Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sol Divide (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1998

If widespread reputation is any sign of how a video game should be perceived without even being played, then Sol Divide is the epitome of failure, of dread, of sheer shmupping horror. It’s a particularly elusive subject for trash talk and it’s got the potential to bring out the worst from even the most sensible player out there. I myself remember distilling my hatred against it everywhere when I first started digging into the fascinating universe of shooting games, and it wasn’t until I was practically forced to play the Playstation port that I actually saw something beyond the almost insurmountable layer of presumed mediocrity.

Similarly to Toaplan, Psikyo was a company more akin to vertical shooters, so it’s no wonder it only made two horizontal shmups during its entire lifetime. However, bearing of horizontal orientation is pretty much the only common ground Sol Divide shares with Sengoku Blade. Sol Divide’s borderline experimental gameplay mixes shooting and melee slashing and is unmatched in its pace, clunky mechanics and overall uniqueness – or weirdness, some might say. It’s extremely short and intense while absurdly overwhelming at times, thanks to a series of random elements that are capable of draining that precious health bar in a snap.

The story of Sol Divide involves an elderly evil man named Efter and three brave heroes who stand up against him to end his reign of terror in a medieval world where knights, undead creatures, wizards, sylphs and winged beasts dominate the skies of several villages. Graphics and music reflect this ambience quite decently, I must say. Each level is preceded by a brief dialogue showing a little of the interaction between these characters, too bad the Saturn port came out only in Japan and all in-game texts are in Japanese. The disc comes with a straight rendition of the arcade game in its Arcade mode. Original is a special version designed exclusively for consoles, infused with RPG elements and with rearranged stages/enemies. Once again I haven’t even dared to dip my toes in Original, focusing on a new challenge for Arcade mode: loop the game with Tyora.

Kashon faces an escapee from the Prehistoric Isle

Tyora is the only woman in the group of playable characters, a wizard with decent shot and magic power but terribly short melee reach. Vorg is the dark knight specialized in sword fight and with stronger melee abilities. Kashon the hawkman stands as the most balanced of the three, with the clear advantage of having the best melee reach thanks to his long spear. Each character is able to fire, to slash and to cast magic spells (all inputs configurable) chosen from a wide assortment of magical powers shown below the health meter. Magic efficiency varies according to the enemies you’re facing, consisting in the most important aspect of the gameplay besides the slash attack.

“So are magic and slashing more important than shooting?” As weird as it might seem, YES is the answer to this question. While you can shoot enemies from afar, they will eventually get close and unless you react they’ll end up taking up huge chunks of your life bar. That’s when performing slash combos are useful, since they inflict good damage and stun enemies while pushing them back. Each character has a specific set of commands to do the combo though: the sequence for Kashon is slash, slash, slash, →, slash, changing the directional to ↓ for Tyora and ↑ for Vorg. Naturally Kashon comes off as the easiest character to play with because of his combo and the better reach of his melee weapon.

Most enemies when defeated release items that bounce around for you to pick up. These can be power-ups, health potions, magic potions and herbs (increase max health), some of them with different sizes. A few magic spells are only obtained through items for a single use only, and the more powerful the spells are the bigger the amount of magic energy they consume. There’s also an exclusive powerful spell that’s specific to each character: “Phoenix” for Kashon, “Summons” for Tyora and “Nightmare” for Vorg. While the main purpose of magic is to facilitate survival, melee slashing is the key to higher scoring. All enemies that are killed with the final blow of the slash combo have their base value multiplied by 4, a factor that’s reduced to 2 if you happen to register the kill in the second-to-last slash. Aside from the enemies in the level, in order to achieve higher scores it’s imperative that players dispatch all bosses with a ×4 multiplier. Hint: go to the options and switch Score Display to ON to see your score and the multiplier tags.

Intro and attract mode of Sol Divide on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

As a last note on gameplay, I’d say familiarity with enemy behavior is the defining condition to succeed in Sol Divide. Those brief flocks of enemies and each of the massive bosses are there to suck you dry so that you reach Efter with low health. The first of his four phases is the nastiest enemy in the whole game, so my advice is to try and get there with lots of energy to spare (the winged creature, the dinosaur and Efter himself in the end are pushovers when compared to the first form).

Adapting to Tyora’s awful melee reach wasn’t easy, but I needed to devise a basic plan to help me get the loop. In this plan the first magic I use is Fire against the four sylphs at the start of stage 4 (their straight shots are a pain to dodge). Then as the stone god boss is about to die I cast Freeze in order to get a ×4 kill. When the spikes from the worm boss start moving (level 5) I cast Meteor, which leaves him ready for me to get another ×4 final blow. The minotaur in stage 6 is tricky, and again if I have Freeze I use it to finish him off with ×4. Summons is reserved for the stone griffon boss of stage 7 while I attempt to time the damage with another ×4 multiplier. For Efter’s 1st form I cast Fire once or twice (if I still have it) to deal with the knight duo, but a ×4 is a very tricky matter of opportunity. Wind works well on neutralizing a few of the dinosaur’s attacks, but I prefer to Freeze him for the ×4 kill, casting away Fire against Efter’s final form.

Defeating Efter’s 1st form with Tyora is a daunting task. I lost count of how many times I got to him with a full health bar, only to be slaughtered like a filthy pig in an altar of sacrifice. Nevertheless I managed to fulfill my mission with her and reached stage 2-2, albeit with a lesser score than the one I achieved with Kashon on the Playstation. The second loop of Sol Divide has a different color palette, a lot more enemies with even greater resilience and is only accessible if you beat the game with a single credit. I’m sure I’ll have another load of fun when I revisit the game on the Playstation 2 to play with Vorg.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gradius Gaiden (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami / KCET
Published by Konami in 1997

When looking at the main timeline of the Gradius series it’s a bit shocking to notice that there’s a 10 year gap between Gradius III and Gradius IV. Before the latter came out one would imagine the series to be dead after such a long time with only a few console adaptations released for the Gameboy and the Super Nintendo, as well as the nostalgic Gradius Deluxe Pack collections for both the Playstation and the Sega Saturn. However, in an interesting and unexpected twist, by the time the 32-bit video game era reached its peak Konami designed and unleashed Gradius Gaiden exclusively for the Playstation. Building upon the foundation of the series and its spin-offs, the game injected new ideas into the Gradius canon and renewed its epic strength, while definitely paving the way to the series rebirth in the arcades with Gradius IV.

The fact that Gradius Gaiden is considered by many people as the best shmup developed for a video game console is no coincidence at all. The improved visuals are a no-brainer, and old staples like the moai and volcano stages have been elevated to a level that makes them feel truly unique this time around instead of just rehashes of the same old mold. Cheering and provocative voice samples abound from start to finish, helping to create a sense of adventure that greatly enhances the grand scheme of things (voices and speeches also change depending on the difficulty setting). Being console-oriented, the game automatically boasts a much more tame difficulty than its infamous arcade ancestor Gradius III. Add to that the ability to play in co-op and you get the picture for how much fun it might be if you enjoy the idea of experiencing Gradius with a friend.

Another point of attraction in this particular chapter is the choice of four different ships. It’s not possible to select their abilities as in the Weapon Edit mode of Gradius III though, but on the other hand you’re allowed to completely reorder the famous weapon array – that familiar gauge that tracks power-up capsule collecting and controls how you want to upgrade your vessel. Do you want option/multiple to come as your very first upgrade, even before the classic speed-up? Gradius Gaiden has got you covered, my friend!

Lord British takes on two planets
(courtesy of YouTube user Akihabara. ch)

The behavior of each ship follows the classic tradition of the series. Natural upgrade order is speed-up, missile, double, laser, option/multiple and shield. To activate the desired upgrade you need to collect the necessary amount of power-up capsules. Weapon variations appear in the missile, double and laser upgrades, so choosing between the Vic Viper (blue), the Lord British (red), the Jade Knight (green) and the Falchion β (purple) requires playing at least a good couple of levels with each ship. A feature inherited from Parodius and MSX console Gradius iterations is the ability to power up missile, double and laser one second time each. I quite like the beefed up double and its extra rear shot stream of the Vic Viper, for instance.

Upon accepting to wage another war against the Bacterion empire, brave Gradius Gaiden pilots must battle nine levels of increasingly tougher hazards. Starting out in an ice planet, players proceed to a space junkyard full of carcasses of previous Gradius bosses such as several variations of the ever present Big Core and even Salamander’s Tetran. The crystals in the next stage are capable of refracting your lasers, while Moai heads fire laser beams from their eyes and fall to the ground when destroyed in the fourth level. Then you enter a pulsating organic stage before being attacked by all sorts of plants and reaching what’s probably my favorite part of the game: a volcano stretch that completely falls apart as it’s being sucked by a black hole. After that you face a boss rush comprised by completely new captains (not reappearances from previous games). Finally, the emblematic fortress stage wraps the game with a mix of classic Gradius staples such as the high speed scramble, the gun wall, the indestructible mechanical beast and the ridiculously easy final boss.

A lengthy animation with a Star Wars styled introduction panel alternates with some nice demonstrations of the old and new weaponry developed by the scientists from the Gradius planet. That’s just one hint of the amount of cool effects used throughout the game, which range from simple warping to all sorts of zooming with often outstanding use of color. Don't expect to run into those bouts of slowdown so typical of the arcade chapters, in this one it rarely happens if you're playing solo. The enemy arsenal has been overhauled for more diversity and goes way beyond the previous assortments of bullets and blue lasers, which leads to a handful of boss fights that emphasize twitchy dodging over positioning and safespot strategies. Bosses are, in fact, remarkably cool, varied and in my opinion the strongest design asset of Gradius Gaiden.

Contrary to all Gradius games released before, this chapter has a lot more power-up capsules than usual. Even without tinkering with the flexibility of rearranging the weapon array to your liking, which obviously allows for quicker recoveries upon death (a default set-up can be made in the options menu), it’s still possible to have a fully powered ship by the time you reach the first boss. Speaking of which, Konami apparently listened to widespread complaints and gave each boss in the boss rush only one chance to stop the player’s advance. This means that you don’t need to fight the defeated bosses again if you happen to die against any of the later bosses in the queue.

The first FORMIDABLE boss

Just like the grey smart-bomb capsule that appears at every 12th capsule released and the insect-like thief creature that comes to try to steal your options every now and then, progressive rank also returns to spice things up a little in Gradius Gaiden, although with a toned down intensity that never hints at the need to, let’s say, avoid activating all four options or the secondary double/laser upgrades. After spending some time playing with the new ships and using the extra shield types, I still think the best gameplay choices lie with the old resources. The Jade Knight and the Falchion β are fun to play with, but they both have a few characteristics that make using them tricky under certain circumstances (shorter weapon reach, annoying overlapping blockage of the ship’s own firepower).

Amidst all that's new in the game design of this much lauded entry in the series, the final stage is actually the least innovative of them all since it's essentially a collage of very similar bits and pieces of previous chapters. However, it does redeem itself for having (during the section after the high speed boss) the most energetic BGM of the entire soundtrack, a fair collection of tunes that definitely gets better towards the end.

Beating the game unlocks a stage select feature at the start screen, which then tracks all stages you reach while playing the second loop. As expected, the loop is harder but still manageable, and not just a mere act of increasing bullet speed and density. Players have to face new enemies and hazards, meaning that what was once harmless will suddenly become a threat (examples are the snowfalls pushing the ship towards the ground in the first stage and the new deadly nature of the high speed mid-boss thrusters). The first score extend comes with 20.000 points, with further ones granted at every 150.000 points afterwards. And how interesting, if you reach the loop you also get an extra last attempt when you die your last life.

For a long time Gradius Gaiden remained exclusive to the Japanese Playstation, until it got included in the Gradius Collection compilation released worldwide for the PSP in 2006. Functionally the Playstation disc offers everything you expect from a shooter: full button mapping, automatic saving, nine credits that evolve to free play once you've invested a predetermined number of hours in the game and the aforementioned level select feature, among other minor options. I spent much of my time playing with the default upgrade gauge (SMDLO?), but in the end I switched to SOMD?L. Vic Viper was still my ship of choice, with force field as the "?" shield upgrade. My best result is below, reaching stage 2-5.

Next: Gradius IV.