Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Airgrave (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selected at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Santos
Published by Santos in 1996

One of the things people mostly remember about the Playstation is the large number of 3D polygon-based games delivered by the platform. Regardless of how well they aged it's hard to deny their importance in the history of our hobby, after all 3D opened up a whole new world embraced by many and shunned by just a few oldschoolers who remained faithful to 2D sprites. There were, however, titles that tried to mix 2D sprites with 3D polygons even though they still offered pure 2D gameplay. Airgrave belongs to the most basic batch of this short-lived wave, as does Stahlfeder, Santos's other entry in the Playstation shmup library.

Airgrave's core gameplay is reminiscent of Xevious, RayForce and Soukyugurentai, with a little Sonic Wings thrown in. Unfortunately the chances of a bad first impression of this game are still relatively high. Even with a selection of different playable ships it ends up lacking the necessary character to impress, which is only worsened by the confusing control scheme and the consequential learning gap about the scoring system. Trying to compensate for that with overlong, boring dialogue intermissions might work with some people but not with me, and spoken Japanese certainly isn't to blame for that. By the way, the game never saw any release outside of its native country Japan and that says a lot about its obscurity.

I'm not in the least bothered by the blending of 2D and 3D in my video games, as long as the result feels natural and does not interfere in the gameplay. Since Airgrave belongs to the Playstation golden era, when the hype was all about 3D objects and textures, these elements needed to stick out somehow. It's only natural that bosses were the chosen ones to carry this trendy flag, but having unskippable black screen entry animations for them wasn't a wise idea at all. 3D backgrounds, on the other hand, are more subtly used. If only the developer was a little bolder the game could've shown a little more flair, as in the end of stage 3... when the graphics are starting to get interesting with nicely rendered skyscrapers the level is abruptly cut off in favor of the unskippable boss introduction.

Pilot Aine takes on the Sea Side Base

By default, button × is mapped to shoot and button ○ to activate the "overdrive" attack. Besides firing the ship's main gun, the shot input also hits the ground at a pretermined distance just like in the classic gameplay from Xevious. Playing the game like this is possible, but for a complete Airgrave experience players must enter the Options screen and activate another input for "ground/aiming": when pressed and released, this button creates a lock-on net and hits multiple targets inside it. While fine on paper, the execution of the ground/aiming resource is rather finicky due to the delay for the crosshair to actually lock onto something (especially during fast scrolling sections). The good news is that there's a grace period after the last aimed enemy is destroyed, which allows you to move on to the next target in order to keep the lock-on chain going. Since scoring is directly affected by the number of enemies killed in a single net activation, getting used to this weird aiming mechanic is absolutely mandatory for score chasers.

Another peculiarity of the ground/aiming feature is that it diverts energy from the rest of the ship's arsenal, disabling the Xevious-like ground bombs and reducing the rate of fire of the main gun whenever it's activated. That kinda makes sense, unlike the ability to switch the default shot input to "to air" in the options menu. The purpose of this is to allow the use of the main shot only, doing away with the ground bombs. Since there are sections where this type of attack is still useful and it's impossible to have "to air" and "shot" mapped in the same controller configuration (it's one or the other), all I can say is that this reeks of a leftover mess by the programming staff.

Anyway, as for the rest of the basic gameplay, items released by destroying slow-moving shuttles include shot power-up (red), ground chain-up (yellow) and shield energy recovery (blue). Four red items maximize firepower, the amount of possible ground lock-ons is shown in the AF tag and the maximum amount of energy at any given moment is six. Shield depletion means GAME OVER, so don't miss blue items and do your best to keep that meter healthy (note that players recover one health point at the start of every level). These items can also be exploited for survival because there's a short moment of invincibility that comes with the moment they're picked up.

Shooting and targeting ground enemies is the backbone of Airgrave, but sometimes it's just not enough. That's when the overdrive attack becomes useful: it boosts the ship's arsenal to a great degree by endowing it with a more powerful shot pattern and by automatically seeking ground targets if you keep the aiming button pressed. Filling up the overdrive gauge on the top of the HUD is accomplished with ground kills, and a full gauge allows up to two consecutive overdrive blasts. An "overdrive ready" message warns the player whenever the attack becomes available for use.

This is the real thing!
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Database)

There are four ships/pilots to choose from, all of them with very specific strengths and weaknesses. Aine carries the most average stats but his shot lacks coverage; Randy is the slowest one but has the best spread with a wide aiming area; Reny is the fastest, has the most powerful overdrive attack but is shafted with a tiny and useless aiming area; Vel has a poor reach on the main shot but a very powerful ground attack. In my opinion Randy is by and large the best character as long as you're able to cope with his slow speed. He's the one leading the gang in the game cover, but all characters have dedicated dialogue lines. Storywise it all starts at a forest base, with the final objective of invading a sky fortress to defeat an evil mecha after tackling several different landscapes in between. Bullet density isn't taxing, but a few sections might cause massive slowdown (5th boss).

All things considered, if you're able to see past the game's generic setting the best aspect about Airgrave is definitely its scoring system. End-of-stage bonuses are granted based on level completion, the number of kills for a specific ground enemy (a bonus that doubles if you manage to destroy them all for a PERFECT) and a negative deduction of -2.000 points for every hit you take. Long chains with the aiming feature are still the biggest addition to the score, but some items collected in excess are also worth something (1.000 points for power-ups, 2.000 points for health recover), with ground enemies releasing special bonus medals (bronze = 1.000 points, silver = 2.000 points, gold = 3.000 points).

If asked about which Santos shmup is the best – or least disappointing – I'd probably side with Airgrave on the merits of its scoring system and an actual ounce of challenge. The only edge I'll give Stahlfeder is the soundtrack, even though Airgrave's music isn't offending by any means.

An unusual resource in the options screen for Airgrave allows players to change the color of the enemy bullets if desired (I didn't have any visibility issues whatsoever). Much more useful is the ability to set mission demo to OFF in order to get rid of all those intermission panels/dialogues (unskippable parts still remain though). My best 1CC high score was achieved with pilot Randy on the default difficulty setting (3).

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Super Cobra (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
11 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1999

A long time ago in an arcade alley far, far away, there was a scrolling shooter called Scramble. Seeing that Scramble was good, creators Konami decided to release a sequel based on the same gameplay. It was July of 1981, and this much expected evolution of Scramble flooded the company upon release. Factories had no time to stop assembling boards, and all employees had to participate in the assembly process to meet demand. The new venture was named Super Cobra, and this blog essay is another tiny love letter to this short-lived yet highly addictive franchise.

The most portentous part in the above paragraph was taken directly from the History section of the Konami Arcade Classics disc released for the North American Playstation. In bringing together ten arcade titles – of which 5 are shmups – this compilation provides a nice little window to appreciate the kind of fun these primitive games were capable to deliver, and I daresay the highlights are definitely Super Cobra and its predecessor Scramble. In the case of the sequel, those who can't see past its humble lines, the flat changing colors and the seemingly unattractive aspect of a snapshot are missing a lot. Not only does it expand the original idea in length and difficulty, but it also makes you pilot a helicopter. And since helicopters are badass Super Cobra is also super cool by default.

Invade the base and carry away booty
(courtesy of YouTube user SalaGiochi1980)

I know some people might think I'm exaggerating, but despite the jokes I do believe Super Cobra is a fine game. It has aged much better than other titles of the same era, and even today it's capable of delivering the kind of rush that combines tight gameplay, random elements and sharp reflexes in a quick romp that favors score chasing. Granted, once again it's necessary to handle a fuel reserve, an aspect that slowly disappeared from the genre as the overall arcade scenario leaned towards more straightforward shooting experiences. However, dealing with fuel recovery was rarely as well implemented as in both these games.

Once Super Cobra is selected from the main menu a brief instruction panel is shown prior to starting the game. Controls aren't reconfigurable and work with ○ for shot and × for missiles. The screen scrolls at a steady pace, making you maneuver through hills, caves, valleys and above rooftops as you face all sorts of ground and aerial opposition. Freedom of movement exists in the left half of the screen only, so watch out for that when flying the helicopter to the far right against walls (it's very common to die because you crashed onto something that should've passed already).

Besides dealing with all sorts of hazards, players also have to cope with the abovementioned fuel mechanic. In essence it's pretty simple: just destroy the fuel tanks on the ground to keep refilling the fuel gauge. If fuel reserve gets low a typical alarm will sound, and if it depletes completely the helicopter will plummet to a horrible, fiery death. It's not uncommon to give in to despair when the fuel alarm goes off, especially when all fuel tanks are located in hilly areas and you're forced to fly high. Missiles have a very specific descending arch and their drop is affected by the chopper's movement, in a primitive yet very neat way of infusing motion physics in the gameplay. Just remember you can only have two of them at once on screen, which is in fact the reason why I did not activate turbo fire for button ×. Aiming is certainly more important than firing rate in this case.

Main screen for Konami Arcade Classics

With 10 stages and a final level where you need to collect the "booty" in order to loop the game while winning an extra life, Super Cobra is not only longer than Scramble but also a tad harder. Every level has a very specific theme or enemy, and all of them require different approaches for better survival chances. The more comfortable you get with the game the more you realize the importance of aiming in order to proactively destroy the turrets that fire those nasty 45ยบ shots. With the exception of one area where they don't shoot, they're a very unpredictable foe just like the hovering mines in stages 3/4, the falling rocks/bats of stage 5 and those damn saucers in stage 8. Stage 9, on the other hand, doesn't add anything new to the game and is so short that feels like something thrown in to take maximum advantage of the allocated ROM memory.

Besides the life gained with the loop there is only one score-based extend registered at the 10.000 points mark. Unlike what happened with Scramble, whose version in this compilation is actually the tougher Stern variant, Super Cobra plays just like in the arcade ROMs floating around the internet. The Konami Arcade Classics disc itself is presented in a bare-bones fashion, with an animated intro and a simple interface. In the global options it's possible to save/load (manually) and switch off feedback a.k.a. controller vibration – a nice thing to do in Super Cobra unless you want to play with something that feels like a transforming Gremlin.

As expected, I had a great time with this charming little game. It can be infuriating at times and induce bouts of restartitis on the side, but it's also loads of fun. I love the sound effects to the point I don't even care about the absence of music. My best run ended in stage 2-5, as per the picture shown below.