Friday, January 30, 2015

Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype (Playstation Network)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels (3 unlockable)
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SideQuest Studios
Published by Eastasiasoft in 2010

Evil never really dies, at least in the world of video games. Even though the virus menace had been defeated at the end of Söldner-X - Himmelsstürmer, it took only 20 years for a new alien race to once again threaten intergalactic peace. The new battle takes place in the sequel Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype, which desperately tries to address some of the criticisms received by the first game in order to make it more forgiving and straightforward. Whether it succeeds or not depends on what type of player you are, and on my part I can say I was let down by most of the changes. Final Prototype isn’t a bad shooter in the regular sense, but having a handful of unnecessary dressings that get in the way of pure gameplay makes me rather uncomfortable.

At first eastasiasoft released the game with 7 stages only, but a few months later the company delivered an extra package called The Last Chapter that added three extra levels to the original seven. Therefore, the complete game spans 10 stages in a very long campaign that manages to top the previous game in length. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact that the extra stages come out as a mere afterthought, which only serve to increase the boredom potential of an already very long game. For what it’s worth Himmelsstürmer at least tries to evoke the structure of an arcade game, whereas Final Prototype chooses to break the mold in order to emphasize trophy hunting.

Just like in the original chapter, on the outside it’s hard not to get wowed by the sleek visuals, the flashy explosions and the decent soundtrack that adorns everything about Söldner-X 2. There's also constant radio chatter all over the place and a plethora of sound effects, which is nice. On the other hand, gameplay is easier and considerably different, with simplified weapons management and a simple rank/chaining system. Gone are the overheating mechanics and the harmful items, for example. Let’s start with the basic gameplay and then proceed to the awkward in-game requirements for a single credit run.

Initially there are two ships to choose from, the Thor and the Mexxus II. The third ship is the one from the first Söldner-X, unlocked by fulfilling a special mission out of the main game. All ships carry two permanent weapons and an extra slot for a third, by-item selectable weapon. Thor’s main attacks consist of a straight impact shot that scatters off when hitting something and a soft but powerful pulse shot. Mexxus II comes with a conical spread shot and a continuous magma stream. Item-based weapons that occupy the third slot initially consist of a green wave shot or a weak three-way homing spread laser, with further weapon types being unlocked for each ship as you continuously play the game.

Behold the power of the spread laser

For controller settings you need to have five inputs: shot, shock wave, limit, previous weapon and next weapon (my choices were □, ×, L2, L1 and R1). Unless you’re just starting and want to watch the in-game tutorials, I suggest turning them off because they can be annoying. Switching weapons is self-explanatory, and shock wave/limit are only to be used when you have them in stock. Only a single shock wave item is allowed at once, so whenever you see another coming you can dispatch the current one for extra destruction power if desired. Limit is a special attack that builds up automatically and detonates a screen-clearing attack that melts all bullets and weak enemies. Besides shock wave and the third weapon types, here’s a summary of the other possible items: P (power-up), large P (power-up), speed-up, 2222 and 9999 (bonus points), extra multiplier tokens (+1, +2, +4), chaser (temporary option, up to four at once), heart (health recovery), shield, chain points up, chain freeze, secret key and extra life.

Each life comes with a health bar that can withstand many hits. When this health bar gets down to 20% the music changes but there doesn't seem to be any increase in firepower levels like in Söldner-X. “Life regeneration” is activated after a while and slowly refills a little of the lost health in order to get you back in the safe zone. Of course there are rewards for not getting hit and performing well overall. The better you play the harder the game gets, as symbolized by the dynamic rank on the top right corner of the screen. It goes from G down to A and then S, which comes with the best scoring possibilities but also enemies that get increasingly more aggressive and cause more damage (in fact you can die instantly when hit by certain enemy shots). An S rank is the key to scoring higher since its base multiplier is ×24, excluding extra multiplier additions. Don’t mistake these rank levels with the rank tags you get upon defeating bosses, those are just a direct measure of your performance as a whole in the level (but especially how fast you’re able to defeat the boss).

The last component of the gameplay is ring chaining: by collecting rings released by enemies you fill up a bar gauge in the lower right corner of the screen, and when the gauge is full the item that’s trapped within the round meter will be released for pick-up. Note that this round meter controls the rate of ring collection: don’t let it get empty otherwise you’ll reset and lose the cumulated energy in the chain bar. The round meter only depletes when you use your weapons, so quit shooting when you hear the message for “chain meter low”. It will start to recover a little, but in the heat of the battle it’s often better to go after another ring at once in order to keep the chain alive (a single ring refills the round meter completely). Remember that rings remain stationary and disappear after a brief while, so don’t take too long to collect them.

I don’t think Söldner-X 2 is aesthetically superior to the first game for a single reason: the background scenery moves too fast. We’re never given the chance to properly appreciate the awesome details in the backgrounds, as if the game was in a desperate hurry to get somewhere. In a sense, it spoils most of the graphical excellence with an exaggerated scrolling speed. The only levels that seem to have real soul are the ones that contain obstacles and show some environment interaction, such as the ice caves or the factory in stage 7. However, the real problem of the game starts when you decide to play it with a 1CC in mind from the get go. Stages 5, 6 and 7 require a certain number of secret keys to be collected in previous levels in order to be unlocked (at least 4 out of 5 secret keys in one, three and six stages, respectively). That wouldn’t be a problem at all had the developer not included a few stupid criteria for these secret keys to show up, such as luck. Yes, luck.

Original trailer for Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Unlike in the first Söldner-X, which had secret keys in specific places and demanded you to find them in order to play the last level, here memorization alone doesn’t cut it. The only well-thought example of an extra requirement is the last secret key in stage 5, which will only show up when the 16th chain is completed. Since you need to get at least 4 keys in each level in order to see stage 7, you can’t just play for an S rank or survival in stage 5: you need to carefully chain the whole level and maybe still milk the small enemies that circle the boss at defined intervals (don’t take too long to kill any boss though, if time runs out you get an instant GAME OVER). But alas, here comes the real problem: all stages have at least one secret key that requires a rank level of B or higher to appear, and some of these have a 50% chance of not appearing at all. From my experience all levels are okay once you’ve practiced them, except for stage 3. As much as I tried to figure out the spawning criteria for keys #3 and #4 I just couldn’t: high rank levels, don’t miss any enemy, kill them in a certain order, kill them fast/slow, shockwave them... Sometimes those bloody secret keys just don’t come, as well as key #5, which is also prone to not coming due to probability!

Imagine having a very nice run up until stage 3, and then the game screws you by negating two keys, thus negating access to stage 7. That’s what I call serious bullshit.

Of course the above couple of paragraphs has no bearing at all if you don’t mind replaying the problematic levels over and over (stage select possible) in order to find the secret keys and unlock the stages. In this process you might even unlock extra weapons (bow laser, fog, rocket, mines, r-gun, etc.) that make the game considerably easier. Unlocking weapons or achieving special rewards basically happens when you come across a RARE item, a glowing orb that will only appear if you play well enough. Unfortunately you can’t use the unlocked resources right away, only in subsequent credits. I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but that’s just more bullshit piling up in the batch of “improvements” made to quench the casual slice of the game’s target audience. In my eyes a shooter commits suicide whenever it implements long term unlockables that forcefully impact gameplay. After all, there’s a huge difference between playing a blank installation of Final Prototype and one that has been played for months while being whored for gameplay extras and trophies. I can cope with the weapon unlocking thing, but the secret key scheme not allowing people to beat the game on a first run has left a sour taste in my mouth.

There are other minor issues in Söldner-X 2, such as the complete random nature of power-ups and default weapons not changing sprites as they get powered up (only differences are in strength and rate of fire in a few cases), but they're not nearly as unnerving as the secret key thing in my opinion. By finishing the game the player unlocks a harder difficulty level, in a total of three extra settings (Hard, Extra Hard and Massive Attack). Special missions can be completed in order to unlock new modes and functionalities, and while playing in co-op both players will always share the same life stock. There are offline and online leaderboards, with the latter allowing you to view replays.

My goal was to beat the game on a clean slate with nothing unlocked, and below is my best result playing on NORMAL with the Mexxus II ship. I managed to accomplish the 1CC a few times during the process of learning the game, but when I tried to improve my score it kept screwing me over in stage 3... In my very last attempt I didn't get the final key despite having an S rank! Patience had dried out by then, so I just quit.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

G Vector (Saturn)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by SoftOffice
Published by SoftOffice in 1997

When thinking about rail shooters most of our memories tend to cling to the titles that somehow defined this particular style of the shooting genre. Maybe more so than in any of its subgenre variations, stellar games like After Burner or Space Harrier tend to completely overshadow the efforts of lesser known companies, be it in the arcade or in the console scene. My perception of G Vector is that of an obscure oddity that very few people know of, partially thanks to the above and also because it appeared exclusively on the Sega Saturn and only in Japan. Nevertheless I bet many shmuppers will immediately recognize something very familiar about it.

This familiarity comes up as soon as you start the game. For all visual purposes, G Vector is like an alternate version of Raystorm. Even the spaceship and everything about it seems to have been modeled after the R-Gray units designed by Taito, down to the complete absence of extends. I never heard of developer SoftOffice before and don’t know of any other game they might have made, so it’s no surprise that G Vector isn’t technically on par with its source of inspiration. It obviously lacks Raystorm’s graphical finesse and brutal difficulty, but it’s a reasonably fun rail shooter if you’re able to cope with a few awkward aspects of the gameplay. Sound effects and soundtrack do their job at a basic level, with the BGMs in stages 4 and 5 clearly stand out from the rest.

Anyway, what you see is what you get in this game. There is only one difficulty setting and no special modes besides Score Attack, where each stage reached is unlocked for individual play/practice with infinite lives. Other than that, in the options screen you’re allowed to choose between regular and reverse controls, listen to a sound test and visualize the enemy gallery.

I tried to read what's below VECTOR but the characters are too small...

I’m completely clueless about the story in G Vector, so let’s stick with the good old alien threat that needs to be purged from the galaxy. The journey to salvation is fully rendered with the aid of polygons for enemies, explosions and landscapes, with sprites reserved exclusively for bullets. Some effects that resemble mode-7 are also in place, but none of these graphic devices offer anything out of the ordinary for a polygon-based game. There's a decent color work but textures aren't very detailed overall. Some of the screen action is very intense though, which helps to fuel the adrenaline across six short levels at the expense of a little slowdown. Loading times in between stages are fair, but they could’ve been shorter.

The control scheme is uncomplicated: A shoots, B fires lasers and C shoots with autofire. Lasers will hit anything targeted by the ship’s reticle, to a maximum of eight targets at once. Exactly like in Raystorm, the more targets you have locked on when you fire the laser the higher the rewards in points are: a destroyed first enemy is worth a bonus of 200 points only, but each successive target that’s killed multiplies this value by 2. The geometrical progression leads to a total 51.000 points if you’re able to vaporize a lock-on of 8 simultaneous enemies. Note that the targets must be destroyed for the points to register, that’s why it’s sometimes advantageous to build up the initial lock-ons on a stronger target and only then locking on to cannon fodder.

Since the lock-on window lasts 5 seconds and you’re only able to destroy what’s actually on screen, getting those bulky bonuses for 8 targets at once isn’t such an easy task. Enemies arrive and disappear relatively fast in the most varied formations, and the bullets fired add another barrier to the act of locking on to multiple targets. Enemy bullets in G Vector come in several shapes and colors, but those of the pink type are always fired in bursts that leave a long trail behind them. At first they're kinda weird to dodge, but once you get the hang of it you notice they’re actually the easiest attack type to be avoided. Much trickier are the firing spams inside the cavern of stage 4, the spinning bullet sprays of the large ships in stage 5 and the multiple trailing streams of the last boss.

My 1CC run of G Vector

Everybody will probably agree with me when I say that taking only two hits before biting the dust is really cruel. There’s a little compensation for the lack of extends though, since physical obstacles also do not exist at all in G Vector. From start to finish there are absolutely no walls of any kind and you can’t get hit by any enemy, not even bosses or those fat butted bugs of the last level. That’s the best aspect about the gameplay because with obstacles of the way the player is free to focus strictly on strategies to overcome each approaching wave. On the other hand, it’s also very important to adapt to the way aiming is implemented (you’re always aiming upwards) and to be careful with borders and corners because of a mysterious freezing bug that happens when the screen is cluttered with bullets: there were times where I would get stuck/paralyzed like a sitting duck for no reason at all. A few animation sequences take place with enemies shooting at you at the same time, so keep moving and shooting to get through safely.

All staples of the subgenre make an appearance in G Vector, such as city, desert, ocean, caves, tunnels and outer space environments. Bosses play a big part all the way to the end, moving a lot into and out of the screen while dropping a variety of aimed and non-aimed bullet patterns at the player. Every boss – here called guardian – has multiple destructible parts that can also be laser-chained, thus adding more points to the score. Pay attention to the timer though, because if you fail to kill the boss within the allotted time he flees and you get no rewards at all (the only exception to this is the last boss). Destroying boss parts can also lead to an easier fight (by blocking the associated strikes from happening) or trigger different attack patterns (on the 4th boss, by destroying his gun prematurely). Don’t forget to keep shooting the boss if he’s in sight while the victory animation takes place, it’s still possible to get a few more points from the segments that weren’t dismantled.

The most important survival strategy is being aggressive and eliminating the most dangerous threats as fast as you can. Stage 5 in particular is a real offender in that regard, with a bunch of strong enemies overlapping their attacks in almost unavoidable ways. Fortunately we’re allowed to properly practice in Score Attack mode, which also offers resources to improve scoring and completely destroy bosses. G Vector saves high scores automatically, both for the main game and the individual stages in Score Attack mode. The default number of continues can be increased to 9 with a secret button sequence at the start screen, but you’ll only see the ending sequence if the game is beaten in a single credit.

Accomplishing the 1CC mission was fun, and my best results are below (look how interesting, 1CCing adds a single digit 1 to the score).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cardinal Sins (Xbox 360)

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

Playing a game for a limited amount of time in order to squeeze the maximum amount of points from it seems to be a nice concept for many people. Commonly referred to as “caravan” modes in the shmup world, these quick timed romps surely have their fans. I’m not one of them in the slightest, since I almost never touch any of the extra caravan content that comes with a few games and when I do I get bored really soon. However, to my surprise I have recently found out that Cardinal Sins might probably be the closest you can get to a hybrid between a full-fledged shooter and a caravan game. And it works like a charm, I’ll tell you that.

Originally a homebrew title released for the Wonderswan handheld console but only playable with a special development software, Cardinal Sins became more available to everybody around the world when Eschatos came out for the Xbox 360. Eschatos has it as a bonus game, as well as the title that represents the birth point of everything about this particular retail release: Judgement Silversword. Silversword is, in fact, the direct basis for Cardinal Sins, which builds upon its assets and gameplay while implementing new ideas based on the concept of the caravan. It’s essentially a shorter and much more focused experience that’s easier on survival merits but still very challenging for those who like to chase high scores.

As its name implies, each of the seven cardinal or deadly sins receives a depiction in the game as a single stage. Each stage lasts one minute and grants the player a ranking based on his/her performance against the particular rules of the level. This ranking ranges from S (100% completion) to F (failure signaled by the loss of all available lives) and is directly related to the bonuses you get at the end of the level (an S is worth 10 million points). In the end of the seven levels you are “judged” and an average grade is given based on all results, and if you achieve a certain minimum grade you’re entitled to fight the final boss. Failing to do so ends the credit prematurely while the game politely thanks you for playing.

That's an envious sun

If you’ve played Judgement Silversword before Cardinal Sins you’ll feel right at home with the controls because they’re exactly the same. One button is used to fire a spread shot, another button fires a concentrated straight shot and a third button activates the shield. This shield is capable of slowing down and even blocking/clearing some of the bullets (not lasers), and its usage is key to increasing the multiplier applied to the base value of every destroyed enemy. By default the multiplier can be (1) temporarily raised by using the shield on enemies and bullets in succession or (2) permanently raised by not dying and not using the shield at all on bullets. However, since Cardinal Sins is so short and has a very specific stage-based scoring system, method #2 just isn’t feasible and won’t take you anywhere. Furthermore, the multiplier itself is never more important than fulfilling the requirements to achieve the much desired S rankings.

So how does it work then, this objective-based 1-minute stage thing? Let’s see…
  1. Envy – this one is very simple: just kill everything, don’t let a single enemy go away; 100% destruction ratio equals an S raking.
  2. Sloth – for each particular amount of enemies killed an extra life is generated; it will quickly fall down the screen and can be destroyed by your firepower when falling; the objective is to “save” these ships, and to achieve an S ranking you need to save at least 15.
  3. Greed – the non-intuitive objective here is to “scan” everything that happens in the level; this means blocking every possible bullet with the shield, seeing all patterns fired by an enemy before killing it and a few more weird things; in my opinion this is the toughest level to get an S ranking on.
  4. Pride – register as many 100% multiplier tags as you can by speed-killing the approaching drones; abuse the shield whenever possible; at least 200 are needed for the S ranking.
  5. Lust – speed-kill all waves; at least 11 waves are needed to achieve the S ranking.
  6. Gluttony – collect as many golden items as possible; allow the screen to get full of bullets before destroying the orb that appears with each enemy wave; when the orb explodes all bullets are turned into items that are sucked into the ship; collect 350 or more to get an S.
  7. Wrath – don’t die, each death deducts one grade of the S ranking (no deaths = S); keep destroying the mirror shield on the top of the screen to cancel the ship’s attacks and reduce its aggressiveness.
In each of the above levels the player receives a new set of lives to complete the mission. This means that even if you’re on your last life when a stage is over you’ll start the next one with 4 ships in reserve. The only exceptions to this are the second and the final levels, which always start with 2 ships in reserve.

Expert performance on "Greed", with notes (TRIAL mode)
(courtesy of YouTube user SFKhoa)

Despite some beefed up background graphics, a few new songs and the new elements in selected stages, all you see in Cardinal Sins is lifted directly and can be understandably mistaken for Judgement Silversword. Naturally all of the general gameplay strategies that work on Silversword also apply here, despite the little tweaks here and there. The spread shot, for instance, has a reduced reach, so take that in consideration when using the “trick” to increase damage by holding straight shot and tapping spread shot. Performing well in each of the seven stages is rewarded with bonuses when the last stage starts because each mirror shield that appears might deliver a special item upon death based on the rankings obtained: S is worth 5 million points, A is worth 1 million, B is rewarded with an extra life and the rest don't give out anything. This means that playing with ranking A or higher makes the final mirror shield boss harder because then you'll have only three lives to kill him.

Cardinal Sins is great for a concentrated burst of fun, besides obviously presenting excellent replay value because there is always room for improvement. It's got local and online leaderboards, tracking for several game stats and fully configurable controls. I couldn't decide on a favorite sin/stage since they're all so diverse and short, but there's an extra game mode called MARATHON where you choose one of the seven levels to play neverending stages based on its corresponding sin, complete with continuously increasing difficulty and suicide bullets. As for the main game modes, the basic differences between them are the random nature of the enemy waves and the absence of the on-screen timer on NORMAL, as opposed to TRIAL (you hear a sound cue when the stage is about to end on NORMAL mode).

Most of my time was dedicated to NORMAL mode, with the final result shown below. The only stage in which I never achieved an S ranking was Greed, but nevertheless I was able to make into the top 10 of the online leaderboards. I feel it's time to move on, so Eschatos here I go!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Gokujyou Parodius (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON or OFF
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

We love shooting games, so here we go again! Coming after Parodius Da! and before Jykkiou Oshaberi Parodius, Gokujyou Parodius is the third official entry in what’s probably the most messed up Konami shmup series ever, as far as console ports go. Those who are familiar with the concept behind the series need no introduction, whereas everything newbies should know is that all you see is somehow referencing a few other Konami franchises, of which Gradius is the obvious main inspiration. Stages, themes, weapons, details. In Gokujyou, however, you can easily notice that the gameplay starts to deviate from the core Gradius style into something more particular and unique. Besides, it expands on the previous chapter in all fronts except the number of stages.

The Japanese Sega Saturn disc titled Parodius Deluxe Pack is a must-have item if you’re into the series because it bundles Gokujyou Parodius with Parodius Da! in a single package. This compilation was also released in Europe, though with slightly different names for each game (Gokujyou is renamed as Fantastic Journey). Judging by the Japanese version, the good news in the case of Goku Paro is that the porting job is as faithful to the arcade original as possible and does not incur in the same issues that make Parodius Da! elusively different from its source material (toned down difficulty, botched scoring system and the inclusion of a hidden stage). Going from one game to the next in this compilation can be a shock due to the higher challenge level of Gokujyou, a game whose appreciation depends a lot on the character you choose and on a very important choice you need to make at the start of the credit.

Remember the Gradius power-up system? Collect orange capsules to light up the cells in the weapon array and activate the desired power-up to upgrade the ship/character (for every few capsules you also get a gray one that works as a smart bomb, as well as a yellow bell). All characters share the same pattern for the weapon array: speed-up, missile, upgrade 1 (originally known as double), upgrade 2 (originally known as laser), option, OH! (clears all upgrades) and shield. I made a distinction between “upgrades” and “originally known as” because all new characters come with weapons that are completely different from the mold long established by Gradius and used until Parodius Da!. In some cases even those good old options can behave in an awkward manner.

Dancing pandas and wrecked mermaids
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Four characters join the regular roster of previous chapters: Hikaru (a bunny girl riding a rocket), Mambo (a flying fish), Michael (a flying pig) and Koitsu (a stick figure on a paper plane). All new characters carry a wildly different assortment of weapons not typical to Gradius, some of them inspired by other Konami games or even series from other companies. Michael, for instance, has a wave shot and a shield reminiscent of Darius, while Mambo fires a cool set of bending and homing lasers. Vic Viper, Pentaro, TwinBee and Takosuke haven’t changed much and sort of preserve their arsenal. When chosen as player 2 all characters have different names, related to their origin or not. For example, Lord British is to Vic Viper what Gabriel is to Michael.

With the exception of the options/start screen, everything else in the game is in Japanese. That’s really unfortunate for unaware players who don’t understand the language because once the character is selected and you need to choose the power-up mode you won’t be able to correctly interpret what’s on screen: in “Auto” players use only one button to shoot while the game is in full control of the power-up process; in “Semi auto” the player can also trigger upgrades with a second button, sharing control with the computer; “Manual” is the classic scheme with three buttons, one to shoot, one to upgrade and another to trigger bell powers. Controls work with A for power-up, B for shot (autofire on Y/Z) and C for bell power. Note: on “Auto” and “Semi Auto” bell powers are activated with the shot button.

The biggest catch about Gokujyou Parodius is that the “Auto” power-up mode gets rid of checkpoints. Yes, die and you’re respawned in the same place instead of returning to a previous checkpoint. On top of that a death on “Auto” generates four extra bells as a welcome breathing room against whatever bad situation you’re currently facing. Oh, bells… Not those of the jingle kind, but actually the ones originated in TwinBee and promoted to the scoring backbone of any Parodius game… I confess that for a while I hated them with a passion in Goku Paro. Their native color is yellow, but with every four shots they acquire a different color. Collecting successive yellow bells without losing any grants bonuses that start at 500 and max out at 10.000 points, whereas other colors provide special abilities: blue (powerful single bomb), green (inflate + invincibility), white (activates a concentrated shot of random messages in kanji), brown (three vertical energy bars) and purple (turn all popcorn enemies into power-ups/bells). This is also the order in which the colors cycle for single-released bells - the ones that come in batches by killing those birds often cycle randomly. Important: taking any colored bell will remove the shield instantly since you can’t have both active at the same time.

Realizing the importance of the purple bell as a powerful resource for scoring is easy. The best example is on the fight against the first boss: prepare to take a purple bell when the dancing panda starts to toss debris all around and reap lots of power-ups (100 points each) and several more bells, keep seeding purple bells and repeat for a while before the timeout. Of course that’s easier said than done, since pulling off such a stunt requires lots of practice. I tried to do it for a while but soon I gave up to focus strictly on keeping the 10.000 yellow bell chain going. That’s already a challenge in its own because Gokujyou adopts a very steep and tricky rank system that demands exquisite knowledge of levels and resources if you want to survive longer.

Michael and his Darius-inspired shield

One of the ways to control rank is to refrain from powering up. However, it doesn't take long to see that you need firepower to score/survive. A mid-term between controlling rank and scoring optimally is very hard to find because things get more intricate quickly, and depending on where you die it’s really tough to get back up, especially when playing with checkpoints. I played on Manual for a long while and almost burned out on the game because I was often raped in the outer space level. At first I played with Michael, but by the time I switched to Auto power-up mode I also had a change of heart to Koitsu, undoubtedly the best character in the game. Gokujyou still remains very challenging though, but recovery from deaths are considerably more manageable without the checkpoints. There are only two score extends, and making the best out of them is essential to complete the game.

Overall, choosing Auto and ditching checkpoints comes with way more advantages than disadvantages. One of the greatest pros is the automatic control of all power-ups and roulette items, so you don’t need to worry at all about activating the OH! downgrade. The computer will apply speed-ups when clearly needed (in the high speed and moai battleship levels) and adhere to a single weapon when powering-up, but the shield will only be triggered after you have exhausted all possible upgrades. Another example of the benefits of automatic power-up control is having another shield ready for when the current one expires. I classify as disadvantages the inability to stock bell powers and the fact that you can’t trigger more speed-ups at certain parts of the game, such as when you die before the boss that fires ghost bunnies. Some final notes about bell powers: the green bell is excellent to get through troublesome sections but you lose much of the control over other bells; the white bell is the worst one because you can’t hit any other bell when it’s active.

Somehow I feel that the best of Gokujyou Parodius is in its second half. The nicest graphical/musical themes are left for the end, and from the high speed stage on the game clearly picks up in pace and challenge. It opens with a Carnival-themed level and proceeds with a tropical/underwater stage, another candy-filled level, a high speed chase, an outer space area, a Japanese bunnyland and the final fortress. There’s also a randomly placed level with a moai battleship and a special bonus stage that takes place after the credits, has rearranged music from TwinBee and sends the difficulty through the roof (the game does not loop, but loops can be actived in the options if desired). Of course the absurd representations of Gradius staples abound from start to finish, the most hated in my opinion being Decoration Core, the boss of the candy stage. That’s where I often die, but dying there once or twice isn't so bad in the long run because it makes the following level easier. My favorite boss is the outer space inflated power-up, that thing is cool. And benevolent. And cool. :)

Let it be known that I started playing the game on the Playstation, but then moved to the Saturn for a very particular reason: it's got random extends - sometimes you get them at different points and sometimes they don’t come at all! There are other reasons why the Playstation port is a clear loser in this case, such as abusive slowdown (almost unbearable in the candy level), longer loading times, manual save function (automatic on the Saturn) and weaker sound effects, among other minor things. The Saturn port put a smile back in my face and gave me a great time until the 1CC and the unlocking of the special stage at the start screen. In the end I played with Koitsu on Auto power-up mode at full defaults (difficulty 4, arcade aspect ratio).