Sunday, October 27, 2019

Space Defending Force SDF (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hal Laboratory
Published by Hal Laboratory in 1990

For a couple of reasons I almost feel sorry for Space Defending Force SDF, a game that's also frequently referred to by its Japanese title Uchuu Keibitai SDF. The main reason is that it was never released out of Japan, so it was practically relegated to obscurity by default. Given the fact that SDF came out in one of those square-shaped cartridges (the same format used in Dezaemon) and uses a special chip for improved graphics, I can somehow understand its confinement to the Japanese market. What baffles me is the absence of a scoring system in such a nicely crafted shmup. Getting through this game is one of the most interesting journeys to be had in the Famicom/NES library, so for fans of the genre the lack of a proper scoring system is truly a sorry letdown.

Since there's no need to worry about numbers and such, all you'll ever see when playing SDF is the action itself. There's no HUD, and not even a mention to stage structure as the screen fades into the next level when the boss goes down. The attract mode shows a silent animation that details the ship's capabilities, and once you press start a brief take-off sequence leads the player to open outer space. Soon you notice that the horizontal span of the level stretches beyond what you see in a single screen, an aspect that's ostensively present throughout the game and adds to the challenge in several distinct ways.

An honest credit in the first stage of Uchuu Keibitai SDF
(courtesy of YouTube user たぶやんゲームス)

Button B fires a single shot, so try to get a turbo controller for better enjoyment. Button A only becomes active after you take the first weapon power-up. These are released by destroying capsules that materialize in specific places and consist of H (spread shot), V (side shot) and L (laser shot). Other items you might come across are S (speed up), Ƨ (speed down) and E (extra life). Once you get a first power-up you'll also acquire two attachments that lock onto the ship at the front and provide a minor degree of protection against regular bullets/lasers. By pressing A these attachments are propelled outwards and latch onto the ship's rear, changing the weapon to the ship's original firing pattern. In essence, button A switches attachment positions + the choice for shot/weapon mode, but there's a little more to that.

Maximizing firepower is achieved by taking three consecutive power-ups of the same kind. For the second power level, shot mode also fires two side missiles. For the third (max) power level, these missiles acquire a very efficient homing ability. Since attachments are what actually gives the power to the ship, if at least one of them is destroyed you won't be able to fire neither the current weapon nor the missiles when in shot mode, meaning you'll be temporarily stuck with the default shot until you get the next power-up. Attachments are lost if they receive too much damage while latched onto the ship or if they hit more powerful enemies when travelling towards the other side of the ship upon pressing button A.

Managing weapons and resources is of course just one part of what the player needs to cope with in Space Defending Force SDF. The game makes great use of noble inspirations such as Gradius, R-Type, Star Soldier and Dragon Spirit, blending their elements with successful results in each and every stage. From stage 3 onwards, for example, you need to weave through several stretches of narrow passages while dealing with all sorts of opposition with varying attack methods. Ricocheting lasers, heat-seeking drones/missiles, aimed/fixed bullet spreads, splitting divers, closing gates, you name it. The enemy gallery is kinda eccentric, ranging from insects to mechanical and alien creatures. On that regard the game is very reminiscent of titles like Salamander / Life Force and Abadox, even though SDF carries an all around more ominous and ambitious tone.

Evil insect nests in the final stage

One of the best traits of SDF is its difficulty progression, with the glaring exception of stage 2. It severely breaks the pace of the game, but fortunately the action that comes afterwards excels at keeping players on their toes. Some intermediate checkpoints are guarded by mid-bosses, however the final stage is especially cruel since it's very tricky and has just one single checkpoint up until the final boss, giving you no upgrades at all if you die while fighting him. The best weapon against bosses is definitely the laser, which is devastating at point blank distance. On the other hand, the maxed out side shot (V) is awful because the firing streams bend up and down when you move. I avoided it like the plague, except when in shot mode because shot mode behaves the same regardless of the weapon you're using.

Technical excellence supports the varied design and the top notch challenge in SDF, with absolutely no slowdown and just minor negligible instances of flicker. One thing that bothered me a little is the way the attachments "dance" around the ship and take longer to latch if you are on the move, which had me killed more then once while I waited for the desired weapon to activate. I eventually learned how to circumvent these situations, of course, and I also learned a trick to attract power-up capsules if they appear in tight places or too far from my reach: just press START and see it happen. The act of pausing in this game is accomplished by pressing SELECT.

My time with Space Defending Force SDF has ended, but I couldn't recommend it more if you fancy some decent 8-bit methodical shooting. There might be no scoring system in it, but the unlimited continues are great for old school practicing and the tension that builds up in the final parts of the game certainly adds up when going for the 1CC.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Rym 9000 (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sonoshee / Rainbite
Published by eastasiasoft in 2019

For some time now video games have always exhibited messages aimed at photosensitive people, warning about the need to beware of visual stress or even risks concerning epilepsy seizures. However, how many times have we actually paid any attention to them? Fortunately I'm not affected by that at all, but if you are I strongly advise you to take these messages seriously if you intend to play Rym 9000.

Rarely has a shooter taken aesthetics to such limits with regards to visual stimulation factors such as flashing, shaking and color manipulation. Besides, the whole art design is also very dark and mysterious, as are the interfaces within the game itself. Just to have an idea, the borderline abstract visual elements and the whole feel of the game remind me of things like Polybius or the most experimental works by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz or David Lynch.

In simple words, Rym 9000 is a bloody weird shooter. The weird aspect goes beyond the visuals since the game also subverts a few features commonly associated with the genre while demanding players to figure out many things on their own. Even the instruction manual of the retail release doesn't tell you much, instead focusing on detailing the crazy story about a treasure hidden on Earth's moon and strange aliens watching over our planet as you fight your way through the game. My first advice is to press → at the start screen to go to the Options and set Effects to "reduced" so that the game becomes less of a deranged mess (this also turns off the vibration function). While we're at it, from the start screen ↓ selects the initial level from the ones you have already reached, ← takes you to the leaderboard/achievement lists and ↑ starts the actual game. Minor note: as much as I tried I couldn't figure out what Focus mode does in the Options screen.

Japanese trailer for Rym 9000 on the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Quickly moving, visually dirty backgrounds scroll by as you dart into the clouds and then to outer space. Only a single input is used in the whole game so fire away with any button that does that in the controller, just note that whenever you're shooting the speed of the ship is reduced. Except for the final level all others share the same basic structure, including the parts halfway into the stage where you have the chance to pick one out of two new weapons. Lives work like this: if you get hit, the shot pattern will revert to a single double stream; after a short while a + item will appear, and as soon as you grab it you'll recover your current weapon; if you get hit before grabbing the + item you'll die. Deaths will take you back to the beginning of the level, with the same score and weapon you had when you first started it.

Rym 9000 is unique in many ways, but the way it treats deaths, as described above, is particularly elusive. From a credit perspective it means a GAME OVER / CONTINUE combo because it forces you to restart the level while preserving your previous score. This also means this isn't a shmup with infinite lives, where you could whore out the system for scoring advantages. The only way to see an actual GAME OVER screen is by quitting the game or finishing it. If you get confused when you get to that point (as I did), be aware that quitting is accomplished by pausing and holding ↓ for a few seconds until the down arrow at the bottom fills up.

In a rough comparison, Rym 9000 could be described as an assortment of caravan levels joined in a single game where you have only one/two lives per level. Gameplay is based on successive waves of different enemies coming up from all sides. They all arrive surrounded by a white aura that quickly turns to yellow and then to red. Destroying them when they're white returns more points than when they're red, so there you have the basis of the scoring system. The aura thing does not apply to bosses, but speed-killing them also gives you more points. What's particularly interesting in this case is that speed-killing is made easier by using the shot pattern that's active after you get hit since it's much more powerful than all other shot types, except for the Arrows weapon you acquire in stage 4. The risk/reward relation is clear: for better scoring possibilities you need to be at the brink of defeat, kinda like an alternate take on the same gimmick of Gunnail.

Unless you've memorized waves and attack patterns, being close to death isn't a good idea at all. Enemies are keen on displaying erratic movement, with all sorts of distinct behavior such as bouncing, homing, splitting and rotating/exploding, as well as being downright harmful when destroyed (some of them can't be killed or you'll be automatically hit). With very few exceptions, bullets and lasers come with huge sprites as an obvious compensation for the visibility mayhem. At the end of the day it works, provided you can cope with the aggressive visuals. One minor glitch I noticed in the scoring system is that the points you get for defeating the first boss aren't correctly applied so you end up scoring a little less than you should there. Fortunately that doesn't seem to be the case for rest of the game.

A moment of relative quiet amidst chaos

With such an otherworldly art design and all these quirks in the gameplay, Rym 9000 surely justifies being called unique. On the other hand, even though the game's identity is very clear it's hard not to think of it as yet another ambitious indie effort whose claim to fame is trying to make our eyes bleed. There's so much visual noise that snapshots can't do it justice, you need to try out and experience its particular kind of rush yourself. And unless there's more to it reserved for the future, the addition of a complex backstory is all but a misguided way to add content to the game, especially when you notice that the core experience is such a short one.

The disc release includes a TATE mode and several wallpapers if you decide to play it on a regularly oriented monitor. Even though the electronic music doesn't push the limits of the format in the same measure as the other features in Rym 9000 do, it still fits the tone nicely and represents the main extra of the retail Limited Edition in the form of a soundtrack CD. If you don't want to go for the retail release, the game is also available digitally for the PS4 and for PC fans/users by means of the Steam digital platform.

The online leaderboard available on the PS4 is very strict and allows only ten places, as seen in the picture below. My pure 1CC run (no deaths and stage restarts) was achieved by taking the following weapons: V in stage 1, Tricky in stage 2, Y in stage 3 and Arrows in stage 4. I think they're the best choices all around for screen coverage and power (note that some enemies are more vulnerable to certain weapons). As expected, playing this game felt different from the norm but it was equally fun.