Thursday, October 25, 2018

Gyrodine (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crux in 1984
Published by Taito in 2006

As usual in the history of arcade development, many were the titles that followed in the footsteps of Namco's massive hit Xevious. One of the lesser known is Gyrodine, a gray point of connection between developers Taito and Toaplan. Both a secondary company to Orca and also an embrionary bridge to Toaplan according to most sources, Crux had in Gyrodine its only full-fledged arcade release with the newlyfound publishing aid of Taito. The relationship was so successful that during their long partnership game rights would sometimes blur between both companies, as hinted by the fact that Gyrodine got included in the Taito Memories II Vol. 2 compilation for the Playstation 2 (why not appear in Toaplan Shooting Battle, for example?).

Helicopter-based shooting wasn't exactly a novelty back in 1984, but Gyrodine still tried to offer something unique despite the drab visuals and the lack of a proper soundtrack. Two buttons are used, one to engage aerial enemies and another to shoot the ground at a predetermined distance. When these buttons are pressed at the same time the chopper fires an air-to-ground missile whose heat-seeking ability is able to target enemies in a tilted trajectory. And that's it, the rest of the gameplay consists of coming to grips with the incoming waves of resistance as you fly seamlessly over land and sea.

Player one start!
(courtesy of YouTube user Alcyon)

Controlling the helicopter comes with an unusual feeling due to the way the flight movement is implemented. As you move around your shot's direction is determined by the chopper's momentum. That means the only way to fire in a straight vertical line is by having the helicopter in standstill or moving strictly up/down. You can't lock shot direction to strafe left and right, a limitation that ends up demanding good anticipation from the player as enemies and bullets pour down more and more frequently. It's not uncommon to see those pesky jets and planes survive your attempts to take them down and leave, or worse, collide with your craft and take away a precious life. On top of that, the heat seeking missiles can behave quite erratically, missing easy targets or hitting the enemy in the most unexpected angles.

All the tiny details described above might drive people away from the game, but in my opinion Gyrodine isn't as hard as it seems. It also has that one-more-go factor that draws players back once they get more familiar with the layouts of the terrain and the enemy behavior. I for one was always curious to see what lied ahead because the game has no definition at all for stage progression and it's impossible to continue. It does loop with a higher difficulty though, you'll know you're starting over once you reach the beach with the couple of parasols on the ground. Enemy bullets don't seem to get any faster by then, but they do increase in numbers. Speaking of difficulty, let it be known that Gyrodine has only two settings, Easy and Hard, with the arcade default set to Easy.

Warning, civilians in barbecue formation ahead!

While scoring in hoary games like this one is as straightforward as it gets, players need to watch out for situations that can actually reduce the score instead of adding to it. This happens with a characteristic muffled sound whenever you kill civilians or animals. Now for a little secret: halfway into the loop you'll see a green civilian surrounded by three tanks on the right side of the screen; destroy the tanks without killing him and you'll earn an extra life. Another nice secret is the uncovering of mermaids, which give 10.000 points each. They're always located close to island's shores or within river banks, but just like the hidden flags from Xevious their exact position is randomized from one credit to the next.

Besides the extra life the green guy gives you there's also a score-based extend routine that starts at 20.000 points, continues with 50.000 points and goes on and on at every 50.000 points. More often than not the bulk of the life stock has serious chances of depletion during the passages where those crawling creatures clutter the screen with bullets or when multiple enemies decide to overlap their attacks. Since the screen never stops scrolling, sometimes you're better off just circling the danger to avoid the need for risky maneuvers. An interesting detail is that even though it's essentially built upon checkpoints, Gyrodine revives players pretty much in the same place where they died. A simple extra trick to obtain one more life from every run is to add at least one more coin/credit (button R2) before starting the game: when the last life is lost you'll see the pilot escaping death on a parachute, which is then followed by a final chance to proceed with a message of EXTRA PLAY START.

Click for the option menus translation for Gyrodine on Taito Memories II Vol. 2

Though devoid of any acompannying soundtrack, the game trusts in its sound effects to convey some sort of aural interaction. Granted, it's not as full of peeps and bleeps as Super Cobra, but it gets the job done – note how the chopper makes three different sounds for some ever-present white noise as it moves around. Enemies rarely make any noise because they're seemingly more worried about taking you down. As mentioned above, higher loops come with more bullets but also with different and more crowded aerial enemy waves (ground enemies remain the same no matter what). There comes a point, for instance, where those bullet-spraying red choppers start appearing non-stop instead of coming in waves of three.

I was able to get to the 4th loop of Gyrodine in the default difficulty (Easy), playing on a 20 inch CRT in TATE mode. The port is arcade-perfect, much like the other titles included in the Taito Memories II Vol. 2 disc. As for the version released for the Famicom, it's a tad different from the arcade source. I expect to loop it one day too, if only to quench some long overdue nostalgia itch.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Harmful Park (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sky Think System
Published by Sky Think System in 1997

Maybe it's destiny or perhaps a stroke of bad luck mixed with unfortunate circumstances that some game companies will strongly shine once and then disappear into oblivion. During its brief stint of existence, Sky Think System never delivered anything of note but did put out a game called Harmful Park for the Playstation. Released in small quantities with no special advertising only in Japan, it was only natural for it to acquire a minor rarity status soon after. However, once people realized it was actually a very good game despite the ridiculous cover art, Harmful Park became even more sought after and prices skyrocketed. Oh poor collectors!

The game in question a lighthearted, stylish, lovely cute'em up that takes the same approach to design as the Parodius series. It's a very nonsensical shooter with all kinds of wacky enemies thanks to a crazy scientist casting an evil spell on a theme park and populating the attractions with all sorts of flying machines. On that front the game also boasts some steampunk influences, which broadens its scope into a very unique experience defined by superb use of color and exquisite animation, duly backed up by an equally engaging soundtrack. The game is also a very relaxing ride in its starting difficulties (Easy or Normal, default is Easy), an aspect that can't be taken for granted when talking about its target audience.

And for those players who also like to dig beyond the surface of a game, the good news is that Harmful Park also offers a very solid scoring system.

Attraction 1 - Open Field
(courtesy of YouTube user Gbriel Valdez)

The skinny girl riding that flying bike sure doesn't seem that menacing, but the truth is that she's able to fire an impressive array of weapons. By default, these can be either cycled with buttons × and ○ or directly selected with the trigger/shoulder buttons. Potato (R1) fires a vulcan shot with decent power, ice (R2) fires long laser-like ice beams, pie (L1) throws one pie at a time in a specific arching trajectory and jerry (L2) shoots colored jelly slices with homing capability. Shooting is accomplished with button □ and bombing with button Δ. Bomb animations depend on the chosen shot type, which in turn can be separately powered up three times by collecting a P item.

The diversity of the weapon gallery allows for all sorts of approaches towards the gameplay, but in general seasoned players should breeze through the game if going for a simple survival run. Enemy bullets are often slow, and the few overwhelming bits are reserved for the final factory stage. Before that you'll cruise through an open amusement park, a haunted house, a tropical zoo, a rollercoaster and a carnival at night time, all crafted with impressive attention to detail. The most basic scoring techniques in a straightforward run include collecting the green diamonds for point bonuses (value starts at 100 and maxes out at 5.000 points if you don't let any of them fall to the left), uncovering hidden happy faces for 50.000 points each and reaping the end-of-stage bonuses for performance (including 200.000 points for a 100% destruction ratio).

Fun factor and excellent artwork aside, in the world of Harmful Park there's much more than meets the eye for score chasers. This is yet another case where a single rule can completely change the way you play a game, and the rule is: all enemies destroyed with the same projectile add to an instantaneous multiplier that can reach ×16. The italicized bit above explains why the potato gun is excellent for survival but extremely poor for scoring, whereas ice is the perfect choice to get multipliers from streamlined enemies. Once you realize that, the most logical extension to this basic scoring rule is that weakening stronger enemies before dispatching them with lots of popcorn around is the secret to amassing great numbers. While timing this requires lots and lots of pratice, striking the blow is easily achieved by using potato's bomb (it is, in fact, a huge potato that explodes and damages everything in sight).

The reason why the potato bomb is the ideal combo dealer is its huge explosion blow, which counts as a single projectile. Other bombs might win on the matter of power, but can't compete with potato as far as scoring goes. Ice creates an immense beam that can be slightly moved up and down, pie shoots out a rotating shower of pie shots and jerry surrounds the player with a big jelly that inflicts some mild damage on enemies but doesn't allow any weapon change while it lasts (all of them come with invincibility). For what it's worth, ice can't compare with potato but might be of some use for scoring, the other two don't serve any real purpose other than survival.

Marriages can be dangerous!

Since extra lives are achieved at every 500.000 points, bombing for a higher score and suiciding to get more bombs is a strategy that comes naturally after a while, just remember to not die with the weapon you want to preserve (only the weapon you're currently carrying is lost). It's okay to inflate the life stock if you want though, the game doesn't have rank and isn't a Raizing title after all. Note that getting more multipliers and scoring higher also increases the spawning rate of diamonds, power-ups and even extra bombs, to the point where collecting all diamonds might become tough due to the slow speed of the gadget you fly on.

Though simple in theory, the execution of the abovementioned actions isn't as easy as one might think. Since there's often a handful of decisions the player must make with regards to weapons and ideal timing, errors are very common due to the constant need of on-the-fly changes. Thankfully, for all our shameful restartitis needs there's a pseudo soft reset function that sends the game directly into game over status (SELECT + START).

With six stages of rather decent length, it's clear that Harmful Park provides good fun for all players, neophites and experienced alike. There could've been a seventh full stage, but the developer thought it was better to have it as a separate challenge in a Score Attack game option. Other offerings include a set of three non-shmup mini games accessed from inside the Options screen. All of them can be enjoyed with friends, but the most interesting is the racing one (Sky Circuit). Completing the package, we also get manual save/load functions and the ability to fully reconfigure the game inputs.

Soon after I understood the scoring system I established 6 million as my aim for a 1CC, and the result I got is below (Normal difficulty). I beat it, saw the full ending once (its's just as long as the opening) and decided to move on. I might try to improve this score in the future if I ever get back to the game. One interesting detail is that Harmful Park doesn't reset the score when you continue, but shows the number of used continues alongside your result in the high score table.

Friday, October 5, 2018

SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Bandai / Angel
Published by Bandai in 1992

Dear readers, allow me to start this essay by saying that I know absolutely nothing about the Mobile Suit Gundam universe. I don't know how the multitude of sequels and spin-offs connect, let alone the intricate chronology that goes back and forth from one chapter to the next. What struck me even more is the fact that this particular anime is probably the most adapted ever in the form of video games, a personal knowledge gap that's probably related to the fact that most of these games never leave Japan, in the old days at least.

While only one true shmup based on the franchise exists (SD Gundam Neo Battling, released for the arcades in 1992), some other adaptations still warrant a few mentions in any shmup talk since they have a mix of shmup and platforming, as is the case with SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou for the Super Famicom. For a long while I thought this little game was the fifth in a completely obscure series, but that's not the case (Japanese terms can be a mess for us Westerners). The subtitle actually translates to something like Project V Start or Operation V Start (V for victory) and mirrors a particular event in the ridiculously detailed Mobile Suit Gundam storyline. In addition to that, SD is a short for Super Deformed, a variation that uses largely modified and anthropomorphic mecha designs based on the original Gundam franchise.

Long story short: unless you're a diehard fan of the anime there's absolutely no point in trying to understand the meaning behind the title or the game's story. Suffice it to say we're actually talking about the first in a limited series of two shmup hybrids released for the Super Famicom, the other one being SD Gundam 2.

Here comes the hyper bazooka!

Players control the RX-78 Gundam unit, a short, plump, big-headed cute robot that must battle other plump robots and their minions across seven stages that mix shooting and platforming sections, both of the autoscrolling kind; if a co-op credit is started both mechas are differentiated by their chest hulls, blue for player 1 and red for player 2. Platform inputs consist of B for shot, A for jump (press again for a double jump), R/L for upgrade selection and Y for upgrade/power-up activation. The shooting parts use the same inputs, but button A is then responsible for turning the character left/right. Finally, the mecha performs a saber melee attack automatically if the shot button is pressed when you are close enough to an enemy.

I'll be the first to admit there's an odd sense of charm in a game starring child-like chubby robots, and even though it doesn't shine in any technical aspect the soundtrack is kinda catchy with its alternation of light and darker themes. However, playing SD Gundam soon proves that any good first impressions couldn't be more far from the truth. The gameplay is slow and clunky, the resources are hard to manage, the AI is bastardly cheap most of the time and the mild inertia in the shooting parts is totally uncalled for. The game falls short is about every attribute that matters, failing to offer any sense of excitement or a single truly engaging moment. Of course one can always adapt to the rules imposed by the gameplay, but to my liking the price of admission is a bit too dire.

Take the upgrade scheme, for instance. There's an upgrade bar that fills up automatically with time. When one of the slots is full you can activate its function with the Y button, thus being able to use a laser rifle (16 shots), increase speed (5 steps), activate a shield to withstand more damage (3 levels, the last being a 15 second invincibility window), bear a mace, use a rocket launcher/bazooka (8 shots) or slow down time for a few seconds (a resource that's only available in the final level and only works on regular enemies, not bosses). The further to the right an upgrade is the longer it will take for the bar to reload for another use, so it's no wonder the most powerful weapon in the game is the bazooka. Thankfully the laser rifle is able to supply the basic weaponry and can always be recharged in due time if you don't spend all of its 16 shots too quickly.

Harnessing the benefits of the double jump is essential during the platforming parts, as well as devising a strategy to make the best out of the invincibility provided by a level 3 shield. Just remember that when the invincibility window is over you need to upgrade the shield again from scratch. In any case, preserving health for boss fights is the most important strategy to have in the game. The only single pick-up available, a green item that staggers across the screen every once in a while, recovers five energy cells but comes with a little evil twist: it will be immediately destroyed when shot at. This just reinforces the idea that SD Gundam isn't a game for trigger-happy players, and that memorization is the only real way to increase your chances to survive longer.

  Super Deformed fun on the Super Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

Memorization, you say? Be my guest in trying to come up with strategies to handle bosses without taking damage. With a few exceptions, they're all very erratic and bound on a holy mission to bleed you dry, taking away your lives in a snap (note that receiving too much damage can destroy your current shield and send a level 3 in reserve back to level 1). Another annoying thing that might happen is running out of ammo and returning to the pea shooter in the heat of the battle against any enemy. By the way, if you value survival above anything else many of them are better off avoided instead of engaged. You lose a few points but in the end that's irrelevant because every life in stock is converted into 700.000 points upon game completion, which is much more than you can amass during the whole credit. The first extend is registered with 10.000 points, all others at the hundred thousand marks.

SD Gundam also comes with a Versus mode where players can battle each other or against the computer. There are seven robots available and options to fight in platforming fashion (Earth) or in a free-roaming shmup style (outer space). My only stance about Versus mode is that the fighting mechanics are abysmal, and in general even worse than what you get in the main game. So much for cute robots, unfortunately! That said, if you're still game for other 16-bit experiences with big-headed cute characters my recommendations would be Ghostbusters on the Mega Drive (platforming) and Air Zonk on the PC Engine (shmup).

I have no qualms about the crappy 1CC score I was able to achieve on my last life, as shown in the picture below. The game is just so annoying I didn't bother to try again. There are distinct animations for the ending depending on how fast you're able to dispatch the final boss, but no direct impact on the final score. Based on what I've seen so far, I don't have high expectations for the sequel but nevertheless I'll try to make it my next SNES challenge.