Friday, June 29, 2018

Mushihimesama Futari (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2009

In 2009 the Xbox 360 was already established as the console to go for shmups in its generation. Nevertheless the hype surrounding the announcement and release of Mushihimesama Futari for Microsoft's console was immense. Bullet hell fans were rejoicing everywhere, myself included since I had been a longtime fan of Mushihimesama. However, upon a brief contact with Futari I thought it kinda felt too much like the first game so I didn't invest much time in it. Unsurprisingly so, I was wrong: the true nature of the sequel only starts to be unveiled once you decide to dig deep into its gameplay. And having now beaten a few of the game's modes I realize that this first impression came up due to the similar early aesthetics more than anything else (especially the soundtrack).

Besides being a great addition to the Xbox 360 library, Futari is also remarkable for its extremely gamer-friendly porting job. It was, for instance, the first Japanese-exclusive 360 title released with no region lock. And in an attempt to cater to all skill levels, it initiated the trend in Cave ports to include a "Novice" mode aimed at beginners. Granted, the content on the disc and its DLC alternatives consist in a multitude of variations of the core experience, to the point of seriously overwhelming the player with so many game modes.

Here’s a list of all variations of Mushihimesama Futari that can be played by means of the Xbox 360 disc:
  • Ver 1.5 (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – this is the official iteration for the game, after the modifications made by Cave over its first incarnation; as usual, it includes Original, Maniac and Ultra modes.
  • Arrange (Novice and Arrange, HD graphics only) - Novice is aimed at beginners and also includes the Original, Maniac and Ultra modes; Arrange is a single-player experience that comes with all game modes and sends the fireworks display through the roof with massive bullet-cancelling mechanics and the cool ability to change characters on the fly at the press of a button; both modes have forced autobomb.
  • Black Label (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – a stand-alone DLC than can be purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace, this is a special development over the base game with prettier graphics, a distinct color palette and even flashier gameplay; includes Original, Maniac and God modes (the latter replacing Ultra).
  • Ver 1.01 (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – this mode came as a DLC code in all first-print editions of the game; it’s Futari as it originally appeared on the arcades, with all the unbalanced gameplay traits duly preserved; if you think any of the Ver 1.5 modes is too easy/difficult, then you oughta try this one to put things in perspective.

Opening screen

While Mushihimesama was no pushover in the realm of intensity and flashiness, Mushihimesama Futari Ver 1.5 (the full name on the game box) manages to be even flashier thanks to an amazing upgrade that results in even more vibrant colors as well as a larger spectrum of scoring possibilities. Princess Reco is now sided with a young boy named Palm, who according to the game’s story convinces her to follow him to his village. With a few exceptions depending on the game's variation, they can be chosen in solo or co-op play in both “Normal” and “Abnormal” playing styles, a choice that represents the main departure from the gameplay of the original chapter.

The three basic inputs at the player's disposal are deemed A (shot), B (bomb) and C (autofire). According to regular Cave standards, by holding A you get a focused shot that reduces the character's speed, but in Futari that isn't always true. With each choice of character you must also select the abovementioned Normal or Abnormal shot type: reducing speed by holding A applies to all character choices except for Abnormal Reco, which achieves the same effect with input C (autofire). While that is certainly cause for confusion up front, the differences in character power and shot patterns should compensate for that. And besides the several similarities with the M- and S- power variations from Mushihimesama, you can easily notice influences from other Cave titles such as Dodonpachi (Normal Palm A shot) and Ketsui (Abnormal Reco C shot).

Depending on which kind of gamer you are, diving into the world of Mushihimesama Futari can be a journey with no brief return. I say that because there's so much diversity in each of the game's modes that you might be entertained for years just trying to perfect your performance in a few of them. They're all quite addictive, and a testament to Cave's ability in producing engaging, mesmerizing shooting experiences. In order to keep things under normal conditions in my gaming routine, my mode of choice this time was Ver 1.5 Original, even though I fiddled around with all other variations and can certainly vouch for their inherent fun factor.

Palm takes on the 3rd boss

In Original mode bullets are faster but their patterns are less dense, as opposed to the slower but more numerous bullets of Maniac mode. Survivalwise Original is much like the same mode from the first chapter, but scoring rules are totally different. There are two counters that increase as you collect golden gems from defeated enemies, and the basic rule is that to get large gems you need to destroy your targets with the C shot whenever the hundreds digit is between 0 and 4 (green counter) or with the A shot when this digit is between 5 and 9 (light blue counter); in essence, at every 500 gem count you should switch your shot type. Enemies killed with the incorrect shot result in smaller and less gems. The large/overall counter increases throughout the whole game with no ceiling, the smaller/stage counter maxes out at 9.999 and is reset in every level. Both of them tie into multiplying the base values of your kills for higher scores, but let's not forget the end-of-stage bonuses that also contribute greatly to the scoring results.

Extensions to the basics above include the bullet cancelling nature of larger enemies (all their bullets are turned into gold), collecting gems very fast when they appear to take advantage of their green aura and higher value (either idle or C shot sucks airborne gems, A shot sucks ground gems), counters decreasing during boss confrontations, loss of gem count whenever you bomb or die and a few specifics that help enhance scoring/survival, such as maximizing icicle kills in stage 2, killing the 3rd boss and 4th midboss with the C shot regardless of counter status, destroying all ground lanterns in the final level for a massive score boost and uncovering a 1UP in that same stage (do not bomb!). Speaking of extra lives, in Original mode the extends come with 35 and 100 million points. Each life in reserve is worth 10 million points when you beat the game.

With all those bug nests, huge beetles and deadly eggs pouring over the player, stage 3 is the first big challenge in any serious credit. The slingshot effect from the slowdown moments can be a serious source of anger in that particular section, as it clearly splits the game into the easygoing preamble of the first couple of levels and the slaughterhouse that unfolds afterwards. That's pretty much when the final aspect that pushes players to their limits in Original mode rears its shiny head: rank. The higher the main counter gets the faster bullets become, with max rank achieved at the 70.000 figure. In any case, the dragon-infested village of the final stage will put all your abilities of micro- and macrododging to a serious test. Be prepared.

Release trailer for Mushihimesama Futari Ver 1.5 on the Xbox 360
(courtesy of YouTube user Elixir)

So much for Original, but what about the other modes? This supposedly short essay could be much, much longer, even if we stuck to Ver 1.5 only. To keep things short, Ver 1.5 Maniac mode uses a single multiplier counter and a chaining meter that work in conjunction with how you employ your shots: use C shot to start the meter and fill it until it turns red by shooting a large enemy; while red, all enemies killed with the A shot result in many more gems to be collected; these gems increase the counter to the maximum value of 9.999 (reset in every stage); to turn counter figures into points the player then has to kill enemies with the A shot when the chaining bar is empty, thus generating blue-aura gems whose base value is multiplied by the counter value; as these gems are sucked in the counter goes down, and there you go raising it up again. Yes, Maniac mode is a complicated one at first glance. However, once you get the hang of how to survive the bullet curtains and manipulate the chaining bar for best results everything starts to click.

Ver 1.5 Ultra mode is just stupidly hard, aimed at really gifted players or masochistic people. It's got the same rules of Original mode, but the overall multiplier changes status at every 2.000 count, stage multiplier doesn't max out at 9.999 and a True Last Boss appears at the end of the game (in Black Label God mode you need to destroy all lanterns in the last stage and get to the end without dying). Both Maniac and Ultra modes have no rank whatsoever, while extend intervals are of course different from Original mode. For now I'll refrain from commenting on the other variations of Futari, suffice it to say that with the obvious exception of Ver 1.01 they're all very likely to be as fun as Ver. 1.5.

The great porting job of Mushihimesama Futari on the Xbox 360 also allows all kinds of tweaks for visuals, training and special modes. Instant replay save is possible after you finish any credit, and if you play on Score Attack your performance is saved in the online leaderboards (you can also download and watch any online run). An interesting detail about this port is that it lacks conventional difficulty settings such as Easy/Normal/Hard, etc. My copy of the game is the Limited Edition, which came with an extra 2-disc arrange soundtrack for both Mushihimesama and Mushihimesama Futari.

Below is the best 1CC result I could get on Ver 1.5 Original mode, beating the game with Normal Reco and two lives in reserve in the end. Next time I'll come back for Maniac mode on Ver 1.5 or Black Label. :)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

R-Type Delta (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Agetec in 1999

Brave pilots would never run from their duties when it comes down to the neverending war against the evil Bydo empire, especially with the possibility of boarding the cockpit of four different spaceships in a brand-new adventure. This scenario became a reality by the end of the 90s when Irem surprised their fanbase with R-Type Delta, a new game built from scratch for the Playstation and an entry that soon proved to be the peak of this beloved series - a status that stands to this day since R-Type Final failed to amass the same kind of recognition years later.

To keep it simple, R-Type Delta is one of the definitive highlights of the 32-bit era and a mandatory item in any Playstation game collection. It's noteworthy for being fully rendered with polygons, in a programming job that puts Sony hardware to great use with exquisite textures, effects, layers and colors. It pushes the franchise further while paying an extraordinary homage to its origins, all of that to the sound of an amazing soundtrack that carries a great cinematic punch. Cinematic, by the way, is a good way to describe the game as a whole. That's easily noticed if you let the opening sequence of every credit follow its course as you see your chosen name in the stats for the first mission (there are three unique save slots for different pilots, so up to three people can enjoy the game with individual performance trackings).

Emerging gloriously from the ashes of the 3D trend that plagued that generation, R-Type Delta is not only beautiful to look at but also delightful to play. It brings the arcade experience to the console format while striking the perfect balance between tough and fun. Two very important changes are the flying speed selection, which is now done at the press of a button, and the fact that you cannot die by touching walls anymore. How's that for an improvement? If you played previous chapters you'll know how much pressure that takes away from our shoulders. R-Type Delta also doesn't loop and doesn't give you any extra lives, clocking at seven stages in a progressively darker, almost nightmarish setting.

Trying to come to grips with a gigantic attack

Following the trend initiated in R-Type III, in this installment players have a selection of different ships at their disposal. The choice of ship determines most of the strategies you need to overcome the odds, even though they all come across the same items throughout the journey and these are molded after the classic gameplay from the original R-Type. Shoot and destroy carriers to collect colored items and power up your ship: the first one creates a force pod that can be docked either on the front or the back of the ship, the second one activates the power of the chosen color and the third one maxes it out. Indestructible, this "force" can be used for defense and offence, as well as be detached/thrown away and summoned back afterwards. While detached, it acts as an extension to the ship's basic firepower. The only other items you come across are M for missiles (maxed out after two pick-ups) and bits that hover above and below the ship for additional firepower.

The shot button can be charged for a powerful blast, but if you charge it long enough so that the gauge fills up a second time an even more powerful attack will be triggered when you let go of the button. New to R-Type Delta is the Δ-weapon, which is indicated by the "dose" meter and fills up as you use the force to destroy enemies. Once it reaches 100% you can deploy it as the ultimate screen-covering blast against the Bydo. All ships have unique animations for all these attack alternatives, which is quite neat and makes playing with each one of them a very distinct experience. As for gameplay inputs, they can be fully mapped in the options menu (my setup was R1 for autofire, □ for shot, × for force manipulation, L1/L2 to adjust speed and Δ to unleash the Δ-weapon).

Here's a brief description of all ships from R-Type Delta:
  • R9 a II (force: standard type) - the classic R-Type canon with all classic weapons: wave cannon (red), 3-way bouncing lasers (blue) and crawling laser (yellow); standard guided missiles; regular beam for charge blast; Δ-weapon is an all-encompassing laser strike; a detached force shoots a 5-way spread pattern.
  • RX "Albatross" (force: tentacle type) - weapons consist of straight laser (red), latching lasers (blue) and energy whip (yellow); air-to-ground missiles; impact charge blasts;  Δ-weapon is a powerful strike that distorts reality; the force now has two filaments that affect the behavior of the main shot and act as an extension to its defensive capabilities, aiming and shooting automatically at the nearest enemy when detached.
  • R13 "Cerberus" (force: anchor type) - weapons consist of straight laser (red), bending lasers (blue) and sweeping laser (yellow); power missile with slight bending ability; lightning charge blast; Δ-weapon is a series of laser bar discharges that tears everything apart; the force now behaves like a claw, linked to the ship at all times by a chain that also damages everything in its path when detached (it can also latch onto more powerful enemies if you manage to launch it correctly).
  • Pow Armor (force: bydo type) - this is the power-up carrier, unlocked as soon as you clear the game in any difficulty, continues allowed; weapons consist of a heartbeat-shaped laser (red), 6-way bouncing lasers (blue) and bouncing crawling laser (yellow); soft missiles with homing ability when maxed out; charge blast is a spread of bydo ghosts; Δ-weapon is a full barrage of creepy bydo ghosts; the force full of spikes shoots in a fixed rotating pattern when detached.

First contact
(courtesy of YouTube user MatrixAndrAla)

When you think about the amount of attention to detail in R-Type Delta it's hard not to see why this shmup is praised by so many people. Everything about it evolves gracefully, with brief cinematic intermissions highlighting key points in the levels, providing animation sequences for large enemies or simply enhancing the sense of depth and non-stop shooting action. Debris fly everywhere, backgrounds show wrecked cities and revolving wombs while mechanic beasts disrupt the environment as they get torn to shreds by your deadly firepower, all ending in a final contact with the enemy on the other side of a dimensional rift. Of special note is the recycling of many set pieces from the original R-Type in the sinister ambience of stage 5. It's just one of the aspects that make this game so epic.

Another nice improvement devised by Irem in this chapter lies in the scoring system. Whenever the force is in contact with an enemy the score increases at a steady rate, whereas every single bullet shielded by the force also gives you a few more points. On top of that, a dose meter at 100% also serves to boost the points you get from every single kill. This is excellent because the player's performance with the force is finally rewarded in a risk/reward mechanic that's completely new to the series. In my opinion that certainly gives R-Type Delta the distinction of having the best scoring system in the whole Irem catalogue.

As a complement in the top notch work on the Playstation disc, the developer provided a lot of game options and a handful of extras for those who like to unlock stuff. A special section called War Record keeps track of the pilot's performance and the items he/she has unlocked, including the animated ending sequences, a gallery for different backgrounds and a comprehensive list of achievements. It's possible to turn autosave and vibration on and off, as well as tinker with the HUD display by changing the "cockpit" option in the pause menu.

My ship of choice for the high scoring 1CC was the R9. I beat the game in the Normal difficulty (Human in the Japanese disc) and got the stats shown below, which appear briefly after the credit ends. As for the other ships, I enjoyed playing with the Pow Armor the most, it's quite fun. The RX has an extremely powerful charge attack but its yellow weapon isn't good at all in certain situations (it reminds me of the ship from X-Multiply). And with the R13 it's important to learn how to deal with the clutch-like force in order to overcome the somewhat weaker weapon selection.

Next: R-Type Final.