Friday, September 21, 2018

Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

And here we come to the 4th chapter in the Parodius saga, the spin-off series that at this point mocks much, much more than its original inspiration Gradius. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius continues one of the longest lived dinasties of video game wack and brings the franchise back to its living room roots, after all the series was born on the MSX and continued in the arcades for two chapters before this comeback developed exclusively for video game consoles; since it was released in the end of the Super Famicom's lifespan, one year later Konami was kind enough to also deliver enhanced ports for the Playstation and the Sega Saturn. How interesting, huh?

Jikkyou (or JikkyŨ) succeeds Gokujyou Parodius and keeps the great quality standard that's so typical of 16-bit Konami, only with a defining difference: the abundance of comical voice snippets provided by a famous Japanese narrator, which was made possible by a special chip included in the cartridge (the "super accelerator" SA-1 chip). That's where the title of the game comes from, after all Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius translates to something like Chatting Parodius Live!. Another important feature is that now players can choose any of the 16 available characters instead of being restricted to the ones associated to the player sides. In addition to that, this time many sibling characters received completely different powers, such as babies Upa/Rupa and matchstick men Soitsu/Doitsu. The latter, for example, has a Vic Viper-like behavior that's quite distinct from original Koitsu/Aitsu. Once again there's no co-op available, only an alternating 2-player mode.

Many people have told me they were upset by the constant babbling of the narrator during gameplay, but it didn't bother me at all. It's possible to shut him up in the options by switching "oshaberi" to OFF though. The options screen is the second-to-last after you press START, and fortunately everything in it is in English. The main game is started in the first option, and despite the Japanese description all other options can be easily figured out. It's kinda puzzling that the main game hub was left in Japanese while almost everything else is in English.

Choose your might!

Nothing has changed in the basic way characters play in this new episode of the franchise. It's all Gradius gameplay 101 again: collect colored capsules to light up the slots in a weapon array and activate the desired slot to obtain the respective upgrade. Speed-up and missiles are the only untouched staples, along with the default power trap that's a Parodius trademark (a.k.a. one of the worst "upgrades" ever in shmup history). Following the trend started in GokujouJikkyou Oshaberi Parodius deviates from the norm in the other available upgrades, namely two types of firepower (originally double and laser in pure Gradius moniker), power enhancer (originally options/multiples) and shield, which for some characters was turned into a smart bomb.

Controls are fully customizable, and my setup of choice was Y for shot and missile, R for power-up and L for bell power. Oh yes, bells, you can't talk about Parodius without juggling some! They are as much a link to the TwinBee games as a full-on passport to survival refreshments and higher scores. Once released you can shoot them to change their colors and get blue (powerful bomb), green (inflate + invincibility), white (straight shot made of random messages in kanji, blocks bullets) brown (three vertical energy bars) and yellow. Yellow bells increase in value as long as you don't lose any of them, maxing out at 10.000 points each. Since the purple bell introduced in Gokujyou Parodius is gone, Konami came up with a new extra gimmick in Jikkyou, the hidden fairies worth 10.000 points each. They are freed for immediate pick-up if you shoot at their secret spots, which are often located in unsuspected corners as the stages unfold.

Checkpoints are mandatory regardless of your selection of the upgrade scheme, whether it's auto or manual power-up mode (upper/lower options after you choose the character). Since the differences in character behavior are more pronounced this time around, trusting the auto power-up mode might be a good idea to get to know all of them faster. A very welcome addition to the general power-up scheme is the giant capsule that performs the same function of the roulette. They are often strategically positioned so that you can cut corners when upgrading the character.

That's the way I like it!?
(courtesy of YouTube user Salvatore Forenza)

Even though I liked the stage themes chosen by Konami in Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius, I couldn't help but feel that the company didn't really push the series into new grounds as they did with the previous chapters. Was it the console format, I wonder? Of course there's still the customary abundance of colors and throwbacks to other Konami titles with cute and nonsensical details everywhere. However, the reappearance of many enemy designs from Gokujou (most apparent in the pre-stage sections and in a few boss choices) lowered the bar a little in my opinion. The new level layouts mocking games like Tokimeki Memorial, Xexex, Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Lethal Enforcers are welcome additions for variety but come on, did we really need another dancing panda as the first level boss?

I read everywhere that the SA-1 accelerator chip was responsible for special feats in this game, such as the /enhanced/ graphics of the stage based on the bubble area of Xexex. Perhaps they're referring to the occasional spinning blocks, but quite frankly I didn't see anything there that couldn't be achieved in a regular cartridge. Much more impressive and useful is the ability to save high scores by character and difficulty, as well as "save" the game to start it again later (pause and press SELECT). Granted, it resets the score as you "load" the saved stage, but it's a nice resource nonetheless. Loop + stage select is also available but must be unlocked first by performing a few achievements such as beating the game or collecting all fairies.

By the time Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius reaches the end it returns to its roots by mimicking none other than arcade Gradius III, complete with a short boss rush level prior to a multistructured final stage that mirrors some of the sections of that game's final area. Since it was developed specifically for the Super Famicom, Jikkyou does not pack the same difficulty of its predecessors (even Super Famicom Gokujyou), mainly due to the amount of slowdown and the kind extend scheme that grants an extra life with 20.000 points and further ones for every 100.000 points scored. Fortunately extra lives stop coming once you reach one million points, which leaves the player with the challenge of making the best out of them as the second loop starts with more bullets and even more slowdown, depending on the chosen character of course.

Thanks to my baby girl handing me the cartridge the day I took it off the package, Rupa was my character of choice during most of the time I spent with the game. A very powerful character, Rupa creates an all-around wall when her powers are maxed out, the only downside is that she lacks a shield. Once I looped the game with her a couple of times I switched to Soitsu, admittedly the best character to uncover fairies and juggle them bells for higher scores. The final score below was achieved with Soitsu on default settings (diff. 4, auto shot ON, roulette ON, oshaberi ON) and manual power-up mode, reaching stage 2-5. Next time I'll try one of the 32-bit ports (Playstation or Saturn) to check the improvements made by Konami.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Daisenpu Custom (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nec Avenue / Toaplan
Published by Nec Avenue
 in 1991

It's hard to picture it these days, but back in the 90s some games were definitely a product of the general infatuation with new storage media, more specifically the compact disc. The widespread love for the CD was such that the expectation created by the video game add-ons allowed companies to market them as a true revolution in 16-bit console gaming.  The main reasoning for that was better audio and the addition of fully animated sequences plus crystal clear voice-overs, improvements that often warranted re-releases of cartridge games in CD format.

However, most CD versions of 16-bit cartridge or HuCard games didn't really need to exist. With a few exceptions that either expanded the original game (such as Super Raiden) or fully embraced the capabilities of the new media (such as Spider-Man and Batman Returns for the Sega CD), the majority of the upgraded titles offered very little extra content except for the presumed CD audio quality. And even this audio upgrade can be a debatable issue. So the question we ask ourselves today is: did games like Daisenpu Custom really need to exist?

Daisenpu had been out for a year already. A port of one of the least famous Toaplan vertical shooters, it wasn't a standout in any way, yet someone inside Nec Avenue thought that the PC Engine library needed a CD version of it.

Boss duo in stage 4

The basic gameplay is unchanged from HuCard Daisenpu. Button II shoots with no autofire (get a turbo controller!) and button I summons a helper squadron of 6 planes. The mission is to slowly raid land and sea to eliminate nazi tanks/boats/turrets in a world war setting of methodical progression, in a shooting adventure that never picks up the pace. Each plane in the helper squadron flies and shoots alongside the player, plummeting towards the closest enemy once hit. If you press button I once they are in position they will all perform a kamikaze attack as if they were hit. By quickly tapping this button before the squadron is in place after the initial summoning you get a bomb blast that sacrifices all planes in a huge explosion that nullifies incoming enemy bullets.

Upgrades are obtained by destroying color-coded trucks and picking up the items. There's the quintessential power-up (orange), extra helper squadron (white) and extra life (blue). Green trucks are all bogus and don't give out anything. You can't see your score while you play (not even by pausing the game), but an extend routine is in place to grant you more extra lives seemingly at every 100.000 points, an interval that's extended once you reach 300.000 points.

In the world of Daisenpu / Daisenpu Custom all the enemy will ever see is the player's plane. Every single aimed shot or aimed bullet spread will target the player, which means you can always draw enemy fire away from your squadron while they fly peacefully and do their job. Managing to do that and keeping clever angles as you dodge is one of the tricks to survive longer. When facing a bigger enemy, such as one of the bosses, there are times when it's best to bomb than to risk dodging the overlapping patterns. Each new life comes with two full squadrons, which should be okay to handle any boss checkpoint.

Entering the forest, Custom-style
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

What's actually different in this CD version, one might ask? I would say the main difference is its clear division into separate stages. In the original Daisenpu the game unfolded with no stops whatsoever, with music change being the only indicator of level progression. The four original areas were expanded to seven complete levels in Daisenpu Custom. Graphical assets were rearranged, some large enemies were promoted to bosses and most stages were split in two, in a customization job that doesn't do anything wrong but somehow lacks the cohesion of the original. An example of a botched part is the start of the 6th stage, which puts the player directly into the frying pan with enemies from all sides.

There was no attempt by the developer to steer away from the game's original concept of having absolutely no aerial enemies, which is good. The final level is still familiar terrain but brings a more powerful type of tank that's exclusive to this version. Unfortunately the original military-themed music received a flamboyant synth-based makeover that doesn't always gel with the slow paced action; it's as if the soundtrack to one of those cheap war movies made by the Cannon Group in the 80s had been slapped onto the game itself. That would’ve been nice if only Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff had also been included in nice animated cut scenes, but alas! Daisenpu Custom didn't receive any special treatment in that regard.

While the game isn't essentially better or worse than its original mold, the shortage of new material and the minimal changes made for Daisenpu Custom are barely enough to qualify it as an expensive arrange version. After all it came out in a separate CD during an era when arrange modes were a rare treat in console gaming. The few ones that got it right appeared for the competition instead, as seen in Slap Fight and Grind Stormer.

The best 1CC score I got on the game is below, playing on Normal and reaching stage 2-7. Enemies fire more frequently in the second loop. Medium-sized boats coming from behind even fire as they become visible, so don't hug the bottom of the screen if you don't want to lose a precious life there.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Neo XYX (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by NG:Dev.Team
Published by NG:Dev.Team in 2014

One could say influences go a long way in defining your body of work, most importantly in projects of such creative nature as video games. You can't really reinvent the wheel, but it's always possible to try and adorn it with all sorts of different things. Neo XYX (or Neo Zaikusu in Japanese spelling) is very much an example of that, a love letter to the visual style of developer Toaplan, to the bullet curtains made popular by Cave and to the scoring systems devised by Raizing. Originally "cooked" in the MVS format, soon the game received ports of version 1.3 on the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo AES, which was my platform of choice for a first contact (I'll leave the Dreamcast version for a future opportunity since it's supposedly riddled with bugs).

Neo XYX has the honor of being the first TATE shooter released for the Neo Geo. Though quite an achievement in itself, this feature must be seen with caution by players who can't rotate their TV. Since the Neo Geo is a platform with natural 4:3 aspect ratio, it's not possible to play the game in true YOKO. What you get on a horizontally-aligned TV is rotated controls, a rotated HUD and some rotated items, which for a vertical shooter doesn't make sense at all (just as an example, a similar screen setting exists in Donpachi for the Sega Saturn). The practical result is that this version of Neo XYX is only viable for people who can turn their TVs on the side for that warm fuzzy feeling of emulating a vertical arcade cabinet in the comfort of their gaming/living rooms.

An initial itch also bugged me as soon as I switched on the catridge for the first time. The game starts running in that faux-horizontal mode with no options at all to switch it to TATE. Not even the instruction manual has useful information on this! I had to do some online research to discover that in order to boot it in TATE you must press A when turning on the console. If the game is already running in hori mode you need to start a credit, pause and hold A + SELECT until you hear a sound cue.

Would you say that's a silly oversight or just a sign of a rushed porting job? I'll stick to the latter.

Wait, did I just lose something back there?

Following an intro with several full screen panels showing what seems to be the destruction of a planet/moon by an alien space fleet and a female pilot departing for battle, Neo XYX presents a quick skippable tutorial and then throws the player directly into the action. Button A fires, button B triggers a bomb and button C reduces ship speed while narrowing and slightly increasing firepower if A is pressed. This control scheme is a little weird up front, but it's not that bad after a while; in fact it's very similar to the one used in most Cave games if you never let go of the A button.

An interesting aspect of the gameplay in Neo XYX is the complete absence of power-ups, but that doesn't mean you won't be picking up items along the way. Player focus gets totally shifted towards multiplier medals, gold tokens and bomb refills, a design decision that strongly emphasizes playing for score instead of survival. Medals appear at regular intervals from small destroyed enemies (big ones do not release medals) and increase in value from I to XIX (1 to 19) only if no other medal is on screen at the time (if there's an uncollected medal the next one will be spawned with the same value). Those gold tokens increase in size and a huge score boost is expected if you reach the XIX value and manage to not let any further XIX medal fall off the screen. On the other hand, a single lost medal sends its value back to I as the ship displays a fUCK! speech balloon (!).

The last item pick-up is the bomb, which might appear in two sizes. The big one adds an extra bomb to the bomb stock, the smaller ones fill up a bomb buffer and yield a full extra bomb once seven of them are collected. The bomb has a tiger-like aspect that sweeps upwards and does a little bit more than serving as homage to Toaplan, damaging enemies and shielding the player: it pushes all medals up, which is extremely useful to recover medals that would otherwise be lost because you couldn't reach them. Bomb items have to be flown over to be effectively picked up, but medals and gold are automatically sucked into the ship if you get close enough to them. Score chasers shouldn't take too long to collect the gold tokens though, they all disappear after a brief while.

My 1CC on Neo XYX, Normal mode
-- played on TATE, rotated for proper display --

For a company with such a long history of dedication to both the genre and the Neo Geo, NG:Dev.Team certainly had their share of previous expertise when developing Neo XYX. That's why this game is remarkably fun despite a few minor setbacks. Take the abnormally high difficulty level of the first stage, for example. It's not in the same league of Last Hope (at least while you're not trying to boost medal value from the get-go), but the overall sense of rush requires a mindset that's considerably different from pretty much every other shmup out there. In fact, the feeling you get is that Neo XYX is desperately trying to get somewhere with its accelerated pace, sheer lack of dynamic pauses and absolutely no slowdown. Strangely enough, enemies don't always seem so eager to put you down because once they get past you they won't shoot anymore – a device that helps survival and can certainly be exploited for an easier clear at the expense of a lesser score.

In pure Seibu Kaihatsu style, the first half of the credit takes place on Earth and the second half in outer space, and players who decide to face the enemy will be subject to a remarkable variety of bullet shapes and patterns. Macrododging works better against a handful of enemy spreads fired by bulkier foes, such as the occasional midboss. Boss fights, on the other hand, are the main reason why Neo XYX might be seen by some as a bullet hell shooter. The art style for the large creatures is one of the game's visual standouts, which boasts a very colorful enemy gallery designed by indie artist Perry "Gryzor" Sessions, the man behind the embrionary concept of the game. The soundtrack composed by in-house frequent collaborator Rafael Dyll is often energetic and escorts the action with nice results.

A minor bug appears in the random failure of bomb fragment carryover from one stage to the next, an event that's quite aggravating when you're short of just a single item to get the extra bomb (there were even occurrences of being denied a full bomb within the level itself after collecting all fragments, this happens at least once in the video above). Speaking of item collection, special caution must be taken whenever enemies are killed at the very bottom of the screen since there's always the risk of losing a medal there. Keeping a maxed out medal chain is even immune to deaths, which have minimum effect on the ongoing score and are only detrimental in the case of a 1CC (each remaining life in stock is worth 1,5 million points). And with the extend interval set at 10 million, it's easy to see why scoring is also very important to go all the way into the game. There is a true last boss that will only appear if you're able to get to the end without continuing.

When starting the credit you're prompted to choose between "Training" and "Normal" and that's it, no options or adjustments are available at all. This Training mode adds side pods to the regular ship and makes it stronger while the game itself throws less enemies at the player. Since it's actually an easier full game we're all left to wonder why it was named as "training". I guess most people will agree that a stage select feature would've been much more useful.

The picture record of my best 1CC result on Normal mode is below. Soon I'll try the Dreamcast port to see how it stands when compared to this version.