Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Mega Drive)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega/Westone
Published by Sega in 1990

An apology to longtime Wonder Boy fans: don't expect me to know anything about the series, I have no understanding at all of its broader platforming or RPG elements. As a shooter appreciator, however, it wasn't long ago that I was drawn to Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair by the advice of a shmupper friend. And having recently beaten the arcade original on the PS2, I can safely say that at least this chapter is well-known to me. Under all circumstances I think the game's concept fits home consoles better than it does the arcade format, even though the Mega Drive conversion incurs in several cuts from the original. While the port for the PC Engine CD appeared both in Japan and the US, this particular version came out only in Japanese and European territories.

Monster Lair is a mix of platforming and shooting, both implemented with autoscrolling and providing a simple, dynamic gameplay mainly based around on-the-fly resource management. Co-op play is available, with player 1 controlling a boy and player 2 controlling a girl princess against hordes of cute monsters that have taken over a colorful fairy tale land. The Mega Drive port does a good job in preserving the original atmosphere despite the slightly rearranged designs for characters, background and enemies. Everything is slightly darker or comes with more dark shades, probably to disguise the less powerful color palette of the platform. It keeps the charm and lends it the expected consolized flavor, something the soundtrack is also perfectly capable of delivering.

Pursued by an angry queen bee

Each stage in this game is divided in two parts. The first part is a regular platforming section where button B shoots and buttons A and C are used to jump. Every platforming area ends with the character(s) entering a dungeon in order to play the second part of the stage, a shmup section where you ride a pink little dragon and face a series of stage-related enemies and the big boss at the end (only button B is used in the shooting areas). Throughout the game you'll come across different weapons released by killing specific enemies (platforming parts) or destroying complete enemy waves (shooting parts). Weapon items disappear fast after a little blinking, each weapon lasts for 10 seconds only when active and if you don't take another one before that you'll be back to the default pea shot.

Initially it might take some time to actually notice that the character’s health is being constantly drained as you advance through the platforming parts of the game. Refilling health is performed by taking new weapons or by collecting the fruits that appear out of nowhere. Running out of health causes the character to die, as well as getting in direct contact with any enemy. Health depletes faster whenever you get hit by one of those balls or trip on a pile of mud on the ground, which makes you dart forward dangerously. Thankfully there is no health draining in the flying areas.

Weapon behavior does not change at all from one section to the next. There's a ring spread, a thin drill shot, two-way fireballs, a spiralling ring of fire, rotating shurikens and exploding missiles. Getting comfortable with how each weapon works is essential to succeed in Monster Lair, especially when you consider that there is no autofire at all. A turbo controller isn't really necessary because in this version weapons seem to have been better balanced overall. The default shot, for instance, is a lot more efficient than in the arcade original, whereas missiles have lost most of their brute power. Their effect is still bound to how long you press the fire button though (tap to make them explode closer to you, hold to allow them to travel farther). Finally, the drill shot is still the only weapon with built-in autofire.

In adapting the game to the Mega Drive, Sega removed five stages and toyed a little with the assets that remained. The difficulty was toned down as a whole, but while bosses are considerably easier the flying enemies became a little more aggressive (in a few levels it’s rather hard to kill all waves). Item randomness was reduced and magical fairies are less troublesome (hit and take them to collect the reward). The pink fairy transforms all fruits in cakes that are worth more points and refill more health, the green fairy gives you temporary invincibility and the black fairy removes your current weapon. By the way, it seems that black fairies were overlooked during the porting process because they appear in only one stage and are rather hard to reach. They’re useless, just like the animation bug where the boy hangs to the tip of a platform (needed in the original game, useless here). I died several times on a moving platform in the fourth stage because the game got me stuck in that stupid position.

The first tropical island of Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair
(courtesy of YouTube user Gambatteikou)

I haven’t tried to play Wonder Boy III in co-op, but I don’t think it would be as good as playing solo. I ran across heavy instances of slowdown in a few places, all of them in platforming areas and mostly when the screen scrolls diagonally with parallax layers in the background. Even though removing five stages might seem an indication of this being a mutilated port, it actually makes the game feel less repetitive. Only one ice level and less castles allow the other levels to stand out more, including that infuriating desert stage and the village with mushrooms that pop out those balls upon getting hit. Several parts of the game are still very tricky to get through, but fortunately you get three score-based extends with 50, 100 and 180 thousand points.

It’s true that this game isn’t as cute as other platformers on the Mega Drive, nor are its shooting segments as engaging as most shmups on the system. It’s okay and reasonably fun if you’re in the right mood though, just don’t expect anything bombastic. Here’s the final score in my 1CC run on Normal/Average difficulty.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Satazius (PC)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Astro Port
Published by Capcom / NYU Media in 2011 (Steam)

One of the most vocal complaints I’ve been hearing for quite a while regarding shmups is that people don’t really dig the bullet hell style that seems to have taken over the spotlight in the genre for more than a decade. These people often state that they miss the shooter of old, where the emphasis on adventure still had priority over bullet count. Well, in seriously venturing for the first time into the world of PC gaming I have just found a shmup that’s capable of quenching their needs: Satazius. Released as a stand-alone disc in 2011 and soon made available through a few digital distribution systems, this game is a strong homage to the glory days of Gradius, and to a lesser extent Darius and R-Type.

“Strong homage” can be relative, for many might deem it a sheer rip-off when it comes to the amount of aesthetical inspiration this game draws from the Gradius universe. I won’t delve into the details, but suffice it to say that the more familiar you are with Gradius the more you’ll enjoy the references, subtle or not. The most important thing, however, is that Satazius takes this great influence and delivers a cohesive experience that sounds fresh and genuinely fun, on top of being a trip down memory lane and a swift slap on Konami’s face. Plus it’s got lots of green. Not so many shooters have green in them, and I love green.

Satazius puts the player in control of a spaceship in the year 2051 as it flees in the last minute while its cruiser mothership gets blown to pieces. Space pirate scum misbehaved badly, so it’s your duty to teach them good manners. Outer space, cylinder mazes, turret formations, giant snakes, cramped corridors, volcano debris, thick laser beams, teleport gates, exploding fireballs, high speed scrambles, closing gates, boss pursuits. Satazius offers a lot to behold if you’re a fan of horizontal shooters. The only staple that wasn’t covered is the huge battleship level, but with so much to tackle this absence isn’t really critical. The soundtrack is a mixed bag of nice tunes, some of them with wonderful bass, and a few grinding compositions that hurt the game’s appreciation a little, such as the theme for the 2nd stage.

Pink bullets? Hmpf... Pink lasers is where it's at!

Allowing the player to choose how he/she wants to attack the enemy is one of the aspects that stand out in Satazius. Prior to each stage you must choose one main weapon, two secondary weapons and a charge attack (both secondary weapons chosen are switchable at the press of a button during gameplay). Initially the only types of main weapon available are the mandatory straight and spread vulcan patterns, whereas the gallery for secondary weapons includes surface-crawling missiles, forward shots, horizontally-seeking lasers and homing shot. A powerful homing burst and a single two-way wave discharge appear as initial choices for the charge attack. For each defeated boss you unlock a new type of weapon or a new charge blast, which can then be selected as the next stage starts.

Weapon efficiency varies greatly depending on your choices, therefore it’s natural to define different strategies as you advance in the game. Equally important is the process of powering up these weapons, which is accomplished by taking the correct items from destroyed little containers: red P (main weapon), green P (secondary weapon) and yellow P (charge attack). Other items consist of speed-ups, speed-downs, 1-hit shields and stars for bonus points. As indicated by the HUD, each weapon can receive eight upgrades, but the last one is always temporary. It boosts weapon efficiency to its maximum power while active, leaving it at the upgrade level 7 once the MAX effect has passed. Now players who dread losing firepower upon death rejoice: dying takes away only two upgrade levels of each weapon, so no more starting from scratch like in old Gradius games. And if you die on a boss rush you don’t need to face previously killed bosses all over again. Yay!

Once you nail down how to manage your weapons Satazius gets relatively uncomplicated. I like the fact that the ship is decently maneuverable even at maximum speed, and how the game never leaves you without options to take the much needed speed items (as in the shaft descent inside the fiery caves of the third level, where you’re allowed to take two consecutive speed-down items in order to weave better in between the pillars of lava plus two speed-ups as soon as you come out of it). The charge attack can only be used when the charge gauge is full, but the charge rate is often fast enough so that you always have it ready for that tricky passage that needs some extra firepower. Nevertheless if you still want the charge bar to fill up faster all you need to do is refrain from shooting.

First stage of Satazius
(courtesy of YouTube user Metodologic)

Going beyond the basic gameplay into the realm of high scoring is directly related to how well you play and how many stars you’re able to collect. Each stage has 10 stars, and by taking them all the player receives a perfect bonus of 200.000 points per level (if one of them is missing each star is worth 10.000 points only). Every surplus speed-up or shield item also adds more to the score (5.000 and 20.000 points, respectively). Finally, upon completing the game the player is awarded with 100.000 points for each life in reserve (the extend rate is one extra life for every 300.000 points). This extend rate and all of these bonuses apply to the Normal difficulty and have increased figures whenever you play on higher difficulties – which must first be unlocked by clearing the game on the previous difficulty setting, continues allowed.

There’s a rudimentary rank system in effect that seems to be based on survival time and gets totally reset upon death. Stage 4 in particular is where enemy aggressiveness becomes more noticeable if you get there without dying. Playing on harder difficulty settings comes with a few twists here and there, such as different terrain, rearranged enemy formations or new boss attacks, so it’s not just a matter of increased bullet density or speed. And the coolest thing for score chasers is that each difficulty has its own high score display and every run can be saved as a replay file. There's also a very handy and fully customizable Practice mode.

Even though I managed to unlock the extra difficulties, my goal in the game was to finish it on Normal with one life while collecting all bonus stars (result below). As polished as it is, my only gripe with Satazius is that it didn’t allow me to use the d-pad on my 360 controller, forcing me to play with the analog stick. The game was savored by means of the Steam digital distribution platform on an HD TV with the following PC configuration: Windows 8.1, Intel Core i5-4210U @ 1.7/2.4 GHz and 4 GB RAM.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Excellent 10 [Beams] (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by ????
Published by Amorphous in 1990

One of the selling phrases of Shooting Towns, a development package released for the FM Towns product line in 1990, is "games people are playing in the 90's are games they are making". As cool as it might have been back then, Shooting Towns unfortunately lacked any sample game so people could know what to expect from the available design tools (an absence that was corrected in the revised release Super Shooting Towns). In order to broaden the appeal of Shooting Towns, soon after it hit the market developer Amorphous compiled ten games developed by common users in a CD titled Excellent 10.

While an extremely rare item these days, going by the quality of the shooters it contains Excellent 10 is more of a collector's prize than anything you'd actually want to play. In all honesty, all shooters in this compilation aren't even close to the standards of a 32-bit gaming machine. It's downright embarassing, especially when you compare this material to what Dezaemon on the SNES is able to offer even though it came out four years later. Most of the games in Excellent 10 present poor frame rate, uninspired graphics, lousy sound effects and an annoying lack of autofire. It's no Action 52, but saying they look like 8-bit games is no exaggeration. In general they've also got subpar challenge levels, even the ones that carry a bizarre nature that's often good for laughs or geek talk. At least each game has and ending, if that counts for something.


Let's now take a closer look at Beams. First of all, there's nothing in the game that reflects the title. There's no beam anywhere, neither laser, plasma, fire, smoke, dirt, whatever. Beams is actually insect-themed, but across its six stages the player will not find any noteworthy variation in the enemy gallery composed of small bugs or bug bosses that wander around the screen in banal and repetitive movement patterns. Environments consist of forests, corridors/ravines, skies, outer space, industrial landscapes and something that's supposed to be the bug lair in the final level. Button A is used to shoot, button B has no function at all and it doesn't get more complicated or simple than that.

Weapon selection is performed by taking the icons left behind by destroyed enemies. These icons carry a letter inside, but the game's resolution is so bad that recognizing the letter in those circles is harder than memorizing their color schemes. Here's what you have at your disposal:

  • white with purple border (B): forward/backward shot;
  • white with blue border (S): 6-way spread, three forward, two lateral, one backwards;
  • golden (4): 4-way shot;
  • orange (F): 3-way forward spread;
  • blue (L): laser;
  • full golden icon: temporary invincibility (your insect vessel is painted with gold for a while).

Laser is the only weapon that comes with natural autofire, but most of the time it's just better to go with S and mash the button to cover a larger area of the screen. Each weapon is already in its final form, with no upgrades or any additional bonus gained by collecting the same item multiple times. Speaking of bonus and scoring, this part of the game was seriously overlooked in Beams. Some of the enemies you kill aren't worth anything, and as much as I tried to understand the logic behind this I just couldn't. It seems our developer friend simply forgot to add point values to them. Another hint at this oversight is that no matter how well or bad you play the initial level you'll always reach the first boss with 6.600 points.

"Are you by any chance my big daddy?"

If it weren't for the benevolent distribution of 1UPs (the small purple insect items), Beams wouldn't be such an easy game. I won't say cheap deaths abound, but at times it's hard to see enemies or bullets due to the bad choice of colors. As if the abundance of extra lives wasn't enough, there's also an extend routine in place which I didn't really care about. The maximum amount of lives you can have in stock at any given time is 8, so in the heat of the battle you don't need to get out of your way to collect more 1UPs if you're full of them. For what it's worth, upon dying you can continue at the start of the current stage by pressing SELECT. START will send you back to the start screen.

The catchy nature of a few musical themes and the contrast between music styles and atmosphere has a reason: judging by the re-use of the same tracks in multiple games, apparently most of the music in Excellent 10 was slapped onto the user-developed games by Amorphous themselves.

As you can see, there's really nothing special about Beams. Once beaten, the game stops at a single ending screen and you won't be able to see the extra 20.000 points you got for defeating the last boss. Here's my best result, taken before that ugly head bit the dust.

Notes: whenever you boot one of the games in Excellent 10 on the FM Towns Marty you're given the chance to select between under scan (31,47 kHz) or over scan (15,73 kHz) displays; in order to get back to the OS screen you need to reset the console. Those who're wondering if they should expect at least a little variety in the other titles from this compilation, well... Don't get your hopes up, unless you care about bizarre shooter/racing hydrids and anime pedestrian shooters. But that's another post for another day.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flying Shark (FM Towns)

Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Ving in 1993

Experienced arcade shooter fans know that Toaplan has an enthralling history. From the early days of Tiger-Heli to the swan song delivered in Batsugun, the company was always present in the arcade scene with trend-defining games, of which Flying Shark is certainly one of them. Known in Japan as Hishouzame and released in some areas around the world as Sky Shark, the game explicitly borrowed ideas from Capcom's 1942 while kickstarting a streak of in-house shmups that's recognized today as one of the most charming old school branches in the genre. It's also the first chapter of an unofficial series which also contains Fire Shark, released in the arcades roughly two years later.

Few systems received ports of Flying Shark soon after it came out. The only mainstream console adaptation is the NES version titled Sky Shark, while all other ports appeared in obscure home computers only. This FM Towns version is one of them, a very close take on the arcade game in both graphical and gameplay merits except for the characteristic screen ratio that turns the playing area slightly into a square. Since the porting job wasn't really optimized for this, the upper part of the screen is partially cropped and the player loses sight of what's going on up there. It's as if we could only view 85% of the original screen even though it seems to have been ported faithfully from the original game. As a result, there are several instances where enemy shots seem to be coming out of nowhere. It's a little disappointing, but at least it doesn't break the gameplay.

Take off every shark!

No frills and straightforward plane shooting action is what defines Flying Shark. Press B to fire your weapon and press A to bomb. If you see a wave of six red enemy planes kill them all to release a power-up labeled as S, take it to add an extra firing stream to your gun and see if you can survive to max it out at five powerful streams (meaning you max out with 4 power-ups). Most of the other characteristic six-plane waves are beige, and by destroying them you get an extra 1.000 points. And if you're lucky you might also come across the light blue wave, which will then release an extra life (1UP). Extra lives are also score-based and granted with 50.000 points and for every 150.000 points afterwards. Lastly, watch out for a red symbol that appears from a few ground enemies, each one of them adds an extra bomb to your stock. 

The overall setting of Flying Shark goes by the book and doesn't veer into anything extraordinary. Jungle, oceans, desert, variations of each, repeat. Small planes of all colors approach in the most different patterns (each color presents a particular behavior), larger planes cruise the screen from time to time and a few huge bombers appear here and there. Tanks, boats, turret-ridden ships and big mean railroad panzers compose the terrestrial resistance, which gets more and more aggressive the closer you get to the end of a level. Despite this humble collection of assets and the absence of regular bosses, the game succeeds at combining them to deliver a fun and challenging experience where natural progression mostly comes from memorization and clever crowd control. And let's not forget about the great music, which in this port received an awesome remix.

Part of the difficulty is directly related to the plane's firepower, since the more powered-up you are the faster enemy bullets will get. It's a rather simple rank system that benefits players by allowing them to predict how aggressive the game is about to become at any time during play. You just need to be careful not to let the power-up go away once it's released because as the icon comes down bouncing it won't return at all if you let it disappear at the bottom of the screen. Note that bombs can't be used as panic relief because they explode in a spiral pattern, blocking only the bullets that are close to the blast radius. Bombs are also a precious source of points because each bomb in stock is worth 3.000 points at the end of the level. No matter how you stand as you collect this bonus, the game will always reset your bomb stock to three before you take flight again.

A credit of Flying Shark on the FM Towns
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Some details in the gameplay can certainly help the player survive longer. For example, each flying enemy that enters the screen will fire a single bullet only and follow its predefined path. There's a safety point blank distance in place for ground enemies (namely small tanks and turrets) where they won't be allowed to fire at you at all, so exploit that whenever possible. The six-plane waves will always appear on the same position and will never shoot any bullet, and if you lose a power-up or die they might switch colors in order to allow faster powering-up. Beware of slow planes coming up from the bottom of the screen and point blank whenever possible to kill them faster. And as a general rule, keep moving while avoiding to stay too close to corners.

Flying Shark adopts the same looping scheme previously used in Tiger-Heli: it disregards the first stage completely and also measures player performance by "areas" reached. As usual, each further loop increases enemy bullet speed considerably. Despite the image cropping issue, Flying Shark on the FM Towns is excellent for a home conversion. Mild quirks consist of brief loading times and an annoying continue countdown screen, where any button on the controller will trigger it. The only in-game limitation is related to a few severe bouts of slowdown, seeing that the game stutters heavily when you bomb at crowded spots (such as the huge plane bomber in stage 2 or the battleship that goes upwards at the end of stage 3). In the options screen you can select between four autofire settings, as well as choose between four display resolutions.

I had a blast playing this, with the results of a lazy relaxing afternoon shown below. I played on Normal with auto shot set to 4 and reached the third stage on the 2nd loop.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gun Frontier (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1990
Published by Taito in 2005

When Taito designed Gun Frontier the world of vertical arcade shooters was starting to transition into something more complex, so the game already looked kinda old. Nevertheless its influence is not to be neglected no matter how obscure the game became over the years, after all it planted ideas that would somehow make their way into more famous titles such as RayForce, Battle Garegga and Under Defeat. On the Playstation 2 it's possible to play Gun Frontier by means of the Taito Memories Vol. 2 (Japan) or Taito Legends 2 (US and Europe) compilations.

Just a few notes of warning regarding these PS2 discs: 1) in the European edition of Taito Legends 2 all games run at a slower speed regardless of your console's native frequency; 2) on the Japanese disc Gun Frontier is initially locked, so in order to have access to it you must play a handful of other games for at least one hour each or simply go to the start screen, highlight "START" and enter L2, R2, R1, L1, SELECT and START; 3) unfortunately none of these collections has a TATE option for vertical shooters.

Though it might seem the case, this game has got nothing to do with the manga series of the same name produced in the 70s. In the year 2120 space pirates are attacking planet Gloria, which was colonized by humans and somehow developed as a mirror of the North American wild west era. The objective of the pirates is to extract the gold in the soil of Gloria, to which the only opposition is you as the pilot of a very special plane. Many people don't even notice this interesting detail, but take a closer look and you'll realize the plane is actually a gun with wings. How cool is that? The idea of guns in warfare design goes beyond that and encompasses the whole game, creating a unique setting that stands as the single most charming thing about Gun Frontier. On the other hand, gameplay couldn't be more dire due to the lack of autofire and the sluggish speed of the flying gun. Autofire can be at least artificially obtained with a turbo controller, and I heartily recommend that if you want to tackle this particular port. If you're one of those purists who think mashing buttons is the embodiment of fun, well... be my guest then. And good luck.

That beach is dangerous, don't go anywhere near it!

Following one of the spookiest intros to a shmup I have ever seen (it's borderline horror), the player is treated with a very cinematic and powerful entry for his fighter plane as soon as the credit starts. Only two buttons are used: one to fire your guns and another to bomb (both fully configurable, as well as the "insert coin" button). Simplicity is quite deceiving in this case, for success isn't directly related to blowing shit up from start to finish. Gun Frontier is a tough beast to tame, and "tame" is exactly the right word to be used because this game belongs to the category of shooters where enemies have random behavior, which throws strict memorization literally out the window. Not only does it get considerably harder as you approach the end, but it also increases bullet density the more lives you're able to stock. This rank system is as straightforward as it gets, but it can certainly kill a credit if the player isn't focused enough.

Powering up the main gun is accomplished by collecting the coins left behind by destroying a specific wave of five enemies that always arrive in a single horizontal line. It takes five coins to add one upgrade level to your firepower, max power comes with 25 coins and a few more will leave you with a reserve of 1-coin max power upon death. Dying will strip you off one upgrade level, which is good, but try not to die three or four times in a row or the credit will be in serious trouble because you'll be back to the weak default shot. Bombs are independent of life stock and depend on the gold bars collected from destroyed tanks. A new bomb is granted for every 25 bars you pick up, but even when you're out of "complete" bombs you can trigger whatever you have in stock, however with a less effective blast. By moving the ship upon detonating the bomb the player can control the direction where it will blow, kinda like in a napalm trail.

Gun Frontier adopts a rather singular checkpoint system: they're active during the levels themselves but completely absent during boss fights. And the further you are in the game the more spaced checkpoints get. This scheme leads to a few interesting approaches to the gameplay: is it better to use bombs to get through tricky sections, or should I just hammer it away in order to get the end-of-stage bonus no matter how many lives I lose? Each full bomb gives you 10.000 points (a single gold bar = 200 points). It might seem that lives don't interfere with the scoring system but they actually do: at the end of stage 5 you score 30.000 points for each life in stock. The final level behaves like a bonus round by making you invincible and granting you MANY points for destroying those flying guns. And then the final boss challenges you to a good old sunset duel: the plane is zoomed in and you get six bullets to try to hit him while his shields are down. Fail and gain a GAME OVER regardless of how many lives you have, a bad ending and no 1CC (the high score table will show your score ending in stage 6). Succeed and reap your 1CC reward.

By the way, succeeding in this game requires lots of practice. Every single bullet or enemy spread is aimed at the player. With very few exceptions bullets have this thin, elongated shape that take some getting used to as far as dodging goes. Ground enemies are easier to deal with, but learning how each specific flying enemy behaves is essential to stand a chance at winning. Some of them will tend to approach your position, others will ram into you and a few will just drop their bullets and leave. By far the most annoying ones are the blue ships that draw closer and closer (dark blue) or move around to fry you from the rear (light blue), as well as the green planes of the final level. Faced in small flocks they're not that problematic, but wait till several other types of enemies decide to unleash a simultaneous attack. Even though the term "bullet hell" wasn't around by 1990, it sure finds a home here. And the only way to win is by devising good placement strategies and raising your herding skills to the standards set by the game.

First stage of Gun Frontier on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user SILVERCHARIOT7)

Even though Gun Frontier might seem drab on the outside, it's obvious the game packs a remarkable challenge. Although visually similar to titles like Flying Shark or the 19XX series, it offers a completely different vibe altogether. Slowdown is minimal but you're already so slow that when it happens you won't get anything good out of it. There are a few secrets here and there related to specific places where bombing can result in sudden score spikes, namely the hidden spots for 10.000 points at the beginning of the 1st and 4th levels and the huge blue spaceships that clutter the screen in the 2nd stage. If you bomb at the right places it's possible to start the third level with five lives in reserve, considering you get an extra life with 20.000 points and another for each 80.000 points afterwards. As for the  soundtrack, I think it fits the game well. I quite like the theme for stage 2.

Much of the game's legacy can be measured by the outspoken praise given to it by Shinobu Yagawa, the strong man behind Raizing and one of Cave's main developers. Pretty much all of his games use the same bomb scheme of Gun Frontier. In the particular case of Battle Garegga the influence is also aesthetical, as indicated by the overall graphical style and enemies exploding in puffs of spiralling smoke here and there. There's an obscure reference to the game in the opening text of Metal Black, whose story was at one point supposed to connect to the story of Gun Frontier. And it might be just a coincidence, but the peculiar checkpoint system used here went on to appear in Warashi's Shienryu.

Click for the option menus translation for Gun Frontier on Taito Memories Vol. 2

Besides the Playstation 2, Gun Frontier was additionally ported to the Windows PC, the Xbox (also Taito compilations) and the Sega Saturn. It is known to be an easier game on the Sega Saturn due to the implemented autofire feature of that particular port a severely toned down rank system. My period of fun with the PS2 version ended with the score below on Normal difficulty + a turbo controller. Going by the game's attract mode I reckon Gun Frontier must be a good pick to play with a friend in co-op. An extra winged gun would probably even the odds against that space pirate scum.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Verytex (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Asmik
Published by Asmik in 1991

Developer Asmik never had any strong presence in the gaming world so to speak, let alone in the shmup realm. During the 16-bit era the company delivered one shmup to each of the main video game consoles, and considering the SNES received D-Force I guess we can all declare the Mega Drive the clear winner in this particular case. Granted, at the end of the day Verytex isn't anything special but it certainly trumps D-Force in all aspects except for difficulty, even with the cruel checkpoint system that makes you restart the stage from scratch every time you die. Oh yes, don't even think of biting the dust on bosses. Unless you want to exploit checkpoints for score, of course.

Almost everything about Verytex is as generic as it gets. Take graphics and gameplay, for instance. Although benefiting from good parallax, graphics are 90% tiled and cheaply designed. The sense of speed that comes with the overall faster scrolling helps disguise that, but when the gameplay allows you to cruise across the stages with very little effort due to the overpowered weapons you can't help but feel like you're playing a caravan game. That must have probably been the reason for the single checkpoints, otherwise Verytex would've been even easier. So buckle up for a relaxed ride and crank up the volume, after all this game definitely has one of the best soundtracks of its generation.

A fully powered blue weapon exerts interstellar justice

Controls are simple and effective: shoot with A, bomb with B and select flying speed with C. The starting weapon can be changed or upgraded by taking the colored icons that appear from destroyed little carriers. Yellow upgrades the default vulcan shot, which when maxed out fires three spread streams at the front and two at the rear. Blue creates a forward shot that maxes out to four staggering arches that cover a wide area on each side of the ship. Finally, red enables a straight thin laser that kinda resembles the blue weapon from Raiden. Besides power-up items you might also come across an M (homing missiles, take a few to max out), a B (three extra bombs) or an S (shield that protects the ship against a few hits).

Verytex has no options and no extra difficulties at all, and each credit starts with five lives in stock with no extends in sight (upon GAME OVER you can still continue from the start screen if you so wish). Contrary to most of the contemporary shooters of the time, bombs do not possess great power in this game. They're mostly good to kill cannon fodder and melt nearby bullets, and given that there's plenty of those B icons and no bonus for preserving bomb stock the conclusion is that there's no need to get stingy with them at all. Speed settings selected by button C are labeled as I, II and III, and my favorite choice for the most part was speed III. As for the shield, it will only be active until you beat the boss. The game strips you off the shield every time a new level/act starts.

Just like the gameplay itself, the scoring system here is very basic and revolves around getting every possible item (each one is worth 1.000 points) and killing all destructible projectiles fired at you. That once again opens the famous can of worms regarding milking and checkpoint exploitation, especially on the last level: die when you're about to kill the golem boss and repeat the stage to substantially inflate your score. So there remains one of the trickiest dilemmas of all checkpoint-based shooters: should we play for a 1-life victory or should we exploit checkpoints for score? My opinion is that these are two completely different kinds of challenge, and this time I decided to go with the first option.

The struggle to reach Syracuse planet has just started
(courtesy of YouTube user tiodrebin)

Graphic themes in Verytex range from the classic outer space setting of the first level to the organic womb of the enemy planet in the final stage, which is full of strange innards floating above a deep ravine. In between you fly over what appears to be the surface of a moon, rush amidst the clouds above a sunken city, patrol the orbit of a blue planet and fight a large battleship over a grid-like background. Some of the mid-bosses from previous levels return in the last stage, which ends on a battle against a very creepy boss. Hint: in his last form look for a safe spot in order to survive the laser shower.

As mentioned above, the backgrounds scroll slightly faster than usual for this type of game, creating a false feeling of it being frantic (there's very mild slowdown here and there). It works at an elementary level, but soon the impression fades and all that's left to be really appreciated is the great music. There's no other way to put it: the soundtrack is just too good for the game itself. I consider the theme for the first stage one of the greatest outer space anthems ever composed for a video game.

Below is my final 1CC score on Verytex, beating the game on one life without milking bosses (remember to pause instantly as you kill the last boss or you won't be able to see your score anymore). Unfortunately in the end there's no special bonus for life or bomb stock left, but you can certainly surpass one million points by exploiting the last level.