Saturday, October 31, 2015

Gradius II (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

Returning my attention back to Gradius II after being exposed to Gradius III has a few clear advantages, such as putting its difficulty into the correct perspective within the series. It felt much easier this time around when compared to the occasion I played Gradius II on the Sega Saturn. Sure, by then I had approached the game in completely dire conditions – or, to put it in other words, in truly arcade-like fashion (bar the arcade cabinet, of course). It was just me and the game, no MAME save states, checkpoints in final levels learned the hard way. The good news is that I learned a lot from doing it, something that helped me cope with the higher stakes of the sequels.

Savoring the second chapter again on the Playstation felt like going home. The Gradius Deluxe Pack on Sony’s 32-bit console is exactly the same as the homonymous compilation released for the Sega Saturn, presenting both Gradius and Gradius II in a neat package that brings the arcade experience home. Going from the first game directly into the sequel is enough for anyone to understand the remarkable leap in terms of quality that Konami was able to come up with, and that’s another reason why this particular disc is so precious for those willing to have a piece of arcade shooting history in their collections.

An outcast from Salamander

Stepping into the world of Gradius II should be easy if you enjoyed the first game in the series. By doing so you’ll be immersed in an adventure that takes what made Gradius so classy and beefs it up with several upgrades, from graphics to sound, from weapons to difficulty. Backgrounds are much more than star-filled horizons, with an increased weapon variety that smartly incorporates what was done on the spin-off Salamander series. It’s here that some Gradius staples appear for the first time, such as the high speed stage, the boss rush (with several bosses from Salamander) and the indestructible mechanical beast in the last stage.

Never mind the checkpoints. Don’t even get angry at the checkpoints. Accept their inevitability as part of the experience and watch as the anger factor fades accordingly. Knowing that with each death you’re forced to restart a section with a crawling spaceship can be cruel, but it’s also a great motivator for you to refine your strategy to the standards required by the game. Managing power-up capsules and the upgrade process goes hand in hand with terrain navigation and macro dodging. I prefer to have only two buttons configured, one with rapid fire for both shot and missiles and another for power-up activation (× and R1, respectively), but it’s also possible to have separate buttons without any autofire function.

Each power-up capsule taken lights up one slot in the weapon array. Select the desired upgrade by pushing the upgrade button. Behold as the Vic Viper abandons its sluggish navigating capability with the speed-up upgrade, acquires an excellent destruction aid with missiles and increases its firepower with the glowing orbs known as options. Get lasers or ripple lasers and double (45º) or tailgun shot upgrades. And increase the hull’s endurance with the shield (frontal protection against a good number of hits) or the force field (capable of withstanding damage from three bullets). Players must choose between four weapon configurations and select one of the shielding alternatives.

All bosses from Gradius II
(courtesy of YouTube user Galaxia Shadow)

What changed from my previous experience with Gradius II on the Saturn and this round on the Playstation? As a starting point, I adopted two speed-ups instead of only one. Being faster demanded more precise maneuvering, but I now think it’s better in the long run. I went with ship type 3 for the ripple lasers, not exactly because they’re stronger or anything but because they’re different. And this time around I also caved in and used MAME to save-state the high speed level and the last stage, which made practicing a lot less stressful. Compared to the first chapter, it's visibly harder to recover from death in Gradius II, especially on the third (crystals) and the last (fortress) levels. The extend routine is 20.000 points for the first one, with all further extra lives gained at every 150.000 points.

The tweaks that matter here are button mapping (mentioned above) and the ability to turn off the emulated arcade slowdown (set wait control to OFF). Choosing between Arcade and Full screen ratio feels pointless since it's just a matter of minor image cramping on the sides of the screen. High score saving is available, but the port would shine even more if it had an option to start directly on the second loop (if you managed to complete the game, at least).

As far as arcade chapters are concerned, I know people who think this entry is the best in the series. I can surely relate to that since Gradius II still stands as a fun blaster despite the checkpoints. I was able to reach stage 2-1 in the highest score below, playing with ship type 3, force field and wait control OFF.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pixelosity (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by GLHF Games
Published by GLHF Games in 2011

Time for another quickie!

As usual, Pixelosity came out in 2011 amidst a glut of new indie games that poured into the online system of the Xbox 360. A horizontal shooter of simplistic design, it didn’t pretend to offer anything more than a take on what a blocky Atari 2600 shmup would look like had it been given more memory and processing horsepower. The in-your-face mechanics and the wave-after-wave scheme brings it close to a caravan styled shooter, one that entices and captivates but ultimately ends in a lower tone, failing to live up to its sympathetic concept.

Everything in the game is big, represented in strong, flat colors that change every now and then. Your ship is a single pointy vessel that leaves behind a short rainbow trail and fires a single stream of blocky bullets against equally blocky enemy ships. At first these enemies are shy at shooting back at you, an aspect of the gameplay that gets progressively reversed as you reach the final objective of this abstract romp, which is beating wave/stage number 7. Collisions distribute showers of blocky sparks all around the screen, creating a visual feast that tends to get straining on the eyes after a while. Pixelosity is definitely an apt title.

It looks much better when it's moving

There’s not much in the way of tweaks in the game, much like most of the XBLIG offerings. Choose your approach to music, sound effects and controller vibration and off you go (by approach I mean ON and OFF). Shoot with button A and travel inside an endless horizontal tunnel blasting opponents that come in straight lines and have little in the way of variation, be it in the enemy gallery or in their limited attack range. You won’t see walls, aleatory movement patterns, fancy graphic effects, aggressive spread patterns or even proper bosses. What little there is of change is in the randomness of enemy spawning position and formations (in-line, lateral, mixed) and in the sparse appearance of spinning drones or larger/stronger versions of regular zakos. These often resemble aliens from Space Invaders.

Items are dropped at random by some enemies or waves and have the following meanings:
  • (x) Double bullets? Double fun!: a temporary upgrade that adds two extra streams of bullets that give a slight spread nature to the default weapon;
  • (=) Bullet overdrive!: temporary upgrade for increased rate of fire;
  • (○) Somebody set up us the bomb: a bomb that wipes all on-screen enemies (no bullets) when you press the × button; if you take a different item you’ll lose it, so bomb away if you’re about to do so.
All items are mutually exclusive, so you can’t have a spread gun with increased firing rate or keep a bomb while having the spread gun. Note that the current active item is shown beside the life counter, and that the only one that doesn’t fade is the bomb since it can be used any time at the player’s mercy. Whenever a certain amount of enemies in a stage is destroyed you enter a brief bonus area with opponents that don’t shoot, and if you kill them all an extra life is awarded (max life count is 5 though). Pulling this off during the first couple of levels is easy, after that it becomes a lot more difficult due to the lack of firepower. This is also where the game balance starts to suffer.

The fun in Pixelosity is at its best when you’re dodging series of bullets at different heights, regardless of their speed. There’s genuine rush to the twitchy action, never mind the enemies that go by because you can’t handle them all. Unfortunately, halfway into the game it becomes clear that lines and lines of aggressive zakos shooting almost non-stop cannot be fully destroyed without incurring in inadmissible frontal risk. Later on the game speeds down a little with slower bullets but much higher enemy density, giving you a near-danmaku feeling. And then it’s back to the underpowered fight before the end, which cuts the game abruptly as if you had a game over. One of the most unsatisfying ways I’ve ever seen of finishing a credit, honestly.

Having some quick fun with Pixelosity
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Valeri Tagala)

In between the slow start, the cool middle stuffing and the brisk ending lies a simple but effective scoring system: the more you kill the higher you score; die and watch the combo counter and the scoring possibilities restart from zero. It’s easy to notice how to extract the most out of this system, even if luck plays a little role in the overall experience. During the game’s second half, for example, bombs disappear completely. So much for the Zero Wing reference, I guess. Sometimes a little balloon with an X appears above the ship, and while it seems to have a relation to the bomb item it actually doesn’t. Dying happens with little flair, with the same animation used in regular pixelly explosions and no breathing room at all in the next life. The result can be several deaths in a row if you’re not focused enough.

The game crashed on me a few times and sent me back to the console’s dashboard, but thankfully these bugs only happened at the end of a credit with scores being duly preserved. If you watch the separate credits you’ll see the developer recommends using the Konami code in the game - the only thing it does is change the sprite of the ship to that of a cat. A blocky cat. Ever wanted to play a shmup as a cat leaving behind a rainbow trail? Then Pixelosity is for you.

My highest score below was achieved in a no-miss run.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Winds of Thunder (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft / RED
Published by Hudson Soft in 1993

In Japan, the name of the game is Winds of Thunder. All other releases for different regions or consoles, including the Turbografx-CD in the West, came out as Lords of Thunder, which makes more sense in regards to the story involving a knight equipped with a magic sword and fighting hordes of hell commanded by fiendish leaders – or lords, if we want to have them in a classier fantasy designation. Almost like an RPG turned into a shooter, what we have here is an amusing adventure packed with tight action and great music, a roaring testimony to the quality of CD based games from the 16-bit generation.

Despite being frequently associated with Gate of Thunder, there is no relation whatsoever between that game and this one. In fact they couldn’t be more different, since one is a classic sci-fi spaceship shooter and the other a fireworks display of medieval flying action. They do share the same development team, but that’s about it as far as similarities go. Winds of Thunder is also more original and must have felt completely fresh back in 1993, unlike Gate of Thunder and its striking resemblance to Thunder Force III. A lengthy animated intro and a few cut scenes complete the package, adding greatly to the fantasy theme of Winds of Thunder.

Animated intro and attract mode in Winds of Thunder
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Kylemeister13)

For each of the selectable continents/stages the player must choose one out of four magical armors. Each armor comes with a different color and endows the brave knight with a specific weapon whose power and effectiveness varies: fire (spread shot → whipping flames), water (straight shot → two-way shot), wind (bolt shot → forward/diagonal bolts) and earth (thin shot with two-way exploding bombs). Contrary to popular belief, stages and weapons are not related in any way when you think about the elemental names of the armors, as in "selecting the fire armor to play the water or ice levels". In the end it’s all just a matter of choosing the weapons you feel more comfortable with. Button II shoots while button I triggers a bomb attack that changes according to the selected armor.

As you destroy enemies, several types of crystals will emerge and vanish after a while if you don’t pick them up. Blue and gold crystals add to the crystal count (5 and 10 points, respectively) that can be used to buy items and upgrades in the shop after selecting the armor. Magic gems add to the upgrade gauge above the life meter, thus determining the power of the weapon: those of the blue type add a single upgrade point, whereas the more rare red type provides a bulkier upgrade. In total there are two power levels beyond the default, each one requiring a certain amount of upgrade points to be reached. Finally, every once in a while a specific enemy will leave behind a heart that increases the amount of health. By all means try to keep this health bar in good shape, because once it depletes the game is sadly over.

Whenever you stand close enough to an enemy the regular shot will be replaced by a sword blow of short reach. This special melee attack is relatively strong, but beware of using it in crowded places (lost firepower from shooting) or against moving enemies (it’s easy to get hit). By getting hit you lose a portion of health, and most of the time this will also be followed by a downgrade of a full level in the weapon power. This means that in certain areas getting hit twice or three times in a row can be disastrous, since you’ll be left with low life and a weak, basic weapon. In order to prevent such situations the only real remedy is practice, but spending crystals in the shop can also help with that. It’s possible to buy varying amounts of health, extra firepower, bombs, shields and a precious resurrection potion that grants you a full life meter after you lose the initial one. These last three items, as well as continues (no need if you’re aiming for the 1CC), are the only ones that cannot be found in any way during the actual gameplay.

When you think about horizontal shooters it’s easy to realize that Winds of Thunder packs all the elements that make a shmupper’s heart tick in the right way. Colorful graphics, a rocking soundtrack full of guitar and bass, decent animation (the knight can even “walk” on flat surfaces), all sorts of environmental hazards, varying scrolling speeds, reasonable survival/challenge ratio, large bosses. Some of these bosses are quite demanding by the way, with tricky weak spots and the need for a good amount of dodging. The Auzal boss, for instance, will crush unaware players who’re not too fond of moving around. Exploding totems and moving spikes can be deadly as you reach the final stretch of the game, while a poorly selected armor might represent the difference between a relatively comfortable challenge and extremely dire conditions.

The lord of the Bosque continent

In the batch of influences that can be noticed here I definitely see hints of Rabio Lepus (close-range sword attack), Insector X (earth weapon, down to the sound effects) and Forgotten Worlds (boss entries, the shop gimmick and some of its items). Another aspect inherited from the latter is the conversion of leftover crystals in points as you beat the last boss. The amount collected will be multiplied by ×100, so the maximum possible bonus you can get is one million points for 10.000 crystals. Unfortunately the crystal counter is capped at this value, when in fact you could collect much more than that. Therefore there’s plenty of room to buy stuff in the shop without sacrificing this final bonus.

Besides the reward from crystals, another source of extra points is the collection of upgrade items (magic gems) when the power bar is completely full. Each one is worth 500 points, a neat compensation and nice motivator for flawless play. Quite simple and fun, something lots of shooters seem to take for granted.

Winds of Thunder is often compared to the port released for the Sega CD two years later. I’ll refrain from drawing any conclusions until I try the Sega CD version, which I expect to do soon. In the PC Engine CD my choice of armor was the earth type, for its sheer power and great side coverage (after a few credits I decided to use it exclusively). You can try to pause as soon as the final boss goes down to take a look at the score, but if you lose the aftermath explosion don't worry. Just let the end credits scroll and wait for the attract mode to check your high score. Below is my final 1CC result:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dragon Spirit (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1997

Ever since Namco released Dragon Spirit in the arcades back in 1987, several adaptations had been made for the most diverse platforms. However, the first version to have real potential to provide the arcade experience at home is the one included in the Namco Museum Vol. 5 compilation, which graced the Playstation library ten years later (I wonder why Namco gave absolutely no love to the Sega Saturn like Capcom did with their Capcom Generation series, but alas). On its own this port is a very good one, but the fact that it offers a TATE option is reason alone to make it the preferred version for players who are able to turn their TVs/monitors on their sides. As far as I know none of the most recent compilations released for newer platforms has TATE.

In order to play the game all you need to use are two buttons, used in the same manner as in the classic Xevious. The first button makes the dragon spit fire bullets/streams, the second one makes him drop blue goo on the ground. This second attack takes effect at a predetermined distance and is used to destroy ground enemies and targets. Striking a balance between the two types of attacks is essential if you want to succeed at the mission of rescuing a beautiful girl from the evil final boss after being turned into a dragon by a magic sword.

A little note before moving on: this port of Dragon Spirit comes with the OLD and the NEW variations of the game. The OLD version has slightly different stage layouts and doesn't allow stage selection, but the reason why it's largely ignored by the gaming community is the slower speed of the dragon (easier to notice when you move downwards). Once again I played the NEW version, having already cleared it on the Playstation 2 a few years ago on the Namco Museum 50th Anniversary.

Opening movie of the Namco Museum Vol. 5 compilation
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer RB Video Library)

Ancient and mythological creatures like dinosaurs, griffons, firebirds, phoenixes and mammoths are just part of what lies ahead of you across nive levels of increasing difficulty. Animation is basic but gets the job done, and the music is pure bliss for those who enjoy fantasy themes. The item collection that provides upgrades to the dragon's firepower is considerably vast, and knowing how each item works often plays a strong role between life and death. It's not always a good idea, for instance, to max out your firepower, since the dragon's nose aquires a very deceiving dead zone despite the extreme power of flame weapon. That can be deadly against speedier enemies (marsh stage) and close-range attacks (inside the castle).

Whenever ground eggs or blinking enemies are hit an orb will float out of them. 90% of the time they will wander inside the screen for you to take, the 10% remaining will randomly fly away. Orange orbs add points to the firepower gauge, and three of them upgrade the main shot into more powerful forms (first fireballs and then the almighty flame). Each blue orb grows an extra head on the dragon, but note that with three heads (max) your hitbox also increases, thus making it harder to move around. All other types of items are less frequent but not less important, such as: shrink (single-headed tiny dragon), spread shot (white dragon), temporary homing/exploding shot (gold dragon), full flame power (green dragon), earthquake (all ground targets are destroyed as they enter the screen), temporary invincibility, diamonds (1.000 points), gold (10.000 points), improved eyesight (in stage 8 only), dragon egg (collect 3 to win an extra life) and complete power down (black orb).

Each life in Dragon Spirit allows the player to get hit once before dying from the next enemy blow. Don't expect to recover any lost "health", it's impossible. Every time you get hit without dying you lose one power level and one head (if you happen to have at least two heads, that is), however deaths do not deplete your reserve in the firepower gauge or the collected dragon eggs. Considering that the scoring system is pretty basic, prone to randomness and only exploitable if you decide to die in particularly long and tricky checkpoints (ice level, second part of the castle), survival often takes a larger role in the long run. Many players refrain from using three-headed dragons, or even completely upgrading the main weapon.

Other important gameplay aspects for survival involve the permanent effects of some items, such as the spread shot. It completely overrides the regular weapon, and the only way to revert it back to normal is by taking the exploding/homing shot (once it ends the dragon gets back to normal), the full flame orb or the black item (sends you back to the default dragon). By the way, the closer you get to the final stage the more you notice the black item isn't as bad as it seems, plus it's hard to evade from it inside the busier parts of the castle. Remember that there are two score-based extends, granted with 100.000 and 200.000 points.

Configuring controller inputs

Instead of focusing on pure or heavy dodging, Dragon Spirit definitely requires more effort on memorization and careful placement. It alternates between wide open environments and purely claustrophobic sections where tiny dragons rule (get a blue orb to "grow" back to the normal size). Diversity is the norm in the game, with all stages boasting very specific designs and unique enemies with little repetition throughout.

The Namco Museum Vol. 5 disc opens with a cheesy animated intro that reflects everything about the feeble infatuation for 3D that plagued the 32-bit generation. The museum option that brings lots of information about the games in the collection is a chore to navigate, but thankfully the options for the games themselves offer no complication at all: just press Δ at the start screen. Regarding Dragon Spirit, besides setting up TATE (clockwise only, which is rather unusual) you can also adjust screen position, select between OLD or NEW version, mess with the original arcade DIP-switches and turn off continues/pause/sound for the attract mode. Without pausing you won't be able to reset the game though (while paused, press Δ to call the reset function). Exiting the game is required if you want to save high scores and settings.

The only thing that's missing in this port of Dragon Spirit is an autofire option, so I recommend getting a turbo controller if you don't want to suffer severe wrist damage. I used one, and below is my final 1CC score (NEW version, Normal difficulty). I guess now I'm ready to try the sequel Dragon Saber, which has an equally nice port on the Playstation included in the Namco Museum Encore disc.