Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thunder Force V (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

When I think about the fact that Thunder Force V came out more than 20 years ago I can't help but feel a sting of nostalgia. Back then I had completely left video games in favor of college, and would only get to experience the game some ten years down the road. It was also the very first shmup I purchased for the Sega Saturn once I started collecting, so I guess that says a lot about my appreciation for the franchise. Why Sega and Technosoft didn't release the game out of Japan is beyond me. I absolutely don't buy the idea that a game like Thunder Force V wouldn't sell well in the West, or that shmups were already a dead genre by then.

The leap of Technosoft's most famous series into the 32-bit video game generation is everything fans could hope for. Granted, Thunder Force IV / Lightening Force set the Mega Drive on fire, something that can't be said about Thunder Force V and the Sega Saturn. Nonetheless the sequel successfully expanded on the ideas of previous chapters, taking the gameplay to new heights while remaining faithful to the atmosphere and the general feel of the series. It's still frantic, clearly methodical and heavily bent on memorization. Graphics are a mixture of regular sprites and 3D models based on polygons with varying textures. Even if they might seem dated to some people by today's standards, they've still got a lot of charm and a healthy dose of sleek cinematic transitions. Let's also not forget about the excellent soundtrack.

No blue? Really?

Following the trend of previous games in the series, the order of the three initial stages can be established as soon as you start the credit. Commands are fully configurable in the options and work with shot, two directions for weapon select (right/left), speed selection and overweapon. This overweapon input is the most important gameplay addition in Thunder Force V. Whenever you press this button the power of your current weapon is augmented at the cost of the energy of your options/claws/craws. Craws are single energy spheres that rotate around the ship, increase its firepower and protect it from regular bullets. You can have a maximum of three craws at any given time, but if they're hit while their energy is fully exhausted (by using an overweapon) they will disappear. Exhausted craws recover energy with time, but can be replenished faster by collecting new craws.

Craws are one of the items you get from harmless carriers or special enemies. Other items include the non-default weapons (wave, free range and hunter), shields and extra lives (1UP). The only weapons you don't lose when you die are the default ones (twin shot and back shot), all others are lost and need to be reactivated with another weapon item. Shields give you protection against three hits: a blue shield means you have 3 hits left, a green shield means you have 2 hits left and a brown shield means you can take only one shot before becoming vulnerable again. Once you die your craws will scatter around the screen and bounce for a while so that you can pick them up again. As for score-based extends, they are granted with 10, 50, 100 and 500 million points.

In line with the evolution of the genre by the late 90s, which demanded more than just mindless shooting and flashy explosions, Thunder Force V includes a scoring system of its own. It's essentially very simple: the faster you dispatch mid-sized and large enemies (including bosses) the more points you get based on a multiplier that goes from ×2 to ×16. There's also a completion bonus based on the chosen difficulty, the number of lives left and the final equipped weapons, which is once again a noble incentive for players to polish their performances as hard as they can. There's a catch related to this completion bonus though (keep reading).

As far as speed-killing goes, it doesn't take long for you to realize the extreme importance of the aiming and overweapon capabilities of the free range shot. When properly used, it's able to easily dispatch most enemies and several boss phases with ×16 multipliers (note that it does even more damage when enemies are hit within range 1). The other weapons are useful in their own right, but there's no doubt that dying and losing free range severely limits scoring and survival possibilities. Free range is, in fact, the reason of many complaints regarding gameplay balance in Thunder Force V. While that's a valid point, personally the only fault I could attribute to free range is making the game an easier ride. Once you learn how to lay waste to everything with it, of course.

Stage 2: Wood
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

Each stage in Thunder Force V is quite unique in its environment. Sea, jungle and city precede a space station guarded by a transforming mecha boss. Then comes stage 5, which brings a treat for fans of the series, especially those who played the previous chapter. First you're propelled to outer space by docking to a sword-shaped shuttle with a shield bar and its own firepower capabilitites (two special weapons only used in that level), then you have to face none other than the Fire Leo-04 Rynex, the original ship from Thunder Force IV, as you listen to the epic opening theme of that game in one of the most iconic moments in the whole franchise. Defeat it and play the rest of the game with improved versions of the default weapons, the same ones seen in part IV (twin shot turns into blade and back shot becomes rail gun).

Thunder Force V also boasts a rather complicated storyline depicted in the animated opening, in the details shown prior to each boss fight and in the ending. There's a catch though: in order to see the good ending and understand how the story arc closes you need to beat the creepy insect-like last boss within a time limit. If he escapes you get a bad ending and you're denied the completion bonus. High score tables are segregated by difficulty and show a few stats for each logged run. Some extra tweaks can be applied to the game, such as setting the weapon HUD in different arrangements. Bonus note: beating the game on Hard unlocks a special Master difficulty.

Besides the regular retail release the Sega Saturn also received a special edition of the game called Thunder Force V Special Pack, which adds a bonus CD with rearranged tracks of previous games titled The Best of Thunder Force. A port was released a year later for the Sony Playstation under the name Thunder Force V - Perfect System, and while it does look like the Saturn original there are still noticeable differences I intend to point out in the near future. As for the series progression, it would take more than ten years for the sequel Thunder Force VI to appear on the Playstation 2.

In revisiting the Saturn version, my best 1CC result in the Normal difficulty is the one shown below. It represents an improvement of 42% over my previous highest score, achieved when I didn't have much of a grasp of scoring systems at all.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Strike Force Hydra (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Ignition Entertainment
Published by Ignition Entertainment in 2003

There are shmups that defy genre conventions in the most diverse ways. Within this special category, there are those that succeed and those that fail. Within the batch that fails, there are those that at least manage not to do anything blatantly wrong and those that for some reason or another are barely playable, exhibit a few downright broken traits or adopt boredom as a defining element of their gameplay. If we're to choose one of these infamous categories for Strike Force Hydra, those who played the game will probably agree with me that it deserves to be included in the latter.

Strike Force Hydra is also a prime example of the backlash that befalls many shmups made by European developers. It's got pretty much all the aspects that made the "euroshmup" term so shameful, including uninspired stage/enemy design, unbalanced difficulty, health bar and inertia. The game was released alongside an identical version for the Game Boy Advance, so it's hard to tell if one of them was ported from the other. If that's the case, then it coming out for the handheld after a Playstation original would make a little more sense. The problem is that no real excitement is to be seen in either version of a stale hovership adventure that seems to be loosely inspired by River Raid.

Hovercraft strike over the river
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Levels in Strike Force Hydra are divided in three sections. In the first and the third sections you battle enemies and fight bosses in the end. The intermediary parts are simple corridor arrangements where you don't need to shoot, instead you're supposed to pilot the hovership in order to avoid walls or obstacles (the so-called "speed" section). Button × fires your main weapon, button □ fires a secondary weapon, L1 jumps and R1 activates a boost function. Every once in a while a wave of tiny rotating enemies will appear. Destroy most of them and you'll release an item: the red one powers up the main weapon and the green one powers up the secondary weapon.

Having both shot buttons pressed at all times is recommended since they come with autofire by default and the secondary attack is quite powerful even though it's got an extremely low rate of fire. Upgrades enhance them by a good margin. The maxed out main shot, for example, is a thick laser beam that melts everything in its path. The only problem is that it also overshadowns everything, including all regular bullets. For a while I avoided getting it for the sake of bullet visibility, but once I noticed it's much better to have power rather than visibility I changed my mind. The Whirl-Wind boss (stage 3.2), for example, can only be destroyed before its rotating kamikaze attack if you have the laser.

Speaking of bosses, if only they lived up to their badass names (such as Master-Laser, Attack Drone Alpha and Crab-a-rang) this game would be a completely different kind of beast. They all fire pathetic, predictable, extremely easy patterns with no variation whatsoever. As for regular enemies, they're a joke. It's either turrets on the sides or staggering ships/bots descending with little gusto. If by any chance you get cornered you can always use the jump input to quickly reach the other side of the screen and be safe. By the way, jumping is the second most important dodging resource in Strike Force Hydra, the first one being learning how to overcome inertia. The tip is to move slowly, enemy bullets are never fast anyway and the few dangerous attacks from bosses won't harm you if you use those jumps wisely.

Each credit offers five lives and no energy recovery of any kind. Energy is drained every time you touch a bullet, an enemy or a wall (in the speed sections that is). Deaths send you back to the beginning of the section and take away one power level of your weaponry. Even though that seems harsh, once you get the hang of things you'll realize how easy the game actually is. Environments alternate between jungle, ocean, ice and some sort of factory backdrop, with light techno themes that either fit the graphics (jungle part) or just resemble elevator music. Sound effects are extremely loud and practically engulf the music whenever there's any action going on.

Welcome to the jungle

No matter how lame the gameplay looks like, the scoring system is even worse. Never have I seen such disregard for the score mechanic in a shmup. You will see a display for your kills, but it's reset every time a new level starts after you're given some stupid ranking description for your performance. The instruction booklet even mentions the number of kills is only supposed to be reset upon death, but that's not the case. Talk about some dumb, useless alocation of programming resources!

By the way, the instruction booklet is riddled with false information on the gameplay, which is just another sign of the laziness that plagues Strike Force Hydra. It says there are two types of button layouts, but there's no option at all to switch to a different control setup from the one I described above. It also states you can recover health by figuring out the "secret" behind certain types of rotating enemies. Unless this secret involves some sort of arcane proceedings it's just not there, and so aren't the power-ups mentioned to be present in the toughest paths of the speed sections. There's even a proper score display in the snapshot for the screen description, which is of course nowhere to be found in the final product.

Alas, sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Saying Strike Force Hydra is bad is a gigantic euphemism. It's one of those games that can make people lose faith in the shooting genre, so be warned and warn your friends. The picture below appears briefly during the final credits, then you're back at the start screen with no bonus game to play after defeating the game on the Hard difficulty (another lie of the instruction manual), which I had just done. On a single credit, of course.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Galaxy Force (Master System)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Activision in 1989

I often ask myself if the the 8-bit generation was ready to handle arcade ports of rail shooters. Most examples say it wasn't, but when you realize several other rail shooters were also released for less powerful platforms then you can somehow forgive Galaxy Force on the Sega Master System. Never mind the confusion related to the arcade releases of Galaxy Force and Galaxy Force II, which widely replaced the former to the point almost no one ever saw it running. If you'd still like to have a glimpse of what it *looked like* you could try the Master System port, yet from the references I got it probably isn't the case.

Anyway, the only thing one can infer from playing this version of Galaxy Force is that little is to be expected that resembles the frantic, jaw-dropping action of the arcade game. Gone is the thrilling sensation of cruising through space taking down multiple targets. Just the basic framework was preserved in the transition: you fly a spaceship in rail shooter fashion through four different planets in any desired order, shooting down enemies until you enter a tunnel full of turns designed to test your piloting abilitites. For some cinematic flair, in every stage you see your ship taking off from a hangar.

Button 1 shoots single bullets, button 2 fires missiles that target enemies framed by your lock-on indicator. Button 1 has native autofire, button 2 doesn't. Ammo is unlimited for both.

Beware, floating platforms ahead

Stage selection is completely up to the player. The default order is an outer space station, then a volcanic planet, a plant world and a desertic landscape. Once all of them are conquered you will battle the final and only boss in the whole game. Yes, there's only one actual boss. Stages in Galaxy Force have no proper target cores at the end of the tunnel sections, which is one of the main sacrifices made to squeeze the game in the Master System cartridge (bosses are replaced by a brief animation showing the destruction of the planet). Sure, as the back of the box says it's got not double, not triple, but four times the playing power of a regular cartridge - meaning 4 Mega power! But hum... no, you don't get the hottest space combat, nor the baddest explosions. As for the sounds, well... at least we can say the soundtrack is undoubtedly the best thing about this port.

Many enemies are unique to this version, which tries to preserve the feel of the original game by means of the background scenery alone. Nevertheless the enemy gallery is practically the aspect that best conveys some sort of sprite scaling; tunnel sections use a flashing effect over static pillars to achieve the illusion of scrolling into the screen. For all it's worth, the trickery kinda works. The overall frame rate is still apalling and needs some getting used to. You still get to lock onto multiple enemies with your crosshair aim, but never in a reliable, repeatable fashion.

Another concession made on the port is the absence of the stage timer, and by extension the acceleration and break inputs. Everything is much more simple now, and your only concern while moving around in your killing spree is to preserve energy. The energy shield meter is color coded and changes as you get hit. As a general rule, the more red and flashing it gets the closer you are to biting the dust. Shield energy is automatically recovered at the end of the level after your bonus is calculated based on the amount of hits/kills you just achieved. Note that the more enemies you destroy the higher the bonus gets for each enemy in the final tallying.

Cruising the galaxy for justice
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

The elimination of the timer element more than offsets the difficulty imposed by the confusing sprite scaling effect and the way the turns behave inside the tunnels. These turns vary a little in length with every new level, which means that each stage tunnel demands a certain tapping strategy for you to perform the movement without hitting the walls. After a while you notice that later levels are actually easier than the starting ones, at least this was my case. In fact, I even consider the first stage to be the hardest of them all by dint of the random nature of the meteors and the lack of ground scrolling for better evaluation of enemy approach. The turns inside the frst tunnel are also the hardest ones to perform.

Though considerably butchered in technical terms, my feeling after playing Galaxy Force on the Master System is that the game isn't a total wreck. It's fun in an awkward, nostalgic manner, with a final message that calls players out for using continues and advises them to beat the game again on a single credit if they want to watch the real ending (not the one where the ship crashes onto the landing platform). All in all, I liked that the difficulty was duly adapted to the console's limitations, unlike what happenened with the remarkably tough Space Harrier port.

Here's the final 1CC score I got for Galaxy Force on Sega's 8-bit machine: