Friday, January 26, 2018

Gadget Twins (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Imagitec Design Inc.
Published by Gametek in 1992

Allow me to start this short essay by saying that I almost gave up on Gadget Twins. Not once, but twice. First when I suspected it was just an action game instead of a shoot'em up (only when I realized you could fire projectiles later in the game I moved on). The second time I was about to give up was when I thought it was too hard for all the wrong reasons, the most aggravating one being the stupidly short reach of your attack. But as soon as I said "this will be my last credit in the evening and ever" I unexpectedly cruised through the game and got the clear. Talk about first impressions and deceiving gameplay.

Released exclusively in the West (US), Gadget Twins belongs to the cute'em up subgenre and can be considered quite unique as a shmup. Shooting and dodging, for instance, is rarely to be seen unless you stick to bosses or persevere into at least the third level. Before that all you have at your disposal are short-range punches used to navigate colorful autoscrolling landscapes, in an up-close sort of action game that feels really uncomfortable due to the unintuitive gameplay that requires you to press button B to choose the direction you're going to shoot/punch by using button A. And in one of the many inspirational references to Sega's Fantasy Zone, there's also the shop where you're able to buy upgrades (press button C to enter whenever you see it).

The story goes that a special gem was stolen from the king's royal room in the magical gadget land. Bop and Bump (players 1 and 2) go out on a mission to get it back from villain Thump's evil hands. This is told in a cute opening, which is followed by an equally cute closure when you complete the quest. The fluffiness transfers into the game in the form of soft, cutely drawn creatures you must defeat, from cannon fodder to gigantic bosses, and while it remains faithful to this single motif throughout the overall result is relatively underwhelming, not to say boring. I don't mind childish designs as long as they're backed up by engaging gameplay, and unfortunately Gadget Twins completely fails in that regard.

Bop's underwater adventure

When the game starts you're equipped with weak spring gloves in all four directions, but soon a shop will appear for you to buy enhancements with the coins collected from defeated enemies (small coins = $5, large coins = $20). There's more than one shop per level, which allows you to experiment with all sorts of weapons/gadgets until you find the best ones. Up front I can say that most of them are just junk and you'd better stick with the big gloves until you find the vacuum suckers. The hammer and the yoyo are awful, with the other ones failing to surpass the big gloves or the suckers. Don't hesitate to purchase the weight for the downward attack, which gives you the ability to drop as many heavy blocks as you want and makes players feel like a super powerful version of Fantasy Zone's Opa Opa. The only other bullet-like attack, the hover mine, is so slow and useless that you need to pray for it to hit anything while you wait to fire another couple of them. Use it at your own risk.

Each stage in Gadget Twins has two bosses. They all attack with a selection of simple patterns, but some of them can surprise you with sudden ramming moves. Being patient and studying them as they appear on screen is a good strategy to prevent failure, after all they can take a long beating before the yellow stars for health fade and you put bastard Thump to run into the next huge machine. In between stages you'll enter a special bonus area if you were able to collect the BONUS item during the level. The purpose of these intermissions is to collect as much money as you can before finding the way out. However, if you fail to find the exit before time expires you'll lose all the money you gathered.

Items such as the BONUS token mentioned above are to be found by punching chests. There are also speed-ups and speed-downs, temporary shields, screen-clearing bombs, extra lives and energy refills. These refills are very important because they completely restore your health meter, which is displayed in the upper colored stars in the HUD; the white stars below the health meter indicate your current speed. Most of the time speed isn't a problem unless you accidentally collect too many speed-downs, a situation that can easily happen due to poor item visibility caused by the action and the constant scrolling. Speaking of which, if you get crushed by the scrolling effect you just get pushed forward at the cost of a little health instead of losing a life.

Intro to The Gadget Twins
(courtesy of YouTube user Stefan Faubel)

Coming to grips with the switch mechanic for punching direction can be a pain, one that might kill the fun factor of Gadget Twins even before it has the chance to show anything of value. Should you get through that, soon enough you realize this is yet another case where the game just gets easier as you progress. Sloppy programming is to blame: there's no correlation between new weapons and challenge increase, the game starts granting extra lives like candy and money collecting becomes completely redundant and useless. Once you get the weapons you want there's no need to buy anything anymore, and even if you have to (by failing to retake the lost weapon icon upon death) there's no inflation at all in gadget price. Since the extra money can't be used for anything else (such as turning into points upon game completion), all those bonus areas are just a complete waste of time – unless, of course, your idea of fun is to aimlessly collect coins for their inherent "cuteness".

Perhaps the only redeeming quality of this game besides the cute designs of some creatures is the soundtrack. On the other hand, sound effects are mostly mute and lack the punch to convey power to Bop and Bump's punches. Considering how clunky the gameplay is and how lame the weapons and the money scheme turn out to be, Gadget Twins can't be described as anything more than an utterly failed, almost disastrous attempt at recreating the magic behind games like Fantasy Zone. Some of the projectiles from bosses can be destroyed for points for as long as you can, which configures a broken score, but who would risk his/her sanity by incurring in such a boring ordeal?

My final 1CC score is shown below. Note that there are no options at all in the game, which tries to sell itself with the "simultaneous 2-player action" tag in the box cover. In all honesty, I seriously doubt it gets any better when playing with a friend.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

TwinBee (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 2007

The birth of one of Konami's most famous franchises is finally here. While I can certainly understand the reasons why it made such success in Japan (not so much in the rest of the world though), coming to grips with its gameplay is always a process that tends to take a long time for me. Born in the arcades in 1985, not only did TwinBee prove to be the most accomplished evolution to Namco's Xevious, but it also spawned a series of arcade and console sequels that fleshed out the original idea in several different ways. Besides that, lots of additional non-gaming material would be created around its characters, which is something that to me sounds as interesting as watching paint dry.

With the exception of a few downgraded ports such as the one released for the Famicom, the first arcade TwinBee remained untouched in the console realm for years until it got included in the TwinBee Portable compilation for the PSP in 2007. The UMD also has all other main arcade entries in the series plus Pop'n TwinBee (SNES) and a rearranged TwinBee Da! (Game Boy), so it's only natural that the first chapter comes out as the least interesting game of the bunch. This happens because despite the depth in its gameplay, which is rather impressive for 1985, it's visually a quite drab vertical shooter that can't really be called a cute'em up in my opinion.

Regardless of how cute you think TwinBee is, playing it often causes a completely different reaction. I didn't get along with it at first, but thanks to the wise advice of a fellow shmupper I was finally able to deal with the aggressive rank progression in the game, an aspect that can pretty much kill the fun factor if taken for granted.

Juggle bells, juggle bells!
(courtesy of YouTube user Lyra's Gaming Channel)

Just like in Xevious, TwinBee allows players to fire a main gun and drop bomb shots to destroy ground targets. These ground bombs come from the character's arms, which can be both lost if they get hit but soon recovered with a special ambulance item that cruises the screen only once (miss it and you'll be blind for ground enemies for the rest of the current life). These basic inputs aren't any indication of how hectic the gameplay can get, regardless of the player's inclination be it for survival or for scoring. In essence, they serve as basis for a primitive yet quite solid risk/reward mechanic that strongly left its mark within Konami shooting games.

Truth: everything in TwinBee revolves around bells. Or better yet, bell juggling. These are released by shooting clouds, and even though their color is primarily yellow shooting them again will eventually change that color to a different one: blue (speed-up), gray (double shot), green (shadow options) and red (shield). Getting these special items isn't necessarily easy, since the very next shot the bell receives will already change its color back to yellow and you'll need to bombard it again to get a different color. Considering that there's some randomness in the bell spawning routine, it definitely takes practice and patience to hone the ability to get the item you want. However, the game really shines when you're succesfully collecting maxed out yellow bells for 10.000 points each. It's a great rush indeed.

Enemy bullets in TwinBee aren't too fast, as they tend to overwhelm players by quantity while the enemy themselves try to ram you all the time. Therefore, in order to move around and dodge stuff decently at least two speed-ups are needed. Ground enemies comprise all sorts of turrets and moles, sometimes alone or in flock configurations that should be taken care of as quick as possible. When destroyed they are turned into fruit (oranges, strawberries, onions) or special items such as a star (screen-clearing bomb) or a static yellow bell (3-way shot, then a bouncing baseball if you still have the 3-way shot activated). These special items are extremely important because they're all benign and go a long way in helping you survive.


Frequently a combination of ocean, green/desertic hills and an occasional airplane landing field, TwinBee's landscapes are simple and not so colorful. Aerial foes will always arrive in waves whose behavior depends on the player's position and movement. While the game's natural difficulty slope naturally makes things harder, a single pick-up in the item roster can make it skyrocket: the green bell for options. Yes, it's seemingly a nice upgrade, but it should be avoided like the plague if you intend to at least loop the game. Strangely so, the way it's implemented always bugged me because in order to distribute the firepower you need to be on the move all the time (the options sink into the character when you're not moving). This means that besides making the game a brick wall the green bell also makes it harder to consistently juggle bell colors.

Even though this doesn't turn TwinBee into a cakewalk, sticking to the double shot, the 3-way shot and the shield is the way to go, with as many speed-ups as you see fit. Though gigantic, the shield can take lots of hits before shrinking and finally depleting. Once you're conveniently powered up it's the single most important item you can get, so don't hesitate to juggle them bells for a new one if necessary. The loss of an arm cuts your bombing capability in half, however it's not that much of a hindrance if you position yourself nicely before dropping bombs, after all they have a minor aiming ability and will always try to hit targets within a certain radius.

There are only two extends gained very soon in the game, but watch out. As obvious as it might seem, the worst thing that can happen besides picking up the green bell is dying, just because you become a sitting duck at the default speed and need to count on sheer luck to get back on your knees. Perhaps that changes when playing in co-op, which brings us to the main reason why TwinBee was originally so successful. In co-op play partners can push each other in order to create a spread shot, as well as hold hands to shoot a powerful fireball. To my knowledge this was a first for arcade shooters.

Besides being arcade-perfect, the port in this compilation has all the basic options you'd expect from a good console release: autosave, autofire, configurable inputs and game/screen resolution tweaks, as well as a music gallery. SELECT adds a credit, and during the game START is used to call the options menu. Just note that the default/starting difficulty is Easy. In the picture below I managed to loop the game and reach stage 16 (4-1) on Medium/Normal. There are no credits whatsoever when the game loops, in a neverending sequence of asymmetrical levels and enemy formations.

The next chapter in the arcade series is Detana!! TwinBee, which came out six years after this first installment.