Tuesday, March 27, 2018

War in the Gulf (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1991

The Gulf War wasn't even over when NTDEC a.k.a. Mega Soft delivered another unlicensed shooter based on the conflict for the NES, in an opportunist move that can't be taken for granted in their little corner of 8-bit history. War in the Gulf, or La Guerra del Golfo as displayed in the Spanish Gluk cover, is probably the first video game to use that particular piece of history as background, as much as that might mean for such a rudimentary shooter. On its behalf we can say it's got a true seal of authenticity in the presentation panel for the final level, which features a rendition of Saddam Hussein as you enter his "underground palace" to put an end to the war.

Given the game's main aircraft choice, there's certainly some confusion when you notice the cover shows a fighter jet in action instead of a badass chopper. Not much to comment on that front, but within Mega Soft's library of piss-poor games there's no denying that War in the Gulf is the best of them. With the exception of the occasional weird hit detection and a handful of cheap hits/deaths, the game at least manages to show a little variety throughout five stages graphically molded after clouds, ocean, desert, airport and fortress. It's a poor man's Silkworm meets Airwolf, but it's certainly above the inept results of Magic Carpet 1001 or Sea of Dreamland.

Push Start for justice

In order to wage war against the evil dictator that set the Gulf on fire, players pilot an attack helicopter that shoots with button A and locks a rotating satellite in place with button B (a "machinegun" that doesn't shoot anything). Up front I can say button B is useless, mainly because this satellite thing has very little health, inflicts very little damage and disappears quite fast. Therefore you'd better just use it as a shoddy shield while it lasts. Then you can explode little balloons to release the following items to upgrade the chopper: power-up, missile, S (speed-up) and 1UP (extra life). The first power-up grants autofire, the second one increases shot power but takes away autofire and the third one finally allows you to use autofire with the power upgrade. Missiles are fired along with the main gun, resemble the same artillery from Darius and are upgraded with their specific item.

Whenever you pick a power-up you have a hit's worth of life. This means that the chopper will revert back to its default power when you get hit. As expected, you lose a life when shot in that condition, so do your best to survive until the next power-up comes (remember that speed-ups and missile items do not grant you with this pseudo-shield). At selected points in the level a little blue cloud either appears or might be released from ground targets. If you shoot it long enough it will act as a smart bomb, exploding and wiping out all on-screen enemies. If you fly into it the cloud will act as a temporary shield that protects the chopper for some time. Either way it's a very useful item that helps you get through some of the most cheap or erratic enemy patterns.

Speaking of cheap, much of the difficulty of War in the Gulf comes from enemies entering the screen in odd angles or attracting you to trap spots. Since the main gun totally lacks spread capability, in many occasions it's best to use the chopper's bending effect to hit the targets: shots are aimed diagonally downwards as you move forward and diagonally upwards as you retreat. The only way to have a flat horizontal firing stream when moving is by going up and down with no diagonals, which is needed when facing most bosses. They are all ridiculously easy, so easy in fact that you might die from boredom, as in the fight against the giant tank of the 3rd stage. The last cannon has too much health, the first time I got there I almost fell asleep while thinking the game had bugged on me.

Attack at dawn
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Besides the 1UPs you collect during the levels there are also score extends at every 200.000 points (a characteristic sound cue plays when the extra life registers). Don't bother checking out your score though, it's only shown during stage transitions and it's ultimately failed by sloppy programming. Even though the scoring system gets utterly broken by the jet shower of the last boss, in a single-credit clear the final figure that goes into the hiscore record is the one that's shown at the beginning of stage 5 (similar idiotic implementations are also present in Crisis Force and Crossfire, for example).

As I mentioned a few paragraphs above, this is probably the least offending NES title developed by NTDEC / Mega Soft (I've yet to play Go! Benny! and Cosmos Cop, but I seriously doubt they'd be any better). In between the humble graphics, the equally modest music, the slow pace and the botched score display/mechanics, War in the Gulf at least doesn't incur in anything funtamentally wrong in its gameplay. The short opening sequence and the single panels that precede each level provide a nice touch in establishing the mood, even if this mood gets diluted by the simplicity of the package.

On the way to the 1CC on Normal difficulty I had the high score below prior to starting the final level, and once the ending graphics were gone I restarted the game and took this picture between stages 1 and 2. I used a turbo controller for proper autofire on button A.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Kyūkyoku Tiger (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Taito
 in 1989

It just occurred to me that this game – or variations thereof – might be one of the most ported arcade vertical shmups of its generation. As such, an entry for the PC Engine was a sure thing back in the end of the 80s, courtesy of Toaplan's publishing partner Taito. The best thing about it is that this version of Kyūkyoku Tiger has passed the test of time due to the great fun factor and decent challenge for 16-bit standards. And it's faithful to its Japanese original incarnation, which means it's got checkpoints. Some of them are a tad hard to recover from and you might as well get sent back even further in the level depending on how and where you die again.

The classic gameplay that inspired dozens of similar shmups is here for everyone's enjoyment. Shoot with button II, drop bombs with button I. Face wave after wave of incoming enemy choppers while dealing with turrets and tanks ready to take you by surprise as you move left and right, sweeping rewards in the form of kills and ground stars that are worth 3.000 points each at the end of the level (since the start of the stage or the last time you died, that is). Just remember to take a turbo controller with you on the ride, the game lacks autofire and you totally need it for button II.

Opening screen

As I mentioned above, game mechanics in Kyūkyoku Tiger are very simple. Overcoming the odds and winning the battles against the bosses is a different matter altogether. In order to stand a chance you're allowed to collect power-up items released by destroying this specific green carrier that always fires two spreads of three bullets when entering the screen. The blue S is responsible for increasing firepower, while the colored circle serves as a weapon type switch that cycles in the following basic order: → red (forward vulcan shot) → green (thin laser) → blue (spread shot) → yellow (4-way cross shot) → red → ... Every once in while a B will appear for an extra bomb, with a few more bombs coming out of nowhere from the bottom of the screen seemingly at random. Yes, talk about a token of kindness from this particular port! Finally, if you manage to play well enough one of the ground stars in selected stages will eventually be replaced by a 1UP item for an extra life.

Even though all stages are a mix of city, desert, ocean and harbor, and the second half of the game pretty much mirrors the first half with minor but important changes, this classic shooter never feels repetitive because it keeps players on their toes all the time. There comes a time when you realize brute force is the best ally against a fiercer attack from the enemy, as in those huge planes that cross the screen either from top to bottom or appearing from behind. Blink and you're dead meat, go greedy on bombs and you might regret it. Even with the tamed difficulty that's characteristic to console ports there's no stint of calm anywhere.

One of the distinctions of the PC Engine version, which is shared with Twin Cobra on the NES, is that when maxed out the horizontal streams of the yellow weapon acquire a slight homing ability that makes it a lot more useful than in the original arcade game. Not that it will by any means surpass the efficiency of the blue spread, since that’s still the best choice from start to finish once you get comfortable with the seemingly erratic enemy behavior and learn how to circumvent the lines of tanks that often catch players off guard. Those sniping bastards.

Raiding sea and land for great justice
(courtesy of YouTube user VGDBbr)

Note that bosses do not time out in this version, so the trick to evade the 7th boss does not apply here; you have to destroy both tanks, preferably one at a time so that they don’t overlap their attacks. Besides the ground stars for 3.000 points each at the end of the stage, players can also boost their scores by collecting colored weapon items (each one is worth 2.000 points). Scoring higher is mostly a matter of not dying, although the twin turret boss of stage 10 can be milked for as long as you have extra lives left. Speaking of which, it’s possible to inflate the life stock due to the generous extend scheme that starts with 50.000 points, continues at the 100.000 mark and goes on for every 100.000 points afterwards. Secret tip: as soon as the credit starts move to far left and bomb to win three extra lives.

Aesthetically it can be said that Kyūkyoku Tiger for the PC Engine succeeds both graphically and aurally. Unlike many other shmups in the platform, there’s a good balance between music and sound effects. Exclusive to this port, a brief ending sequence awaits all players who complete the first loop. The only difference I noticed in the second round is the increased speed of enemy bullets, which makes both survival and checkpoint recovery somewhat harder. Since there’s no score buffering of any kind, remember to pause at once after you die your last life if you want to get note of your final score.

Below is my best result, dying in stage 2-4.