Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Abadox (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Natsume
Published by Milton Bradley in 1989

An evil alien galactic creature named Parasitis is swallowing planet after planet in the distant future. When planet Abadox is devoured and all military resources are crushed by the enemy, the only hope left is to send a single soldier in a flying suit into Parasitis itself. Instead of blowing it from the outside with the expected fireworks of the shoot’em up lore, brave warrior Nazal must enter the planet’s mouth and dig deeper and deeper into its inner defenses. It’s no surprise that The Deadly Inner War appears as a subtitle in the NES box, but as gross as the idea might be at least Nazal gets to rescue a beautiful princess while fulfilling his mission.

The description above would make you think that Abadox might be similar in style to titles like Air Fortress, Section Z or Dropzone, but it’s actually more akin to the classic standard of the scrolling shooter. It’s Innerspace in outer space, and while our hero resembles the likes of a Turrican soldier with permanent flying ability the game immediately reminds us of Konami’s Salamander/Life Force. Odd stages are horizontal and even stages are vertical, but there’s a rather unusual twist: instead of going up, in all vertical sections you fly downwards. It makes perfect sense, given the story and the way everything is laid out. And the similarities with Konami’s classic don’t stop there. Watch out for spikes, bosses and music cues that seem directly lifted from Salamander.

Far from being a cheap copy though, Abadox oozes with originality. On the matter of cool graphic designs for the NES, this game is a winner. Surely the quirky theme helps a lot in this case, but how not to like a game where you fly over the creature’s gigantic tongue, penetrate its intestines and inner organs and come out in one piece from its rectal cavity? Yes, it’s that awesome.

"I don't like the look of this... Where will this path take me?"

Skulls, reptiles, tentacles, bacteria, eyes, mutated organs and wall rashes aren’t the only resistance you find in the seven stages of Abadox. They’re mixed with mechanical hazards and laser barriers, clearly implying that Parasitis is, in fact, an artificial creation. Exerting justice is carried out with an arsenal defined by icons released from blue scorpions. Beyond the default pea shot it’s possible to acquire four different weapons: 3-way shot, 5-way shot, bubble shot and laser. Right here and now I point out the only bad aspect of the gameplay: the icons for all weapons look the same, making it hard to distinguish which ones you should take. Fortunately this is not that harmful in the long run since no weapon is downright bad (despite the capped firing rate of the 3-way gun). Sticking to bubble or laser is best though, especially for the vertical stages.

Those blue scorpions also release other items for pick-up, such as the essential speed-up (S), missiles (M), rotating options (B) and P (power barrier). Take a second M to get missiles with homing ability, stock up to 4 options for extra protection against incoming bullets and collect the P to get a 3-hit shield (the shield is active while the flying suit is glowing). Shooting is accomplished with button 2, with button 1 expanding and contracting the radius of the options. After a while I realized this radius adjusting feature is pretty useless, so eventually I stopped fiddling with button 2. Another note about the options is that they disappear once they’ve taken enough damage (or maybe it’s a timed thing, I couldn’t really tell). What I did notice is that options turning blue is a sign of their imminent loss.

Losing the options isn’t such a big problem because the player is well served of them throughout the whole game. Maybe the only part where I missed them was against the mid-boss in stage 3. Regardless of options, the vertical stages are definitely harder than the horizontal ones, to the point where it gets really hard to recover if you die there. There are no extra lives or extends in sight, so Abadox is another shmup where finishing on one life is strongly encouraged. Frustration might kick in depending on how you deal with a couple of enemies in the shaft towards the last boss. There’s this mud ball that blocks your weapon, a bear (!) that pulls you down if you let it grab you and a phoenix bird whose particles chase you around if you hit one of them before they assemble in the middle of the screen. The good news is that the difficulty curve is reasonable, hit detection is decent and continues are unlimited, therefore this isn’t an 8-bit shooter where it’s okay to blame controls or design for not performing well.

Entering the creature's mouth
(courtesy of YouTube user NintendoComplete)

Unfortunately the scoring system in Abadox isn’t valid because many safespots during boss fights make it possible to easily counterstop the game. Besides, the last glimpse you’ll ever have of your score is during the fight against the last boss. The score isn’t even displayed as you weave through the corridors in the escape sequence (yet another nod to Salamander). This oversight – sadly very common in this particular gaming generation – is the only real stench in an otherwise great little shooter. The lack of autofire can (and should) be bypassed with a turbo controller.

Anyway, I would love to see a sequel or a similarly themed shmup released for today’s machines. I had a previous 1CC score on Abadox, but comparing it to this new one is useless due to the nature of the game’s scoring system. I cleared it again on one life and had good fun for a lonely afternoon, as a break from the dire clutches of Guwange.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thunder Blade (Master System)

Rail shooter / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1988

There are lots of reasons why I feel sorry for Sega. Some of them aren’t that obvious, like the personal grudge I have with the company’s absolute disregard for the Thunder Blade trademark. From all great sprite-scaling titles Sega developed in its prime arcade days, Thunder Blade was the only one left out of later reworkings such as the Sega Ages series. Once the 16-bit era ended After Burner, Space Harrier and Galaxy Force received gala treatment across several platforms, but what of Thunder Blade? Seemingly swept under the carpet as if it were a disease! All we had to savor were a couple of downgraded ports such as this one and the PC Engine’s, as well as the pseudo-sequel Super Thunder Blade.

Thunder Blade in its arcade form is a visually stunning experience, even more so than any of the abovementioned sprite-scaling rail shooters. Obviously an 8-bit port like the Master System’s isn’t technically comparable to the source material, therefore serious compromises must be made if you want to enjoy the game as it is: a pretty basic shooter that "tries" to mirror the structure and the look of the original title. The scaling effect and the frame rate might be poor, but seeing as the port is perfectly able to handle the task imposed by the simplified gameplay rules, under some aspects it actually ends up being a more cohesive take on the arcade game than Super Thunder Blade. It certainly feels harder, maybe even faster.

An evil oil refinery during the night

All stages in the Master System port of Thunder Blade start with a common vertical orientation. Airborne enemies must be destroyed with the machinegun (button 1), ground targets can only be taken down using missiles (button 2). Once the vertical part is over you enter an area where you fly into the screen with enemies coming towards you. The same inputs apply to these sections – jets and helicopters approach by air, tanks and boats will try to crush you from ground level. Later on you return to the vertical scrolling area to destroy a large aircraft/shuttle turret by turret. The only exception to this second vertical part is in the 4th and last stage, since the final boss needs to be defeated in the rail shooting environment.

What the game proposes as challenge is pretty simple: infiltrate enemy terrain and survive, reacting to each and every wave with what’s given to you as weapons. There are no power-ups in sight and absolutely no way to control flying speed (unlike the arcade game or Super Thunder Blade). Resistance gets increasingly tougher as you advance through the stages, starting in city streets and going through forests/caves, a river raid and a final strike in an oil refinery. The vertical parts with bosses from stages 1 to 3 are jokingly easy, but all other sections have their own sets of hazards.

Common vertical parts can be deceiving. Flying formations and tanks are arranged in such a way that you might get yourself cornered when trying to kill everything that shows up. When the action shifts to the rail shooting perspective the main concern is with the lines of tanks that can’t be engaged because you’re not close enough to them, which forces the helicopter to move around and be subject to cornering, especially when aerial waves overlap. Speaking of which, each type of flying wave attack has an optimal strategy to be dodged. The most problematic one for me was this jet flock that fires a blazing fast horizontal bullet spray. You need to go up and down to avoid it, pretty much basing the movement on graphic cues and sound effects alone. When stage 2 ends you’ll have seen every single enemy attack, then things get really busy in the third stage, by far the hardest level in the game. The pipes in the oil refinery are only for show if you stay glued to the ground sweeping from side to side. If you do this you’ll never hit any of them! Let’s not forget that tapping is the king maneuver during busy parts.

Is it Blue Thunder? Is it Airwolf? No, it's Thunder Blade!
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Of course the scaling on the Master System version of Thunder Blade isn’t perfect, but the trees in the third stage look so awful that at first sight the graphics seem to be broken. Thankfully the rest of the game looks fine for 8-bit standards. As challenging as it is, some shortcuts made in the port allow for more freedom of movement and consequent ease in the gameplay. You don't die by colliding against an enemy in the rail shooting parts, for instance, and all scenery such as pine trees and buildings are just as harmless. Beware of pillars and pipes though (remember to stay low in the oil refinery stage). Note: that last section of pillars inside the caves reminded of Battletoads and its infamous hoverbike level.

There’s only one song playing during the whole game, but it’s so fitting that you hardly even notice that. It’s also nice how the coolest bits of music seem to be synched to key points in the level design, like when you come out of the second cave in the second level. A rudimentary scoring system awards bonus points based on the number of enemies destroyed when you finish a stage. The lowest bonus is 10.000 for at least 50 kills, and the maximum bonus is 400.000 points for 160+ kills. Getting 500.000 points gives you the first extend, further ones are granted for every extra million. Unfortunately the only times you'll see your score are during level transitions and when the game is over. Normally there are no continues, however by pressing diagonal down to the right and button 2 on the GAME OVER screen you’re able to continue twice.

I enjoyed this game more than I had expected, probably because it’s actually a short playable romp and because I had a rapid fire unit inserted between the controller and the console (you definitely need it, the game has no autofire whatsoever). Besides, anything with helicopters is cool by default in my book. Leave it to Sega to ignore the Thunder Blade legacy completely, for now this is the 1CC outcome of the time I spent with the Master System port:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forgotten Worlds (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2005

And with Forgotten Worlds I have finally beaten the last chapter in the unofficial trilogy of multidirectional shooters developed by Capcom in the 1980s, which started with the great Section Z and continued with the somewhat weird Side Arms. Therefore I returned to the first volume of the Capcom Classics Collection on the Playstation 2, a no-brainer acquisition for everyone who’s into the golden age of arcade games. This particular package has 22 Capcom titles covering all gaming branches, 9 of them belonging to the shoot’em up genre. Pair it with its second volume and there you have it, a great gift for any old school gamer/collector. Don’t forget to give me props when you see the smile on your buddy’s face, okay?

Set in the distant future, the story of Forgotten Worlds involves two unknown soldiers fighting to free the planet from the clutches of an evil god known as emperor Bios. The graphic design changes considerably every three stages, starting on desolate wastelands full of lizard-men and running robots. It shifts to a series of Egyptian-themed chambers populated with indians and floating heads on the 4th level, with later stages taking place above the clouds. By then you’ll be faced with even more dangerous flying enemies, deadly statues, creepy zombie heads and all sorts of laser turrets as you reach Bios’s tower of doom. Getting there takes a good deal of practice, suitable strategy and proper usage of Zenny, Capcom’s official intergalactic money collected either by taking blue orbs or by finding special items.

I believe the two soldiers are genetically engineered to fly because they carry no jetpacks: player 1 (left side) is a white guy who fires a straight bullet stream, player 2 (right side) is a black guy that shoots a three-way spread gun with reduced reach and firing rate. Each one can sustain a determined amount of damage, as indicated by a health bar. Note: Lost Worlds, the Japanese counterpart to the westernized Forgotten Worlds, has a regular 1-hit life system and as a result is a much harder game. Other minor differences exist, but I didn’t bother to check them.

"Hey man, I just found the... hm... guy?"

Unlike its spiritual multidirectional predecessors, in this game Capcom decided to go full arena, so it’s not enough to shoot left and right anymore. The original arcade release of Forgotten Worlds – which was also the first one in Capcom’s famous CPS arcade board – has a control scheme that uses a joystick to move the character and a rotating switch to adjust his aim in sixteen directions and shoot. I never came even close to the arcade cabinet, so my guess is that the game “should” control better on the PS2 controller due to the twin-stick scheme: move the character with the left analog stick, rotate his aim with the right analog stick and shoot with a separate button, configurable as you wish (it’s also possible to use two separate buttons to rotate the aim). Everything else in the gameplay is dictated by a plethora of upgrade items hidden within shops spread across a series of alien fortresses and landscapes.

Spending Zenny wisely inside the upgrade shops means half the task of conquering the game. Sylphie the gorgeous shopkeeper will offer the following types of upgrades:
  • satellite – a special device that hovers around the character and provides several sorts of additional firepower, including v-cannon, napalm, guided missiles, all-direction bomb, laser, burner, (re)bound shot, vulcan/valcan cannon, wide shot, super laser and homing laser;
  • weapon booster – upgrades the main weapon (booster, booster 2, super booster);
  • armor – 3-hit and 5-hit (special) armor, as well as armor repair kits;
  • unit stone – single item that upgrades the power of the main weapon and the satellite at the same time;
  • flying stone – allows speed change between three steps;
  • health – treatment (recovers full health), bowl of life (increases the health bar), potion of resurrection (self-explanatory);
  • information/advice.
Once you get the flying stone and select your desired speed there’s no more need to do it for the rest of the game. Actually, no power-up is ever lost once you activate it. Some of the items bought in the shop increase in value as you successively purchase them (all health items work this way). The later the satellites appear the more expensive they are, as well as all weapon boosters. Much of the fun in Forgotten Worlds comes from testing these upgrades to see which ones work best for your play style or for specific enemies. You can also find a few of these shop items (and other hidden goodies) in the stages themselves by killing certain enemies or shooting secret locations, hence why it’s always a good practice to never stop shooting at any time. Hidden goodies can yield extra Zenny, health or points. Zenny items include small orbs (100), medium orbs (500), large orbs (1.000), barrels (3.000), cones (5.000), a miniature of the robot from Side Arms (8.000) and giant orbs (10.000). Health items include the yasichi (full health recovery), Pow24 and Pow48 (partial health recovery). Bonus points might appear in the form of cows (10K each), strawberries (30K each) and stars (50K each). For a pretty informative inventory on all items check this great little webpage.

Forgotten Worlds can be a relentless challenge, with enemies swarming from all sides as you take successive damage. However, the gameplay also allows for a few defensive capabilities many starting players take for granted, such as the satellite being capable of blocking regular bullets. A particularly non-intuitive input known as “megacrush” can be used to damage all on-screen enemies at once at the expense of a little health. To trigger it you need to quickly double tap the firing button, which is achieved more easily when you stop firing. I did the megacrush by accident a few times before finally figuring out how to do it properly, and that’s when the tougher sections of the game became more manageable (sacrifice health safely if you know you’ll be able to recover it soon).

Credit feeding in co-op
(courtesy of YouTube user goodcowgames)

Besides the shop gimmick (inherited from Fantasy Zone) there are also other aspects in Forgotten Worlds that strike me as quite refreshing for a game originally released in 1988. One of them is the gigantic scope of some bosses, such as the war god in the third stage (who’s worshipped by none other than Vision, who by that time was already dissatisfied with the attention he was getting in the Avengers). Multiple paths in the Egyptian levels add variety and scoring opportunities (take the lower section in stage 5 and destroy the laser turrets to get lots of giant orbs - be on your guard, they take lots of damage). The life system is well implemented in regards to scoring, since the more you practice and refine your game the more Zenny you’ll be able to spare. And pure old greed is all it takes to get higher scores: bosses give higher Zenny bonuses when killed faster, and all remaining cash is converted into points once the game is beaten (final bonus = 1 million + Zenny × 10).

Even though there are moments of relative calm the action is often very hectic, with brief claustrophobic moments that can be worked around if you’re able to keep your cool. For example, it’s always best to wait until the last moment to enter the shops because all on-screen enemies will die instantly once you get out of them. Other than that, using the megacrush attack wisely is essential to control enemy swarms. Forgotten Worlds is great when played alone, and many people also deem it the most fun co-op shmup ever made. Truth be told, it never feels repetitive due to the relatively varied stage design, and the only complaint I could point out is the botched balance between music and sound effects. The sound of explosions and guns firing is so loud you can barely hear the music (which fits the alien setting but doesn't stand out otherwise). As for the digitized voices in the short dialogue intermissions, well... It's all about old school cheesy charm!

The game was successful enough to generate a handful of ports, including versions for the Mega Drive, the Master System and the PC Engine CD. My overall strategy to clear the arcade rendition included in the Capcom Classics Collection was to get the fastest flying stone and napalm in stage 1, switch to “valcan” cannon in stage 4 and get the homing laser in stage 8, while also buying all bowls of life and booster enhancements. The protection provided by the potion of resurrection was often used (if ever) during the fight against Bios, since you never know when he’ll get angry and abuse those unavoidable lasers. My best 1CC results are shown below (Normal difficulty).

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Parodius Da! (NES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1990

Lovers of the Gradius family of games will never be orphans if they stick to the old school ways of video gaming. The Otomedius titles aren’t exactly a success in this day and age, and as of now Konami simply refuses to continue with its main series, ignoring the genius approach taken with Gradius V. Long story short, Vic Viper’s legacy is practically null for hardcore players (who shun Otomedius based on design/challenge) and casual gamers alike (who might get scared of the sexually stylized anime characters). For all of you out there who fall into either category and is not afraid to tread obscure waters in order to get an extra Gradius fix, here’s yet another port of Parodius Da!, the second chapter in the spin-off series that parodies everything about Gradius.

Parodius Da! came out for the Famicom in Japan and the NES in Europe under the simplified title Parodius – not to be confused with the first game in the series, originally created for the MSX computer system and much later ported to the PSP. On the footsteps of Gradius and Salamander/Life Force, both of them released a few years prior, Parodius Da! provides shooting fun with the same basic elements of the arcade original, even though it’s a less faithful port than its predecessors in the Gradius universe. As a starter, the original game is 10 stages long, whereas here you only get 7 stages, one of which has a brand-new theme. Besides the missing levels (volcano, pinball, bubble and graveyard) there are other minor issues that take it down a bit when compared to Gradius and Salamander.

A duck with a joystick is the boss of the new carnival stage

Perhaps Konami was a little lazy with 8-bit development by the time this game came out, since it’s riddled with slowdown and flicker. I can live with slowdown, but when the slowdown gets associated with poor programming decisions the gameplay suffers with boredom. Take the galactic dancer at the end of the circus stage, for instance. The thing is so slow that this single part seems to last forever. He goes about the screen four times before disappearing, testing the player’s patience as penguins arrive from the left in pairs. Seriously, why not have the dancer go back and forth once and be done with it? That part kills the flow of the game, especially if you slip there and die. I didn’t even die and it almost made me want to quit the sessions.

Fortunately there are no more similar horridly boring parts for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, slowdown remains and flicker abounds more frequently than I’d like to admit. For me one of the most important differences from other ports is that in this one I needed to activate two speed-ups in order to make things playable, and even a third one inside the ice cave level due to slowdown (the water has no holding back effect here). This means Konami managed to make all characters even slower than they already were at default conditions. Vic Viper, Takosuke the Octopus, Pentaro the Penguin and Twin Bee preserve all of their original abilities, encompassing missiles, double/tailgun, laser/spread, options and shield types. As per tried-and-true Gradius tradition, acquiring upgrades is performed by taking power-up capsules and activating the corresponding slot in the weapon array with button A (not if you choose auto power-up though, in this case the game decides for you). When starting the credit you need to choose the character, the power-up scheme (auto/manual) and the difficulty. During the course of the game you can activate a maximum of three options (in the JPN version).

Every now and then a capsule will serve as an instantaneous smart bomb (different color), but beware of the roulette item disguised as a regular capsule, which makes the weapon array go crazy and turns it into a slot machine. The last piece of the gameplay is the bell, a feature inherited from the Twin Bee franchise. Bells are sometimes released in the place of power-up capsules (not at regular intervals, sometimes they come spaced by only one capsule). Initially appearing in yellow, you can shoot them in order to get other colors with special powers. Yellow bells give cumulative score bonuses provided you don’t let any of them go by, starting in 500 and maxing out at 10.000 points. Unlike all other ports though, the value for yellow bells doesn't carry over to the next stage. Special powers from other bell colors include a smart bomb, three energy bars, growth + invincibility and a 1UP. Due to the lack of buttons in the controller, active bell powers (smart bomb and energy bars) are triggered with the firing input (button B). Since this version lacks score-based extends, the 1UP scheme is unique among all ports of Parodius Da!.

I always wondered what went on inside this battleship...
(courtesy of YouTube user wittlericardo)

The lack of extends is probably the main source of difficulty in the game besides the ice cave level, the only stage where the game decides to really get angry at you – and where slowdown practically reaches its peak. All other levels (beach, circus, CARNIVAL, candy pyramid, battleship and fortress) are considerably easier, but you can still be surprised by something. This is a Parodius game after all, isn’t it? I capitalized “carnival” because this particular stage was developed exclusively for this port, complete with roller-coasters you can ride once you destroy its occupants (just beware when leaving it because it’s very easy to crash against the rail and die). Those who enjoy secrets will also like to know that a secret passage exists in the battleship level: destroy the ship’s mouth and go into it to see what’s inside the vessel.

Given all its little issues, I must admit only hardcore Parodius fans might be enthusiastic about this version of Parodius Da!. It’s a fun game, but it can also be boring and unfair. I can’t be sure if there’s actually any increase in difficulty once you loop the game, if such increase exists it’s pretty minimal. On the second loop the only real difference I noticed is the midboss of the carnival level being circled by a different type of enemy. As I started the third loop I refrained from shooting to see what would happen, but no bullet or enemy hit me during the pre-stage. I guess one could play the game forever and die from screw-ups only, but at least this isn’t as challenge-inept as Gradius II and its ridiculous extend routine.

My character of choice this time was Twin Bee, since it was the only one I hadn’t used across all ports of Parodius Da! I played so far. In my opinion it’s the hardest character to play with because his bombs are replaced by forward punches and his options have no trailing ability, getting sunk into the character if you stop moving (same as Pentaro). I had reached stage 3-3 when I accidentally picked up a ride in the roller-coaster and died my last life (Normal).