Monday, September 23, 2013

Raiden II (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu
Published by Seibu Kaihatsu in 1995

A little after I started playing Raiden II on the Playstation I caught myself imagining a developer conversation at the Seibu Kaihatsu headquarters. “So people thought Raiden was easy?” “Yes, they did say that, boss.” “That’s inadmissible!” “Some people said the first loop is a piece of cake, boss.” “Nooooo…” “Don’t worry, boss, we’re working on making Raiden II much harder.” “Harder??? These people don't know the meaning of harder yet!” And then I resumed getting slaughtered over and over... Long story short, I have absolutely no doubt that Raiden II is one of the hardest shooter sequels ever designed, comparatively speaking. The increase in difficulty is so steep that going back to Raiden right after beating Raiden II made the first game look like child’s play, with everything running in slow motion. Therefore, if you ever hear people complaining about the over-the-top nature of today's bullet hell shooters, tell them to go play Raiden II. I mean it.

The above comparison is restricted to the titles contained in the US release of The Raiden Project for the Playstation when played at full defaults (Colonel). There are lots of shady information about different difficulty settings even in real arcade boards for Raiden II, so I’ll just assume that whatever we get in the Playstation port should be at least close to the original experience, especially when the game is played in real TATE. Note #1: the “TATE” option that’s present in the disc isn’t actually the real deal because it also rotates the controls, so in order to get real TATE you need to insert the following precious cheat code with a Gameshark device: 80050BAC 0003 (it works perfectly for both games and can be permanently saved in the memory card). Note #2: real TATE is included in the Japanese version of Raiden Project, but that one is botched because it comes with mandatory checkpoints for Raiden and for the blue ship in Raiden II, and that alone is reason to go for the North American version. Note #3: if you still want to have checkpoints in the US disc, set "start back mode" to ON in the options.

Really, what a mess, Seibu! Everything considered though, The Raiden Project is simply a must have title. It comes with an animated intro, two soundtracks for each game (original and remixed) and several configuration/display options. And if you can input the special code above for TATE you pretty much gain access to an arcade at home.

A desperate fight against the Cranassian armada

Raiden II is in several ways similar to the first Raiden. There are eight stages, five of them taking place on Earth and three in outer space. The ships are still the same, mk-II (red, player 1) and mk-IIb (blue, player 2). The mechanized aliens are still the enemy, I just don’t have any idea of the story behind everything. Even though the themes in all levels reflect those of the original game, in Raiden II graphics and explosions are noticeably more detailed. Shrapnel and debris fly all over the place, and you can even see pieces of enemy aircraft falling to the ground with varying impact sizes. Additions to the basic gameplay appear in the form of a brand-new weapon, a new bomb type and a few tiny differences in how scoring bonuses are applied.

Besides the vulcan (red) and the laser (blue), a third new option to use as main weapon is the latching laser (purple), also known as the infamous “toothpaste” laser. Upon initial firing it works like the blue laser, but then the streams merge and the magic happens: whenever this weapon connects to one or more enemy it bends, ricochets and rebounds all around, creating a spectacle that can be directed but not really controlled by the player’s movement. Some people believe it has homing abilities, but the truth is that it will only fulfill its purpose when the player directs it to a proper target. Weapons are selected by collecting a power-up that cycles colors in a fixed sequence (red → blue → purple → red), and in order to increase the weapon’s power you need to stick to the same color. As for bombs, in addition to the regular nuclear bomb (red B) we now have the cluster bomb (yellow B), which is less powerful but is deployed with almost no delay, covers a wider area and lasts a tiny bit longer. Player 1 (red ship) starts with three nuclear bombs in stock, whereas player 2 (blue ship) starts with three cluster bombs. Released by little ground buildings, missiles can be straight nukes (M) or homing (H). And that’s it, use one button to fire and another to drop bombs (all controls are configurable, autofire included).

Scoring devices haven’t changed much. Gold medals are still worth 500 points, with new blue medals worth 3.000 points each. The number of these medals multiplied by the bomb stock × 1000 corresponds to the bonus at the end of a stage (watch out for the last hidden medal that appears one or two seconds before the stage ends once the boss is destroyed). Sometimes a miclus appears instead of a medal, giving 10.000 points but being excluded of the medal count. Once you’ve maxed out power, every extra power-up item is worth 5.000 points. Extra bomb bonus: if you manage to max out bomb stock with bombs of the same type (all nukes or all clusters) every extra bomb of the same type results in precious 50.000 points.

None of the above requirements for higher scores is worth the risk if you die. Raiden II is a cruel shooter, and the lack of checkpoints has no bearing at all in difficulty. There’s no breathing room whatsoever upon dying. Mercy is a term that has no meaning here, enemies are out to get you from every possible position/angle and every foe will fire at least one bullet before biting the dust. Unless you know what you’re doing, standing still is a free pass to end the credit horribly - however, flying around desperately won’t help either. Once the player has memorized enemy placement and established a safe route, slow tapping is probably the best strategy during most of the time. There’s a “rhythm” according to which enemies will fire, dictated by a characteristic reload window, and moving back from a sweeping maneuver must take place during that time when enemies are not allowed to shoot. Getting the hang of this rhythm is essential to survival because you need to squeeze that ship within dangerous spreads from bosses, amidst sniping floaters and across barrages of tanks coming from below. Raiden II stings, and it stings hard. Maybe more so than any other shooter, it taught me to be more humble and less greedy. Being sniped at the peak of a great run is devastating, if I had been photographed every time this happened we could write a tragic comedy with the pictures.

Mission accomplished for the 1st loop of Raiden II

Persevering is half the battle of beating Raiden II. The other half comes from adapting to the merciless gameplay and exploiting a few little advantages here and there. One of them is the fact that every enemy needs to be seen to fire anything against the player, so leaving them out of your sight is a good – and sometimes necessary – move. Beware though, those floaters are fond of sniping you from the sides blindly if they have already crossed the play field in one piece. There are no score extends, only two 1UPs that require some ability to be obtained (3rd stage: when you’re leaving the harbor don’t destroy the silver box, instead let the tank coming from below do it; 6th stage: blast the central bunker that guards the crystal quickly, bombing helps). Uncovering and taking fairies (10.000 points) in stages 1 and 4 guarantees a wave of power-ups upon death. Unfortunately since the game is so punishing, most of the time extra lives or fairies aren’t really useful unless you’re already facing the last boss. Trying to make some sense of the power-up shower brought by the fairy while being massacred from all sides is almost a bad joke. There are also other consequences when dying, such as the screw-up of the item spawning routine. Depending on where you die the game starts mocking you by sending bomb after bomb after bomb when all you need is power-ups or that precious P for maximum power (it only appears from stage 5 onwards).

In my opinion, entering the sea area of the third stage marks the first difficulty spike, which culminates in one of the toughest boss fights in the game (the only one where extra enemy ships appear to make matters even worse). The second difficulty spike is in the fifth stage, where enemy shots get crazy fast and gaps between them become even smaller. Sniping hell awaits those who let flying enemies live long enough. Stage 6 is pretty much the same, stage 7 is kind of a breather provided you don’t get greedy for medals or power-ups (these keep floating at mid level, teasing the player all the time) and stage 8 resumes the final phase of the onslaught. My favorite weapon for the stages is the toothpaste laser, but I do switch to laser (blue) on the 3rd, 6th and 7th bosses for its sheer power and fast destruction rate. I feel sorry for the vulcan weapon, in Raiden II it’s just a shadow of what it was in Raiden. Since homing missiles are so weak below maximum power, I only take them prior to the fight against the second boss.

With so much going on to make the experience such a hard one, is the game actually any fun? Hell, yes! Raiden II is such an incredible challenge that every stage won feels like a victory in itself. Whenever I’m playing it I’m on my toes all the time, senses on the tips of my nerves, eyes all around the area looking for snipers. Let’s not forget about the music, which starts in a slightly corny tone but evolves to some rather epic BGMs in the last half of the game (so epic that they served as basis for the soundtrack in Raiden IV).

I need to thank the wonders of emulation for allowing me to practice the game, without it I would never be able to accomplish the 1CC. After completing the first loop I reached stage 3 again and went out in a blaze of greed with the final score shown below (Colonel difficulty). Unlike in Raiden there’s no advantage in choosing the blue ship here, so I went with the classic red mk-II. Note about my TATE experience: the resolution on Raiden II was a little too wide for my screen, so I couldn’t see a span of approximately the ship’s width when leaning against the sides (Raiden was okay though). Aside from that, I should note that in later levels a fully powered toothpaste laser causes slowdown in key areas, such as the last boss.

Raiden DX, the next installment in the series, seems to be an even greater challenge than Raiden II. We shall see!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Gunbird (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1995

Ah, comebacks... Aren't they sweet? I still remember when I first fired up Gunbird on the Sega Saturn, one of the first shooters I got for the system, and how I hammered the game with a slew of continues until I was able to get to the end of the first loop. By that time I was just starting to learn what a 1CC is, therefore Gunbird was also one of the first 1CCs I achieved ever since I got back to gaming in my adult life. A few years down the road certainly made me a little more experienced with the genre, so this time I took the chance to play the game in TATE.

Wow, has it been that long already? I mean, those days when I thought I wouldn't miss much by playing vertical arcade games in YOKO...

Story summary: a magic mirror was stolen and broken by a giant Gremlin creature, and five anime-styled characters take flight in a mission to recover the pieces of the mirror and defeat the evil enemy and his henchmen. The extra intro in this version shows this (it's not present in the arcade original), and dialogue intermissions tell the rest of the story as it unfolds. Most of the interactions between characters are awkwardly comical, but since they're all in Japanese it's impossible for me to understand what the pedophile (Ash) or the homosexual elderly (Tetsu) are actually babbling about. If you don't care about these bits of dialogue don't worry, they're instantly skippable.

Saturn's Gunbird complete 1st loop with Marion - watch for great tips on bosses!
(courtesy of YouTube user bamboo69rock)

My objective while playing Gunbird again was to top my high score with Yuan-Nang, the monkey-girl who controls a floating cloud. I'll describe how gameplay works with her, the rest of the characters have similar control inputs: by default, you can shoot (C/R), use a charge shot (A) and bomb (B). Yuan-Nang's main attack is a straight green shot with slower side swords, her charge attack is a short range blow with a bo stick and her bomb consists of several shadows of her own self that get propelled forward and also help to nullify bullets. Yuan-Nang's bomb isn't really good for panic defense, since a few enemy shots can get through the appearing shadows (moving while bombing can also lead to deaths because it might create further gaps within the bomb pattern). Even though she isn't the most powerful character in the game, her biggest advantage in my opinion is the short recovery time of her charge shot, whose power is only surpassed by Valnus's electrified discharge (on top of that, Nang's charge shot can also block bullets!). I'm also fond of her speed, which is close to Marion's - not as slow as Tetsu's, but not as fast as Ash's either.

For such a naive control scheme, the amount of strategy you need to apply in order to survive is considerable. Power-up capsules (P) and extra bombs (B) appear from carriers and selected enemies or boss parts. Three Ps are needed to max out the character's strength, but after a while firepower is degraded one level and you need to acquire a new P to get full power again. Every power-up collected while at full power is converted into 2.000 points, and that's the main source of scoring besides milking cannon fodder from boss fights before they time out. It's always good to let power-ups bounce around before taking them at the correct time in order to always get 2.000 points from every P, just remember that all items eventually leave the screen if they're left floating around for a long time. As for bombs, six is the highest number of them you can carry, so any extra bomb taken after that also results in a bonus of 2.000 points.

Rank is intimately related with strategy in Gunbird, because the longer you survive the harder the game gets. That means faster and denser enemy bullets/patterns. The first three stages are always randomly selected out of four (one is always left out), and then you go through the final four in a fixed order. Due to the random nature of the first half of the game, any of the initial stages might come with three different difficulties. The hardest third level in my opinion is the train stage, I'd much rather have the castle or the forest instead of the train. The factory as a third stage is also tricky because the first phase of the boss comes with very claustrophobic overlapping patterns. In any case, you pretty much need to learn how to handle every starting stage in three different ways. Getting rammed by an enemy doesn't result in death, but one power-up will be expelled from the character's body and instantly drift away. Rank is slightly reduced when this happens, but it's not such an advantage as in, let's say, what you get in Sengoku Blade. Significant rank drops only take place when you die.

Choose your destiny

Gunbird's graphics are decent, and if the boss animations aren't on par with Psikyo's own contemporary Strikers 1945 they aren't shabby either. The action is reasonably intense and there's never any slowdown, so aggressive players will be more comfortable with the overall style of the game (well, I’m being redundant here, we all know that’s the harsh truth about all Psikyo shooters). There's only one extend to be taken at 400.000 points, and every continue from stage 4 onwards sends the player back to the start of the stage instead of resuming play right away. Continues used are added to the score in order to separate 1-credit achievements from credit feeding results (note that these inflated values are still logged into the high score table).

The Saturn port comes with save functionality and the extra intro I mentioned above, but this intro is only shown in Original mode - which corresponds to YOKO with vertical wobbling. Excluding the ending sequences, all voices created for the dialogues in the port are also exclusive to this mode, and you won’t hear them if you play the game in Arcade mode (TATE) - which by all means is an exact rendition of the arcade original with regular attract animation and no voice work. Slightly rearranged music is the same for both modes, but high scores are tracked separately. Other goodies on the disc consist of sections for character index and a few art galleries. Compared to the Japanese Playstation version, the Saturn one wins due to the save functionality and the presence of a TATE option. Note: Gunbird was never released for the Sega Saturn outside of Japan.

Here’s my new high score with Yuan-Nang (+10%), playing on Normal (difficulty 5) in Arcade mode (TATE). As expected, I couldn’t survive the onslaught of stage 2-1.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Balloon Bomber 2005 (PSP)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 2005
Published by Taito in 2006

Last Saturday I had to wake up early to go through another glucose tolerance test. The objective of this test, in my case, is to measure the tendency I have to develop diabetes. Those who’ve been through this know that you need to collect two blood samples separated by a period of two hours. Now bear with me… Two hours doing nothing in the medical lab on a Saturday morning? You see, that’s what gadgets like the PSP are made for. It wasn’t hard to choose the game I would take with me to keep me busy, since I had just received Taito Legends Power-up in the mail a few days earlier. Out of the rather unimpressive shmup roster included in the package, a particular and unexpected game grabbed my attention: the remake of the mediocre Balloon Bomber, aptly titled Balloon Bomber 2005.

The original Balloon Bomber was as primitive as it gets. A sleep-inducing experience to say the least, and a failed attempt at developing on the Space Invaders idea. The exclusive PSP remake, on the other hand, bursts with color and detailed sprites while offering expanded gameplay and a finite number of levels. In a nutshell, an irresistible way to spend two hours with old school gaming.

Getting acquainted with the new game shouldn’t take less than five minutes. The player controls a tank on a flat surface while a bomber plane crosses the screen dropping balloons in straight lines. Each balloon carries a bomb, and all of them must be destroyed so that you can proceed to the next wave/level. By default the tank is able to fire only one straight shot at a time (button □) and turn around itself to switch the offset position of the cannon (button ○). Power-ups brought by extra balloons can be taken, stocked and activated when needed (button ×), while cycling through them is accomplished with the shoulder buttons (R/L).

Full intro to Taito Legends Power-up and two stages of Balloon Bomber 2005

Bombs hang from balloons like pendulums, and depending on how they’re hit you might either pop the balloon and make the bomb fall (hit the balloon only) or destroy the bomb and the balloon altogether (hit the bomb). Straight missiles are dropped by bombs themselves (they open up briefly), and arching missiles are released in groups of three by extra bomber planes. Both types of missiles can be destroyed just like anything else. When a bomb or a missile touches the ground it creates a crater that blocks the tank from crossing its path, thus reducing the maneuvering area. Tighter spaces and bombs that fly very close to the ground are the main causes of death in the game - the only good side of dying is that the terrain is completely regenerated afterwards.

Targeting bombs is definitely the best way to clear the screen faster, but remember that all power-ups have the same behavior as bombs, meaning you can also destroy them. Therefore, in order to get a power-up you need to pop its balloon first. Beware though, the last bomb/balloon in a wave works like a screen-clearing device, destroying everything in sight including any power-ups still hanging to their balloons or lying on the ground. Power-ups might appear as temporary speed-ups, ground regeneration (deletes the craters on the side the tank is facing), a single cluster missile, fast shot or increased firing rate (three shots at a time). Unfortunately, all power-ups last for a brief amount of time only or as long as the current balloon wave isn’t wiped out.

Since the game has five stages with five sections each, the variation in graphics, zoom level and basic gameplay help avoid the stench of repetition. There are cool effects applied over the castle backgrounds, such as fogging and rain, but Taito also added more meat to the bone by giving balloons and bombs three strength levels. As the game starts they all go off in a single shot, but soon enough yellow and blue balloons start replacing the initial red ones. Yellow targets take two hits to go down, whereas blue targets take three. Especially tricky are the blue waves that appear very close to the ground and the ones that are zoomed out the most. In the first case it’s always best to target the bombs, in the second case maintaining a close free area is essential to avoid getting dangerously stuck between craters. Aiming is an essential part of Balloon Bomber 2005, and goes hand in hand with the generally slower pace of the game, which isn't that hard and is most suited for relaxing purposes. There are no continues, but extends are granted with 50, 100, 200 and 400 thousand points.

It's snowing in the land of bombing balloons

If you crave the Space Invaders style of shooting there’s no denying that Balloon Bomber 2005 is visually great. I just wish Taito had spent the same amount of dedication on other aspects of the game such as the music, which is restricted to a single boring circus-themed song from start to finish. The complete lack of bosses might also be a bit frustrating for some people. Even though the game tracks best scores, best firing rates and best completion times for each section, there’s no extra bonus for beating these sections faster. In fact, you can milk those arching missiles forever in the very first screen if you so wish. All of this hints at the game being just another lazy rehash of an old idea, or maybe it’s just the fact that Taito has lost touch with its own arcade expertise over the years. In any case, Balloon Bomber 2005 is fun regardless of its limitations and more intricate oversights.

Compared to its Japanese counterpart Taito Memories Pocket, the Western release of Taito Legends Power-up has more games and should be the preferred version if you’re aiming at getting the best package. However, both of them are a disappointment. While Capcom and Konami have made their most recognizable shooters available in similar compilations, Taito stuffed these discs with very old fixed shooters only – apart from Balloon Bomber 2005, the newest one in Taito Legends Power-up is Return of the Invaders, released in 1985 (I'm not counting the unscrolling multidirectional Kiki Kaikai). The compilation fares a little better in other genres, with deluxe/revamped versions of Cameltry, Crazy Balloon and Legend of Kage, but the absence of shmup classics such as RayForce or at least one Darius is a big letdown.

And below is my final 1CC result in Balloon Bomber 2005. I played the game aiming for the quickest possible completion time and had good fun for two hours. For an obscure handheld title hidden in a poor compilation disc, it was a pretty neat diversion.

As for the glucose tolerance test, the results showed I'm okay. :)