Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dragon Spirit - The New Legend (NES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Bandai in 1990

In the original Dragon Spirit for the arcades, the brave knight Amul/Amru was turned into a dragon and went on a mission to rescue a beautiful princess. However, when the game was ported to the NES Amul did not keep his protagonist role. The new warrior dragon - hence the game's subtitle - is actually his son, now fighting against a second wave of evildoers in order to bring his kidnapped sister back home. All of this is shown in a brief introduction and in the gameplay itself: you must go through a short "replay" of the battle against Zawel, the final boss of the arcade game. Beat him and you're allowed to start the actual game in Blue Dragon mode. Lose the fight and you'll play the credit in Gold Dragon mode, which is just an easier game with fewer levels and a different ending.

Regardless of the odd introduction and a few new aspects thrown into the gameplay, Dragon Spirit on the NES is a legitimate adaptation of the arcade game. Given the downscaling of graphics and music and the addition of story bits between stages, it's a decent effort and overall a fun, easygoing game to play. You still get the feeling of a great fantasy setting and recognize all the nice tunes within the simplified 8-bit renditions of the original music. If you consider the fact that this port at least kept all the original stages you could say it's actually more complete than the PC Engine version, which is a much harder adaptation by comparison.

Can a three-headed dragon spit fire underwater?

Derived and expanded from Xevious, controls in Dragon Spirit are down to only two inputs. Fire the main shot with one button and drop ground bombs with the other button. Our mighty dragon flies through all kinds of terrain and faces a handful of fiendish creatures. He’s vulnerable to enemy bullets and collisions, as well as volcano bursts, growing magical plants (jungle level), moving/stationary spikes (cave/glacier levels), obstacles such as rocks and crystals (underwater/dark levels) and spears protruding from walls (last level). At least you can lean against the castle pillars as you’re about to complete the mission in the final stage, prior to battling last boss Galda, the successor to Zawel’s empire of evil. However, just like in the original game if you arrive there with a fire-spitting dragon he will be toasted in no time, making for a very anticlimactic final battle.

The built-in firing rate is okay but isn't ideal, so a turbo controller is definitely helpful on Blue dragon mode (the Gold dragon has turbofire by default). Firing rate notwithstanding, the game isn’t hard by any means. In fact, most of the learning process has nothing to do with dodging nor dealing with the enemy gallery. The three hits you can take for each life are still there, dragon speed is reasonably fast and the hitbox is handled in a forgivable way (his wings and tail aren’t damageable). The main challenge lies in learning what each item in the extensive item collection does - there are so many that you’ll most probably end up screwing your first runs due to sheer confusion. The color palette of the NES is very limited and sprites are so tiny that most items look like each other. Collecting too many speed-ups was my first problem, but once I figured out how to distinguish them I was able to get to the end on the next credit.

A ground egg colored in orange or blue always releases a power-up and an extra dragon head, respectively. You can have up to three heads, and shot power increases until the dragon is able to spit fire. These items might also appear from blinking enemies, as well as speed-up, 3-way shot (white dragon), flame enhancer (green dragon, maximum power at once), shrinker (S), invincibility, earthquake (the screen shakes and all ground enemies are killed as soon as they appear), diamond (bonus points) and a skull (powers down everything, including firepower, number of heads and speed - the same thing that happens when you get hit). New to the NES game are the dual dragons (two mini-dragons flying by your side), power bomb (every ground bomb dropped produces the same effect of the earthquake) and a heart (extra life, replacing the dragon eggs that hatched extends in the arcade version; no score-based extends exist in this version). Extra attention must be paid to items that override each other. For example, you can't have a shrunk character with multiple heads or dual dragons.

A new legend begins
(courtesy of YouTube user KamilDowonna)

Even though the NES port cannot compare with the arcade game in any aspect, there’s a cool exclusive section at the end of the glacier stage: a high speed scramble will make you weave through narrow corridors amongst spiky walls. The sudden change of pace works really well, and it’s a pity that we don’t get to see any more of it for the rest of the game. We do get a brand new final boss though, as hinted by the game's intro.

Besides the high speed sequence mentioned above, the invincible fireballs in the first level and a destructible net in the jungle stage, the main addition to the gameplay in this version are the imprisoned kingdom maidens/fairies, which appear after you beat the boss on the first six stages and tell a bit of the ongoing story. If you are successful in freeing them during the stage they will grant you with health recovery and extra heads/lives. If you fail you’ll only see their shadowy outlines and no survival/firepower bonus will be awarded. According to the instruction manual, to free a maiden you need to hit a specific ground area somewhere in the level. I didn’t care about trying to find these secret spots because from what I read there’s no real reward in the long run besides those survival refreshments. The ending will be the same and everybody in the reign will be happy when the dragon slays the villain for great justice.

Everything in the NES port of Dragon Spirit is just about right, as it inherits the variety of the arcade original and succesfully reworks the design into a game that does not flicker nor slows down excessively. It's a succesful job, even if the challenge gets reduced a bit too much for some. Plus it’s also neat to finally have a name for every stage. Once the game halted at the ending screen I pushed reset to get the following picture with my high score. I'm almost sure you can milk a few bosses for more points, but I didn't do it at all.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mushihimesama (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start / by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2012

I know that many people consider Mushihimesama Futari to be Cave’s best shooter. On the outside it’s admittedly more intense, flashier and meatier than Mushihimesama. However, I hereby declare my favorite of the two to be the one that’s the subject of this post, and I’m pretty sure Cave must agree with me to a certain degree. After all, this is the only shooter series I know whose first game, having already been available for a previous console generation, was also released for a superior platform years after the sequel. Honestly, when Mushihimesama hit the shelves for the Xbox 360 I thought it was a step backwards business-wise… As much as I loved the game, why not put the effort on porting Progear or Dangun Feveron instead? Granted, if Cave felt they needed to dig up the first game from one of its franchises for the Xbox 360 I can only be glad they chose my favorite one instead of Ibara, Espgaluda or DoDonPachi.

Dearly shortened to Mushi by most shooter fans, what we have here is a game that in my opinion epitomizes and excels at every single design aspect related to the shoot’em up genre. In that sense, the Xbox 360 port is its definitive home version, packing even more extras than the often underrated port for the Playstation 2. It’s got the basic game, an arrange mode, a novice mode and an extra 1.5/MAX mode accessible by means of a free download code included in the first print of the game (or through the DLC disc from the recently released Cave Shooting Collection). You’re wrong if you think this represents an overload of Reco, the game’s protagonist bug princess. Every single game mode/submode offered in the package has its own set of rules, catering to all types of players due to an extensive variety in gameplay, difficulty and scoring techniques. The package follows the great publishing standards set by Mushihimesama Futari, however it lacks an option for the original low-res graphics of the arcade release. That’s why some people refer to it as Mushihimesama HD.

Since many people who’re new to the genre might get confused by all these modes (as I was once), allow me to briefly describe each one of them:

a. Xbox 360 (an HD rendition of the arcade game)
•    Original: faster bullets, simple scoring system.
•    Maniac: slower bullets but higher bullet density, complex scoring system.
•    Ultra: insane bullet count, complex scoring system.

b. Novice: a watered down version of the main game aimed at beginners, with considerably easier patterns for all modes (Original, Maniac and Ultra).

c. Arrange: a special version loosely based on Maniac mode, with stock-clearing auto-bomb, selectable weapons, a fully powered character from the get go (with six lasers) and a new last boss; on the outside it looks like the same arrange mode found in the Playstation 2 version, but it actually isn't.

d. Version 1.5: a special edition released by Cave that contains all three modes (Original, Maniac and Ultra) and rearranges game colors, music, enemies and bullet patterns while elevating the intensity to extreme heights; furthermore, you can choose between regular and MAX power (maximum firepower on start and aggressive rank implemented in response to multiplier count, among other minor gameplay tweaks).

Original mode in high definition

Having beaten Original on the Playstation 2, my aim this time around was to beat Maniac (Xbox 360 mode). Beating the game is one thing, now beating it with a higher score is something totally different. Pretty much apples and oranges, so to speak.

In Mushihimesama the player controls a beautiful princess called Reco. She rides a beetle and fights to stop the evil that has plagued her fantasy world. In all modes of the regular game you must select between three types of shot when starting a credit: M-power (green, medium spread, medium speed), W-power (red, wide spread, slower speed) or S-power (blue, concentrated shot, faster speed). Shot type can be changed in game, it’s just a matter of waiting until the power-up item cycles from the initially chosen type into the next one. A secondary item is an option that looks like a tiny bug and fires lasers – it’s possible to have up to four options in two arrangements: formation or trace, with items that also switch between each type after a brief while. Extra bombs appear every now and then, and if you do it right you can extract a 1UP from the bug's head prior to the fight against the third boss.

Basic inputs are labeled as A (regular shot, hold to focus lasers and reduce speed), B (bomb) and C (autofire), all of them configurable on the controller as you please. Scoring in Original is straightforwardly simple: collect all possible gems, destroy large enemies when more bullets are on screen and don’t lose lives because each one is worth 10 million at game completion. Maniac and Ultra, on the other hand, add so many details to scoring that at some point it just becomes too much. The main difference is the addition of a multiplier applied to every kill, shown on the top left of the screen. It grows as you keep hitting something and decreases fast when you’re not hitting anything, kinda like a less strict but more extreme version of chaining in a DoDonPachi title. Increasing the multiplier faster is loosely achieved by point-blanking enemies as they appear from the top of the screen and by landing your lasers on a stronger enemy, so the more you’re able to laser something continuously (a boss, for instance) the higher the multiplier gets. Dropping bombs, which can be directed with the directionals when deployed, reduces the multiplier by a certain amount.

Techniques to achieve even higher multipliers in Maniac/Ultra exist, but require intricate combinations of slow/mid/fast tapping of buttons A and C. Unless you want to do this by hand, this pretty much adds two new configurable buttons that experienced players refer to as A+ and C+, meaning “rapid shot” and “rapid auto”. When you consider the extra fact that different enemies respond to the same attacks in different ways, it’s clear that Maniac/Ultra modes can only be fully squeezed for score if you care to learn all these complex, non intuitive high level techniques.

Official trailer with glimpses of all game modes - no 1.5 footage though
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user cavecoltd)

As soon as I started enjoying Maniac mode I established my scoring goal at a minimum of 100 million points without fussing with extra button configurations. Once I achieved it I read about all the little things concerning scoring and fiddled around with the rapid settings for a while, then got back to not using them. The only tapping techniques I used were the most simple, such as the one on the second midboss: tap A (increase the child counters from lasers hitting the enemy) and rapidly tap C (cash in or "bank" the child counters into the overall multiplier when they're high enough). Slowly tapping A was also good to get higher multipliers on the giant bug heads of stage 3, and in general I held C while rapidly tapping A in order to damage bosses faster or achieve a mildly better multiplier increase rate.

There aren't many general tips on Mushi since all modes are so different from each other, but I think the most common thing is to not be stingy on bombs when you need to use them - especially in Original mode or if you're not going for all those ultra complex rapid fire things in Maniac or Ultra (there are no bonuses whatsoever for bomb stock in any game mode). Another important hint is the 1UP at the end of stage 3, where you need to destroy all ten bug legs to the sides before blasting his head at the center. Extends for Original are at 2,5 and 5 million, and for Maniac/Ultra at 10 and 25 million. With so much to be learned it's impossible to go deeper into any of the modes I didn't play extensively, but regarding arcade Maniac here's a good slice of knowledge if you want to get intimate with high score play.

Unfortunately Mushihimesama on the Xbox 360 is restricted to Japanese consoles only. Those who bought the limited edition of the game were given a CD with the arrange soundtrack, but in any incarnation available this is definitely a superlative title to own. It's got everything you need to configure any HD display you might want to get and eclipses the Playstation 2 version in its current generation. On the Xbox 360 menu, choose Score Attack if you want to register your score in the online leaderboards while playing at full defaults. Remember that all runs can be uploaded and saved after they're over. Head to Practice in order to do some proper training on all modes, except for Novice.

I absolutely love this game, and still remember the time when I thought Maniac mode was totally out of my league and skill level. It felt good to conquer the 1CC, but knowing that I can improve over my best result below feels even better (Score Attack, default difficulty 2, no rapid fire buttons were used).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Super R-Type (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1991

Being “super” was the flagship of many SNES games even though most of them didn't live up to the hype generated by Nintendo, especially during the console's launch period. Super R-Type was included in the initial release waves and represents Irem's adherence to the “super” trend. While not a “super” version of the first game and not a straight port of the second one either, it kinda works as an arrange version of R-Type II. It follows the flow of the second chapter in Irem's most famous spaceship shooter franchise, but most probably due to the difficulty of technically mirroring the arcade game there are quite a few changes on graphics and bosses alike. I guess the inclusion of a brand-new starting level was a way to compensate for the losses, so to speak.

Super R-Type might not have met the expectations of fans back then but it's nonetheless a fine shooter, even more so for those who're fond of the series. A few people might disagree with me on the basis of the single checkpoint system, but the game is definitely not as hard as R-Type II in the long run. Infuriating as it is to die at a boss and start the stage from scratch, overall Super R-Type softens the original challenge because it's a much slower game with fewer bullets, easier bosses and less crowded levels. Changes in the soundtrack are less harmful to the porting job, but the quality is duly preserved and makes for an equally pleasing musical backdrop. There are those who even consider the music in this version to be superior to the arcade game’s. I like them both.

New beginnings in a rocky planet

With the bulk of the gameplay inherited from R-Type II, in Super R-Type we have the same old drill everybody knows and loves about the series. Be it with the pea shot (button Y) or the charge shot (button B), you must blast off and strike all those evil Bydo minions, acolytes, aliens, etc. The charge shot can be charged up to two levels, with the second one peaking and cycling over if you keep the button held down permanently. Release it on its charging peak and you’ll unleash an even more powerful blast, capable of killing large enemies and bosses in a single blow. As powerful as it is though, the R9C (C for Custom) still needs its share of upgrades hidden within the slow-moving walkers. Destroy them to obtain upgrade capsules, starting with the extremely important speed-up (S).

Then we have the colored power-ups, with the first one giving birth to the force pod, an invincible energy sphere that can be docked/undocked (button A) to the front or the back of the ship while providing extra firepower, damage by contact and invaluable defense against regular enemy fire. The next two power-ups you take will activate and max out one of the five available weapons: red (wave cross-laser), blue (3-way ricocheting lasers), yellow (crawling energy streams), gray (short-range exploding clusters) and green (forward bubble shot). Each successive power-up upgrades the ship regardless of its color. Missile is a uniquely powered item and is determined by the color of the M capsule: red is for homing, blue is for ground scatter missile. The last item released by the walker is the “bit”, a small half-sphere made of the same material from the force pod. The first one hovers above the ship and the second one takes the lower spot.

Having two bits + the force pod is the best protection you can get against flocks of enemies that close in from all sides (falling debris of the 6th stage, baby aliens in the last stage). Losing such a fully powered ship is one of the most frustrating feelings you can have in the genre, and only in games like Super R-Type you have the chance to experience this kind of failure. In order to avoid it like the plague, pure memorization is the best advice I can give. On the surface it’s seemingly fine and easy to get through a given stage, but watch out for that slow moving bullet or those enemies that suddenly approach from an unexpected angle due to a slight difference in ship position. They mean death when you least expect it. Ironing out all the possibilities of danger is the name of the winning game, never mind too much about scoring because it’s as basic as it gets.

Going a bit deeper about dying in Super R-Type, special considerations should be made regarding slowdown. While it’s not as over the top as several sources point out, it does incur in problems such as the slingshot effect (transitions from slow to regular game speed making you ram into walls) or bullet timing issues. On the 6th boss, which by the way is inspired by R-Type's 4th boss, it’s often safe to stay close to the bottom of the screen as the blue lasers fired by the moving blocks graze above the ship’s canopy. In the process of beating the game I died twice consecutively in the very same place: moving up from the bottom left of the screen and as I thought the laser had already passed by me, when in fact it hadn’t cleared the screen at all. Totally pissed, I had to take a break after that and instinctively adapt to the slowdown at this particular point in the game.

Wet caves in the third stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

All original stages from R-Type II are displaced by one level in this port. For example, what was originally stage 1 appears as stage 2 in Super R-Type. Outer space sections aren’t as numerous as the organic or industrial settings, but they all create a nice shooting atmosphere. The first biggest difference from the arcade game is in the space fleet level (stage 4 here), which gets simplified by a good stretch. The maze and moving blocks from stage 6 are completely replaced by a robotic facility filled with mechas and debris falling from top hatches or being transported in conveyor belts. These stages have completely different lay-outs and are pretty much unique to this port, as well as the new opening level and the quick intro that shows the R9C being launched into outer space.

You can also spot other differences throughout the game, but they’re all minor with the exception of selected bosses (which are all fought in separate chambers). What matters most is the new behavior of two of the available weapons. Originally a series of lasers with slight bending capability, green was completely reworked into the forward bubble weapon, definitely losing its post as second best choice after the wave gun (red). That post was taken by the gray weapon, which is now much more effective and is actually capable of inflicting consistent damage. Going the distance is still easier when you’re able to stick to the red weapon, an extremely precious item that’s totally absent from the game after the midpoint in the third stage. By then you’ll probably have acquired the first couple of score-based extends, which are awarded at 40K, 80K, 160K and 320K.

The direct sequel to Super R-Type/R-Type II would be released two years later exclusively for the Super Nintendo under the name R-Type III - The Third Lightning. There's no denying it's a more polished game than Super R-Type, but that doesn't disavow the fun you can have with this somewhat bastard entry in the saga of humanity against the Bydo. My time with the game ended with the following high score, achieved on Normal. I reached stage 2-5.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Burning Force (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed variable/unique
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1990

Sure, Burning Force on the Mega Drive isn’t graphically the same as the gorgeous arcade game released by Namco in 1989. Yet it has always pleased me in ways I can’t quite describe, as I kept getting back to it ever since I purchased the Sega Genesis version a few years back. I guess it’s the mix of a decently-done scaling job (for Mega Drive standards) and the great soundtrack, to which I hereby profess my admiration. Have you ever fallen in love with the music before actually playing the game? Burning Force is such an example for me.

With a sci-fi motif naturally punctuating every corner of its design, Burning Force is a straightforward adventure with perfect length and variety. Stages are divided into short sections with plenty of bosses, the enemy gallery never feels repetitive and there are enough details to distinguish the game from being just another rail shooter inspired by Sega’s highly influential Space Harrier. The heroine, a young cadet name Hiromi, takes control of a floating hoverbike and a spaceship across several landscapes in the course of a week (each stage is supposed to happen within a day, stage 1 = day 1).

Receiving an upgrade to fly!

“Rail” shooting, in this case, comes in two flavors. With the exception of the last level, every stage is divided into four areas. Areas 1 and 2 (morning and afternoon) unfold in a single plane as Hiromi pilots the hoverbike, moving left and right over a flat surface in what could be seen as a heavily tilted fixed vertical shooter. In the beginning of area 3 (night) her bike enters a large cargo ship and receives an upgrade to be able to fly, hence turning the gameplay into a full-fledged rail shooter (she flies into the screen with freedom of movement in all directions). These areas end with boss fights, and while inside the cargo ship Hiromi is given hints about weak spots on the stage boss to be defeated at the end of area 3. Area 4 has no enemies and consists of a short bonus round. Unlike the previous levels, stage 6 has just one flying area that leads to the final confrontation against the last boss.

Both the hoverbike and the spaceship share the same arsenal and inputs. Fire the main weapon with button A, fire missiles with button B and activate invincibility with button C. Weapons are changed by collecting the appropriate icon: W is a wide shot, L is a thin laser, and Cl is a wave-like cross-laser. Missiles have limited ammo and can be either M (growing radius blast) or H (five homing shots fired at the same time), and each icon provides a stock of five missiles. In order to trigger temporary invincibility you need to collect five green orbs released by destroying selected ground obstacles. Ground ramps make it possible to “jump” and take the floating power-ups during hoverbike levels. Unfortunately, no upgrades are to be collected for any of the attack options, and you can’t stock more than five missiles or one invincibility at a time.

One of the most interesting aspects of Burning Force is the HUD that covers the top and the bottom of the screen. Besides showing basics such as the score, number of lives and number of missiles, it also includes indicators for ship speed during the hoverbike areas (press up or down to control it), danger due to enemies coming from behind (you also hear a characteristic sound cue when this happens) and a decreasing counter that always starts at 1000 (the remaining value is multiplied by 10 and converted into points if you manage to beat the boss before it reaches zero). Each life has three health cells, with no way no recover lost health during the course of the game. Dying has a neat animation sequence: the bike/ship explodes as you get ejected from it, and you fall right into the cockpit as the next one materializes from thin air. I guess warfare technology in the world of Burning Force is definitely ahead of our time. Note that colliding against enemies is bad, but crashing on a static obstacle doesn’t cause any damage.

From dusk till dawn
(courtesy of YouTube user Callofgun)

Day 1 takes place over the ocean, day 2 on a desert, day 3 inside a sort of castle, day 4 across a green prairie, day 5 in a bright cold world and day 6 in outer space. The scrolling effect has its limitations, but it gets the job done at all basic levels. Colors are also used with good taste, and while the horizon landscapes remain static and never change, all wave/checkerboard surfaces are nicely rendered and remain considerably clean so that you can always see what’s coming. The highlight is definitely the bonus areas (they even have a Sonic vibe to them). The final level is a complete letdown though, there’s no scrolling at all besides the notion you get from the approaching rocks and enemies. Thankfully the soundtrack is excellent and keeps the good vibe going at all times - my favorite tune is the theme for day 5, it’s pure groovy awesomeness.

Even though the intensity isn’t the same as in the arcade original, the action is never dull in the Mega Drive port. With a few exceptions, such as the boss in area 4-1 and the whole last stage prior to the final boss, dodging and avoiding obstacles is perfectly manageable even on the highest difficulty setting. Hit detection can be a little iffy at times, but memorization eventually helps you avoid cheap damage from bulky enemies (the boss in area 2-1 is one of them, he rams into the dead center of the screen as he shows up). Invincibility is there to allow extra protection on these parts, and going the distance is made easier with two extends at 150/400 thousand points and the extra lives you can get from bonus areas. To win an extra life is simple, just collect all ten stars that appear within the lines of bonus tokens. Scoring higher is achieved by finishing stages faster for better time bonuses and getting the most out of the bonus stages.

Though not nearly as hard as After Burner II but with a challenge level that’s definitely above the likes of Panorama Cotton or Space Harrier II, Burning Force offers an ideal dose of fun for those looking for a good rail shooter on the Mega Drive. Its strengths pretty much make up for the weaknesses, I only wish the female character motif had been a bit more fleshed out. I graduated her to “space fighter” on Hard and improved my old high score in almost 4% with the 1CC result below.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

DUX (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast / Kontechs
Published by Hucast in 2009

Soon after it was originally released, reactions to the independently-produced DUX led to a turmoil that exposed the worst sides from both the developer and the shmup community. Simply put, it was a scandal. Promised features as simple as looping and multiple difficulties were left out of the finished package, and the broken scoring system pretty much killed the game on the eyes of the hardcore fanbase. Hucast promised to distribute a patch disc that would take nearly four years to come out: at the time of this writing DUX 1.5 is about to be unleashed upon the STG world for yet another round of critical dissection. Up front the revision seems to hint at a different experience because of features such as “rebalanced gameplay” and “instant respawn”, and that’s what motivated me to dig out the critically butchered original and play it before we get to see what’s in store for the new version.

What’s so infuriating about DUX is the fact that the gorgeous artwork and the astonishing soundtrack are wasted in a game riddled with lackluster programming. Some of the most basic functions in any shmup are thwarted beyond belief. For example, you can’t refuse to continue once the credit is over (continues are forced). When the game is played on 50Hz PAL consoles there’s a bug in the first stage that allows your score to skyrocket, which combined to repeated 1UP collecting makes it possible to quickly roll over the score counter. As a 60Hz player I didn't get to experience this bug, but you can still milk checkpoints since all 1UPs in the game are there to be collected again every time you die. Broken scoring systems were pretty common amongst console games back in the 90s, but I’ve yet to find such atrocious errors in any of them.

So what’s left to enjoy from DUX?
Sadly for those who run it on PAL consoles the damage is more serious, but I'd say it's still playable for everybody else who doesn't care about endless checkpoint milking.

This is not a Halloween candy party!

As with many other games that came after 1987, DUX pays homage to the R-Type series. It’s got the force pod, three weapon types, a charge shot and missiles. The main difference is in difficulty (not nearly as hard as Irem’s classic) and in a deliberate sensory overload related to backgrounds and colors (reminiscent but not in the same level of NG:DEV.TEAM’s Last Hope). There's no mention at all to any story besides the brief description of each stage in the manual, but you seem to be waging war against an enemy that’s honed the ability to deploy huge laser beams everywhere. On the other hand, the enemy's defense system has weaknesses all around, as indicated by the large cores you need to target when facing bosses. In between mechanical creatures, deadly flowers, moving blocks and turrets of all shapes and sizes try to crush you into oblivion.

Basic inputs consist of shooting with button X and detaching/summoning the pod with button A. An additional function is used to soak bullets, activated with button R. Weapon types are determined by the color of the power-ups: hyper (yellow), bounce (faint green) and x-ray (blue). As soon as you take the first power-up the force pod arrives from the left side and docks to the front of the ship almost automatically, upgrading itself as you collect further weapon items. Besides granting the ship with weapons, the pod provides defense against regular bullets. However, unlike what happens in any R-Type, the pod can be destroyed if it gets in contact with specific enemies (rocketing organic domes in stage 2) or if it takes excessive damage (mostly when detached from the ship). There’s also an additional shield icon that adds small deflector barriers above and below the ship. Missile type is defined by the active arrows inside a cube-like icon: if the lit arrow is pointing forward you get forward missiles, if the lit arrows point up/down you get vertical missiles. Lastly, yellow stars activate checkpoints - that's where you get respawned when you die.

The “obvious energy” meter located below the charge gauge is filled automatically as you destroy enemies and block bullets with the pod. Certain enemies and crates release “obvious energy” bits that get sucked into the ship automatically and help fill the obvious energy meter a little faster. Activating the bullet-soaking function starts depleting this meter, and to sustain it you need to absorb bullets and keep killing enemies. According to the manual and the game’s attract mode, the soaking effect is the bane of the scoring system, in conjunction with killing enemies in succession with the charge shot. The problem with this scoring system is that you can’t keep track of how well you’re doing when “chaining”. There's no visible multiplier, no special counter, no timer at all, the closest thing you have to measure performance in this case is the obvious energy gauge itself. As long as you're able to keep soaking bullets you score higher, with the added bonus of invincibility (whenever bullet soaking is in effect you're invincible against soaked bullets, even if they approach from behind).

There are nice touches in the gameplay, such as the awesome homage to Xexex in stage 5, the glowing effect on the ship whenever you get too close to a wall/enemy (as if it's about to explode) or the fact that you're always respawned with a pod and the weapons you were using when you died. Unfortunately, the number of gameplay issues, from which the shady scoring system is just a single aspect, practically overshadows whatever pros you can find in DUX. For example, there's absolutely no need to dock the pod on the back of the ship throughout the whole game, and it doesn't take long to realize that the weapon system is an unbalanced one. Hyper (yellow) has the best charge shot but is useless otherwise because it's too weak, whereas using x-ray (blue) makes the game considerably easier, especially from stage 4 onwards. A global problem about the charge shot is that in order to use it you need to have a full charge meter (90% full is the same as nothing), and this limitation brings lots of problems in the heat of the battle.

Bullet-soaking? That's for the weak, I don't need it!
(courtesy of YouTube user masterdreamcaster)

Even with all the issues DUX is a mildly fun game. The difficulty slope seems to be inverted though, in that the two final stages are definitely a pushover when compared to the prior levels. Stage 6 has a totally white background, and given the nature of the scandals surrounding the game's release it's hard to judge if this design decision was made as a style choice or because the developers needed to rush the game out the door due to constant delays. Interesting related note: if you want to eliminate all backgrounds in the game go to the options and switch “visibility” to Perfect. Bam! There goes the background confusion! If you want you can also turn DUX into a TATE vertical shooter in the options (controls → horizontal/vertical). However, since the game was clearly designed as a hori it just feels unnatural to play it as a vert.

As the first title from NG:DEV.TEAM's spin-off company Hucast, DUX is ultimately a reasonable artistic effort spoiled by a series of immature programming problems. It's a beautiful promise turned into a corrupt product, still playable on the surface but disappointing in its core. The original game came in two variations: a single-disc package and a two-disc package with an extra CD containing the spectacular soundtrack. Here's my final 1CC score on default settings (moderate visibility on a horizontal screen):


So what about DUX 1.5?
And the Kickstater-financed “sequel” REDUX - Dark Matters?
Will Hucast be able to make amends with the fans of the genre? Somehow I sense more controversy, but more on that in the near future!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

God Panic (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Teichiku
Published by Teichiku in 1992

I guess ever since Konami mocked its own flagship series other developers felt it was okay to release wacky shooters upon the game audience. Some are better or funnier than others, but they’re often a good subject for geeky talks. God Panic (also known as Shijō Saikyō Gundan) is neither bombastic nor rubbish enough to polarize opinions, consisting of a lighthearted romp that allows everybody to have easy fun while marveling at a handful of bizarre visuals. Just like most shooters of its kind it never left Japan, but since it’s a CD-based game a free enjoyment pass is also guaranteed for those who own a Turbografx-CD.

Everything in God Panic is in Japanese, so I have absolutely no clue about what’s going on in the brief snippets of story we get to see. The elderly bald guy that plays the role of a Zeus-like entity seems to endow a cat-god (the player) with powers to make things right in a fantasy world filled with strange landscapes and creatures. Expect crisp graphics, vibrant colors and a fitting soundtrack that might make you giggle with pop references – in the second stage, for example, you fly over the back of a giant bikini-clad lady to the sound of a mash-up between Danger Zone and Mighty Wings. The song on the opening screen mimics Also Sprach Zarathustra, most famous for its use as the main theme for Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odissey. Even Stairway to Heaven makes an appearance! The remainder of the music ranges from fluffy BGMs to dark, moody tracks in the second loop, some of them with aggressive piano work.

¿Los 3 amigos?

Controls are simple: shoot with button II, trigger a bomb with button I. This “bomb” works by creating a quick forward barrage that disintegrates bullets on contact. You start the game with three bombs in stock and three health cells per life, with the possibility to expand both with appropriate icons collected from inside ground chests. The only way to open the chests is by getting close to their keyholes, shooting won’t do anything. Don’t rush up after opening the chests because you might get the item without seeing what it is: the speed-up icon, which looks like a small joystick, is actually the only one to be avoided in my opinion (multiple speed-ups can lead to an uncontrollable avatar). All other items are of strictly beneficial nature: the green P is the shot power-up, the purple P recovers one health cell, B grants an extra bomb and Lv increases the health meter by one cell.

Whenever you take the first green P two sidekicks will materialize by your side and provide additional firepower. Further power-ups will upgrade you until you start firing a couple of very powerful homing shots (it's impossible to power down). You can have up to 6 health cells and a maximum bomb stock of 5, and every surplus item collected after that is worth 10.000 points. That’s the part of the scoring system that goes beyond the basics of killing everything for points and milking bosses for their destructible projectiles.

Considering the fact that God Panic’s easy difficulty hinders its overall appeal, the real charm of the game comes from the awkward enemy gallery and the tidbits of music spoof, as I mentioned above. Staple shooting foes such as planes, cannons and bosses are mixed with cookies, stick figures, old villagers, fat bearded men, cars, dancers, candles, pigs, ninjas, bonsai trees, mohawk punks, head statues, geishas that get briefly naked when you unbelt them, a farting warrior and even bodybuilders (seemingly no relation to Cho Aniki, as both games are contemporaneous with each other). Albeit devoid of much animation, bosses are often large and menacing, some of them in a goofy way. Stage duration varies greatly: the third level above the ancient village drags a little, and then stage 4 comes with a boss rush that ends against a green dragon. The bald elderly god makes an enigmatic appearance in the last stage as you need to defeat the cat-boss twice.

God Panic's first loop
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

As soon as you beat the final cat-boss the game restarts without a single ending screen. Unfortunately there’s no increase in difficulty, however God Panic throws a different kind of twist if you’re willing to replay it. All those shiny graphics and uplifting music receive a complete overhaul – backgrounds, enemies and bosses get repainted in gloomy sprites conveying devastation and decay. All houses in the village stage, for instance, appear to be destroyed, and people’s faces acquire an evil countenance. At least the humor is preserved in mocking details, such as the name for the first boss changing from RED CHOCO PUDDING to BAD CHOCO PUSSING.

By the time you score one million points you’ll have earned all four score-based extends (100K, 300K, 500K and 1M), which honestly should help anyone beat both loops on his/her first try (the game ends after the second round). It’s hard not to feel disappointed by the difficulty in God Panic, especially because the second loop adds nothing to the challenge. Besides, instead of being confronted by properly designed bullet patterns, most of the time you get hit due to enemies coming from below or because you were rammed by a few lightning fast attacks. This means that ultimately what matters here is the wacky experience. Where else can you undress a fat geisha on the fly?

God Panic buffers high scores at the start screen, but after the ending credits are done you get stuck and need to reset. Fortunately you can also pause the game anywhere as long as the screen doesn’t fade out. Here’s my final 1CC result playing on Normal, I did take some hits but lost no lives across both loops: