Thursday, July 28, 2016

400 1CCed shmups!

Okay, so this blog now has 400 posts about console shooting games beaten with a single credit.

This number might be a lot for the outsider, maybe too much even for those who're into the genre. This is only the tip of the iceberg though. From 8-bit to the latest video game generation, hundreds of shmups are still awaiting proper play in my game room.

But there's a catch I will always mention every now and then: so many games to play, so little time.

Life changed and is about to change even more for me very soon, but I assure you all that my passion for the genre hasn't diminished a bit ever since I started the blog, writing that lousy text on Armed Formation F for the PC Engine more than seven years ago. I grew a lot since then in several fronts. I got married, got a pet, started new hobbies and made a bunch of good friends from all around the world.

Long story short, the little time available will become even less time for a good while. Nonetheless this little corner of the Internet will linger on.

Some quick numbers to mark the milestone:

By genre:

Top 5 hardest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Top 5 easiest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

In the near future I'll try to address all those games previously suggested by friendly readers. I didn't forget any of the requests, it's just that sometimes the occasion takes me to places I never imagined I'd venture otherwise.

So let's keep playing, shmupping and fully enjoying life.
This is the best party I've ever been to.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rendering Ranger R2 (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rainbow Arts GmbH
Published by Virgin Interactive in 1995

Around here we would say that Rendering Ranger R2 is one of the white flies of the Super Nintendo library. Yes, I know white flies actually exist, it’s just that on a regular daily basis seeing a white fly anywhere is extremely rare. And the same applies to this infamous cartridge released in minuscule numbers only in Japan at the end of the console’s lifespan, which obviously helped its rarity index to increase even more. On the game’s behalf, at least one can state that its quality almost matches its scarcity on both gameplay fronts: the classic platforming elements are a trademark of developer Manfred Trenz (creator of the Turrican series), whereas the shooting sections leave nothing to be desired in regards to action and 16-bit eye candy.

The post-apocalyptic backdrop on the first stage absolutely sets the tone for the rest of the game even though the levels soon drift into mechanized bases, organic caves and all sorts of environments in the shoot’em up areas. It’s a complete and diverse adventure that tries to extract the best from Nintendo’s platform, oozing with transparencies, sweet animation and Mode-7 effects without a single ounce of slowdown. To enjoy all of this, however, it’s recommended to play the game on a native Japanese Super Famicom instead of an SNES, since it crashes randomly in consoles from other regions while also presenting occasional audio glitches such as the absence of music layers in the first level.

Rendering Ranger R2 has no continues at all, but by default comes with 5 lives and 5 health cells for each life, with the possibility of stocking up to three extra hits with providential shields. I guess this says a lot about how friendly the game is, right?

Boarding the ship at the end of the 2nd stage
(courtesy of YouTube user jbjefferson)

On the platforming areas the ranger is able to use his cannon to fire four types of weapons. Platforming inputs consist of shot, jump, weapon select and a "megaweapon", but you can also use the shoulder buttons to aim at diagonals without moving (L points up, R points down). Your only weapon at the start of the game is the vulcan spread shot (red), but you’ll eventually come across the other ones as the game progresses. All items are concealed inside small skulls or special parts of the scenery, floating up and down when released – note that if there’s no wall to bounce back they’ll go away. The other weapon types are the forward laser (blue), K-type shot (orange) and bouncing shards (green), with the remaining items consisting of an energy cell that provides health recovery or a shield if your health gauge is full. Each weapon is upgraded automatically when you collect their respective power-ups, and all surplus items are worth 5.000 points each.

Special attacks can be used with the "megaweapon" command, whose stock is shown on the lower left corner of the screen. Each weapon has its own special megaweapon: vulcan drops a series of impact bombs (very effective at close range), laser results in a powerful beam, K-shot fires a large wave arch forward and the shard shot emits an outward huge explosion. Since megaweapons are automatically (slowly) recharged after use there’s absolutely no need to refrain from using them. In fact, they’re great strategy aids during certain cramped or tricky parts.

The four main inputs are configurable at the options screen. My layout of choice was A (jump), B (shot), X (megaweapon), Y (weapon change). These commands are exactly the same during the shooting stages except for the jump input, which then assumes the task of turning the ship around so that you can shoot backwards/forwards. Shoulder buttons have no effect, but the speed of the ship can be toggled between four settings with the SELECT button. Pay attention to the ship’s exhaust flare to see in which setting you’re on.

Adding to the items of the platforming area, in the shmup parts there’s also a capsule that generates two options above and below the ship, increasing both its firepower and defensive capabilities (they absorb bullets). The action is constant and climaxes in a relentless battle in the final levels, always with amazing visuals and lots of unique bosses. Trenz obviously wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, opting otherwise to use inspiration from classics such as the Thunder Force series, as well as Gradius, Darius (particularly large enemies/bosses) and a few cool nods to Air Buster (the high speed tunnels), Hellfire (large turret-ridden ships) and Eliminate Down (the rocket storm). A tiny bit of an euroshmup touch is also there but it’s fairly negligible, while Turrican and Contra are the obvious references in the platforming realm.

Huge battleships creeping in

Even though the platforming sections (stages 1, 2, 5 and 9) have their charm, in my opinion the cream of the crop of Rendering Ranger R2 is in the shmup sections (stages 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8). All shooting stages lend a momentum to the game that’s just not sustained in the platforming parts. Both stage types share the same basic length, but once you’ve been through the latter the excitement kinda vanishes along with the challenge, whereas shooting stuff while moving around and dodging bullets gives you a lot more rush. After the first stage, for example, pits (the only hazard that takes away a complete life) will only reappear in the final level, which in turn feels like a weak, easy afterthought after the awesomeness of the 8th stage, action- and music-wise.

Speaking of lives, Rendering Ranger R2 suffers from the same problem of Thunder Force III: not only do you respawn right where you died, but there are also too many extra health and extra lives to help players out. Watch out for 1UPs in the form of helmets (platforming parts) and small ships (shmup parts). They certainly aren’t hidden, but tend to be located in unsuspected corners. Some other breathers that soften the difficulty even more are the full recovery of the energy bar in every new stage and the fact that upon dying you only lose the weapon you're currently shooting (in the case of the red type you're sent back to its default level).

While technically extremely competent, the game does incur in a little flicker during its platforming half, which sometimes makes you think you've been hit. Other than that, the only detrimental aspect here is that the scoring system is broken: you can amass as many points as you wish by destroying the shower of debris dropped by a hovering enemy during one of the platforming levels. There's also the abovementioned regional bug, but it stopped happening once I changed consoles. In the options players are able to map buttons, enable/disable autofire, choose a different color for the character/ship and view high scores.

I completed the game twice on Normal difficulty without the cheap milking of stage 5, and this was the result of my second try:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Last Hope (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NG:Dev.Team
Published by NG:Dev.Team in 2005

Long after the Neo Geo was dead a small German company decided to declare its love to the platform by releasing Last Hope, a game strongly influenced by R-Type and Pulstar and in true Neo Geo fashion marketed as a “tactical shooting game”. Produced in extremely low quantities and involved in a small scandal about its cartridges being built by reusing the carcasses from old SNK games, Last Hope gained an infamous aura of being an extremely hard shooter due to bullets having the same colors as the debris coming out from regular explosions. As with many other cases of such undeserved fame, Last Hope is nothing of the sort, after all it doesn’t even top the difficulty level of the other two games mentioned in this paragraph.

Debunking the myth doesn’t take much, actually. Indeed the first stage of Last Hope is leaps and bounds above the difficulty of pretty much all first stages of any horizontal checkpoint-based shooter out there. However, when you finally come to grips with it and start progressing through the rest of the game you realize the developers seem to have tried to wow players in every way they could from the get go. Steep difficulty needed to be there in order to match the cool music and the awesome graphics – clearly above anything 16-bit – hence the excruciating wall of the first level. But hey, once this wall is climbed and passed everything feels more natural, to the point where Last Hope finally becomes an enjoyable experience.

Like most of the games explicitly inspired by R-Type, you only feel you have some chance of surviving the odds after you acquire the force pod, which in in this case is permanently attached to the ship and can be rotated around it and locked at 8 different positions with buttons B (counter-clockwise) and C (clockwise). Button A is used to shoot and to charge the plasma beam. The act of picking any power-up creates the force pod, which arrives slowly from the left side of the screen and initially latches to the front of the ship. The pod protects it against all sorts of regular/round enemy bullets while firing a single soft projectile alongside your regular shot/charge. Note however that it doesn’t inflict any damage whatsoever.

Creepy waters

Items can be either concealed inside slow carriers or appear floating from the right side of the screen. The brown ones are speed-ups, all others initially only provide the force pod. Upon collecting the second item you get a specific type of side weapon: cluster air/ground bombs are orange, straight “carbon” missiles are green and homing missiles are yellow. A third capsule of the same weapon will then upgrade its strength. All of them are useful, but the homing missiles are definitely not recommended against the most resilient enemies. I often try to keep them only during the 5th stage because they’re great against the kamizake ships that home into your position. On the other hand, straight missiles are a devastating aid if you decide to mash the button against bosses.

In the world of Last Hope memorization is king. Players will get nowhere without prior knowledge of what’s coming since all six stages have a good share of hazards and traps. Besides all the R-Type influence I can also see references to Parodius Da!, X-Multiply, Rayxanber and a general throwback to the euroshmup school of thought reminiscent of the Commodore Amiga days. Fortunately NG:Dev.Team uses the euroshmup inspiration wisely, as in the way enemy waves approach so that you’re able to finish them in one single blow with the plasma beam to collect the associated multiplier bonuses. Each successive enemy killed with the same shot adds ×1 to this instantaneous multiplier, which is then applied to the next enemy in the chain.

Chaining enemies with the plasma beam is the only real way to boost the score besides exploiting loose projectiles from enemies, picking up all those bits worth 500 points and not dying (when the stage is completed you get a bonus based on the amount of bits collected since your last death in the level). Certain places in the game are better suited to the plasma beam for higher multiplier points, as in the fight against the second boss (kill him while blowing up the bubble he spits) and the first checkpoint section of the third level. There’s a mild rank system in place that increases the amount and speed of enemy bullets the longer you survive. An interesting observation about the speed of the ship is that it gets reset in every level, so no matter how many speed-ups you take you'll always start the next stage with the default sluggish maneuverability. It's not as bad as it sounds, believe me.

Watch out for the burning sun
(courtesy of YouTube user Scott Galicki)

Speaking of checkpoints, there are three of them per level. And for a game that’s so demanding up front, having unlimited checkpoint continues is really welcome. From the enemy base of the first stage to the biologic mayhem of the final level, players still need to defeat the mandatory waterfall/corridor with rocketing enemies in the second area, followed by an outer space scramble into a dark lair in the third. Then there’s the odd mix of moving volcanoes and large battleship of the fourth stage, which leads to a moving hell of blocks, lasers and turrets in the second-to-last level. Despite its derivative nature I can’t help but praise the variety in the design of Last Hope, as well as the soft nature of the game as a whole, the great use of colors (lots of blue and green!) and the absolute lack of slowdown. The enemy gallery is equally diverse, and it’s particularly interesting to see the remarkable amount of invincible snakes everywhere. And I wouldn’t mind having those B&W animation snippets lasting a little longer in between levels, they’re quite impressive.

Such polish from an unlicensed independent shooter is definitely rare and must be commended, even if Last Hope incurs in some odd functional aspects. The fonts for the score display, for instance, are extremely small. The 50.000 points extend routine doesn’t always register in the life counter, and it’s not uncommon to hear that ominous 1UP voice in between levels or die on your last life and still come back for another final chance. After the first loop is completed the game keeps restarting in a harder setting, eventually locking on HARD for all eternity from what I heard.

The short demo shown in the attract mode can be accessed at any time from the start screen, as well as the options with alternatives to rearrange inputs and enable/disable the music. After coming out for the Neo Geo AES the game received some slight tweaks on the ports released for the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo CD. Later on a revision titled Last Hope Pink Bullets addressed the assumed high difficulty of the game by coloring its bullets pink and aggressively altering the original gameplay. Pink Bullets came out for the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo AES.

In the high score screen below I reached stage 2-5 on Normal difficulty. Those stats are a nice touch but don’t make much sense in the end. Let it be known that my cartridge is a conversion – the authentic one was and still is an extremely overpriced item for AES collectors.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Super Star Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Kaneko /
Inter State in 1990

Excluding related games such as Starship Hector and GunHed, this the first official sequel to the seminal NES/MSX Star Soldier. Of course the name Super Star Soldier is as obvious as it gets, even though the game shares little with its predecessor in regards to gameplay. In fact, the differences are grand enough to put it in a league of its own, which is much more akin to the style of a Compile shooter than the dire roots of Tecmo’s forefather Star Force. Tying all this together is Hudson Soft, the developer that used almost exclusively the Soldier games to promote the then famous Caravan console tournaments in Japan.

The style merging of Compile and Hudson Soft first seen with GunHed continues in Super Star Soldier. In a nutshell, it’s a steady slope of 8/16-bit flashiness punctuated by colorful weapons, large bosses and some exquisite frantic sections. Gone are the tiled terrains, the annoying hindrances and the turret-ridden enemies of its predecessor. Since players are welcomed by a game that spreads spikes and valleys evenly throughout eight stages without stupid little secrets, the result is definitely a more fun, straightforward and pleasing experience, one that rewards those who can cleverly manage its resources.

A mid-boss in stage 4

Controlling the spaceship at three different speeds is done at the press of the SELECT button. Button II shoots and button I has little influence in the gameplay, only becoming active when you pick-up the item for options – it just alternates the pod’s orientation between horizontal and vertical. Speaking of items, the main ones are the mandatory color-coded power-ups. Here we have four: yellow (flamethrower), green (lightning laser, 3-way at max power), blue (expanding rings) and red (vulcan, classic 5-way shot at max power). Upgrading is accomplished by sticking to the same item color, and once the ship is maxed out in power – after five consecutive items – the next one will work as a smart bomb, wiping out bullets and damaging all enemies on screen.

Auxiliary weapons exist in the form of option pods (O) and guided missiles (M), each with three upgrade levels each. Option pods are initially stationary and can have their alignment switched at the press of button I, but the next upgrade will make them rotate (an effect that can also be achieved with button I on the first phase if you have a turbo controller). Option pods do not add to the firepower, but inflict damage and provide protection against regular bullets. I always go for guided missiles though because I’d much rather adopt an offensive than a defensive attitude in games like these. Unlike the main shot types, secondary weapons do not result in smart bombs when taken in excess.

A 3-hit shield is acquired whenever the third power level is achieved with any weapon. It starts blue, and by the last hit it will go red. Regardless of your current firepower level, whenever you get hit the ship will revert back to a power level of 2. Being shieldless is okay if you’re in the first half of the game, but later on it’s kinda scary in a Darius-like way. The good news is that to get another shield you just need to rush to the next power-up of the same color. Beware though, Super Star Soldier is one of those games that shows no mercy when you die, often bringing about successive deaths in a row if you happen to bite the dust once. There's a very precious catch though: early on you’ll notice that some power-ups can be hit by your weapons; if you avoid shooting at them they will descend cycling through all main and secondary weapon types, but if you hit and keep them in place long enough they'll eventually acquire a blinking nature that explodes into a smart bomb when collected, as well as giving away 5.000 points and adding up to a hidden instant respawn counter. In a nutshell, blinking items are great for both scoring and survival. Just don't let them reach the bottom or you'll lose them, this is not GunHed after all (thanks for the heads-up, Greg!).

An original TV ad for Super Star Soldier!
(courtesy of YouTube user

All extra lives are score-based and come at fixed intervals: 50K, 100K, 200K and then at every 300 or 400 thousand points. Autofire is implemented by default. Besides the bonus points acquired from blinking pick-ups, many enemies release destructible bullets/parts and any regular item taken is worth 800 points each. Much later in the game golden orbs also start appearing for a few more points, which is kinda odd. Why take so long to include them? The first time I got there I thought they were harmful and dodged the things until more golden orbs showed up again in the escape sequence of the 7th stage!

Super Star Soldier offers some nice variety across its eight levels. Outer space alternates with action over watery and desertic areas, as well as satellite bases and alien landscapes. Some of the music is rather good and in general the soundtrack coexists with the sound effects harmoniously. One of the coolest aspects of the game is the inclusion of a few homages to other shooters. Konami seems to have had a good influence on Hudson Soft because it's easy to spot references to Gradius II (ice blocks/snakes in stage 5) and Salamander (the escape sequence mentioned above in stage 7). Bosses and midbosses range from a rehash of the star brain from Star Soldier and some bulky creatures such as that pricky mecha from stage 4 and the giant version of your own ship in the final level. My favorite weapon is the maxed out green lightning laser of doom, but I can also vouch for the effectiveness of the 5-way classic shot in stage 6.

It's safe to say the first half of the game is fairly easy, but after that Super Star Soldier starts showing some claws. The last couple of levels certainly demand a little more from the player, and it's always advisable to get there with the maximum amount possible of extra lives. Believe me, you do not want to trigger checkpoints in the final stage. Since it's not such a long campaign, I'd say the challenge is spot on. Caravan lovers are also well served with the additional 2- and 5-minute modes.

Below is my final 1CC score in the default settings (there's a code to activate higher difficulties, but it's too complicated and I didn't bother checking it out for real). Now for the next game in the series: Final Soldier.