Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nanostray (Nintendo DS)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Shin'en Multimedia

Published by Majesco Entertainment in 2005

I had been taking the Nintendo 3DS with me in my trips for light diversion purposes, but this last time I decided to seriously face the challenge proposed by European developer Shin’en in Nanostray. And so I cracked the seal in my list of beaten shmups for a Nintendo handheld console. Things that definitely lured me into the game include the colorful and detailed graphics, the cool soundtrack and the opportunity to play another vertical shooter with the slightly tilted perspective that reminds me of Silpheed and Raystorm. Getting used to the dual screen was a little strange at first, but thankfully the interaction with the lower screen is minimal even though it could’ve been better.

Nanostray is purity incarnated for those who can’t stand text or too many cinemas in their video games but love some quick eye candy. It boots up fast and offers just the right amount of animation sequences as the spaceship goes from one mission to the next. Of all game modes available, the one to be played as an arcade adventure is the option named “Adventure” (duh). Each stage is a planet that must be visited and purified of evil alien scum, with the player being allowed to choose the order of the first three stages. After they’re done it’s once again possible to tackle the next three in any order. Only the final two levels must be played one after the other, as the ship enters a fortified enemy base with lots of corridors and giant doorways. Each level beaten in this mode is unlocked in the “Arcade” option, where the player is encouraged to score attack each planet separately.

“Challenge” and “Multiplayer” options complete the package. The first one has several different requirements that must be fulfilled when playing specific levels, which in turn unlock related extras in the gallery section.

Mitsurin Jungle

Weapons come in four flavors switchable on the fly by touching their symbols in the lower screen: forward pulse shot (a soft burst of blue energy), two-way side shot (no frontal attack at all), seeker (has mild bending ability) and lightning (electricity discharge that latches onto enemies). Weapons are fired with button A, bombs are triggered with X and weapon boost is activated with B, with no option to remap buttons. As long as there is enough energy in the weapon gauge, this boost amplifies the power of the weapon in the following ways: pulse shot turns into a killer laser beam, side shot efficiency is heavily increased, seeker fires additional bursts with better homing function and lightning creates a cloud of electricity that hits everything within a short radius.

Recharging the weapon gauge is done by collecting blue coins released whenever you kill complete waves of small enemies. One coin is sufficient to refill the whole gauge. Other enemies might leave behind gold coins worth 500 points each (tip: whenever you hold button R all coins are automatically sucked into the ship). A health bar allows the ship to take some hits before blowing up. It does not, however, protects it against collisions, which are fatal and mean instant death. Every credit starts with five lives and there are absolutely no health recovery items or extends of any kind. As for bombs, they work in standard classic shmup fashion by inflicting lots of damage and rendering the ship invincible for a little while.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the core gameplay of Nanostray. In fact, it’s actually decent fun only marred by a few problems such as the awkward weapon selection scheme and the recognition of boundaries – ramming into enemy ship hulls or touching unsafe areas close to borders is very common as you start to play, but this is eventually ironed out with memorization. Most of the fun comes from boosting weapons in screens filled with enemies, as well as sucking all those coins with button R. The obvious question in this case is why this sucking ability wasn’t implemented by default into the game, and the answer unfortunately points to an aspect that’s bound to negatively hit the fun factor. This aspect is the scoring system.

Official trailer for Nanostray
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer ShinenGames)

In order to score higher in Nanostray you need to refrain from using the weapon boost attacks, since each successive wave you destroy without draining the boost gauge is worth more points. You also can’t use the coin sucking function, otherwise you’ll reduce the so-called “valor” bonus that’s shown at the end of the level. Note that the valor bonus is also reduced whenever you’re shooting aimlessly without hitting anything. All things considered, what I just put in this paragraph is enough to turn the game into a totally wooden experience that excludes almost everything that’s cool about it. Killing the larger enemies, for instance, becomes a chore because it’s very hard to do it without recurring to a weapon boost or letting precious waves go by. Even if a specific weapon is theoretically capable of destroying the thing before it leaves the screen, switching weapon types on the fly without shifting your focus from the action is too risky and requires ninja training.

I can cope with the small weird quirks of Nanostray’s gameplay, such as being denied the blue coin if I destroy waves too fast (as they’re entering the screen) or dealing with the unreliable nature of the seeker weapon boost (the energy burst sometimes goes out in the wrong way and totally misses what you should be targeting). However, going through this visual feast of lasers, bullets and handheld eye candy while worrying about collecting all coins manually and switching weapons too often is just painful. All my weapon switches were done at the start of a level or at very specific points in the game, as in when the quick waves overlap the large battleships in the Sunahara Desert stage (seeker → lightning). Some boss fights also require a little weapon switching to be won faster, but these are often possible in between transitions without enemy bullets being fired at you.

Besides the elusive valor bonus, other bonuses to be collected at the end of the level consist of extra points for the number of destroyed waves, ship stock and unused bombs. Adventure mode allows three save slots and each successive difficulty (Normal, Advanced, Expert) decreases the amount of resources while increasing the damage taken by the ship without making the gameplay actually any different. Your overall performance is ranked from F to S++, while scores obtained in Arcade mode – which is locked at the Advanced difficulty – can be filed at the game’s website via a code.

I played in Normal and valued fun instead of scoring, so I was almost always with button R pressed and wreaking havoc with the boost functions. The final result is in the picture below (don't press any button on this screen or you'll be sent into the final credits/animation and never see your final score again). Note: Nanostray is the spiritual successor to Iridion II for the Game Boy Advance, and the first in a series of shooters with the “nano” prefix in the title, which also includes the sequel Nanostray 2 for the Nintendo DS and the Nano Assault arena shooters developed for the Nintendo 3DS.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Robodemons (NES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer / Beat'em up)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Color Dreams
Published by Color Dreams in 1990

Whenever I need to write about games like Robodemons I can't help but feel I should apologize to those who read this blog (huh... did I ever?). I don't refer to the fact that some people wouldn't consider it an eligible title for something shmup-related, since we're talking about a hybrid. After all, I welcome all sorts of hybrids here if the shmup part in them is of substantial significance. My apologizing is actually related to the fact that Robodemons is such a bad game it hurts. But then again, those familiar with the history of NES unlicensed material know very well what to expect from Color Dreams, the rogue company behind this atrocious mix of shooting and action.

Evil demon king Kull has created a machine that transplants the souls of demons into the bodies of robots. As the brave hero, you will be descending into seven levels of unspeakable horrors in your mission to defeat Kull, kinda like in Dante's Divine Comedy. Levels are themed and named accordingly, as in the level of bone (1st), flesh (2nd), fire (3rd), etc. They're all comprised of a horizontal shooting part and a platforming section abridged by short captions with stage names or something about the story, which are hard to read due to the poor choice of fonts and colors. By the way, POOR is the word of order in this game, an experience that in these days should only be had by masochists or demented players looking for a reason to giggle.

How much pain can you take?
(courtesy of YouTube user DeimosComaBlack)

There are lots of things wrong with Robodemons, which either annoy or downright kill any sense of thrill a good video game is supposed to convey. One of them is the nature of the warrior's attack, a magical boomerang (button B) that disappears in thin air before returning to the character. You can't fire more than one boomerang at a time, which means you're basically a sitting duck if you miss the target and have to wait to shoot again. This is especially aggravating during some of the flying areas because lots of enemies tend to quickly sweep onto you. Unfortunately there are no power-ups or different weapon varieties at all during the quest to bring down evil king Kull... The player is doomed to only use that dreaded boomerang.

When you enter the platforming areas button A becomes active as the jump input. All action pieces are laid out so that you either need to find a key or destroy/collect all of the special entities in order to leave the room through a big door. In the process there might be a few powerful enemies to defeat and several smaller doors that serve as magical gateways that take you to different parts of the level. Everything is very simplistic and does not incur in any grinding besides learning how to deal with a few design problems, such as the hideous choice of colors in the second platforming area or the moving boards in the third stage draining your health even though there's no reason for it at all.

In order to make things bearable, each life comes with a health bar of five hearts. Unless you fall into a pit and lose a life instantly, this health bar takes some time to deplete and can be extended by taking extra hearts left behind by specific enemies within a level. By "extended" I mean that with the extra hearts you can stockpile lots of health. The only other item that appears in some of the flying areas is a small face that grants you an extra life.

Bone creatures amidst skulls and tombstones

Robodemons is ugly and generally awful to look at, but none of this crappiness is hinted at by the detailed descriptions of the instruction booklet. In a sense, it promises Castlevania but delivers Dark Castle. There is only one single song that plays from start to finish, the main character looks like an old bearded man with rheumatism and the enemy gallery follows the same disjointed animation standard. Expect to see skeletons, demons, flies, robots, zombies on fire, green pac-man lookalikes and even flying faucets - watch out for them at the start of the fourth stage, they're all very slow and give you lots of extra hearts. Later on the game even throws some beat'em up traits on you in the demon factory level, where you need to kill authentic robodemons and destroy demon breeding machines that look like fuse bombs.

The good news about this painful experience is that it's also a very short one. Some of the shmup parts are so short you'll be left wondering if something is wrong with the cartridge. Overall, the game will be over in a snap once you've come to grips with all of the annoyances in every level. A few tips: enemy shots can be blocked by your boomerangs; enemies never return once killed; whenever possible try to kill them in safety from behind walls or from different heights; brute force works if you have lives left and demons get cheaply aggressive (in the last stage).

The only way to see your score while playing is by presssing SELECT. The screen below shows mine just as I was about to dispatch Kull and save the Earth from his robodemons. Good riddance, demon lord, my mission is accomplished and I can move on to the next stinker!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Karous (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Milestone

Published by Milestone in 2007

Third in line in the history of Milestone arcade shooters, Karous also has the honor of being the last officially licensed release for the Sega Dreamcast in Japan, six years after the console’s sad demise. Coming to the home platform just a few months after its arcade birth, it points to a refinement in Milestone’s approach to design, in that gameplay is made less complicated than previous efforts Chaos Field and Radirgy. While based in elements originally presented in the latter, to the point where it’s feasible to consider it a spiritual sequel or a spin-off, Karous still uses cell-shaded graphics but eschews the abundance of color seen in Radirgy in favor of an almost monochromatic gray palette.

The word “karous” is the equivalent to “crows”. It’s also the name of the main character controlled by the player, which is nicely animated with an avian form and even a beak (easier to notice when you choose to play on a large TV or in TATE mode). How this fits into the sci-fi urban setting of the game is beyond me, given that all your foes are flying machinery with occasional large beasts that cover the screen with bullets. The several flashes of conceptual artwork that appear in between stages should hint at something about a story, but we’re not given any chance to figure out what’s going on. Other than that, a navigator lady that looks a lot like the girl from Radirgy displays a few messages in Japanese every once in a while.

I could say that one of the strongest assets of Karous is being the perfect gateway into the world of Milestone shooters, both in matters of difficulty and ease of grasp regarding gameplay. It's remarkably addictive, with no need to learn convoluted inputs as in Chaos Field or to decide between three different weapons as in Radirgy.

Feathers and steel

Configurable controls consist of shot, sword slash and DFS bomb activation. I assume DFS stands for Defense Force Shield or something similar, a bomb that looks like a skull and plays a pivotal role both for survival and scoring. Karous can also attack by shielding, and all it takes to activate the shield is ceasing to shoot/slash and waiting a very brief moment – the shield materializes and starts deflecting all bullets that hit it. While this mechanic is inherited from Radirgy, everything else in the gameplay of Karous takes a different route. Attacks are upgraded separately and are directly related to how much you use shot, sword and shield throughout the game, each with a power level that starts at 0 and tops at 100 experience points. For every 10 points weapons receive a boost in power, with the most important ones happening at 20 and 50 exp.

Each destroyed enemy or bullet generates pills that fill up the experience meters for each weapon, as well as charging the DFS blue gauge on the left of the screen. Every time a weapon is leveled up a color-coded circling animation can be noticed around the character: blue for shot, yellow for shield and green for sword. When the DFS bar is filled up it starts glowing and a smaller gray circle sinks into the character, meaning the player is ready to deploy it.

Correct and aggressive use of the DFS is the secret to everything in Karous. Leveling up faster, scoring higher, surviving bullet curtains. Leveling up faster happens because all upgrade pills get bigger when collected inside the DFS radius and all soaked bullets help to power up the shield. Scoring higher then comes naturally since all kills and bonus items are multiplied by your total power level, which consists of the sum of all weapon levels and is permanently displayed in bold red fonts on the top right corner of the screen. And naturally the more enemies you kill or bullets you deflect outside or inside the DFS the faster it recharges for subsequent use. It’s very fun to finally get the hang of it and be able to anticipate attacks while diving head on into the mayhem of DFS manipulation. This creates a very strange phenomenon, at least for me: in the pursuit for higher scores, the first half of the game ends up being harder than the second because weapons aren’t powered up enough to destroy everything without incurring in more dodging and consequently more risk. Get them all above level 50 and see how awesome and more comfortable things get. One example is the shield being capable of deflecting bullets back to their sources as damaging arches of doom.

Another important factor in the gameplay is the nature of icons and power-ups. Most of them appear in the form of a tiny blue triangle that gives you a few bonus points, which when slashed will grow bigger and even change to a completely different item. Special items can be a temporary auto shield (shield active while shooting/slashing), DFS instant recharge, extra level-up experience, partial or full extra life (rare) and a yellow triangle that turns all on-screen bullets into items (very, very rare). There’s also a specific carrier that will always release a level-up unit or a speed item, which come in random fashion but can be cycled with slashing so that you can take the desired one (blue level-up → green level-up → yellow level-up → speed-up → speed-down → blue level-up).

Intro + I only use the blue shot!
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Playing Karous leisurely is perfectly possible, but obviously a laid back approach will never result in higher scores. Upon starting a credit the player must choose between three game modes (Easy, Normal or Hard) that are progressively denser in bullet count. All bosses can be milked to some extent, but don’t take too long to kill them or they’ll time out and deny you lots of points. By the way, going out on a killing spree is the best way to level up faster because every big enemy or small enemy wave is only spawned after the current one has cleared the screen or been completely destroyed. Since every stage has a definite course, you can have more or less enemy waves at the end of a level depending on how aggressively you play. This means that the faster you move the better chances you have at scoring, therefore two or three speed-ups are absolutely necessary to cause more havoc even though it gets a little harder to micro-dodge. Score extends are granted at 50 and 200 million points across all game modes.

Initially slashing is by far the strongest attack, but once the shield reaches level 50 it also starts being utterly destructive (trust the power of the shield!). The only downside to the DFS one needs to worry about is its ability to suck every single item within its radius into Karous. Having a speed-down sucked in by accident is not only bad for maneuvering, but it also means one less upgrade point to a weapon and the total power level, so a little less points in the end. You can try to slash it out of the DFS area but it doesn’t work all the time.

By choosing Hard mode the player is entitled to fight a True Last Boss if (1) all secret Milestone icons are collected and (2) the 5th boss doesn’t time out. The Milestone logos are always located on the ground and must be unlocked with a specific weapon by targeting a secret area that glows when hit. Logos in stages 1 and 2 are unlocked with shot, stage 3 with the sword and stages 4 and 5 with shield. An interesting trait about Karous is that there are no ground targets except for the Milestone secret logos and the 3rd boss, almost as if Milestone had tried to mimic Alfa System’s approach on the Shikigami No Shiro series. There’s an overall soft nature to graphics and sounds, with a techno-inspired soundtrack that fits the game but isn’t on par with previous Milestone efforts.

Greed can be a bitch, that’s why in the end of my time with Karous I incurred in a little restartitis. I kept getting hit stupidly on the first level. The Dreamcast disc offers many tinkering options and proper TATE, the only thing that baffles me is that the save function only saves your option preferences, not high scores (memory card > data save is worthless). The game was re-released later in compilation discs for the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360, also receiving a 3D makeover for the Nintendo 3DS.

My best result on Hard mode is below, having beaten the TLB with a final power level of 238 experience points.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Twin Eagle (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Romstar
Published by Romstar in 1989

I don’t have any experience with Twin Eagle the arcade game, but I have a strong suspicion about the developer’s inspiration to come up with this title. I’m probably being mean by stating this, but could it have been an attempt to capitalize on the success of Toaplan’s Twin Cobra? Unfortunately (or not), time has segregated highlights from stinkers, which explains the huge popularity gap between the aforementioned games. Does that mean Twin Eagle is a stinker? If we’re talking about the NES version the answer is “rightfully so”, for a series of reasons ranging from its source material to poor choices on the porting job.

What’s more disappointing is that the NES game tricks you into thinking it might not be that bad once you take the first speed-up icon. That’s when that helicopter starts moving like it actually should, and while weaving through those large glowing enemy bullets you can’t help but believe you might be at the verge of enjoying a nice 8-bit shmup. But then you die and you’re back to that horribly sluggish default speed, surrounded by enemies from all sides and with no bombs to help you out. So what we have here is another case of a shooter that requires a 1-life mindset to be played. Unless you get lucky upon a respawn, that is.

Joe, I'm here!

Just like in the arcade original, Revenge Joe’s Brother (sic) is the idiotic subtitle that appears in the start screen of Twin Eagle. Smartly omitted from the game box, I believe it refers to a dreadful fate in the family history of the pilot – or pilots, considering that this one allows co-op play. However, if we as player 1 are playing the role of Joe's brother, who’s the one piloting the second helicopter as player 2?

The first stage takes place over the ocean with drab-looking waves, while jets and boats come in and out of the screen with little enthusiasm. When destroyed, some of them will drop a single item that adds one bomb to the bomb stock, which should be triggered with button A in order to wipe the screen from enemies and bullets. Button B fires your weapons, which can be changed by collecting the desired item revealed by destroying specific enemies. And here starts the problems with Twin Eagle: in the biggest departure from the arcade gameplay, all items on the NES port are in the same container, one that must be shot at for them to cycle. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it weren’t for the fact that it takes just a single shot for the cycling to happen. Since there is no autofire and I used a turbo controller to have it, selecting items in this game often becomes the same as dealing with a slot machine.

Item nature and cycling order is as follows: speed-up (big S) → power-up (P) → straight shot (little S, default) → 3-way spread shot (W) → missile → 2-way shot → speed-up. The most important item to get is the speed-up, and then power-ups to enhance firepower (maxes out with three Ps or weapon items of the same type). All weapons can get you through the game, but the ones I favor are the missiles and the default gun. Missiles are the best because they melt everything easily, and even though the spread gun offers good side reach it just lacks power. Don’t bother getting 2-way because it’s impossible to be harmed by enemies, so don’t fret (too much) with jets coming from behind. The problem with dealing with weapons is that it’s very easy to take the wrong item in the heat of the battle, which then brings us to the second problem regarding item collecting: that damn icon has the annoying ability of blocking the chopper’s firepower, a hindrance that can be more troublesome than any enemy in certain situations. That’s often when I bomb, just to clear the screen and be able to move around.

As for bombs, there are lots of them in the first stage. So much that it’s easy to come out of it with more than 10 bombs. However, as I mentioned above the problem with bombs is that when you die the stock goes to zero. Twin Eagle isn’t necessarily a hard game, but you need to keep your eyes open and put them bombs to good use. There are no extra lives or extends whatsoever.

"Where's that damn Revenge Joe? I'm coming for you, you bastard!"
(courtesy of YouTube user Ryozo Ito)

So much for gameplay, but what of aesthetic design? Graphics are poor but get the job done, movement is fluid, bullets are very visible and slowdown kicks in only in the final stretch of the game. Too bad the enemy gallery is so poor and repetitive, just like the music that plays over and over from beginning to end. Of particular note is the absence of bosses, which in Twin Eagle are replaced by brief speedy sections that start when you see the word WARNING pop up on the screen. Jets, turrets, boats, a few sparse helicopters and little green men comprise the whole of the resistance as you’re taken through oceans, rocky mountains, forests and city bases. What deviates a little from the expected cliché is that every now and then you’ll destroy ground targets that hide hostages. Take them because you’re a fighter for peace, not because they’re worth something at the end-of-stage summary.

Yes, Twin Eagle is weird, beginning with its subtitle. It starts boring, picks up in the middle and then goes back to being boring. Don’t take too long to check your score when the final stage is over, because unlike in previous stages (where you have to press START to move on) the summary screen will be there just for a moment before the ending text starts scrolling up. Also don’t expect to see any mention to Joe or Revenge Joe.

Note: the game has an arcade-exclusive sequel named Twin Eagle II - The Rescue Mission.