Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hunt for Red October (NES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Beam Software
Published by Hi Tech Expressions in 1990

Right before the Cold War ended, a Russian typhoon class nuclear submarine entitled Red October deviated from its exercise course. It headed towards the USA shore, much to the concern of both North American and Russian authorities. What's the real intention of Red October's captain Marko Ramius? The NES game adaptation for The Hunt for Red October uses this same premise, and luckily for us shmuppers it puts the player in Ramius's shoes. Had Jack Ryan (the supposed hero of the movie) been cast as hero in the game I certainly wouldn't be writing about it here. Besides, out of games based off the James Bond franchise, where else would you be able to play as Sir Sean Connery himself, not only imagining him inside the submarine but also controlling an avatar drawn from his likeness?

Okay, the above statement may not be that exciting for some people, given the fact that The Hunt for Red October on the NES is quite a demanding, sometimes punishing experience. It's a shooter very much based on environmental hazards instead of dodging, and on top of that you have limited ammo, as well as many random factors working against you. The pace is predominantly slow and the atmosphere is often claustrophobic, with only a single haunting theme repeated over six levels and replaced by another tense BGM as you control captain Ramius himself in the final platforming stage.

There's a lot of story to this game, starting from the brief intro sequence that describes the same preamble shown in the movie. In between stages the likenesses of Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland interact as the US premier and the Russian embassador, respectively. Does snubbing Alec Baldwin seem weird now, considering he was a hotshot back then? Wait, he wasn't? Anyway, of course the storyline of the game doesn't match the movie, but who cares? We shmuppers prefer to blow up stuff, don't we?

I'm Sean Connery and I command the Red October

Getting comfortable with the large HUD is extremely important in Red October. To the left you have the radar, which shows both the enemies in the vicinity and the nearby items. Next to it is a display for life stock and time left (there's no time limit to complete the level, but any time remaining after beating the boss is converted in bonus points). Next is the score counter and the gauges for armor and power. Armor = health, while power decreases slowly as the sub navigates underwater. Power is needed to fuel the sub's special abilities, and to recover it you need to go to the surface or to take the icon with the radioactive sign (P). To the far right is the ammo display for weapons and special abilitites. First is the stock for torpedoes (horizontal, fired with button A), below it is the stock for missiles (vertical, fired with button B), then the stock for ECM (electronic counter-measure, nulifies enemy fire, activated with A+B) and finally the display of spare time for the caterpillar drive, which allows the submarine to evade enemy sonar systems (activated and deactivated with SELECT).

Ammo for torpedoes and missiles is increased and upgraded by taking the appropriate icons. There are three firepower levels for both: A is the default normal range capability, B improves the weapon range and C adds homing ability. If the stock in a certain upgrade level is depleted you're automatically downgraded to the lower level. The only weapon you can still use if you run out of ammo is the torpedo, although at a reduced firing rate. Using up all others will leave the player without them, that's why you always need to have a sharp eye on the radar. All icons are shown as letters there: torpedo (T), missile (M), power recovery (P, radioactive sign), armor recovery (R, green wrench), 10 extra EMCs (E) and 10 more seconds for the caterpillar drive (C). There are also extra lives to be taken, in the form of parachuting men delivered at surface level. They show up as hearts on the radar and must be taken quickly, before they reach the water.

While there's nothing outstanding about the graphics they at least get the job done, and the dark tones help set the mood for a game marked by constant pressure. Getting used to the controls isn't enough though, you need to be prepared for several random attacks from enemy subs and bombs being dropped by overhead jets. Dealing with falling rocks/shards, moving barriers, intelligent turrets, sniping subs and quick-moving ships is possible with practice, but bosses are particularly tricky. The best advice to beat them is to take advantage of the bult-in autofire and to get aggressive on their weak spots. Sneak into the gap of the 2nd boss and pound away with torpedoes, destroy the ships of the 3rd and 6th stages from right to left at close range with missiles. My nemesis was the 5th boss: defeating him requires you to get inside his dome, find a spot where the approaching subs won't hit you much and pray. Yes, pray that the enemies won't hit you to death.

Of course the "praying" kind of challenge is prone to driving people away from the game. However, it's not that bad once you get better and learn exactly where to get all the extra lives. Besides, on every boss checkpoint you're always given the necessary firepower to try again. And here's a little note on difficulty: when I practiced the game on Nestopia I noticed there are two versions of it. The hardest ROM is the European one, with more obstacles and more random enemies during boss fights. What's weird is that it plays just like my US/NTSC cartridge! It's clear that boss fights are less troublesome in the easy version, so I was thrilled to be playing the harder variation of the game.

Speeding through the first level
(courtesy of YouTube user BoredGamer)

Once you beat six submarine stages it's time to help Ramius in a last mission inside the Red October. It's a rather simple platforming task, with five consecutive rooms where you need to defuse a series of bombs planted by dirty insurgents. Jump with A, shoot in eight directions with B and go from a blinking bomb to the next before the clock on the left of the HUD completes a full round (for each bomb). To defuse a blinking bomb just stand in front of it (funny note: it looks like Mr. Connery is peeing!). If you take too long and one of the bombs explodes you die and get respawned at the entrance of the current room. Dying can also happen if you take too much damage, so watch the health meter on the right side of the HUD. Falling from more than two stories knocks Ramius down briefly and sucks away more health, so don’t count on it to take corners. Above all, be careful not to run out of ammo: once the sixth shot is fired it takes a few seconds for the gun to reload, and if you’re surrounded by enemies it’s most certain they will shoot you to death. That’s why it’s always good thinking to (1) clear all baddies on-screen before moving to the next bomb if you have some spare time and (2) empty the gun every time you’re disabling a bomb. Remember that the clock freezes when you’re peeing on them. :)

Regardless of how you stand before entering the sabotage area in the final level, you’ll always be given 5 lives/attempts to get through all rooms. Jumping on the right platforms and taking some damage is necessary to reach some of the bombs, but in general this final action phase is easier than navigating the waters inside the submarine. The game is still slow and the graphics don’t get any shinier though.

The NES version of The Hunt for Red October is tough, yet manageable with a little patience. There are no continues whatsoever, but a series of in-game codes can be used to alter many gameplay aspects if you so wish (a quick online search will bring them up). If you still feel the game is too hard, well... Submarine Attack on the Master System can certainly provide a much lighter underwater shooting romp.

And below is my 1CC high score for this one. Final note: besides the NES, the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy also received their own games based on the same movie.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pester (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
20 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Flump Studios
Published by Flump Studios in 2013

One evening prior to another well-deserved vacation the Ms. and I were both trying to recover ourselves from a long, strenuous day. We openened a bottle of fine wine, she went to the kitchen and I thought it was time to try out another XBLIG shooter as we sipped our glasses back and forth. The chosen one was Pester, a name that's also an inside joke that's constantly being made between us. The joke kinda resembles its original meaning in English, but not quite. As for the game, let's say I couldn't beat it on that evening. And it wasn't the wine's fault.

Pester is visually marked by a retro design that comes out as just another cheap attempt at providing a little shooting fun on a platform flooded with similar titles. Graphically following on the footsteps of Flump Studios' previous Super Killer Hornet but leaving the weird math element aside, Pester is instead a straightforward wave-based game with a single combo of background + music, even though you can tweak them at will before the credit starts. That's a nice way to present some variation in a shooter whose core isn't diverse by any means. The inclusion of extra game modes isn't as effective as the ability to choose other music tracks, since most of them aren't as much fun as the main game.

From the starting screen, the Arcade branch leads you to the regular game modes. Classic is where you're supposed to go for a normal credit that starts with 3 lives, but all game modes can be tweaked with the available extra options (more on that later). The gameplay on Classic is relatively simple: shoot with A or RT, bomb with B, activate hyper mode with X once you've collected enough coins to fill up the hyper bar and reduce the ship's speed with LT. This last input aimed at speed control feels really awkward, but unfortunately it's not possible to remap the buttons. Items might appear randomly every time you complete a wave: P increases firepower, S is the speed-up, B is the extra bomb and 1.000 is just a small score bonus. It takes only two Ps to max out your weapon, three Ss to max out speed and it's possible to carry a maximum of three bombs at any given time. Whenever you die firepower is downgraded by one level, but there's no loss on speed or bomb stock.

First boss, wave 5

Bosses will materialize every five waves or so, and after each boss the enemy and bullet count increases considerably. Soon you realize several things. The first one is that Pester is a bullet hell shmup. There's also the weird way hit detection is implemented: your bullets will pierce through everything even though enemies take their own time to die. The feeling of bullet "contact" onto the enemy is non-existent, and damage is only denoted on more powerful foes by quick flashes. This slippery aspect of the gameplay reeks of laziness and definitely takes some getting used to. The absence of a proper art design doesn't bother me as much, but I got awful reactions from a bunch of friends who saw me playing the game. You can't argue with that when all you see are ugly little drones, planes, saucers, meteors and a ridiculous tomato-like boss. Enemy bullets have a lot more flair, seeing that they come in lots of flashy, pulsating flavors.

Speaking of ugly, don't try to look at your ship when it's moving. I don't know what the developer tried to do there, but the fuzzy sprites can induce headaches.

Despite the game's graphic's bare bones nature, I still found myself glued to Pester after a couple of hours - and I say this as a compliment. I wanted to see what was next in the mayhem of bullets, no matter how random the game could get. It can be unnerving to go on and on without a single power-up, and the lack of extends leads to restartitis if you die in early waves. I'm not so fond of speed-ups because later on they screw the necessary micro-dodging, so I avoided them completely. Visibility might be impaired by explosions or even the "wave completed" message, and the screen-clearing explosion upon death is deceiving. There's no breathing window of any kind for the ship itself, and in later stages many credits can be lost in a snap if you don't focus hard enough.

If you're still able to accept the game as it is, Pester offers a pseudo-competent rush in its hyper mechanics and in the intense dodging required after the 10th wave. One would assume that using hypers should boost scoring somehow, but that's not what happens. In the end it becomes an aid for survival more than anything. Crowd control is very important because it's easy to die by colliding against an enemy that quickly drifts towards your hitbox, or from a bullet fired almost off-screen by one of those bigger ships that cross the screen vertically. Speaking of which, the hitbox is shown in the center of any of the three available ships, which behave the same way regardless of their sprites.

Pester's first trailer
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user FlumpStudiosUK)

Other modes in the Arcade branch include Survival (1 life, starts with max power), Asteroid Belt (1 life, dodge-only, unlocked by getting 60K on Survival), Boss Mode (3 lives, power-ups after each boss, no hyper, unlocked by getting 20K on Asteroid Belt) and Boss Survival (1 life, max power, no hyper). Once you've chosen a game mode it's possible to apply three types of modifiers: Expert Mode (×1,5 bullets/enemies),  Duo (×1,5 + right analog stick active for dual-ship play) and Reverse (×1,5 + reversed controls!). And then you must choose background graphics, music tune, a variation on graphics (including an overlay that slightly mimics the arcade screen) and ship type (Classic, Grace or Hornet). Of all eight tracks my favorites are Hard Noise and Breaking Thru, they're awesome. Some tracks and background options are initially unavailable, and to unlock them you need to win the achievements set by the game (see the Awards section at the start screen).

The other gameplay alternative that can be chosen from the starting screen is Tempus. On the surface it's just like Arcade, but coins get replaced by clocks. Lives are then replaced by a timer, and in order to survive you need to collect clocks (1 clock = 1 more second). Even though the idea seems interesting, Tempus isn't well balanced at all. Boss Survival mode, for instance, is unplayable because you start with 20 seconds and the first boss takes forever to materialize (14s). Both Arcade and Tempus have their own high score tables, but unfortunately they don't keep track of games played with modifiers turned on. That's a pity, I'd love to have a separate table for the Duo modifier, it's a really fun mode. Controller vibration can be turned off in the main options, and switching Particle Physics on and off toggles the in-game explosion sprites.

Pester gets considerably taxing by the time you reach its last levels. I'd say it's almost unfair in the way it overlaps popcorn and bosses. Ever heard of "being in the zone"? Well, you probably need it here if you want to loop Pester's 20 waves. Those who think XBLIG shmups are easy should definitely check it out, never mind the poor production values and the silly oversights of the extra game modes.

Below is my highest score in Arcade Classic mode, playing with the Classic ship with no modifiers. I won all the awards and unlocked all extra modes/backgrounds/songs.