Sunday, September 25, 2016

Star Fox (SNES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
6/7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo in 1993

At the height of the 16-bit video game wars, both Sega and Nintendo were at full throttle trying to cater to each company’s avid fanbase. With an enhancer chip that allowed the processing of incredible polygonal graphics, Star Fox certainly left its mark in video game history as one of the most impressive punches thrown by Nintendo against the competition. And as a Segaphile myself I was forced to temporarily throw in the towel in order to (happily) enjoy this amazing rail shooter. Later on Sega would bounce back with their own enhancer chip, which produced an equally impressive experience albeit in a different genre with Virtua Racing.

That said, to this day I believe Star Fox (released in Europe as Star Wing) is one of the most immersive video games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. All rail shooters share immersion as a functional trait, but here it reaches a point where graphics, gameplay and music unite in order to create something unique. The only aspect that might look dated today is also what gives the game its undeniable charm: the blocky geometry of obstacles and the aspect of folded paper with which ships and enemies are rendered. The action is intense and supported by a gallery of anthropomorphic characters that interact a lot throughout the journey, in another story of good against evil that can be played across three different paths.

Players take the role of Fox McCloud, the captain of the Star Fox team. Aided by Falco, Peppy and Slippy (an avian creature, a rabbit and a toad, respectively), Fox departs from planet Corneria with the mission to stop an evil villain called Andross in the distant planet Venom. Brief cinematics precede, take over at specific points and give closure to their quest, with lots of style and an awesome sense of scope.

Level 1, the adventure starts in planet Corneria
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

When you press start you need to select your control scheme out of 4 options, as well as decide if you want to go straight to the game itself or if you want to play a training course that teaches you how to control the ship (it's always good to practice a little in order to get the hang of how things work when starting out). I've always felt more comfortable with the type A configuration, which works with reverse verticals and has the following inputs: Y = shot, A = bomb, X = brief boost, B = brief brake/deceleration (check the lower right gauge for boost/brake intensity), L/R = tilt left/right (tap quickly to perform barrel rolls). I think this setup is very intuitive and makes great use of the SNES controller.

In Star Fox there are no extra difficulty settings, instead we must decide on which route to play the game. All three start and end on the same planets, occasionally sharing enemies and environments while providing distinct challenges. Level 1 is the easiest and Level 3 is the hardest and longest course with one more stage than the others. All stages share the same structure, with a boss waiting at the end and the possibility to shift between three viewpoints with the SELECT button: standard, approach and cockpit. When in approach the ship is viewed at a closer rear view, whereas cockpit puts you inside it but is only available during outer space levels. Frankly I never use the cockpit view because I like to see my vessel from afar in true rail shooter fashion.

Each life gives the player a shield bar that allows the ship to withstand damage from collisions and enemy bullets, with death only happening when this bar is depleted. The most common pick-up in the item gallery is a revolving ring that refills part of your energy and is often released by killing specific foes. A stationary blue ring not only refills more energy, but also serves as a checkpoint. Then there are the blaster upgrades (first one gives you double shot, second one turns it into a plasma double shot), a shield (three basic hits or less, depending on the density of the obstacle you crush into), extra bombs and extra ship (to get it you need to shoot all three corners of the triangle, which starts to spin once the first one is hit). Bomb usage requires aiming, that's why a bomb that's dropped while the ship is pointing up will be practically wasted. The maximum amount of bombs you can carry at any time is five. If one of the ship's wings gets damaged you'll lose it, and the only way to repair it without losing a life is by collecting a blaster upgrade.

As one of the most impressive rail shooters of its generation, Star Fox flows at an almost perfect pace, scrolling by gracefully while throwing all sorts of obstacles and enemies towards the player. The game conveys depth successfully, and even though textures lack finesse and detail they certainly excel at the use of color and shading. Ship control feels natural and fluid, never mind the few bouts of slowdown here and there. I do love the several rules you need to adhere to in certain stages in order to be successful, such as flying through all the arches to collect an item or going pacifist against the space stingrays of Sector Y (stage 4 in Level 2). There will be times, however, where it’s virtually impossible not to get hit, and while trying to find the best path to dodge things you’ll often rely on pure luck to get through. The worst passage is the storm of stray bars prior to the 4th boss in Level/course 3.

You'll depart from Corneria late in the day if you choose to play course 3

Star Fox has a lot going on with regards to gameplay, but the interactions between protagonist Fox and his wingmen surely add a special flavor to the action. Each pilot has his own life bar, and once this bar is depleted the character is also gone for good. They tend to cruise the screen while chasing or being chased by an enemy, some will ask for assistance and others will rant against it if you decide to help them. Apparently you can’t damage their ships when you hit them by accident, so fire away even if they decide to obnoxiously stand in the way (this happens often). Not that the scoring system here is deep and gets hurt by it, but having a wingman die is detrimental to the stage completion percentage because the few enemies they chase will be missing from the tallying.

There's no actual score display for Star Fox in the common sense. Score is based on destruction ratio and maxes out at 10.000 points per level, which corresponds to 100% completion. So theoretically the highest achievable score is 70.000 points in Level 3. Extra credits are gained with 10K, 30K and 50K, and definitely help a lot when you're learning how to approach the later stages. Speaking of which, the briefing message from the captain prior to each mission might give important clues about what to do to succeed, so don't be hasty and read them at least once. Boss battles are often intense, diverse and fun, with a few exceptions where hit detection becomes an issue (stage 3-6). Beyond the basics there are still two hidden areas accessed at stages 1-2 (Black Hole) or 3-2 (Out of This Dimension), but they work more as easter egg novelties than anything.

Of all aspects of this incredibly fun game, my favorite one is probably the music. It's a magnificent work of art, full of pumping, atmospheric and eerie compositions that put to shame most sci-fi film soundtracks. There are those who seem to dislike Star Fox for its supposedly slow frame rate, but they forget to analyze that everything about the game works incredibly well thanks to the way the control scheme works. In my humble opinion it took the foundations of this subgenre and infused it with pure awesomeness, to the point where many people still consider it the best game in a series that also saw entries for the Nintendo 64, the GameCube and the Nintendo DS. Others insist on comparing Star Fox to Silpheed, ignoring the fact that the gameplay of both titles is vastly different from each other (the only thing they have in common is the use of polygons).

I don't remember if I actually did it back in the day, but this time I 1CCed all three courses in Star Fox. Level 1 is indeed an easy ride, I don't think I ever boosted or braked the ship there, but boosting and braking are of utmost importance in Levels 2 and 3. Below is my final result for Level 3 (the game halts at this screen indefinitely until you reset the console).

Note: a special competition cartridge for Star Fox with a heavily tweaked game was released and contains a full fledged scoring system, but that's a whole different story. A direct sequel for the SNES was planned and partially developed, but eventually got canned.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gokujyou Parodius (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1994

The STG division at Konami surely loved the SNES back in the 90s. The company graced Nintendo’s 16-bit platform with solid titles, be it ports or exclusive games, and helped put the competition against Sega’s mighty Mega Drive on fair grounds. A long running Gradius spin-off series, the Parodius games were well-represented in that regard, with three excellent cartridges that shouldn’t be absent in the shelf of any serious aficionado. Coming right after Parodius Da!, Gokujyou Parodius again brings home the workings of those evil wacky penguins while – expectedly so – toning down the difficulty of the arcade original. Which was a good move, I should say.

Awesomeness, in this case, relates to many things, including a welcome approachability towards the structure devised by Konami for Gokujyou Parodius, released only in Japan and in Europe as Fantastic Journey. Not only do we have a spaceship level that appears randomly throughout the game (and isn’t completely seen unless you don’t die in it), but players who beat the final boss are also faced with a Special Stage right after the credits, an ingenious carrot placed by the developer in order to lure those who’re brave enough into pursuing an extra achievement. This Special Stage serves its purpose as a worthy substitute for the loop in a game that doesn’t loop by default, while at the same time presenting reasonable challenge on the SNES port (for mortal gamers like me, in the arcade original it just feels impossible).

Modern Times for Takosuke and his companions

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Unless you’re a total beginner in this genre or you’ve been living in an alternate dimension where Konami doesn’t exist, you certainly know what Parodius games are about. At their core they’re mocking everything about the Gradius franchise, from ships to iconic characters and stages. It borrows the main gameplay rules for power-ups, meaning you have the same weapon array and the same capsule collecting scheme where players activate the desired upgrade by pressing a button whenever the upgrade is lit in the weapon array. A third button (after shot/missile and power-up) is responsible for triggering the stored effect of a blue or brown/red colored bell, a trait inherited from the Twin Bee franchise.

What started out as a franchise mockery, however, begins to evolve into something unique in Gokujyou Parodius when you pay close attention to the game. The character roster, for instance, expands far beyond the idea of an avatar with trailing options, while elements from other games/developers also show up in the design, with rather obvious nods to classics like Xevious, Galaga, R-Type and Darius. It’s the epitome of a warped homage, blended in a surreal adventure that becomes even more diverse depending on the selected character, in a sequel that’s shorter but slightly wackier than predecessor Parodius Da!.

Regular upgrades such as missiles, double, laser and options will be very familiar if you know Gradius well and choose Vic Viper/Lord British, Pentaro/Hanako or Takosuke/Belial (P1/P2), but might display completely different behavior with characters like Koitsu/Aitsu, Mambo/Samba and Michael/Gabriel. Unlike the arcade version, which pretty much requires players to go with Koitsu in order to beat it, the same does not apply in the port so it’s a lot more fun to test out different characters here. And as usual for console ports developed and released by Konami, the company gave the game a special touch by adding three new characters to the roster: Goemon/Ebisumaru, Upa/Rupa and Dracula-kun/Kid Dracula. All these characters have new powers that are loosely based on other Konami games.

Besides some cosmetic tinkerings, this port of Gokujyou Parodius differs functionally from the original by having mandatory checkpoints regardless of the selected power-up scheme: in MANUAL all upgrades are up to the player, in AUTO the game automatically applies the upgrades except for roulette items, those "contaminated" capsules that make the weapon array go crazy and require the player to choose one upgrade to cut out of the quick cycling. One of the reasons why AUTO doesn't eliminate checkpoints as in the arcade game is that the port only allows alternated multiplayer, ditching the ability to play simultaneously with a friend.

Intro of Gokujyou Parodius on the SNES
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Players earn extra lives starting at 20.000 points and at every 100.000 points afterwards, in an extremely generous extend scheme. Since checkpoints aren’t that taxing, these extra lives are great for those who like to exploit them for scoring, in particular the very last checkpoint of the Special Stage (score extends are absent after the end credits). There are lots of bells to be collected there more than in any other part of the game, and here’s a brief recap of how they work: yellow bells are the norm and evolve in value from 500 to 10.000 points if you don't let any fall to the left of the screen. By shooting them a certain number of times they cycle colors that provide special abilities: blue (powerful single bomb), green (instantaneous inflation + invincibility), white (instantaneous activation of a powerful shot with random messages in kanji), brown/red (three vertical energy bars) and purple (turn all popcorn enemies into power-ups/bells at once).

Compared to the arcade original, Gokujyou Parodius is a lot lighter in difficulty and doesn’t bear the same rage-inducing factor that comes with an evil rank system. Rank is still there but is much less aggressive, and only really hits if you max out power and decide to activate the shield (having many lives in stock will also increase enemy bullet count/speed). This port relates to the arcade version kinda like Gradius III does to its source, even though Goku Paro is more faithful overall and merely reduces the scope of everything for the SNES processor to cope with the mayhem. Nevertheless slowdown kicks in heavily in certain parts, such as the candy stage and the octopus flocks of the Special Stage. Flicker can be a minor problem in a few areas, all of them happening when those ring-shaped shots overlap with regular bullets and enemies.

When a game is this fun and so exquisitely crafted, it's always great to try it with as many characters as possible. Maybe in the future I'll venture into that, but for now I'm satisfied with clearing it completely, Special Stage included, with Dracula-kun at full default settings (difficulty 4, autoshot ON, roulette ON, revival OFF, 1 loop end) on AUTO power-up mode. The final score is shown below.

Next: Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius.