Sunday, August 30, 2015

Twin Hawk (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Sega in 1990

I still remember when I first got my Japanese Mega Drive, and the few games that were available for me at the time. I spent my free time with all sorts of games, but the one I liked the least was a Japanese slow-paced shooter whose name I was never able to figure out. It so happens the game was Twin Hawk, which down here only appeared in bootleg copies of the Japanese release, known as Daisenpu. Originally an arcade game, this port was never released in the West in any form, therefore the only way to play it without emulating is by tracking down either the Japanese Daisenpu or the European cartridge released as Twin Hawk. Other than that, one can always go for the PC Engine HuCard or CD versions.

Ditching this game in favor of others is perfectly understandable, especially if you're a kid. Of all Toaplan arcade conversions available for the Mega Drive, it's the least flashy, attractive or even engaging. Coming out as a mash-up between the aesthetics of Flying Shark and early ideas initially presented in material such as Tiger-Heli, Twin Hawk does not offer the same rush of other Toaplan verticals. Honestly, it feels like a regression from the awesome action of Twin Cobra, which had been released in the arcades a couple of years before, and it was bound to be eclipsed by its contemporary sibling Fire Shark.

The good news is that since this a Toaplan shooter we can still find something redeeming about it. There is a gimmick, and a pretty nice one when you think about world war based shmups.

Flying over an easy jungle
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Basic inputs consist of shot (A or C) and "support squadron" (B). For the mission of raiding dangerous terrain and fighting the bad guys, our little green aircraft must count with the aid of this so-called support squadron. For all purposes it corresponds to the quintessential bomb attack that's present in all old school shooters, but since you're in charge of the whole operation you can command the extra planes to behave in several different ways. By pressing B once they'll arrive from the bottom, stand in formation and add their firepower to yours, providing a curtain of bullets that's great to quickly wipe out the horizon. Each of the six planes has a 1-hit life, meaning that they will plummet to the ground as soon as they get hit, if possible onto an enemy for some extra damage. However, a kamikaze attack can be triggered at any time by pressing B whenever the planes are in formation. If you want to sacrifice a whole support squadron and turn it into a powerful bomb press B once to call it and B again before the formation is in place, provoking a huge explosion in front of the plane. The detonation inflicts lots of damage and blocks all enemy attacks in the hit area.

For each life you get two support squadrons to use. Deploying them is very important for survival, obviously, and the longer you have extra planes flying by your side the better. After all, they help kill baddies and take hits for you. Much of the fun of Twin Hawk is in trying to keep these planes alive by careful maneuvering because all single shots fired by enemies are aimed at the player's own craft. It all comes down to correctly dealing with the reload period of the enemy army, as well as finding the gaps where bullets will pass through and miss the remaining planes in the support squadron. Besides that, since this is Toaplan you'd better watch out for snipers and tanks coming from behind. A mild rank progression based on survival time and firepower level is to be expected as well.

Little trucks and boats need to be destroyed in order to release items that descend bouncing on the sides of the screen. Items disappear forever if you let them reach the bottom, so don't wait too much to take them. There are power-ups (P, yellow carrier), extra support squadrons (H, white carrier) and extra lives (a glowing little plane, blue carrier). It takes four power-ups to max out the plane's firepower to a thick stream of 8 parallel shots. If the carrier truck/boat appears in green you'll only get a few points, with no item to be collected. Carrier placement is always the same throughout the game, but colors/items are all randomized. Note that there are also score-based extends, granted at 70.000 points and at every 200.000 points afterwards.

A bridge over troubled water

What's suprisingly odd about Twin Hawk is that despite the poor resources and the slow speed of the combat plane the game still manages to have that "one more go" factor. All you see are three variations of tanks, boats, turrets and the occasional powerful fortress or ship that serves as boss, but the simple graphics are made better by decent use of color. There is no separation at all between stages, you just see the area indication change with the background music, which by the way is quite decent and grows on you after a while. The game is short enough and most checkpoints aren't too demanding, and with only four stages that loop indefinitely I guess that Twin Hawk fulfills its purpose as a lesser but still enjoyable shooter.

When the game is played on a Japanese console it defaults to Daisenpu, which is slightly harder than Twin Hawk, the version that appears when the cartridge is run on a Western console. In both you must go to the options screen to set rapid fire to ON if desired. Regarding rapid fire, one advice I can give is that it's possible to obtain a higher rate of fire by alternately tapping buttons A and C, a trick that works well while standing on top of any of those larger tanks when they're not shooting.

My best result playing on a Sega Genesis is below (Twin Hawk), on Hard difficulty. On the second loop area numbers keep advancing, so area 7 means stage 2-3.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Steel Empire (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B
Published by Acclaim / Flying Edge in 1992

Whenever people hear about the term "steampunk", movies and literature is where they naturally go for references. Video games weren't really ready to solidly portray the fascinating style associated with this particular branch of science fiction until the 8-bit generation was born, but when it comes down to shooters it would still take one more generation for players to start seeing something. Even though a faint influence of steampunk can be noticed in series such as Twin Bee and Battlemania, the honor of being the first shooter to fully adopt this thematic design choice is Steel Empire for the Mega Drive, or Empire of Steel as it came to be known in Europe. You might also see mentions to The Steel Empire, as depicted in the start screen of the game itself.

As far as gameplay goes, there's no doubt that this one isn't an unanymous success among fans of the genre, since it suffers from heavy slowdown at times and falls below the average when you consider challenge. On the other hand, Steel Empire is nothing short of a great achievement in game design as a whole, from graphics to music, from the short cinemas to the way stages are laid out. For those with an adventurous heart the game radiates awesomeness, and the best way to measure its appreaciation over the years are the late releases of a couple of unexpected ports (Game Boy Advance in 2004 and Nintendo 3DS in 2014) and the clear influence it had in future shooters such as Progear and Sine Mora.

Steam-powered machines in outer space

In the war between the Silverhead and the Motorhead empires, in each stage the player is allowed to choose between two vessels to enter combat: a bulky dirigible with slow speed and strong armor or a smaller light plane with faster speed and weaker armor. This speed performance gap is shortened as you power up both ships, so the defining aspect of which one is better or more suitable to a specific level falls on the kind of bombs they drop. The little plane spreads ground bombs whereas the dirigible pops bomb rounds upwards, in attack patterns that evolve in quantity and power as you progress through the game. I ended up using the dirigible only in levels 3 and 5, which have a series of large battleships with weak points in their lower hulls.

Motorhead forces have been advancing over the land and it's up to you to take down their steam-powered machines from crimson-shaded skies. Button B shoots left, button C shoots right and button A deploys a powerful lightning bomb that causes major damage to enemies and makes the ship invincible for a little while. Every time you get hit or scratch an obstacle you lose a portion of the energy gauge, and a life is only lost if this gauge gets completely depleted. A warning message appears when you run out of energy, but it's possible to get it back by collecting the heart item from destroyed carriers and special enemies. Preserving energy/health can be tricky at times, so learn how to deal with enemy movement and all those patterns of star-shaped bullets and accelerating rockets.

Items float in a circular motion before drifting away to the left side of the screen. Besides the heart for energy refill purposes, players also encounter extra lightning bombs (B), score bonuses ($), speed-ups (S), options (O), extra lives (1UP) and upgrade points (Ex). For every 3 of these upgrade points the ship's firepower is increased by one level, in a maximum of 20 levels that can only be achieved somewhere in the second half of the game depending on your performance. If possible don't take too long to collect the items, otherwise you might lose them as they go away behind walls.

All levels in Steel Empire have a mid-boss and a main boss. Firepower and options make quite a difference especially if you're fighting them. The good news is that you just lose the options you're carrying upon death, with no power loss of any kind. When continuing, you will always resume the game either at the start of the level or after the mid-boss.

Silverheads against Motorheads
(courtesy of YouTube user AstuteClass)

If there's one thing that discredits the great level design of Steel Empire, it's the reappearance of the large battleships I mentioned above in more than a single stage. It's as if the developers wanted to give some function to the dirigible, whose otherwise only real advantage is the ability to fill up the whole energy gauge (you'll never have a full one with the little aircraft). Over the mine city and across the high speed tunnels of the caverns in the second stage, the small plane is obviously the best choice. Steel Empire then continues to show some awesome parallax graphics of clouds, beaches, cities and buried machinery in between encounters with all sorts of aircraft, ground turrets and huge bosses. The background station that bombards a foreground battleship might be just for show, but it lends awesomeness to the action and predates similar visual moments seen in later shooters like Eliminate Down, Border Down and Thunder Force VI. The last stretch over the surface of the moon is particularly amusing, final boss fight included.

For a game that comes out as a little longer than usual, the scoring system sure does a nice job of motivating replays because Steel Empire rewards good performances with higher scores. At the end of a level the player receives several fixed and variable bonuses based on stage clearing, energy left, no bomb usage and no miss. Besides, all items are worth a little something. The lesson is simple and very familiar to gamers who understand the relation between challenge and practice.

I played during the weekend to learn the game, then came back later to try and squeeze what I could from the scoring system. The result is below (Normal difficulty), and I just pity the fact that I died once in stage 6. I should've bombed... No-bombing isn't as big a bonus as no-missing. :)