Thursday, November 29, 2018

Battle Crust (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Picorinne Soft
Published by JoshProd
 in 2018

As a few friends say around here, the Dreamcast is a platform that just refuses to die. A clear example of that is this new shmup called Battle Crust. Originally released for the Steam digital service in 2016, it found its way to Sega's console two years later. Giving the game a proper retail release on a dead niche platform is nothing short of commendable, even though its 16-bit sensibilities do not match the power of the Dreamcast at all. Sure it takes a lot less independent effort to offer a CD-based media instead of a cartridge, and the choice for Sega's much loved home machine was only natural given the expressive amount of independent releases it's been getting ever since its untimely demise.

Battle Crust speaks to those fans of the genre who enjoy the most pure methodical old school shooting action. By adhering to a simple set of rules and sticking to the tried-and-true formula of Irem classics such as Image Fight and R-Type, the game offers a decent space adventure with a challenge level that's much more akin to console than arcade standards. The disc is region-free and comes with TATE mode available at the press of a button (Y), but aside from that it's a bare bones release with no save functionality at all.

The story goes that Earth is at war against the rest of the universe. The invaders have dropped on our planet's surface deadly bombs made of a new metal (the "metal crust"), forcing the planet's defense forces to rise up and confront the menace. In order to level the odds against the universe, prior to departing for battle the ship must be equipped with one of three types of charge mechanisms: normal charge, mega charge and blast charge. Their power can only be unleashed once you acquire side pods by collecting at least one power-up. Charging is accomplished with button B (or L) and overrides the regular autoshot (button A or R), shooting out either a single beam if the button is released while the gauge is filling up or a fully-powered blast whose behavior depends on the chosen charge type.

Select charge system

Charge types differ enough to warrant slightly distinct strategies: the normal one is much like R-Type's classic beam, piercing through cannon fodder until reaching a tougher obstacle; the mega charge is the most powerful of them and even adds a short-range energy discharge to both sides of the ship, but freezes it in place for a split-second after being fired; finally, the blast charge comes out with a certain power, and once this power dissipates against the targets the energy radius stands there for a few seconds while damaging enerything that touches it. An extra benefit of the act of charging is creating a ball of energy that serves as shield against regular bullets and damages anything that touches it. All charge shots also possess a certain degree of bullet-cancelling capability.

After the first power-up is taken and the pods are generated, any further one will be fully active according to its color:
  • blue - straight lasers with rear shot capability;
  • brown - powerful soft forward shot;
  • red - wave shot with two spreading side shots;
  • yellow - a spread of impact shots;
  • green - needle-shaped gun with two homing side shots.

Choosing a favorite weapon is mostly a matter of aesthetical preference since all of them are pretty much equal in power. The green shot however does seem to oust the others when used at point-blank distance. In any case, the balance between charging and regular shooting is quite even, which means that most of the time the charge shot isn't needed at all. It only brings real advantage if you want to add a little extra damage as the bulkier enemies enter the screen.

In the world of Battle Crust players are constantly under a state of pressure due to the increasingly tight surroundings. While the first half of the credit unfolds in open areas, by stage 4 you'll find yourself navigating in cramped spaces and darting through closing gates. Stage 5 is the game's highlight in two parts: a meteor-filled entrance over alien terrain (mild Raiden vibe detected) and a fast-scrolling scramble with tight corridors and enemies arriving from all sides. And while bosses tend to die fast if pummeled hard, they often require lots of movement and bold positioning from the player who aims to properly beat the game.

Special trailer for the Dreamcast version of Battle Crust
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher JoshProd Video Game Producer)

Slow-pacing aside, Battle Crust is fun and rewards good performances accordingly. Having weapons that are equivalent in power might be a missed opportunity gameplaywise, but at least you can take all of them for a score bonus of 1.000 points each. Another scoring opportunity comes from dispatching midbosses quickly to get a golden bug that's worth 3.000 points. The first score-based extend is achieved with 30.000 points, all others arrive at every 100.000 points afterwards; once beaten, the game rewards each spare life with 5.000 points and then adds a huge completion bonus. Finally, any attempt at milking those small projectiles flying everywhere is useless because they aren't worth anything.

A few brief bouts of stuttering slowdown are to be expected in the final levels. Other than that, some functional details weren't properly ironed out in the process of porting the game from its original PC incarnation to the Dreamcast. The spaceship rushing to the next stage is missing in those black screens between levels, for example. The audio presents some issues, such as this weird low-frequency humming that's more audible during silent moments or the music being randomly absent during the opening animation (the soundtrack is nice by the way, 4th stage BGM is my favorite). When playing in YOKO (standard orientation) the game doesn't fill up the entire screen and it's hard to read the opening texts due to the cramped resolution, that's why TATE or a bigger TV is a must in this case. Granted, my copy of Battle Crust is the European one and I was running it on a NTSC console, so that might be the reason for some of these minor setbacks.

The 1CC result below was achieved in Arcade/Normal difficulty with the blast charge type. The high score tallying is quite interesting in that it differentiates the difficulty by adding a determined number of points to the starting score (none on Easy, 10 on Normal/Arcade and 20 on Hard). Continues do not reset the score but add one single point to it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Galaxy Force II (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / CRI
Published by Sega in 1991

Many people asked themselves if the rail shooting genre was a solid possibility during the 16-bit video game era. By solid I mean something fluid and dynamic, an experience that should get close to the likes of what people were seeing in the arcades at the time. Unfortunately the high expectations brought by the release of the Mega Drive weren't met by launch titles such as Super Thunder Blade and Space Harrier II, so the task of putting away that lukewarm impression was left for later releases.

Enter Galaxy Force II.

Originally released in 1988 and known in the arcades as the ultimate space adventure, the game represented the apex of the super scaling technology pioneered by Sega, with heavy sprite manipulation conveying the sensation of flying through outer space in all sorts of alien landscapes. Unlike the abovementioned titles, which were in fact pseudo-sequels with new gameplay elements, on the Mega Drive Galaxy Force II was supposed to be a straight port of the arcade. However, even when you consider the explicit differences in hardware, what Sega fans got at home with the 16-bit cartridge was a veritable disappointment, and for many people nothing more than a nearly unplayable disaster.

Defending the "jewel of the galaxy"
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

There is a very clear reason for the widespread backlash this game gets. It's a simple matter of realizing that the programmers could've done a much better porting job instead of delivering a watered down conversion renowned by its blocky graphics and sluggish controls. And yet, against all odds, here I am writing about it because I have plodded my way through all of that to beat the game. Mind you, since there are no continues of any kind it's impossible to beat Galaxy Force II on the Mega Drive without clearing it on one credit.

As an integral part of the Galaxy Force, the player pilots an elite starfighter with the mission to stop the evil Fourth Empire from overtaking the federation star systems. The journey can start in any of the five planets that have already been conquered by the bad guys, ending in a sixth area where you propel through hyperspace directly into the enemy's core. Either flying in open outer space or over the surface of the planet, in each one you'll be entering one or more tunnels filled with enemies, obstacles and trajectory turns. By default, controls work with B for missiles, A for speed down and C for speed up, with automatic single-shot firing. Button B is supposed to be used mostly when you have locked onto one or more enemies, and while the in-stage power-up remains active (it connects to the ship automatically) the number of simultaneous lock-ons is increased.

Lives are replaced by a fuel counter that starts with 1200 points and goes down pretty fast. Getting hit by bullets or flying into walls and obstacles makes it deplete even faster. Recovering fuel happens in only two occasions: when you come out of a tunnel or when you reach the end of the level. In both instances you'll cash in the energy bonus points from all the enemies you were able to destroy. However, that isn't enough for players to reach the end of the mission... Just like in the arcade game it's necessary to fly fast or eventually you'll run out of fuel, no matter how perfectly you play and how many targets you kill.

The dangers of the desert world

Even though the game doesn't do anything blatantly wrong (lousy hit detection, some flicker and a finnicky lock-on scheme notwithstanding), going straight from the arcade game to the Mega Drive port can be a shock due to the frame rate differences. Simplifying graphics and doing away with textures should've left some room for the so-called blast processing to do its magic, but in Galaxy Force II it just didn't happen. On my part I always wondered how awesome it would've been had it been given the same dynamic treatment of the After Burner II port, for example.

At least Galaxy Force II isn't an impossible task in its default settings. It's only a matter of abiding by the game's rules and eventually learning how to get around the trickiest areas. Tips: identify the enemies that don't shoot and kill them all; in several areas it's better to fly low and destroy as many ground enemies as possible (a few tunnel sections and much of the missile lines in the starting stretch of level 3); more fuel can be recovered by killing bigger enemies (flame snakes in stage 2, the mechanized serpents in stage 5); when inside the tunnels full of rocks of level 5 tap up a little and move left or right only when needed. Lastly, don't be frightened by the "shield broken" message you get as soon as the ship takes a predetermined number of hits. The manual says that from then on each hit should eat a bigger chunk of fuel but in my opinion that's pretty negligible.

When you get that weird feeling that you're still having fun with a game like this it's necessary to pinpoint where it's coming from. In this case the answer is easy: the soundtrack. The foundation was already there in the arcade original, but there's no denying that the Mega Drive music does wonders for the game's general appreciation. My high score on full defaults is below (Normal difficulty, Normal energy timer, Strong shield strength). Besides these available tweaks to the main game, vertical controls can also be inverted if you so wish.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lords of Thunder (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft in 1995

Shooter of medieval tone and flashy weapons galore, Lords of Thunder graced the Sega CD two years after its original release on the PC Engine CD/TurboGrafx-CD. Released both in Europe and in North America, the game has garnered a somewhat solid fanbase throughout the years and is frequently remembered as a flagship of the shooting genre when people talk about the Sega CD. It’s also one of the few Sega CD shmups that’s often remembered or cited by other retrogaming circles.

Why is that, I wonder? My best guess is the heavy metal, guitar-driven soundtrack, an aspect that not only celebrated the CD format but also stood as unique in the gaming scene at the time (perhaps the only other title that also dared to bring its music closer to contemporary rock sensibilities was Android Assault, also on the Sega CD). Heck, even in further generations I can't name a single game whose music leaned so much towards the style, so many kudos to Hudson Soft for the generous offering.

Several narrated intro and in-game sequences tell the story of a knight named Duran, who embarks on a mission to rid the kingdom of Mistral from evil dark generals – the lords of thunder, each one controlling an element of nature to morph into a devious creature that must the defeated at the end of every stage. Their order can be freely chosen by the player, but only after all six continents have been cleansed of evil is Duran able to enter the lair of the final enemy.

Meet the boss of the Dezant continent

Our brave knight Duran must choose one out of four different armors in every stage: fire, water, earth and wind. Each one has a specific bomb animation, and even though that might seem the case, the elemental tone of these armors/weapons is purely aesthetic, with no active effect during gameplay (water does not fight fire, for instance). That’s why a favorite armor is always determined by personal preference. Once the armor is selected the player stops by a shop where special items can be purchased with the crystals collected throughout the game, only then proceeding to experience heavy metal shooting action.

Two bars on the top of the screen measure the player’s current condition. The upper one determines firepower according to three levels, which must be filled by taking the colored items with thick borders: blue ones add one upgrade point, red ones add five upgrade points. The lower one represents health and is regularly replenished/filled by taking the heart item. Watch out for this one, it determines the end of the game if it gets depleted (attention: getting hit succesively also takes away precious power-up points). Item pick-ups are released in spades by defeated enemies, but most of them will be crystals/gems to be used as currency in the shop (blue ones have a value of 5, red ones are worth 10). Don’t take too long to collect them, they disappear after hovering in place for a little while.

Endowed with solid sprite work and great enemy diversity, Lords of Thunder has perfect pacing for a 16-bit shooter and doesn’t demand too much with regards to challenge. Durand is allowed to touch walls and even walks when at surface level, slashing his sword automatically whenever an enemy is at close range. This sword slash is the most powerful attack in the game, and the main reason why the Sega CD port sounds so much easier than the original on the PC Engine CD. The only addition that tries to impose some extra difficulty on the Sega CD is the brief stun effect the character suffers when he gets hit, but the truth is that it doesn't do anything too serious in the long run.

The start of an epic journey on the Sega CD
(courtesy of YouTube user Fabio Michelin)

Regardless of the perceived difficulty, playing the game safe is always possible due to the shop gimmick. Provided you have enough crystals, you can always get out of it with full health and fully powered with a 3-hit shield, a resurrection potion and the maximum amount of three bombs. Bombs, shields and resurrection can only be found in the shop, and the best news about this is that the lady who sells the items doesn't know the concept of inflation (unlike the shopkeepers from Fantasy Zone or Forgotten Worlds, for instance).

Being stingy and ignoring the shop, on the other hand, is an integral part of the game's scoring system, simply because at the end of the game (if you 1CC it, of course) the amount in the crystal counter is multiplied by ×10 and then added to the final score. This multiplier is one of the crucial changes in this port, one that diminishes the importance of crystal collecting by a large margin even if there's no max limit to this final bonus as in the PCE CD (where you have a ×100 multiplier but a final reward capped at 1 million points). Sure, crystals still provide a score boost on the Sega CD, but since it's not that great an addition the old "kill-everything-that-moves" ends up being the best scoring strategy in the grand scheme of things.

The Sega CD port of Lords of Thunder is often subject of heated fan disputes with the original on the PC Engine CD as to which is the best game. While the soundtrack certainly boils down to personal preference, the downgraded difficulty and the changes made to the scoring system on the Sega CD kinda tick me in a negative way, so in my opinion the original game stands as the superior version. Both are quite fun in their own right however, and should definitely be experienced by all 16-bit video game fans, shmuppers or not.

In my best 1CC result shown below (Normal difficulty) I used exclusively the water armor and restricted my purchases in the shop to bombs only.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Psyvariar Medium Unit (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 2003

Whenever people think of shooters designed by Success, Cotton is immediately what comes to mind especially for oldschoolers such as myself. Unless you were aware of the developing trend that started to dominate the STG scene at the turn of the century, chances are you'll have missed their foray into bullet hell territory, a game stylishly called Psyvariar – or Psyvariar Medium Unit for completeness sake. It came out for the Playstation 2 in two versions: a stand-alone disc in the Superlite 2000 budget series (Japan-only) and in Psyvariar Complete Edition (Japan and Europe), a bundle that also includes its pseudo-sequel Psyvariar Revision. Much later both games would also appear in Psyvariar Delta for the Playstation 4.

Psyvariar is quite a unique experience in that it belongs to the branch of danmaku with strong emphasis on bullet grazing (another famous representative is the Shikigami No Shiro series). On top of that it's one of those shmups that needs to be experienced live because seeing footage of it is more often than not confusing instead of explanatory. In fact, the game is so geared towards the grazing mechanic that it falls in the same category of Radiant Silvergun with regards to survival: the more you ignore the scoring side of it the less likely you'll be able to make it to the end thanks to a weak ship and increasingly stronger bosses.

While a mixed bag in graphical merits, Psyvariar’s overall presentation is definitely a pleaser thanks to the slick, polished interface. The sci-fi motif rules the design and restricts the enemy gallery to the flying kind only. Background textures are minimalistic (not to say occasionally poor) and some even get reused in multiple stages. All the flair seems to have been applied to the foreground action, which is always full of bullets and provide great contrast for perfect visibility. It couldn’t be any different in a game where players must seek danger at all times if they want to succeed.

Axion against the universe

Even though you can play Psyvariar with only two buttons (shot and bomb), this port adds a third one for "rolling". Whenever the ship's hitbox passes closely by a bullet or an enemy a "buzz" is registered, which adds to the buzz counter and also to an experience gauge that measures the ship's current level (destroying enemies also contributes with some exp). Ascending to a higher level comes with a robotized LEVEL UP sound and approximately 2 seconds of invincibility, during which you can buzz more bullets and even collide against them for another subsequent LEVEL UP. Taking advantage of this brief invincibility window is the secret to level up faster, which brings the benefits of scoring higher (more scratched bullets), powering up faster (upgrades come at specific levels) and opening up new stage branches as you advance through the game (some will only be available if you reach a certain minimum level).

The rolling effect can be obtained by rapidly moving the joystick in opposite directions (just like in XII Stag / XII Zeal). When rolling, ship speed is reduced, firepower is focused into a more powerful stream and buzz count increases faster. Rolling is such an important part of the gameplay that it soon becomes second nature to shooting, and is of course much better done with a separate button than by wiggling the joystick. At key points when leveling up a bigger explosion occurs, the ship's sprites change with the boost in firepower and you also gain an extra bomb. Bomb stock is independent from life count, which means you'll always have your hard-earned bombs reserved for immediate use even in your last remaining life (max bomb reserve is 6). Speaking of which, there are no extends and no items of any kind in Psyvariar. There's no power degrade when dying, but the buzz count is reset and you can't buzz immediately upon respawn. A nice bonus is reserved at the end of the level based on destruction ratio and max buzz count.

Since buzzing/grazing is so important, letting enemies live long enough is mandatory. Sure you can dispatch them afterwards for points, but if you need to choose it will often be more advantageous to let the enemies do their thing and flee. Bullets are the heart and the soul of Psyvariar after all: slow, fast, fixed, aimed or beautifully arranged in the most varied patterns, weaving through them and leveling up becomes a real thrill after a while. The first stage on Earth's orbit – the only one without a boss – is perfect to practice and get the hang of the gameplay. Soon enough you'll be using the exp gauge as a dial for leveling up, knowing in advance if a few more buzzes are needed or if you can dive head-on into the closer bullet cloud for the next stint of invincibility. Watch closely, the fading circle around the ship works as a quick indicator for its duration.

See that thick mass of bullets coming? Dense bullet clouds are ideal for players to abuse the invincibility that comes with leveling up. Why not level up once and then ride the invulnerability wave in glorius Psyvariar fashion? LE-LE-LE-LE-LEVEL UP! That's what real rush sounds like in this game. The only occasion where you can't reap bullet clouds for more level-ups is during boss fights. The exp gauge increases much more slowly when fighting bosses, you can generally get no more than two level-ups by properly milking them before they time out and self-destruct. Don't let that happen or you'll lose a good chunk of the stage score.

Earth stage with wrecked speakers
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Psyvariar is a considerably short game, averaging in more or less 15 minutes depending on the chosen route and the amount of boss milking. When trying out the different stage variations that become available as the game progresses, players naturally end up choosing either the ones that are easier or the more profitable for scoring. The game labels them as Easy, Normal or Hard, but that isn't necessarily an indication of best route based on your strategy. Stage 2-B (Forest /Normal), for instance, is a better choice than stage 2-C (Valley /Hard) if you want to level up faster. In the second half of the game the ship leaves the Earth-related environments and darts into the cosmos, with the final levels being named as elementary particles in physics such as Photon, Graviton, Weak Boson and Gluon (final stage 6-B, unlocked if you reach level 52). The ship itself is titled Axion and its 5th/final form is only attained when you get to level 88.

One of the defining aspects of Psyvariar Medium Unit is that each bullet can be buzzed only once, as opposed to the possibility of multiple grazing implemented in Psyvariar Revision. Ignoring the buzz gimmick and playing Psyvariar like a standard shooter is fine of course. But then you lose out on the different stages and the often great music that plays with them, on top of becoming progressively underpowered.

The stand-alone port for the Playstation 2 is excellent. After the introduction rolls and you press START the game and the options are toggled by pressing SELECT (a great soft reset function is implemented for whenever restartitis kicks in with SELECT + START). Besides the regular tweaks (configurable inputs, vibration, autosave and TATE) you can also enable a Replay mode in which it's possible to choose and watch the best performances in each level, playing them afterwards for some practice (the best performances are always saved in the memory card). All that weird "rotate" function does is rearrange the directionals to turn the game into a horizontal shooter. Finally, as far as I could check the game's rendition in the Psyvariar Complete Edition disc is exactly the same.

At the end of every credit a screen like the one below is displayed as you input your initials, showing details on every level played during the run. This was my best performance on the Normal difficulty, playing in TATE (it looks fantastic). Let's see if I can improve it when I revisit the game in Psyvariar Delta. For now my next step in the series will be Psyvariar Revision.