Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Darius Gaiden (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Interbec in 1995

With the exception of Deep Blue earlier this year, it's been quite a while since I had blasted some dirty fish for the last time. Of course "dirty fish" has different meanings in this context: in the case of the outer space marine creatures from Darius it's a dear, affectionate name, but if we're talking about Deep Blue, well... it's as literal as it gets. In the past couple of weeks I spent some time with the least commented port of Darius Gaiden - the one released for the Playstation only in Japan - so now I understand why 99% of the talks about a console version is always geared towards the Saturn one. An extensive bullet list of the reasons isn't needed, for it all comes down to slowdown. Chronic, constant, sometimes challenge-crippling slowdown.

Maybe the root cause for such a botched disc is the simple fact that Taito didn't directly handle it. A company named Interbec (of Tekkaman Blade fame) is to blame. You see, such was the hysteria over 3D during the mid-90's that Interbec thought it would be a great bonus to include newly animated sequences at the start and the endings in order to enrich the story. Could it be that the slowdown happens because they sucked the energy out of the game itself to come up with these sequences? Yeah right... If things in video games were that simple! What matters is that even with all the unnecessary material, the slowdown and other minor issues Darius Gaiden for the Playstation is still Darius Gaiden. It's still a challenging shooter with tons of fun, but early on I deemed it as being the "training version" of the game in order to keep it in a separate category.

Extra and regular opening sequences for Darius Gaiden on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user kantoku666)

Darius Gaiden continues the famous Taito fish-blasting saga with undeniable flair and power. It takes little to enjoy it, but a lot to master any of its routes. One button (□ or ○) is used to fire weapons, the other (×) triggers a black hole bomb (BHB) that sucks every single bullet and small enemies while making the Silver Hawk invincible. Destroy colored enemies and hit hidden spots in the scenery to release power-up badges and other equally important items. Power-ups consist of red (main shot), green (missiles) and blue (shield). Other items can be black (points), purple (extra bomb/BHB) or orange (screen-clearing bomb), and there's also a small Silver Hawk for an extra life. Main shot is constantly evolving, but for missiles and shield it might take a few power-ups to see their status change (check the gauges below the score counter). Dying degrades firepower by a partial amount only, unlike what happened in previous Darius arcade games.

Besides what's exposed in the above paragraph, the main aspect that defines Darius Gaiden is hidden within the game itself: rank. Basically, everything gets harder if you take all power-ups or if you destroy more boss parts. Therefore, if a particular section or boss is giving trouble try to refrain from taking a red or a green badge (blue ones are a must though, shields are really precious here), or try not to destroy all fins and tips of a boss. Besides offering different game routes, the branching nature of the game also allows for distinct challenge levels since some stages and bosses are noticeably easier or harder than others. Having beaten the Saturn port in the most common route for a higher score, this time I decided to tread the lower path, considered by some as the hardest one. There's no infamous autofire cheat available for the Playstation (maybe another reason why it's so neglected?), but you can get faster firing rates by tapping □ and ○ (same as A and C on the Saturn controller).

Since bosses play a big part in any Darius game, here's my take on the bosses in the lower route:
  • Golden Ogre (A): iconic and easy first boss, even easier when you avoid one of the red power-ups and get to him with the triple soft shot (the one that doesn't pierce);
  • King Fossil (C): the classic Darius coealacanth is now more dangerous because of the torpedoes coming out of his open belly in his last form.
  • Folding Fan (F): I always go for a quick kill on him, because if he's allowed to do a 3rd laser attack from his tail I'll either have to bomb or become dead Silver Hawk meat.
  • Neon Light Illusion (J): the first part is easy when you go around him from below and take care of his upper longer tentacle. When his inner shell is exposed it's all about herding and weaving. Pressure!
  • Fatty Gluton (O): the drill is the same as before, that is, try to crush whatever comes out of his mouth before it explodes. His third form is the trickiest, if you can't get close enough to the mouth just stand still from a distance and the bullets will go around you.
  • Deadly Crescent (U): pretty much avoid the fins and focus on his open mouth. If too many fins are destroyed his mouth will spit a tentacle in his last form and turn an easy fight into a brief nightmare.
  • Storm Causer (V'): bigger brother of Golden Ogre and my nemesis in the lower route, full of multiple forms and cheap random attacks. He's also the only boss where I'll bomb in order to keep my shield.

Facing the captain of stage D

By far the biggest innovation in Darius Gaiden is the ability to detach an orb from the body of the mid-boss (a.k.a. captain) and take it so that the creature will fight alongside the Silver Hawk. Try to hit the orb only, otherwise you end up just killing the captain. Not only is this über cool, but it also contributes to the final bonus you get when beating the game (each captured captain is worth 200.000 points). Other completion bonuses come from bomb stock (250.000 points each) and number of lives in reserve (1 million each). Reaching the end without losing any lives while capturing all bosses and having 5 bombs in stock (maximum) results in a final bonus of 6,7 million points. Sure this representes the bulk of any 1CC high score, but scoring well also comes from not letting any wave escape (you always get more points for destroying complete enemy waves) and getting lucky on the black badges.

Luck sucks, I know. I once heard that there are recommended ways to collect the black badges (9 o'clock for the first one in stage A, for instance), but I have now accepted that they're just random. Sometimes you get 51.200 points, sometimes you're left with 200 points only. And you can't help but feel robbed. As I said, luck sucks. But I don't love Darius Gaiden any less for that. :)

ACFJOUV' was done twice in the picture below. In my best run I was able to complete the game on one life (Normal), but I had to use four bombs on that prick Storm Causer. I also failed to capture the captain in the last stage. I feel I'm done with Darius Gaiden for now, so I expect to be moving to G Darius in the near future.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kolibri (Sega 32X)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
20 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Novotrade International
Published by Amoeba/Sega in 1995

Ah, the 32X… The device that became a joke the instant it was released upon the then dying commercial era of the 16-bit system… What’s left for us, Sega fans, to enjoy from the 32X? Not much, given the reduced library of 41 titles… And what’s left for us, shmup fans, to enjoy from the 32X? Almost nothing, given the fact that the amount of shmups released for it can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Sad, isn’t it? It’s no surprise the 32X is shunned by players and collectors alike, but thankfully we 32X owners will always have Kolibri. The game represents half of the original shooters developed for the system and is considered by many as one of its highlights (the other original half is Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000, arcade ports exist for After Burner and Space Harrier).

The best thing you can say about Kolibri is that it’s unique. Besides, it’s the best hummingbird-based shooter available for the 32X (sorry, I couldn’t resist that). Jokes aside, the game is indeed unique, and the beauty in its design is somewhat related to the classic Ecco The Dolphin. The company behind both games is the same, that’s why Kolibri shares many of the gameplay traits that made Ecco such a hit: excellence in graphics, atmospheric music and challenging puzzles are the most recognizable ones. I just wish at least one aspect had been left out, and that is the complete absence of a scoring system. That’s a disappointment in itself, but in Kolibri a scoring system wouldn’t help much anyway: most levels have no timeout and enemies are respawned all the time when you move back and forth. In the end, I guess having no scoring system is less harmful than having a broken one.

My 1CC run on Kolibri

Once upon a time, Earth was in peace and the hummingbirds happily sipped nectar from flowers, until onde day darkness fell across the land. One hummingbird was then chosen and given powers by a magic crystal, and there he went destroying bugs and creepy creatures in order to bring nature back to its glorious self. This part of the magic crystal endowing the bird with powers happens when you start the game, as soon as you find a specific flower and start sipping nectar from it (just get close and it will happen). That's when the game really begins: all stages are preceded by names and vary in atmosphere, length and difficulty. Some of them are of the exploring type, others scroll automatically. Scrolling levels are very straightforward, but exploring stages require you to perform some kind of task. Unfortunately these tasks aren't always clear and get progressively more complicated as the game unfolds (unlike Ecco, there are no text messages anywhere). Trial and error is the rule, encouraged by unlimited continues and a password system that allows players easy access to any stage reached.

Controls are easy: use button B to fire, button C to perform a quick dash and button A to trigger special attacks, whose function depends on your current situation. Tracking the number of lives is only possible when you get hit or when you take one life refill - that's when the number of lives left will briefly circle around you like faint shadows. Life refill items are released by flowers freed from parasite insects (early levels) or left behind randomly by regular enemies (later in the game). Note that lives are NOT refilled once you complete a stage, and life stock is also saved when you take note of passwords.

All weapons in the game have three power levels and are upgraded simply by sticking to the same weapon icon. The icons look like small bubbles and come in the following flavors: a pea shot (default), rings (small rings that expand forward), 3-way spread shot (rebounds off walls), exploding shot (explodes like fireworks), homing coconuts (evolve to a 3-way spread at maximum power), homing laser (thin long laser shot), homing peas (look like light blue petals) and homing thread (a "living" thread that chases after everything in sight). Note: I have named and listed these weapons from least to most useful ones, but it's easy to test the majority of them with the crystal that spits them out once you start playing. By the way, crystals are the normal source of weapons, but they're also released at random by flying enemies (actually it's very easy to switch weapons by mistake this way). Each weapon changes the color of the hummingbird and has its own characteristic sound, with upgrades that are signalled by an increase in either firing rate or spread capability. Finally, taking a hit downgrades the current weapon in one level.

There are also special items. The DNA fuels the shield that's activated by pressing button A and expands outward when the button is released. According to the manual, big transparent blobs are supposed to slow down the enemy, but what it actually does is increase your speed to uncontrollable heights. I avoid it at all costs. Much more useful are the several shield rings that protect you against one hit.  Yellow seeds are the key to destroy rock barriers and keep going in later stages, you just need to take them and then press A when you're close to the barrier. Some barriers are trickier to break and will require pushing a worm-like fuse bomb with one of your weapons so prepare, you'll need lots of patience. Checkpoint crystals appear in longer levels and save your progress (including powers/lives). They're irrelevant for 1CC attempts, but very useful while you're learning the game.

"Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?"

Much of the challenge in Kolibri comes from decyphering the mysteries in each stage and locating the necessary items to progress. However, the game is also riddled with cheap deaths and becomes a little nightmare if you're willing to see the end without ever losing all four lives. Beware if you're surprised by toads, chameleons or carnivorous plants, because once you're swallowed that cute hummingbird turns into dead meat. In rare occasions a quick dash can save you though, but no dash of any kind will be able to avoid those unpredictable huge droplets that also kill you in one blow. Dark Obstruction, one of the hardest stages (14th), has a moving bridge that kills you at mere contact, requiring a good amount of practice to be safely crossed (try to get there with a shield). Just for the record, there's no harm in touching any other part of the scenery.

Kolibri is original and fun, but it can also be infuriating when you get lost within the mazes of later stages. Gameplaywise there's something odd about the controls because the hummingbird doesn't really stand still when you stop moving. I'm not sure if the developer wanted to mimic the real bird's behavior with this, but it definitely requires getting used to. Other than that it's okay: most of the time crowd control is more important than dodging, especially when you consider that there are no main enemies apart from the final boss. Given the chokes of slowdown here and there, it's difficult to justify the fact that Kolibri is a 32X exclusive. Except for the exquisite use of color, I'd safely put it in the same technical prowess of Ecco or Bio-Hazard Battle, with which it shares a few similarities (one thing I only now noticed is that the game also belongs to the group of shooters that are insect-themed).

Two selections in the options screen must be mentioned. D-pad allows you to chose between holding or changing direction while firing (I prefer hold). Bird speed offers the alternatives of "normal" and "fast", which remains in effect for the whole game (I always leave it set to normal). I was able to clear the game on one credit with these settings and difficulty set to Normal.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Side Arms (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
12 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by NEC Avenue in 1989

Since I haven’t played at least 50% of it, I can’t say I’m versed in the shmup gallery of the PC Engine. But I do know, as a fact, that the only arcade company whose ports really brought the best out of the console was Konami. Konami’s titles (all four of them) are of consistent top notch quality and stand out easily amongst the outings from other companies, arcade-related or not. But why am I babbling about Konami when the subject of the text is Side Arms? It's simple: this version of the game leaves nothing to be desired when compared to the arcade original developed by Capcom, therefore placing it in the same level of porting excellence of Konami even though other companies were behind its publishing in Japan and in the West.

As a game, of course Side Arms isn’t in the same league of Parodius Da! or Gradius. Practical evidence of that is the arcade board never being as famous as Konami’s and the game never seeing any sequel. Forgotten Worlds is as much a technical development over it as Side Arms is to Section Z (which by the way is my favorite of the three). That said, the PC Engine version of Side Arms is impressive in the way it retains virtually everything from the arcade experience, from graphics to difficulty. It even improves it in certain aspects, and the first noticeable one is in the music for the first level. Here it’s replaced with something more energetic and fitting, and if you care about music in a shmup as much as I do you’ll agree that this was no coincidence at all. The first tune in the arcade version is prone to draining the marrow out of the game’s bones before it’s even started.

The battle for survival has started!
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Side Arms is about a robot on the loose, shooting the hell out of creepy stuff inside and outside of what’s supposed to be planet Earth invaded by aliens. Endowed with the ability to shoot both left and right, this mecha (also called Mobilsuit) is able to fire several different weapons activated by collecting the corresponding power-ups throughout the game. Items are released by selected enemies and cycle through the following when shot at: Pow, bit (an orange orb), SG (spread gun), Pow, MBL (mega bazooka launcher), Pow, 3way, Pow, mirrored Pow (light blue color) and either a star or a yasichi. Contrary to what everybody thinks at start, Pow is a speed-up, not a power-up. It takes three of them to reach maximum speed, and the only way to reduce speed is by taking a mirrored Pow. All other items correspond to actual weapons, which are powered up by collecting items of the same type.

Aside from the absence of a 2-player mode, the biggest departure from the original game is the method to select weapons. In the PC Engine port the player needs to pause the game and then cycle through them (that’s how you’re also allowed to check your speed level). I can’t help but wonder why the developer didn’t choose to have a visible weapon array cycled by pressing START or SELECT, like many other shooters do. Well, at least that makes for a cleaner screen. As for the weapons, the icons for bit and 3way are fairly intuitive (bits circle the robot when the default weapon is being used), all others aren’t. Icons for SG and MBL are very much alike, but these weapons couldn’t be more different: SG is a 5way slow-firing spread, while MBL is a powerful thin laser with low firing rate. The star and the yasichi are worth some points and enable a weapon called Auto, the only one that comes with autofire by default. Of course that becomes irrelevant when a turbo controller is used (it’s definitely recommended to use one).

As the game scrolls you need to be on the lookout for the α/β icon. It’s normally left behind by specific enemies but it can also be found in hidden places. Once uncovered, grab it and watch as a ship comes flying off-screen and docks with the robot to upgrade its armor and provide an additional 8-way shot to whatever weapon you’re using. Never mind the way the robot seems to briefly shrink in agony as he spits bullets from his chest (I always found it awkward). If you get hit while in the upgraded form you lose the extra armor and get back to the original Mobilsuit, and only when hit in that condition you lose a life and the weapon you're currently using. There are just a few frames of invincibility after that, so don’t try to take advantage of a supposedly longer window to ram into enemies. In fact, losing lots of lives in a row because you get overwhelmed upon dying is quite common in Side Arms, especially during the swarms of items and enemies of the later levels.

Weird landscapes in future planet Earth

Refraining to take items in order to collect stars/yasichis for more points is the biggest cause of deaths later in the game. Since all items block firepower until you turn them into stars/yasichis, there comes a point where you need to take the items in whatever form they are to clear the screen and destroy potential threats. By doing that it’s easy to collect successive Pows and start moving too fast, which is also another source of danger (for me any speed above the default is too fast to play the game safely). Balancing item collection with speed management is the key to get through the second half of the game, when creatures approach flying and crawling non-stop from both sides.

Looking out for secret places with hidden items is important not only because of the α/β upgrade, but also to find extra lives and bonus points. The latter category appears in the form of strawberries, cows and golden barrels (don’t ask me about the reasoning behind them). Score-based extends are awarded with every 100.000 points, but they stop coming once you’ve made it past half a million.

Vibrant colors and faithful mirroring of all relevant aspects of the arcade game are already remarkable traits, but Side Arms for the PC Engine goes beyond that and even corrects some things that were originally off. Background confusion, traps in the terrain and that brief period of weapon transition upon armor loss are all gone here, qualifying this version as having improved gameplay over the original. The only crucial changes are the spread gun (SG) being capable of destroying enemy bullets and the addition of two brief extra levels – that is, if you consider every boss fight as being the end of a level (there is no separation whatsoever between stages in Side Arms). Other than that, if for any reason this port fails to excite the only one to blame is the arcade original, since the game itself hasn’t aged that well.

Next in line is checking what’s in store for the upgraded Side Arms Special, released later on for the PC Engine CD. My final 1CC result for Side Arms is below.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cotton 2 (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed/variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 1997

I think Cotton 2 - Magical Night Dreams caught everybody by surprise when it appeared in the Japanese arcades. The first game had been out for more than five years, and the growing dominance of danmaku was remodeling everything people knew about arcade shmups. Original console titles Cotton 100% and Panorama Cotton were good in their own rights, but were no real sequel to Cotton. That said, Success (the company) was full of the best intentions when developing a real sequel, infusing the gameplay with a unique scoring system in order to make it sound fresh, faithful to its roots and at the same time engaging for those who valued something more than just blowing up stuff in a magical cute’em up setting.

So here’s to Cotton 2, my friends, a game that honestly took more time to draw me in than I think it would... First of all, I was virtually terrified when I learned it had fighting-style commands in the same vein of Ai Cho Aniki. By the time I had finally found the correct motivation to play it, at one moment I realized I hadn’t sworn so much at a shooter in ages. You see, this is one of those examples where a single mistake can easily ruin an excellent scoring performance, and screw-ups happen in the most awkward manner until you learn how to reduce the error margin down to a comfortable level. Of course you could just blast your way through the game, collecting colored crystals and casting magic spells like crazy... But what of the final score result? What about the rush?

We’re all here for the rush, aren’t we?

On the surface Cotton 2 isn’t much different from Cotton - Fantastic Night Dreams. Aside from the gorgeous graphical evolution, that little witch is still flying her broom in a neverending quest for those delicious willows. The first difference is that player 2 now controls a second character, Appli, who's followed around by a talking hat called Needle (he's to Appli what the fairy Silk is to Cotton). Both main characters have a single health bar instead of the traditional assortment of three lives. Basic gameplay is still related to crystals, which are released by destroying waves of enemies and color-cycled by being hit afterwards. With the exception of yellow, which gives you points and experience to upgrade firepower up to level 5, all other colors switch the element type that defines your shot while adding a magic spell: orange (fireballs), blue (ice shards), green (wave shots) and white/gray (thin laser beams, appear only after stage 5). Shooting is accomplished with button A and magic spells are cast with button C. A very brief invincibility window comes with each spell cast, and pretty much any element type is okay if you’re just playing for survival.

Meet Cotton Drake, Icegirl

Now here’s where things start to get intricate. Performing combinations of directionals + shot generates special attacks that “seal” regular enemies into a magic ball that can be grabbed with button B (grabbing can be done with pretty much anything, by the way). While holding the seal press A or B to throw it forward, hold B to put it in front of you. This seal is the most important aspect of scoring and can be used in two different ways: (1) defeat and seal further enemies by hitting them with the current seal, thus increasing the chain value for progressively higher rewards; (2) release the seal and hit it with regular shots in what’s called “pursuit” to increase a shot counter for more bonuses and generate a heart icon that refills health. The seal disappears/expires if it’s left untouched for too long or if it hits an enemy that’s too strong (bosses and midbosses), in which case a huge ball whose size varies according to the chain value will be created and flown towards your current position. Hint: you never need to worry about collecting yellow crystals when you play for score because then powering up happens automatically.

The catch with the seals is that they behave according to the current element/shot type. Wind and light seals tend to drift up, ice seals plummet heavily and fire seals fall slower. Therefore, optimal seal types are preferred in certain situations – pursuit of an ice seal in open space is extremely difficult, for example. Furthermore, response to shots during pursuits varies depending on the element type. Ice seals are also heavier to carry, and it's easy to notice how the caracter goes down faster while holding one. Having a favorite seal at the start may require some magic: Cotton always start with the fire element because that’s the first magic spell in stock, so if you want to quickly move to wind or ice you need to cast one or two magic spells. Appli, on the other hand, starts with ice. I play with Cotton and my favorite element is fire, so unless something goes really wrong in a credit I never use a single magic spell. Well, if I end up getting extra fire crystals I might use one against the knight boss of stage 6. He deserves it.

These are the commands you can use to start a seal:
  • ← → A (straight powerful shot)
  • → ← A (3-way spread shot)
  • ↓ ↓ A (downward little bomb)
  • ↑ ↑ A (upward little bomb)
  • → ↘ ↓ A (spray of three shots ahead/down)
  • → ↗ ↑ A (spray of three shots ahead/up)
I don't really like the last two commands listed, mainly because they're bound to create more than one seal and also because I can't perform them consistently. Nevertheless I think the controller response is decent, it just takes the same amount of practice as in any new fighting game. However, here’s an important note on the use of command shots: for some reason a chain started with little bombs (↑ ↑ A or ↓ ↓ A) isn’t always registered by the game. Enemies are regularly sealed but you don’t see the chain count grow and there’s no score increase either, the only thing you get is the bubble when the seal expires. All you can do to remedy that is let the “bad” seal expire and start a new one. What puzzled me for a long time is that at certain specific places bombs work 100% of the time, but alas! I learned to live with that.

There are a few more complicated commands than the ones listed above, such as the one that discards a magic element without firing it (because a spell always kills the seal) and the suicide (why, I wonder?). In any case, I only use command shots when I'm starting a chain or when a boss is in front of me. On top of all the beauty in the graphics of Cotton 2, bosses are definitely my favorite part of the design. To accommodate their awesomeness the screen has to zoom in or out slightly at times, and with the exception of the final witch boss the more you advance the more unpredictable and dangerous they get. And if you think that the emphasis on chaining and the low bullet count of the initial levels make the game a joyride without much dodging, well... Bosses will teach you a much deserved lesson. There's no magic, no chaining, no shot-commanding that suffices unless you get pretty good at reading patterns and moving out of bullet's way. And all bosses time out, so be quick if you want to take them down.

A 1CC run of Cotton 2 with cut scenes disabled

It doesn't matter whether you choose Cotton (1P) or Appli (2P) to play the game, they behave exactly the same way except for their initial spell elements. Due to the unique nature of the gameplay it takes time to confidently deal with seals and pursuits, but once it happens Cotton 2 acquires a whole new dimension. By then you'll be giving much more thought to positioning (it affects enemy spawning), as well as rebounding seals off walls, grabbing/throwing stuff to clear the way and reacting to the occasional odd response of the built-in physics. Every now and then the seal will drift farther than usual, ricochet towards a different direction or connect to a series of enemies that are just entering the screen. During my first weeks I tried to refrain from shooting to add all enemies to the chain, often getting hit and losing a large chunk of health. In the end, no matter how you look at it, controlling the environment is essential to succeed both for survival and for scoring, especially when you consider that the game has rank. The better you play and the higher you score the more aggressive the game gets. Get hit and score peanuts to keep it tamer (not by a large stretch though).

When a boss is defeated you’re given the chance to recover some health by collecting the falling cups during TEA TIME. If you manage to avoid all cups a secret higher bonus will replace the regular bonus at the cost of no health refill. Then you’re awarded extra points for the stock of spells, cups collected (or the secret bonus) and the sum of seal/pursuit results for the stage. TEA TIME is the only part of the game where I detach my sidekick from the broom (Silk or Needle) in order to move a little bit faster. The command for that is → → ← B (there's also a speed increase triggered by holding A, but that's an unreliable resource because the character moves in bursts). Besides TEA TIME the only other way to recover health is by engaging in pursuits during the levels, but that's a bit more complicated. However, it's easier to accomplish pursuit recoveries when you have a wall where you can lean the seal and shoot it away. One spot where I'll certainly do that is on the 5th stage, right after the diagonal shaft descent prior to the mid-boss. The breather in enemy activity allows you to pull the seal against the upper corner and blast away to harvest a tender heart.

It is true that the gameplay in Cotton 2 isn’t for all tastes, unlike the outstanding graphics and audio. There’s a dark layer all over the game, but it never gets too grim or sinister. Even the creepiest things (zombie flocks, ghosts, fiends) look cute. Some of the music is lifted from the soundtrack of the previous chapter, and unless you use a RAM expansion cartridge you won’t be able to hear voices and intermission dialogues (which is actually a blessing for many people, those exaggerated characters can get annoying with time). Not only is the Saturn port a perfect rendition of the arcade original, but it also comes with an exclusive extra mode with rearranged backgrounds and enemies. Both modes are selected in the options menu, which is beefed up with extra tweaks when you beat the game in successive difficulty settings. If you want to take the shortcut and unlock everything – including a very handy Practice mode – just place the cursor over "Option", press and hold X, Y and Z and then press and hold A, B and C. Bingo! Special attention should be given to the pad-XYZ option: it allows the player to use autofire or map command shots to extra buttons. I didn’t use it, but I bet some people would love to have it from the get go.

The only downside here? The Sega Saturn port came out only in Japan, just like the pseudo-sequel Cotton Boomerang, which is supposed to be just as cool, albeit more hectic. For now I can say that pursuits + seals = lots of fun, you just need to be a little patient with Cotton 2. The arcade mode 1CC score below was achieved on Normal at full defaults (no pad-XYZ). A cool feature of the disc is that you can see a breakdown per stage of your performance by checking it in the Ranking section.