming obstacles is the next step in learning how to infiltrate and get far into the "Scramble" system, but keep in mind that you're only allowed to fly halfway the screen. The game doesn't let you move past the vertical centerline.

Here goes a quick breakdown of all phases/levels:
  1. Hills and valleys populated with bases, fuel tanks and missiles (these continue to appear throughout the whole game).
  2. Hills and valleys inside a cave with staggering flying saucers.
  3. Hills and valleys continue as random meteors come in straight trajectories from right to left.
  4. An elevated building with holes and cliffs and lots of missiles ready to take you by surprise.
  5. Only fuel tanks inside a series of narrow corridors that must be navigated with precision.
  6. The Base: hit the Base at ground level to beat the game and proceeed to the next loop. If you miss the Base it will reappear after a few more buildings. Don't worry about crashing against a wall after you've destroyed it, this crash won't take away a life.
Every time the game loops the only thing that changes is the rate of fuel consumption.

See if you can find all Scramble references in the animated intro for Konami Arcade Classics
(courtesy of YouTube user Bloodreign1)

I like to think of Scramble as a very nice game for scoring purposes. Sure it's primitive, but it's also strangely addictive with its emphasis on aiming and fuel control. I hadn't noticed until now that the score counter increases by 10 for each second you're alive, more or less to the rhythm of the background noise that's supposed to convey the sound effect for flying. By the way, sound effects are so appropriate here that I don't even care about the lack of music. There's only a short theme that plays when the credit starts, after that it's all about beeps and explosions.

The port of Scramble included in the Konami Arcade Classics disc (US/NTSC) doesn't come with options for screen adjustments (such as TATE) and lacks the display of flags that keep track of the number of loops played. Everything indicates that this is the harder version distributed in the Western market by Stern Electronics, as opposed to the Japanese regular version (such as the port released by Hamster for the Playstation 2 or the MAME ROMs floating around the Internet). Some of the main differences are: fuel consumption reaches its peak in the 3rd loop, missing a single fuel tank there is fatal; on the last lower narrow passage of stage 5 there are three fuel tanks, in the Japanese game there are none; apparently the missiles in stage 4 are more aggressive here, and hit detection inside the tunnels seems to be less forgiving.

As I started playing I was aiming at surpassing the high score I had for the Playstation 2 version, but despite all my efforts the best result I could get is the one below. If I remember correctly I reached section 5 in the fourth loop.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Strike Witches (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cyberfront
Published by Cyberfront / Kadokawa Games in 2012

Fans of the Strike Witches anime that are also gamers must have been really happy when Strike Striches - Hakugin No Tsubasa found its way to the PSP after a first incarnation on the Xbox 360. Though not a stinker in its own rights, the original version was a bit of a letdown given the amount of "air" in the graphic design. Therefore it isn't so surprising that shrinking the screen and the resolution to PSP standards gave the game a bit more dignity. The experience is almost the same, differing in the obvious lack of twin stick controls and a few mild gameplay enhancements. The PSP port also includes all additional download content not originally available on the Xbox 360 disc, thus making the expression "fan service" even more suitable for those who enjoy portable gaming.

I read about the story to Strike Witches somewhere but I don't remember anything now. What matters is that a bunch of cyborg girls with the ability to fly are waging war against an alien race called Neuroi. Yes, that's it, teenage girls with cute faces armed with machineguns must save the world. The player takes control of teams of three of them and faces six stages of increasingly harder multidirectional shooting, arranging them ladies in different flight patterns as the alien technology sends wave after wave of enemy planes and drones. One girl acts as the leader and dictates movement speed, and while she fires her weapons at nominal power the other two will always contribute with reduced strength. There are no power-ups to be collected, but don't complain about this. So does Ikaruga, right?

Shoot the [huge] core!

In Story mode character interaction plays a large role and halts the game from time to time, but fortunately these interruptions are promptly skippable. In this mode you can only choose from predetermined teams, but upon completing the game all characters you played with are unlocked for selection in Arcade mode. Arcade mode is exactly the same game with no interruptions and the possibility to hand-pick your team at the start of a credit. On both modes you’re allowed to select the starting stage, provided you’ve reached them in previous attempts. The health bar has eight cells that are shared by all girls and get refilled at the start of a level (no in-stage refills). Some enemy attacks, especially of the laser type, drain more health than others, and if you lose all health the game ends. Besides the danger imposed by bullets and lasers, collisions are the biggest threat since enemies often dart into the screen or just like to ram into you.

Of all available control schemes in Strike Witches, the only one I consider decent is the "Arcade style". The other two are too cumbersome, but might please people who’re keen on holding the PSP in awkward positions. In Arcade style you can perform the act of shooting in two ways: with □ you shoot freely with the characters moving along as you press the d-pad, with ○ shooting direction is locked. L changes the leader girl and ∆ cycles their formation between triangle forwards, trailing and back-to-back (leader facing forward, followers facing the opposite direction). Finally, R unleashes the special attack, an essential device both for survival and for scoring. Note: Arcade style is the closest you get to the control setup from the Xbox 360 version - if you’ve been exposed to the original first you might be in for a hard time getting used to the new button layout.

Official trailer for the PSP version of Strike Witches
(courtesy of YouTube user KADOKAWAanime)

Scoring is based on collecting crosses left by defeated enemies, which are automatically sucked in if you’re close enough to them. Once you get more than 100 crosses they go from bronze to silver and increase in value from 1.000 to 10.000 points. After 200 all crosses are golden and worth 100.000 points each. The catch is that killing an enemy with a special attack (button R) generates twice more crosses than usual. Special attacks are fueled by the energy of each girl in the team, as depicted by the small gauge below their faces in the HUD. If the energy gauges are full a special attack comes with invincibility for as long as you keep button R pressed. After you release the button you need to wait for the gauges to start refilling in order to use the special attack again. Remember that there’s no invincibility if the special attack is triggered before the gauges are full (besides the visual indication you’ll also hear a characteristic sound cue).

Using the special attack wisely takes a little time. Reaping more crosses only comes with memorization and good timing. Different combinations of characters result in varying firepower efficiency, as well as different recovery times. Reaching the end of a stage comes with a bonus composed of the number of crosses collected × enemies destroyed × 10.000 points, minus a factor determined by the number of times you got hit. Once you start understanding how this works chances are Strike Witches will get more enjoyable, and pushing for a higher score soon becomes second nature. However, even though it starts easy enough the game is definitely no pushover in the last couple of levels. Continuing won’t allow access to the TLB (True Last Boss).

 Click for a larger picture of the menus translation for Strike Witches, PSP version
(many thanks to Jorge)

As I mentioned above, Strike Witches fits the PSP much better than it did the Xbox 360. All download content originally released for the Xbox 360 version appears by default in the PSP port. That includes a 12th character (Nakajima Nishiki), a fifth team/scenario in Story mode and an additional Time Attack mode (a boss rush where it’s impossible to die – getting hit adds 10 seconds to the counter, each cross collected decreases the counter in 1 second). Everything else is pretty much the same despite a few minor improvements in the main game, such as sound effects for the leg propellers during stage debriefing, damage indication on enemies (they start flashing red as they’re about to die) and no more loss of crosses during transitions (in the Xbox 360 version you lose your crosses on a screen transition, i.e. the 2nd stage mid-boss). As for the packaging variations, the only extra in the limited edition of the game is a Nendoroid miniature of character Lynette Bishop in a swimsuit outfit.

Once I finished Story mode with three teams and got used to the new controls I went straight to Arcade mode. I fiddled around a little and decided on Erica Hartmann, Yoshika Miyafuji and Perrine Clostermann as my official cute army of three. The clear didn’t come easily, in fact I'd been carrying the PSP with me during a few trips/flights since I beat the game on the Xbox 360, finally succeeding during the last Carnival holidays. No play on the TV this time, yay!

Monday, February 18, 2013

4th Blog Anniversary!

Four years have gone by already.

I still got such a long way to go, so many shooters to play and try to beat, so little time... I'm cool with this, someone said somewhere that it's always the journey that matters. At least now I can safely say that I conquer more games than I buy, so eventually I might have more links than blanks in my control table.

Looking back on the previous year I guess the most important evolution for me was cementing the idea that vertical shooters should be played in TATE. Ever since I took the plunge and turned one of my CRTs on its side to play DonPachi I decided that I'd do whatever I could to play vertically oriented arcade games in TATE. For a while I tried to come up with a piece of furniture to house that TV, but I had so many troubles that I gave up. Now I just leave the TV there, turned on its side on a table and leaning against the wall. It won't fall unless somebody bumps into it, and since I'm the only one who goes into that room to play I doubt such a horrible accident might take place.

For those out there wondering about TATE, allow me to say from my own experience that turning a TV on its side is no big deal. Go ahead and do it if you want to, just be more careful if you're doing it with a big one.

Check out how my 20" stands in the latest configuration of my gaming room:

A big thanks to everyone out there who's following the blog.
Your feedback is always very much appreciated!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Metamor Jupiter (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Flight Plan
Published by NEC in 1993

Some shooters are plain weird, and I can’t help but feel I’m just starting to realize that a large number of them seem to exist for the PC Engine CD. Case in question: Metamor Jupiter, an outer space themed shmup with a superficial weirdness that eschews conventions in detriment of intergalactic drama. Dialogues abound, but since the game is exclusive to Japan I have no idea of what’s going on in the meanderings of the story. The shooting part of the game also offers a few obstacles to comprehension due to some underlying features that many people take for granted if they can’t read the instruction manual or aren’t bothered to dig deeper into the game itself.

In essence, Metamor Jupiter isn’t a friendly game, its obscurity is proof of that. There are very nice graphical and musical touches here, but unfortunately other aspects keep it from being more appreciated. A couple of impressive rotating backgrounds immediately brings to mind Metal Black and Darius Gaiden, for example. Some of the music is genuinely unique, with eerie undertones and arrangements aimed at establishing the correct atmosphere alongside the setting. It’s kinda like having Fantômas and Mr. Bungle instead of good old "mainstream" Faith No More, and it works beautifully (is this too obscure as a music analogy? I hope not). Metamor Jupiter also has a nice blend of wide open and claustrophobic stages, with a decent progression that’s only spoiled by a few repetitive layouts.

Once the lengthy well-made intro is done the start screen shows up and the player is allowed to select between difficulties “BEGINNER” or “EXPERT”. I went straight to EXPERT, so all further observations on the gameplay refer to this mode. Apparently Jupiter isn’t a reference to the planet, instead it’s the main character’s name. He pilots and seems to be united to a pointy organic-like spaceship capable of firing three types of weapons, instantly selectable at a press of the SELECT button. Firing the chosen weapon is accomplished with button II, switching shot direction is done with button I. Weapons work according to the combination of the energy from three colored orbs on the upper HUD: when blue is on top you get a vertical laser with a weak straight shot, with green on top the weapon changes to a straight laser and with red you only get the straight shot.

Caves full of fire and lava

Crystals are responsible both for powering up the weapons and restoring the ship’s armor. Armor level is indicated by a waveform-like gauge that starts in green (maximum health) and changes until it reaches red (minimum health) when the player is about to die. Whenever you get hit weapons are downgraded by one level, but instead of the usual flickering/blinking effect ship damage is only registered by a characteristic sound. The problem is that sometimes this cue is disguised amidst several other sound effects and you only notice you’ve lost health when you get a glimpse at the energy gauge. However, even worse than that is the fact that some enemy attacks drain more energy than others. It isn’t uncommon to go from a sparkling green gauge to a low red status that's synonym to imminent hull failure (beware of bosses that like to get cheap with lasers and tentacles).

At selected points in the game you’ll come across a small green option. You can take two of them, and as they hover above and below the ship they provide additional firepower, protection against incoming bullets and unique charging powers according to the weapon you’re using (options assume the color of the upper orb in the 3-color energy source). Charging occurs automatically as you keep the shot button pressed, and as soon as the options/orbs are blinking fast all you need to do to unleash the attack is stop firing for a moment. If you’re using blue the options are propelled forward, with green they home on the closest enemies and with red they expand in small firing circles.

With all of the above gameplay aspects learned, there’s still one thing that causes preoccupation as soon as you start playing Metamor Jupiter: that ship is too damn slow! Worry not, to alter ship speed in five selectable steps just pause the game and press UP or DOWN (wait for the pause sound to fade in order to hear the effect for speed selection). The starting speed is at level 1, but most of the time I keep it at 5. The only part of the game where I’ll pause it again to select minimum speed is during the stage where a huge battleship must be destroyed from the inside.

Intro and first stage of Metamor Jupiter on BEGINNER level
(courtesy of YouTube user superdeadite)

Getting used to the available weapons takes a little time. They all seem a bit off and clunky in their firing patterns, and even the upgrading process is weird: green expands to a spread shot and maxes out with multiple trailing shots that get sunk into the ship if it’s not moving, while the vertical lasers on the blue weapon evolve to horizontal laser bars that travel outward with a poor firing rate. The only good one to use in my opinion is the straight laser (green), for its concentrated power and the homing charge shot provided by the options. Remember that options can be lost to an enemy that fires two waves of three flame bubbles (kinda like the bug thief from Gradius). Fortunately the ship is immune to the fire bubbles, therefore you don’t need to despair when the thief makes its way from right to left. Options do make a difference in firepower, losing them in certain spots leads to tougher navigating conditions.

Graphically Metamor Jupiter has plenty of variety despite the repetitive sections. The game scrolls in all directions at different speeds as you get deeper and deeper into organic caves and industrial facilities. Asteroid fields and spaceship armadas fill outer space voids, while huge laser beams of death preceded by a characteristic sound warn you to get out of the way at once. Special attention must be given to environmental hazards – the few helper ships that fight alongside you and die quickly offer some hints as to what may harm you, but nonetheless the danger isn’t always evident. Bosses are strange, most of them have naive/easy attack patterns but sometimes they seem to come with varying amounts of health. Once defeated, don’t fly over them until their explosion fades or you’ll die. Of all minor hindrances in the game though, the one that bugs me the most is the amount of sections where you’re supposed to just sit still or navigate while listening to dialogue. These parts are unskippable and you can’t even pause the game to select a different speed... Well, at the end of stage 5 you can at least hear (once again) the brief sample of where Hitoshi Sakimoto might have drawn inspiration for his epic work on Radiant Silvergun’s soundtrack.

Metamor Jupiter is the kind of shooter that keeps players at their toes all the time. Unlimited continues are there to allow proper practice, and given the dark setting and the deceptively dense gameplay it’s easy to conclude that this isn’t an ordinary game. Unfortunately, disappointment is huge for this is yet another example of a shooter with no scoring system of any kind (as in Legion and Psychic Storm). The only reward when reaching the end is a final animated sequence showing Jupiter reuniting with his girlfriend, followed by a lovely song as the final credits roll.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Twin Cobra (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by American Treco in 1991

General consensus has it that most 16-bit shmup ports were made easier than their original arcade counterparts. However, every now and then we might find an exception, so here’s a game that defies that notion with bold determination. Twin Cobra is the Sega Genesis name to the Japanese counterpart Kyūkyoku Tiger. Actually the Genesis cartridge should’ve kept the Japanese designation in order to comply with Toaplan’s little mess: checkpoints, survival-based rank and non-uniform craters appearing from ground targets? The game is clearly adapted from the arcade version of Kyūkyoku Tiger, not Twin Cobra. Most people don’t really care about that, suffice it to say we’re talking about the spiritual sequel to Tiger-Heli.

Thinking Western audiences wouldn’t really buy the game based on its regular designation, Sega thought it would be wise to add the Desert Attack Helicopter subtitle for the Genesis version. Granted, it pretty much tells what to expect from the game. A helicopter raids mostly desert landscapes and destroys tanks, cannons, boats, hatches and rooftops of what seems to be an enemy country. Cities, oceans, battleships and military facilities also appear as grounds, whose air force comprises choppers of varied make and firepower. Enemy resistance is fierce and relentless, armed with sneaky aimed bullets and ready to take you down in whatever lapse of focus that you, as the pilot, might happen to slip into. The death explosion you hear upon receiving the first bullet in the [chopper’s] face wipes cheap expectations and mockingly taunts brave players to keep on trying, therefore initial impressions on the difficulty are rarely flattering.

Bombing the third boss for great justice

Fact: Twin Cobra on the Mega Drive is probably the most underrated shooter in the system. The amount of online bashing I read so far amazes me, it seems people aren’t playing the same game I am or do not know where the game comes from. Excluding the modified horizontal span of the console port everything about the game is reasonably faithful to the source, down to the graphic textures and the awesome music. Okay, explosions and minor details are simplified, but that’s cosmetics as far as 16-bit games are concerned. The sound on the port is definitely a highlight, and I daresay in a few aspects it tops the original. Not only does the bomb explosion sound better, but the music is also improved by an awesome layer of drumming that always makes me bang my head in sheer accomplishment joy after I’ve dispatched a boss. It feels great! Songs repeat in the second half of the game, but with such a cool soundtrack I cannot complain about it.

There are four types of weapons to use in Twin Cobra. You can’t select them any time you want though, it’s necessary to collect an item that cycles colors and defines the currently used weapon. Red is the default straight vulcan shot, green is a very narrow laser, blue is the spread shot and yellow corresponds to a 4-way pattern (horizontals/verticals). The S item powers up the weapon and the B item adds one bomb to the stock. Most items are brought by a large green carrier helicopter, but bigger enemies will also release them when destroyed. Ground bunkers and constructions often hide stars that provide a few points and are worth 3.000 points each within the current life at the end of a level (star count is reset whenever you die). If you manage to play well and survive long enough, in selected places of the game you might come across a 1UP instead of a star. The good news is that in Twin Cobra you can also count with score-based extends: the first one comes with 70.000 points, the second with 200.000 points and further ones with every 200.000 points.

Just like the impression I had when playing the arcade version included in Toaplan Shooting Battle for the Playstation, the gameplay in the Mega Drive port can be loosely compared to “dancing” around bullets and enemies. During the first couple of levels it’s okay to stand still and dodge as bullets are approaching, but later on it’s essential to keep moving at all times. These bastards have no respect for point blanking and you never know when something will shoot you down. Then there’s the “how to move” aspect: as you sweep from side to side, do not turn unless you’re sure all bullets have passed behind you and the remaining enemies are at a safe distance for another sweep. Knowing enemy behavior is paramount for survival: all helicopters in a stage move in a specific pattern, some will approach you and develop and outer arch before leaving, some will just ram into you after hovering briefly at mid-screen and others might only appear from the sides and flee to the bottom of the play field.

Dealing with ground enemies and static turrets is all about positioning and anticipation, and the same can be said about stronger foes such as the green carrier helicopter or the mid-sized boats that always approach vertically. The helicopter, for instance, fires three equally spaced patterns of 3 spread shots. It won't be any problem if you time your movement according to this and prepare to take it down after the third spread if it hasn't been destroyed yet.

16-bit Toaplan rules!
(courtesy of YouTube user GameplaysELV)

There are places in the game where you’re better off bombing instead of facing the enemy barrage. Large planes that come in pairs tend to protect whatever is behind them, and well-placed bombs help clean up the danger faster. Be aware that the bomb takes a little while to hit the ground and explode, and during that time you still need to be careful before protecting yourself inside its radius blast. Memorizing isn't really necessary but it certainly helps, as well as knowing when to be extra careful with the stars uncovered to the sides. Going after them can expose the helicopter to almost unavoidable hazards. The longer you live the harder the game gets because enemy bullets become increasingly faster, but thankfully rank is reset once you die and get respawned in a previous checkpoint. Careful though, if you die too fast you get sent even further back - a situation that's only advantageous (for me at least) if I die on the 8th boss. Returning two checkpoints allowed me to reach the boss with the correct number of bombs and vulcan firepower to beat the bastard.

Speaking of bosses, it's interesting to note that they're all preceded by a slight scrolling hiccup, timing out after a while if you don't kill them during the confrontation. This is actually essential to get past the 7th boss, as you're better off avoiding the damn thing instead of facing it (that's the hint, just move around him carefully and don't break the link that unites both tanks). Instances of slowdown are really rare, the only one that really stood out for me was a section in stage 6 where I approached two horizontal lines of tanks with a fully powered blue weapon (it's more in the line of brief frame drops than actual slowdown). One of Twin Cobra's weaknesses is the fact that the only really decent weapon to play the game with is the blue spread, and red to a less extent. Picking up the wrong weapon by accident later in the game is a guaranteed means of unnerving failure. Even though the green laser is the most powerful one, how are you supposed to survive with it?

In my opinion Twin Cobra is one of the hardest shmups on the Mega Drive. Things heat up considerably before you're even halfway into the game, and getting past each boss is an intricate challenge in itself. I consider stage 8 to be the wall, everything seemed a tiny notch easier once I got past that damned boss. Difficulties in this port have a funny designation, going from Easy A to D, then Hard A to D. I played the game on defaults (Hard A) and once the loop was done I managed to get to stage 8 again. I noticed that in the second loop the difficulty got bumped to Hard C.