Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sky Ninja War (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Winglay
Published by Winglay in 2011

Cartoonish design, primary color shades, thick lines, good music and elementary gameplay can all be used to describe Sky Ninja War on XBLIG. On the other hand, slow and consequently boring action is also in order. At least that’s what probably comes out as a first impression of this little shooter, which like many others allows its good ideas to be engulfed by an overall lack of discernment that holds the game from fulfilling a higher sense of achievement. Was it that complicated to make things a little faster? Was it that complicated to infuse the scoring system with a little more substance? Was it that hard to put such nice art design to better use?

I could go a bit further with my egotistic complaints, such as why developers simply refuse to pay attention to genre conventions. But I know I’d be sounding as an elitist prick because, you know, who the heck cares if the game’s score keeps adding up when you continue or the whole set of in-game achievements pushes players to amass more points by doing that? I’m not a developer myself, I’m just a player. Not a casual one, which seems to be the public at which Sky Ninja War is aimed at. But I like the style, I like the simplicity and I don’t want to be left out of this quirky colored party. So here I am.

Alas, I digress!

Ninjas in the sky with shurikens

The premise of Sky Ninja War is that you’re a ninja who’s capable of flying, while most other ninjas must somehow use artificial measures to take it to the skies. Kite-flying ninjas are the bulk of them, but they’re also very fond of backpack engines and propellers. Since this is a war disguised as a shooter, our cute little big-headed ninja fights alone against his enemies in five stages of progressively increasing difficulty. That first level in the forest is sleep-inducing, but by the time you reach the last stage you’ll certainly struggle to keep that health bar in safe levels until you reach the final boss. After all, you can only count with that single amount of health to complete each stage. There are no refills, and once that bar is depleted it’s game over and then continue or back to the start.

Unfortunately you can’t remap the controls, which work with × for shot, A for slash, B for change in shooting direction and LB/RB for weapon switch. The slash attack has a very short reach and besides inflicting damage it’s also capable of blocking most enemy projectiles. By defeating a boss you’re awarded with a new weapon, and that’s where the weapon switching buttons become active. The initial weapon is the ever-present-in-the-ninja-world shuriken, which acts as the most basic shot type. In the second stage you acquire the ability to pierce through everything with kunai knives. However, the kunai is weaker than the shuriken and has a lower firing rate. Then you get bombs, fire and thunder during the rest of the game. Bombs are the only type of weapon that can nullify enemy bullets, whereas fire is weaker but can home on enemies. Thunder is the most powerful of them all, but the severely capped firing rate demands very good timing in its use.

The forest theme is followed by desert, skies, marsh and the insides of a ninja castle, with each stage divided into three sections plus a boss fight. Everything is very bright, with very basic cute animation and a constant slow pace throughout. Moving around and dodging is made easier by the small hitbox provided by the spinning shuriken in the character’s chest. Just beware of broader attacks and be savvy when slashing. It’s pretty common to get hit while doing this, especially when trying to take down an incoming enemy. Once you get to the third level you won’t be using shurikens or kunais anymore, such is the underpowered nature of these initial weapons. That’s also when the game starts mixing more enemy types and progressively filling the screen as the action unfolds. It’s just a little disappointing that Sky Ninja War takes so long to actually show some claws and start wiping the initial impression of being a snooze fest. Most people won’t have the patience to wait that long or even abide by the rules imposed by the capped firing rate, since the whole challenge is clearly built around that.

So the built-in edit function of the Avermedia Game Capture HD II works!
(removed a chunk of footage of when I needed to pause in stage 2)

The scoring system is as simple as it gets: one point for each killed enemy ninja, and that’s it. Stationary hazards, such as the cactuses in the second stage, aren’t worth anything, as well as bosses (you can, however, milk the cannonball ninjas during the fight against the first boss for a few more points). Unfortunately score tracking in Sky Ninja War requires special consideration: continuing sends you back to the start of the section but doesn’t reset the score, which in turn is added to all previous scores in the “results” table. This means that you need to erase the save file every time you want to play a clean credit and somehow preserve your performance once this credit is over. The built-in achievement system titled “ninja training”, of course, is totally worthless in this case.

Excluding the slight delay when switching weapons and the awkward button lay-out that might be the cause of my thinking some of the inputs were unresponsive, Sky Ninja War is simple and charming enough to cater to all types of gamers. It might not be as frantic as the majority of shooters out there, even by XBLIG’s standards, but it does offer a peculiar kind of rush. At first I thought it would be a nice introductory title for children as well, but that’s not quite true even when you set the game to Easy – a mode that allows the player to start a credit will all weapons already available. On the other side of the spectrum, Hard plays like Normal but implements the cruel scheme of a 1-hit death with no lives whatsoever.

Here’s my final 1CC result for Sky Ninja War on Normal:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Judgement Silversword (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
31 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by M-Kai in 2004
Published by Qute in 2011

My knowledge of the Bandai Wonderswan haldheld game console is virtually none. I know only that it’s somehow close to the Atari Lynx as far as technical specs go. Since I’m not coming close to a Wonderswan anytime soon, it seems reasonable to accept that Judgement Silversword represents the shmup apex of this relatively unknown gaming platform. And the most interesting fact about it is that Judgement Silversword started as an entry in a game development competition held by Qute in 2001. After winning the contest it still received a few tweaks before a definitive physical release in 2004 with the subtitle Rebirth Edition.

There was nothing but praise for this game among those who had experienced it in its original platform, so it’s no wonder many people were excited to know it would be included as a bonus title in the 2011 release of Eschatos for the Xbox 360. The disc also includes Silversword’s spiritual sequel Cardinal Sins, and for that reason Eschatos is considered to be a perfect package to get to know the works of developer M-Kai. All three games share similar characteristics, that’s why playing one of them automatically makes the others somehow familiar. And going by the time I spent with Judgement Silversword – because it's the first one I actually decided to play – what lies ahead of me is nothing short of outstanding. I heard somewhere that the epicness of Radiant Silvergun was one of the main inspirations for the overall feel of this game and I agree. Obvious differences aside, it makes perfect sense.

Stages in Judgement Silversword are very short in the beginning, increasing in length and difficulty as the game progresses. They connect to each other seamlessly as you clear successive waves of enemies and fight the “judges”, bosses that are always preceded by the ominous message HERE COMES THE JUDGE. Graphics and music are wisely minimalistic and bear a delightful 8-bit flavor, creating a unique atmosphere and effectively adorning the game’s rhythm. All things considered though, it doesn’t take long to realize that the strongest asset here is gameplay. Intense, twitchy, demanding gameplay where urgency plays a big part and drives most of the player’s actions. Basically, kill a wave faster to trigger the next one and reap better time bonuses. And if you really care about scoring, in between speed-killing all efforts should be aimed at increasing the multiplier.

Original aspect ratio in all its old school glory

Your ship’s hitbox is that small square in the very center of its sprite, and its arsenal consists of three simple inputs: a straight shot, a wide shot and a shield. These are fully configurable, and my adopted setting was X for straight shot, RB for wide shot and RT for shield. Wide shot overrides straight shot, and shield has precedence over both of them. With the exception of lasers and a few evil projectiles fired by the true last boss, the shield is capable of wiping out or at least slowing down incoming bullets depending on their momentum: bigger bullets can’t be nullified, and the ship will be pushed back as a direct result from the mass/speed condition of the enemy or bullet. Shield usage is limited and indicated by the percentage shown at the lower left corner. It shrinks as the percentage lowers, being automatically recharged if you stop using it (it recharges a little faster if you also refrain from shooting).

By using the shield and connecting shots on enemies you can raise the multiplier to be applied over everything that takes damage. Note how you momentarily boost the multiplier by grazing bigger bullets or damaging large enemies with the shield. Whenever a multiplier is in place you see it appear beside the destroyed enemy, and the risk/reward relation that arises from this mechanic is what often causes the player to unconsciously improve his strategies towards the successively tougher enemy formations and bullet spreads. Of course that only applies for those who want to delve deeper into the scoring side of the game, otherwise the shield is pretty much just a resource for safety against the most intricate bullet showers.

Surely Judgement Silversword has a light start, but the ambience inspired by titles like Star Force and Zanac eventually evolves to something very close to bullet hell in the second half of the game. Surviving the harder waves and bosses of later stages is only possible with due practice, but those frequent extra lives granted by the game definitely help, if only at a psychological level (and in pure Compile fashion every time you take a 1UP there's a brief invincibility period that can be useful to evade hairy situations). The 1UP routine seems to be directly related to survival time and the number of enemies you’re able to kill (kill more enemies and die more often to get 1UPs sooner). You might even get a 1UP after you die your last life! In a well played credit it’s possible to reach Divine Flow, the evil judge of stage 30, with more than 10 spare lives. That’s a good entry point for the fight against the true last boss in stage 31, which can only be seen by getting there on a single credit. Continuing makes the game end after stage 30, but since the continue sends you back to the start of the level I doubt anyone will consider beating Divine Flow with only three lives an easy task.

My 1CC + only two deaths against Divine Flow!

Regardless of how you approach it, Judgement Silversword is an incredibly fun and addictive shooter. There are, however, two non-intuitive aspects in the gameplay that are extremely important if you're committed to the task of achieving a 1CC or chasing a higher score. The first one is the firepower boost you get by holding straight shot and tapping wide shot at the same time, which produces the effect of having both shot types active simultaneously. Not only this leads to faster enemy kills, but it also induces slowdown in key areas and helps to raise the multiplier faster (by doing it you’re landing more shots on nearby enemies). The second non-intuitive aspect of the game is the fact that the base multiplier increases automatically if you keep the shield at 100% at all times, meaning you can’t use it on bullets at all, only on enemies (by doing this the multiplier won’t go down to ×1 whenever you stop shooting). Blocking a bullet with the shield or dying will reset the base multiplier, therefore the general plan is simple: don’t die and don’t use the shield unless you know there are no bullets around. The benefits to scoring in the long run outweigh anything you can do by normally manipulating your resources to increase the multiplier.

Of all great features built into this wonderful shmup, the one that strikes me the most is how varied it is in regards to the amount of techniques you need to bring into play in order to survive the challenge set by the game. Macro and micro-dodging play huge roles in equal measure, as well as point-blanking, herding, grazing and a good deal of crowd controlling. The hardest parts often derive from pattern overlapping, so knowing enemy behavior and proactively reading their random formations is imperative to survive. I only wish the judges had a health bar so that I could know when they're about to die.

Upon beating the main game on Normal you unlock a Special mode made of only bosses. Some of them are lifted from the regular game, some of them shoot harder patterns and some are completely new. It’s a much harder game to beat, but if you succeed you’ll then unlock a secret ship to be used across all game modes. The interface provided by Qute for Judgement Silversword is excellent and includes stats for everything you do, from play time to number of coined credits. Play time is also what seems to determine the increase of available credits until you get to free play status (there’s a stage select option that doesn’t quite cut it for practice because the latest stage it will let you start on is the 27th).

If the Xbox 360 is connected to the Internet high scores can be uploaded to the online leaderboards. Unfortunately I wasn't online when I got the 1CC high score below. Coming up next is Cardinal Sins. :)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forgotten Worlds (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1991

The apocalyptic setting of Forgotten Worlds, as devised in the arcade game, was certainly too much for the Master System to handle. As Sega took it and reworked graphics and music to fit its 8-bit platform, concessions were made and the original nine stages were condensed in five. It wasn’t just a matter of downscaling the material though, since one of these five stages is a brand-new underwater-themed area, complete with a new crab boss. Nothing extraordinarily fancy, but if you’re the kind of player who likes to compare versions and try them all because they have exclusive material, feel free to put this one in your checklist of ports to be experienced.

As expected, this adaptation got away with the ability to play in co-op. Now it’s just one lone nameless flying warrior fighting against the threat of emperor Bios, a winged man who slaves a world that time forgot. In your quest to rid the planet from evil you’ll be travelling through a junkyard, a barren wasteland, an Egyptian temple, an underwater passage and the ultimate tower of doom from where Bios exerts his dirty deeds. It’s a short game, but it’s got no continues and it still demands a bit of strategy to be properly learned and played. Downgrades notwithstanding, Forgotten Worlds for the Master System can actually be considered a relatively faithful port.

First stage of Forgotten Worlds on Easy
(courtesy of YouTube user sylesis)

Since the Master System controller has only two buttons, both of them are used to rotate the character (each one in a different direction). In an awkward little twist for a shooting game, the very act of shooting occurs automatically so you don’t need to worry about it at all. The constant firing doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay, with the exception of the gas pipe area at the end of the 1st stage and the splitting pathways of the 3rd stage, where it would certainly be good to refrain from shooting. You can either get a gas blow in your face by hitting the pipes or choose the wrong path inside the pyramid. The satellite - that thing that surrounds the character as you rotate the aim - provides protection against incoming bullets and also fires a powerful special weapon. Last but not least, a “mega crush” can be triggered by pressing both buttons at once, quickly oblitering all enemies and bullets on screen at the cost of a little health.

In Forgotten Worlds there’s only a single power bar as life meter, therefore preserving power/health is extremely important to not bite the dust and have to start all over again. By entering the shop in every level you are allowed to purchase several types of upgrades, depending on how much money you have collected up to that point. “Zenny” is the official currency and consists of those blue spheres left behind by some types of enemies, and the good news is that this port is rather generous in money: you never feel that you need to be stingy when going into the shop, unlike in the arcade original where Zenny was as precious as fuel for Max Rockatansky. Besides, there's no time limit for when you're shopping. Note that the last stage has two shops, one in the ground and another in the vertically scrolling section of the tower.

Of all items available inside the shop, the most important ones are the flying stone (to change the sluggish starting speed of the character / buy only once), the power packs (increase the power gauge), the two types of boosters (they upgrade firing strength), the life potion (resurrects the player upon death) and the aqua stone (available only in the underwater level / improves your maneuverability and makes it actually possible to do something). Only one type of satellite is allowed at any time, so you need to choose carefully when trading your current sattellite in for another from the shop. The satellite gallery isn't as rich as in the arcade version, but there are a few exclusive satellites to try here. One of my favorites in this version is the 4-way laser, which is great to deal with the turrets from the last stage.

Purchasing items like the protector armor becomes unnecessary when you get more comfortable with the game. By shooting at certain locations you uncover hidden items for immediate taking, such as these armors and others like a star (extra points), a yasichi (full health) and a Pow sign that refills most of the power gauge. Because the armor item is so small and may go unnoticed, you need to pay attention or you'll miss it.


My choices of satellite purchases in the shop were guided missiles in the first level, fire bomb (a.k.a. napalm) in the second level, burner (flamethrower) for the third and fourth levels and 4-way laser in the final stage. The enemy gallery preserves the most iconic creatures like the lizardmen, the snakes, the turrets, the Egyptians, the flying heads, etc. Some of the larger foes, such as the ice boss, were downranked to just a few ice minions that precede the entry to the tower leading to the final boss. The action is relatively slow, but if you choose to play with the super high speed flying stone the flow of the game gets a lot better. I did get stuck in parts of the scenery and lost health unfairly a couple of times, so it's good practice to avoid going into the gaps in walls an such. Normally you don't lose any energy by leaning against the scenery.

Forgotten Worlds for the Master System was only released is Europe and Brazil. Knowing its arcade origins is probably what attracts most people to the game, but it's not a bad title at all by Master System standards. Flicker is minimal, as well as slowdown. It's reasonably fun but a little on the easy side once you get used to the controls. It even includes the famous cut scenes showing the nameless warrior before each stage starts. Would the game be better if these were left out in favor of more actual gameplay, I wonder? We'll never know!

Below is my final 1CC score on Normal. Tip: save a little money for the last stage and buy the item named “dress” if you want to get an even higher score upon completing the game.