Friday, June 28, 2019

Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting (PSP)

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

As a gaming platform, the Neo Geo was the birthplace of many famous franchises and characters. It was also notable for a library formed by games designed almost solely by its own creator SNK. Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting pays homage to their heritage by presenting a roster of ten handpicked characters from several Neo Geo titles battling each other in pure shmup fashion. The game was developed exclusively for the PSP and might be seen as either a sequel or a rearranged take on King of Fighters - Sky Stage, which hit the arcades and the Xbox Live Arcade service just a few months before the handheld release.

Even though it lacks the English translation for the main game story mode (which is available in the digital version), the retail Japanese edition at least keeps the English interface and is therefore totally friendly towards Western players. Amongst the different modes from the main menu there's even a port for King of Fighters - Sky Stage, so the disc actually bundles two games in a single package. The changes made on the Sky Stage version regarding game speed and difficulty are also extended to Neo Geo Heroes, in a porting/development job that properly adapts the bullet hell style to the handheld format. I just wish the framerate had been kept at 60 fps, but alas! It's fine as it is though.

The motive for all characters coming together to have fun flying and shooting stuff in Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting is a guy named Dr. Brown, who uses a time machine to summon them from their timelines in order to defeat final boss Geegus (both characters from World of Heroes). Joining the ensemble of six fighters from Sky Stage (Iori, Kyo, Terry, Athena, Mai and Kula Diamond) we now have Iroha (from Samurai Shodown VI), Marco Rossi (from Metal Slug), Akari Ichijo (from Last Blade) and SYD-III (the ship from Armored Scrum Object / Alpha Mission, piloted by a cute silver-haired lady). Just like in the original game, the new characters all differ a lot in shooting styles and special moves.

Kula Diamond versus first boss Marco Rossi

The 4-button gameplay works with shot, bomb, special move and provocation, all configurable as you please in the PSP button layout. Bombs are given for the credit, not for lives (meaning that you don't get a new bomb stock when losing a life). Each character can use three special moves defined by how long you charge the respective button: a single press results in a level 1 attack, with subsequent charging times resulting in a level 2 or level 3 (most powerful) special move. Once any of these moves is completed the corresponding gauge is automatically refilled for another use. You can't shoot when a special move or its charging is in effect, so take that in consideration in the heat of the battle.

With the exception of the scoring system, which is exactly the same as in KOF Sky Stage, Neo Geo Heroes changes things around a little bit, such as the way stages are organized. There are still five of them, but this time you must always choose the next one in a branching arrangement that grants several variations for levels/bosses and five distinct final stages with no loop (there's no invitation letter gimmick this time around). In Neo Geo Heroes you also know which boss you'll be facing prior to selecting the next stage. All bosses from KOF Sky Stage return in different parts of the game, which in general has shorter levels that reuse the enemy gallery of the original title in the most diverse ways. As usual, no ground targets are to be seen anywhere. The soundtrack recycles old themes while adding new ones to the mix, in a final result that's probably not as cohesive as in KOF Sky Stage but still decent nonetheless. There are times where it just lacks the punch of the original, such as the theme that plays in the stage tallying screen.

Now for scoring. Every destroyed target releases one or more medals whose value depends on how close you are to the enemy. Up close medals are worth 2.000 points, the next ones give either 1.000 or 500 points. They are also color-coded, which helps in identifying them even though they come labeled as "100 Mega" (red), "Neo" (yellow) and "Geo" (blue). Whenever you beat a level the medal count since the last time you got hit (in the level) is converted into extra points (red ×2.000, yellow ×1.000 and blue ×500). Whenever the provocation button is pressed the difficulty increases for a little while and all blue medals will come out yellow, thus increasing the scoring potential as far as medals are concerned.

The other important component of the scoring system is the chain/combo, a counter that increases if you manage to destroy enemies in succession with no more than approximately 3 seconds between each kill. As you enter a boss fight, the maximum combo you have since the last time you got hit is buffered in order to be multiplied by 2.000 points for the end-of-stage bonus.

Trailer for Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer snkGame)

Most of the initial fun of playing Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting is in trying the different characters and seeing which ones adapt better to the player's style. That said, it's no wonder the silver-haired pilot of the SYD-III ship is at the foreground in the game cover. She's by far the best character to use thanks solely to her level 1 special move, which renders her invincible for a precious few seconds and allows her to ram into anything unscathed, bosses included. There are boss phases, for instance, that yield with just two of her "shield" attacks. At least the characters from the new roster are more balanced than the original six, except maybe for Iroha's stupid level 3 special move. Both Marco Rossi and Akari Ichijo possess nice attack/defense capabilitities.

Even though Neo Geo Heroes never reaches the difficulty of the original or even the port of KOF Sky Stage that's included in this disc, the game still packs a certain degree of challenge that varies according to the chosen character. Extra bombs are awarded at 2 million and then at every 4 million afterwards, and you might even run into a very rare extend item if you happen to be in your last life. The stakes can be daunting in the long run, but at least the branching stage layout provides a little more variety and replay value to the whole experience. Some great fan service can also be seen in the art design for the story and the panels that show character interactions.

Besides the main game in Story mode, the UMD also includes a special Challenge option with two variations: in Subject mode the chosen character must complete little challenges as the game unfolds, whereas Survival mode presents 3 ranks/routes (beginner, middle, higher) for you to play a boss rush. Co-op is available in Multi Play, as long as your friend brings his/her own PSP. Sky Stage mode gives access to the special port of King of Fighters - Sky Stage and Museum allows you to check art/music galleries and ranking tables for all applicable modes. Both Neo Geo Heroes and KOF Sky Stage have stage select and the possibility of activating an Infinity switch that makes you invincible while denying entries in the high score rankings. And if you fancy turning the PSP on its side a TATE display is also available.

My character of choice for Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting was SYD-III. I beat the game on Normal by going through the upper route (1-2A-3A-4A-5A) and fighting Orochi Yashiro prior to final boss Geegus. Note that the restart function sends you back to the start of a level but doesn't reset the score, so be nice and don't rely on that to achieve a high score.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Ice Cream Surfer (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Dolores Entertainment
Published by Red Art Games in 2018

For an extremely modest game born on the Wii U in 2014, Ice Cream Surfer was certainly granted a big honor with this physical release for the Playstation 4. It is, in fact, one of the many digital products that have recently been made into disc form thanks to the services of independent publishers catering to extremely niche portions of gaming audiences. I'm all for a real, concrete product myself, so yes, I'm definitely inserted into one of those niche markets. Unfortunately, poor Ice Cream Surfer is far from living up to the standards one would expect from a retail release for such a powerful platform as the Playstation 4.

Posing as a colorful cute'em up, the game is a bare bones adventure reminiscent of titles like Cloud Master and Parodius. The story takes place in the so-called Flavor Galaxy, which has been in turmoil since the evil Broccoli created a crazy army to destroy it as revenge for the fact that kids hate hate vegetables but love ice cream. The player assumes the role of one of the five members of the Cream Team, who depart from the ice-cream planet in order to rid the galaxy of the bad taste brought about by the evil Broccoli creature. Two friends can join forces to play in co-op.

Okay, the concept is cool for some wack, but the standards are those of an online Flash game, or one of those penniless XBLIG efforts. The characters you play with don't even have in-game names, but referring to the trailers you see them as Ace (protagonist "ice cream kid"), Hima (the big monkey), Super Cream (the superman), Sailor Twister (a loli surfing a lollipop) and Rei Tou (the samurai).

Trailer for Ice Cream Surfer on the PS4 and PS Vita
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

Each character has his/her own capabilities for shot (×) and special attack (□ or ○). All characters share the same speed and roughly the same problems with their hitboxes, which just seem too big for their sprite work. This means you need to get used to a safe zone when dodging. All those colored diamonds released by destroyed enemies fill up the power gauge, which in turn allows player to use their special attacks. The mechanism for stocking special attacks is kinda shady, but as long as a star is shown on the power gauge you can use them. Special attacks make you invincible while they last.

Upgrades and other items appear randomly or by destroying a blue gift box. Popsicles are the regular power-ups. Their color is irrelevant except for the blinking popsicle that makes you invincible for a few seconds. Ice cream toppings that look like small keys, on the other hand, affect gameplay in the following way: blue creates a rotating option, orange creates a trailing option that provides additional firepower and green makes you suck all diamonds automatically. Toppings are self-excludent and their effect is restricted to a single stage only. There's also another item that grants you an extra life. The alphabet letters forming the word ICE CREAM are there just to provide some bonus points at the end of the level.

Following the ice cream environment of the first stage you'll venture into other planets with different themes (vegetable, candy, sushi and fire) before reaching the no-flavor world dominated by the evil Broccoli. The art style remains fluffy and colorful from start to finish, and the music is average with a few standout BGMs (the one for the third stage is cool). On challenge merits the whole game is rather easygoing, but dying in one of those sections with more enemies than usual can lead to tricky situations. You'll be respawned at the default power level and depending on how the game throws popsicles you might need to limp for a while in an underpowered condition. Each boss phase has its specific health bar, but all bosses are quite easy to defeat once you figure out their patterns. Beware of the invincibility popsicle, since it blocks you from shooting you might be caught off guard once its effect passes.

Super Cream and Sailor Twister get serious on a pack of flying onions

The best character to use is undoubtedly the ice cream kid. He achieves great coverage once his shot is maxed out (it takes four popsicles to max out firepower). His laser beam special attack is also the best one. The next best character is probably Super Cream. All others have deficient, crippled or capped firing patterns and only become half decent options if you join forces with a friend in co-op play. As a curiosity, the shoulder buttons (RB, LB) toggle a screen mode that simulates the slightly curved canvas of old TV sets.

With such a simple, easy and straightforward gameplay, Ice Cream Surfer is nothing more than a cheap pastime even for genre newcomers. Besides an assortment of easy achievements you'll unlock art snippets in a dedicated gallery as you play, as well as a lenghty comic book with the characters from the game. Don't bother checking the online leaderboards though. The scoring system is broken because some bosses and mid-bosses can be easily exploited. In the second boss fight, for instance, all you have to do is park your character in the upper left corner and fire away for an eventual counterstop.

As soon as I noticed the low bullet count in the Normal/Middle difficulty I chose Hard and beat the game twice with Ace. On Hard you need to deal with more resilient enemies and more bullets, but nothing too taxing. Here's the final result with some boss milking from testing spots for the broken score:

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Deathsmiles II X (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010

Truth be told, even though the Dodonpachi franchise seems to have been squeezed to the point of exhaustion, Cave was never a company to repeat itself from one game to the next. From the groundbreaking gameplay of Guwange to the unique ambience of Dangun Feveron, Cave was always bold enough to try new things. One of their last arcade forays into bullet hell territory, for example, was the remarkably polarizing Deathsmiles II, a sequel that drew lots of criticism from the get go due to the departure from sprite-based art to polygons as well as the game's housing in PC-based hardware instead of regular arcade boards.

I couldn't care less about the latter since I'll probably never venture into the world of arcade boards. The new design with polygons is a debatable part of the package, and my only real gripe with it would be if Cave had kept in this console release the inability to skip those dreadful cut scenes prior to boss fights. Fortunately there's a reason why the Xbox 360 version is called Deathsmiles II X instead of just Deathsmiles II. This enhanced port, which conveniently appears as "Deathsmiles II X mode" in the main menu, not only allows you to get rid of the cut scenes but also revamps the arcade game completely in glorious HD resolution while adding many gameplay improvements, thus making the original arcade iteration obsolete at the eyes of many (myself included).

The arcade version is, of course, also included in the disc. It just didn't receive any special makeover and originally had some bugs that can be corrected with a patch. Unless you're a diehard fan of arcade games in their natural form you should go directly to X mode since it's just so much more accomplished in terms of the usual intensity we all love about Cave titles. Arcade Deathsmiles II is simpler, has less rings/gems, less stages, less characters (Follett and Rosa are exclusive to X mode) and lacks the famous rank selection at the start of the level that was one of the most distinct trademarks of Deathsmiles. In essence, X mode is the definitive version of the sequel and that's the one I'm gonna write about for the rest of this blog post.

Windia against evil chess pawns in the final level

Christmas is the general setting this time around. The story involves a villain named Satan Claws who raids the castle where the heroines live and steals some magic music notes while injuring their father figure. And out they go get them notes back in order to heal him. Two new characters join the battle: a little girl named Supe, who's 7 years old, and a boy named Lei, who's 12. The visual catch (or outrage, as some might put it), is that Lei dresses as a girl. I read somewhere that there's a sensible reason for his unusual attire, but if you can't decipher Japanese you'll probably be kept thinking the Japanese are becoming weirder and weirder with their loli-based games. Fun fact 1: Lei and Supe are brother and sister. Fun fact 2: Supe's familiar is none other than a miniature of Tyrannosatan, one of the final bosses of the first Deathsmiles.

Once the game starts you'll notice that Cave preserved the same exact inputs for the sequel. Two buttons (A and B) shoot left and right (laser – when held makes the character fly slower), another two provide rapid shot left and right (shot) and a further one can be used to execute the lock shot (A + B). There's also a bomb for panic functions. Important: this time the lock shot also targets enemies that lurk in the background. As you shoot back and forth you'll notice that your familiar – the little creature that flies with you and provides additional firepower – freezes in place or moves around when you're using laser or shot (a situation that's reversed depending on the character). Familiars are important not only because their able to block some shots, but also because they can be used to influence the scoring system, the aspect that represents the biggest departure from the original Deathsmiles.

Now that's where things get a little complicated.

Two number displays appear on the bottom of the screen. The upper one is the counter, which goes up to 1.000. The lower one is the multiplier, which goes up to 10.000. To increase the counter you should collect smaller red rings, which are released by hitting/killing enemies with shot. The multiplier is increased by getting light blue rings from hitting/killing enemies with laser (even more with the familiar's firepower while lasering), and also by red rings if the counter is already maxed out. A proximity effect is in place, which means the closer you are to an enemy when hitting it the more rings you'll spawn for collection. Once the counter reaches 1.000 sperm-like suicide bullets appear when enemies are killed with shot. These bullets can be normally blocked by the familiar.

Having the counter at 1.000 gives you the ability to activate power-up/fever mode. All you have to do is use lock shot (don't use it if you want to build up the multipler first!). All bullets are instantly turned into rings and the counter starts decreasing. Enemies can't harm you when in fever mode, and two kinds of projectiles might emerge and follow you around. The first kind are the blue suicide missiles spawned from destroyed enemies; every time you press lock shot these missiles and their trailing lines are turned into a shower of rings (light blue if multiplier is not at 10.000, dark blue if it's maxed out at 10.000). The second kind are the bigger unblockable sperm-like suicide bullets, which emerge whenever you hold lock shot for a few seconds; they turn into even more blue rings when you let go of the lock shot button. Note that regardless of where you stand the lock shot is only effective as long as that circular aura around the character doesn't close at the top, a resource that must be constantly refilled by continuously collecting more rings.

If the counter gets to zero the multiplier is instantly reset and power-up mode ends. Then you'll have to build up those numbers again for another fever round. However, whenever fever mode is about to end you can generate another big shower of blue rings to immediately max out the counter, thus allowing you to instantly reignite fever mode with a decent boost on the multiplier. The trick is to reflect a bunch of missiles/suicide bullets with lock shot when the counter is about to reach zero, an action that can be executed lots of times within a single stage. Finding the best places to trigger lock shot and squeeze the most out of suicide missiles/bullets is the ultimate goal for high score players. Just remember that getting hit or bombing takes you out of power-up mode while eating away good chunks of your counter/multiplier.

Official trailer for the Xbox 360 release of Deathsmiles II X
(courtesy of YouTube user otakuxgamer)

Does the scoring system sound overly complex and convoluted? At first sight, yes. In spite of that, once you get the hang of it the game acquires a whole new level of fun that makes it hard to put down. As for the aesthetical appreciation, Deathsmiles II X is by all means a worthy sucessor to the first game. The music is great and every level comes with a very specific enemy gallery that reflects the current theme. I do believe the visuals are in general a tiny bit darker and more macabre in the sequel. Bosses remain large, menacing and visually impressive. Tamecos, the skinny old man, is quite a sight when you see him for the first time, and Tartaros seems to have come straight out of something like Mushihimesama. Only Mad Teddy & Mad Bunny are kinda silly as the bosses of the extra stage, but then again with the exception of the boss the whole level is a bit of a letdown in terms of challenge.

Speaking of diffficulty, Deathsmiles II X is easier than Deathsmiles thanks to the more linear design, the many bullet cancelling resources available and the copious slowdown that comes with it. Even when going for full level 3 rank selection the game does not sting that hard. Satan Claws surely is the toughest boss in the game, but you can also pursue a last fight against true last boss Pidgeon Blood Jitterbug. To earn the honor of facing him you need to go through the extra stage (thus playing all seven levels), beat every boss by using lock shot (it must be the final attack on the boss) and also pick up the large cake released by Satan Claws when he dies. If possible, try matching a boss kill lock shot with the activation of power-up mode. Since counter/multiplier values get transported to the next stage you'll then start it in full throttle to rack up a whole lot of points.

Score-based extends come with 20 million and 1 billion points, and you can also get extra bombs or refill lost health/lives by taking the small/large cakes. The problem with these items is that their spawning routine is a mystery that I wasn't able to solve this time around. Sometimes you get them at determined spots in the level, but most times you don't.

Besides X and Arcade, the disc also includes an Arrange mode that allows the player to throw familiars around so that they lock on to enemies while swallowing bullets (power-up mode is activated automatically once the counter reaches 1.000, multiplier increases with no limit). Extra Mode (a.k.a. Tukaima Race) is just a maze game where you play against the clock with the familiar gallery in scenes taken from the first Deathsmiles. There's a series of adjustments you can apply to the game as a whole, but each mode also allows specific tweaks as well. The ability to record/watch your replays and to download other players' runs from the online leaderboards complete the assortment of useful resources (protip: download one of the highest scoring runs with your character of choice and watch it to get a faster grasp of the whole gameplay).

The difference between the regular and limited editions of Deathsmiles II X is the soundtrack CD that's included in the latter. Unfortunately the game is region-locked to Japan, but at least it saw a digital release in the West through the Games on Demand service. I scored the 1CC result below on X mode with Follett, playing all stages at rank level 3 and beating the TLB. Sadly this is yet another one of those ports where you're not allowed to input your initials in the high score screen. Bummer!