Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sonic Wings 3 (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Video System in 1994

There’s one single truth about many long-running shmup franchises: despite all the efforts and sacrifices of brave pilots from all around the world (or galaxy), evil will never really subside. At least this was the rule back when shooters were real and profitable for developers. No matter how successful we were at defeating those hideous monsters there was always an ominous villain lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike again in the inevitable next chapter. Sonic Wings 3 is no exception to the rule, since it follows its predecessor Sonic Wings 2 with that same vibe and a backstory that, well… doesn’t really matter in the end.

Who cares about story anyway? Let them alien baddies come!

What matters is that, for those who thought the second game was too hard for its own good, Sonic Wings 3 – or Aero Fighters 3 in its Western incarnation – is far less punishing and a tad more approachable than Sonic Wings 2. I say that based on how much I had to suffer to loop part 2, whereas part 3 caved in after only two sessions of relatively relaxed play. Blame it on the more easygoing pace, the reduced aggressiveness, the slower bullets and the new assortment of planes and pilots. If you’re a fan of Spanky don’t worry, he’s back with all his lovely dolphiness to cheer you along the way. Unfortunately Baby Bobby must’ve had to go to school or something, since he’s not to be seen anywhere in Sonic Wings 3.

Dat dolphin!

There are ten pilots distributed across five countries (USA, Japan, Russia, Germany and UK), with some new faces joining well-known characters like the stern ninja Hien, everybody's favorite viking Kohful and Rafael's darling dolphin pilot Spanky. They all use two buttons only (fire and bomb), but this time the differences between them are even more pronounced and polarizing, to the point where it practically breaks the game depending on your adopted approach.

The greatest departure from the old formula is a branching feature that allows players to choose the next stage (or stages) in certain levels. Once some bosses are defeated a harmless helicopter-like enemy will materialize: the choice of level depends on which wing of this helicopter you destroy first. Different paths lead to distinct bosses and might result in easier or harder campaigns of eight stages in each loop. By the way, don't expect levels to be exactly the same in the second loop. Not only enemies become more aggressive and start shooting different bullet patterns, but bosses can be completely replaced and bonus levels totally disfigured when compared with what you see in the first loop.

For each choice of pilot the player receives a very particular type of shot as well as bomb. Pick up P items to power up shot, and B items to increase bomb stock. Three Ps will max out firepower, but after a while the plane will revert back to the power it had with only two Ps; then you need to take another P to max out power again. Ps taken before this power-down time window expires (which actually depends on how much you shoot) are converted into 2.000 points each. The only pilots/planes that differ from the norm are Spanky (Russia) and Malcolm (Germany), which have special charge shots activated just by holding and releasing the fire button. Regardless of the ship you choose, chances are you'll need to rethink most of your strategies once you change characters because they all behave differently in firepower, bomb effectivess and power-down times.

I'm playing a credit of Sonic Wings 3 (recorded form a cell phone, hence the hiccups)
Turn English subtitles ON for great justice

For a game that's so old-school in nature, Sonic Wings 3 does incur in serious faults with regards to scoring. The medal/money collecting scheme is back and preserves the idea that the closest to the top of the screen you collect a money icon the highest value it will have. Anything below that will decrease the value down from the maximum of 10.000 points to only 200 points if the medal is taken in the lower half of the screen. However, unbalance raises its ugly head as soon as you reach the first boss, since the money fountains on both bunkers besides the capitol can deliver varying amounts of medals. It's unnerving to get less than 200.000 points prior to the boss fight, when you know sometimes it should give you more than 300.000 points. 300.000 points, by the way, is where you earn your only extra life in the whole game.

Scoring quirks however run deeper than that. With the branching system it's natural to expect some levels to give you more points than others, even though they're not as fun to play depending on the selected character. On top of that, with regular final bosses being replaced for stupid variations all of a sudden your score might be severely compromised (note the homage to Darius if you get to fight the mahjong doll). The greater variety of bonus levels can also lead to areas with a relatively low amount of medals or power-ups. This opens up another can of worms for scoring, especially if you consider Mao Mao and her time-freezing bomb in the bonus level of the two large planes (3rd stage if you take the right route after first boss). Considering that her ship is a weak piece of junk, this scoring advantage does require players to have a lot more skill if they decide to use her and exploit that particular milking technique. And no matter how much I don't like to admit, indeed she is the best choice for score-chasers.

When I started playing the game I was appalled by the music, which I found to be completely atrocious except for the song in the first level. After a while it started sinking in, and now I believe it fits the action quite well. Character interactions remain very humorous throughout the game, and different endings await players who are brave enough to face the game in co-op mode.

My best high score on Sonic Wings 3 is below, playing with the Blazers plane on the MVS difficulty and using a turbo controller for proper autofire (tapping is okay though since firing is achieved in very short bursts). In this run I reached stage 2-4.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Strikers 1945 (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1996

The Messerschmitt Bf-109 is a German World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid-1930s. “Bf” stands for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, a code issued by the German ministry of aviation to represent the company that originally gave birth to it. Powered by a liquid-cooled inverted-V12 aero engine, it was one of the first truly modern fighters of the era since it included such features as all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy and retractable landing gear (source: wikipedia).

Despite its extensive use by the German Luftwaffe prior to and during the Second World War, a more obscure part of the Bf-109 history lies in its participation as one of the six allied planes that took over the mission to fight an alien menace that threatened to destroy the Earth, soon after the war ended. However, you won’t find anything about this hidden piece of military history in libraries or encyclopedias. In order to know about it and actually experience the excitement of shooting down evil alien scum you need to play Strikers 1945.

As all shmup fans know (or should know), this sprite-based war document was unveiled by Japanese company Psikyo across several different gaming platforms in 1995/96. The reason why I’m focusing on the Bf-109, which is actually the only German plane in the game, is that I decided to pilot it while savoring the Playstation version (I had previously used the British Supermarine Spitfire when I tried the Saturn port).

Clearing the first loop with the Shinden
(courtesy of YouTube user あかねちゃん)

A drastic change in artillery is of course expected when a sci-fi theme is added to a military-based shooter. Therefore, all six planes in Strikers 1945 received an upgrade in their firepower that allows them to shoot unlimited ammo (rapid shot), execute unlimited charge shots (shot) and drop limited powerful bombs over the enemy. Their speed, charging time and weapons effectiveness vary, so choosing the plane that best fits your shmup sensitivities is quite important. Differently colored (often in red) and other specific enemies release power-up items and extra bombs. Bombs are self-explanatory, whereas each power-up adds an option whose behavior depends on the plane selected. A maximum of six bombs can be carried at any time, and by collecting four power-ups you achieve a maxed-out aircraft. Surplus items are then converted into extra points.

It’s important to note that options behave differently when you’re just shooting, but at least for me what also determines the choice of plane is the charge shot. In the case of the Bf-109, for example, the available options are grouped together and dropped in place, slowly advancing forwards while shooting a powerful bullet stream. This behavior leads to several possible approaches if you want to deal with stronger enemies while focusing in other areas of the screen or if you just want to quickly dispatch an incoming threat – just remember that you’ll be without options alongside the plane for as long as the charge attack lasts. The Spitfire charge shot, on the other hand, works as a net of extra firepower that forms in front of the plane and moves around with it, an aspect that requires totally different strategies than those of the Bf-109.

Weaker aspects of the Bf-109’s arsenal are its slightly longer charging time and the efficiency of its bomb, which almost exclusively serves as a panic function since it inflicts no real damage on enemies unless you’re pretty close to them.

Regardless of plane choice, players must learn how to deal with rank in Strikers 1945. Basically, the more powered-up you are and the longer you survive the faster enemy bullets will be. To make matters worse, all stages in the first half of the game are randomized, which means you might have to deal with the same stage in its easiest state (1st level) or at its toughest (4th level). One way to deal with rank is to let yourself collide against an enemy, which makes you lose an option and immediately slows down enemy bullets. Given the way bullet spreads are implemented in this game – often in concentrated quick bursts that demand some prior positioning and tap-dodges to be evaded – lowering rank in key areas can definitely be considered a valid gameplay resource.

One of the three random mid-bosses in stage 7

The last main aspect of the gameplay is related to the gold bars released by ground enemies. Their glow varies at a predetermined rate, and to get the best bonus out of them they need to be collected at their maximum glow. Each gold bar is then worth 2.000 points, which is connected to a sound effect that differentiates it from when you take them at lower glowing points (200, 500 and 1.000 points). Naturally the further you advance into the game the harder it becomes to time gold bar collecting for best results, but overall it’s a fun gimmick that works and kinda offsets a bad order for the first four stages. Never mind the slaughter that takes over the whole second loop, where difficulty is amplified to crazy heights and makes survival absolutely more important than gold bar collecting. The only extend comes with 600.000 points.

If visual and audio merits aren’t that great in Strikers 1945, at least the particular style that Psikyo worked to maintain after branching off from Video System tends to grow on you with repeated plays. The Playstation port suffers from very rare faint stutters of slowdown but this isn’t nearly as bad as some online sources point out, and is virtually identical to the disc released for the Sega Saturn at around the same time. The Japanese Playstation game comes with three resolution modes: Original 1 (YOKO), Original 2 (wobbling YOKO) and Arcade (TATE). Plane profiles, configurable controls and a manual save/load function complete the package. Beware of the release for the PS1 in North America, even though it's named Strikers 1945 it's actually the sequel Strikers 1945 II with no TATE mode included.

Since I benefited from a short burst of MAME practice during week 3 of the shmups forum STGT 2015, it can be said that I started playing this version with a good amount of previous Bf-109 knowledge. In my second sitting I got the high score below on Normal (difficulty 5), reaching stage 2-2 for the first time ever.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Supercharged Robot VULKAISER (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Astro Port
Published by NYU Media in 2015 (Steam)

Rarely do I watch cartoons these days. Or animes. However, as I mentioned before some of the TV time in my childhood was spent on Japanese cartoon serials like Groizer X, which was notably the most famous one around here. And even though these kinds of cartoons are no more, we can still quench our nostalgia on video games with a real retro feel such as Supercharged Robot VULKAISER, a cheap and quick outing from Astro Port that embodies a lot of what made these shows so entertaining. Therefore nostalgic buffs take note if you're game for an undemanding passtime.

Supercharged Robot VULKAISER is as bare-bones as it gets, but it comes with a few stills where that fine Japanese anime art of the 1970s jumps off the screen thanks to characters standing in bold positions, their mouths opened as if they're about to shout a war cry. Of course their mission is to protect the Earth from the evil alien scum of the week, but who actually cares about that these days besides kids? The Steam version is so simple that it lacks any options for button mapping or even a pause function (ah, the desire to function as an arcade title!). Just launch the game and watch as it automatically recognizes your current control scheme - my Xbox controller worked perfectly with it, even allowing me to use the D-pad instead of that shitty analog stick.

Promo trailer for VULKAISER
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher NyuMedia)

Players pilot the Vulkaiser, a giant robot that's supposed to restore peace to the Earth and "combines" with four different types of VulFighter enhancing crafts, each one controlled by a different character. Practically you just use one button through the entire game, since any other button in the controller activates the Ω weapon, a bomb that's specific to each VulFighter, is capable of melting enemy bullets and can only be triggered once for every new craft you combine with. An assortment of VulFighters appears twice in every level so that you can switch your current one for another if desired. These can be:
  • Rocket Kaiser - fires straight missiles; charge shot is an exploding bomb; Ω weapon is a short stream of more powerful missiles.
  • Thunder Kaiser - fires an open arch of electricity rays; charge shot is a thick laser beam; Ω weapon is a thunder shower that covers the whole screen.
  • Needle Kaiser - fires a needle-shaped spread pattern; charge shot is a more powerful needle spread; Ω weapon is an outward burst of energy.
  • Drill Kaiser - adds a close-range drill to the default shot; charge shot is a powerful drill that's dropped in front of the ship and slowly drifts forward; Ω weapon is a very large and deadly drill.

The act of firing your weapon automatically fills up a charge gauge, and to release the charge shot all you need to do is refrain from shooting from a second. It's a mechanic that works really well, and essentially all you need to do is wait for the graphical/sound cue to release successive charge shots. Charge times and overall weapon effectiveness varies between characters, but the most difficult one to use is definitely the Drill Kaiser, mainly due to the way its charge shot works. It's important to notice that there are different health bars for the Vulkaiser and the selected VulFighter, and that depleting any of them is a definitive loss (in the case of Vulkaiser it's GAME OVER, and for VulFighters you just can't use the lost one anymore). Losing a VulFighter sends the Vulkaiser back to its default condition, including the charge shot that results in the robot's fists being detached in a frontal attack. Pay attention to the hit spot in the character's chest, as pointed out as soon as you start a credit.

When I played this game I remembered a lot of Kiaidan 00. Both titles share the same cool avatar orientation, but Supercharged Robot VULKAISER boasts a less cheap and more straightforward scoring system. There's a simple multiplier scheme that's directly related to how fast you kill successive enemies, which makes Needle Kaiser my favorite VulFighter. At the end of every level all health gauges are converted into bonus points, while speed-killing bosses also grants a chunky amount of extra score. Every time a boss fight starts a counter starts coming down from 99, with the kill tag being multiplied by ×10.000.

Yukimasa-sama does not like the heat

Lighthearted and approachable, VULKAISER does not veer away from the staples of a quickly developed game. Earth stages have backgrounds with cities, forest landscapes and clouds. No obstacles or walls are to be expected. There are lots of enemies and battleships riddled with turrets and little mechas flying around, with the design highlights reserved for bosses. They usually morph into giant robots after being defeated in their rocket or spacecraft forms. Brief comedic dialogue snippets develop the story in the levels themselves, whereas the current VulFighter pilot gives a longer speech at the end of the stage. Using the same VulFighter in multiple levels actually makes the bond between characters stronger, with only one drawback in the gameplay: the more you stick to the same VulFighter the harder the game becomes. Pick a different one to lower the rank.

A last note about rank is that ramming attacks and enemy missiles drain more health from Vulkaiser. Then the most damage comes from red, purple and blue bullets, that's why sometimes the energy you lose when you get hit seems to vary. A fully customizable training option exists, and checking how you're performing is easy because the game saves replays for your best scores automatically across the four difficulty levels. On a last note, Supercharged Robot VULKAISER adopts a 4×3 aspect ratio, so it doesn't fill the whole space in a widescreen setup.

My best 1CC result on Normal is below, mainly having as co-pilot the lovely Kimiko, master of the Needle Kaiser. Click here if you want to know a bit more about the characters.