Sunday, March 29, 2020

Captain Tomaday (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Visco
Published by Visco in 1999

Though not really prolific or widely remembered by shooter fans, Visco Corporation did manage to release a few interesting shmups throughout its lifetime. Some of them were almost rip-offs of more famous titles (as is the case of Storm Blade and its resemblance to Sonic Wings, for instance), while others fared better in originality terms (Vasara and Vasara 2, games that even garnered a minor but devoted fanbase). Amongst their many outings for the Neo Geo arcade platform there were two shmups that stand in the middle spectrum of the abovementined scale: Andro Dunos and Captain Tomaday.

Unlike the standard horizontal approach seen in Andro Dunos, Captain Tomaday offers a distinct and eccentric take on the vertical shooter formula. Aesthetically it feels derivative of the cute'em up style pioneered by Konami in series like Twin Bee and Parodius, but it certainly bears a charm of its own thanks to the offbeat gameplay. After all, it's got one of the most bizarre power-up mechanics I've ever seen, which is in line with the premise of the game and its unsung hero, a tomato that gains life after falling into a vault of unknown chemicals – to the surprise of the scientist who witnesses the phenomenon. This is all shown in the colorful intro, for great cinematic effect.

Plane Tomaday versus 3rd boss

Endowed with full-grown limbs, Tomaday uses his fists to punch enemies into oblivion. Button A tosses his left hand, button B tosses his right hand and button C switches/rotates battle formation between horizontal and vertical once you've acquired a companion/clone. Punching comes with autofire, and if you use only one fist the other one will start glowing until it charges into a powerful glowing anvil as Tomaday counts one - two - three. Pressing the button then unleashes this power punch. Since his fists need to travel a certain distance to return to him, the action of punching is more efficient the closer you are to the enemy.

Upgrade and bonus items are released by hitting harmless tomato cans. If you hit the items they will bounce, so it might be necessary to completely refrain from shooting in order to collect them (if they bounce for too long they'll eventually disappear). Most items are diamonds, Ts or random stuff (popsicles, french fries, pies) that give you a few extra points. The really important ones are the multiplying tomato, which adds a clone who flies in formation with the original Tomaday, the mutating pill that serves as the power-up that turns him into a new form and the single 1UP that appears halfway into stage 4.

This is where Captain Tomaday starts to confuse the player. The first mutating pill makes you shrink, the second one makes you large and the third one turns the character into a green lizard that uses his tongue to attack. The lizard form already breaks up the basic gameplay based on punching and charging, but that's only the beginning. What happens is that for each mutating pill taken you actually assume a different form, in a total of more than 15 incarnations besides the default tomato one. Some of them are downright bizarre, such as a monkey that throws bananas, a plant vase, a carrot and a rabbit. There are also intermediary forms that appear if you get hit in special incarnations, such as the baby that returns to winged Tomaday form upon collection of the next pill. The very final upgrade turns you into a spear-shooting devil (or angel, if you're player 2). Another pill taken when in this final form rolls the upgrade sequence over and sends you back to default Tomaday.

The catch in the gameplay is that later forms don't actually translate into best firepower. Figuring out the most efficient ones is somewhat essential for survival, especially when the most aggressive enemy waves start appearing. Captain Tomaday is a challenging shooter that unfolds in waves, and no wave will ever appear until you have cleared the prior one. While that certainly helps in memorizing the game, dying can pretty much kill the credit if you're not able to power back up quickly. Speaking of which, whenever you're controlling two Tomadays each character must be upgraded separately. Beware once they've reached their desired forms, because if you accidentally take another pill the upgrading process inevitably continues. There's no way to power down unless you take 17 mutating pills or kill the character and get a new clone to power him back up, which are obviously no feasible choices. Note that lives are only lost if both characters/clones in a formation are killed.

Someone's forgetting to press the other button...
(courtesy of YouTube user Gamers Universe)

Advancing through the colorful backgrounds can be a delight if you fancy games with cartoony and goofy designs. The music is equally as cartoony, sometimes even childish. Each level has a specific theme, starting with a gothic forest and continuing with a pit full of trash, a river/pond, a special bonus area with no stage boss and a last section in outer space. Whenever the scrolling stops during the level you must prepare to face a special enemy sequence or a mid-boss, in a wide array of organic and mechanical foes alike. Collision detection is fine, but the act of hitting targets can lead to a weird stutteting frame-based slowdown that definitely needs some getting used to. The slingshot effect is present, so take special attention on enemies (mainly mid-bosses) that have the nasty habit of ramming into you faster than what you'd expect.

An aspect that might detract from the fun factor is the juggling mechanic, which doesn't add anything useful to the gameplay. It often screws up the upgrading process and can cause all sorts of problems for greedy players such as myself. Restartitis is right around the corner, after all the bulk of the scoring system comes from destroying complete enemy waves and collecting the bonus tokens. Each level completed also gives you a confusing bonus for destruction ratio, but as much as I tried I could never get a 100% bonus in any stage whatsoever. My favorite form combination for firepower is the plant vase (great power and very nice spread) plus the kendama toy that shoots a single red ball that's devastating at point blank distance. Both don't have charged punches, but to be honest the charged punch is a pretty useless resource.

Captain Tomaday was only officially available for the MVS format, but I played it with an AES conversion. It recently got a budget re-release for the Sega Dreamcast, but as of now I don't know how both versions compare. In my solo time with the Neo Geo game I lost no lives when achieving the high score below, playing in the MVS difficulty. For those who're into it, I assume co-op play must be quite an interesting experience.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Space Megaforce (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
5 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Toho in 1992

In the US the subject of this blog post was released as Space Megaforce, an incredibly generic name that says absolutely nothing about the game's origins. The Japanese market got it right because the Japanese title is none other than Super Aleste, a name that rings a lot of bells for fans of the most famous shooter series made by developer Compile. It's the final entry in the sci-fi branch of the franchise, as is Robo Aleste for the mecha series on Sega platforms, and combines many of the elements presented in classic Compile games such as Zanac, Power Strike and GunHed.

With the processing power of the SNES it's no wonder that Super Aleste / Space Megaforce shines with vibrant colors and flashy weapons galore. It is by all accounts a natural evolution to the abovementioned titles, complete with the trademark long levels so typical of Compile. It had been a while since I last touched one of these games, so I was kinda caught by surprise with a seemingly endless first level. And then, once the initial reconnaissance minutes were done, I had another go and was struck by the fact that I had just cleared the game in my very first try on a single credit.

I guess when people say Compile games are easy chances are they're probably referring to their experience with Space Megaforce. There are a few special considerations to be made about this assumption, but let's analyze the core game first. It feels very familiar to those who already played any of the abovementioned influences: there's a button to shoot, another button to bomb and a button for speed selection between four fixed settings. The new addition in this chapter is a fourth button that's used to alter the attack patterns of your current weapon. All these inputs can be configured in the options according to four control types (if speed selection isn't there it's because it's supposed to be carried out with the SELECT button). Weapons are defined by numbers that go from 1 (default vulcan) to 8 (scatter shot), switchable by taking the proper red capsule released by carriers that constantly zap through the screen at predetermined intervals.

The start of a whopping journey to victory
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Powering up is achieved by collecting orange/green orbs. There are 6 power levels in total, shown in the upper left corner beside the current weapon number/name. The quantity of orange orbs needed to achieve an upgrade is the same as the next upgrade level (one orb for level 1 or five orbs for level 5, for example), whereas a green orb provides a full upgrade level no matter where you stand in the power scale. Life count and bomb stock are shown in the lower right corner of the screen: extra bombs are obtained by taking the respective B items, extra lives are given based on score (50, 200, 500 and then successive ones for every 500 thousand points scored).

A very special type of item is the green version of a weapon capsule. It cycles through all weapon numbers but is frozen in place if you hit it. Hit it long enough and it will turn into a pulsating energy mass known as "enemy eraser", which works as a smart bomb that clears all enemies at once. This isn't however its only function, since for each enemy eraser taken you'll gain an instant respawn after dying (instead of being sent back to a checkpoint). The availability/number of instant respawns is indicated by a golden hue in the number/icons of the life meter. If this feature sounds familiar the reason is that it's exactly the same one firstly introduced in GunHed / Blazing Lazers.

As if the enemy eraser mechanic wasn't such an awesome tool in surviving against the odds of twelve stages, there are also many other ways in which Space Megaforce allows players to hold on to their lives. Dying only happens if you get scroll-crushed by a wall or if you get hit at power levels 0 or 1 (anything above that will just degrade your current upgrade status by 4 levels). Other factors that help you survive and contribute to make the game easier: almost all enemy bullets can be destroyed by your firepower, there's no harm at all in touching walls or floating tiles and the series trademark split-second invincibility is there for every single item you collect. Speaking of items, watch out for some hidden ones amidst unsuspected blocks and tiles.

Bypassing checkpoints is of course great for survival, but certainly plays against scoring. Since you can amass so many extra lives, it's only natural that scoring benefits by dying and exploiting checkpoints, of which the most lucrative is the penultimate one in the final stage.

Laser capsule ahoy!

When compared with previous chapters of the Aleste franchise, the biggest draw of Space Megaforce is in the graphics, which make excellent use of mode 7 effects to present unique visuals such as the huge space station that zooms in and out in stage 2 or the revolving river down below in stage 5. Audiowise the game is also well served, with digitized voices for weapons and a varied soundtrack that at times sounds very similar to in-house contemporary Robo Aleste. Everything in the game moves and explodes with no slowdown at all, and huge bosses make you scramble all around the screen in order to advance. Sometimes the scenery makes it confusing to discern where you're supposed to go around walls, especially during the parts that take place in space stations. Walls can't kill you but can restrain your movement, so the idea is that if your shot hits something then it's certainly an obstacle.

Despite all the goodness to be seen and experienced in this game, by the time you reach stage 10 Space Megaforce starts recycling the environments of the first level, a clear sign that it went too far with its length even when you consider that every 3rd level is relatively short and plays like a bonus area of sorts, full of those destructible tiles reminiscent of the Star Soldier games (this isn't the only throwback/homage you'll see, stage 4 has a wave-like moving background that's clearly inspired by Recca). Since it feels so much like the older games in the series, it's rather understandable why Space Megaforce is overshadowed by MUSHA on the Mega Drive when we talk about which 16-bit cartridge-based Aleste title was better.

Perhaps feeling that the game they created was indeed too long, Compile added a short game mode for immediate selection at the start screen. It takes just ten minutes to be completed, as opposed to the hour-long standard campaign. That's not the only alternate mode included in the package though. If you go to the options and select Tricky mode, suicide bullets will be added everywhere in both game variations. Wild represents a harder Tricky, thus being the hardest mode of all. It's really nice to have extra settings that are not just different difficulties, which is welcome for those who think the default challenge is too easygoing. The game does name them "mode" instead of "difficulty" after all.

My best 1CC result on Normal mode with no milking whatsoever (no checkpoint deaths) is below. This second time was certainly more entertaining than the first since I had a better understanding of the weapon system and the game as a whole. I tinkered a little with Tricky mode but didn't attempt anything more serious on it. Maybe next time I'll try to do it.