Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Gaia Seed (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Techno Soleil
Published by Techno Soleil in 1996

Of all aspects related to Gaia Seed, which used to be quite inaccessible due to its rarity until it was released for the Playstation Network in 2009, the most interesting one is the way it deals with lives. It's got the usual three per credit, but each life comes with an energy bar that can withstand a determined number of hits and gets regenerated automatically as long as you're able to go on unscathed. Yes, a regenerating lifebar. Though not quite the equivalent to the dominant regenerating gimmick of today's gaming reality, that's a pretty close system that says a lot about how approachable this game is, especially for newcomers to the genre.

The above is also the reason why Gaia Seed - Project Seed Trap (full title) is an extremely easy game. To put it into perspective, I 1CCed it on my first try while extremely tired and somewhat sleepy very late at night. It's straightforward enough and should present no demanding challenge for those schooled in the traditional horizontal shooter formula, kinda like a typical 16-bit title with average 32-bit aesthetics and a certain penchant for resembling none other than Darius Gaiden. If that's up your alley then this game might cut it as a feeble curiosity, in my opinion it's no hidden gem as a few people might put it.

Wait, I have seen these enemies somewhere...

After an intro that shows what seems to be the downfall of our world through pollution and war, the player is dropped in outer space and initiates a mission to reignite the planet. A muffled English narration spoken by a Japanese fellow lends a little more flair to the strange vibe of this intro, whose spooky nature immediately reminded me of Gun Frontier. It kinda sets the tone for what's to come since the game is certainly offbeat in its dark settings and weird-looking bosses.

Controls in Gaia Seed work with □/× for shot and Δ/○ for the so-called "intense fire" attack, a weapon-dependent outburst of energy that, contrary to the expected common effect, doesn't render the ship invincible – that's why I don't really consider it to be a bomb. Main weapons consist of vulcan (red) and laser (blue), switchable by taking the respective color-coded cycling icon. There are also two auxiliary weapons: green shoots out four slow-moving outward projectiles and yellow sends out two similar alternating projectiles that cause minor explosions upon contact. Both are also switched by taking the respective cycling item.

When using the vulcan weapon, the intense fire attack sends out a series of homing shots that will target anything on screen, which is good to inflict damage regardless of your current position (it also melts regular bullets in its initial seconds of activation). In the case of the laser weapon what you get is a powerful laser beam that hits whatever stands in front of the ship. Once deployed, the intense fire energy bar starts recharging automatically for another use. What I did not like at all is that both gauges (ship's shield power and intense fire) occupy a large chunk of the screen and impair visibility if you need to fly low.

Main weapons can be upgraded three times by sticking to the same color, auxiliary weapons have no upgrades at all. Dying strips the ship off the auxiliary shot and reduces the main weapon power by one level. While the lifebar mechanic gives players lots of room to recover from eventual hits, I'm not really fond of all those sudden laser beams fired by bosses. It's as if the game was desperately trying to account for the lack of challenge, thus requiring players to exert at least a little memorization if they want to improve their performance. Since boss fights are all timed, it would be much better if we had some sort of related bonus for remaining health and fast kills. But no, the only extra opportunities for scoring are in avoiding weapon changes (1.000 points per extra power-up) and killing all enemies in selected formations (1.000 to 5.000 points).

Gaia Seed's gloomy intro
(courtesy of YouTube user ghegs)

A staple of the Darius series, enemy wave destruction bonus is just one of the many aspects that Gaia Seed borrows from Taito's fish-blasting franchise. Backgrounds, boss behavior and even the soundtrack, for example, are all very reminiscent of Darius Gaiden. Of course Gaia Seed does not compare in terms of difficulty, but some boss attacks and even the way multiple forms are dealt with are hauntingly similar. Also watch out for a few enemies that seem to have been lifted directly out of the first Darius.

In an interesting twist in its storyline, this game has three different endings. By beating the final boss the mission is deemed incomplete and you get a bad ending. By timing it out and then killing the secondary angel-looking boss you still get a bad ending. In order to see the good ending and a message of mission complete it's necessary to let them both live. Unfortunately there isn't any sort of scoring reward for the best ending.

No matter how you see it, Gaia Seed will never be more than a quick diversion that wears off pretty fast. Most people tend to praise its music, but in my opinion it's just a serviceable one that suits the atmosphere of the game and also comes out as Zuntata-inspired at times. I attempted to get as many wave bonuses as I could in three consecutive credits, with the final results shown below (Normal difficulty). My preferred choice for weapons was vulcan + yellow side shots. Manual load/save and a music gallery are the most useful functions in the options menu.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ghost Blade (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast
Published by Hucast / Play-Asia in 2015

My friends, I wish I was starting the log in the new year with a better game. However, one of my nephews saw the TV turned on its side and wanted to see how a video game looked in it, so on a whim I decided to take Ghost Blade off the shelf for a quick demonstration of its TATE mode. Then I thought it would be nice to tackle the game properly before putting it back, so here we are.

What a sad disappointment!

Aside from the usual letdown provided by pretty much all products made by Hucast (excessive development delays, promised game modes that never came to be, beta visual assets that never made it to the final product), Ghost Blade is a derivative mess that's completely devoid of any character. It lacks proper challenge and stutters a lot when the screen gets cluttered, in a frameskipping fest that strains the eye after only a few minutes. TATE mode is even worse because the frame rate is degraded all the time and practically makes you want to turn off the Dreamcast to go play something like Galaga instead. Don't be fooled by what you see from official trailers for this version of the game, that's not how it actually looks and plays.

One of the bosses

It's baffling how mediocre Ghost Blade is considering it was designed as a soft homage to developer Cave. The control scheme, for example, follows the classic Cave mold of shot, laser (focus) and bomb, which may be freely assigned in the Dreamcast controller so that you can play it as if you were playing Dodonpachi. Ghost Blade even comes with the choice of three ships: Milan (straight shot, no spread), Ghost (spread pattern) and Rekka (wider shot stream, no spread). Milan is the strongest and fastest of them all, Ghost is the weakest and Rekka stands between them as far as firepower goes. Upon selecting one of them the player is prompted to choose between Normal and Novice difficulties.

As you advance through the levels, little excitement is to be expected due to the generic sci-fi motif, the lethargic way the game is laid out and the naïve boss patterns. Destroyed enemies leave stars behind, and if you kill them with the focus shot they'll also release "tech orbs" that fill up a special gauge for extra bombs. All airborne items are automatically sucked into the ship, ground ones need to be flown over. There's no need to worry about powering up at all since you come out of the first level already fully powered and the Ps and Vs you pick up are never lost when you die. I also didn't care to check the extend routine because I got lost in numbers due to the massive bonus granted at the end of the level (a lone 1UP can also be picked during the 2nd stage).

The above is probably the most critical failure of this game and of any similarly designed shooter: if you don't even care about such precious things like powering up and extra lives, why bother at all? When you analyze the design closely, the background graphics in Ghost Blade are at least decent (faint nods to Ketsui and Pink Sweets included), and so is the soundtrack. But these aspects aren't enough to make a game, they just come off as a waste of resources. There's no kinetic balance when the game is in motion, and playing it often feels like crawling through quicksand, hiccups and bad visibility causing unexpected deaths when you least expect it. Nevertheless Ghost Blade is still remarkably easy, with lots of leeway provided by a bomb stock that's not reset upon death and bullet cancelling in place for most medium-sized enemies.

Intro for Ghost Blade on the Sega Dreamcast
(courtesy of YouTube user Team Shmup'Em-All)

Another similarity with Dodonpachi is in the chaining system, which tracks the number of enemies destroyed for an increasing score multiplier. However, combos in Ghost Blade don't give outrageous score boosts and are a lot less strict since the chain counter isn't lost if you take too long to kill the next enemy. It merely decreases, very slowly. Chains are only completely lost when you die. The end-of-level bonus mentioned above is based on the max combo and the amount of stars and tech orbs collected, as well as lives remaining. Now for something extremely odd: the max combo bonus is always the highest combo you can achieve, so if you manage to get a good one in the first stage you'll always get the very same bonus for all subsequent levels regardless of how badly you play them. This max combo bonus is even repeated in the next credits, so talk about an amateurish oversight! Lastly, I could swear I got an instant GAME OVER once or twice in the final level even though I still had lives in stock.

Besides the base game, Ghost Blade has a training mode and tweaks for the HUD and the audio balance. The collector's edition comes in two DVD cases with the game, the soundtrack and a "superplay" disc with special demonstrations for Ghost Blade, DUX 1.5 and REDUX - Dark Matters. As you can see, it's a royal feast for Hucast fans...

My best result for Ghost Blade in the Normal mode/difficulty is below, playing with the Ghost ship. Just note how even this high score table is messed up, some of the credits display zero as "max" combo. After this original Dreamcast release the game was also made available for more recent platforms such as the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 under the title Ghost Blade HD. It's supposedly a much improved final product, but I'll refrain from trying it for the time being.