Sunday, August 24, 2014

Curse (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Micronet
Published by Micronet in 1989

For most people Micronet is just a footnote in gaming history, and publishing Raiden Trad is probably their most recognizable contribution to the Mega Drive shmup library. Despite being both developed and released by Micronet, Curse never received the same attention for obvious reasons. The first one of them is that the game never left Japan, while other reasons can easily relate to the frame rate, the short duration or the fact that the game has a broken scoring system. This wasn't the first time I played Curse, but only now I noticed you can milk the last boss infinitely for a theoretical counterstop.

By taking a look at the cover art it's not possible to know what's inside as a game. Suffice it to say that the stylish cybernetic head is the last boss, and between the start and the end of the journey you get through a mix of organic, outer space and high-tech environments. Reasoning for the name Curse probably exists somehow in the instruction manual since there's no indication whatsoever in the game itself, a feeble shooting romp marked by a strangely odd frame rate. As low as it seems, this frame rate is no impediment for the gameplay to throw a series of high speed sections that demand some level of anticipation from the player. Multiple parallax layers abound in most stages, and the aggressive choice of colors just lends a peculiar feel to the experience, one that resembles Bio-Ship Paladin at times.

Anyway, if you're able to accept the frame rate as it is then there's some sort of enjoyment to be had here. The level of cheapness doesn't veer into the realm of "blazing fast bullets you can't dodge", which is one of the flaws of games designed with bad frame rates. You'll still die a few times from things popping out of nowhere, mind you.

Deadly spores of the first level

A basic pea shot is all you have on your ship as the credit starts. Shooting is accomplished with button B, whereas button A deploys a bomb and button C is used to set the position of the orb (see below). Despite the lack of side reach the pea shot is actually pretty decent in its effectiveness, but you can also activate three other weapons by taking their respective icons: V (vulcan), W (wave) and C (cluster bombs). Once active, each weapon can be upgraded twice by successively taking the same item, and to switch them just take a different one. Vulcan is excellent for its spread capabilities, wave is the only one that can pierce though walls and cluster bombs provide a little destructive spectacle as debris and shards fly everywhere when the projectiles hit something. A better set of sound effects would've done wonders to the way weapons work, but unfortunately that's not the case. They just sound too soft.

Each life has a shield that can withstand a few hits and is fully recovered when you take the E icon. Other items to be collected are S (speed-up), M (homing missiles) and an orb that surrounds the ship and rests in a fixed position defined with button C. Once you get two orbs they're positioned against each other and can only be placed in two different ways, either horizontally or vertically. Orbs provide protection against regular bullets and extra firepower, which can be upgraded by acquiring further orbs (fully powered orbs will fire three-way shots in both directions). The same upgrade scheme applies to the homing missiles, and at the maximum level the ship fires three of them at once. They might be slow but they're still useful since most enemies are 1-hit kills.

In the forest of the first stage the wave weapon is good to deal with all those drones sitting behind roots and trees. I prefer to use vulcan in the second stage in order to have enough coverage to blast all the destructible rocks, and anything is fine inside the fiery cave of the third level. The open space of the fourth stage is deceiving because if you die there it might get tough to get things back together. Everything considered, Curse isn't really a hard game up to that point, so maybe that's why Micronet decided to add a single checkpoint to the last stage (die anywhere and restart the level). This adds a bit of difficulty and gives some use to the benevolent extend scheme that grants an extra life for every million points scored.

Second level in Curse's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Gunstar red)

Most of the time I completely forgot I could use button A to trigger screen-clearing bombs, when in fact they're very handy to handle cluttered situations. You won't see any item to be collected for extra bombs though. Bomb stock is increased by taking successive weapon power-ups after you've maxed out firepower. Example: with a maxed out wave gun, each successive W icon will give you an extra bomb. By pressing either A, B or C + START at the title screen you can have access to very basic configuration options. Unfortunately there are no additional difficulty settings and no way to remap buttons, but it's possible to select any of the first four stages as the starting one.

In between the frame rate, the unremarkable challenge (bosses are all wimps) and the botched scoring system, the best quality of Curse is definitely the excellent soundtrack. I'm very fond of the themes for the first and the last stages, and they pretty much make the game worthwhile for me. Once I got the final stage down I started experimenting with different weapons and places to find how to exploit the last boss's projectiles for points. Then I left the controller shooting by itself for a while until I noticed a graphical glitch as the boss stopped throwing rocks at me. Finally I died and proceeded to beat the game with the score below, never mind which 1CC score I had previously.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thunder Force AC (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1996

Normally the life cycle of any video game with an arcade origin starts in the arcade itself, which then pours down across different platforms as ports with varying degrees of success. Thunder Force AC, however, is one of the very few examples of an arcade title that originated from a console game. Given the massive success of Thunder Force III, it didn’t take long for Technosoft to turn the Mega Drive hit into a full-blown arcade board running on Sega’s System C2 hardware. The good news for us who don’t own an arcade set-up is that five years later the game would receive a perfect port in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 compilation for the Sega Saturn, which also includes the console follow-up Thunder Force IV.

I reckon many people must wonder about the benefits of having a console game running in arcade hardware. In which ways has the game been improved over the original supposedly limited mold? Is it the same experience? Is it worth it even if I own and have played the Mega Drive cartridge to death already? Technosoft’s portfolio in the arcade scene isn’t large by any means (the only other arcade game they developed is Hyper Duel), so at least we can assume this wasn’t just another instance of a developer cheaply milking its golden baby for a little more profit. Plus we all know the Thunder Force brand carried on with several other chapters in what eventually became one of the greatest shmup franchises ever.

Gameplay rules are exactly the same from Thunder Force III. Shoot with button B, switch speeds with button A and switch weapons with button C. Weapons are acquired or upgraded by taking alphabet-coded items. Upon death you lose the weapon you were currently using with the exception of the default ones, upgraded by taking a red S (sever, gives laser capabilities to the forward gun) and L (lancer, increases power of the back-fire). New weapons appear as F (fire, drops crawling bullets above and below the ship), W (wave gun) and H (hunter, weakier homing energy balls). A blue S activates a shield that can withstand 3 hits, the “claw” item adds two rotating options that enhance firepower + also serve to absorb bullets and a small ship (1UP) adds one extra life to the stock.


The primordial question, at least for me, is this: what’s best, Thunder Force III or Thunder Force AC?

Both games are graphically equivalent and excel at providing great horizontal shooting rush with high flexibility on weapons and maneuvering (a gameplay staple of the series), but even if I had been exposed to Thunder Force AC first I believe I would still prefer Thunder Force III. The differences are in the details and in the fact that the changes Technosoft applied on AC weren’t in any way better than what already existed in the Mega Drive original. Assuming the reader is somehow familiar with Thunder Force III, allow me to bullet-list the main changes in Thunder Force AC:

  • the status bar showing score, weapons, lives, etc. was moved from the top to the bottom of the screen;
  • no more choosing the order of the five initial stages; in AC you always play in the following planet order: Hydra → Gorgon → Seiren → Ellis → Haides;
  • planet Ellis is replaced by a brand-new stage where you fly amidst asteroids in outer space and infiltrate a base to fight a walker robot;
  • planet Haides is replaced by a rearranged version of the 8th stage from Thunder Force II, with the boss lifted from planet Ellis in Thunder Force III;
  • default difficulty in AC is often close to or on par with difficulty Mania from Thunder Force III.

I can also point minor changes that make Thunder Force AC a little less dynamic than its Mega Drive counterpart. Those intro screens in each stage were one of the coolest aspects of Thunder Force III, since they blended with the music as the levels started against the awesome backgrounds. The slower tempo of the soundtrack in AC is also another lessening factor, especially if you’ve already been previously exposed to Thunder Force III. It’s still very good though, the only letdown being the comparatively weak theme for the new outer space level.

When the first five planets/levels have been cleared the player proceeds to challenge the Orn empire by fighting a huge battleship, scrambling inside their motherbase and finally destroying Orn’s core. Besides a few tweaks here and there, these final stages haven’t changed much and are still what keeps the game from reaching a higher accomplishment grade. As for the gameplay tweaks in general, they’re actually the main reason why fans of the series should try Thunder Force AC. Different enemy placement and formations, stronger enemies/bosses and new environmental hazards should guarantee the fun for both newcomers and seasoned Thunder Force III players alike.

From Ellis to Orn's base
(courtesy of YouTube user Ace9921)

With a good number of extra lives to be collected throughout the game and three score-based extends (at 30.000, 100.000 and 200.000 points), Thunder Force AC is still an easy clear, especially for arcade difficulty standards. That said, the main challenge shifts to beating the game with the maximum possible amount of lives left in order to get that bulky completion bonus of 100.000 points for each spare ship (totalling 1,1 million for 11 lives if you don't die). That certainly requires hefty memorization, smart management of shields and proper usage of the speed switch (I use every speed at least once per credit).

As an advantage over the raw arcade experience, the port included in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 comes with four difficulty levels (Mania too, access options by pressing A + START) and an extensive arcade-like bookkeeping info (press Z and navigate with Y/Z). There’s even a so-called “kids mode” that preserves all your weapons and power-ups upon death and resumes the next life with a 1-hit (red) shield. Overall, a nice animated intro sets the mood perfectly for some of the finest 16-bit shooting action you can get with no slowdown or technical hindrances of any kind.

Besides Thunder Force AC, the legacy of Thunder Force III also spans the SNES, which received a proper port based on AC titled Thunder Spirits shortly after the arcade release. My best high score for Thunder Force AC is below, having beaten the game without losing any lives (Normal difficulty).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sylphia (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tonkinhouse / Compile
Published by Tonkinhouse in 1993

A mythology-based shooter? Sure, why not? Gun down multi-headed creatures, flaming dragons, evil statues and whatnot! Though not explicitly related to the Greek mythology, as a game Sylphia has many aspects in common with Greek figures, starting with the idea of the sylph – a mythical creature of the air intimately related to fairies and angels. The main character is a girl who’s been mutilated by demons and gets endowed with magical powers by a fairy goddess, thus engaging in a revenge quest against those who slew the people in her village (this is all shown in the game’s intro through images with no dialogue).

While the concept does sound interesting, especially for fans of shooters with fantasy themes, Sylphia doesn’t achieve the same status of similarly minded titles such as Dragon Spirit or Phelios. Absence of difficulty is to blame for most of this because we’re talking about an extremely easy clear here. Other than that the game is fine, with many sources pointing that Compile is actually the developer working behind the Tonkinhouse brand. There are hints in Sylphia that back this up quite well, and those who have played their share of Aleste titles will certainly spot them. I won’t delve into the details, suffice it to say they’re all related to the weapons system.

Stage 1 of Sylphia
(courtesy of YouTube user malducci)

The heroine in Sylphia is able to fly in three speeds switched at the press of the SELECT button. I use mostly speed 2, you’re either too slow or too fast in the other settings. Button II fires her weapon and button I deploys a bomb that detonates a thick vertical laser beam while making the character invulnerable. Bombs are limited and weapons are selected/upgraded by colored power-ups that come in groups of four rotating icons or by themselves in small carriers that descend from the top of the screen at regular intervals. Just stick to the same color to increase part of the weapon’s power in three steps. You can take two hits in each life, and if you don’t take the heart icon that refills health you’ll die on the third hit. Then you’ll be respawned with the current weapon at its basic power level.

In line with the Greek knowledge of old, weapon types are related to the four classical elements: fire (red), air (green), water (blue) and earth (yellow). When you take successive items of the same kind you upgrade the particular aspect of each one of the weapons: fire will start shooting diagonal homing flame shots, air generates slow whirlwinds that develop forwards diagonally, water creates an extra fire stream opposed to the direction you’re moving and earth forms a protection barrier that rotates around the character. In order to power up the basic weapon attack you must take the orbs that appear in groups of three when the item carrier gets hit.

As usual in shooters of this kind, some weapons are more suited to specific situations. For example, a fully powered air weapon is excellent for the second boss, even though water is obviously the best choice for the game as a whole. Finally, the diamond-shaped items that tend to float towards your direction fill that little meter below the life/bomb count, and every time the meter gets full you gain an extra bomb. Score hounds might want to know that all items are worth a few points, so get them all to incrementally beef up your final score.

Yuck! Is that tutti-frutti puke?

In direct contrast with is challenge level, Sylphia boasts excellent graphical design across all of its eight stages. It's technically very competent, only with scarce moments of slowdown appearing when bosses are about to irrupt into the screen. The soundtrack is also very good, even though the balance between music and sound effects suffers from the most recurring problem in the PC Engine platform (SFX too loud) and the overall mood is too upbeat for the dark - yet colorful - environments you'll be facing (the only parts where the music presents itself in a gloomy fashion are in the intro and ending sequences). Regardless of any gripes involving the sound design, if you fancy otherworldly settings and strange-looking creatures you'll be right at home here because Sylphia is simply a 16-bit feast for the eyes. Besides all sorts of walking and flying enemies, keep an eye out for particularly creepy fiendish bosses (exposed boobs!). There are two bosses per level, and since they're very creative in regards to design and attack patterns it's just a shame that they also don't offer much of a challenge. And when you figure out that it's possible to destroy a great deal of enemy bullets the whole game becomes even easier.

Want more easy? Here are some other refreshments in the gameplay: hold tight to the current life during a boss fight because you regain all your health (two hearts) when a new stage begins; except for diamonds, upon taking any other item you're given a very brief stint of invincibility, which is quite useful to evade hairy situations; an extra life is awarded for every 70.000 points scored. Conversely, finding a genuine copy of Sylphia isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Given the game is one of the rarest entries in the CD shmup library for the PC Engine, you won't find it for less than a few hundred dollars.

Following a few exploration minutes to figure out the weapons system I beat the game on my first credit, then proceeded to do it again on Special/Very Hard. The increase in difficulty is minimal and appears mostly on bosses. I played another credit on Normal and the 1CC result is below. This screen is displayed for half a minute once the final credits are over, and as much as I tried I couldn't understand the math behind the massive final bonus other than it being related to remaining life stock, bombs, etc.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Galaga '88 (PC Engine)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
29 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1988

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was Galaxian. Alien insects twirled, piled and conquered in the vastness of the cosmos as lone spaceships piloted by human arcade gamers endlessly fought for justice. In Galaga, the second coming, alien armies evolved for great injustice. When Gaplus happened every pilot took off with upgraded combat ships, but it was only in Galaga ’88 that the power of travelling to other dimensions allowed humans to finally apply a final defeat on the evil insect army, even if a temporary one – for those evil Galagan bugs never retreat, never surrender. After all, with no chance to survive, they had to make their time.

Jokes aside, there are many sources that will name Galaga ’88 as one of the defining games in the history of the PC Engine. Also released with the title of Galaga ’90 for the Turbografx-16 in the US, the port is still heralded today as one of best home translations to an arcade game. It makes sense, given the way gameplay, colors, pacing and overall vibe were duly reproduced. Another reason for the success is the accessible challenge level, which properly adapts the high difficulty of the arcade original to the console format. Up to that point in time, in the scale of fun fixed vertical shooters Galaga ’88 was unbeatable. Gaplus had failed to get similar recognition, and all Space Invaders games were just slow and wooden in comparison.

Stage 15, 3rd dimension

Basic Galagan behavior hasn’t changed much. Those bugs still swoop into the screen in circular motions, sometimes shooting and darting towards your position while doing it. Once the surviving ones are in formation they proceed to their particular attacks, which consist of shooting, diving, splitting, shielding, expanding, morphing, etc. As usual, dealing with them requires anticipation, reflexes, dexterity and a little knowledge about your own ship’s capabilities, starting with the choice of single or dual ship as the credit begins. Dual ship is undoubtedly the way to go because every player should attempt to acquire the triple ship as soon as possible. Here’s the receipt: (1) allow Boss Galagans (the uppermost bigger enemies) to complete formation, (2) wait for one of them to approach and deploy a tractor beam, (3) allow yourself to get captured, (4) wait for the bug with the captured ships to leave his position and (5) hit only the bug to have them merged with your new ship to form a triple ship. Despite the larger hitbox, that’s more power to you and also more chances to go the distance. If you get hit you lose one ship (triple → double; double → single), but provided you still have ships in reserve it's possible to do the capture process all over again to regain the upgraded status.

Dimensional travel is the defining element to challenge and scoring. In each of the recurring challenging stages / galactic dancing bonus levels (3, 7, 14, 18, 22, 26) you’re given the chance to warp into a higher dimension. To achieve that all you have to do is previously collect two of those blue canisters left behind either by the first stationary obstacle destroyed in any unscrolling stage or by killing one of the bigger enemies formed by the merging of two smaller bugs. Since stationary obstacles only appear from stage 4 onwards, the only way to warp before that is by allowing the bugs to merge anywhere in the first two stages. Each dimension is harder than the previous one and comes with its own set of different bugs. The stakes are simple to understand: avoid warping to higher dimensions and play an easier game with less scoring opportunities.

Galaga ’88 feels fresh even for today’s standards, and for good reasons. As stated above, the stage structure and the approach to powering up are remarkably flexible. The game also manages to throw a few scrolling levels that lead to boss fights, and even these bosses are dictated by the current dimension the player is in. Unlike in the arcade original, here you can spend the whole game in the first dimension if you so wish (originally you were kicked into the 2nd dimension after stage 10 no matter what). By the time you reach the last stage (29) a specific final boss awaits depending on the current dimension you're playing.

Colored insects want to conquer the galaxy
(courtesy of YouTube user shaurz)

If you’re already at the final dimension (4th) the warp canisters will have no further effect when the challenging stage is over. Later on a special type of canister with a different color may be released by the last enemy in any formation, for which you get the triple ship instantly regardless of the actual ship status. That definitely helps since later levels are often too hectic to safely pursue the triple ship, and here’s where most of the difference from the original arcade game lies. No matter how far you are in your warping journey, on the PC Engine things never get too overwhelming if you’re beaten down to a single ship. Other significant differences are the reduced number of dimensions (4 here, 5 originally) and the fact that you get different bosses in stage 10 depending on which dimension you are. Note: score extends are achieved with 50, 140, 300 and 480 thousand points. Hint: whenever you take a warp canister you become invincible for one or two seconds.

Aiming for more points goes hand in hand with reaching higher dimensions, but you can also work on a few other details to improve your performance. Perfecting the galactic dancing bonus levels is important because if you manage to kill all 40 enemies you get increasingly higher rewards, starting from 10.000 points in the first bonus area. Other sources are those bigger escort/leader bugs, bugs that split into secondary bugs, lemon bugs (lemon-shaped ones that shower down in pieces once hit) and falling debris in scrolling areas. As a rule of thumb, the more bugs you allow to stand in formation the more scoring opportunities you have, and that’s where most of the risk/reward balance is the further you advance in the game. Finally, each life in reserve upon game completion is worth 10.000 points.

As I mentioned above, fixed vertical shooters are rarely as fun as Galaga ’88, especially the older ones. It's a great treat even if you don't like the style that much. Upon completing the credit (no continues allowed) you’re shown a map with your progression across dimensions throughout the game. I finished my best 1CC attempt in dimension 4 with the following completion score (using a turbo controller for proper autofire):