Friday, July 27, 2018

Dezaemon Plus [Daioh Gale Ver. 2] (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1996

Originally released only in Japan for the Playstation, Dezaemon Plus suceeded Dezaemon on the Super Famicom as the next one in the series of shmupmaking titles. Known primarily only within the circles of hardcore shmup collectors, the title gained a little bit of extra exposition thanks to the worldwide digital re-release for the Playstation Network at around 2010. This "little bit" could've been a "lot more" had the publisher provided mouse support and a proper English translation. With all the game's interfaces still in Japanese I doubt any Westerner actually bothered to tinker with it (an online translation guide just doesn't cut it).

Anyway, if you don't care about the shmupmaking aspect of Dezaemon Plus you can still enjoy the sample games included in the package. The main title here is Daioh Gale Ver. 2, an updated version of Daioh Gale (from the SNES chapter) that's supposed to showcase the improvements in the development tools of the Playstation disc, most notably the ability to handle sprites at will with rotation, zooming and collision manipulation. There are also ten user-developed games that won two separate competitions held by Athena, but these unfortunately don't use the sprite resources from Dezaemon Plus and are instead based upon the SNES Dezaemon platform.

To complete the line-up of 13 playable games on the disc, one of the two hidden extra titles at the player's disposal is none other than the original Daioh Gale, which can be accessed by pressing L2 while choosing the option for the main sample game (first option in GAME PLAY). For those who care about the sample games only, this obviously makes the SNES entry in the series completely redundant and useless.

A brief moment of Daioh Gale Ver. 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Shmup Database)

The only real link between arcade Daioh and the home variations of Daioh Gale is developer Athena. A few similarities in the gameplay also apply, but other than that Daioh Gale is in its own separate league of a console-friendly challenge that shouldn't give anyone much trouble to beat. One button is used to shoot (□), another to bomb (×) and several power-ups give some diversity as you play. Weapons come in three switchable flavors: red is the starting vulcan shot, blue is a missile discharge with secondary homing missiles and green is a fast-moving homing bubble stream (get two consecutive ones to max out firepower). Other items include speed-ups (S), extra bombs (B) and 1-hit shields (SH).

As the flagship sample game in Dezaemon Plus, Daioh Gale Ver. 2 comes with a few differences from the "vanilla" version, as listed below:

  • Ver. 2 has only 5 stages instead of the original 6 (the last level of Daioh Gale is gone);
  • the music for level 6 of Daioh Gale is used in the final stage of Ver. 2 (tracks for the previous levels are the same);
  • several parts of Ver. 2 have rearranged enemies, some of them with slightly different rates of fire and bullet speeds;
  • lots of enemies now zoom in and out of the screen;
  • there are less power-up items and less extra bombs in Ver. 2;
  • the maxed-out vulcan weapon is just a straight stream instead of the previous spread pattern;
  • the whole obstacle field of the final level has been altered and made more difficult (some memorization is definitely needed there).

It's easy to notice that all changes were pretty much aimed at increasing the difficulty of the game by just a short margin, perhaps as a compensation for having one less stage than the "original". Completely botching the efficiency of the red/vulcan weapon wasn't needed though, especially since it isn't anyone's first choice unless you take into account its bomb animation, which is the best one for panic purposes or for hitting far beyond you current position. After all, the effect of bombing depends on the the weapon you're using. Red detonates a round blast that expands outwards, blue creates a vertical beam of inwards fading energy and green sort of increases the damage inflicted by the homing bubbles. It's also important to remember that weapon types are carried over when you die (there's no default besides the start of the 1st stage).

4th boss amidst the clouds

Extra lives are score-based and come at the mark of 200.000 points and for each consecutive 500.000 points after that. Since getting repeated items gives you nothing and milking opportunities are so few and far between, there are no special remarks to be made about the scoring system other than exploiting checkpoints to score higher. Though I'm normally against this technique in checkpoint-based games, I didn't feel guilty by doing it this time because the game is pretty short and, quite frankly, as much a cakewalk as its predecessor was. I'm only left to wonder if the other sample titles in Dezaemon Plus are of the same caliber. We shall see in the future.

For some weird reason the save option in the disc did not work on my console, so my high scores could not be saved. Either this function is solely dedicated to the shmupmaking part of the package or my memory card was faulty. In any case, here goes the best 1CC high score I got for Daioh Gale Ver. 2 (Normal difficulty).

And while comparing titles I achieved the following high score in the original Daioh Gale, also on Normal difficulty (hold L2 when choosing the main sample game):

The next chapter in this series is Daioh P!, one of the sample games included in Dezaemon 2 for the Sega Saturn.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Final Blaster (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco
 in 1990

In a library that spans dozens of shooting games it's quite common to overlook Final Blaster, either for its mundane phrasal proximity with the Star Soldier series (there is a Final Soldier after all, and I've confused them more times than I like to remember ~ even when writing this blog post) or for the subdued aspect of the package when compared with more recognizable offerings by Namco (such as Galaga '88, Dragon Spirit and Xevious, for example). Whatever the reasons, the truth is that Final Blaster tends to be unfairly left aside by everybody. That in itself is a very sad fate for a game that's certainly above average among it's 16-bit or PC Engine peers.

Much more interesting is the obscure tie-in of Final Blaster to other Namco titles such as Bosconian. The most prominent link between these two is the 7th and last level of the game, which takes place in planet Bosconian itself. This connection kinda justifies the arcade-like structure of Final Blaster, but it also hints at a deeper meaning within the works of developer Namco. Upon a quick reasearch I found out they're part of an integrated universe called United Galaxy Space Force (UGSF), which spans several years and includes titles of all genres. It's a very nice concept for those who enjoy tracking down the stories behind the games they play.

Final Blaster puts the player in the seat of the Blaster mk-II Phoenix, a powerful spaceship sent out to stop another invasion from Bosconian baddies. Armed with a nice weapon selection, it departs from the Moon and cruises all sorts of environments until the face-off against the mother alien. Fire away with button II or hold it to charge the "phoenix" attack, which upon release emits a powerful blast shaped after the mythic bird. This blast pierces through walls and is your only ally against some of the bosses (notably the 3th and the 7th). The only gripe is that you need to get used to the relatively long charging cycle, as well as switching that turbo function on and off when needed since there's no autofire at all in the game.

Just a couple more kills to finally face the boss

In order to increase the efficiency of the regular shot you must destroy the carriers and collect power-ups that cycle between two colors only. There's a catch though, since reds and blues don't exactly work according to regular conventions: red is responsible for the ship's power, whereas blue endows it with options whose behavior depend on the amount of red power-ups you have already collected. It works as a single 3×3 matrix where a few seemingly less powerful combinations end up being better than the most powerful ones. The awesome configuration for trailing laser options, for instance, is achieved with 2 reds and 3 blues, while the double directional options with missiles is activated with 3 reds and 2 blues. Max power (3/3) corresponds to the rotating laser options, which although powerful lacks the coverage you can get with the previously mentioned configurations.

And then comes the purpose of button I. When pressed, it sacrifices one blue power level for a bomb flash that kills everything on screen, so to get the ship back to its previous status you need to get another blue power-up. Survival mechanics aside, I just wish I could do the same with the red power to get the configurations available for 2 reds, but it's not possible. The final input at the player's disposal is the SELECT button, which switches the flying speed up and down through four settings visually indicated by the number of spiky edges of the ship itself. I mostly used speed 3, changing to 2 and 4 only once each (2 during the hydraulic clutch passage of the 5th stage and 4 against the final boss).

Once you finish a stage in Final Blaster the game measures your firepower and performance in order to determine the difficulty level of the next area (OPT for blues, POW for reds and MISS for deaths). This rudimentary rank system is very subtle, and is mostly noticed in the enemy resilience after you die in a condition of max rank (level 4). In any case, things will just be very difficult during the second half of the game no matter how powered up you are or how many times you have died. And dying can be extremely cruel: the green icon left behind gives back all the power you had if you're able to pick it up. It's easily recoverable if you die close to the top, but will be irrevocably lost if you bite the dust close to the bottom. And then it's back to the default power level, despair knocking at your door as the enemies relentlessly proceed with their attacks. Factor in the vertical span of the play area, which is a good degree wider than usual, and you'll also have to deal with enemies you can't see firing bullets after they've already left the screen.

Blasting reaches its final instance
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

With great variety in stage design and bosses, all levels in Final Blaster feel quite unique. The very first impression might be of another Star Soldier lookalike but soon you notice the game actually bears a striking resemblance to Irem's Image Fight, as hinted by the ship's directional firing patterns, the floating islands of stage 3 or the shaft full of platforms and walkers of stage 4. Irem is also a very strong influence in other parts of the game, such as the final stretch prior to the last boss. Throwbacks to Xevious and Dragon Spirit can also be spotted, yet Final Blaster manages to leave a mark of its own with very specific sets of hazards and traps amidst cramped, claustrophobic areas that require careful maneuvering. The music is also of very good quality and plays in perfect balance with the sound effects.

Good performances in Final Blaster are duly and fairly reflected by the tight scoring system. A nice bonus is achieved if you complete a level without losing any lives, with the final stage obviously granting the highest prize of all. Items in excess are worth 500 points each, and mild milking is possible in certain areas. Watch out for that Galaga-like insect that cruises the screen in erratic patterns: if you don't kill it the thing will return in a larger and stronger form that descends slowly from the top while tracking the player's position. Not only is this huge insect a pain in the ass, but if you fail to kill it again you'll be robbed of one level of blue power, a downgrade that can be disastrous at times (the big slow bug is also worth less points than the zapping little bug). Extra lives are score-based and come with 50.000, 100.000 and then for every 100.000 points afterwards, with a few continues making it possible to practice once the credit is over.

After all the hard work one has to put into beating the game, the ending sequence does feel like a worthy reward for us brave pilots. It's got a very emotional tone, giving closure to the simple opening panels and putting an end to the experience on a high note. Of course this high gets even better with a higher score (if you miss your final number just wait for the attract mode to run to see it again). My best result is below, having died twice and being denied the bonuses of stages 5 and 6.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Gun Frontier (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Xing in 1997

Home conversions of arcade games have been around since the dawn of the 8-bit generation. By then they could never dream of being equal to their sources, but that certainly wasn't the case when the 32-bit era came along. The ports had everything they needed to be a perfect mirror of the arcade experience, yet a few of them insisted in being "something else".

Case in question: Gun Frontier. Those who played the original arcade will definitely vouch for its savage, brutal, relentless difficulty. The game is well-known for vandalizing people's dignity with balls-to-the-wall ferocity, demanding fierce dedication from even the most accomplished gamer if he/she by any chance accepts the challenge of adhering to the simple genre convention of the 1CC. On the other hand, the Saturn version of Gun Frontier, which was part of Xing's Arcade Gears series of arcade ports, can certainly be qualified as one of the most easygoing and breezy vertical shooters in this console's library.

So we're left to wonder... what in the name of Taito happened to this particular port?

A manga series of the same name came out during the 70s, but manga and game are completely unrelated as far as I know of. In our case, the game takes place in a planet raided by pirates who're trying to scavenge its precious resources (gold!), wreaking havoc and spreading terror in the process. The player pilots a winged flying gun to stop the invaders and bring peace back to the population with the aid of a shot input (button A or button C for autofire) and bomb input (button B). The twist in this basic gameplay scheme is that you're able to affect the direction of the bomb as it leaves behind a fiery path of destruction.

Opening screen

A horizontal row of five enemies descends upon the player every now and then, and for each one you kill a medal is released. Players must collect five of these medals to gain an upgrade for the main gun, whereas picking up gold bars from defeated ground targets adds up to the bomb stock. Once you get twenty gold bars a full bomb is added to the ship's reserve, but it's also possible to deploy incomplete bombs with reduced range and power. A maximum of four full bombs can be stocked, and all power-up coins in excess are saved for an immediate upgrade once you respawn after dying. Speaking of which, checkpoints are active during the levels and inactive during boss fights.

Barren landscapes alternate with cloudy skies above waterfalls and ravines in a sci-fi wild west setting that feels completely different from anything else in the genre. While this might not impress anyone in today's world of HD graphics and exaggerated explosions, the influential nature of the game's design is one of the most talked about within the hardcore community. Gun Frontier is regarded by some as one of the cornerstones of the shooting genre, serving as inspirational source for more acclaimed shmups such as Battle Garegga and Taito's own Rayforce, which came out a few years down the road and also have (excellent) ports on the Sega Saturn.

On the matter of Gun Frontier's excellence on the Saturn, I have already pointed out one of the discrepancies between port and arcade a few paragraphs above. The difficulty is severely toned down and offers nothing but a pale shadow of the original challenge, a disparity that's supposedly related to the complete absence of rank. Don't expect any of the suffocating enemy flocks or the deadly swarms of thin bullets anywhere throughout the credit. Also absent are some of the known tricks of the arcade version, such as the points you get when bombing at specific spots in the game. At least the part where you bomb the large planes in stage 2 is preserved, even though the checkpoint in this specific section has also been made different. It's still possible to milk it for successive points and extra lives since an extend is registered at every 20.000 points, another huge change that makes the game even easier than it already is.

Extra lives are very important for scoring because each one is converted into 30.000 points at the end of stage 5. A maximum of four lives is allowed below the score display, but you can get as many extends as possible. For a moment I thought the score would be broken, but there comes a point when the extend routine stops. Therefore players should not expect to counterstop the game in stage 2.

Gun Frontier on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user Archive of Game Emulation)

With no graphical downgrades whatsoever, especially when the game is played in TATE mode (it looks great), it's just baffling that Taito and Xing decided to add so many changes to this port. Although most people might say it's a disfigured take on the original game, there's nothing basically wrong with it. In a nutshell, it's got all the looks but takes a completely different route regarding difficulty. Good and bad endings are properly preserved depending on how you handle the awkward duel above the skies against the last boss: fail to kill him with your six shots and the credit is over regardless of how many lives you have in reserve, plus you're denied the 1CC; shoot him when his shields are down and enjoy a happy ending.

Anyway, if you're looking to put another easy clear under your belt take note of this particular version of Gun Frontier (the alternative for a faithful home conversion is the port included in the Taito Memories Vol. 2 compilation for the PS2, even though that one lacks TATE). Released only in Japan in a double jewel case, the Saturn CD also comes with a special booklet dedicated to strategies and secrets on the game, I just don't know if these are applicable to the Saturn version.

My final 1CC score is below, playing on Normal difficulty. It's an improvement of 84% over my previous best achieved way back when I didn't even consider myself a true shmupper. Unfortunately the disc has no save functionality and no further difficulty setting beyond Normal.