Saturday, November 21, 2015

Pulstar (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Aicom
Published by Aicom in 1995

And here we come to the behemoth checkpoint-based outer space adventure Pulstar, directly inspired by the golden pillars set by Irem, the company that defined a whole branch of the shooting genre in its R-Type series. Some people consider it a rip-off, others hail it as a homage. I tend to agree with the compliment since Pulstar is different enough to stand on its own even though you can spot many design similarities with both R-Type and R-Type II. The strongest asset that warrants the comparison is the presence of an invincible force pod that protects the ship. This pod, however, is not detachable like in other shooters built upon the same mold, such as Xexex or Ironclad.

Regardless of origins or influences, Pulstar comes off as one of the possible natural developments of Irem’s prime formula. Prerendered graphics intertwine with exquisite pixel art to deliver longer levels and provide an experience that borders the epic. I’m also very fond of the music, which opens with breezy, uplifting themes and evolves to ethereally ominous, truly dark pieces by the time you reach the last stages. I’d also say Pulstar is one of the most beautiful shooters of its generation, if only for the eye candy and the impressive scope of its design. But hey, it’s not without faults, and that’s the reason why it doesn’t top the finesse of its forefather.

Front line on the Earth

A lovely animated intro shows the heroine of the game departing for battle. As the most basic input, button A is used to fire. Firing can be accomplished by either tapping or charging, both actions gauged by the cannon meter positioned at the bottom of the screen. Hold down the button until the meter is full to the right and release it to fire a powerful blast (partial charges are possible at the expense of power). Likewise, the quicker you tap the button the more you fill up the left side of the power meter, a feature that adds almost nothing of real use to the gameplay (keep reading). Little robots act as carriers for power-up items, which come labeled in roman letters and greatly affect gameplay.

Essentially, taking any of the five available weapon types creates the pod at the nose of the ship. The first pod is small and offers little protection, but as soon as the second power-up is taken it grows to its normal size. Weapons types consist of N (wave shot), P (bouncing lasers), T (trailing homing lasers), R (straight laser) and F (electrical shield, damages by contact but doesn’t stop bullets). The only weapon that emphasizes tapping instead of charge shots is F, since the purple electrical shield is only generated and held at its nominal radius if you keep the tapping gauge full (charge shots still work but without any extra firepower). Now this is where Pulstar starts to lose some of its shiny glow: due to how the developer has shaded the weapon items it’s impossible to differentiate an F from a P. For a long time I wondered why some Ps gave me lasers and others gave me the purple shield. Thankfully there are only a few Fs throughout the game so it’s easy to avoid them if you want.

Remaining items consist of S (speed-up), C (charge speeder) and I ("bits" that hover above and below the ship and grant a little extra directional firepower). Cs are extremely important to kill bosses and tricky enemies faster. Bits are free-aiming by default, but to lock them in place all you have to do is press button B. However, beware not to do this while you're pressing A because A + B sacrifices the force pod in a panic attack whose effect depends on the weapon you're using. This works as a last resort on the face of imminent death since you'll be invincible as the pod detaches and explodes in front of the ship. I find this feature particularly useless, and the only times I did it were either when I was learning the game or when I pressed the button by accident.

The good news about the S pick-up is that the maximum speed is perfectly manageable – I’d even say necessary – so you don’t need to avoid any S while playing. Additionally, the hovering bits of Pulstar are also capable of blocking regular bullets, unlike in R-Type! As you can see, a ship equipped with a force pod and two bits has its frontal hull very well protected. Handling this protection is crucial for survival in the second half of the game, regardless of the weapon you decide to use. Speaking of items, score chasers must be aware that every single one is worth a few points. Note that simple score techniques such as checkpoint exploitation must be done very carefully because the stage bonus of 50.000 points is reduced the more you die in a level. Die once and get 30.000 points, die twice or more and get only 10.000 points. The only stage where checkpoint abuse might be a good idea is the last one, but be warned that all recoveries at that point in the game are extremely tough.

Pulstar intro and attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user adventkamen)

While fairly amusing from start to finish, Pulstar has a few quirks that only become apparent when you spend more time with the game. Slowdown, for example, is a constant companion that has its pros and cons. It definitely helps during busy sections that demand heavy crowd control, but on the other hand it factors into the numbness that takes over the first half of the game. No matter how awesome the opening to the 3rd stage is – with flaming arches crossing the screen while lovely backgrounds scroll by and enemies approach from both sides – the battle against the huge organic battleship almost brings the game to a halt. Half the 4th stage being the destruction of another large spaceship doesn’t help either, which in the long run hurts the flow of the game to the point where it will take a greater deal of shmupping love to persevere into the following trickier levels.

In between the several throwbacks to R-Type in stages 5 and 6 (robot showers, dismantling snakes, blocky creatures travelling within a tight maze) and the memorization nightmare of the last stage, the developer has also included minor homages to Gradius (the indestructible spider) and Darius (the giant moon surfaces of stage 7). I absolutely love it when the screen shakes as if the very fabric of reality is being torn by the destruction brought about by the player, like in the demise of the spaceship in stage 4 or the waterfall passage in stage 5. As a side curiosity, the abundance of phallic imagery in Pulstar is remarkably explicit. The tip of the organic battleship, the weak spot of the 7th boss and the series of pink cocks trying to crush you in the last stage easily top anything included in other seriously themed shooters like R-Type II and Wings of Wor.

On the default difficulty (4) the extend routine is 300.000 points for the first extra life, then successive extends at every 200.000 points. Milking key enemies and bosses is possible, but this doesn’t really add much in the final score. There are mysterious techniques to get more points on the last boss, but I haven’t bothered with those because they involve suiciding.

My 1CC score is below, playing on difficulty 4. Note: developer Aicom morphed with a branch of SNK into Yumekobo, the company that made Blazing Star years later. If only on aesthetics, Blazing Star is considered by many as the spiritual successor to Pulstar.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Fantasy Zone (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega in 1986
Published by Sega in 1997

It must have been great to be a fan of Sega back in the 80s if you were a regular arcadegoer. There were many companies working their way up in the development of their games and series regardless of inherent success or critics approval, but Sega was truly unique in how they were able to innovate and create completely fresh titles. Titles inspired by previous efforts, it's true, but nonetheless the most famous Sega arcade games were an instant invitation to awesomeness. Fantasy Zone, for example, wasn't like anything that came before it. The core of the gameplay relates to Defender, but it goes beyond the horizontal shooter formula and delivers a completely unexpected blast of pure fun.

Today it's easy to dismiss Fantasy Zone as a foolish or childish little title without much of an emphasis on shooting or action. Most of the designs for enemies and levels comes off as fluffly, soft, not worthy of one's attention when there are so many shooters out there that fill the screen with thick lasers and insurmountable bullet curtains. All it takes, however, is one credit. One single credit, and the odds are that you'll be hooked right there and then. This game sucks you into it like quicksand, and for a while all you might think about is destroying all those generators and beating those colorful bosses while collecting shiny gold coins.

"Don't mess with me or I'll drop a 16t on your head!"

An oval ship called Opa-Opa is the hero of the game. He fires a main shot and drops ground bombs. The main objective in each level is to take down all generators that spawn enemies, facing the stage boss right afterwards. It's possible to fly right/left and to control the scrolling speed by doing it (you can even stop the scrolling by "landing"). Since these levels work as vertical cylinders, you'll eventually come back to the starting point if you keep flying in the same direction. A small map in the lower part of the screen shows the locations of the ten generators in a level and which ones have already been destroyed. When the last generator goes down remaining enemies try to flee and the music changes to announce the boss entry. This is the only moment (boss fights 1 to 7) where Opa-Opa will be locked facing the right side of the screen.

The first thing you want to do as soon as the Shop red balloon appears is touch it and buy the necessary upgrades to survive. In order to buy you need money, which comes from the coins you collect from defeated enemies. Mandatory items to get include one of the speed-up upgrades and twin missiles. These particular items are permanent and only disappear when you die, while most of the others last only for 20 seconds, as indicated by the status bar on the top right of the screen. Part of the learning fun comes from testing these upgrades and deciding when it's better to use the temporary ones. However, one can always try to play the game without them or without ever entering the shop, a special challenge certainly not designed for the weak. And if you're stuffed with items you might get a Sel balloon instead of the shop, an alternative that allows you only to select between your inventory of items.

Attention to detail is one of the reasons I like Fantasy Zone so much. Each enemy has its particular behavior, which is also heavily randomized by the game itself and your movement as you seek those evil generators. Besides, each generator has its own damage indicator and its own particular way of "breeding". All bosses have specific behaviors and ways of attack, in one of the most diverse and fun boss galleries I've ever seen in any horizontal shmup. The last stage is different in that you need to defeat all previous bosses again before facing a giant version of yourself, but note that boss rematches are harder and your firepower isn't locked to the right anymore.

Fantasy Zone's unforgettable soundtrack is tailor-made to match the pastel colors, helping to breathe  an extraordinary amount of lighthearted ambience into the game design. Be aware though that behind this fluffiness lies a rather intricate challenge. Looking back when I first tried the game, I was briefly shocked upon dying my first death. The death animation of this game is cruel: there's a split-second freeze and Opa-Opa explodes in a burst of blue particles (other games do this quick-freeze as well, e.g. Under Defeat). As usual, avoiding death requires practice, but given the random nature of the game I'd say it also requires a greater deal of focus. More often than not I saw great credits go down the drain because I got sloppy. Dying against certain bosses can be really bad, since that's the only point in a stage where the Shop will not appear at all. Shops appear every time you die during the level, so that you can at least recover your speed right away...

  Colors galore!
(courtesy of YouTube user Kenbotan)

It's possible to buy extra lives in the shop, but each further one will cost more (5K, 20K, 50K, 100K). By the way, all items and weapons inflate in price the more you purchase them. Using the money to survive and recover from losses is perfectly fine, but it isn't good at all if you're trying to play for high scores. These are only applicable if you complete the game because everything you have in reserve is converted into a BIG bonus. Each life is worth one million points, while the amount of gold gets multiplied by 10. Therefore the more you spend and the more you die the less you get as a reward in the end.

What I found kinda puzzling is that the game lets you input your initials for a high score before the second loop starts, registering another score when you die in the second loop. Another tricky aspect of the loop is that since your lives and money are converted into bonuses you'll start the second round with no lives in reserve.

The Saturn port of Fantasy Zone released as part of the Sega Ages collection is arcade-perfect. It was the first one to offer the arcade experience at home, but the version for the Playstation 2 is also a good alternative. The Saturn game allows lots of tweaks, most of them unlocked with a few simple tricks. The only one that mattered for me is rapid fire, and to unlock it all you have to do is play a token credit while holding down the fire button: the result is that you can then choose between ten options for "auto rapid". The player can also record, load and save replays to a back-up cartridge with the Trace function, along with a few rearranged versions of the soundtrack including a variation with female vocals for the song of the first stage (unfortunately the rearranged music can't be selected for regular runs). It's also possible to choose betwen Japan or US versions of the game - the difference is that the US version has less enemies and is therefore easier. Each version comes with its own high score boards, which are properly saved for great justice.

My gameplay strategy was very aggressive. Initial power-ups I purchased were the jet engine ($1.000) and the twin bombs ($100). Then I would get the laser beam in stage 3 (much stronger than the wide beam), another laser beam in stage 5, wide shots in stages 6 and 7 (best temporary weapon in the game), one of those lovely 16t heavy bombs to care care of all turrets from KobaBeach (3rd boss) in the boss rush and wide shot again against Ida 2 (7th boss) if I end up dying. For the final boss I'd reserve at least two 16t heavy bombs. In the highest score below I played the Japan version on Normal/Medium, ending the credit in stage 2-3 (round 11) with auto rapid set to 10 shots/second.