Thursday, October 20, 2016

Robo Aleste (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
11 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Tengen in 1993

Going through the chronology of the Aleste series can be very confusing. Born on the MSX and the Master System, it never really followed a naming standard in the sequels. However, it's possible to recognize a legitimate entry in the series by checking out the core gameplay, which stays the same despite the change in identity and theme across some of its chapters. Both games released for the Mega Drive, for example, represent a remarkable departure from the original spaceship motif since they adopt a strong steampunk mechanized influence. The first one, MUSHA (or MUSHA Aleste), is still regarded as one of the best shmups on the system, but what of its sequel Robo Aleste, also named Dennin Aleste in Japan?

Storywise Robo Aleste has little in common with MUSHA, since it's a prequel that happens in ancient Japan. The long intro shows how a feudal rivalry gets altered when a giant mecha called Aleste falls in the hands of a particular clan. The game mixes that with a dispute involving brothers on opposite sides of the fight, fleshing it out with further cut scenes and providing some depth for those who enjoy this particular aspect of the game design. Of course all the intermissions with full English narration (most of it quite wooden) and the excellent CD soundtrack are there to showcase the capabilities of the Sega CD add-on. Fortunately for us shmup fans, the game itself is in every way a step-up above MUSHA since it's equally intense yet more dynamic, visually more polished and a good notch harder.

As a whole Robo Aleste is excellent, and just like MUSHA it never slows down or breaks up graphically. The visual bit I like the most is the new look of the flying robot. It's sleek and elegant, and doesn't remind me of a beetle this time around.

Robo Aleste's ambitious intro
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaCDUniverse)

At its default power level, Aleste fires only two streams of the straight kunai shot with button B. In order to increase its power and reach you need to collect "power" chips brought by waves of harmless carriers that enter the screen in Galaga-like fashion. Another type of friendly carrier brings a colored power-up that activates Aleste's shoulder attachments and provide the bulk of the firepower you'll need to get through the game. These weapons are coded in green (spread of shuriken-shaped shots), yellow (attachments rotate and home on nearby enemies/bullets), blue (pulsating lasers) and orange (exploding cluster bombs). To increase their firepower it's necessary to keep collecting the same item without switching to a different one.

Whenever a weapon icon is released it floats slowly towards the bottom of the screen, bounces and disappears on the top. Note that all of their carriers are preceded by a bird-like scout that zaps across the screen and indicates the side they're coming from, which is important for when you need to avoid an unwanted power-up. Button C allows you to toggle between eight settings of flying speed, while button A is used to quickly charge and send forward the shoulder attachments of the robot, a move that has no connection to any weapon and can be done at any time but rarely finds any practical purpose.

By sticking to a tight gameplay style and a cohesive enemy gallery, Robo Aleste delivers a great mix of challenge and fun. The most important departure from MUSHA is the 1-hit death, which sets you back a little on the straight shot but completely resets the firepower of the main weapon. At least the enemy aggression cuts off a little since rank is reduced upon death. Oh yes, this is a Compile shooter with rank!

Granted, Robo Aleste is never utterly hard, but it won't for any second allow players to rest their senses. Some levels seem easier than others, only to take you by surprise and eat away a few lives because you blinked. Blame it on the lightly colored bullet sprite, the inefficiency of some weapons (green and yellow aren't to be trusted, the first one because it's weak and the second because it refuses to work at times) and the unpredictable recharging routine of some bosses (there are several of them that shoot treacherous lonely bullets that often catch you off guard). Bosses can also be very deceiving since some of them will give in really fast, only to put up a longer fight on the next credit. Now for a deceiving trait: at first it took me a while to notice that normal bullets can be wiped out by Aleste's firepower, but that's not really something you can count on. When things heat up and enemy bullets get faster it's not uncommon to be shot in the face and die horribly. For what it's worth the two shoulder attachments can also block bullets, but it's very risky to rely on that when moving around and dodging stuff.

"In the name of Lord Nobunaga!"

Even with the quirks I pointed out in the previous paragraph this game is still in my opinion one of the highlights of the 16-bit shmup era. It's longer than the usual console shooter, has good pacing, shows lovely variety from start to finish and is really fun once you get the hang of it. Speaking about pace, the third stage does get criticized often for being a long stretch where you slowly dismantle a gigantic train over a snowy terrain. Indeed it's a long and easy section that's typical of Compile, but it's also full of waves of power chips that try to divert the player's attention (try dying there to see what happens). As for power-ups, I love when the weapon that spits little bombs all over the screen gets maxed out, it's really cool and can even surpass the laser in brute force if you manage to corner an enemy with it.

The only thing players need to know about the scoring system in Robo Aleste is that everything you can destroy or collect is worth something. As for survival, attention as you go around obstacles is important because lives can be lost if you get crushed by the scrolling effect. There are four score-based extends in total, gained at 100 thousand, 500 thousand, 1 million and 10 million points. After the credit is over continues can be activated from the start screen. Unfortunately the Omake options that appear when the game is beaten do not work on the US disc, and just freeze the game if you try to see what they do.

Robo Aleste is officially the last game in the Aleste series (Super Aleste / Space Megaforce came a year before on the SNES), and as such is one of the best signature mecha shmups from Compile. We do get to see an unexpected influence from R-Type in the final moments of the game, which is very cool (the baby aliens creeping in from all sides in the alternate dimension), but it's a bit unfortunate the company didn't continue investing in this particular STG branch. The unfulfilling ending to Robo Aleste is there because its consequences will further develop in MUSHA, however it would've been really interesting to see new iterations of mecha Aleste games for 32-bit video game systems.

While revisiting the game I was able to boost my previous 1CC score just a little bit on Normal difficulty. I had a great time doing it and here's the final result:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rayxanber III (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data West
Published by Data West
in 1992

The Rayxanber series was never popular back in the 90s. I guess it was never supposed to be since the first game came out on an obscure system and the second one scared the shit out of people who had trouble coping with its high difficulty. Both games essentially followed the same rulebook, down to the last detail of the gameplay, but for the third chapter developer Data West decided to implement something different. The result is that while still remaining faithful to the style originated on the FM Towns, Rayxanber III changes the formula a little bit and by doing so delivers an experience that's much more approachable challengewise. The R-Type school of horizontal shooting still remains as the main source of inspiration though.

War rages on against the organic armada of the Zoul empire. The player must board the cockpit of one of the resistance's spaceships, in a final and desperate attempt to save the universe. Your weapons arsenal is fired with button II, whereas button I triggers the series' trademark dash move. Watch as the upper bar in the HUD indicates the energy used while dashing, if it enters the red area it means the engine has overheated and you must wait a little to use the dash again. Not that it matters much anyway, but dashing is the only unaltered aspect of the classic Rayxanber gameplay and just like before successive dashing is rarely needed.

The adventure starts with the departure from the mothership, and as you fly around to defend it you have a nice opportunity to get to know the new weapons.

Hard caves

When the carrier ship is destroyed it releases a weapon item that has a moving dial inside. This dial affects the way the weapon behaves, so according to its orientation the ship will fire in a particular direction/way. Green activates a bubble shot that's very powerful despite its slow speed, yellow corresponds to a continuous series of laser shots and red generates a couple of thick flame bursts above and below the ship. A little experimentation is certainly needed to get a grasp of which weapon works best in every situation, especially on boss fights, but the important thing to have in mind is that there isn't really any useless choice. Of course the reach of the red flame is the only glaring limitation when compared to the other weapons.

The greatest departure from the gameplay in the previous chapters is in the charge shot. Instead of being associated with the current weapon, in Rayxanber III it's automatically charged as you keep the firing button pressed even if you're only equipped with the default pea shot. When the lower charge bar gets yellow you're ready to unleash it, so just let go of the firing button and watch as a pair of missiles gets shot forward. Press the button again and these missiles will explode in a batch of homing missiles that will fetch everything that takes damage anywhere on the screen, even behind most walls. Granted, in the heat of the battle 99% of the time I was just tapping the shot button to release the homing missiles and recharge them.

When you take out the need to stop shooting to charge a stronger attack, the gameplay certainly becomes more dynamic. I consider this to be a clear evolution from the previous games in the series. On the other hand, this improvement is not followed by a proportional adjustment in difficulty. If it weren't for the overall theme and gameplay, you couldn't really tell Rayxanber III is part of the same series that has such demading horis as Rayxanber and Rayxanber II. It is a lot easier than the others and in that regard it's an inevitable disappointment (or not). You come to it expecting some sort of memorizing hurdle and it has none, which of course is excellent news for those who crave lighter challenges.

The Zoul empire must fall
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

On graphical and musical merits, I also think Rayxanber III isn't on par with the rest of the series. There are no voices for weapons anymore, and in my opinion the music isn't bad but it doesn't engage the same way it did before. Backgrounds are lacking from beginning to end, with black voids everywhere and no additional parallax layers whatsoever. There's a lot of detail in the way caves and walls are conveyed but that's about it, and the abundance of caverns/rocks + too little environment or outer space gives the game a cramped feeling. I might be wrong here, but I wouldn't be surprised to know there was some rush in the publishing process. The absolute lack of polish on the fight against the last boss is an example, something that a close friend compared to the boss fights from Atomic Robo-Kid (no grudge against Robo-Kid, but the boss fights there are an overall design choice instead of a weird, unexpected final showdown).

The worst thing about the last boss is that it allows infinite milking. Destroying all of its turrets and innards nets you more than 50.000 points, which is the amount you need to get an extra life. Talk about a broken scoring system! Milking in other areas of the game is also possible but more time consuming, such as when fighting the gigantic crawling monster at the beginning of stage 3. Speaking of monsters, the second boss is an obvious reference to the big marine creatures from Darius. And following with the trend in the series, there's also a cryptic boss here that won't give in just by hopelessly shooting at its core.

Rayxanber III is quick and easy, but I won't deny it's got decent fun factor. If you think the standard difficulty is already too tame, you can always try the maniac option. The main differences are in enemies being more resilient, coming in slightly higher numbers and behaving just a little more aggressively. All other gameplay aspects stay the same. Regardless of how you play the game, the ending gives a very nice closure to the series by showing stills of backgrounds from all stages in Rayxanber and Rayxanber II as you listen to the awesome theme for the very first level of the original chapter.

I just wanted to score more than half a million points, so here's my final 1CC result on Standard/Normal difficulty:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Excellent 10 [Brenner] (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Team Fiat
Published by Amorphous in 1990

Before shoving the FM Towns Marty back into the box I figured it was a good time to resume exploring the contents of Excellent 10, the compilation released by Amorphous with games exclusively developed with their shmup-making tool Shooting Towns. And true to my initial resolution when I played Beams, the chosen title had to be the next one in alphabetical order.

Even though it shares a lot of aspects with Beams – mainly the poor graphics, the absence of autofire and most of the music – Brenner is of a different breed. With only four levels it barely justifies being called a complete game, yet it doesn't come off as a complete pushover. Difficulty in this case is directly related to the fact that you need to mash button A to survive, and also because Brenner does not hold your hand by granting excessive extends. All you get is an extra life for each defeated boss.

Surrounded by evil fluffy slimy green tennis balls

First of all, we need to make it clear that this is an 8-bit standard game. There's nothing here that could not be done with the same or even better results in an NES, for example, and that seriously hurts the reputation of a 32-bit video game/computer system. Back then it must have been thrilling to finally be able to design your own shmup, but I have already learned that you shouldn't get your hopes up on this system's technical prowess when it comes down to the games developed with the Shooting Towns tool.

That said, Brenner at least delivers something more palatable than Beams. As a simple game that follows a classic mold, players just need to adopt a methodical approach in order to deal with the obstacles and the lack of autofire. Most of the time that weird spaceship that looks like a racing car feels underpowered, especially after dying. The good news is that everything has a fixed behavior and there are no aimed shots at the player, so regardless of how many enemy bullets or fireballs cruise the screen they will always follow the same routine, as will the power-ups released by them. That's the saving grace in a game where button mashing is such a necessity.

The default pea shot can be changed into other weapons according to their respective icons: 2-way (forward + rear shot), 3-way spread, 4-way cross shot, a combination of 3-way and 4-way (best weapon in the game) and the laser (inexplicably the only one with autofire). I don't know what those guys in Team Fiat (the only "developer" in the compilation with a non-Japanese name) were thinking, but the single weapon with native autofire only appears in the second stage. There are no upgrades at all and no advantage is seen by taking successive items of the same type, be it for survival or scoring. Speaking of which, I believe the most difficult part of the plain scoring system is actually reading your score. All fonts in the game are so small they might strain some people's eyes.

From the beginning to the end of Brenner

Although simple, Brenner tries to show a little variety throughout. It starts very outer-spacey, making you fly through a meteor shower and fireballs before facing a series of turrets prior to the boss, then it slowly shifts to a biological theme. In the third stage you'll be surrounded by spores, amoebas and breakable caterpillars. If only the bosses had some minimally interesting design... But no, they're all huge wrecks that bounce around the screen in repetitive patterns. Don't try to move too far up when going around them, the game cuts you off a good stretch before you're able to reach the top of the play area. The final level has no enemies, only a brief escape sequence inspired by the Salamander games.

Note: do not press START once you lose all lives or you'll come back to the start screen. Continues are unlimited but you should always press buttons A or B to restart the level. In order to get back to the OS screen to select a different game you need to reset the console. Whenever you boot one of the games in Excellent 10 on the FM Towns Marty you're given the chance to select between under scan (31,47 kHz) or over scan (15,73 kHz) displays.

My final score for Brenner is below. I managed to beat it on a single life.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Ku2++ (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 / 10 Stages (Comical / Scerious mode)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panther Software
Published by Panther Software in 1993

The FM Towns was never a mainstream computer, nor was the FM Towns Marty, its equally obscure consolized version. Owning one of them is already proof of how much people are capable of cherishing video game collecting, but going after the games can be an even more challenging quest. With a few exceptions they tend to be rare, expensive and above all not language-friendly (unless we’re talking about shmups, of course). On the far end of the rarity spectrum are games like Ku2++, which are so scarce and collector-protected that only surface on the market when Earth aligns with Saturn and Pluto. I happened to be there when one of these events took place, luck and everything else included since I was even able to bypass the ridiculous price these games command these days.

Released for the Sharp X68000 computer as Ku2, the title was soon ported to the FM Towns as Ku2++, down to the way both games on the disc behave. Wait, two games? Yes, Ku2++ actually comes with two completely different games that besides being verticals have only one aspect in common: the presence of a leeching parasite that flies alongside the player and is able to swallow enemy ships to unleash a devastating attack. Having two games on one disc is probably where the double plus in the title comes from, whereas “KU” is supposed to be the name of the alien leech.

As soon as the disc is booted you must select between Scerious [sic] and Comical mode, a choice that can only be reverted by resetting the console. Scerious mode is your classic sci-fi shooter, complete with an extremely convoluted story fully narrated in English/Engrish. Comical mode, on the other hand, is a cute’em up narrated in Japanese with a foolish, exaggerated kusoge style.

Comical mode: the American dream ends in hamburguer rage over the clouds

The long intro for Scerious mode introduces a character named Wayne Shadowick, the heroic pilot of the XF-33V/U001, an advanced spaceship equipped with two of those leeching maggots that fly beside it all the time. The XF-33V/U001 is the last hope of mankind against an evil alien threat called Soridum, and must travel across eight areas plagued by all sorts of enemies, both mechanical and biological. Button B shoots and button A fires the energy accumulated inside the KUs, which change color when absorbing enemies. A pulsating green tint means they’ve soaked the maximum amount of energy, whose blast upon hitting a target results in a big explosion with a skull figure inside – an obvious nod to Truxton. As expected, triggering the bomb with half-full KUs will result in less powerful blasts.

Prior to starting the credit it’s important to go to the options screen first. Besides turning on autofire, you can also choose from three weapon “packs” to be used in the game, each one allowing the ship to use three different weapons according to the letter-coded power up item that cycles as it leaves the screen. Pack 1 is the default and comes with M (homing missiles), L (laser) and V (spread vulcan). Pack 2 comes with M (multidirectional shot), R (ring shot) and H (straight + homing). Pack 3 consists of R (straight), W (winding spread) and P (bending spread). All weapons can be upgraded twice by collecting the same item successively, with speed-ups providing three additional levels of maneuverability (as seen in the overhead display). There are no shields of any kind, but the good news is that your maggot friends are able to absorb all bullets.

Although relatively quirky and strangely cool on the outside, Scerious mode (by all means the main game in Ku2++) is rather bland when it comes to graphics, and doesn’t flow at the frame rate you’d expect from a 32-bit console. Some weapons send the gameplay into a numb/dazed condition where you can’t fire without being affected by very mild slowdown, in a smaller scale than what can be seen in Thunder Spirits for the SNES (in a weird inversion of the norm when it comes down to shmups, homing weapons induce no such slowdown here). Flicker isn’t a problem, but bullet visibility does become an issue in certain areas. The scoring system is as basic as it gets, and sadly totally wastes the potential provided by the KU gimmick.

Since there are no continues or additional difficulty settings in place, the developer tried to address the challenge spikes by handing out extra lives like candy (one at every 80.000 points). The build-up in challenge is okay until you reach stage 6 (Ancient Temple), the hardest and most dangerous area, where all weapons seem to lack the firepower to deal with both ground and aerial enemies. The game gets more manageable afterwards, but remains quite intense and a lot more demanding in regards to the usage of KUs both for defense and offense. Also beware of walls with blurry borders and turrets that spit bullets right in your face. Throughout the journey dedicated shmup fans will certainly spot influences from other games in the genre: Salamander and Dragon Spirit seem to be the strongest sources of inspiration, but there are also echoes of Raiden and Star Soldier here and there. It’s just a bit disappointing that the result isn’t remarkable in any way whatsoever, except for a few pieces in the synth-based soundtrack. The theme that plays on the Alien Ferociousness level is great, for instance.

A full run of the "Scerious mode" on Ku2++ for the FM Towns

And what about Comical mode? I doubt any serious shmupper will be able to play more than two full credits of this travesty. Blame it on the annoying Japanese narrator and the complete lack of challenge. Comical mode draws a lot from Twin Bee in graphics and overall tone, but the gameplay is just marginally better than Magic Girl on the Mega Drive, frame rate included. Instead of two KUs now there’s only one, following the ship around and swallowing whatever comes across its path. Weapons are restricted to three, a forward shot, spread bombs and a flamethrower, all of them activated and upgraded by collecting the appropriate icon that cycles with speed-ups and bounces around before disappearing.

What makes this mode so easy is the same extend routine of one extra life with every 80.000 points and the additional assortment of 1UPs you’re able to pick up. On top of that, an icon that appears every 30 seconds and looks like a fireball endows the ship with a shield barrier that can withstand a good number of hits. Frankly, if you don’t die by boredom after a while you’ll only know your first death when a few enemies start coming from below at the end of the third stage. Bosses are a joke and might surrender instantly when hit by the KU bomb, which at medium or full power materializes as a giant fly swatter. It’s quite fun to do it, too bad it becomes almost impossible to feed the KU parasite once you get all possible speed-ups. Not that it really matters, but you can adjust the speed of the KU in the options between low/middle/high.

With just five stages, Comical mode offers a bit more in the way of scoring, given the fact that every surplus power-up gives you some extra points. The poor gameplay and the astounding lack of challenge hurt it bad though, and the inability to skip that retarded ending to finally see your score forced me to endure one of the most annoying things ever in a video game. Twice.

Pausing in both games lets you turn autofire OFF/ON (button B) and alter other options that don't work at all (palet STOP/FLASH with button A and wait NORMAL/ZERO with ↑). I don't know what this “palet” thing is, but the ZERO wait function would've been nice if it even worked. I suppose these extra switches might have a purpose on a FM Towns computer. The pictures below show my best results on both game modes of Ku2++, with Scerious mode beaten using weapon pack 1.