Friday, September 8, 2017

S.C.A.T. (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Natsume
Published by Natsume in 1991

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Contra merged with Forgotten Worlds? Well... S.C.A.T. is one of the possible answers. In fact, it's as if the characters from Contra had suddenly acquired the ability to fly, and given the sci-fi backdrop we could even take this game as a spin-off evolution for Konami's platformer classic. Known as Final Mission in Japan and Action in New York in Europe and Australia, S.C.A.T. is a short for Special Cybernetic Attack Team, the last hope of mankind against the threat brought about by an alien invader called Vile Malmort.

Yes, the name also reminded me of that little literary phenomenon about a wizard kid.

Let it be known that I have played the North American release of S.C.A.T., whose differences to the other versions go a little beyond what could be called merely aesthetical. The most evident visual change from the original release titled Final Mission is that in S.C.A.T. you can assume the roles of either "Arnold"or "Sigourney" as you start the credit. The game rides high on the movie hype and even shows their likenesses in the character selection screen for a 1-player campaign (when in co-op player 1 will always be Arnold and player 2 will always be Sigourney). In game there's no difference at all between them except for sprite color (he is blue, she is orange/red). Still on the movie hype thing, note how Back to the Future is openly referenced at the title font.

The Earth is counting on you! Good luck!
(courtesy of YouTube user Video Game Previews)

Since you start playing on a devastated New York and proceed into outer space territory, the game certainly shows a neat environment progression that loosely matches the increase in difficulty. Button B is used to fire while button A locks and unlocks the firing position of the twin satellites that move above and below the character. It's not possible to lock the character firing direction as in other bidirectional shooters, so a little bit of caution must be used to take care of all incoming hazards. That's when the secondary shot provided by the twin satellites is useful, since they can hit enemies positioned in different angles.

By destroying a small gray crate an item is uncovered for immediate pick-up. Don't wait too long to collect the desired ones, for they will soon catch up with the scrolling speed and go away. Weapon types consist of L (laser), W (wide spread) and B (bomb). My favorite one is the wide shot because it combines the faster firing rate of the laser with the power of the bomb. The instruction manual says the laser can shoot through some walls but that poses no advantage when the weapon is simply so weak, whereas the concussive force provided by the explosive bombs suffer from a capped shooting rate of only one shell at a time. None of these weapons can be upgraded nor have any influence on the firepower of the satellites.

The remaining item types appear as S (speed-up) and R (health recovery). Speed-ups can be collected at will because the characters will never move too fast. Each R refills three slices of the health meter, which should never reach zero or else it's instant GAME OVER. At the start of the credit you get six health/life blocks, and besides collecting the recovery items you also get extra single refills at predefined scoring intervals, which I assume to be 10.000 points. The reason for the "assuming" part is that the score isn't shown anywhere while you're playing, only at the establishing panel prior to the start of the level.

Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on the orbiting platform

Stages in S.C.A.T. are of decent length for an 8-bit shmup, but the game feels very short nonetheless. Named the "Astrotube", stage 3 has a vertical part where you fly really fast inside an ascending shaft towards outer space; unfortunately visibility takes a little punch there because the color choices aren't the most reasonable. In stage 4 players fly around a huge battleship with lots of cheap lasers that enter the screen already shooting and give little to no response time for reaction; the tip is to remain as close to the battleship's hull as possible, after all there's no harm in touching surfaces. Beware of the scenery though, instant GAME OVER occurs if you get stuck and caught up by the scrolling effect.

In the final area the challenge picks up a notch, with blue lasers fired from invincible turrets bouncing around the screen and leaving little room for maneuvering. I had to continue a few times there to get comfortable with the level. As for bosses, they're all quite varied and at times creepy, but none of them offers any decent resistance whatsoever. Besides the fitting soundtrack, the boss gallery is the aspect that reminds me the most of Natsume's previous NES shooter Abadox. There are a few other traits that seem to bleed over between both titles, but in general S.C.A.T. comes off as more generic and doesn't feel as accomplished as Abadox. For its shallow nature at least it's reasonably fun, something that can't be said about Japanese Final Mission: that one has only three health cells, weaker weapons, severe power-down penalties and no recovery items at all. Ouch.

The opening moments of S.C.A.T. include a cool animated intro and a digitized voice message cheering players after the mission is started. That goes a long way in setting the mood for what's to come, but I wish the consumed resources had been used for more noble *shooting* purposes. My final 1CC score using Arnold is below (don't reset the console or that hi-score number will be reset as well).

Friday, September 1, 2017

Gradius IV (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by KCET in 2000

With the release of this compilation in 2000, Gradius fans were finally getting the cream of the crop in regards to the arcade chapters of the series. Most interesting is the fact that Gradius IV had been released just a year prior, exactly 10 years after Gradius III and a couple of years since Gradius Gaiden had hit the previous video game generation on the Playstation. I'd certainly be thrilled to play an arcade-perfect port so soon after launch, even though these days the general concensus is that the fourth arcade chapter falls a little flat in its attempt to continue the legacy held by Gradius Gaiden. This is certainly debatable, but regardless of any relative merits gamers ought to pay respect to Gradius IV, after all it still stands as the last Gradius game ever released for the arcades.

By choosing to play Gradius IV in this disc players are welcomed by a rather different experience to the one posed by the excruciating Gradius III. Up front there’s the higher resolution for graphics and a series of neat graphical effects. Coupled with a more straightforward set of gameplay options, these aesthetical refinements end up creating a very distinct visual identity, one that builds upon the colorful design of Gradius Gaiden while recycling a few key areas of previous chapters. Checkpoints are still to blame for the perceived excessive difficulty, but the good news is that no matter where you die in Gradius IV it will always be possible to get back up with some practice and patience. This alone corrects one of the issues that made arcade Gradius III such a legendary nightmare... Impossible checkpoints are a bitch and not so many people are willing to deal with them.

This time around Vic Viper returns to battle all alone with fixed weapon configurations, as opposed to the different ship types and weapon edit modes of Gradius III and Gradius Gaiden. There are six variations to choose from, plus the mandatory choice of shield or force field. Regardless of the chosen configuration, all upgrades are applied with collected power-up capsules and proper management of the weapon array, which evolves in the following order: speed-up, missiles, double/tailgun, laser, options, shield. Screen-clearing gray capsules appear from time to time, as well as the option thief bug if you manage to survive long enough while powered up to the max.

A postcard from battle

The first four configuration/ship types have already been seen in previous games and are very familiar, but the last two come with some new ideas. Type 5 introduces vertical mines as missiles, which take advantage of the ship's momentum so that players can perform crazy stunts with them. Type 6 has flying torpedoes that are naturally fired forward when using rapid missile, or travel vertically and dart forward by holding and releasing the missile button (not rapid); upon touching surfaces the flying torpedoes will then move forward. I dabbled a bit with them and then decided for type 6, but the determining factor was the laser: type 5 has a long pink laser that takes forever to recharge, whereas type 6 comes with the best laser in the game, plus the much useful tailgun instead of double. For button layout I had rapid shot/missile set to ×, missile set to □ and power-up set to R2.

By the way, there's a common idea about Gradius IV that all lasers suck when compared with the default shot, except for type 6's twin laser.

In keeping with the tradition of the arcade titles, double upgrades for missiles and laser as seen in Gradius Gaiden are gone. Rank is still in place and contributes a lot to the increase in difficulty the more powered up you are and the longer you survive. If you play the game long enough it's possible to know how hairy things are gonna get depending on your performance. Fortunately, as mentioned above, Gradius IV will never make you outright give up on certain checkpoints as Gradius III did, and that's a great plus in my opinion. Never mind how stage select mode is obtained here (by 1CCing the game, altered lives/difficulty allowable), after I got it unlocked I used it only for a short while on the moai level. Then I decided to hammer the game the old fashioned way, that is, by continuing multiple times and as long as I needed to get comfortable with every single stage.

Speaking of stages, allow me to break them down and add some insights for reference:
  1. Liquid metal – The opening stage screams of Gradius II all over, in fact it seems to be just a repaint of the first level from that game. The boss has three different second forms, all quite easy although one of them gives a few more points for some mild milking.
  2. Plant – The biological environment is quite distinct from the plant stages seen in previous chapters. There's this cool type of plant that shrinks when hit and bursts out with a slingshot effect unless you’re able to destroy its base roots first.
  3. Bubble – A beautiful level made very tricky by the mixing of bubbles from Gradius III and ice cubes from Gradius II. Dismantling large bubbles isn’t as simple as it was before, nor is it that easy to navigate around the indestructible ice cubes. The idea is to keep the left side of the screen free of bubbles so that the ice cubes will drift away to the left. For the boss the most important thing is to prioritize the bubbles and not the core, since the boss moves slowly and its lasers can be easily avoided.
  4. Magma – The second half of this stage is what attracted my attention and made me want to finally play Gradius IV. It’s kinda like flying into the innards of the sun, you can almost feel the heat when weaving through the volcanoes moving over the lava stream.
  5. Moai – If there’s a reason why I hate moai, this is it. They must also hate me back, for this time they’re even able to reform themselves upon death in the second part of the level. Jokes aside, this is the busiest and most intense stage in the game, borderline frightening for an outsider. My strategy was to use laser, devise a basic route for at least 70% of the level and never stay put unless there’s a wall protecting me. Laser is also great against the boss if you manage to clear the way to his mouths before they open.
  6. Cell – Another level where despair is a constant companion. The spores breaking out of destroyed pipes/arteries are almost as annoying as the moai statues, and the return of the tentacle creatures from Gradius in the second half is overwhelming at high rank. After a couple of deaths you’d better just avoid the things and let them move away. I quite like the fight against boss Berial because he makes you move around a lot, which reminds me of Crystal Core.
  7. High speed – It took me some time to finally come to grips with the moving parts of the level. The very last section also needed some careful maneuvers because I only used two speed-ups. As for the boss, it’s actually one of the easiest foes in the game if you get there with at least three options.
  8. Boss rush – Finally a boss rush that understands players, you don’t have to fight the defeated enemies anymore! The bad news is that the pre-stage with the capsule blocks that home into the ship is probably the hardest one in the whole series.
  9. Fortress – Even though it’s got its share of tight passages, hatches and cannons, the final stage in Gradius IV is a lot less stressing than, say, the final stage of Gradius III, not to mention shorter and totally approachable upon death. The final tricky part is a new section with spring-loaded cylinders, after that you proceed to an easy take on the mechanical beast prior to the grand finale.
To the fortress on one life, then panicking through the rest of the credit

Looking back in retrospect, Gradius IV had it all to be the best title in the series. There are however a few key aspects that undermine its appreciation, especially for seasoned fans. One of them is the evident unbalance in difficulty, made explicit by some petty boss encounters and a couple of challenge spikes that feel clearly displaced. Case in question: moai and cell. Given how oppressive these stages are, seeing them for the first time at full rank can be frightening. I was in awe of how much pressure one has to endure there! And then when you get past that you face a comparably easier stretch until reaching the final fortress. I certainly can't complain, but this definitely isn't good for the game's pace/flow. As for bosses, Rolling Core (high speed) and Planet Core (boss rush) are a disappointment. Fortunately all other bosses are relatively engaging, except for the first and the last ones of course. The other minor aspect that might cause some controversy is the soundtrack, which is nice but gets kinda sappy in the final stage.

When coming directly from Gradius III, as was my case, the fourth chapter certainly feels more relaxed and less hard even though it's not an easy game by any means. Like I mentioned above, it obviously wins lots of points for having no impossible checkpoints, but it still has them and getting comfortable with the most delicate ones can take quite some time. As usual, Gradius fans will feel at home while neophites will feel the pain and most probably yell in protest. The extend routine starts at 70.000 points, continues at 150.000 points and proceeds with extra lives awarded at every 150.000 points afterwards, so it's not that many extra chances in a first loop campaign. The second loop brings lots of changes in the scenery, to the point that it feels like a completely different game and a completely distinct challenge.

On the scoring side of things, the game is even more simple than its predecessors. Power-up capsules are worthless, and enemies killed with the gray capsule don't result in any points whatsoever. A little milking is possible in certain areas or bosses, but nothing major. What's most important, as it has always been with this series, is the sense of fun and the larger than life feeling of defeating a powerful enemy against all odds. It feels grand, it makes you feel powerful like few other old school shmups do.

The Gradius IV branch in the Gradius III and IV disc has the abovementioned stage select feature unlocked with a 1CC (which also unlocks a boss rush mode), auto save and the ability to choose full screen or the original arcade resolution (which produces minor horizontal bars on a regular TV). Since the game already runs at its native speed, a wait/slowdown option like the one seen in Gradius III does not apply here. My final high score was obtained in difficulty 4 (medium), type 6 configuration + force field, arcade resolution. I was able to reach stage 2-2.

Next: Gradius V.