Sunday, March 24, 2019

Tetrastar - The Fighter (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Home Data
Published by Taito in 1991

We all know the Famicom/NES was huge in its prime period. Even though the wonders of the 8-bit generation are way behind us, kids from the 80s happily enjoyed countless hours of fun with games that are still fun to play today. The mainstream genres were pretty much covered with instantly recognizable classics, an affirmation that sadly cannot be applied to rail shooters. In reality, most people would say that the 8-bit hardware wasn't tailored to handle them at all. At least until you decide to expose them to Tetrastar - The Fighter.

An impressive display of 8-bit processing marvel, Tetrastar is as smooth as it gets and comes filled with effects you wouldn't imagine possible at all on the NES. This excellence is also present in Cosmic Epsilon, another rail shooter released a few years back and co-developed by the same company that's just as good – and obscure – as this one. Even though they're easily the best rail shooters for the Famicom none of them came out of Japan, which is a shame.

In the future world of Tetrastar - The Fighter, Earth is under attack by a former alien ally that has gone evil. The only hope we have is a fleet of powerful spaceships and a navbot that looks like a robot dog. The animated opening, the several in-game cinematics and a slew of cut scenes with Japanese text further detail the story with remarkable depth, which is rather unusual for a shooter. Fortunately all the exposition is very well done, never disrupting and always skippable. It even throws some advice as to how you should behave during the game, to the point that the lack of knowledge in Japanese certainly detracts from the experience. You'll never really grasp, for example, the turmoil behind that segment where the Earth armada flies into the first warp gate or why during a brief passage the ship looks like a tie fighter from Star Wars, among other dramatic moments the pilot duo go through while chasing bad guys throughout the galaxy. All is not lost though, for a translated ROM exists for those who can emulate. :)

The start of a remarkable journey through the galaxy
(courtesy of YouTube user nesguide)

Button B is used to fire your main gun whereas button A is only active after you acquire at least one of the four special weapons. These are switched at the press of the SELECT button and consist of a "wide blaster" spread bomb (WID), an air-to-air homing missile (AAM), a napalm bomb that shakes the ground as it follows its fiery trail (NAP) and a chargeable bio-cannon (BIO). It's very important to take all the items that appear inside pink bubbles and stay on screen for a few seconds if you want to obtain additional ammo for their usage. Even though I didn't get to check that further, these icons might also provide some level of firepower upgrading.

Moving around the screen and never staying put is, of course, rule number one in any rail shooter. However, Tetrastar is different in that most of the time you're given lots of room to move and dodge those spinning 8-shaped bullets. It is, in fact, one of the easiest rail shooters I have ever played, both on the account of the softer challenge and the high number of extends earned as you play (some huge stage completion bonuses totally engulf the extend routine). Granted, you'll still have to face tricky areas where deaths are almost unavoidable if you haven't memorized them yet, such as the spiralling drones in stage 3 or the huge spaceships that ram into you in stage 6.

There are several reasons why I would recommend Tetrastar - The Fighter even to those who're not into this often neglected subgenre. Besides the great scrolling effects, the friendly difficulty and the involving storyline, there's also the outstanding diversity in gameplay. The game starts out epic enough as you need to defend New York from the alien invasion, but then it drifts into outer space, making you fly through blazing fast laser corridors and putting you against several alien fleets. Hazards also include enemies scrolling sideways, quickly-shrinking blockades, energized barriers, vertical rockets and bosses with several protected cores. Boss destruction is particularly neat in that some of them fall apart as if collapsing into multiple energy bubbles. These are the only moments when the game shows some slowdown, or perhaps it's just there for cinematic purposes.

In any case, this game needs to be seen it in motion. Static snapshots such as the one below don't do it justice.

Wide blaster armed and ready!

Tetrastar - The Fighter might not be that tough to beat, but it does pack an interesting scoring challenge. Each life in reserve is worth 140.000 points after you beat the final boss. Speaking of which, be warned that if the timer runs out in the final stage the game ends regardless of life stock. The good news on this is that in the final level you're given unlimited ammo for special weapons, so fire away those AACs and BIOs at will, if possible using a turbo controller for the AACs (there's no autofire at all in Tetrastar, so any kind of artificial autofire is definitely recommended). On the subject of special weapons, I rarely used the ground-based ones (WID and NAP) because I felt the ship's speed is enough to normally target most ground enemies.

If there's an aspect that isn't on par with the rest of this charming little game, that's definitely the soundtrack. You'd normally expect a collection of sci-fi inspired tunes to go along with the action, but instead all you'll listen to are classic songs of public domain. There's nothing wrong with their renditions per se, but it's impossible not to be thrown off a little when the music reminds you of something like Parodius... I wonder if that was a conscious decision by the developer or if they just ran out of money to hire a proper composer. A nice debug feature (check it here) gives access to a sound test, a stage select option and a few other tweaks – that's how I knew the game actually has 7 stages broken down into several checkpoint segments.

After the pilot (or pilots for the alternate ending) returns to Earth for a fireworks celebration over the New York city harbor the display for the final score appears for a few seconds only, so do your best to record it if you want to keep a historic memory of how well you performed in the game. Afterwards the screen halts in an ending panel and you need to reset the console to play again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Steam-Heart's (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Giga / TGL
Published by TGL (Technical Group Laboratory) in 1995

A quick look from the outside won’t tell you that Steam-Heart’s is a special kind of shooter. Originally released for the NEC PC-98 series of personal computers, it gained its first port for the PC Engine CD practically at the end of the system’s lifespan. This port was actually the last shmup officially released for the platform, but this distinction is often overshadowed by the fact that the game's storyline is totally bent on a hentai approach. The same goes for the secondary Saturn port, even though that one has its own share of differences.

What’s interesting about the hentai in Steam-Heart’s for the PC Engine CD is that non-Japanese players might actually go through the whole game without noticing any of the sexually charged content. The problem is that the several pseudo-explicit cut scenes showing the game’s protagonists raping the defeated female pilot bosses take too long to load, have too much dialogue for too little imagery and can only be skipped in their entirety. In a nutshell, impatient pervs won't be too happy. Despite the cheaper production values, for example, Divine Sealing on the Mega Drive did a better job with its panel-by-panel skipping.

Anyway, when you exclude the hentai part from the game what’s left is a conventional shooter that draws inspiration from many contemporary titles for an uneven experience with above average difficulty.

Intro, unskipped pilot chatting and full 1st stage of Steam-Heart's
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

There are two characters to choose from, a guy named Blow and a girl named Falla. They're both able to fire two types of shots selected with proper items, but their attacks differ a bit: Blow has a straight laser and his vulcan shot acquires some spread when upgraded, Falla’s vulcan has no spread but her thin laser gains two spread side shots later on. Vulcan (V) and laser (L) are powered up by always sticking to the same item. Auxiliary weaponry exists in the form of straight missiles and homing orbs, which have no upgrades and always disappear when a new level starts. Temporary shields and health/energy refills complete the item gallery.

As indicated by the HUD on the right side of the screen, the ship starts out with seven energy points that can be replenished with the abovementioned refill item. However, you also recover one energy cell in every transition (stage to stage and stage to the final boss chamber). If this health gauge is depleted the credit ends, but continues and stage selection are allowed for every level you have already reached. Besides shooting, which is accomplished with button I, button II provides a secondary input that's used to make the ship move very fast in a dash maneuver – it's the same gimmick of the Rayxanber series, only without the overheating limitation.

In terms of visuals, Steam-Heart's is a game with lots of highs and lows. The backgrounds of the first two levels are so bland that first impressions might be the worst possible. The first stage is also too long, which doesn't help either. Provided you're able to get past this initial lethargy you're in for a surprisingly busy third stage though. From that point on the game picks up both the pace and the quality of the graphics, peaking in stage 6 as you face a shower of indestructible asteroids prior to dealing with a series of drone waves and bulkier ships. It's nothing fancy but it works (there's no parallax scrolling, for example). In between you'll fly over alien bases and forests while avoiding tricky enemy fire. The dash mechanic certainly helps at times, even though crowd control and clever bullet herding are still the most important strategies for those who want to succeed.

Overall there's enough action to offset the average visuals, but all things considered the soundtrack is certainly the best aspect of the game. Since the challenge in Steam-Heart's is built around quick sprays of aimed bullets and multiple enemy waves that can't always be completely destroyed, staying alert at all times is essential to not deplete that energy bar in a snap. Still you can take a good number of hits because the game throws lots of those energy refill items in later stages.

Against the mechanized clutches of the third boss

In order to skip the in-game conversations that happen at the beginning of a level or prior to a boss fight you need to press START twice, which is quite odd. Some conversation bits cannot be skipped though, and in these cases it's always good to be ready for new boss phases with cheap, almost unavoidable surprise attacks. A few bosses have two or more forms to be defeated, ranging from the quintessential large ship with several cannons to mechas that tend to mix bullet spreads, lasers, homing shots and melee attacks. They might look familiar to PC Engine veterans because they're very reminiscent of other games such as Nexzr and the Soldier series. Note: you're forbidden from pausing the game during a boss fight.

An interesting quirk of Steam-Heart's is that the weapon upgrading process keeps happening until very late in the game. That's why it's not really a good move to switch weapons at will, at the risk of reaching the final enemy without maxed out firepower. On the other hand, every single item you take gives you 1.000 points, which actually mounts to a nice extra if you aim for a high score. Score chasers are also bound to blow up the destructible parts from bosses for a few more points, of course.

My best 1CC score on Normal difficulty is below. I played with Blow and used exclusively the vulcan shot, never switching to the laser weapon. The picture was taken during the escape sequence after you beat the final boss.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Darius (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Hamster / Taito in 2018

In the dawn of the modern horizontal shooting genre, Irem and Konami are often remembered as the absolute pioneers thanks to R-Type and Gradius. Even though Darius came out at around the same time and is technically on par with those two, my perception is that the game lags a little behind in any direct, general comparison. I can understand that if we focus solely in what each title brought to the table regarding pivotal innovations. R-Type introduced the offensive/defensive power of the force, Gradius showed us all the possibilities trailing options could provide, but what of Darius? Branching paths? The unique set of marine-based bosses?

Though very nice design choices, the above weren't really the defining aspect of Darius. What actually wowed arcadegoers at the time was the novelty of playing a shmup in three horizontally-aligned monitors. Due to this extreme widescreen scope the game was never given a proper home release until 2016 by means of the Arcade Archives series on the Japanese Playstation 4. Then one year later the game went retail with a few gameplay extras under the name Darius 30th Anniversary Edition, a gigantic package aimed primarily at diehard fans and collectors: besides the game disc you also get no less than 7 soundtrack CDs covering the entire series and ports (bar Dariusburst and its variations), a superplay disc with special runs for Darius, Darius Gaiden and G Darius and a booklet with designer interviews. A flamboyant variant called Famitsu DX Pack also included a tea cup, a bath towel and a 3D crystal souvenir with an LED light-up stand.

Now everybody who's been reading this blog for a while knows how much of a fan I am of this series. As soon as I heard of this package I knew I had to get it and I knew I would one day own a PS4. I just wasn't aiming for the Famitsu DX Pack, but I was kinda forced to buy it because the "regular" version was quickly sold out. Panic, my friends, pure panic, I'm just not sure if was due to diehard fandom or collector's syndrome.

Underwater perils in zone E

In the grand scope of Darius a stylish spaceship called Silver Hawk must travel through seven stages defeating all kinds of mechanical fish and marine creatures, in a branching scheme that allows players to take the most diverse routes and finish the journey in seven different levels. Some of them are easier, some are harder, some offer more opportunities for powering up, some give players more points. This gimmick of multiple paths provides awesome replay value and is reason enough to justify any sort of hype surrounding the game (and the series as a whole), even though in this case there are other reasons for praise – and criticism – as indicated by the presence of three different game iterations in the disc release.

Regardless of the chosen game mode, gameplay rules are the same. There's a main shot (here called missile) and a secondary air-to-ground shot (here called bomb), which can be mapped to the same button if desired. Natively there's no autofire but this can also be set in the options screen. Colored enemies release colored orbs that power up the ship: red upgrades missiles, green upgrades bombs and blue creates/upgrades the shield. A power-up bar shows your upgrade levels, and by filling the bar you advance into the next level of each ship aspect. The progression goes with missile → laser → wave, bomb → twin → multi and arm → super → hyper. Some firepower aspects change as you take a few items, others only show visual alterations when you get a full bar upgrade. Dying sends you back to a checkpoint and to the starting positions of the current weapon levels.

By hitting specific spots in the scenery (you'll see a different hit sprite), other items can be released for immediate pick-up: the gray orb gives random bonus points (from 50 to 51.200), the golden orb is a smart bomb that melts all on-screen enemies and bullets and a tiny spaceship gives you an extra life (a single extend is awarded with 600.000 points). With the exception of the ground opposition and a few specific foes, all enemies in Darius arrive in waves. Killing a complete wave awards bonuses that range from 1.000 to 40.000 points, an aspect that became a trademark of the series throughout all its chapters. It's interesting to note that all power-up orbs are concealed by the last enemy in a wave.

Though primitive and to a certain point repetitive, the art design of Darius carries an otherworldly touch that's duly escorted by an equally offbeat soundtrack. There are only four graphical themes (caves, fortress, surface, underwater) that get reworked from start to finish (colors and terrain obstacles change from zone to zone). Stage transitions are preceded by a split where the player must choose the desired route to follow, just remember to not stand in the middle of the screen or you'll die by colliding against the split. Speaking of which, in this original game the shield does not grant invincibility against obstacles so don't rely on it to get through walls (I reckon many people might be spoiled by having been exposed to Darius II or Darius Gaiden first, just like me).

Japanese trailer for Darius 30th Anniversary Edition
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user taitochannel)

Clear highlights of the game, bosses fill the entire screen with their attacks and often require constant movement by the player. Every boss is preceded by the now famous WARNING message and then an easy shower of splitting orbs. They are aided by a series of timeout cubes that home in on the player if the fight takes too long – if it drags even longer the cubes turn into blazing fast bullets that will inevitably kill you when destroyed. Boss difficulty is about average throughout but there are some extremes, such as pushover Octopus or pricky Fatty Glutton. In fact, Glutton exposes the worst side of the gameplay in Darius by demanding players to refrain from upgrading from missile to laser until they've beat him. The laser is too thin to actually be useful in blasting the exploding fish that come out of Fatty Glutton's mouth.

An obvious point of dissatisfaction in the game, the above observation on Fatty Glutton's difficulty is actually one of the reasons that led Taito to release an update called Darius Extra (Version). Besides reducing Fatty Glutton's health to a point where the fight becomes fair when you're using the laser, this revised version is overall harder, with faster bullets, tougher boss patterns, a few more aggressive enemies, new enemy formations in specific zones and more erratic pre-boss orbs. There's also a reward of one million points per each remaining life upon game completion, plus lots of those useless golden orbs were repainted gray. Too bad the random bonuses are still in place to upset any attempt at scoring in the most unexpected ways.

The good news is that the Extra version is included in this package along with regular Darius in its official "New version". There's also an "Old version" variant that plays exactly like the new version, as far as I could tell it only differs in the amount of health of some bosses (this can be easily noticed for Keen Bayonet and Octopus). Each version has its own high score tracking and even a few mode-specific tweaks, and overall there's a plethora of graphical and sound adjustments available in the options menu. Unfortunately autofire is disabled in both the "Hi score" and "Caravan" special modes, both of them aimed at uploading results to the online leaderboards.

Below is a quick translation I was able to come up with for all the Japanese menus in the game. Don't even bother looking for a way to activate continues, just be prepared to restart the game if you lose your last life (however, extending play time is possible by allowing a second player to join the credit at any time).

Click for the option menus translation for the Darius 30th Anniversary Edition package on the Playstation 4

Though pretty much the same product as the Arcade Archives digital port, the retail release is adorned by an exclusive display of the original arcade instruction panel (it can be disabled in the options). An extremely solid port in itself, I understand why this beefed up physical edition might have seemed like a cheap cash-in for Taito. However, for real lovers of the series (not only the first game, I mean), it is definitely a must have on the account of the soundtracks and the superplay discs. And the definitive rendition of Darius, naturally. Now I'm sure I'll see old ports Darius Plus and Super Darius a little bit differently, in a good way of course.

My final high scores for each main version are below (Normal difficulty). Even though I beat the game in several other routes in the New version, I decided to stick to ACEIMRX across all of them so that I could have a better stance at spotting the differences in between, and also because ACEIMRX has a very good scoring potential. Final boss Octopus was checkpoint-milked in the Old and New versions, the Extra version highest score was achieved in a no-miss run.

Darius - Old Version

Darius - New Version

Darius - Extra version