Monday, December 7, 2020

Shadow of Ganymede (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
15 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mere Mortals
Published by Phoenix Games in 2005

It goes without saying that the dark chapters of any video game genre are understandably ignored by everyone. In the case of the Playstation 2, which is a veritable gaming powerhouse, anything released by Phoenix Games fits the bill with little effort, and as far as shmups go the mere mention of the company sends chills down the spine of every fan of the genre with a little more knowledge of what went on in the European scene during the final moments of the console.

Once again the foul stench of Phoenix Games is present in this blog by means of Shadow of Ganymede, whose only reasonable claim to fame is its cool-sounding name. The defunct company’s trademarks are all there: brainless, boring, lifeless gameplay that’s monotonous almost beyond belief. While certainly a little tougher than Guerrilla Strike or Search & Destroy, unfortunately this superior challenge does not come from any noticeable attempt at delivering something more interesting than what you’d get from a bad 8-bit video game.

The oddest thing is that I can’t say I’m completely lost for words when trying to categorize such a dismal excuse of a game. I’m here writing about it after all, ain’t I?

The red moon of torture

In the future, Jupiter’s satellite Ganymede is the source of an evil force that’s threatening the mining activities in the planets of the Solar System. Your mission is to fly from left to right over planets and moons to destroy the enemy armada. There are 15 areas to be cleansed of evil, but only one weapon to use in the process (button ×) with little variation in the way of firepower. The journey will require lots of focus and dedication since the game will do everything in its repetitive power to wear you down. Backgrounds alternate between outer space, a world map (only in stage 2), desertic moon landscapes, planet outskirts and arrangements of wall tubes. A few color swaps are applied here and there but that’s it, with no bosses at all for you to indulge in fierce shooting battles.

Every now and then one of the enemies will leave behind an item after being blown to pieces. It might be a wrench (power-up), an hexagon net (1-hit shield) or a candy (extra life). Wrenches increase the power and the reach of your weapon, which maxes out when the fifth one is collected. Oddly enough, you can cycle through the power levels that were already reached by pressing L1. My guess is that this was implemented because power level 2 feels better than power level 3, other than that there’s no reason at all to change your firing pattern once you’re sufficiently powered up.

As for the enemy gallery, it’s typical Phoenix Games bad. By the third stage you begin to see ground turrets, but they’re destroyed with a single shot and you’re left wondering what was the point of even adding them to the game. The little variation there is appears when your foes start arriving in the screen turning and aiming at your direction instead of only shooting forward. That’s most likely where players will die because the minor inertia when moving the ship might make it a little harder to avoid the overlapping enemy attacks. Losing a life in Shadow of Ganymede can quickly escalate to a GAME OVER if you don’t keep your cool because then you lose all firepower and it might take a while for power-ups to start appearing again.

A failed attempt at the first stage of Shadow of Ganymede
(courtesy of YouTube user GXZ95)

A minor strategy that helps survival is avoiding to take the shield icon if you’re already protected by one. Since items move slowly to the left, having a spare shield floating around is nice because you never know when you’re going to need it. Note that the shield does not protect you from collisions though, even at the end of the level when the AI takes control of the ship and might ram it against an incoming enemy (yes, I died a few times because of that). Finally, even though you might collect lots of 1UPs you can’t stock more than five spare lives.

Higher stakes on lives lost should at least give you that feeling of tension and anticipation one always gets when facing a situation of impending failure, but the gameplay is so lame you couldn't care less about it. There's no excitement, no good music, no specific detail to call out on the nigh possibility of considering this one a guilty pleasure. Yes, it's that pitiful, and enduring this torture to the end is something I will only try again on the basis of physical threat and torture.

And below is my 1CC high score for Shadow of Ganymede, folks. I'm probably alone in my achievement here, so I dare everybody to try and beat it. Come on, if you got a cheap copy lying around why not share my suffering and accept the challenge? The game even offers auto save and an optional controller vibration function!

Saturday, November 7, 2020

King's Knight (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Square
Published by Squaresoft in 1989

The idea to mix shooting and medieval fantasy wasn't such a common thing to see back in the old days. Besides King's Knight, a few glaring exceptions that also appeared on the NES are Dragon Spirit (port of an arcade game) and The Guardian Legend (an original RPG-shooter hybrid). Even though the copyright year in the NES cartridge is 1989, in reality King's Knight predates these two examples because the Famicom version had been out since 1986. That's certainly the main reason why the game feels clearly dated for a 1989 release with such drab and blocky visuals.

One of the main influences on King's Knight is definitely Knightmare, which makes sense because the MSX also got its own version of the game alongside the Famicom/NES. However, while Knightmare focused exclusively in the shooting experience, King's Knight tries to spice things up with a heavy item-collecting aspect that often makes people consider the game to be an action RPG of sorts. It is true that you won't succeed if you do not adhere to the item collecting rules, but the game's also far from even having RPG gameplay elements. You won't see any stats or meters of any kind, and the only decision-making you need to make is reserved for the final stage at the press of a single button.

As usual, the story involves a kidnapped princess that needs rescue. Players take control of four characters that join forces to save her: Ray Jack the knight, Kaliva the wizard, Barusa the monster and Toby the kid thief.

Kaliva's garden of joy

Each character has his own stage to be played, but there isn't any actual difference between them besides their starting speed. They're all supposed to be powered up in the same way. The rule of thumb is to destroy everything in your path with button A in order to uncover what you need to pick up, starting with the basic performance enhancements: speed-up (boots), power-up (sphere), defense-up (shield) and jump-up (spring). The jump feature refers to the ability to move over ground surfaces from all sides, which might be necessary in certain parts of the level. There's also a single special orb in the first stage that shows hidden walls, but it doesn't appear anywhere else in the game.

Besides the important items mentioned above, most of what's uncovered are actually arrows. Up arrows refill your health, down arrows take away part of it. There are also unique magic elements to be taken that add up to a special ability that can only be used in the final stage. You must collect four of these for each character (four per stage), and if you miss one of them the respective character won't be able to use his spell at all, which can be simply gamebreaking for at least one of the heroes (Toby). The instruction manual refers to them as elements A, B, C and D, even though they appear as symbols: A/triangle (Kaliva's element), B/double bars (Toby), C/double Vs (Barusa) and D/round badge (Ray Jack). Once it's available, the special attack is deployed with button B.

The four initial stages in King's Knight are very similar, and except for the necessary memorization there isn't much to worry about. You definitely need to find the stairs that lead to an underground dungeon though, since one of the magic elements can only be found there. Whenever you die you go directly to the next level and don't get to see the stats of a successful stage completion. The max value for the upgrade level is 20 (for 7 speed-ups, 7 jump-ups, 3 power-ups and 3 defense-ups), whereas the asterisks indicate the A/B/C/D magic items you have collected. Four asterisks mean you've got them all.

It's in the last stage that the game goes crazy on the things you have to do to succeed in your mission. You control all surviving characters from the previous levels at the same time, in a formation where the uppermost one is the leader. You can only change the leader by touching the turning signs, but note that the results of a complete/U-turn is always random. Three magical swords must be collected for you to face the final dragon boss, which must receive damage from all characters in order to be defeated (check the flash before switching to a different formation leader). The magic spells you're entitled to use can only be triggered in certain areas depending on the character, and finding out where isn't something that a player like me would attempt with a smile on my face.

Knight Ray Jack goes out on a noble quest
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

I lost count of how many times I died stupidly in the final level due to the way the stage is laid out. On top of having to find out what to do you also have to deal with a humongous hitbox. The characters are always jumping everywhere like retards whenever you're close to a border, and you can't shoot neither when that happens nor when your formation is changing leaders (turning). Getting scroll-crushed by a single enemy and dying instantly is another risk, while more often than not you're at the mercy of how those crazy turning signs will work. It's more of an exercise in patience than an outright tough challenge, but fortunately the short length of the game helps with that.

Although it really comes off as quite a unique attempt at a vertical fantasy shooter, it's hard to recommend King's Knight unless your idea of fun is sheer trial and error with no other sort of in-game reward such as scoring, a feature that wasn't implemented at all. Moreover, the graphics are quite poor and the music is totally unremarkable. At least the instruction manual is useful for figuring out what to do, to a certain extent of course. If you don't feel like guessing things for yourself you can always refer to the great strategywiki on the game, complete with maps showing the locations of items and detailed explanations of where to use what in the final stage. Finally, if you don't fancy the act of button mashing you should definitely get a turbo controller for this one.

By pressing SELECT at the start screen you can choose any of the four stages that was previously played (even if you died in them) in order to improve the characters' stats and get them ready for the final stage. I didn't use this because I went for a straight clear. From the final screen below it doesn't seem the princess is that happy with Ray Jack though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Gyrodine (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crux / Human Entertainment
Published by Taito in 1986

We gamers all have fond memories of certain video games that came to become personal favorites in our childhood, and more often that not they're not even the most famous titles of the time. Gyrodine on the NES is such a game for me, one that my small group of friends would always play in our weekend competitive gatherings. At the time we played it by means of the Brazilian unlicensed version released by CCE, and only much later in my gaming life I was able to come back to it with the original Famicom cartridge.

It was also much later that I knew this is actually the port of an arcade game of the same name, and a rather important one since it represents the absolute origins of Toaplan. You can see many aspects that would later appear in Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra, for example. Although seemingly simple and plain on a first glance, Gyrodine is actually quite varied in its minimalistic design, as was the game that served as its main inspiration, Namco's classic Xevious. I prefer Gyrodine myself though.

The choice for a helicopter as the player's avatar fits the gameplay like a glove. Press B to shoot your aerial gunfire, press A to sweep the ground with a machinegun and press A + B to fire a heat-seeking missile that tracks the closest enemy ahead while following the chopper's movement. The action is seamless as you fly over land and ocean shooting down enemy choppers, jets, rockets, missiles, tanks, submarines, ships and turrets in all possible configurations. It's indeed that simple on paper, but the execution quickly escalates into a fierce battle where your anticipation and dodging skills will be severely tested.

Battle of the choppers

Your main shot sort of follows the chopper's movement, and finding the rhythm of how this works and where and when to fire the heat-seeking missiles is the turning point to really start enjoying the game. In general this port is graphically very faithful to the arcade source, even though it shuffles the elements that make up the levels into a relatively different experience. Never mind the lack of in-game music and the meek collection of sound effects, what's most important here is the action and the way it keeps you coming back for more after each failure.

What's particularly neat about this port of Gyrodine is that in challenge terms it's superior to the arcade version. While the original flowed with no interruption in the scrolling whatsoever, there are three points where the Famicom version will halt for you to fight a huge turret-ridden boss while flying enemies swarm on you from all sides. You must either destroy all turrets or stay alive for at least 15 seconds for the game to continue into the next territory. This is the reason why I consider this version to have three stages, even though there's no explicit division between them besides the abovementioned scrolling halt. After the third one the game loops but the difficulty remains unchanged.

It's very easy to dismiss the game as a pretentious Xevious wannabe that's too hard for its own good. Perhaps if the item gallery was less secretive it would have a better shot at pleasing shooter fans. The tiny little men on the ground are easy to understand, they either give you 100 points or act as a screen-clearing smart bomb (the red ones), but all of them can be killed by your own ground fire. On the other hand, many people might play the game for a lifetime without realizing there are speed-ups to be uncovered and collected at several points, which greatly improve your maneuvering capability and make the game far less intimidating (if you manage to not die, of course). In order to find them you need to sweep the ground with the A button in specific areas, spraying your machinegun over a horizontal line because the exact location of the item is always a little randomized.

A light red mermaid grants you 10.000 points just for being uncovered (you don't need to fly over her), while a deep red mermaid gives temporary invincibility (as indicated by the duration of the brief musical cue). The white mermaid is the speed-up, and for the whole time you're flying at a faster speed a different characteristic sound will be heard. The additional catch with both the invincibility and the speed-up is that you need to collect the mermaids, and you need to do it quickly because they disappear quite fast. Other secret items exist in the form of a squid (at least it looks like it) that's worth 5.000 points and a gray moving stain which unlocks a flock of ten red animals that if completely killed is worth 10.000 points.

Justice on the blades of a powerful helicopter
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

As such in games of this nature, dying is frequent but fortunately there's a nice extend routine that starts giving extra lives at 20.000 points and continues with 50.000 points, with subsequent extends registered at every 50.000 points. Besides the bosses, the hardest parts in Gyrodine come when the most dangerous types of enemies overlap. Of course there are still many areas where the game keeps you on your toes all the time, such as the one where you need to fight invisible tanks. The action unfolds with no slowdown whatsoever and also no flicker, which is nice.

My advice whenever there are too many attacks on screen is to focus on the aerial enemies first and only going for ground targets when you've safely cleared most of the flying hazards. And if you're using a turbo controller only activate turbofire on button B: by doing that a single tap on button A will shoot a missile without interrupting the main fire, and both buttons pressed will make ground sweeps and missile launching much more effective.

I feel very happy to have finally conquered the loop in this game. Of course I thought I'd be able to do it again, but unfortunately I had to abandon the credit once the score maxed out at 999.990 points, as seen in the picture below. I had just beaten the second boss by then, so I guess I can consider that this was achieved in stage 2-3.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Thunder Cross (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Hamster in 2007

By 1988 Konami was already a force to be reckoned with in the world of video games. Speaking of shooters only, the Gradius franchise was in full throttle, with notable spin-offs Salamander / Life Force and Parodius also kicking off their own series and carving their names into shmup history. It was then that Thunder Cross came out without much of a splash, almost as an experiment in variation on the classic Gradius formula while its most famous bethren flourished.

That's certainly odd considering that Thunder Cross is actually part of the Gradius canon. Experienced players will easily spot the graphical/aural similarities and the influence it had on Gradius III, for example. The influence stops there though, since Thunder Cross is much tamer and definitely more forviging with its instant respawn mechanic, boasting a low to average difficulty level that’s certainly more approachable than the difficulty of any Gradius game that came before or after it. The Playstation 2 port is the authentic Japanese version, not the overseas one where the ship starts out with two options and has bombs called lil' baby (!).   

This port is also the second-to-last release (vol. 18) in the Oretachi Game Center collection. I guess by the time the series was coming to an end things weren't that good anymore in the quality department, that's why Thunder Cross on the PS2 is widely panned for its emulation job and the fact that a few well-known bugs when playing the game in MAME are also present (keep reading). The package does come with the usual extras from the Hamster series, such as the folder with arcade board info and the mini-discs with the soundtrack and videos including a demonstration credit of the game.

Getting to know Thunder Cross on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user ZetaKong)

In order to leave the pea shooter you start with behind, players need to destroy all orange-colored minions in a particular wave or the standalone drones found throughout the game. The released icon will either be a speed-up (S), an option (O) or a weapon, which cycles between V (vulcan), B (boomerang) and T (a 2-way tail gun laser). Stick to the same one to increase its firepower by a small margin. Once you have acquired four options the weapon icon will also start cycling between other alternatives that include L (laser), F (fire) and N (napalm). These new weapons have a temporary effect indicated by a small gauge that appears at the bottom of the screen.

An important detail about Thunder Cross on the PS2 is that a turbo controller is definitely needed since the game lacks an autofire function. Besides the firing button, a secondary input is used to control option behavior: hold it to either contract or expand them in a vertical line above and below the ship. It's a simple resource that proves to be very strategic in several parts of the game. Cruising levels while destroying everything with four options is quite satisfying, as long as you don't die. Deaths strip the ship away of everything you've collected, and can be especially cruel during a boss fight because you're not only severely underpowered but also at the mercy of the sluggish default speed.

For a rather simplistic arcade shooter, Thunder Cross does show a decent level of variety. Simple yet effective parallax layers abound from start to finish, and pretty much all horizontal shooter staples appear. Cave, clouds/skyscraper, fortress and even a high-speed stage are included in the package, which also brings a large battleship level halfway into the credit. Colors are used to great effect and the general flow of the game is that of a relaxed adventure once you figure out the best strategies to deal with the incoming hazards. My favorite weapon is B, but you definitely need to switch to T during the final level.

No mercy for the 2nd boss

In the scoring front the game is also very straightforward. Every surplus item is worth 1.000 points, and some bosses can be exploited for a few projectile peanuts. By and large the best way to score higher is keep yourself powered and pummel everything that shoots and moves. There's a secret octopus-like creature that's worth 10.000 points if you can uncover and destroy it. I have the suspicion it might be related to the ? power-up that doesn't do anything but might sometimes appear as a 1UP. Score-based extends are given with 30.000 points and then for every 200.000 points achieved afterwards.

The bad news about this port is that it inherits the same random bugs experienced when emulating the game in MAME. The main problem is that it might freeze all of a sudden during the part where the mothership is about to leave the screen after you beat a boss. I heard it might happen anywhere, in any stage, but more often than not I was a victim in stages 4 to 6, both in the first and the second loops. Another bug that's more rare but happened to me in the final stage was the graphics breaking up, which completely crashed the level by creating obstacles I couldn't circumvent.

Click for the option menus translation for Thunder Cross on the PS2
I reached stage 2-7 in the high score below, playing on Normal difficulty. I did try to improve it for a while but the game kept freezing on me, so I gave up. The final assessment: Thunder Cross is definitely cool and fun (on top of having a badass soundtrack), but the version for the Playstation 2 is probably one of the worst porting jobs I have ever seen in any video game. As for the sequel Thunder Cross II, it still remains unported as of today.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Space Fantasy Zone (PC Engine CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NEC Avenue in 1991
Published by ? in ?

As two of the most famous franchises created by Sega, Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier certainly had their glory days, be it in the arcades or in console formats. There were always hints of both of them being part of the same universe, but Sega never really dared to mesh their concepts and characters in a single title. However, early in the 90s Nec Avenue dared to develop a bastard crossover in the form of Space Fantasy Zone, which would eventually be nixed by Sega on the account of publishing rights and concerns regarding the quality standards of the game.

Even though the official release of Space Fantasy Zone was cancelled, years later the ROM was found online for everybody to try it. It was complete and perfectly playable, yet not properly polished the way a final product should since it presents a few unbalanced traits in the gameplay and has little music variety (the same song is used in all levels) as well as a few audio glitches. Several fan-made physical releases started appearing afterwards, using the art taken from video game magazine previews of the era. I got my copy in 2010, and for what it's worth it's a decently-made bootleg that fits the collection nicely.

Pocarius stage from a different point of view

In simple terms, this game mirrors the original Fantasy Zone in a rail shooting fashion, with details from Space Harrier thrown in and music that borrows from both games. You see Opa-Opa from behind and most enemies and bosses are taken from Fantasy Zone, whereas obstacles and a few other creatures are inherited from Space Harrier. The first major change in the gameplay is that there are no coins to collect anymore, so all you need to worry about is blasting everything to oblivion as you move forward against incoming enemy waves and pillars. The second major change in Space Fantasy Zone is that you now have a life bar instead of regular lives. 

Even though there’s no need to collect coins anymore, players do have the chance to acquire upgrades in the Weaponald’s shop (!) that appears in between levels. The sympathetic lady offers players all sorts of items in different categories in exchange of some of their score. Speed-ups, power-ups, life recovery/extension items and special weapons comprise the bulk of what you can purchase there. All the accompanying text is in Japanese, but the icons should give you an idea of what to expect.

Autofire is implemented by default, and you even get the same shot bending effect from Space Harrier (where shots will automatically hit enemies that are close enough to the bullet’s firing direction). Since button II is used to shoot, firing the extra weaponry you get from the shop is done with button I. All extra weapons purchased are stacked for use one after the other, as seen in the indicator on the top right corner of the screen.

Just like in the game that is its main inspiration, the use of colors in Space Fantasy Zone is nothing short of excellent. The brief intro showing Opa-Opa departing for battle is a nice preamble for an experience that’s visually very charming. However, even though it doesn’t do anything wrong the gameplay does suffer from the poor frame rate in later stages. Things start scrolling by too fast, making dodges even trickier than they normally are. The design sort of deteriorates towards the end, and a clear sign of that is the lack of the traditional boss rush in the 8th level. You get a generic boss and then proceed to the final stage to fight the very last (and kinda lame) enemy. 

Three levels of Space Fantasy Zone
(courtesy of YouTube user Fukuten / ふくてん)

Besides getting used to the increasing scrolling speed you also need to cope with specific attacks such as those from missile projectiles, which seem to harm you regardless of their perceived distance. Getting hit over and over often ends up in disastrous results in any level, forcing you to deplete all your score in health recovery items after the boss is defeated. Memorization and continuous practice helps change that, as well as being wise about using your hard earned points in the shop. After a while I figured it was a lot better to just purchase the strongest power-up (level 4) instead of getting the intermediate ones. It makes it easier to kill enemies faster, including bosses. That’s great for scoring because the remaining time whenever you destroy a boss is cashed in as bonus points.

The only other scoring technique in Space Fantasy Zone – besides not taking any hits, of course – is killing complete enemy waves for extra points. Beware of ground obstacles when going for full wave bonuses, since they make you trip and leave you at the mercy of enemies for a few seconds. Despite the somewhat uneven and to a certain extent unfair challenge, the shop mechanic allows players to adopt all kinds of strategies, such as spending all your score in extra additional health and special weapons so that you can limp your way towards the end.

Space Fantasy Zone does come off as an interesting oddity for fans of the main franchise. It's worth a try, at least. Unfortunately my CD has a problem and always freezes once the screen fades after the last boss, so I couldn't see the ending in any of the clears I got in the Normal difficulty (the high score below was taken from pausing the game as soon as the final bonus registered after the boss kill). Note: perhaps as a leftover from debug resources, the SELECT button skips levels entirely; it's certainly useful to practice later stages if you feel like doing it.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Subterrania (Mega Drive)

Gravity Arena
Checkpoints OFF / ON
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Zyrinx
Published by Zyrinx in 1994

When Gravitar was released by Atari in the arcades a new type of shooter entered the gaming scene. I was different, and it was decidedly very challenging. Due to its unique gameplay, only a few other titles were bold enough to follow in its footsteps, of which Subterrania is definitely one of the most interesting and exciting ones. Released both in Europe and in the US, this outstanding game was unfortunately a commercial failure due to a combo of bad advertising and word of mouth about supposedly hideous controls and impossible difficulty. Suffice it to say neither of these foul gameplay accusations is true in the slightest.

The overall feel of an Amiga video game is no coincidence, after all Subterrania was developed on Commodore Amiga computers for specific use on the Mega Drive. That's probably why it does not share the same lukewarm or disastrous results of both Amiga shmup conversions for Sega's 16-bit console, Battle Squadron and Xenon 2 Megablast. In fact, it's actually one of the best Mega Drive games I have ever played regardless of genre. Players who're not afraid of a challenge and are keen on experiencing something different and compelling with outstanding music and gameplay will feel right at home here.

Infiltrating underground environments to defeat aliens and rescue trapped miners is how Subterrania initially works. You pilot an experimental fighter craft and need to fulfill several missions in order to go from one stage to the next. Prior to the start of every level, briefing instructions are displayed and indicated over a full stage map, then you're dropped in a specific spot where you need to return to once all mission objectives are completed. Controlling the spacecraft is accomplished by using button B for thrust, down to reverse-thrust and left/right to turn. Button C either shoots the weapon or activates the resource selected by using button A.

Warning for shield low

Firing the regular weapon produces a constant stream of shots that behave according to three colors: red (default), green and blue. These colors can be switched or upgraded (take the same color over the current one) by touching the correspondent cycling flasks found in fixed locations. The differences between weapon colors are minimal when they're maxed out at level 3, but in general red offers brute force, green has a mild homing ability and blue adds side shots to the main pattern. Other types of flasks contain items such as extra lives and special weapons/resources that can be either temporary or essential to the completion of the current level (guided missiles, antipressure device, mirror lazer, etc).

Dealing with gravity is what actually turns many players off since it's such an unusual way to propel your ship. That's why getting used to the controls in the first couple of stages is so important in the long run. Subterrania doesn't allow players to strafe, so whenever you need to hit a target, moving or not, it's necessary to devise a proper strategy that involves good positioning, clever use of gravity and the ideal amount of thrust. Getting hit and bumping into obstacles damages the ship, which is indicated by the red coloring of the current life icon. Dying strips away one power level of the main weapon and forces you to depart again from the take-off point. Finally, besides focusing on the mission objectives you also need to worry about the most precious resource of all: fuel.

Managing fuel is essential for survival. The more you thrust the faster you burn fuel, whereas free falling makes fuel level go down more slowly. Even when you're safely landed fuel is also consumed, albeit at a much lower rate. Once the fuel reserve is low a message will appear on screen, prompting you to look for the closest orange refill canister. These are always located on flat surfaces, and the correct way to refuel is to safely land the ship over them. Blue refill canisters, on the other hand, serve to recover the ship's hull/life to its full original status. Watch out for the message that warns you about the shield being low.

While most missions are straightforward in execution, the puzzle element is certainly more important in a couple of them. In stage 3, for example, you need to use/position a series of deflector shields in order to advance. Later on, as stage 7 begins the computer briefing fails and isn't shown anymore, leaving players alone with figuring out what to do to navigate increasingly larger mazes in between rocky underwater formations, all of that at the mercy of much stronger gravity. During this final part of the game there won't be miners to rescue anymore, and the main objective is to find the way out before runing out of resources. Tip: don't forget to dive left as soon as you start the last stage to pick up the item for unlimited fuel.

A blast of absolute subterranean awesomeness on the Mega Drive
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)
Even though Subterrania does strike people as a hard game, it's never outright impossible or unfair. There are indeed a few enemies that can kill you in a single blow with slingshot attacks, and the ship can explode in mere seconds if you get caught inside a dent in a wall and try to desperately flee with the wrong thrust input. Fortunately the game gives you a few alternatives to help out with some of these hazards. If you refrain from shooting, for example, you'll see the "mega" gauge fill up, which allows you to fire a more powerful blast. This attack can kill several enemies at once if used correctly, as well as inflict great damage on larger targets. In some places there are also rail threads to which you can cling to and ride in order to move around and reach tricky areas more easily. 

The good news about the gameplay is that once you get the hang of the controls the game acquires a whole new dimension. Memorization makes conquered levels easier and might even lead to better time bonuses. That factors in nicely in the scoring system, which makes cheap exploits useless because even if you die and replay the level enemies won't respawn at all. If you happen to completely fail an objective (by killing miners, accidentally destroying items or dropping them in wrong places), all you have to do is get back to the mission starting point to reestablish your directives. You'll still be at the mercy of the remaining fuel cells though, so take that in consideration.

With so much to worry about gameplaywise, it's easy to overlook the fact that Subterrania doesn't have many bosses. In fact, you'll only face boss-like enemies in three levels, and only in the final one players need to cope with a real threat. Thankfully you won't be sent back to a checkpoint if you die on the last boss (also look out for the extra gauge that appears below the mega bar and shows Svin's health in his two forms).

Some people will certainly frown upon the lack of continues in the game. I have no qualms about it but understand those who do, but other than that I can't point out any other aspect that might disappoint the fans. However, a detail that does come out as an incorrectly implemented idea is the acid meter that appears in stage 8. At first I thought it should impose some sort of extra strain on the ship's energy, but it actually doesn't. I also ran into a strange bug a couple of times that made me restart one of the later levels with all mission objectives already fulfilled, so all I had to do was head directly to the way out again. 

My 1CC score shown below was achieved in the Normal difficulty. I had great fun remembering things since this wasn't the first time I beat the game. Note: if you can cope with more severe gravity and more demanding fuel/health requirements, Hard difficulty will also grant better stage bonuses for higher completion scores.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Blast Wind (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

Something weird must have happened inside Technosoft's headquartes as the 90s came to an end and the 32-bit generation was beginning to fade. By 1997 the company had somehow failed to keep the momentum since the arcade and home releases of Hyper Duel, and Thunder Force V would still take another year to hit Japanese shelves. Blast Wind came out with little fanfare in a very low print run, surrounded by rumors that it was actually supposed to be released in the arcades before the Sega Saturn. The game made little impact and its rarity soared, soon becoming a cherished prize for players and collectors alike. 

The reason why Blast Wind doesn't share the same appreciation as, say, Hyper Duel, which is equally sought after as a collectible, can certainly be attributed to a few aspects that aren't usual for a game developed by Technosoft. Being short and easy, for example, isn't a nice combination for a full-blown 32-bit title. The game also lacks the graphical edge you'd expect from such a powerful platform. It kinda feels like a 16-bit game at its essence, only polished by the power of superior processing. Many of its graphical assets and sound effects, for instance, are a throwback to Thunder Force IV. And while typical Technosoft and decent in its own right, the soundtrack doesn't make the lasting impression you'd normally expect from such a beloved developer. Besides, the sound balance is off and the music is almost totally engulfed by the sound effects.

On the other hand, Blast Wind does offer more than the basic shooting thrills of old, expanding a little upon the regular Technosoft completion bonuses well known by fans since Thunder Force II put the company's name on the map.

First stage of Blast Wind with the blue ship on an easier setting
(courtesy of YouTube user MAX 300)
A nifty intro shows a little bit of the story about two pilots being sent to battle an alien threat known as Gorn. Two ship variants can be used by choosing pilot/player 1 (Kyo, blue ship) or pilot/player 2 (Forn, orange ship). They both use two types of weapons, the "switch" shot and the homing shot, which by default work with buttons A and B respectively, with button C reserved for bombs (all inputs are fully configurable in the options). Shot types, however, behave differently for each ship/pilot: Kyo fires a wave shot that can crawl over surfaces and an X-shaped homing pattern, whereas Forn fires a laser and an aiming spread vulcan. Playing with Kyo is definitely easier than doing it with Forn, whose weapons feel all around weaker.

Regular upgrade items materialize as power-ups (P), extra bombs (B) and trailing shields (S). Picking up a power-up not only increases your firepower, but also creates a horizontal barrage of energy that gives you momentary invincibility (the accompanying visual effect is quite cool but odd at first sight). Some enemies will also release coins worth 100 points each. These coins – which look very much like the power chips you see in Compile games of the Aleste series – are very important in the long run because for each 50 you collect the next one will fall as a 1UP (be quick to grab it or you'll see it fall away like an ordinary coin). You can also achieve two score-based extends at 400.000 and 2 million points.

Blast Wind's claim to fame appears in the splitting path mechanic implemented by switches that lead to alternate paths containing different enemies and boss forms. All you have to do is touch the switch with the ship to activate it. Some switches release random items instead, but these are clearly identified so that you know which switches to actually trigger.

Path splitting does provide some degree of replay value, but when you start to play for score you'll often be restricted to specific paths in order to get more points and coins. After all, coins are the means to extra lives and each life remaining gives you 100.000 points when the game is beaten. Other than that, everything else about the scoring system is related to preserving resources. End of stage bonuses are given for the amount of bombs you have, while items in excess grant either 3.000 or 5.000 points each. Certain spots can also be shot at to uncover varying rewards of 1.000 or 5.000 points (signalled by $ and stars). Lastly, some bosses can be exploited by targeting destructible parts before going for the main kill.

Push to bypass
If there's any rank in Blast Wind, that might only be noticeable during boss fights and even so it isn't quite clear how it works. Sometimes one of the side turrets of the first boss just takes a lot longer to be destroyed for no apparent reason, but I also saw some odd unexpected behavior on the third boss. Deaths take away one level of firepower, but fortunately the supply of power-ups is so rich that soon you're back to max power again. Shields are great to block some boss attacks, as long as you remember that after taking too much damage they deplete and turn into a regular power-up.

Another feature that adds to the ease of completion here is the absence of harm when touching walls and scenery. That doesn't mean you'll feel no pressure when navigating those quick levels though. I had many annoying and unexpected deaths because I got stuck in a tip of the scenery, for example. Even though the vertizontal orientation feels a little offset by the side HUDs, some bullet patterns still feel cramped and are better off completely avoided instead of dodged with twitch movements, at least when playing with the blue ship. It just feels a little too fast for my liking. This impression changes when playing with the slower orange ship, which is also the better choice for collecting coins because it lacks those small homing missiles that come with the blue ship weapons.

So which ship to choose then? What is more important, more power or better mobility? The funny thing about this is that unless they're told or they pay attention to the attract mode, many players aren't even aware that you get a ship with completely different weapons on the player 2 side.

The Saturn disc includes automatic save and optional tweaks, also allowing all sorts of button customization. My best final result playing on Normal difficulty with pilot Kyo is below (blue ship, player 1). Yes, Blast Wind is relatively easy fun but you'll feel a lot more pressure when trying to no-miss to maximize your high score. I always ended up screwing somewhere and couldn't get it. Maybe next time!

Friday, September 4, 2020

Tatsujin (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Taito in 1992

Once again, the time has come for more fun with Toaplan's classic Tatsujin. My overall impression lately is that it has become more appreciated over the years, either within the works of Toaplan or in the STG community in general. A long time ago the approach I had towards the game changed somewhat, especially after playing the Mega Drive Western Truxton incarnation. The PC Engine version would take a couple of years to come out after the Mega Drive port, equally standing as a valuable conversion that pretty much paralleled all the original features from the arcade, of which difficulty is definitely the most widely talked about by shooting game fans.

Since it came out only in Japan, this version is only referred to as Tatsujin. A quintessential sci-fi shooting adventure that follows in the design footsteps of Kyuukyoku Tiger, the game consists of five long levels where you must battle enemies coming from all sides, flying over asteroid terrains and wide open sections and fighting huge bosses as the end of each area. Your only inputs are shot (button II) and bomb (button I), with all other resources obtained by collecting capsules along the way. It's a perfect embodiment of the shooters of old, in which surviving tough checkpoints is totally dependent on how you're able to power up your ship and use your stock of bombs.

The start of the journey in Tatsujin
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Old Games Database)

Even though Tatsujin isn't endowed with fancy visual assets (such as parallax), the graphics are still colorful, detailed and do a great job in keeping with the tone of the arcade original. Outer space sections are as drab as it gets but the visuals get better when you're flying over terrain. Granted, they sort of lack the grittier edge of the arcade, which is to be expected with the new resolution in the transition to the console format. You can however achieve a pseudo arcadey look by going into the secret options at the start screen: score exactly 7.100 points and soft-reset with SELECT + RUN, then press SELECT + RUN again and set screen to "slim".

In the vastness of outer space you'll come across small carriers that drop items when destroyed. The basic one is the power-up (P), for which you'll need five in order to get an increase in firepower. This means that it takes ten Ps to achieve max power. Choosing the weapon type is done by collecting a color-based capsule: red is the default vulcan, green is a soft straight shot and blue is a visually impressive laser that expands outwards in five deadly streams when maxed out. The item gallery also includes speed-ups (S) and extra bombs (B). The bomb, a well-known trademark of the game, is a skull-shaped round explosion that inflicts massive local damage while melting all on-screen bullets. 

After reaching max power you can stock 4 power-ups before P items stop coming. There's no unlimited stockpiling of power-ups like in the Mega Drive port, but you can still amass as many bombs as possible even though you only see 9 in the bomb counter. Every surplus P, S or weapon item you take is worth an extra 5.000 points, and that's the main scoring device in Tatsujin. Some people are able to max out speed and surf the rest of the game collecting all incoming capsules, but I suck at that and restrict myself to taking only two speed-ups for the sake of safer maneuverability. Recovering from death can be intimidating in certain checkpoints but it's always possible (note that dying too quickly will send you even further back in the level).

Despite the in-your-face bullets and the unfavorable odds of the gameplay, such as enemies coming with absolutely no warning from below, Tatsujin manages to lure players for more credit after credit. This is usually the case with good strict memorizers, and the game is no exception to this rule. Aimed shots are the norm, but every now and then flocks of more powerful enemies that behave like mini-bosses start firing combinations of fixed and aimed patterns. The good news is that no matter how fast and cruel they are, there's often a nice way to deal with them if you know what's coming. Some just won't fire when close to the bottom line, and methods like point blanking and just staying put work wonders.
The power of laser in outer space
Tatsujin is notorious for not having any actual separation between stages except for the change in the music, with no extra bonus whatsoever for a good performance. Since no extra score is given anywhere besides collecting extra capsules, there's obviously no need to refrain from bombing if necessary. A long section with moving turrets in stage 3 can send your bomb stock through the roof, thus providing the necessary inventory you might need to cheap out on the more intricate sections later on. Wach out for beacons that can be destroyed if you're using the appropriate weapon as soon as you reach the ground prior to bosses, which can give you up to two extra lives. Score based extends are awarded at 70.000 points and for every 200.000 points afterwards.

One special observation about the PC Engine version concerns the difficulty curve. For some strange reason it starts out a tad harder than both the arcade and the Mega Drive version. Bullets are slightly faster and lasers are fired at breakneck speeds, requiring stern memorization from the get go if you don't want to use bombs so early in the credit. Bosses are also interesting in that they don't necessarily get harder as the game progresses. That sort of goes in line with the realization that provided you know what's coming and select weapons wisely this port isn't as hard as its widespread fame indicates.

When put side by side with the Mega Drive port, my perception of this version is that it presents a more even difficulty curve despite the initially high aggression levels of the larger foes in the first stages. It doesn't incur in bullet visibility problems as Sega's version does in the final stage.

The high score below was achieved on Normal difficulty (check the trick mentioned above to see/change the difficulty level). I reached the 4th stage in the second loop. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

W Ring - The Double Rings (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1990

The gimmick is already in the title. And even though it doesn't quite work the game is decently paced for 16-bit standards, which is nothing less than one would expect from a shooter by prolific Naxat Soft. Is it fun, however? W Ring - The Double Rings draws many ideas from the classic formula of Gradius in order to deliver a reasonably varied space adventure, even though it tends to fly low in the radar of shmup fans due to a combo of design + gameplay that on the surface doesn't do much to go beyond what most people would call average.

Fairly simple controls are used here. Just shoot with button II and choose from three speed settings with button I. There's no backstory and no preamble anywhere, so go ahead and blast enemies across six levels (or seven, depending on how you interpret the way the final boss section is laid out), collecting upgrade items along the way to save your universe from annihilation. The rings mentioned in the game's title circle the ship and hover around it as you move, theoretically powering your weapons while also serving as a deflector shield for incoming bullets.

Bouncing bullets with the rings comes with a nice metallic sound effect, but I couldn't grasp how to properly do that and not get hit. After a while I just gave up and considered this mechanic as a good luck charm during the most claustrophobic parts of the game.

The welcoming arms of the 3rd boss

As I mentioned above, several environments in W Ring are modeled after Gradius games. The first level in a cavern setting is filled with cannon fodder and disintegrating rocks, while alien insects and destructible nets populate the second level and mirror the second stage of Gradius II. There's also a high speed section in stage 5 that serves as main gate to the death hole of the final stage. The most visually attractive level, however, is the third one and its waterfalls above and below amidst constant rain. An interesting detail is how the splitting orbs in stage 4 predate a concept that would become one of the visual highlights of Konami's Xexex. Most stages also span a wider vertical area than the screen space, a rather unusual trait for console shooters at the time of the game's release. 

A bare ship is capable of firing a single straight shot and air-to-ground missiles. When the power-up carrier is destroyed a floating orb appears, switching colors starting from purple. Once the third orb is collected you reach maximum power and that happens regardless of color, so there's no need to stick to the same color to power up the ship. Whenever you've gotten at least one power-up you don't die when hit, with the ship reverting back to its default firepower instead. That's the condition that results in death if a bullet hits you or you crash into an obstacle.

Choosing from the weapon types available requires some timing skills because the power-up cycles colors relatively fast. In their maxed out forms you get an 8-way shot (purple), a set of straight lasers (blue), the default shot with two streams of missiles with mild homing ability (yellow), a straight ring-shaped shot (green) and the default shot complemented by four invincible trailing orbs that block bullets (red). Finding a favorite weapon in W Ring doesn't take long, and my two choices were always the yellow shot for its devastating effect when point blanking and blue because those lasers will pierce through anything, including walls.

Caverns of Saturn in the first level
(courtesy of YouTube user Jesper Engelbrektsson)

Besides the regular upgrades the game also has three types of hidden items, which are uncovered by shooting at corners and tips of the scenery. B is a score bonus token that's normally worth 15.000 points, the interrogation mark (?) makes the missiles fly forward instead of downwards/upwards and EX sends the ship into an alternate version of the level. Alternate stage versions come with different color palettes and can be hit-and-miss regarding difficulty and scoring opportunities. The only ones I'll take are in the first and fifth stages (the latter comes with lots of uncovered B items that are worth less than normal but still give you a lot more points than the regular course). The first score extend comes with 200.000 points, the second with 500.000 points and all further ones at each 500.000 mark. 

W Ring - The Double Rings sort of rises above the failed attempt at providing a different gimmick due to the reasonably balanced intensity of the gameplay, except for some bosses that go down in mere seconds if you're using certain weapons. One thing that sort of bothers me is the fact that you're always respawned in the lowest speed setting, which can lead to confusion when you most need speed to go on. Bullet visibility also tends to become an issue during loops or when playing at a higher difficulty. Scoring is pretty straightforward and mostly boosted by collecting B items and excess items of the same color, as well as taking the EX routes. As for the music, I found it rather ordinary with no standout tracks whatsoever.

When the game is beaten we're made aware that the mission actually started in Saturn and proceeded towards the outer boundaries of the Solar System, just before a new threat appears and you're drafted into battle again for the second loop. There you need to cope with a lot more bullets, including those of the suicide kind when medium and large-sized enemies are destroyed. Here's my final score on Normal difficulty, reaching stage 2-6.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Gryphon Knight Epic (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cyber Rhino Studios
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2018

Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign and aimed at an initial release for Windows/Mac PCs in 2015, Gryphon Knight Epic soon made its way to several other platforms including the Playstation 4. Eventually it got picked as the second retail title by Strictly Limited Games, and ever since my copy arrived I wanted to see how well the sprite-based fantasy aesthetics applied to the shmup style of play. After being foiled by a few horrid impressions from brief contacts I finally had the chance to invest some time into it last week, learning what was necessary to go from beginning to end in a single sitting.

Very inspired by swashbuckling stories and movies, the story in Gryphon Knight Epic plays a large part in the overall experience. Fortunately you can skip all cut scenes and dialogue snippets by pressing ○ (being able to disable the dialogue in the options would've been much better, but that's not the case and you can't remap buttons either). The cartoony visuals are an obvious throwback to the 16-bit era, the charming old school graphics are a great asset for nostalgia's sake and the innocent humor that comes along with it is certainly welcome if you don't mind scrolling though endless pieces of text.

Infusing the gameplay with RPG-like mechanics is a much more debatable design decision though, one that doesn't quite gel with the expectations of diehard shmup fans. My initial fear was that it would actually lead to some sort of mandatory grinding, but fortunately that's not the case. You can still grind your heart out to Gryphon Knight Epic if you want to, of course, if only for the chance of controlling sir Oliver, the titular hero of the game, with half-decent speed and maxed out weapons from beginning to end. Everything is so painfully slow and clunky when you begin that you'll need to adapt your sensibilities to the game's rhythm if want to have any fun with it.

Passageways to rematches against bosses

Starting the game will send you directly to a tutorial section that serves the purpose of explaining the basic inputs and showing the beginning of sir Oliver's quest for justice in a medieval land dominated by evil creatures. Button □ shoots, button ○ switches shooting direction, button × fires the special weapon and with button ∆ Oliver drinks whatever potion you've decided to use. Once you have acquired more than one special weapon, L1 and R1 cycle through the available ones. Lastly, either by holding Δ or pressing the touchpad you have access to your whole inventory for potions, weapons and squires.

Once the tutorial is over, head to the market in the map to purchase the dragon squire and fly away to one of the next available levels. With the first upgrade of the default crossbuster weapon you can shoot a charged shot that doesn't consume weapon energy (it's the only weapon that behaves like this). Weapon energy recovers automatically when used, whereas in order to recover health you either need to use a green potion or collect green gems. Other gem colors with special benign functions exist but are quite rare to come about, and most of them will actually be yellow gems that serve to increase the level of your squire (the dragon squire shoots 3 very helpful fireballs when maxed out). If you get hit you lose one level of the squire's power, on top of losing some health of course. 

In every stage sir Oliver must defeat two bosses. The second one will always give him a new weapon upon defeat, which Oliver is able to use at will in the following stages. Comparisons to Mega Man are justified here, even though you'll need to choose between two levels only as you start, advancing to four choices after you complete the second level. Besides the default crossbuster you'll also acquire a sword, a bow, a staff, a sling, a lance and a fireworks cannon. Some of them aren't really of much use though. My favorite was definitely the sword for its ability to fire large arching shots that block bullets, even with its egregiously slow firing rate and speed.

Every single enemy that's killed gives the player a certain amount of money. You don't need to pick up coins or anything similar since money registers automatically in the appropriate counter. Killing enemies within a certain interval between each other without taking damage increases money value up to a ×3 multiplier (note that money gain varies depending on the difficulty you choose for each stage). Money is used to purchase items and weapon upgrades at the market and the wizard's shop. Every time you die you lose 5% of all your money, and that's pretty much the only real punishment you get from performing poorly. Lives are implemented awkwardly: in the normal difficulty you get a constant supply of six lives to play any game section, so no matter how many you've lost before advancing you'll get another six after you beat any boss. Game overing is pointless because you preserve all your gold and play any stage again as if nothing had happened. Besides, you can leave any stage at any moment and go back to the map to choose another stage or start again.

Console launch trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Cyber Rhino Studios)

The disregard for the mechanic of lives is understandable, after all Gryphon Knight Epic was not designed with an arcade mindset. Each play session has its own save slot, to which you can come back at your own time in order to get more money. The idea here is to obtain every single item and weapon in the game, completing all levels in the hardest difficulty in order to unlock the ultimate weapon and the most satisfying ending. The game doesn't have any scoring whatsoever, but even if we were to consider money as score we'd still have a broken scoring system (you can exploit enemy projectiles in certain areas ad infinitum).

There are some other gameplay aspects that rub me the wrong way. Switching shooting direction with button ○ feels awkward because it also shifts the scrolling direction if you're flying left or right (not up or down, for that you must hold the desired direction for a few seconds). Every once in a while the screen halts so that you can choose a scrolling direction. Normal progression is always indicated by the pointing finger, but watch out for secret passages hiding magic runes that grant Oliver special enhancements such as the ability to fly underwater, unlock larger meters for health and weapon power, fly faster or get reduced prices at the shops. The bad news is that the most helpful ones can only be found in the hardest stages, so you're stuck with that sluggish gryphon and the sensation that you're plowing through mud throughout the whole game, taking inevitable damage all the time for being sorely underpowered.

My self-imposed challenge in Gryphon Knight Epic was to beat it on Normal (Knight) difficulty without replaying any level. The only weapons I upgraded were the crossbuster (max), the Qamar sword (level 2) and the Eben sling (level 2), refilling my stock of green potions in between levels. All secret runes were collected except for the one that gives you a dash move, which is more annoying than actually useful. I considered my "score" to be the money cumulated after beating the final boss, shown in the picture below. According to my save stats at the end of the credit the run lasted 2 hours and 2 minutes.