Thursday, April 25, 2019

King of Fighters - Sky Stage (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by MOSS
Published by SNK Playmore in 2010

As much as I prefer the likes of Street Fighter and Capcom brawlers in general, I must concede that The King of Fighters also has an enormous appeal within the fighting game community. I had my share of Fatal Fury back in the 16-bit days, but my actual experience with KOF was null until I knew about King of Fighters - Sky Stage (occasional rounds at friendly gatherings don’t count). Having those flashy, cocky characters flying in glorious shoot’em up fashion was right up my alley, if you know what I mean.

Born in the arcades, Sky Stage soon appeared worldwide for the Xbox Live Arcade service. Even though it was met with lukewarm feelings by pretty much everybody, I kept a soft spot for it ever since for a couple of reasons. One of them was its likeness to the Shikigami No Shiro series. The other was the absolutely awesome action-driven soundtrack. I also found the game quite challenging from a few test runs, an aspect that was surely put to the test in my gaming room recently.

The reason why we have KOF characters flying in this game is this: in order to rescue fighters trapped in Orochi's dimensional prison, Chizuru Kagura endowed a group of heroes with the ability to fly through the skies, using their skills to shoot down various demons and wraiths. Fans of the series who're keen on trying this different approach will certainly recognize common attacks and variations, as well as witness characters in new clothing as bosses or in special cameos along the way. The only "problem" is that KOF Sky Stage is a very hard bullet hell shooter, one that demands fierce dedication and more often than not tends to drive away casual players. For a lighter take on the game you can check the watered down secondary port that was included as an extra mode in the PSP title Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting.

Iori dropping his level 3 special move

Taking to the skies with any of the six available fighters is accomplished with the following buttons, all configurable: shot, bomb, special move and provocation. The first two are self-explanatory. Special moves can be done in three different manners: tap and you get the basic level 1 attack, or hold and release the button according to the power gauge in order to trigger two more powerful attacks (levels 2 and 3). Every time a special move is used a portion of the power gauge is consumed, then automatically refilled for another use. You can't shoot when using it, and as expected the more powerful the special move the longer the power bar takes to recharge (note that some special moves also have a secondary gauge that measures the duration of the attack). As for the provocation input, it covers the screen with a red hue and puts all enemies in overdrive mode, considerably increasing the difficulty for some time while affecting the scoring system (keep reading).

As a rule of thumb, all characters have some sort of defensive special move, but the girls certainly weren't given the best options on these. Kula Diamond, Athena Asamiya and Mai Shiranui all need to deploy level 2 or level 3 moves to obtain some sort of defensive edge, whereas Iori Yagami, Kyo Kusanagi and Terry Bogard can all nullify bullets with a single level 1 move. Kyo does carry the best defense due to his fireball, an attack that's also excellent for scoring since it's able to obliterate lots of bullets and cannon fodder in a single blow. On the other hand, his bomb has the shortest reach of all and will do no damage if you stand too far from your target. I'm quite fond of Athena's level 2/3 moves (deflecting mirrors, invincibility) as well as Mai's level 2 ricocheting attack, it's just too bad their shot patterns tend to be confusing and lack power. Kula has a great spread shot and cool special moves though, unlike Iori's weak shard pattern and lackluster specials.

Using all these moves to survive the mayhem is nice and fun, but the game takes on a whole new level when played for score. The first component of this is the hit combo: kill enemies within a certain time between each other (~3s) and watch the combo meter rise; if you lose the chain this number is reset; every time you get 100 hits an extra bonus is granted. The second component is the proximity bonus: every enemy releases one or more medals for pick-up, and the closer you are when you destroy them the higher their values will be; gold medals are worth 1.000 points, silver medals are worth 500 points and bronze medals are worth 200 points each.

Getting hit within the level itself resets both the medal counters and the combo meter. Everything from then on (or since the stage start) will be on hold for the end-of-stage bonus. If you succeed in killing the boss without getting hit you'll get the number of gold medals × 2.000, silver medals × 1.000, bronze medals × 500 and max combo × 2.000. If the boss hits you the only bonus you'll reap is max combo × 2.000. This obviously stresses the importance of flawless survival play for your scoring results. The worst that can happen is getting shot right before the boss, a situation that will grant you virtually no bonus at all. A hit at the very start of the level, on the other hand, does not affect scoring that much.

Now for the practical use of the provocation/taunt button: when active, all medals that would regularly be of the bronze kind will appear as silver medals instead. The potential scoring boost is obvious, of course, but be my guest in dealing with the crazy difficulty spike!

Taking Kyo Kusanagi for a 1CC ride in the 1st loop of KOF Sky Stage

By striking a nice balance in the risk × reward ratio, Sky Stage manages to remain attractive to both survivalists and score chasers. The game does start in a moderate tone, but as soon as the second stage kicks in the action gets much more hectic. Going the distance will require lots of practice, and even though the game allows stage select I seriously wish there were other training alternatives, such as a specific practice mode for bosses. After all, in stages 2, 3 and 4 you might face one out of two enemies (boss A or B). Fortunately there is a way to choose which boss you'll face in these levels: in the stage prior, as soon as you defeat the boss park your character on the side of the screen that aligns with the next boss choice (for example, after you beat Athena move left to fight Kyo or move right to fight Iori as the 2nd stage boss). Important: if you don't want to be challenged by Kula Diamond after you beat Orochi Shermie / Rugal Bernstein, do not use special moves when killing off the first three bosses.

Learning how to deal with different boss variations is just one of the things that make KOF Sky Stage quite a significant challenge. Besides that, players also need to cope with an absolute lack of slowdown, no extends / energy recovery of any kind and a bomb stock of only three for the whole credit. The only refreshments you'll get are score-based extra bombs, the first coming with 2 million points and further ones at every 4 million afterwards. The game is always at a default nominal rank, which only decreases a little on boss fights if you get to them after getting hit. Speaking of bosses, a good advice is to abuse point blanking whenever they stay idle. Depending on the chosen character you might inflict lots of damage, thus abbreviating the battle, avoiding some of their nastier patterns and getting better boss crash bonuses. Note that bosses also have a MAX attack gauge that fills up during the fight and might be unleashed at any random moment (you can try to predict them by always sticking to the same strategy though).

One of the traits Sky Stage shares with the Shikigami No Shiro series is the complete absence of ground enemies. The art design is also similar, even though Sky Stage bears a grittier look and has in-your-face bullet patterns that seem a lot more menacing due to the lack of slowdown. There are cool character panels throughout with nice English voicing and well made, concise interactions for a storyline that will make more sense for longtime fans of the regular series (turn Event to OFF if you don't want to see the story bits). Access to a second loop is granted if you beat the game in a single credit while killing all five character cameos and collecting the invitation letters they carry. Suffice it to say, the second loop is a lot harder with suicide bullets and much faster enemy attacks, but if you get to the end again you'll then face Omega Rugal, the game's True Last Boss.

Co-op and a Versus mode with distinct gameplay rules complete the package for those who enjoy tagging along (or against) a friend. I did not venture into these modes at all though. I dedicated myself to the main game ever since I started playing, trying to devise optimal routes and approaches to achieve complete stage chains while collecting the most gold medals. The character I felt most comfortable with was Kyo Kusanagi. Some of his fellows might have better chances at survival or scoring, but the fireball certainly shines for easier possibilities in getting more gold.

Character balance notwithstanding, if there's one thing I wish KOF Sky Stage did differently is the implementation of a focus shot / speed decrease button, simply because it would make dodging busy patterns a lot easier. My final score with Kyo on Normal difficulty is below, reaching stage 2-1. There is an online leaderboard available for the game, but I haven't gone online with my Xbox 360 in ages.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Macross (NES)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Big West / Namco
Published by Namco in 1985

Given the success achieved by the Super Dimension Fortress Macross sci-fi anime series, which originally aired in 1982, it was just a matter of time for a video game to be released based on it. The Nintendo Famicom had the honor to be the chosen platform. However, since Macross (or Chōjikū Yōsai Macross for completeness sake) came out during the system’s infancy, not much excitement was/is to be expected due to its simple, repetitive design.

Graphics are primitive and lack detail even for 8-bit game standards. The cheesy music is also totally forgettable. In all honesty, only longtime fans of the anime might be thrilled by such a primitive little shooter. And kids who played it back then, of course, after all nostalgia lives forever.

Unique boss

In this first Macross shmup the player controls a transformable VF-1 Valkyrie fighter in a neverending battle against an invading race of giant humanoid aliens known as the Zentradi (yes, I retrieved this sentence from Wikipedia since I know absolutely nothing about the series). The Valkyrie is a very versatile machine that shoots with button B and can assume three different forms with combinations of button A and directionals, as described below:
  • Fighter mode (→ + A) – acts as a jet fighter; in this form the screen scrolls the fastest but the Valkyrie has the slowest moving speed, with no autofire at all;
  • Gerwalk mode (↑ + A) – acts as a "chicken walker" mecha; scrolling and moving speed are average when compared with other Valkyrie modes, with average autofire;
  • Battroid mode (← + A) – acts as a humanoid mecha; moves at the highest speed against the slowest screen scrolling of all modes, and has bidirectional shooting capability with fast autofire.

All forms of the VF-1 Valkyrie fire a single laser shot that cannot be upgraded at all. Limiting the firing rate of the different modes is therefore extremely odd, so my best advice is to use a turbo controller for a slightly better enjoyment of the game. Besides its regular firepower, the Valkyrie can also shoot out a a flock of homing missiles with the SELECT button. The stock for this extra attack is increased by taking the M item. Other items you might randomly come across are energy refills (P), 5.000 bonus points (B) and extra lives (E). Shooting the icons propels them forward, which might be necessary lest they appear inside the mine fields from round 2 onwards.

Each life comes with an energy bar that, when depleted, sends the player back to the very start of the round/loop. The loop is extremely short with only two sections where you fly in outer space until you reach the entry to the enemy fortress that hides the boss. Beat him and start all over again with a slightly harder difficulty and some extra enemies (the abovementioned mine fields, new Zentradi fighters, turrets prior to the fortress entry). Every new loop refills the energy bar and adds two units to the stock of special attacks. The stretch inside the fortress up until the boss is timed, and when the boss is destroyed the player collects a reward for time and energy left. Since you gain a lot more from the time bonus than from the energy in reserve, I always prefer to switch to fighter mode so that I can finish that section as fast as I can. In the initial half my preferred way to go is the Gerwalk mode, because if you choose Battroid the game seems to take forever.

One round/loop of Macross on the Nintendo Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user germaster22)

All things considered, at least Macross does everything right in its simplicity, except for the unresponsiveness of the special attack on the SELECT button. The challenge increase seems to hit a plateau very early on, but there's a catch. Though very similar in structure to TransBot, released at around the same time for the Sega Master System, the loops in Macross become increasingly longer as the game progresses.

Longer levels are actually what made me think a little higher of this game. On a quick glance it could be considered another neverending marathon, but fortunately the game does become more demanding during higher, longer loops. In round 10, for example, my life stock finally started to go down, simply because it gets harder to get from one P item to the next and also because missile-firing enemies become more frequent. That's also when I noticed that fuel/energy actually depletes by itself very, very slowly.

Don't fret if you notice the score display roll over once you get to one million points. The correct high score can be seen in the brief intro animation after you press start to begin the credit. I was able to reach loop 12 and could've gone a little further, but once the score counter rolled over one more time I decided to call it quits and give away the rest of my lives to the Zentradi. Here's the final result I got:

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Airwolf (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kyugo
Published by Kyugo in 1988

First of all, let's get one thing straight about this game. This blog post is about the Japanese version released for the Famicom by Kyugo. It's a horizontal shooter that loosely resembles the arcade game of the same name. The Airwolf released for the NES in US and Europe by Acclaim is a completely different title that uses an inside-the-cockpit view for a totally boring experience that has nothing of the excitement the TV series was famous for. This doesn't mean that the Japanese game is the epitome of badass helicopter action though. For all its flaws and overall ineptitude, one could say it's almost as inane as its Western counterpart.

Airwolf is the codename of a high-tech helicopter equipped with heavy armament and stealth capabilities. It takes off from its hidden lair to fulfill secret missions around the world. According to the Famicom game, the ultimate mission is to rescue the pilot's brother, missing in action years ago and held hostage by an evil organization. To accomplish that you'll need to get through six stages of increasing perils armed with a combination of two types of weapons selected at the start of every mission. While this sounds great on paper, the execution unfortunately fails to live up to the legacy of such a great TV show. Slowdown, unstable frame rates, flicker, bad visibility, lack of autofire + capped firing rate, unresponsive controls, inertia... in essence, everything you need for another dose of inglorious 8-bit torture.

Cold, cold war

As mentioned above, prior to starting the level you need to equip the chopper. Button B cycles the primary weapon: chain guns (a 2-way shot that resembles "double" from Gradius), cannon (a very slow straight bullet) and falcon (like cannon, but faster). Button A cycles the secondary weapon: hellfire (a 45° downward shot), red eye (90° falling bombs) and copperhead (missiles fired downward at a 30° angle). Any weapon combination is possible, just note that some of them have similar design: chain guns + hellfire results in a 3-way spread shot, whereas falcon + copperhead combine the same bullet types for much stronger firepower. The only use for the cannon is being devastating at point-blank distance (tip for the final stage!). As for the red eye, it's pretty much useless.

Once the game begins, the player shoots with button B. Button A is of special nature since it toggles the supersonic capability of the Airwolf. When active, the helicopter flies at "supersonic" speed while being invulnerable and consuming the fuel gauge shown at the top of the screen. You don't need to worry about depleting fuel, if that happens you'll just be unable to engage in supersonic flight. The bad news is that unless you're qualified as a grade A button masher you'll need a decent turbo controller. The firing rate is severely capped and the only way to increase it is by taking the POW items left behind by selected destroyed enemies. The game only becomes acceptable after you take at least a couple of those.

Other items to be found consist of smart bombs (stars), extra lives (1UP) and a bonus token of 3.000 points. They are almost always released by destroying single jets that zap from behind trying to ram into you. Approximately halfway into some levels you'll also come across a stronger opponent that flies back and forth and takes a lot more hits to be destroyed. These minibosses are often escorted by lots of other enemies, so don't hesitate to use the supersonic speed if things get too hectic. One example of this is in stage 2, where bullets fired by antennas on the top of the buildings also tend to block your firepower.

Speaking of bosses, the main ones (except for the final boss) must be fought as if you were playing a gallery shooter. The problem is that these parts are plagued with a combination of reduced framerate, apalling slowdown, unresponsive controls, crosshair inertia (!) and just sheer confusion. You can't really tell the reason why your energy gauge goes down, for example. For all it's worth it's at least a harmless chore, for never once did I die in one of these bosses no matter how sloppy I played.

Sample credit of Airwolf, Famicom version
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Despite all its shortcomings, Airwolf packs a surprisingly decent enemy gallery. It's not all about jets and choppers. Tanks, turrets, submarines, fast-moving missiles, slow bombers dropping rockets, falling missiles that go out in a huge flash, evil faces carved in the mountains. Stage themes range from the lakes and mountains of the countryside, city, caverns, ice and a desertic entry into the enemy headquarters prior to two timed sections where you fight the aforementioned carved sculptures and the final enemy helicopter. It's just too bad the game's execution is so poor. That said, the music is the only aspect that fares a little better. Though technically subpar, it includes the famous opening theme and in general tries to capture the essence of the show.

Since the 1UP will always be there even if you die and get sent back to a checkpoint, there's at least one instance in each level where you can exploit this to boost your score. Yes, the scoring system might be broken, but given the firing rate issues it's not uncommon to see that 1UP go away in between your shots. Note that there are also score-based extends, but these are awarded with successive double figures starting with 50.000 points (next ones at 100K, 200K, 400K, etc.).

An interesting twist in this version of Airwolf is the rescue command passcode gimmick. A combination of 5 numbers is shown at the end of levels 1 through 5. If you want to see the ending after you beat the final boss you must enter all five passcodes correctly or the game will end abruptly with that dreadful view of the Statue of Liberty fallen to the ground. A pen and a sheet of paper should suffice, there's plenty of time to write down the passcodes and to type them in the end. Time, however, is what you absolutely don't have to take note of your final score since it's shown very briefly once you defeat the last boss. After that you'll input the passcodes, see the ending, see the credits and then get stuck in a THE END panel.

Well then, if you just want to see your completion/1CC high score you might as well refuse to insert the passcodes and check it out at the start screen after the GAME OVER. Would failing to see the ending still count as a legit clear, I wonder? Anyway, I did it the hard way and filmed the game's final moments, so here's the 1CC score I got for Famicom Airwolf. I used chain guns + copperhead all the way, with the exception of chain guns + hellfire in stage 3 and cannon + copperhead in the final level.