Sunday, February 11, 2018

Battle Squadron (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
15 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Innerprise Software Inc.
Published by Electronic Arts in 1990

No matter how you see them or how people perceive them, some video games are just like bricks. They're "heavy", but not in any advantageous sense of the word, and playing them most often equals the idea of a painful hassle.

An insidious vertical shooter that originally came out for the Commodore Amiga, Battle Squadron is one of those games. It disguises its claws with the basic story of a rescue mission where you pilot a spacecraft sent to find two coleagues imprisoned in a hostile planet called Terrainia. Players must patrol the surface of the planet and enter/clear three subterranean areas before being allowed to face the final enemy – an unusual stage scheme that allows infinite play if you refuse to face the underground challenges. Surface opposition is mild and should offer no real threat, but once you decide to go into them holes the game throws everything but the kitchen sink at you.

This difficulty, unlike in other tough shmups of the 16-bit era, actually stems from a series of obnoxious design choices that can enrage even the most patient gamer, unless we consider playing in co-op. However, my instance is that no shmup should be designed around cooperative play unless there's some sort of dynamic balance in place. Unfortunately this isn't the case of Battle Squadron.

Introdution and initial action in Battle Squadron
(courtesy of YouTube user Insert Disk Game Play Channel)

In order to complete the mission the player is allowed to shoot (buttons A or C) and trigger "nova" bombs (button B). By destroying a specific carrier a power-up is released, cycling colors for immediate pick-up. The default type is yellow (orange magma wave, starts with a straight shot and acquires a side attack when maxed out), but there's also red (spread shot), green (laser, acquires a little spread when maxed out) and blue (two-way forwards/backwards shot). Five power-ups are needed to maximize firepower, and a little interesting deviation from the norm here is that you keep upgrading your shot even if you decide to pick a power-up of different color.

Since you must count with only three lives and no extends of any kind, remaining at full power and getting all the extra bombs you can is essential. Whenever you see a squadron of four ships arriving and retreating in line kill them fast to release the item for an extra bomb. Dying comes with the penalty of a downgrade of two power levels, and if this happens in the underground areas all I can say is good luck in getting two power-ups quickly to get back on your knees (after all you do feel underpowered even at max power). Battle Squadron can certainly seem tame upon a quick glance at the first minutes, but you can only know what's really at stake once you decide to venture into the underground by touching the ENTER HERE message in the middle of the black holes.

Considering that full power is so important to have a chance at the inside stages, shunning the first entrance gates in order to upgrade weapons at the surface level is a good idea. To that I also add the fact that the third underground stage is the hardest one, so facing it before the other two is always better than doing the opposite (if you survive the odds of that level you'll know the worst is already behind you). While flying on surface level, whenever you pass by the third underground entrance the terrain "loops"; once you clear any of the subterranean areas and fly past its entrance again the ENTER HERE message won't be there anymore; and as soon as all three underground lairs have been destroyed the game rewards the player with the fight against the final boss at the end of the surface stretch.

Though reminiscent of the euroshmup school of thought, Battle Squadron is more akin to a lighter Raiden than the horrors of Xenon 2 Megablast. All bullets are aimed, therefore sweeping and herding are essential techniques to be used here. Slowdown is totally absent and collision detection is decent for a game with such a large/slow ship, but as I mentioned above a few obnoxious aspects make the experience a lot harder than it should be. The worst of them are the chunks of foreground scenery that completely block the action, forcing you to always remain in the visibility zone and to anticipate enemy/bullet trajectory whenever you need to briefly fly below these layers. There are also cloaked ships that follow you around and often take you off guard because you just didn't see them coming. Lastly, enemies have the nasty habit of firing when they have already left the screen.

A representation of 80s European sci-fi in shmups

Taken as it is, with all its unnecessary contrivances, at least Battle Squadron remains faithful to the rules it creates. Since it lacks autofire, a decent turbo controller is absolutely needed to play the game (I'd love to know what no-autofire purists have to say about this one). Even though the enemy gallery isn't diverse, each stage has one or two stronger foes that represent the bulk of the challenge and require serious crowd control if you want to stand a chance at winning. Honestly, there are parts where the game displays a bullet-hellish atmosphere rarely seen in the 16-bit era, which kinda turns it into an embrionary version of Milestone's Chaos Field. The difference here is that avoiding chaos is not an option.

Seeing that the surface stretch is endless and you can be there forever, there's no point in talking about scoring in Battle Squadron. Never mind those little X items you collect from destroyed ground targets and are worth 1.000 points each whenever you transition from one section to the next. Also never mind the short-looped theme that plays from start to finish, nor the fact that the game denies you from seeing your score if you pause or as soon as you lose your last life. The difficulty setting here is quite special because it works according to two selectors: maximum number of on-screen bullets and bullet speed. In total there are 15 possible combinations. Particularly amusing is adjusting bullet speed to minimum and bullet number to maximum.

The default settings are max enemy bullets at 16 and bullet speed at 150, and that was how I beat the game. The credit ended at the first underground area of the second loop – the picture below was taken from a recording paused a few frames after my ship was destroyed. Battle Squadron loops with no apparent increase in difficulty, but given the amount of threats at every corner continued play eventually wears you down. My favorite weapon for the whole game was the red one, for its coverage and brute power at point-blank distance (green is even more powerful but lacks coverage in the busiest parts of the mayhem).

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dezaemon 2 [Biometal Gust] (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1997

When the shmup-making game/package Dezaemon made its debut on the Famicom in 1991, things were too much in its infancy to warrant any real enthusiasm from fans of the genre. Then came the 16-bit Dezaemon for the SNES and a repetition of the same package (pretty much) in Dezaemon Plus for the Playstation. Dezaemon 2, on the other hand, graced the Sega Saturn with a slew of new features for home shmup "developers", such as the ability to finally design horizontal shooters. Probably in order to stress that, Athena included in the gallery of sample games a title called Biometal Gust, which should be seen as the one and only sequel to pseudo-classic Biometal for the SNES.

Biometal Gust is one of five full sample games you can play in Dezaemon 2 (two of them are somewhat hidden). It's supposed to showcase all the main features you can use to build your own shooter, including several levels of zooming, scaling and transparency, as well as the welcome possibility of co-op play. The skippable cinematic effect once you press START is a proof of that, along with the backgrounds in the first stage, which are reminiscent of the tunnel levels in Metal Black and Darius Gaiden.

I don't know how you would all feel about this, but as soon as I knew Biometal had a sequel I was very excited. Even though it did not set the SNES on fire, it was a well made shooter with a very original concept centered around the GAM shield. Unfortunately the dynamic use of the GAM (Gel Analog Mutant) is severely simplified in Biometal Gust, which makes it a rather ordinary sequel when compared with the original.

Warping into the unknown in Biometal Gust

Inputs are fixed and mapped with R (rapid shot), A (shot, hold to charge a special attack), B (expand the rotating orbs/GAM) and C (bomb). A specific medium-sized oblong enemy is responsible for dropping four items when destroyed, which can be either a selection of weapon types or an assortment of upgrades. Weapons are color-coded as red (vulcan), blue (thin green laser), yellow (ricocheting wave shot) and green (homing shot). They all have their specific bomb animations with varying degrees of efficiency: red/vulcan triggers a circular bomb blast, blue/laser fires a narrow tunnel-shaped powerful discharge, yellow/wave drops a curtain with cluster bombs and green/homing hits everything with homing lasers.The other kind of item drops all have one power-up (P), an extra bomb (B), a bonus token of 10.000 points ($) and a 1-shit shield. Specific enemies can also drop bonus points and shields separately.

For the most part Biometal Gust preserves the visual identity of the first chapter, throwing all sorts of biomechanical, sometimes Giger-esque creatures at the player. The fundamental difference, however, is that this sequel is a lot darker and rarely delves into cleaner palettes; in fact, the only instance of that is the second stage in the desert. Everything else takes place in gloomier passageways and backgrounds, in an environmental shift that's surprisingly not as distressing as the way the new GAM shield works.

A ship in its default power will always be spawned with a single GAM orb in rotating motion, and for every power-up taken a new orb will be added, to a maximum of 4. They will always be actively spinning around the ship to provide protection against regular incoming bullets and inflict damage to anything that touches them. By pressing B the orbs will expand outward until they reach a certain radius, hitting enemies/bullets in medium distance at the cost of losing the up-close protection. And that's all there is to the GAM/orbs. In Biometal Gust you can't throw them away to target enemies from afar as in Biometal. On the other hand, they're always active and there's no limit to how long you can use the B button.

Final stage
(courtesy of YouTube user amagishien)

Perhaps in order to compensate for the loss of GAM functionality, the new charge shot comes into play as the new attack alternative. However, unlike the unique bombs attached to weapon types, there are only two variations for charge shots: laser and wave fire a powerful focused laser beam, while vulcan and homing fire a softer wave-like shot. Just beware of the recoil that sends the ship backwards, it's deadly when you're too close to walls. All the combinations for weapon/bomb/charge lead to the conclusion that the best weapons in the game are the vulcan (for coverage and point-blank capability) and the laser (for sheer power). The wave shot is only an option at max power, with homing falling short due to its weakness and inherent inability to travel around/through walls. By the way, walls are only to be seen from stage 3 onwards.

With only five levels, Biometal Gust also feels a little on the short side. It starts with the outer space staple, follows with the desert stage and throws a biological third level before venturing into the fortress motif, complete with laser turrets, energy barriers and moving blocks. Despite some narrow corridors it never feels claustrophobic, an aspect that says a lot about the overall difficulty. All bosses have at least two forms or attack routines and should be no problem after a few tries (remember that laser is always the best weapon against them). Speaking of which, you're respawned with the same weapon you were using when you died, so there's no default weapon in the game.

Extra lives are gained with 100.000, 300.000 and at every 300.000 points after that. The scoring system is simple, which means that killing everything is the only single rule players should know. No extra points are won for repeated items or for extra lives on game completion, which is a pity. This is one of the reasons why as a whole Biometal Gust is inferior to Biometal. It's got the graphics and it's got the music, but it never really engages and ultimately fails to deliver the same amount of rush of its predecessor.

The high score below was achieved in a no-miss run, Normal difficulty. As for the shmup-making tools of Dezaemon 2, be my guest if you can understand Japanese.