3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed by icons
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Developed by NCS / Masaya
Published by NCS / Masaya in 1991
Fantasy themes where characters are abducted to live a great adventure have always been present in video games since I can remember. One of the most noteworthy entries of this kind of story in the shmup genre is Dragon Spirit. Even though it didn't achieve the success or notoriety of Namco's arcade/console classic, Masaya's L-Dis also has a main character being drafted into a fantastic but perilous adventure, one that certainly does not disappoint if you're a fan of horizontal shooters in general. It's leaps and bounds above Toilet Kids, for example, another PC Engine quirky game that also uses the abduction motif.
Granted, L-Dis is quite an obscure title, and it could never aspire to anything more than that since it was never released out of Japan. The game's story starts when a boy and a girl are drawing creatures and objects on a wall, then the girl gets kidnapped by an evil guy and the boy boards a spaceship that looks like a fish to rescue her. The catch is that their drawings become the enemies across six increasingly longer levels that show lots of inspiration from the Gradius series. Does that get you interested? A word of warning though: L-Dis is inspired by Gradius but doesn't play like Gradius at all, and I mean this as a compliment.
The start of a dangerous journey
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)
A colorful, cutesy shooter on the outside, this game actually presents a few interesting challenges for the player. One of them is figuring out the upgrade items brought by harmless floating yellow balloons. Since they're only differentiated by kanji characters, it does take a while to know what you're getting. The good news is that they always cycle in the same order when spawned, with three types of items to consider. The first one is the power-up / speed-up. The second one is the auxiliary shot, which has three forms (a straight type, a bomb/missile type and a special shot that passes through walls). The third item is the bomb / 1-hit shield. Auxiliary shots are fired by trailing options (2 max, no upgrades), you can carry only one bomb (it trails behind the options) and a maximum of three shields can be stocked at any given time.
Before starting the game you can choose to watch a tutorial by pressing left or right (in the end of the message はい means YES and いいえ means NO). Then you must choose one out of three weapon configurations. The best advice is to try them all to check which one fits your play style better, but suffice it to say you're bound to see some weird shot sprites, such as women's shoes, hatchets, pointy fingers or crawling toothpastes. Once the choice is made you're ready to go: fire with button II, drop the bomb with button I. Autofire is there by default, as is the possibility of losing lives in a snap with almost no breathing room on respawn. You do get the chance to recover some of the lost power-ups though.
L-Dis holds the distinction of having lots of sections within a level, with one or more mid-bosses prior to the main stage boss. The adventure begins above a city landscape, then descends into street level prior to a scramble outside a huge battleship that leads to an encounter with a revamped version of Big Core. From then on the challenge picks up in an underwater level and inside a factory filled with walker mechas, lasers and tricky hatches, ending in a lengthy boss rush with lots of cramped passageways in between deadly moving cylinders. The sheer amount of variety (stages and enemies), the sudden shifts in scrolling speed (5th boss, escape to the final boss) and the constant need to navigate tight corridors provide a remarkable challenge that's somewhat detached from the cute aspect of the whole package.
Watched by green eyes and guarded by green mechas
While technically very competent, L-Dis chokes a little bit when the screen gets too cluttered with bullets. Though not common and mostly present in the final parts of the game, the slowdown in these moments is actually welcome for survival. The final stages are also quite stingy in upgrade items, so do you best to get there with a fully powered arsenal. An interesting fact about maximum firepower (besides the long time it takes to be achieved) is that while the main shot sprite increases in size its efficiency is actually diminished. It can't get through tight spaces and turns out slightly less powerful, probably due to the reduced firing rate and the appearance of two side shots whose nature depends on the chosen arms configuration. In any case, these late side shots are very helpful and certainly compensate for the main shot power loss. And just for some basic rank routine, note how those mechas in stage 5 start to shoot thicker laser beams if you get there on a single life.
L-Dis isn't overly hard, but does require a good knowledge of what's coming. There's something shady about the scoring aspect though. Bonuses are registered every time you pick up a surplus power-up or bomb, but they seem to be random. Sometimes you get mere 100 points, only to win 100.000 points in the next one for no special reason at all. At times I thought it was the yellow color of the item badges, but it doesn't seem to be the case. 100 grand is a great figure not only for the overall score but also because extra lives are awarded at every hundred / two hundred thousand points, with a couple also granted as you enter the chamber for the final boss. A few bosses might allow some milking, but it's quite tricky to pull it off consistently.
With intro and ending sequences that properly present/give closure to a story that's akin to an urban faery tale, L-Dis also counts with crystal clear voice works, lovely parallax effects in several places and a nice soundtrack to match the wackily cute but solid challenge level. My best 1CC score is below, playing on Normal difficulty with the arms-B configuration. I did not do any milking whatsoever in this run.