Sunday, June 30, 2013

Flying Hero (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sofel
Published by Sofel in 1992

Lovers of cute’em ups, take note of another title for you to enjoy with your kids, girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands and all those nostalgic old-school Super Nintendo fans. Looking for an easygoing fix to relax or spend a lazy afternoon with? Or maybe just on the lookout for an easy game, period? The Japanese-only Flying Hero serves all these purposes with undeniable gusto. Drawing vivid inspiration from Konami’s Twin Bee franchise, it starts off with the same goofy story about a princess kidnapped by a deranged bad guy, soon flooding the TV screen with lots of colors and all sorts of mode 7 effects.

The only thing I’m not sure about in this game is what you’re supposed to be when playing it. Going from the witches that constantly appear as bosses and mid-bosses, obviously it’s a universe where magic plays a big part. My best guess is that the protagonist is either an egg or a marshmallow ball, fully clad with flying garments and endowed with wings. As you fulfill your heroic duties you’ll notice lots of creatures of your own kind sleeping, waving or sunbathing on the ground. These details get mixed with several cutely animated enemies, most of them animals: monkeys, insects, bears, pterodactyls, bats, cats, birds, pirate parrots, fish, etc. Unfortunately I saw no penguins, so expect no Parodius references anywhere.

Flying Hero's title screen

Divided in eight “acts”, the game becomes a breeze in seven of them once you know how to properly use your arsenal. In fact, the control scheme in Flying Hero is one of the best I’ve seen for Nintendo’s 16-bit console, which results in pretty smooth gameplay all the way through. Basics: shoot with button B, bomb with button Y and “bend” shot direction with the shoulder buttons. Pressing L directs it to the left diagonal, pressing R directs it to the right diagonal and both L and R make the flying egg shoot backwards. However, all these inputs are of no use if you don’t push SELECT to change flying speed as soon as the game starts. There are three speed settings to choose from (check the feathers on the upper left) and you always start with the slowest one, which is pretty much useless.

Managing the items released by pink balloons is also of great importance. Three of them are used to select the desired weapon: ice/egg balls, puffs of cloud or lightning. Small cupcakes increase the weapon’s efficiency whenever three of them are collected. The large cupcake acts as a shortcut and sends the weapon to its maximum power at once. Remaining items consist of extra bombs and a little cat-face that activates a homing cat-shot fired in couples. All weapons and the homing cat-shot have three levels of power, with power level being easily distinguished by the number of streams in each weapon. When you get hit the weapon gets reduced by one level, and death only happens when (1) you’re at the lowest level with no homing cat-shot or (2) when you get crushed by a scrolling obstacle.

Even though you can be satisfied with all weapons, my favorite one is the ice/egg balls. Puffs of cloud are powerful but have a slow firing rate, whereas the lightning suffers from short reach. On top of that, whenever you switch weapons you must build up their power from zero, and that’s quite annoying to say the least. That’s why I always avoided puffs of cloud and lightning during the whole game. As for the small power-up cupcakes, from a survival standpoint it’s always best to have two in stock and avoid all others because once you get hit it will take just another cupcake to return to your previous power level. However, if you want to score higher you’ll be inclined to take all incoming items since each one of them is worth 200 points. The game is considerably easy anyway, so with the exception of the icons for puffs of cloud and lightning greed mode was always on for me.

Evil cute little witches and puppets
(courtesy of YouTube user torm223300)

Speaking of difficulty, reaching the final stage should be absolutely no big deal for a seasoned gamer. The bulk of the challenge lies in the fight against the final boss, as if the developer had left all the hard work for the poor guy to do. All extends achieved by then are extremely helpful, and even though I can’t really tell when these extends are granted (there seem to be other mysterious variables involved other than scoring), it shouldn’t be hard to have lots of them by the time you reach the final stage without dying.

Besides excellent controls and cute design, another aspect that stands out in Flying Hero is the number of large enemies throughout the game. There are at least two mid-bosses per stage, sometimes even four. Not really dangerous in themselves, they add a sense of variety that gets extended to the gameplay, which is totally free of slowdown or any other related technical hindrance. Graphically one of the most interesting stages is the one that has tetris-like blocks and turns into a brief maze towards the end. That's where you're most likely to die from squeezing, simply because there aren't any other levels filled with tricky obstacles (large walls in the mountains and gate sections do not count).

Option menu translation for Flying Hero

To gain access to the options press SELECT at the start screen. All messages appear in Japanese, but don't worry about settings if you want to play in the Normal difficulty (it's the default). As easy as it is, at least Flying Hero entertains while it lasts, and once the credit is finished the game halts at the screen below. I played on Normal.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cosmic Epsilon (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels (one hidden)
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Home Data / Asmik
Published by Asmik in 1989

Looking back now, in the 8-bit era it seems Nintendo didn’t really think rail shooters were tailored for the Western audience. With very few honorable exceptions, such as Tengen’s unlicensed take on After Burner, all notable titles in the subgenre never left in Japan (not even Space Harrier made it, but in this case I believe there were stronger forces in motion behind the curtains). Long story short, if you’re a rail shooter fan you’re in for a few treats if you dig deeper into the Famicom catalog. One of them is definitely Cosmic Epsilon, a remarkably decent example of how to do things right in the limited realm of 8-bit sprite scaling (please, please do not mistake this awesome game with Caltron's Cosmos Cop).

The first thing that caught my eye when I initially tested Cosmic Epsilon was how smooth the scaling effect for the ground is. In all honesty, impressive would be the correct word since it’s smoother than many 16-bit games, putting them to shame with little effort. Complemented by quick opening cinemas of the skull boss raiding a solitary planet and the robotic hero departing for battle, the game quickly establishes an excellent atmosphere. And even though the scaling isn’t as smooth when you consider moving targets or incoming bullets, the resulting impact on gameplay is definitely on the positive side. So buckle up and prepare for a great little adventure over the stranded surfaces of alien planets and into the confines of outer space. Planet Aria needs to be freed from evil and counts with your combat expertise.

Sands of danger in planet Technos

As with most rail shooters, playing the game is dictated by very simple rules. Button B is used to fire laser beams and button A is used to fire missiles. Laser beams are replaced by a more powerful charge shot when you hold down and release the button, with charge power being tracked by the "beam" gauge. Missiles come with a mild homing ability and have limited ammo, which must be restocked by taking the M item. All items are taken from the ground after you kill the snake creature that carries them, and besides M there’s also S (invincibility) and X (extra life). When you fire a charged shot you must wait around one second to charge again or resume firing, otherwise you’ll be firing slow shots with no real purpose while the orbs that power the robot and the spaceship cool down.

Starting as a robot, as soon as you beat the first boss you transform into a spaceship in order to play the next level. Both forms alternate somehow across eight increasingly harder stages, with brief intermissions that show the spaceship landing in space stations or warping to a new planet. Short messages and a few sleek digitized voices help describe the journey, which is marked by the abovementioned great scaling effects, a few uneven graphics, cool bosses and fair challenge.

Cosmic Epsilon takes advantage of its excellent surface scaling during most of the game, but some spaceship levels unfold only with a static background. The action in these sections is conveyed only by the enemy gallery and the incoming obstacles. It works, but all other stages look much better because you’re always flying over some sort of surface whose color palette varies in an effort to represent water, desert, ice or fire. Stage 7 is the best-looking spaceship level precisely because it has several moving platforms. Usage of color is generally well done but some color choices are downright awful, such as the dark blue dusk of the 4th stage. The music there doesn’t help to lift the mood, in a soundtrack that’s not bad but at the same time doesn’t match the overall quality of the graphics.

Another reason why Cosmic Epsilon is a great 8-bit rail shooter is how it handles bullets and obstacles, thus correctly implementing challenge. With very few exceptions, enemy bullets travel at reasonably dodgeable speeds. Some of them are fired at point-blank distance unless you kill their sources first, others can be perfectly seen and dodged from afar. Certain enemies will fire very dangerous petal-like bullets or homing missiles, but these can all be anticipated and avoided with a little practice. Contrary to the majority of rail shmups there are enemies that don't shoot aimed bullets, so it’s easy to avoid them if you so wish. And since bullets are tied strictly to the type of enemy that comes at you, getting used to enemy behavior is the best advice to perform well in the game. However you also need to cope with environmental hazards such as fire arches, volcanoes, rocks, tornadoes and laser barriers.

A quick credit of Cosmic Epsilon
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

Programming quality aside, it's true that some minor problems appear here and there due to limitations of the hardware and odd design decisions. Depending on where you are you will die because of bullets you don’t see due to the overlapping of your own hitbox and incoming enemies. Mysterious spinning forms can block your firepower temporarily if you fail to kill their carriers. Managing those large homing missiles is tough in the beginning, and in rare cases you will die because of an enemy that approaches from behind. The final corridor with the laser barriers is awesome but demands a good deal of memorization, while several passages require the player to prioritize enemies or things will quickly get out of hand. Note that all items are only released during the stages where you fly over surfaces, and a minimum alignment is needed for you to take them.

The absolute lack of continues might scare some people, but if you feel inclined to bypass this there's a little simple trick (upon gaming over, push SELECT + START, keep holding SELECT and press START when you get to the initial screen). Going further and further with each credit is made a little easier with the 1UPs (X) and the score-based extends granted at every 50.000 points. In a game like this every level completed without the loss of lives feels like a sweet victory, and soon enough you’ll be battling the awesome turtle monster of stage 6, my favorite boss. You need to hit his weak spot while dodging falling rocks and avoiding a brief bullet spam. Weak spots of bosses can be a little iffy, and are always best dealt with by using charge shots. In any case, I love how aiming is easily achievable because of the dual lasers meeting at a clearly visible vanishing point, and I just wonder how much cooler Cosmic Epsilon might be when played with the 3D glasses (toggle 3D mode with the SELECT button).

Taking note of the performance in the game is kinda tricky because it doesn’t buffer high scores. The final result after beating the final boss remains there for a few seconds, but pausing the game won't do any good because the act of pausing hides the score display... This means you’d better be quick to get your picture for a 1CC result. Going for a harder version of the game is made possible by a secret mode called "Another World", which changes the game's color palette slightly and comes with more bullets per enemy (input the following code at the start screen: ↑ ↓ ← → A ↓ ↑ ← → B). And below is my final 1CC score for Cosmic Epsilon in normal mode!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Vapor Trail (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data East / Telenet
Published by Renovation in 1991

Having acquired the rights to work on porting Data East's arcade title, in 1991 Telenet graced the Mega Drive with an adaptation of Vapor Trail, a game that a friend of mine defined once as the Sonic Wings of the Sega Genesis. Yes, similarities exist in the way certain graphics are laid out and in the selection of different jets once you press start. Gameplay and vibe, however, are completely different - and these are the aspects that should essentially define preference. If we're talking 16-bit only, Vapor Trail loses to the Sonic Wings port available for the SNES. On the other hand, I believe the original Vapor Trail on the arcade *could* be a match for Sonic Wings (from the little I've played of it anyway).

Vapor Trail - Hyper Offence Formation has a pseudo-apocalyptic story as background to the action. In short, crazy terrorists have hacked the world’s communication systems and are threatening to nuke the planet unless they’re given total power over the globe. The player (or players, in co-op) must take control of one out of three jets in order to fight the enemy and restore world order. First in an unofficial trilogy that also includes Wolf Fang and Skull Fang, Vapor Trail on the Mega Drive presents itself as a standard vertical shooter that doesn’t really stand out from the rest of the crowd. Graphics and sound could be blamed for this, but when the gameplay isn’t engaging enough to make your shmupping heart tick it’s hard to lay all responsibility on the art/sound design alone - especially for a port that’s reasonably faithful to the source, as is the case here.

Note: the Japanese name for the game translates as something like “Sky/Air Fang - Operation Code Vapor Trail”. And there we have the Western title association with the other Fang shooters!

Silph jet equipped with the S-unit in stage 4

Much like in the arcade original, the intro describes the start of the story and tells that the city of New York is silent. When you start the credit you must choose between three jets that differ in speed and firepower: the Valkyrie is slow and powerful, the Silph delivers mid-range performance and the Seylen is the opposite of the Valkyrie. Their specific advantages are eventually evened out by the items you collect during the game, such as speed-ups (Spd) and power-ups (Pw). Power-ups are applied to the weapon you’re currently carrying: V (vulcan), M (guided missiles), B (cluster bombs) or D (spiralling shots). Shoot the weapon icon to change the letter and pick up the desired one. Button B and button A are used to shoot but B comes with autofire, whereas button C triggers the barrel roll, a special move that sends the jet spinning for a few seconds while making it invincible. To use the barrel roll again you must wait until it’s completely recharged. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t damage anything but you can still use your weapons while rolling.

Items are released by medium-sized slow jets or by killing certain enemies within a wave. Cluster bombs (B) and spiralling shots (D) have the same behavior for all jets, but vulcan (V) and guided missiles (M) develop in unique patterns for each one of them. That’s probably because they’re both the most useful weapons, getting more efficient when maxed out after taking 2 power-ups. All things considered, vulcan is my favorite for brute force and faster kills. The act of shooting the weapon item to get the letter you want can be a chore because the amount of hits it takes to cycle is extremely irregular. Sometimes it switches too quickly (V → B → M → D → V), sometimes it seems it won’t change no matter how much you shoot it. On top of that, weapon items are the only ones that block your firepower, and that becomes an annoyance if you’re trying to hit something behind them.

There’s a second layer to the weapon system described above, provided by the S-unit. This item creates an attachment on the jet, fitting it with a new weapon that overrides all others and is unique to each craft. The Valkyrie starts shooting a dual flame blast, the Silph gains a V-shaped wave shot and the Seylen gets a more powerful forward/backward pattern. The barrel roll input is replaced by a type of bomb that detonates the attachment in a big explosion and reverts the jet back to its normal form and weapons. As useful as the S-unit is, the player might incur in a slight confusion because it disguises which actual weapon you’re currently using (unless you’re constantly keeping track of the last weapon you took). Additionally, Silph's wave shot is the weakest of them all, but at the same time it's the only S weapon that comes with autofire. Valkyrie and Seylen were shafted with slow firing rates, which forces the player to mash the button unless he/she is equipped with a turbo controller.

An important aspect in Vapor Trail’s gameplay is the fact that each life has two health points (on Hard difficulty, raise them to three if we’re talking Easy). That means you can get hit once before dying, or even more if you’re able to refill the lost health by taking the “life” item. Unfortunately, the breathing room you get from this is practically nullified by a few harsh difficulty spikes here and there, such as the 3rd and the 5th bosses. At least you get respawned in the same place if you die there. Dying before reaching the boss sends you back to the start of the stage.

Silph at work!
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Even though the game shuffles its common enemies across the levels with certain proficiency, somehow it lacks the punch needed to make a lasting impression. Tanks, boats, helicopters, mechas, jets and planes invade the grounds in several ways, many of them in repetitive formations or as if they were just thrown into the screen against their will. A better sound design would’ve helped: many large foes go down without a single decent sound to dress the explosion, and the ones that do come with underwhelming effects to say the least. The music on the first level is pretty catchy, but soon enough you’ll be full of it because it gets repeated throughout the whole game. That’s right, there are only two BGMs in Vapor Trail, one for the stage and one for the boss battle. Scratchy digitized voices abound and even make you remember Gradius (destroy the core!). Particularly amusing are the “vapor trail” you hear whenever you pause the game and the “go for the kill” announcement when a boss is about to die.

Vapor Trail is mostly free of slowdown, but depending on which weapon/jet you’re using there might be a little bit of jerkiness (train stage). Every once in a while an extra parallax layer provides a little depth/ speed to the representation of mountains and sky backdrops. Every item collected adds points to the score, and since speed-ups don’t make the game unplayable score-chasers have free pass to take everything in their pursuit for higher scores. Other than that, just milk whatever you can from enemies that fire those small guided missiles. And if you want to take note of your end game result pause as soon as the final boss dies, you won’t have any other chance to see your score.

Here’s my 1CC result on Hard, playing with the Seylen jet:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Double Strike (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sachen
Published by American Video Entertainment in 1990

Sachen, a well-known Taiwanese spurter of cheaply made games (most of them for the NES), should really be hailed for their accomplishments. In a sense they were more succesful than many legitimate companies, since their games saw releases all around the world. Brought to the US by American Video Entertainment, one of their most faithful allies, Double Strike also made it to other shores, having been rebaptized as Twin Eagle in Australia - not to be confused with the licensed arcade port of Twin Eagle - Revenge Joe's Brother. No matter what the name is, you can't escape the fact that this game comes out as primitive as a barely improved Atari 2600 shooter.

Up front you notice there's something really outstanding about the craft you're flying. After all, it looks like a space shuttle! I can't even imagine the crazy technology that's behind this, but whatever firepower the space shuttle has must be enough to face one of the most vicious terrorist organizations on the planet, which has seized some of the most beautiful islands on Earth in a violent attempt at world domination. The "double" in the title is probably a hint at the fact that this game allows two people to play cooperatively, but you also get a double play demonstration during the attract mode (double play = one player controlling both crafts). As a curiosity, the start screen displays the subtitle Aerial Attack Force.

No pains, no gains

I admit cooperative/double play must have been quite a feature if you were coming from a previous gaming generation, or even during the NES heyday for that matter. But what about solo play? You do "strike" stages and bosses more than once, so I guess that counts as a double strike. But then again, if we were to see it this way the game's name should've been changed to Triple Strike. There are three levels with tiled backgrounds that repeat in different orders and with different color palettes, all with a very limited enemy gallery and almost no variation in attack patterns. The uninspired music is the same from start to finish, you can't see your score while you're playing and absolutely no effort was made at providing at least an ounce of excitement.

If you're still in the mood to get back in time and enjoy Double Strike for what it is, brace yourself for a very repetitive gaming session. Planes, tanks and helicopters approach in simplistic ways for what seems to be the longest time, then you enter the boss fight. Power-ups are released by red/pink enemies only and include double shot, triple shot, spread shot, temporary invincibility, ground bombs (D) and 1UPs. Button A fires the main weapon while button B starts dropping bombs as soon as you take the first D item. Abusing the bombs will deplete their ammo but you can't see when this will happen. Fortunately there's no outage of Ds for you to take, and that also happens with all other items. Though totally random, 1UPs start appearing more frequently when you're about to run out of lives. By the way, every credit starts with 6 of them (pause to see how many lives are left).

Picking up the spread shot is good for the levels themselves, but its low firing rate isn't really useful against bosses. Every stage theme has its own type of boss (sky → airplane; jungle → nazi castle; sea → battleship), and all bosses have many turrets that must be taken down one by one. The problem with boss fights is that some of the turrets appear at point-blank distance and start shooting at once, giving little to no room to react as the screen goes back and forth around the boss. By then bullet density is at its highest, that's why having one of the straight shots is best to destroy the closest turrets. If you do it right the battleship can be defeated before the screen retreats even once.

Joining forces with another pilot up in the sky
(courtesy of YouTube user Classic Co-op Gameplay)

Besides the boring repetition, Double Strike is also irregular in the AI for enemy spawning. For example, the most dangerous enemy is a larger airplane that approaches from behind, parks at the middle of the screen and continuously shoots two bullets in a V-shaped pattern while moving up and down. As it overlaps its attacks with other minor threats the game almost acquires a minimum of intensity. Therefore, it's just sad that this only happens during the sky stage, meaning it will be absent from most of the game. The rest of the gameplay is reduced to staying sharp and avoiding to fly low in the sea/jungle levels. Well, at least collision detection isn't atrocious, if that counts for something. Several layers of parallax add a rather dynamic aspect to the backgrounds, too bad they are tiled and never change to something remotely engaging.

I'm done with Double Strike with the 1CC high score below. I used a turbo controller because going through the game without one would be stupid, maybe even more "stupid" than playing it in the first place. Truth is these subpar products had their importance in certain markets, and must have made many kids happy. If I had been exposed to it back then I would've probably liked it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Keio Flying Squadron (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victor Interactive
Published by JVC in 1993

Take Cotton, mix it with Parodius and infuse it with a wacky storyline. Keio Flying Squadron could pretty much be the result of this combination. Since the original Japanese game contains heavy doses of Japanese animation, text and dialogue, the fact that it also came out in other regions with decent English translation/dubbing is nothing short of astonishing. The North American version in particular is quite rare, but any of the Western releases is worth the search if you value anime design with humorous storytelling. Of course the shooting part of the game remains the same for all versions, and that’s what matters most if you’re into shmups.

The name “Keio” refers to a brief span of Japanese history during the 19th century, a time when industrial development was blossoming and Japan was in friction with many foreign countries. The story of the game is supposed to take place in that era, but of course it doesn't take itself too seriously (for example, you need to fight a crazy general from the United States navy in stage 3). A 14-year old teenager named Rami is the star of the show - never mind the Sega CD version saying she’s 20, that's censorship at work and no 20-year old woman would behave the way this brat does. She’s supposed to be the guardian of a sacred golden key that’s stolen by Dr. Pon, a super intelligent raccoon who wants to turn the world into a raccoon paradise. Rami’s grandma goes nuts and tells her she’ll have no food until she gets the key back, so there goes Rami and her pet dragon Spot (Pochi in the Japanese version) on a mission to recover the golden key. She’s childish, lazy and totally unaware of the danger she constantly runs into. Grainy FMV sequences open and close the game, whereas colorful cut scenes make it evolve from stage to stage. These animated intermissions create a lighthearted, lovely atmosphere that works well as a complement to the main game.

Racoons are everywhere

Being a dragon, it’s only natural that Spot shoots fireballs. That said, he’s able to fire two types of them, a straight one (default) and a spread pattern. This primary weapon is changed or powered up by taking the corresponding icon released by hitting a fan-propelled monkey, the bringer of all items in the game. Secondary weapons appear as three types of missiles: air-to-ground Darius-like bombs, directional explosives and homing baby dragons (which look like parrots to me). Both main and secondary weapons are fired simultaneously by pressing B, and are upgraded by successively collecting the same item. These keep circling and cycling as they leave the screen slowly, so take your time to snatch them when it’s safe. Once Spot is fully powered up, any extra item will be converted into 2.000 points.

Besides knowing your weapons, in Keio Flying Squadron it’s very important to use the two helpers/options that are automatically created once you stop shooting. Each one takes around three seconds to materialize, but once they do you’re given an extremely important firepower aid. Helpers trail you around like the options from Gradius, and can be “sacrificed” in a kamikaze special attack. By pushing button C one of the helpers is sent forward in a spread pattern of fireballs that can even block enemy bullets. Afterwards you need to refrain from shooting for a brief while to get the sacrificed helper back.

When you go a long stretch in the game without sacrificing any helper, the impression you get is that the game is easy. However, depending on where you die things can easily get out of control, with massive loss of lives and shameful credit termination. Because dying powers you down one level and strips you off your helpers and secondary weapons, an instant problem is presented if you’re surrounded by lots of enemies and bullets: quit shooting and wait for the helpers to materialize or face the mayhem with the main weapon only? Once I got to the last boss with over 10 lives in stock and lost all of them because I died as soon as he fired its first laser attack. Honestly, this was probably the most ridiculous GAME OVER of my recent shmupping career.

Keio Flying Squadron is totally old school in its gameplay, with no special tricks in scoring besides milking bosses and not dying to reap the bonuses of 2.000 points from surplus items. It's quite fun and easygoing for the most part, but it also requires memorization and a certain dose of strategy (it's good to switch to ground bombs before the barrier of spinning toys in stage three, for instance). Avoid staying too close to the borders, as mid-bosses tend to suddenly ram into the screen. Don’t stay too centered either, sometimes they’ll just fall over your head or appear out of nowhere (granted, everybody dies at least once in these cases). The last input in the controller is provided by button A, which switches between two speed settings (slow/fast). On default settings they were both very useful to me – I mention default because before starting the game you can adjust how fast you want to fly. Other tweaks in the OPTIONS screen allow you to choose your hitbox position (nice!) and to toggle all in-game cinemas on and off.

No key, no dinner!
(courtesy of YouTube user kingarthurpendragon)

Graphically the game offers good variety with a basic design and almost no effects. It does shine on its enemy roster, which is full of crazy creatures and all kinds of animal and mechanic foes, a good portion of them derived from raccoons. In fact, raccoons are to Keio Flying Squadron what penguins are to the Parodius series. All stages are considerably long with a few empty stretches and clearly defined sections, sometimes abridged by transitions or cut scenes. The difficulty curve pretty much divides the game in two parts, as from stage 5 onwards it does require more careful dodging and positioning. Thankfully there are a few score extends to achieve (30.000 + every 150.000 points) and lots of 1UPs to get, often triggered by fulfilling easy tasks within the stage or by simply finding them (examples: fly over the fish swimming upwards against the current in stage 2, shoot the lower edge of the big ship as you start stage 6). Though it seems to be possible to milk bosses forever, I was relieved to see that they eventually time out.

Much like other Sega CD titles, Keio Flying Squadron has an excellent sound design. The soundtrack ranges from bubblegum to somber, with a few very catchy tunes towards the end of the game (the first theme reminds me a lot of Parodius). Song loops are also longer than usual, and sometimes I let the bosses live longer just to listen to the best part of the boss theme. Lots of different animal sounds can be heard as you play (barks, moos, etc.) and strangely all in-game voices were left undubbed.

Don't let the relatively simple graphics fool you, this game should not be missed if you're into wacky cute'em ups. It's deceptively challenging and ocasionally infuriating. I had a wonderful time with it, playing at full defaults (medium/normal difficulty, default hitbox, slow 2, fast 3), with the 1CC score shown in the picture below. The game does not buffer high scores, so remember to pause once Dr. Pon is defeated to take note of your final score. Note: a hidden catch mini-game can be accessed by inputting a secret code at the start screen, and by using a similar code it's also possible to perform stage select (good to practice since continues are limited).

The sequel Keio Flying Squadron 2 was released for the Sega Saturn two years later. It's not a pure shooter, focusing instead on platforming action with a few shmup stints spread along the way.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Guwange (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010

Back in 2009 Cave decided to port one of its shooters to the Xbox Live Arcade service, so the company ran an online poll to get feedback from the STG community. The winner of the poll was Guwange, seconded by ESP Ra.De. (Progear was my choice and finished in 4th, also losing to DoDonPachi). I admit that I didn’t have that much enthusiasm for Guwange at the time of its release, and the little scandal that followed didn’t help either. Long story short, the game came out with forced widescreen on all resolutions, no HD graphics and no real 3:4 TATE mode. Of course only die hard shmup fans really cared about these contradictions, but fortunately they were properly addressed by Cave a while later.

Okay, but how about the game itself? It’s difficult to judge its appeal if you’re not into the genre. Guwange is probably the most unique title within Cave’s library, in both aesthetical and functional ways. It doesn’t play like a normal shooter, yet the company's style is written all over it. Also it doesn’t look like the rest of Cave’s output due to the basic influence of classics such as Commando or Gun.Smoke, yet the art design clearly establishes ideas that would be used in later titles such as Espgaluda. As the player, you must choose between three characters and walk your way across several villages of ancient Japan in order to take down an evil wizard. The story is supposed to take place in the 15th century and has more complicated and darker undertones, but I won’t delve into those. Suffice it to say the whole game design reeks of the Japanese culture of old. No visual frills should be expected, but watch out for some of the most gorgeous 2D sprite artworks ever designed for a shooter.

Playing Guwange is a different shmup experience because of the dual control gameplay scheme. Regular shot is complemented by the so-called “shikigami” attack. The shikigami is an entity/spirit that possesses the character and can be deployed to attack enemies at any time. When the shikigami is summoned you’re able to control where the spirit must go around the screen, but your character is restricted to horizontal movements at a slower speed and can't use the regular shot to full effect (only sparse bursts will be fired if you keep the shot button held). Besides attacking, the shikigami is also capable of slowing down enemy bullets and wiping them out if they’re close to the explosion of a destroyed target (bullet break). Once you let go of the button the shikigami gets sucked into the character and you’re again free to move around at regular speed and resume using the regular shot. Boss fights work differently because the shikigami will remain permanently deployed even if you don’t use it (it just sits there and waits). The third and final control input is the bomb, which makes the character float as a huge burst of energy is discharged from his/her chest. Invincibility is in effect during the whole bomb animation.

Shishin, Kosame and Gensuke

Coming to grips with the unusual control scheme is good for survival, but essential for scoring. The challenge in Guwange is built around the combination of regular shot + shikigami. As the game unfolds enemy placement and bullet patterns increase in complexity, often leading to overwhelming situations where taking damage seems unavoidable. Lives are implemented as a health bar consisting of three “lives” and a chunk of health per life. Three kinds of refilling items can be triggered at specific points in the game to recover lost health (all other items are power-ups, scattered upon death). Damage is proportional to the size and the consequence (health/life loss) of the bullet that hits you, and that also applies to the coin chain/counter, the main objective of all people who accept the challenge of playing this game for score. Collecting coins builds a multiplier than can be carried over from one stage to the next and even maintained during the whole game if you’re skilled enough to do so.

In order to not lose the coin chain you need to keep the skull meter alive. This meter measures how stable your chain is, and depletes as long as you’re not killing anything or holding at least one bullet with the shikigami attack. Once the skull meter is depleted the multiplier is reset. If the meter is kept at a flashing state (at least more than half full), killing ground enemies with the regular shot makes them leave coins behind. This is, in fact, another hint on how to extract more coins from enemies: regular shot works better on cannon fodder, but the shikigami is definitely recommended for all enemies that fire more than a couple of bullets. It takes a good amount of practice to come up with the best mix of shot + shikigami for optimal scoring possibilities. Beware though, the higher your chain and the longer you survive without being hit the harder the game gets (rank!).

Even though the nature of the shikigami attack seems perfectly suited for defense, using it aggressively and according to a good plan is the best way to go. Knowing when enemies are about to fire their weapons is excellent because then you can just park you shikigami over them and reap all those shiny coins. Besides, all coins generated with a shikigami attack are automatically sucked into the character. Other advantages of shikigami usage: it collects all coins standing on its way wherever it goes; if the skull meter is full, additional coins are steadily added to the multiplier. However, the primary rush in Guwange’s scoring system is reserved for when you get more than 1.000 coins, because then you gain even more coins just by hitting an enemy with shot. Additionally, bosses can be milked by keeping the skull meter flashing and hitting them with shot – a technique that works really well by keeping shot pressed at all times (autofire) and tapping shikigami to constantly switch between a flashing and non-flashing skull meter. This is also indirectly useful to induce slowdown and achieve extra speed control when dodging certain bullet spreads.

In keeping with the ancient Japanese mythology theme, the creepiest bosses are also the most fun to battle and milk. The caterpillar (stage 2) can be milked for the side worms it expels when parked vertically on either side of the screen. In one of the attacks of the catspider/spidercat (stage 3) the spores it releases leave behind a trail of coins if you destroy them accordingly. All boss strategies must take into account the fact that each successive attack gets increasingly harder the more it loops. It’s important to note that during boss battles the lower half of the skull meter depletes at a slower rate, which is good to breathe when you need more time to dodge at regular speed. Skull meter depletion relates intimately with bomb usage, since whenever a bomb is used it’s impossible to fill the skull meter. If you don’t want to lose the chain while bombing, get the skull meter as close as possible to maximum and only then use the bomb. In the case of Guwange panic is only an option after the coin chain has been lost, but here's a good treat for survival play: all extra bombs you get aren't lost when you lose a life, and every time you die your next life comes with two new extra bombs. Thanks, Cave!

Drunk Shishin can't hold his coin chains in the first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user PSUkbit)

Yet another case where the real thrills of the game lie deep within the gameplay, I believe Guwange is often bound to disappoint the casual player. Despite the good atmospheric music and the exquisite 2D graphics, the price of admission is a bit too high and demands a lot of dedication, either when playing for survival or playing for score. I loved how absorbing it is, but for me losing the multiplier before the demon/zombie section leading to the final boss is always extremely frustrating (watch out for the food item that refills the whole life meter, released by killing the spiders in the horizontal corridor of stage 6). Gensuke, the 15 year-old teenager, was the character I chose to play the game. He’s got a straight wider shot and is the slowest of the bunch. Shishin, the oldest one, wears a demon mask and his weapon bends towards the side he’s moving to. Kosame, the 17-year old girl, is the fastest character, an archer endowed with a thin straight shot. Shikigamis follow character’s speeds but differ slightly in size and shape, and each character also has his/her own start sequence and ending.

Besides the main arcade game, Guwange on XBLA also comes with a special arcade limited release called Guwange Blue and an exclusive Arrange mode with twin stick controls, developed exclusively for the port. Different gameplay and scoring rules apply to both extra modes, but the Arrange one is severely toned down in difficulty, almost like one of the Novice modes included in retail Cave releases. For other hints on how to approach Arcade mode and gain a better understanding of the game's details I recommend reading this excellent article.

On the XBLA port you can't input your initials when the credit is over, but in each game mode the Score Attack option allows you to register your results and upload replays to the online leaderboards. At least all Japanese text/numbers were duly translated into English, so there's no more need to decipher the high score screen (as is the case of the original arcade release). As for the game itself, there are lots of display tweaks available, sadly buried in a series of extremely unfriendly menus. You can adjust position, zooming, smoothing, transparency, rotation, etc., but the only setting I cared about was the one related to TATE on a CRT set. I had a hard time doing it right, here’s my quick guide on how to do it: go to Settings → System Settings and switch Wide Mode to OFF; go back to Screen Settings → desired game mode → Extra Display → Preset 5 and  push button A; go to Game Window, push button A again and adjust the zoom as you wish (the ideal setting for my TV was 1,76). The same setting can be used in any other game mode just by selecting Preset 5 in Extra Display. It's complicated but it works perfectly, the only problem is that features such as high score tables and replay screens get chopped off on the sides.

As planned, I finished Arcade mode with Gensuke. In this 1CC run I lost the chain stupidly before the spider corridor in stage 6. Since it's so damn easy, I also 1CCed Arrange mode on my very first try, also with Gensuke. Note: in the arcade original you couldn't see your 1CC result until you got to the high score screen, and this also applies here. Several bonuses are added to the score you achieve when you beat the final boss, based on things such as maximum coin chain, remaining lives/bombs, etc. My final result for the Arcade mode is highlighted in blue below (run uploaded to the online leaderboards):