Saturday, April 25, 2020

Twinkle Star Sprites (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by ADK
Published by SNK Playmore in 2008

I was certainly thrilled when the time came to revisit this game, courtesy of a close circle of shmupper friends and our weekly online gathering. The new venture, however, did not start on the Playstation 2. The Playstation 4 was out for action in the living room and I thought it would be nice to try out the recent re-release of ADK Damashii, a compilation that includes five classic games from the golden era of SNK. Excluding the fact that the disc is a shameless carbon-copy emulation of the PS2 original (it's part of a "PS2 Classics on PS4 project" after all), a few sessions later it became clear that Twinkle Star Sprites was unplayable on it. I'll be the last person to complain about things such as input lag, but in a game where reflexes represent a huge part of the experience it's impossible not to. Something is terribly wrong in a shmup when you try to bomb, it just doesn't register and you die repeatedly because of that.

So there I went for the PS2 disc. On it Twinkle Star Sprites plays as nicely as the Neo Geo original. One thing is certain about the game: the more you play it the more you're inclined to admire its qualities. Truth be told, there's also a strong probability of developing a love/hate relationship with the game when you're dedicating yourself to solo play. Those little intricacies require lots of fine tuning just like the latest seasonal fighting game, after all Twinkle Star Sprites is by all means a fighting game disguised as a shmup.

My previous attempts at high scoring in this game were on the Sega Saturn and the Neo Geo AES. I touched the basics of the gameplay when I wrote about them, so this time I'll address some impressions from trying to play with a few characters other than Nanja Monja and Kim Kesubei.

Arthur Schmitt being drafted to battle

Character Mode offers a roster of nine default "fighters" for you to choose from. With the exception of protagonist Load Ran, four of the others might appear in the initial four stages, and always in the same level (you either face one or another in the same stage). Then you fight Dark Ran, Mevious and Memory, the cutest final boss ever designed in a shmup. They can also be chosen for play at the start of the game with easy directional inputs, as well as Sprites, Load Ran's evolution when playing Story Mode.

Each character is rated in three steps for speed and power. Regardless of that, their firing patterns and special attacks also differ, so power might not be that relevant when deciding on a specific character.

My first choice this time around was Load Ran (misspelled as Load Run in the game's HUD), which is perceived as an all-around character (power: 2, speed: 2). Her special attacks are these arching rabbits that home on the enemy's place and explode, and her charge shot is a powerful single blast. I reached Memory relatively fast, but I didn't quite feel comfortable with Ran's ability to evade her attacks. Fun fact: Load Ran is Memory's daughter.

With speed at 3, Arthur Schmitt is quite fast, but his attack power is rated at 1 and his main shot is rather lackluster. What made me try him was his charge shot, a laser beam that can be moved around while being discharged. His special attacks are one or more rockets that materialize at the bottom of the enemy's screen and fly upwards (if they happen to occupy a large horizontal line the enemy might be in big trouble). Since the attacks of his boss form cover a large portion of the screen I assume he must be great against human opponents, but of course that's not true when playing the computer. Fun fact: in the game's story he's a casanova who has fallen in love with Load Ran.

Based on her stance and overall behavior, Realy Till seems to be the most mature of the human characters in Twinkle Star Sprites (power: 2; speed: 3). The only thing that sucks about her is the charge shot, a flamethrower with short reach and unreliable effectiveness. Her single shot is my favorite of the three characters I played with, and her special attack is one or more chubby dragons that descend on the enemy's screen and turn either left or right. Storywise apparently she aspires to be a great singer.

Twinkle Star Sprites opening intro
(courtesy of YouTube user Intro Games HD)

I switched between Load Ran, Arthur Schmitt and Realy Till at random. After a while I avoided sending reversals to the adversaries (shooting fireballs and sending them back) because they might be "reversed" again as special attacks. That certainly helped against Mevious and his bat abuse during fever spells. Even though reaching Memory with all three lives in stock (an extend is achieved at every 500.000 points) and then getting slaughtered over and over might be good for scoring, it does incur in a mild enraging effect that's inversely proportional to how fun the game is. Speaking of fun, Twinkle Star Sprites is undoubtedly perfect for quick sessions of concentrated shooting as long as you don't attempt the clear too fiercely. It's also a very short game that can be completed in less than ten minutes.

The ADK Damashii disc is decent enough as a compilation, with basic features such as a sound test, two types of screen adjustment and auto save. Note that you need to leave the game for your save to work (SELECT → Exit to Menu), and you also need to load it manually in order to see your saved high scores. In the case of Twinkle Star Sprites, just like in the original Neo Geo title the option to activate an extra button for autofire is also present. Last but not least, ADK Damashii's instruction manual is awesome and brings extremely detailed information for all games, too bad it's all in Japanese. Unfortunately the PS2 version was only released in Japan, and this same fate also struck the pseudo-sequel Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse.

After a few days hammering the game, 1CC success eventually came with Realy Till as seen in the final stat screen below. I played on difficulty level 4 (MVS).

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Night Striker S (Saturn)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Ving in 1996

Even though lots of games were made on those special super scaler arcade boards manufactured by Sega in the 80s, there was a very particular style of sprite scaling that became famous in that decade. Super scaler boards were perfect for racing games such as Out Run, but also gave birth to several classic rail shooters such as After Burner, Thunder Blade and Galaxy Force II. Many video game fans still consider the term "super scaler technology" to be a synonym with Sega, but it should also be known that in the case of rail shooters a few other companies soon ventured into this niche subgenre, as seen in the likes of Night Striker by Taito, among other noteworthy titles of course.

The Sega Saturn version was the third home console adaptation after the much criticized port for the Mega CD and the previous release for the Playstation. Rebaptized as Night Striker S, the game includes a new FMV introduction and an exclusive arrange mode comprised of only six straight stages, as opposed to the branching levels seen in the original arcade blaster. As for the core game, it isn't a faithful conversion since it changes enemy locations, firing patterns and energy recharge routine, all of these leading to an easier challenge overall with a lower framerate. Well, the arcade game wasn't that difficult to begin with, so here we have a rail shooter that can be enjoyed more leisurely than those tough-as-nails Sega classics.

In a large city
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Drawing clear inspiration from TV series Knight Rider, this game presents itself as a dark mixture of  Out Run and Space Harrier. The player pilots an advanced hi-tech armored car sent on a mission to rescue a scientist and his daughter, who were kidnapped by terrorist insurgents. The car fires deadly plasma beams and is able to take flight at any moment, going through a series of environments such as city, suburbs, sky, tunnel, temple, canal, sea, factory, etc., which are repeated throughout depending on the path you decide to take. With the exception of the final level, each stage branches into two splitting tunnels where the player must choose the stage to play next, much like Out Run and Darius. Final stages are also unique in that the armored car receives special attachments or morphs into completely different forms, such as a robot or a futuristic motorcycle.

Each hit taken takes away one energy shield. Special warnings appear when you're low on energy, and the credit ends if you run out of shields and get hit. For each level completed you receive a bonus based on the time remaining from the boss fight, 100.000 points for each shield in reserve and two energy shield refills (in the original arcade game you only get one). By killing all enemies in a level you win a special bonus of one million points, but there's an even better reward waiting those who're able to not get hit while refraining from shooting. This "pacifist bonus" starts at 2 million in the first stage or in other million multiples in further levels, with figures that increase greatly if you're able to go on unscathed afterwards.

While the pacifist bonus goes against one of the defining pillars of the genre (a shooter where you're encouraged not to shoot!), it does provide a special kind of rush for those willing to pursue it. By setting auto neutral to OFF in the options you're able to hover anywhere around the screen without being drawn to its center, so that certainly helps in identifying better spots for a safe navigation. The pacifist bonus can also cause some restartitis, but since the game is relatively short and entertaining the whole process shouldn't be that taxing. Especially when you realize how significant it is for scoring purposes, of course.

Exclusive forest level in the Extra Game

As I mentioned above, Night Striker S is decidedly easier than the arcade game. Nevertheless the game preserves a few important aspects such as the ongoing bonus score of 8× when you're driving on roads instead of flying (doesn't work in sky, river and sea areas) and the fact that flying enemies do not incur in any collision at all (you only crash against explicit pipings/walls and vehicles/obstacles at ground level). There's no need to worry about making turns if you're at ground level, this is no racing game after all. Even though it's the visuals that attract immediate attention, one of the technical highlights in my opinion is the soundtrack delivered by Taito's in-house composer group Zuntata. Most tunes are pumping and atmospheric, and I personally love the one that plays in between levels.

After cleansing my gaming palate of the foul impression left by the Mega CD port, I can definitely say I started appreaciating this game. I've yet to try the Playstation version, but in whatever form it's a great pick for a quick rail shooting sci-fi romp, full of replay value thanks to the branching level structure. The picture below shows my best completion score on full defaults (Normal difficulty) except for control, which I changed to reverse. My chosen path was route ABDHLR. Even though it's a much harder game, unfortunately the arrange "Extra Game" mode shares the same high score table as the main arcade course. The disc does include a save feature, which is nice.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Cho Aniki - Kyūkyoku Otoko no Gyakushū (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
12 (14) Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Masaya
Published by NCS in 1996

A mere three months separates this release and the previous seemingly identical game for the Playstation. For all purposes both titles are the same, but I had been warned by a fellow shmupper there would be differences. The first hint of this is in the game's full name, yet I'll refrain from focusing on that and just refer to it as Cho Aniki. Those familiar with the series already know why it's so infamous. As for those who're being exposed to it – and to this chapter specifically – for the first time, all I can say is that you'll never experience any other series like this. Or any other game like both 32-bit renditions of Cho Aniki.

I don't comment on that based on gameplay, since the gameplay is the least daring aspect you'll find here. What's strikingly unorthodox are the visuals full of homoerotic motifs and crazy variations thereof. It's one of those cases where you have to see it to believe it, hopefully with no audience unless they're also keen on unique, unexpectedly campy and downright bizarre stuff in a video game. All of it with a slew of glorious digitized graphics for greater eccentricity. That said, what's this game actually about? After the botched experience of Ai Cho Aniki, Cho Aniki on the Sega Saturn returns to the roots of the series seen in the original Cho Aniki for the PC Engine CD, in that you regain control over either Idaten the warrior or Benten the maiden against the hordes of a powerful demigod.

Adon and Samson, the big muscular guys from Ai Cho Aniki, return to supporting roles as the helpers/options that fly alongside Idaten. Benten's corresponding aids are a duo of child angels. All these characters appear prominently in several animated sequences during the intro and at key points throughout the game, screaming or shouting in typical Japanese overdone dialogue.

Idaten and Benten teaming up for great justice

Almost all buttons in the controller are used. Shoot with A, fire special attacks with B, freeze helpers with C, decrease/increase speed with X/Y (8 settings for Idaten, 5 settings for Benten) and choose any of eight special attacks (if available) with R/L. All stages are just straight horizontal stretches towards a big boss, with little variation seen in the vertical/diagonal scrolling parts of the underwater 3rd stage (this particular level is also one of the hardest due to the seahorse-men that fire those arching four-bullet patterns). There are two idiotic intermission sections prior to stages 1 and 7 where you control the big boss of the game in a pointless destruction havoc. None of them adds anything to the score and you still run the risk of losing the credit (all lives are lost) if too many tiny men hit you. To make matters worse the second intermission lasts more than three and a half minutes, as opposed to the PS1 version, which is much quicker at roughly over a minute.

Getting ahead of the danger and herding bullets wisely are two very important measures to circumvent the huge hitbox of your character, but the most important one is powering up as fast as you can. Specific enemies release gray protein orbs that upon collection slowly build up your firepower. These orbs are the only items you'll come across in the game and affect not only the power level, but also the assortment of special attacks available. Whenever a special attack is used you decrease the stock for them and lose a fraction of your power. In my opinion losing power isn't as bad as running out of special attacks, so don't overuse them. Since Cho Aniki doesn't have extends, deaths can impose lots of pressure on those who want to clear the game on a single credit. The good news is that you're not powered down upon dying.

One thing I noticed only when playing this version of 32-bit Cho Aniki is that each part of your flying group is powered up separately. That didn't happen at all when I played Cho Aniki on the Playstation, for example. This means that if you want to add more spread to your firepower as fast as possible you should touch the protein orbs with your helpers, not the main character (that can be easily tested in the first level). And if you want to get the piercing wave shot faster proteins should be collected by the main character. That's why sometimes I'd get to the wave shot in as early as the 3rd stage, while other times it would only come late in the 5th stage. Moving helpers around and freezing them in place is the best way to control how you collect the orbs (lean against screen borders to "sink" them into the character). Watch out for the power pick-up voices, which differ for Idaten/Benten and their sidekicks.

The start of a journey of muscular wack
(courtesy of YouTube user Undeadbokun)

Besides adding a precious chunk of firepower, sidekicks can also block bullets with their bodies. Don't abuse this ability though, because if they receive too many hits they'll fall asleep until you've collected some more protein. Sleeping helpers might also abandon you during boss fights, leaving your flanks unprotected. And here's another detail that only dawned on me when playing this version of the game: touching regular enemies does not damage helpers. I figured this out when dealing with the long lines of falling lantern-men in the Japanese house stage.

And this brings me to the subject of differences between versions.

Some of the falling lantern-men have completely dissimilar placements on the Playstation and the Saturn. This kind of difference happens in lots of other parts in the Saturn game, which also exhibits the abovementioned gameplay distinctions with varying bullet speeds/density, alternate animated snippets and even alternate music (in the 2nd intermission). In a sense, it seems the Saturn version was conceived as a slightly tweaked game that increases the challenge a bit. The only aspect that remains the same on both versions are the bosses and their lame attacks, with the exception of the big manly battleship and the completely diverse movement patterns around him on both platforms. The exclusive boss rush in the Sega version seems to be a cheap last-minute inclusion since you need to fight nine previous bosses in separate screens prior to facing the final enemy (the manly battleship and the electric brain are left out).

Click for the option menus translation for Cho Aniki on the Sega Saturn

Kitsch value aside, you can't really say Saturn Cho Aniki lacks gameplay content. With the exception of the stupid intermissions the game is never dull, plus diversity is the visual and musical standout rule (there are some great BGMs to be heard). The scoring system can be exploited for peanuts on some bosses, other than that the game is just straightforward fun with lots of material for trash talk.

I chose Benten to play the Saturn version and got the 1CC score below in the Normal difficulty. There's no high score save or buffer, so I paused after the last boss went down and took the picture. Unlike the Playstation version, which grants a final 100.000 point bonus that can be seen for two seconds only (!), the Saturn game does not add anything to the finishing score.

Next: Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu on the Playstation 2.