Friday, July 31, 2015

Elemental Master (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft in 1990
Published by Renovation in 1993 (US)

Jets, spaceships, nuclear-propelled saucer-shaped rockets? These are all too much of a cliché in those tiring, intergalactic adventures you play in your everyday shmup routine. Their missions would be nothing without the efforts of the brave people who strive to maintain justice at ground level, battling all sorts of fiends and beasts that emerge from desolate castles and polluted soils.

Jokes aside, no matter how predominant the archetypical shmup avatar/vessel is, there will always be room and faithful devotees for the pedestrian type of shooter. Like Elemental Master, for instance, a vertical take on the formula presented by Technosoft's own Thunder Force III.

Elemental Master is a fantasy shooter with outstanding atmosphere, one that aesthetically rivals titles with similar themes such as Jewel Master, Castlevania, Dragon Spirit and Undeadline. Being a pedestrian shooter, with the latter it shares many gameplay traits except for challenge, an aspect that instead mirrors the characteristics of Thunder Force III. So provided you don’t expect an enduring time with it, chances are you’ll have good fun with the adventure of a wizard warrior who must fight his own wicked brother to free a magical world from the clutches of evil. Graphics are top notch and the soundtrack is as great as in any other 16-bit Technosoft product.

Wind power against evil centaurs

As seen in the dramatic intro to the game, our hero is at the core of a family tragedy, but in his quest for justice he’ll acquire additional elemental powers as each of the initial four stages is completed. It’s possible to select their order: there’s a fiery stage where lava flows through cracks on the ground, a ravine level with monsters throwing rocks at you, a windy forest and a desolate swamp filled with treacherous lagoons. Once all of them are beaten you’ll have completed your arsenal, which besides the basic straight gun will also consist of a three-way shot (fire), a wave pattern (wind), a powerful fire blast (earth) and an ice weapon that fires crawling projectiles on the sides (water). Weapons gained are only lost when the game is over, and once at least two are available button C is used to cycle through them.

In a bi-directional mechanic that adds a welcome diversity to the game, button A shoots down and button B shoots up. Plain shooting won’t be your only resource though, since with each press of either A or B you only get a short stream of fire. By holding down the button firing stops soon and you start charging the selected weapon for a more powerful blast upon release. Even though the scheme for regular/charged shot might be a bit weird, it actually works quite well considering that all forms of the charge shot are useful. And you don’t need to mash the buttons to achieve a continuous firing rate, all you need to do is tap them at short regular intervals.

When you start the game the default weapon is the only one that has no charging capability, but thanks to the sacrifice of the curvy fairy that aids you in the first half of the journey you’ll be able to use its charge blast as soon as you beat stage 5. This new charge shot is actually the only weapon that can damage the female spider-boss in stage 6, as hinted by the fairy herself before she disappears. All bosses return for revenge in the last level, a long stride inside a castle full of huge flails and moving spikes, as well as several lines of unspeakable creatures such as mummies, golems and gargoyles.

Expanding the initial health meter is accomplished by finding and taking a trophy item (each one creates an extra slot in the health bar). Other items to be uncovered from inside golden chests consist of health refill for 2 slots, a shield that absorbs three hits of damage and a magic mirror that creates three trailing shadows and provide additional firepower – this last one will be lost as soon as you get hit and lose health. There's no harm in touching walls, but you do lose health when you get crushed by the scrolling effect.

A taste of Technosoft's elemental magic adventure
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

Although it’s hard not to get sucked into the awesome art design of Elemental Master, it’s also hard not to be disappointed by the game’s low challenge level. Enemy bullets are few and far between, with enemies themselves and environmental hazards being the main source of danger. Even when you press A + START to access the options and bump the difficulty up Expert (Very Hard), the stakes aren't that high for a 16-bit shooter. Aiming for higher scores is very simple: just kill everything you see, milk the few possible projectiles available (such as the fire snakes conjured by the floating wizards) and collect all icons since they’re all worth something (plus none of them affects gameplay in a negative way).

When you see what other developers were able to do with the Mega Drive later on, as in Twinkle Tale (especially the boss fights, which are very reminiscent of the boss fights from Elemental Master), I wonder what we’d receive as a sequel had Technosoft decided to revisit the world of this shooter. Would they be able to up their game just like Thunder Force IV did over Thunder Force III? We’ll never know.

As I tried to squeeze the maximum points I could from the game, I started all my credits in the forest stage in order to get the fire weapon and abuse its charge shot and piercing ability. My best result is the one below, playing on Normal. Note: in my opinion this is one of those rare cases where the US box artwork is superior to its Japanese counterpart.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Kiaidan 00 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan / Riot in 1992

What can you say about video games where you control a giant robot fighting huge mechanical bosses? I’m not crazy about them but I certainly dig this particular departure from the norm every now and then. I do know people who absolutely love everything involving robots, especially those of Japanese origin such as the ones that appear in Gundam and Macross. It’s true that both series are also represented by a plethora of video games within the most diverse genres ever since video games were born, but what of other robot-based efforts that somehow have the same style?

Enter Kiaidan 00 for the PC Engine CD, a behemoth of 16-bit robot shooting with fancy, loud storytelling from start to finish. Foreigners could easily mistake it as a bastard entry in any Gundam series, given the amount of cut scenes, dialogue and character interactions that the brave hero must go through in order to defeat an army led by 14 evil beasts. The cheesy aspect of it all reminds me of stuff like Groizer X, and even if I understand nothing of Japanese I can still relate to the protagonist’s enthusiastic speeches as he enters the robot suit and navigates skies and outer space environments shooting down insect-like creatures, helicopters, jets, dragons, elephants, flying battleships, robots, dwarves, ninjas, warriors in chariots, etc.

If you’re one of those people who enjoy seeing everything the game can give you on story, take a seat and relax as the animated intro of Kiaidan 00 unfolds. And don’t bother prepping to sweat you fingers at that controller so soon after you hit START. You’ll still be seeing a lot before the actual shooting begins.

1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user mogeta211)

In the lower HUD everything you need at any moment is displayed, such as health bar, stage progression, weapon selection and boss energy. Button II shoots and button I cycles weapons between five types: forward gun, wave spread, rotating energy ball, fixed energy field and three-way lightning bolts. There are no power-ups or upgrades, therefore the sooner you get used to how each weapon works the better. However, this lack of upgrades is compensated by a powerful charge attack accessible by just refraining from shooting. When the charge bar is full press the fire button to unleash the attack, which takes the form of ~ in the same order of the weapon layout ~ a detachable punch, a rotating thin laser, an extended reach for the energy ball (the robot is locked in place though), a wider reach for the energy field and a thick vertical lightning discharge.

Establishing the atmosphere of old TV serials is something that Kiaidan 00 does with undeniable efficiency. From the colorful graphics to the pumping, sometimes eerie music of a few levels, everything in between evokes the feeling you’re immersed in one of those old cartoons. The scrolling takes the player flying over cities from afar and up close, between the clouds, across cold forests, inside cramped corridors where lava streams flow underneath, playing catch-up with a train protected by a ninja army and rocketing into outer space for the final showdown against the pair of final bosses. By the way, every stage comes with a mid-boss and a proper boss, varying from tiny people in cyborg suits to large mechanized aliens. They all have an assortment of predictable patterns for the most part, but the fights get more challenging as the game nears the end.

There are initially only three energy/health cells, meaning you can take three hits before the robot goes down in a burst of smoke and twisted metal (only to rise up again with a powerful shout when you say YES to the continue option). If you lose all health cells the character’s face starts glowing red, with the next blow causing a GAME OVER. Small green spheres scattered throughout the game replenish one cell, but I suggest not counting on them during later stages. The good news is that the health bar is fully restored at the start of the level. Activating the other bits of the energy bar is possible and directly related to scoring: for every million points achieved you activate an extra cell.

I'm on the ninja train!

At times Kiaidan 00 feels unnecessarily stretched out, not because the game is actually long but probably because some of the levels incur in repetitive cannon fodder. At least each stage has its own set of enemies, which don’t appear again in any other area of the game. Overwhelming flocks are the most dangerous hazard you might face, that’s why getting used to all weapons and trusting the power of the charge attacks makes a whole lot of difference for survival. I mainly used the forward gun, the 3-way lightning and the energy field, with a little help from the rotating orb in selected spots.

Although very simple, the scoring system is heavily unbalanced towards the energy field weapon. Getting higher numbers depends exclusively on how often you use it during boss fights. Just touch them for a moment and watch as the score counter increases at a much faster rate than if you were using any other weapon. This can be exploited during the whole fight, including the period after you have depleted the boss’s energy – when the game is merely waiting for you to throw the final blow with any charge attack (to which you’re treated with a corresponding animation during the level transition in the case of a stage boss). The wait time after the boss runs out of health isn’t too long and the boss will go down even if you don’t do anything. A midboss is worth 50.000 points when killed whereas bosses yield 100.000 points, but the amount of points you can get from exploiting them with the energy field weapon far outnumbers those figures.

Of course the above scoring technique comes with a risk-reward ratio that must be carefully dealt with, otherwise you might lose the credit for sheer greed. Some bosses are easier to milk, others not so much, such as those who tend to move erratically around the screen. I had more fun with the game once I started to squeeze more points from them.

Among the robot-themed horizontal shooters, Kiaidan 00 is unique because you don’t see the robot’s avatar in the usual profile we’re used to (standing, side view). Bullet count is considerably low, to which there’s a workaround if the player thinks there should be more of them: just go to the options and move the difficulty selector up. With each step the game will throw an increasing number of suicide bullets! The options screen is also supposed to show the highest score in each difficulty, but this function is bugged and doesn’t work well all the time. To get a record of a 1CC result it’s best to pause the game as soon as you defeat the final boss, as in the picture below (I played on Normal / 0).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paranoia (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1990

Paranoia is a very strange little game, starting with the name, and if it wasn’t for its release in the West as Psychosis it would be even weirder due to obscurity. While not exactly engaging by standard definitions, this little shooter tries to offer a dose of surreal action partially inspired by the primordial mechanics pioneered by R-Type, with graphics that tend to use saturated colors and in my opinion visually evoke stuff as diverse as Deep Blue and Thunder Force II. The sluggish default speed of the ship and the adoption of checkpoints don’t allow it be a totally friendly shooter though, requiring an approach that might be just a little more methodical than your average PC Engine horizontal blaster.

Button II shoots and button I cycles the position of both satellite orbs created whenever you pick up one of the power-up items. Items are always released by the fifth enemy within a recurring wave and have a particularly interesting entry animation – as if the game’s fabric was torn and the item was thrown into its reality, slightly floating up and down for you to take it. Besides speed-ups (S) and generous shields (glowing items), three types of power-ups can be collected in order to enhance the firepower provided by the default straight shot: close-range electricity bars (T), wave shot (W) and rear laser beams (B). Firepower is transferrable across all weapons with four upgrade levels until you reach maximum power, whereas weapon firing direction follows the current position of the orbs.

Zip through a Japanese plant nightmare

All five levels (or "causes") have very specific environments, and all of them demand proper use of the satellite orbs as a defense mechanism (these things inflict serious damage and can even absorb lasers!). By moving the ship towards the direction the orbs are facing they spread out to the sides, closing in again when you move in the other direction. This means that if you want to keep them together in place you can only move away from the orbs’ direction or along the corresponding perpendicular line. It sounds a bit complicated on paper, but after a while controlling them becomes second nature. Other than that, realizing their importance for defense is half the battle of looping Paranoia. The other half, of course, is memorizing the stage layouts and how to get back up upon death.

From the first stage, a short stride into and out of a wide cave with backgrounds of sandy beaches and clouds (!), to the last stage inside a much darker cave, Paranoia also takes the player through landscapes of trippy blocks, gloomy Japanese gardens and the insides of an Indian fortress. While it doesn't seem that obvious, the close-range electricity field (T) can actually be one of the most useful weapons. It’s possible to easily get rid of the zipping fast creatures of the 4th stage merely by carrying it and staying low. The advantage of the wave cannon and the laser are their ability to pierce through everything, which is great against bosses that have tiny or shielding weak points. The metallic fox of the third level, for example, can only be hit when it lifts the head at regular intervals, and if you don't have wave or laser 95% of the attacks will be deflected by the armored bodyguards, forcing you to make the fight more personal. The problem with the laser is that you have to keep the satellites on the back of the ship and deal with the awkward firing angle.

I died cheaply a few times in the second level because of the color choices of the blocky walls, which don't make a good job of conveying borders at the absence of parallax layers. Flying behind the foreground vegetation of the third stage can be tricky, so watch out for the little devil that controls an arrow that hints at which corridor the flying faces will come from. By the way, this little creature seems to be the same alien goblin that gives you the finger in between levels while a very muffled sound seems to say "fuck you". How's that for another crazy bit of surrealism in a game that's supposed to take place inside the mind of a psychotic person? Video games were cool back then, I'll tell you that.

Welcome to paranoia world
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

Of special note here is the atmospheric music, that manages to be fitting, eerie and strangely appealing at the same time. Speaking of surreal, even though it's not clearly defined anywhere the enemy design is mostly built around an insect theme. It's as if the crazy worlds imagined by the game were infested by little bugs, and the ship is some sort of spray can with its spinning arrow appearance. Watch out for the small caterpillar that appears at the very beginning of the game. If you manage to protect it from being raped by the giant ants without killing it, a flock of butterflies will appear to help you on the fight against the first boss. There's also a turtle that comes to protect you from the falling bricks if you manage to reach the 4th level without dying.

Dealing with checkpoint recovery is fun, in that they're never too hard to handle. In order to recover faster it's better to let some enemies live longer until they spit out one of those power-up little bugs. Examples are the big orange egg in the first stage, the thorn-laden nests that come from behind and the huge spikes hanging from the ceiling, both in the second stage. Avoid destroying waves close to the borders or walls, since power-ups can drift off the screen or inside unreachable areas. For every 50.000 points the player is awarded with an extend, and considering that the second loop increases the challenge considerably an inflated life stock is very welcome once the extra round starts. The main difference in the second loop is the blazing fast speed of enemy bullets and the increased health of bosses.

There is no way to preserve scores at all in Paranoia, so unless you pause before you die your last life you won't be able to register your results. In the picture below I was about to start my final attempt at the second boss on the second loop.