Friday, November 29, 2019

Cloud Master (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B / Taito
Published by Sega in 1989

Cloud Master, also known as Chuka Taisen, is the port of an arcade game of the same name. It stars a kid named Michael Chen, who flies on a cloud and shoots down enemies in ancient Japan. Michael is an apprentice and aspires to be considered a real "cloud master" by his enderly mentor. In order to achieve such honor he must get through five levels, destroying the incoming threats and defeating big bosses along the way.

The simple concept of this game fits the capabilities of the Master System much better than it did the arcade platform, especially when we consider design aspects such as the repetitive tiled backgrounds. Cloud Master on the Master System is an extremely colorful port that's rather competent in adapting the source material, with similar gameplay mechanics and faithful representation of both the enemy gallery and the stages (unlike the full-scale makeover seen in the PC Engine version). It's also no pushover, as one would imagine from the cute visuals. Hit detection is fine, a little flicker appears here and there and a sliver of slowdown might happen in crowded areas.

Flying over the Koh river

Controlling the kid on a cloud is extremely simple. Press button 1 to shoot and button 2 to fire a secondary attack. Upgrade items are released by destroying full enemy waves or specific enemies and consist of P (main shot power-up), S (two main shot power-ups), F (speed-up, means "fast"), A (autofire) and E (extra life). The evolution process of the main shot is very similar to that of Taito's own Darius II, in that each power-up adds another layer of power/spread to the current firing stream. When maxed out it assumes the form of a wave shot with regular bullets on the sides. Looking at it closely, the whole feel of the game and the upgrade system is like an amalgam of the first two Darius games.

Equally as important as the main shot is the secondary attack that's obtained by defeating a mid-boss and entering the door that he/she leaves behind. In there you'll be able to choose one of four special attacks, which remains active until you enter the next mid-boss door or die. Secondary attacks are automatically upgraded every time you enter one of these doors, even if you switch to a completely different type. Options include a rotating fire guard, spinning dragon fire, crescent arches, 2 or 3-way fireballs, a 4-way x-shaped mirror attack, bouncing/trailing fireballs and a scattering bomb that explodes when hitting the ground. I might be wrong here, but the impression I get is that the Master System port has more secondary attacks than the original arcade version, on top of allowing you to switch them even when at maximum power (doors don't stop coming when beating midbosses). 

Bowls of ramen, pigs with cannons, flying pig heads, bird flocks, large birds with human faces, tigers, pandas descending from clouds, dragons, turtles, monkeys, mushrooms, etc. With some exceptions there's always an animal or mythological creature appearing as basis for the enemy gallery. Regular enemies fire regular bullets, whereas midbosses and bosses shoot lightning bolts or round projectiles that force you to move more carefully due to their big sprites. From my experience at least three speed-ups are needed to fly around with decent maneuverability, just watch out for bullets that tend to travel slowly and might get mixed with backgrounds. You don't die by touching the short mounts of dirt at ground level, unless you get crushed by them at the edge of the screen.

Even with the hardware constraints of the platform it's nice to see a few animation details preserved, such as the character's eyes blinking and his hair and the cloud he rides on curling as he's moving around. On the other hand, graphics fade out before boss fights so that the Master System can handle their large figures. Eastern motifs rule the soundtrack, which fits the game but is otherwise pretty unremarkable.

Michael Chen starts his journey into enlightenment
(courtesy of YouTube user mrbeanchannel)

With two checkpoints per level, Cloud Master gets increasingly trickier to recover from death as the game progresses. Unless you play with some kind of turbo function doing it without the A power-up can be extremely demanding. Note that the rate of fire isn't the same at all power levels, which is the main reason why I avoided maxing out the main shot. If you keep your shot pattern at only two red blue balls or the spread before that you'll achieve a much better firing rate than the one you'd get with the maxed out wave shot. This is particularly important during boss fights, and you also need to consider hitting them at their weak points (mostly the head, or the belt for the shogun boss). You can kill them a lot quicker if you hammer them at point blank distance in between their attacks. Fun fact: the shogun is the last boss here instead of the dragon, which was demoted to guardian of the 4th level.

Besides the 1UPs you get with items, score-based extends are granted with 30.000 points and then at every 200.000 points afterwards. Attention: once you defeat the final boss and receive the definitive congrats from the elderly god figure there's a brief GAME OVER screen, but the game doesn't stop there. Wait a few seconds and it will start again in a second loop. The difficulty increase in further rounds is very subtle, the main difference I noticed is that the E item for extra lives does not appear anymore.

My best credit for Cloud Master on the Master System ended in stage 3-5. The unusual detail in this version, as you can see in the picture, is that the current score is on the right side of the panel and the high score is on the left side. It had me confused more than once as I was trying to figure out point values throughout the game.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

iS - Internal Section (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Positron
Published by Square in 1999

Even for those who consider them part of the shmup genre, tube shooters were always a rare breed and barely get any discussion these days. The one game that comes to mind the most for pretty much everyone is Tempest and its sequels/clones, and Gyruss to a lesser extent. However, even though this particular subgenre never really thrived in a grand scale the truth is that the Sony Playstation was home to a few interesting tube shooters, one of which is iS - Internal Section. Unlike its bethren N2O - Nitrous Oxide, Nanotek Warrior and Tempest X3, it unfortunately never came out of Japan.

iS as trippy as it gets. The shaded forms in the tube surface and outer surroundings are constantly changing according to the electronic music, whereas enemies, bosses and bullets are formed by simple arrangements of polygons that fly around at varying speeds for an experience that some people consider an embrionary version of Rez. There are of course many similarities between both games, but iS is much more shooting-oriented rather than geared towards synesthesic player interactions. The good news is that the game is perfectly approachable, and even relaxing once you get more familiar with it. I daresay it's an excellent way to get acquainted with the world of tube shooters.

Dropping an eraser inside the tube

All game modes use the same control inputs, which are configurable in the options. One button shoots with natural autofire, two other buttons cycle through the available wepons and another one fires the so-called "eraser", the equivalent of a classic bomb. The eraser creates an energy circle that moves forward and sweeps all enemies across its path, including bullets. As for power-ups, you don't need to worry about them because there are none. Extra erasers are obtained every time you complete a new phase in the game, and all twelve weapons named after the Chinese zodiac are ready for immediate use. Part of the fun is in finding out which one works best in each situation, everything else revolves around shooting and dodging. It's that simple.

Quick note on my usage of weapons: favorite one for killing regular waves is Monkey, then Horse (which is good to hit enemies that float in the middle of the cylinder), Tiger (extremely powerful), Snake (good for some of the stronger waves and a few bosses/mid-bosses) and Bird (very efficient in specific areas); Sheep or Rat are best for hitting single spots (as in the riddles of the 6th stage), Ox is slow but blocks everything in its path; I practically never used Dog, Boar and Dragon, they're either clumsy or downright useless.

An interesting aspect, and in my opinion one that makes iS such an easy game to get into, is the fact that when you move the whole tube moves around you. You don't need to worry about the confusion of managing your craft's direction in a 360 degrees turn, as in Tempest or Gyruss. Both the gameplay and the actual difficulty benefit whenever this is implemented, after all moving around becomes easier regardless of what's coming ahead of you. Of course it wouldn't make a difference if the scrolling wasn't any good, but fortunately that's not the case with iS. The game never slips off its native framerate and is a beauty to look at when in motion.

Every stage has four "phases" prior to the boss, which is fought in an open plane in pure arena fashion. Phases are separated by a short section of invincible spinning blocks reminiscent of Xevious. Die anywhere, including during this block transition, and you have to restart the phase from the beginning. All enemies arrive and attack in specific formations with very rare instances of overlapping. There are lots of mini-bosses and a few surprising breaks in the game flow, such as the whole 6th stage and its block riddles, including a lengthy block maze in phase D. Even though the game adopts an abstract concept for graphics, each stage has a general theme that dictates the shapes forming everywhere around the player (gems, characters, bricks, outer space, etc.).

Stage 1
(courtesy of YouTube user plonk420)

For each fully destroyed wave and mini-boss an extra amount of points is obtained, as you can see from the bonus tags that float towards the player. Some of these small bonuses increase in value if you eliminate the opposition faster, and you can even trigger extra enemies by doing that (such as the extra laser snake in stage 5D). Regardless of how well you perform in killing everything, the bulk of the scoring system is actually in no-missing whole stages. Deaths are extremely detrimental to scoring because each death takes away a good chunk of the stage bonus completion. I couldn't grasp the exact rules, but from my brief experience with the game three deaths are enough to give you no bonus at all in any level. Besides, the amount of earned extends will be drastically reduced if you die, thus affecting the completion bonus of 30.000 points per extra life.

When you realize you can amass so many extra points and lives just by avoiding death, some of the most intricate full wave kills aren't worth the risk anymore. Keeping the finger on the trigger (as the announcer from Donpachi would say) is still good practice though, even when you're amidst the Xevious indestructible blocks. Sometimes you'll hit spots that hide fish, which then move out as if released from prison or something like it. Hitting fish spots gives you some points and perhaps a surprising view of an up close mackerel (saba) but that's it, just a quirky mysterious detail in a relatively straightforward shooting adventure.

Besides the Normal game mode, iS - Internal Section also has a few "arrange" modes such as Enhanced (which is considerably harder), Ambient 1/2/3 and Fullauto. I have no idea what's behind Fullauto, since the game doesn't respond to any input there and seems to play by itself. In all of the Ambient modes, which play just like Normal mode with minor difficulty alterations, you can select your own soundtrack by choosing a different song for any level or even swapping the disc for a music CD as soon as the credit starts (that's why you see a save moment before the start of any game). As mentioned above Options include button remapping as well as weapon edit (alter weapon cycling order), sound and screen adjustments and automatic saving.

I had great fun and urge everyone to try this neat little game. I tried to do my best in Normal mode, with the final results shown in the picture below. Cool detail: for all 1CC/ALL runs you're entitled to see a few extra stats just by pressing ○ at the highlighted score. I assume that "worst" section is supposed to save completion results with the lowest possible scores one can achieve, but I wasn't willing to test that.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Altron

Published by THQ in 2006

Danny Phantom was a relatively successful cartoon that aired on the Nickelodeon channel from 2004 to 2007, starring a teenage boy endowed with ghost-like supernatural powers who fights to protect his hometown from otherworldly menaces. One of the two video games to have come out from the show, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is based on a specific episode that gets reenacted in glorious shoot'em up fashion, full of all sorts of different weapons and colorful backgrounds. It only came out for two Nintendo handheld systems, the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS.

The DS version is of course the more accomplished of the two. Speaking of this particular version, while relatively competent in the art design front the game was obviously tailored to its target audience and doesn't demand much from the average player, serving solely as a breezy diversion from more serious shooting endeavors. Danny's two best friends are the main supporting characters and interact with him in between levels throughout the whole game, which should prove amusing for fans of the show at least. In both the cartoon and the game's story, an evil entity called Undergrowth attempts to turn the city into a warped jungle with an army of unfriendly ghosts. It's up to Danny to capture them and free the enslaved citizens.

Let's meet Undergrowth, shall we?
(courtesy of YouTube user IGN)

Each stage/world is comprised of two sections guarded by bosses and a bonus area where you must fulfill different tasks to improve your score. Danny shoots with button A and deploys his ghost powers with button B. These ghost powers are always selected before the stage section starts, from a gallery that starts off with the three most basic special attacks: the "phasing" (invencibiliy/invisibility), the boomerang and the thermos, a ray that weakens and sucks ghosts (yes, just like in that famous movie with Rick Moranis). Other ghost powers are unlocked as you get through the game, such as the ghostly ice/fire and other types of ghost-busting devices. Cycling through ghost powers is accomplished with button L, but you can also fire them directly by tapping the corresponding icon in the touch screen.

Besides the default main weapon (N), you'll also come across the piercing shot (P), the homing shot (H) and the laser (L). Non-default weapons are obtained by shooting and cycling the corresponding incoming icon. The departure from the norm here is that you must activate all of them in every single stage. There's also a charge shot that's activated by quickly tapping the shot button and holding it until you see Danny's hand glow. It's a very powerful attack that varies according to the current weapon. Green capsules upgrade the firepower and are also needed in every single level if you want to have a maxed out shot (three capsules needed). Buttons Y and X cycle through the available weapons, a selection that can also be made by means of the touch screen.

The last control input in Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is button R, which toggles Danny's aura between red and blue. Each aura allows him to absorb bullets of the same color, just like in Ikaruga. Soaked bullets are the main way of filling up the gauge that provides energy for ghost attacks. You can also do it by trapping ghosts with the thermos: for a certain amount of ghosts trapped you acquire a special capsule that's stored in the lower left box in the touch panel; just touch one of them when you need to recover ghost power. Likewise, all hearts collected are stored in the upper left box in the touch panel, just touch one of them when you need to recover lost health. All ghost capsules and hearts in stock are wiped out when a new level starts.

As we can see, there's no shortage of resources in the gameplay and all buttons are put to good use. Unfortunately, the sheer number of survival aids is more than enough for you to cruise through the game on your first sitting, as was my case. What's left as a challenge, if you decide to do so, is exploring a few techniques to score higher. A chaining system is in place for successive enemy kills, where every enemy destroyed adds to a multiplier combo (approximately two seconds max between each kill). Besides, at the end of every level you're rewarded for the amount of ghosts/enemies you obliterated and also for speed-killing the boss.

I ain't 'fraid of no ghost

More than the lack of challenge, the aspect that undermines Urban Jungle's appreciation the most is certainly the repetitive gameplay. Little is to be expected besides taking down wave after wave of cannon fodder, the occasional medium-sized ghost and then the boss. Once you figure out how efficient the homing weapon is for crowd control there's little incentive to get out of your way to survive (for bosses the best one is the laser though). In a few levels you need to go around obstacles and walls, but that's it.

A glimpse of something more demanding appears in the area where you need to phase across buildings that block your whole path or else you'll take damage. No phasing available though? Don't worry, ramming across these buildings won't seriously impact your health meter. Another glimpse of diversity appears in the 4th world, which turns the game into a rail shooter where Danny pilots a spaceship. Gameplay rules change a little bit there, but everything is still as easy as the previous levels. What's left for real variety, strangely enough, are the bonus areas. The tasks you need to accomplish there are all different from each other. In one of them, for example, you're only allowed to soak bullets, whereas in another you're supposed to play for as long as you can if don't let a determined amount of ghosts escape.

All things considered, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle at least serves as a good introductory shmup for kids. The cartoon seems to be a charming one from what I've quickly seen, so the fan service also represents a good part of the enjoyment factor. Beating the game unlocks a few extra things in the opening menu, such as a sound test and a boss battle mode that I didn't care to try. I just played two full credits in the main game on Normal difficulty, and the results for both are shown in the following high score table.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Atomic Robo-Kid (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
18 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by UPL / Treco
Published by Treco in 1990

Playing Atomic Robo-Kid can feel weird, and I don't mean the sensation brought about by the push-scroll bidirectional control scheme. The way the stages are broken down and how the bits and pieces of the gameplay tie together give me the impression that there are too many ideas thrown in a shooter that doesn't have enough substance in the end. It's visually quite close to the arcade original by UPL, but something got lost in the porting process. The result is a silly sci-fi adventure with lumbering weapon functionalities, a game that's certainly one of the contenders for most awkward entry in the Mega Drive shmup library.

In the future one of Earth's colonies is bombarbed by radiation from outer space and all creatures suffer hideous mutations. Out of the ashes of the wasteland rises this chubby little robot that looks like a trash can, and he is of course the last hope of the survivors against the alien invaders. As the story unfolds he talks with AI stations to learn more about his mission, meanwhile the player needs to learn how to deal with an assortment of weapons/resources in order to defeat clusters of enemies and huge bosses across 18 areas. Don't fret about the number, it's there just to give a false impression of length. All areas are really short and you only fight five real bosses along the way.

Controls work with button A for shot and button B for weapon select. Weapons and items are obtained by shooting at crystals to change their status and then collecting the desired ones. The only exception is the first couple of crystals right when the credit starts, which only serve the purpose of allowing the character to fly. As you proceed other crystals appear, such as the red ones for weapons: F is the fission gun (which is actually an improved version of the default shot), M is the missile (slow, but explodes upon contact and blocks bullets), 3 is a 3-way needle gun and 5 is a straight large shot with limited reach. Yellow crystals enhance other aspects of the character: S is the speed-up and R stands for rensha (temporary autofire), but there's also the single yellow crystal with no symbol (four of them provide protection against one hit, for a maximum of three possible shields).

Facing the evil clutches of a Governor

Stages in Atomic Robo-Kid are divided into several short sections prior to a big boss that must be fought inside a large chamber. After the boss you get into a laser duel against another enemy robot in a smaller room. Everything is very linear, with only a few labyrinthine levels that require more careful navigation and a few sections where you're allowed to choose one out of two different routes. Some graphics, textures and backgrounds appear more than once, but the art design and its eventual repetition are the least of the problems that mine the appreciation for Atomic Robo-Kid. The same can be said about the slightly grating nature of the music and the sound effects.

There are many details in the gameplay that irk me. Our hero the boy in a trash can, for instance, automatically starts walking if contact is made to the ground. Pressing B will make him jump instead of choosing a different weapon. B is also responsible for locking shot direction for some precious strafing capability. I wonder why the developer couldn't simply get rid of the walking aspect, as well as put the locking function in the C button.

Item management is also another intriguingly problematic aspect of the gameplay. Getting a single speed-up by shooting crystals can be a chore in itself. To stand a chance against later bosses you definitely need it, but there were credits where I couldn't get it at all. Sure you can purchase one in the shop owned by a dinosaur-like creature that appears only twice in the game and trades items for lives, but unless you know it beforehand you'll probably hit the poor thing to death thinking he is an enemy. And how odd, in the duel against the small robots you have no speed-up activated yet if you die there you'll come out of it with no speed-up if you had one. Regarding the lack of autofire (the R item is only temporary after all), a turbo controller helps but try to get one with separate functions for each button, or else you won't be able to lock shot direction with button B.

Trash can to the rescue
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Retreating in order to avoid enemy fire is often necessary, but beware of enemies respawning right away in the same places. The interesting thing is that you can't die by touching them, but on the other hand they become so numerous in later levels that the simple act of picking up a crystal can be a minor challenge. That said, since Atomic Robo-Kid for the Mega Drive lacks the timer from the arcade version and you can wander around forever killing enemies, the scoring system is by nature utterly broken. There's no sense talking about scoring, except for the extra lives you get at 30.000 points and at every 50.000 points afterwards.

In replaying this game it dawned on me how limited and botched it actually is, which is sort of sad given the nobility infused in the story, particularly the ending. It's just all around goofy and unengaging, and I wonder if the PC Engine version called Atomic Robo-Kid Special suffers from the same symptoms. I should try it and figure that out soon.

I did not try to improve my previous high score and went straight to the end on Normal difficulty (note that the default starting difficulty is Easy). A turbo controller at hand and no milking at all resulted in the following 1CC outcome, which I now log into my achievement archive for great justice. If you want to get a picture of your final score remember to pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't see it anymore.