Monday, November 28, 2016

Spriggan (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft / Compile
Published by naxat soft
/ Compile (Nazac) in 1991

After MUSHA became a smash hit on the Mega Drive, the development team at Compile turned to the PC Engine CD and delivered Spriggan, a game that seems to have beeen conceived as an offshoot from the mecha Aleste series. Some people even consider them part of the same family of shooters, which is perfectly understandable even if Spriggan gave birth to a somewhat diverse trilogy that would see its end on the Super Nintendo. Similarities between this game and MUSHA are vivid but Spriggan also adds magical undertones to the mix of mechanical foes, offering a fun ride that undeniably bears its own sense of style.

A “spriggan” is by definition a mythological creature from the English folklore, a fairy bodyguard that’s visually related to hobgoblins and ogres and is able to grow in size and strength. Could that somehow relate to the giant robot that departs to save the world from evil in a fantasy setting where bosses are actually controlled by people who flock in panic into their hulls as they see you coming to exert justice? You’re supposed to be inside that shiny robot suit, bravely arguing with enemies before or after dispatching them into oblivion while in constant comms with a gorgeous lady. Sometimes a few companions will join you in battle, but their failing suits and speed won’t make them much of an aid. These are some of the tidbits of extra ambience in Seirei Senshi Spriggan, another name by which the game is often referred to.

Acts of magic

One of the coolest features of Spriggan is its unique power-up system, which is based on the combination of up to three colored orbs: red (fire), blue (water), green (air/wind) and yellow (earth). These orbs come from bug-like carriers arriving from the top of the screen at regular intervals and always head straight to the current position of the player, disappearing if uncollected. While you can always stick to the same color so that the defining aspect of the selected weapon is maximized, it’s the combination of two or three different colors that often provide some of the best choices in the game. Even more interesting is the fact that each and every weapon combination has a name, just wait and see the tutorial that alternates with the attract mode.

Shooting is accomplished with button II, while button I performs the very interesting act of sacrificing the leftmost/newest orb taken into a powerful bomb (orbs cycle in the weapon display from left to right). Although it’s possible to sacrifice all orbs in successive explosions, this ability is more useful when a new orb is coming and you glance the opportunity to inflict some extra damage on enemies by getting rid of just a single orb, especially once you’ve noticed that bomb blasts are also capable of nullifying bullets. As for the blinking orb, it has a double purpose: instantly exploding for great justice (smart bomb) + providing a 1-hit shield to the robot (indicated by the energy barrier appearing over its shoulders).

If you think you need more or less speed to deal with the hordes of magical creatures, all you need to do is press SELECT to find an ideal setting out of four available choices. During some boss fights I’ll decelerate down to the first setting so that I can safely weave between their attacks, but most of the time I’ll use speeds 2 or 3. Though not a very hard game in its default setting, Spriggan requires some careful playing from stage 5 onwards due to a few intricate bosses. However, no matter where you are in the game there’s always the danger of acquiring a bad choice for weapons, such as that weak homing puff of smoke. In that regard greedy players are prone to suffer more than survivalists, given that every orb is worth 1.000 precious points.

After playing some test runs for weapons I came to a personal strategy I decided to stick to at least halfway into the game: avoid three different colors and stick to at least one yellow orb and any other pair of the same colors. When combined with blue I’d get the “aqua crusher” (two forward thick watery streams), with red I’d have “firebolt” (5-way fireball spread) and with green I’d get the “wind destroyer” (forward shot with green side waves). In my opinion these were the most efficient combos, with a special note to the sheer power of the aqua crusher, definitely my favorite. Note: having 2 yellows and a second color is the same as having only 1 yellow and two other orbs of the same color, the result is the same.

Intro and first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user zwallop)

Stages (or acts) in Spriggan don’t always follow the same pattern and embrace a wider array of environments than your usual 16-bit shooter. The longest ones have midbosses that break the stage in halves that boast completely different settings. MUSHA of course plays a strong inspirational role, from some of the weapons to graphics that seem to have been lifted directly from it, such as the plates that fall into a ravine after you beat one of the midbosses. The game also draws clear influences from the Star Soldier series, from Dragon Spirit (the whole 2nd act) and of all unsuspected sources none other than Battletoads (the carnivorous plants straight out of that famous shaft descent, the giant snakes in the 3rd act).

Closing up on the gameplay aspects, extends are score-based and come at 20, 50, 100, 200, 400, 600 and 800 thousand points. Losing the shield brings another level of tension in the busiest areas of the game, with successive deaths leading to absolutely unexpected credit losses (it happened to me a couple of times). On a side note, Spriggan is the first game released in naxat soft’s Summer Carnival series, created to either compete against or capitalize on the success of Hudson Soft’s Caravan Tournament (which is based on the Star Soldier franchise). As such, the game includes a 2-minute Score Attack option and a Time Attack mode where the purpose is to reach 1 million points as fast as you can. The next titles in the Summer Carnival series are Alzadick, Recca and Nexzr.

Below is my final 1CC result for Spriggan on the default difficulty (Normal). I had to be quick to take a picture of the score after beating the last boss because the end credits halt at the final screen (I heard the pertaining section in the options does save your score though).

The next game in the series is Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

REDUX - Dark Matters (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast / Kontechs
Published by Hucast in 2014

Once upon a time, in the realm of homebrew games released for the Dreamcast, there was DUX. Despite some weird flaws it was at least a playable and gorgeous game. Later on the developer felt the need to revise the game and cater to the complaints of the masses, and then there was DUX 1.5. It was a shameless disappointment and added nothing of real value to the original. Some time later, thanks yet again to sloppy programming, Hucast shoved DUX 1.1 onto customers, but I have no idea about what it does to the original game. And then, in 2012, a Kickstarter campaign was created and succesfully funded for REDUX - Dark Matters, a misleading title that made lots of people (myself included) believe we'd be getting a sequel to the game when, in fact, it was nothing more than a repaint of DUX with an extra stage and an extra ship.

One thing I learned from all this is to never get your hopes up when purchasing a product from German developer Hucast. Ever. REDUX was the last straw for me, especially when I received the Kickstarter-exclusive steelcase with a single sticker glued to the cover and two CDs that barely fit the lousy supports on the inside (the second CD is just a bonus disc that contains DUX 1.5). At that moment I envied those who had ordered the regular version and had at least received a normal box with proper art.

There is more to it though. A couple of months after the game finally saw the light of day a REDUX 1.1 revision disc was promised for all Kickstarter backers, addressing freezing issues on bosses and a scoring bug as well as the blurry image (only for S-video, VGA and RGB connections). At the time I was busy with real life and lost the window to request my disc, but since the reported issues are a lot like some of the ones identified in DUX (plaguing 50Hz/PAL users only), I certainly won't be losing my sleep over it.

Soaking bullets for measly justice

REDUX is indeed built upon the primordial mold that gave birth to DUX. However, due to all the details whose objective was to give a darker tone to the whole game, apparently there was this need to lower the original resolution, hence the awfully blurry graphics that put the almighty Dreamcast to shame. Of course the longer you play the more used you get to it, but the initial impact of the downgrade is astounding. However, apart from the graphics there are other more fundamental changes and additions to the formula, which make the game seemingly more dynamic than previous iterations and point to the fact that Dark Matters is the final product following all those beta versions disguised as proper releases.

For a starter, when thinking of R-Typean influences REDUX is more akin to Pulstar than R-Type itself. This means it doesn't allow players to detach and summon the pod anymore because the pod is permanently fixed in front of the ship once you get the first power-up. Pod manipulation was never needed anyway, so this takes a lot off the shoulders of players from the get go. In fact, REDUX is a game where it's okay to take everything that comes towards you since none of the icons/upgrades you come across interfere negatively in the gameplay. You have power-ups for main shot (the choice of more than one weapon is gone), missile upgrades (provides 2, 4 and 6 missiles with each icon collected), side shields, stars (bonus points), 1UPs and obvious energy (refill the bullet soaking bar faster). Golden flakes of varying sizes appear everywhere from destroyed enemies and are sucked into the ship if you get close enough to them, adding to the score in the process.

I guess I should now give a mention to the controls. They're all configurable, and my layout of choice is R for autofire, A for shot (charge for beam), X to switch missile direction (horizontal/vertical) and B for bullet soaking. The only input that needs some explanation is the last one: when B is pressed a circle is deployed around the ship and every bullet inside its radius gets sucked into it. This lasts until the bullet soaking bar is depleted (see below the charge gauge), during which the ship remains invincible to bullets (not enemies or lasers) and new taps at B fire homing lasers on all enemies caught inside the circle. In order to keep the bar filled you either need to soak more bullets or acquire more obvious energy, those pink bits released by square caskets that are automatically drawn into the ship no matter how far they are. Note: if a large enemy has been locked on and the bullet soaking bar depletes you're still able to fire homing shots at him.

Besides the invincibility factor and the fireworks display provided by the bullet soaking device, most golden flakes released by destroyed enemies turn blue and are also sucked into the ship automatically. “Nice!”, I thought at first sight, obviously expecting some sort of boost in score when doing it. Sadly everything about this bullet soaking scheme is there just for show. It doesn’t matter if you collect golden or blue flakes or if you absorb bullets while invincible or using the pod, the real practical purpose of bullet soaking is geared towards survival. It’s a wasted feature, and there’s absolutely no need to manage its usage for maximum performance as I tried to do for a while.

REDUX 1.1 - Entrance
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

When starting a credit of REDUX - Dark Matters players are prompted to choose between a Normal (orange) and a Veteran (purple) ship. Note that all the above paragraphs refer to the Normal ship choice. When selecting Veteran, the charge beam and the missiles are the only aspects that remain the same: main shot is changed into a 3-way rapid fire spread, you can’t use the pod and bullet soaking is not possible. The game becomes a lot more challenging and claustrophobic when going the Veteran way, with stages 2 and 5 being really fun to navigate. Deadly flower blossoms and venomous spores were rarely so menacing.

Both ship types are downgraded a little every time you die. There are many 1UPs to collect throughout, but losing two or more lives in a row can put you in dire straits if you’re using the Veteran ship. Regardless of the chosen craft, the rule of thumb for scoring is to not die (life count seems to work as a multiplier for boss kills) and absorb as many flakes/bullets as you can. The bonus for each stage corresponds to its number × one million points (1st = one million, 2nd = 2 million, etc.). Scores are segregated by an N and a V in the only high score table available, which is really unfortunate.

When all is said and done about REDUX, the truth is that it does reach a better balance than its previous incarnations. I definitely can't complain about the stellar soundtrack! It manages to be even better than before by striking a finer balance between exciting and moody. That helps heaps in keeping the fun factor, despite the wasted opportunities regarding the bullet soaking feature. The muddy graphics become less of a strain on the eyes after a couple of hours, and while the extra 7th stage comes off as a bit lazy (same meteor-filled background of stages 1 and 4) it at least puts some pressure even when playing with the Normal ship. As I mentioned above the packaging for the steelcase edition is atrocious, just like the pamphlet that serves as a poor man’s instruction manual. Lastly, several times I ran into a bug where I'd get altered/exploded graphics and mute SFX whenever I rejected a continue on the GAME OVER screen.

My high scores are in the picture below. To the left is my 1CC result with the Normal ship. To the right is my 1CC result with the Veteran ship.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fantasy Zone II (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1987

I have no idea of the actual extent of the success the first Fantasy Zone achieved on the Master System, but it must have been quite remarkable. Especially in Japan. After all, Fantasy Zone II came out first for the Master System before being given an arcade release and seeing ports for other platforms, and if anything that says a lot about how much Sega believed in the sequel. The good news is that part II isn't merely a repetition of the first chapter, and in my eyes is just as engaging and addictive. Besides, every port and further revision based on this cute little game corroborates this assessment.

As expected, the world of Fantasy Zone II is as colorful as before. The action never stops, perils await at every corner and giant bosses try to stop you at least twice during the course of a credit. The only feature that declined a little is the music, but that's debatable since it's still filled with good tunes, yet not so catchy anymore (that song from the shop stays in my head for hours every time I play though). Opa-Opa is back and must destroy another batch of evil generators that are plaguing the beautiful areas of the Fantasy Zone. While the basic mechanics stay the same (one button fires, the other drops bombs), stage lay-outs are non-linear and require players to travel through warp gates across 3 or 5 panels within the level. Only when all generators/bases are destroyed you're allowed to face the boss by entering the red warp gate.

I already mentioned somewhere that dismissing this series as fluffy and childlike is a mistake. With this chapter it isn't any different, since a mere couple of credits is all it takes to get sucked into the fun and keep coming back for more. However, when I found out there's an item that gives you autofire I was even more excited about it. I say this because there's a huge difference in playing the original Fantasy Zone with and without autofire, a distinction that almost loses the purpose here.

Stage 1 - Pastaria
(courtesy of YouTube user coenak)

Each stage of Fantasy Zone II must be cleansed of enemy bases that pollute the scenery with all sorts of crazy enemies. Movement is allowed in both directions, and the scrolling can either be sped up by moving closer to the sides or halted by touching the ground. Some of the destroyed generators will uncover the warp gates, but most of them will release money bills. Regular enemies release gold coins, which are worth less than money bills, all values varying from stage to stage. Cumulated money is unrelated to score and is used to buy items in the shops spread around the stage, which provide several levels of upgrades for speed and firepower (some of these are temporary and last only 20 seconds), as well as a few survival aids.

Contrary to what we had in the first game, here all shops are static and can be accessed at all times (with the exception of the 3-panel shop of the final level, so don't be trigger-happy there). The assortment of items in each one is always the same, but in order to get the best upgrades players must look out for the hidden shops in stages 3, 5 and 6. There it’s possible to purchase autofire (auto beam) and power enhancers. “Power” is actually another name for health, indicated by a red gauge that can be made larger by getting red bottles and completely refilled by getting blue bottles. If you manage to get all bottles you’ll end up with a very generous life bar by the end of the game, allowing you to withstand lots of hits every time you’re respawned after dying (the upgrade is permanent). The main catch of the game is that autofire appears only in two of the hidden shops and is forever lost when you die. Remember that every time you buy an item its price will increase in the next purchase, with the prices of some items inflating even if you don't buy them.

Uncovering hidden shops is done by targeting their spots (shots disappear and you hear the sound of something being hit). A few precious items are also hidden in the same fashion throughout the game and can help you go the distance, namely the red/blue bottles (the clock gives an extra 30 seconds to any temporary weapon that's currently active, other than that it's useless). The moment I figured out the preciousness of the hidden bottles I planned the whole game around them because they’re both life and money savers. Speaking of which, in this installment money does not decrease in value no matter how long you take to kill generators or enemies, which of course opens the door for milking. I haven't tried to test it to the point of noticing any real climb in enemy aggression, but in any case it's a very time consuming and risky way to try and get more points.

All the improvements made to the classic gameplay serve to balance out the slightly tougher challenge, and in that regard Fantasy Zone II is a successful sequel. Not only is the power/health meter a very welcome addition in the long run, but the way shops are handled cleverly compensate for Opa-Opa’s sluggish default speed. Dying in later levels can be aggravating, yet it’s always possible to fetch a nearby shop and start getting back on your knees. Slowdown will occur when the screen gets crowded, but it's never game breaking in any way (actually it might be one of the best examples of "correct" slowdown in an 8-bit shooter). Flicker is minimal, I've only seen it during the fight against the 4th boss.

Ahouys, rollerballs/magoburus and cacti in stage 7 (Sbardian)

Before playing the game I was a bit wary of the warp gate gimmick, but the truth is that it works. Navigation from one screen to the next is fluid, fast and elegant. It allows for more backgrounds within the level, thus lending an alleviated complexity to the game while beefing it up in terms of graphics and length. Expect a very linear difficulty progression and a horde of zapping creatures as you reach the second-to-last stage, prior to facing rematches against angrier bosses in the final level. The last boss reserves a surprise for Opa-Opa and justifies the game’s subtitle The Tears of Opa-Opa. He's a bit underwhelming, but at least some of the previous bosses are quite impressive creatures, such as Bombdran in stage 4 and Halorings in stage 7.

My strategic approach in Fantasy Zone II was very simple. Get the normal engine and twin bombs on the first shop. Get the hidden red bottle in the 2nd stage. In the hidden shop of the 3rd stage purchase auto beam, big shot and another red bottle. Fill the expanded power meter with a hidden blue bottle in the 4th stage. Get twin big bombs and the red bottle in the hidden shop of the 5th stage. Purchase another red bottle from the hidden shop in the 6th stage (plus a bargain extra life for $100) prior to filling up the power meter with the hidden blue bottle. Get the final hidden red bottle and preserve health in the onslaught of the 7th stage. And, finally, spend all the money I can on extra lives and do my best to survive against the boss rush of the final stage. Each extra life in reserve upon completing the game is worth one million points, whereas all the remaining money is multiplied by ×10 and added to the final score. The game does not loop.

Below is my final 1CC result, with no additional auto/turbo fire. Next in the series I'll tackle either the NES port or the arcade version.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Astebreed (PC)

Horizontal / Vertical / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Edelweiss
Published by Edelweiss in 2014 (Steam)

I have always been a sucker for shooting games that dare to switch the scrolling direction or bend camera perspectives. Some of the most famous titles that did this with varying degrees of success include Salamander, Axelay, Galaga - Destination Earth, Philosoma, Einhänder and Thunder Force VI. In a way Astebreed is the apex of such deviations from the norm since it has everything I hinted at above plus a plethora of awesome cinematic transitions, and for story geeks a rather encompassing and convoluted sci-fi drama as well.

Suffice it to say when I downloaded Astebreed on Steam I was amazed at the graphics and the spectacle of particles, lasers and explosions. It was like seeing a crazy mix of Sol Divide and Raystorm, and this coming from an independent/doujin development team is nothing short of amazing. Sure many of the aspects that define Astebreed were inherited from Edelweiss previous effort Ether Vapor / Remaster, but the overload provided by the mecha motif and the boost in speed and frantic action lend the game an amazing sense of visual flair, something that's easily conveyed by trailers and all the footage available on the Internet. I heard that on top of some minor improvements the later version released for the Playstation 4 is even more polished.

Anyway, as we can see we're pretty covered in style when talking about this game. Lots of it. But what about substance?

It takes some time to see what the gameplay is about here. For a while I was completely lost amidst the chaos and the constant radio chatter of the characters, a feeling that subsided more or less when I was able to clear the game. Then I tried to learn it more properly and, if possible, ditch the idea that Astebreed is nothing more than a mess of a game in beautiful packaging.

Meteors ahoy!

The most important thing to do after starting up Astebreed is head straight to the tutorial section in order to learn how to use your arsenal. And then return to it once you think you have figured things out. In a nutshell, all you need to control your mecha is four buttons (I'll point out my Xbox 360 controller configuration). Two of them provide two shot / lock-on types: scatter shot / spherical lock-on (button A) and focus shot / conical lock-on (button B). Tap these buttons to fire your regular shots, hold them to throw your lock-on nets and release them to launch homing shots on the locked targets. The lock-on nets are reminiscent of Soukyugurentai, but it's important to note that despite being harder to use the conical net provides much faster lock-ons on stronger enemies.

With the blade attack (button X) players are able to draw the mecha's sword and inflict up close damage, as well as block most regular bullets. Keep tapping it for a combo or hold it while pressing a direction to perform a blade dash attack, a move that also makes you invincible as you zap from one point to the other. There's a brief recovery time after a full combo or a dash is unleashed, so you need to consider that in crowded situations. The last input is the EX attack (button Y), which can only be used when you have a full yellow gauge below the character. When no lock-ons are in place it triggers the spin EX attack, a powerful blade burst that leaves behind a golden barrier that protects the mecha from damage for a little while. If you activate the EX attack with active lock-ons the robot will target all of them himself.

The mecha will acquire a golden glow whenever the yellow gauge mentioned above is full. Note that this gauge is refilled automatically but can be refilled faster by destroying enemy bullets with the blade attack. The blue semicircle gauge that's below represents health, and if it gets depleted it's GAME OVER. Luckily the technology of the mecha suit is designed in a way that if you refrain from taking further damage it will automatically repair itself. And that's how you're able to survive the barrages of zakos, ships and alien creatures that flood the screen with the most diverse forms of attack. Speaking of which, as long as enemies don't display a red aura it's safe to touch their bodies.

Combining all the above inputs and resources can be a daunting task, one that will only become natural with a good deal of practice. Fortunately Astebreed is one of those games that comes with a wide array of practice aids and performance tracking devices that help you do that, especially if you want to achieve better scores.

Trailer for Astebreed
(courtesy of YouTube user

I don't know why anyone would turn off the score display, but it's possible to do that in Astebreed. It doesn't make any sense because how else would you measure your playing finesse credit after credit? The first rule for scoring in this game is to not get hit. Every time that happens the tension gauge in the upper right corner is emptied and the multiplier is reset. This tension gauge rises whenever you're shooting at or locking on to enemies, whereas the multiplier is applied only on enemies killed with blade and EX attacks, which in turn decrease the tension gauge (important: you can shoot and use the blade at the same time). The multiplier receives a shield bonus of ×2 whenever the shield gauge is full or recovering, maxing out at ×16. During boss fights it's mandatory to kill them as fast as possible in order to collect your scoring rewards, if the timer reaches zero you get no points at all.

Beautiful and fluid are two qualities the graphics of this game are often associated with. The entrance over the ocean below cloudy skies is as gorgeous as it gets, as is the camera shifts that guide the player from one area to the next. The difficulty curve is overall steady, making you deal with all sorts of hazards at different heights and distances. That's when you notice the rail shooting sections are actually the easiest ones because there's no need to dodge anything. Strangely enough, some enemies are dispatched by your mecha during the animation pieces, making you wonder why the game didn't allow you to take the matter into your own hands. Most cinema and conversation intermissions can be properly skipped, and those that can't kinda lose their purpose when you choose to disable the in-game dialogue, creating some odd empty spells here and there.

Even though Astebreed does not come out as overly difficult at first contact, beating it will require some careful play in its second half. Conquering the game, on the other hand, demands heavy memorization due to the constant damage you're prone to take from the increasingly tougher enemy swarms. In that sense the game strikes a feeble balance between casual and hardcore/dedicated play, as you can see from the scores in the online leaderboards. No matter what kind of player you are the experience is fast, furious and often exhilarating when you're able to connect a good string of attacks, dispatch a boss with a ×16 multiplier or get through a whole stage unscathed, which is of course easier said than done.

Extras in Astebreed include local and online leaderboards, achievements, playtime tracking, stage select, art galleries, the aforementioned tutorials, lots of visual/input/audio customizations and a separate special stage (the Prologue) where the very start of the story takes place while you have the chance to learn the gameplay foundations. Once the game is beaten a new mecha is unlocked for players to choose, but the differences are purely aesthetical (the default one is called Xbreed, the unlocked one is called Astebreed). As for my personal evaluation, at first I was knocked off by the amount of hits I could take and not die, then it slowly started to make sense the more I paid attention to the scoring side of things. It's an elusively devised carrot for dedicated players, and I salute the developer for doing that. I remained humble on my 1CC objective, which was to score more than 20 million on Normal difficulty, and here's the result playing with Xbreed: