Friday, May 29, 2020

Fullblast (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by UFO Crash Games
Published by Ratalaika Games / Red Art Games in 2019

Another low-budget title released digitally for multiple platforms, Fullblast also landed on the Playstation 4 in retail form to deliver twelve stages of shooting action. While flashy enough to provide fun for children and newcomers to the genre, it will probably make everyone else snooze when playing, as it honestly did to me a couple of times. In short, don't expect any sort of real excitement if your idea of shmupping is being challenged with exhilarating dodging as you fly through lots of varied environments.

In the world of Fullblast the player is sent to battle in order to fight alien invaders that have infested planet Earth. Each one of the three environments (city, forest, ocean) gets increasingly more wrecked by the creatures across four levels: in the first three regular bosses appear to stop you, whereas a giant alien creature awaits at the end of every fourth area. It's a very straightforward structure whose best feature is certainly the basis for the enemy gallery. Pretty much all enemies are insects, with a few marine creatures thrown in amidst the expected assortment of mandatory turrets. Other than that, every once in a while the scrolling halts so that you can face a turret mid-boss surrounded by regular minion waves.

A river raid over the jungle

Before delving into the actual gameplay, it's interesting to note that the game visuals are somewhat decent. Graphics are clean and quite detailed in the way they try to convey terrain raided by alien creatures. You see cars going back and forth, boats and ships adrift at the mercy of the wind, bridges and facilities destroyed by derelict motherships. The only problem is that the game is very repetitive and never picks up the pace, so no matter how cool the graphics look soon you'll get tired of them. Repetition is also the main issue with the soundtrack and its generic hard rock themes that make no lasting impression on anyone.

Shot and bomb are the only commands you'll ever use in Fullblast. Once the ship (or ships in co-op play) takes flight and enters the first area, items will start appearing at random as you destroy your enemies. The pea shot can be upgraded by taking the appropriate icons for straight shot and spread shot. Pick up three items of the same type to max it out, and watch as a slow automatically firing heat-seeking missile appears in the last upgrade. Other items include extra bombs, extra lives, energy refills (heart), temporary score multiplier (2×), temporary rapid fire (arrow), temporary shield (S) and a bogus pick-up that lowers your firing rate for a brief while (a spiky red ball). Some of these items tend to get mixed with the colorful backgrounds, so keep an eye out for them.

The energy refill mentioned above recovers part of the health bar that comes with each life, which takes a lot of beating to get depleted. The levels themselves aren't much of a threat, but the ramming and spraying attacks of some bosses can take you by surprise the first time you get to them. It takes only one encounter to memorize patterns though, so the little pressure there is soon disappears and gives way to more boredom. Speaking of which, stretching out levels in order to obtain a longer game is what Fullblast unfortunately does best. The game allows you to select a starting stage from those you've already reached, but what's the point if two thirds of them are essentially the same?

Multiplatform trailer for Fullblast
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher Ratalaika Games)

A valid way to describe Fullblast is that it's a slightly improved take on the style pioneered by developer/publisher Phoenix Games, who were the European kings of crappy releases during the PS2 era. Those who know what I'm talking about will immediately recognize the similarities. The game's got many long levels with little to no variation in the enemy gallery, as well as repetitive design and completely forgettable music.

I was expecting the creature from the box art to be one of the bosses, but he's just a spore-spitting worm that appears halfway into the jungle area. It's the same attack from the carnivorous plants, in what's commonplace behavior for many other enemies. At least the scoring system isn't stupidly broken, and exploiting the time given by the 2× score multiplier is the only way to actually try to score higher.

The picture below shows my best completion results when playing on Normal difficulty. Beware of pausing: I had the game freeze on me once when I paused almost at the same moment the pre-boss message appeared. It was impossible to unpause or even to close the game through the PS4 interface!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Raiden Fighters (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu / Gulti
Published by Success in 2008

No matter how famous and admired the games from the classic Raiden franchise were in the world of arcade shmupping, many people were also critical about the slow speed of their ships and the way it affected their whole perception of challenge. Perhaps in order to address this, a couple of years after Raiden DX came out developer Seibu Kaihatsu decided to shake things up by releasing a spin-off title that boosted the action considerably while retaining the general feel of their quintessencial formula. And so a new series was born with Raiden Fighters, a shooter that for all purposes is like a regular Raiden game, only on steroids.

Raiden Fighters appears on the Xbox 360 library alongside its sequels in the Raiden Fighters Aces compilation, which saw release both in Japan and the US. It's a mandatory item on its own, but the Japanese disc is the best option if you need to choose one simply because it also comes with a special DVD that contains superplays for all three games. The interface is all in English, which is great, and includes a plethora of visual tweaks (TATE obviously included), local/online leaderboards and the ability to record your own runs. Speaking of the first Raiden Fighters, you can even change its name to Gun Dogs, which was actually the game's working title before the developer decided for a change prior to the arcade release.

That said, I must confess my history with Raiden Fighters isn't beautiful at all. Upon first contact I hated the game with a passion, a reaction that's quite common once you realize how unfriendly it is to unaware players who enjoy the scoring aspect of a shoot'em up. The entry ticket to the scoring techniques in this game is just too high, hence the reason for my giving up on it several times. Long story short, it took me a great deal of resolve to finally get serious about clearing it.

On the surface Raiden Fighters isn't any different from its classic roots. Choose one of the available fighter crafts and face seven stages of pure, relentless shooting action. Each fighter has defined characteristics for attack, defense and speed, as well as specific firepower variations according to the L or M icons you'll be picking up along the way. Controls consist of shot, bomb and rapid shot, fully configurable as you see fit in your joystick, as well as other more uncommon inputs such as rapid bomb (why?) and quick restart (very useful). Quick, in fact, is the middle name of the game here, since loading times are pretty much non-existent and you'll certainly be restarting a lot when trying to score.

My Raiden Fighters 1CC with ship Aegis on Raiden Fighters Aces for the Xbox 360

Keeping with the tradition set forth by Raiden DX, this game is full of unintuitive secrets that range from trivial to extremely tricky to pull off. Some of the trivial ones relate to the selection of special ships and stage order, but fortunately the Xbox 360 port makes things easier by having (almost) all ships at the start screen and allowing you to choose a stage order before the credit is even started. This way you can define the order for stages 1 (forest) and 2 (airfield), as well as 4 (arctic zone) and 5 (railyard). Stages 3 (ocean), 6 (thunderstorm) and 7 (fortress) will always be fixed since they are actually the main goal of each one of the three missions you must complete in order to defeat the military forces of an evil dictator. This military motif, by the way, is the main design change from classic Raiden titles, which used to propel you to outer space in the second half of the game.

Graphics are crisp and extremely colorful, with an enemy gallery that encompasses all sorts of terrestrial and aerial opposition. Tanks and ships of all shapes and sizes, sniping turrets in every possible configuration, slow moving bombers, kamikaze plane formations and furious bosses with multiple forms/patterns. The music, on the other hand, is a collection of accelerated techno tracks that in my opinion severely undermines the game's appreciation. One might argue the soundtrack matches the pace of the action, but most of the time it just comes off as grating noise that evokes continuous desperation. The song in the railyard level is kinda nice towards the end, but that's it.

Playing Raiden Fighters as you would any other shmup is fun, but quite challenging. Shoot, dodge, bomb, pick up items along the way, fire charged attacks by holding and releasing shot when the ship glows. Survival play is as simple as that, but once you dig a little deeper into how to score better the game becomes a completely different kind of beast, and that's where secrets start to become important. In a nutshell, you won't get anywhere unless you learn how to boost the value of those tiny little medals. In order to do that players must follow very strict rules and routes. It's totally useless to try to figure out these rules on your own, even if you have a lifetime to spend. The best advice I can give is sit back, relax, choose a proper superplay to watch and read this awesome webpage with great attention.

The first rule to increase medal point value is that each medal must be collected before the next one appears. If you don't do that all subsequent medals on screen will have the same value as the first one. That said, a short recipe to proceed is this: increase medal value from 10 to at least 80, then grab the S icon to summon a slave (an option craft that flies beside the main fighter); increase medal value from 100 to 900, then grab a second S so that you have two slaves; without letting any slave die (they die from taking too much damage), increase medal value from 1.000 to 10.000; at this point all medals will be large and of a golden color; in order to break the 10.000 barrier you must have 10 medals on screen at the same time, which will then cause a big explosion and activate the final medal scale, which goes from 10.000 to 100.000; afterwards all medals will be worth 100.000 points provided you don't lose any of them with no other medal on screen, a situation that resets their value to 10.000 points and requires you to increase them back up again to 100.000 (with each medal reset at least 450.000 points are lost).

Aside from keeping both slaves alive halfway the process above, the trickiest part is to get ten 10K medals at once for the break explosion. The easiest way to do that is by uncovering a miclus. Some micluses will only appear if you fulfill certain actions, but luckily most of them will come out just by hovering at specific spots. With a miclus uncovered, shoot it and watch as the required shower of medals fills up the screen (micluses are also worth 100.000 points). The side effect of unlocking high medal values is that once you do that the game's difficulty skyrockets, with bullets coming twice as faster at you. The good news is that deaths don't affect medal values and considerably decrease the ongoing rank. The bad news is that Raiden Fighters has no extends at all.

Chaser's missile curtain of death

Even though medal chaining is the most important aspect of scoring, there are lots of other ways to score higher. One of them is uncovering fairies. Besides being worth 100.000 points each (if you don't kill them), almost all of them will hand out an extra bomb. Other bonuses can be gained by bullet grazing/scratching, speed killing medium-sized enemies, destroying two parts of them within one second from each other and even "defending" certain parts of the scenario (the houses close to the boss in the forest stage). No matter how well you have planned your routes – and you definitely need to plan ahead – there's always room to uncover a new secret or to squeeze a few more points from the game.

As if all those secrets weren't enough of a hassle to learn, different ships will certainly require distinct approaches to uncovering them. All original default fighters have specific attacks for Missile and Laser, but the ones originated in previous games behave differently. The Raiden mk-II (from Raiden II) and the Judge Spear (from Viper Phase 1) have only one firing pattern, no charge shots and drop their original bombs instead of the new firestar shrapnel bomb. They also start with three bombs in stock instead of two. There's also the extra Slave ship that can be selected by pressing shot + bomb over the fighter craft whose speed and color you want to inherit. Slaves are great because of their reduced hitbox, but they have only one firing pattern and no charge shot whatsoever.

The main game mode in Raiden Fighters is Arcade, which also comes with a Boss Rush variation for those interested. In Score Attack mode you have 100 seconds to achieve the highest score possible with no medals and different places for secrets. Finally, in Training mode players can adjust every aspect of a run in order to practice individual stages. It's a very helpful and flexible tool if you can't resource to emulation for training. I used it extensively to get better at the final levels.

I chose to beat Arcade mode with the Aegis fighter, and accomplished my mission in Arcade difficulty with the final result shown below (note that Normal doesn't match the original arcade difficulty). It was a tough but very fulfilling ride, one that helped me lift my grudge against the game. Now let's see how long it will take me to man up towards the sequel!

Friday, May 15, 2020

500 1CCed shmups!


Allow me to interrupt the normal blog schedule to quickly celebrate a long awaited milestone.

It's been a little more than 11 years since the blog started, but I have just completed 500 entries for console shoot'em ups beaten on a single credit.

Entry #500 couldn't be more fitting, for Gradius V is one of the games that opened my eyes to the genre a long time ago.

I'm proud to say that shmupping has played a huge part in my hobbies (and life) ever since. Even though I don't have any plans to slow down any time soon, a new challenge is coming up soon for me. A few months ago I knew baby number two was on its way to the family, and just today we knew it's going to be a boy.

So yeah, baby boy, daddy and little sister are eagerly waiting to play Gradius with you already!

For now let's check the number of console shmups beaten by system:

And by genre:

Top 5 hardest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Top 5 easiest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Now let's get back to the regular blog schedule.
Raiden Fighters just went down, so I'd better get writing a little about it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Gradius V (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami / Treasure
Published by KCET in 2004

Dear readers, I have come full circle. Back in 2005, during a trip to Los Angeles, I decided to bring back home a few second-hand PS2 games, among which was Gradius V. It didn't take long for me to realize there was something special about it. Forget fighting games, racers, whatever was mainstream at the time. For a long while Gradius V was the only game I played, years before I would turn into a shmup case. It blew my mind like few other games did. And you know what's most interesting about this? Believe it or not, I had never played any Gradius game in my life.

So here we are, my finally emerging victorious after having previously gone through the whole series and its main ports. And the feeling of wonderment when reaching each new stage in Gradius V still felt like those good old days. It's been a long time and a long ride since the very first experience I had with Gradius on the NES more than ten years ago, which makes me somewhat proud for this journey and willfully waiting for the day Konami decides to finally bring a sixth chapter to fruition. No, I'm (still) not too old for this shit, as our dear Roger Murtaugh would put it.

After the cruel yet awesome arcade-based Gradius IV, Konami decided to partner with Treasure and bring the franchise to the home market, more specifically the Playstation 2. Taking advantage of the console's capabilities, both companies delivered a truly epic shooter that encompasses everything that made the series such an iconic name within the genre. Gradius V not only expands on the ideas of old, but it's also beautiful to look at and a delight to play, with a marvelous soundtrack that puts to shame most sci-fi movies out there. It's a mandatory experience for all shmup fans and probably the most accomplished of all horizontal shooters I've ever played.

The first and most important gameplay aspect that differentiates this chapter from the previous games is the absence of checkpoints. FINALLY, many people would say. On top of that, there's no moai stage to be found here. That speaks to my senses a great deal, since I was never a fan of moai. Good moai is dead moai!

This is Vic Viper T-301... commencing attack on the enemy
(courtesy of YouTube user kirgeez)

Once you've chosen the desired type of weapon array, Gradius V begins with the speedy departure from a space station as an original Big Core tries to stop you. Powering up follows the tried and true standard of the series, with upgrade capsules appearing from destroying either full enemy waves or orange-colored enemies. Press the dedicated button to activate the highlighted upgrade, it's as simple as that: speed-up, missiles, double/tailgun, laser, option/multiple and shield/force field (there are variations, but these are the most common ones). Shot and missile can be either mapped to the same or to different buttons, with rapid fire functions as well. The occasional gray capsule works as a smart bomb that clears the screen from minor regular foes, but they don't give you any points when dying this way. Speaking of which, the first extend is granted with 300.000 points and further ones at every 500.000 points afterwards.

New to Gradius V is a fourth input that affects the behavior of your options. Type 1 freezes them in place as you move, type 2 allows you to aim your shot direction but doesn't allow you to move, type 3 expands/contracts your option arrangement vertically (as in Thunder Cross) and type 4 makes all options rotate around the ship. Each type of multiple control comes with strengths and weaknesses, but very soon I decided on type 2 since it allows all sorts of stunts when using the laser. Many people refer to it as a "whipping" laser, which makes perfect sense as an alias to the visual spectacle provided by a fully powered ship wreaking havoc everywhere. Weapon edit is unlocked when you complete the game, allowing players to choose from a wide selection of staple and brand-new attacks when composing the weapon array.

Moving forward with the series while being faithful to its original style is something that this chapter excels at. Graphics are beautifully textured with awesome 3D depth, oozing with colors and dynamic transitions. Explosions abound, and well placed voiceover messages enhance the experience of piloting the Vic Viper T-301 spaceship across each one of the eight stages. The number of levels sounds odd considering that Gradius V is a massive undertaking where a full credit often clocks at more than one hour. All stages are of decent length, but the 7th level inside the enemy fortress takes the cake as the longest final level in the series, and also the most nail-biting alongside the final fortress of Gradius III. The reason for the 7th level being the longest and Gradius V still having 8 stages is a neat story twist that leads to a more suitable epilogue than some escape sequences seen in a few previous chapters and spinoffs.

Raising the bar graphically wouldn't be that much of an accomplishment had the game not increased the difficulty in the same measure. The result is a highly addictive, larger-than-life adventure that does away with the punishing nature of Gradius III and Gradius IV but still packs quite a punch in terms of challenge. Gradius titles were never known for their mercy, but they were also very methodical in how players should approach each and every checkpoint. However, with checkpoints out of the way the developers were then free to heighten bullet density to a point where it became feasible to decrease the hitbox of the ship. That brings about several moments where you need to fit into very tight passages and sections that definitely feel bullet hellish in nature. One of the highlights in that regard is the whole meteor level (5th), which requires strong crowd control and lots of nerves during an overwhelming boss confrontation. This particular stage, by the way, serves as a mixture of all moai/crystal motifs seen in previous chapters. Its pure, raw, unmitigated intensity is one of the reasons that made me fall in love with this genre a long time ago.

On the lookout for Blaster Cannon Core

If you miss moai at least you'll be at home with a few other franchise acquaintances that return in great form. As expected, the organic level (cell) screams Salamander all over the place. The enemy base in the following stage is filled with a deadly green mist while the base itself tilts left and right and even scrolls backwards. It's like a bubble stage meets the magma level from Gradius IV, even though no volcano preamble is to be found here as well. What you will encounter are lots of bosses, old and new, either waiting at the end of the levels or lining up in several boss rush formations (stages 2, 6 and 7 have multiple bosses). Boss fights get increasingly tougher, a sign of the finely tuned difficulty slope that makes each new level feels like a clear challenge leap. And let's not forget about rank and the random appearances of the option thief when rank is maxed out. Dying does reset (or reduces considerably) the ongoing rank though.

The only aspect that wasn't fleshed out properly in this game is the scoring system. Once more it's just the straightforward "kill everything" rule, with no variation whatsoever. Each power-up capsule is worth 800 points and hatches can be left in one piece for a while to release more drones, but that's it as far as extra scoring opportunities go. Some people complain about the unskippable cut scene at the start of the second level, but in my opinion it's a harmless short delay when you think about the grand scheme of a full credit.

Besides being an outstanding game in all technical fronts with absolutely no slowdown at all (except for cosmetic explosions on bosses), Gradius V also boasts flawless presentation, with an awesome animated intro and a slew of training options that are unlocked the further you dig into the game. Stage select/practice can be broken down in virtual checkpoints that help deal with huge levels such as the final fortress. When returning to the game after all these years it didn't take long for me to get past my previous nemesis Covered Core MK II, the main boss of stage 6. How foolish of me to think I was close to success though. What comes afterwards soon brought me back to my humble self, making me practice even harder than before to achieve victory.

To wrap things up, all I can say is that I absolutely love Gradius V and recommend it to anyone looking for an amazing shmup experience (co-op play is a blast too, I can certainly vouch for it). In choosing type 2, my basic strategy when playing solo was to upgrade as fast as I could to achieve max power by the time I reached the first boss. I used two speed-ups for the whole game, activating a new one only during the high speed part. I played on Normal difficulty and reached stage 2-1. Further loops add suicide bullets and new attack patterns to key enemies.