Friday, July 24, 2020

Atomic Robo-Kid Special (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
25 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by UPL
Published by UPL in 1989

Very few arcade games can actually live up to the being called unique, and Atomic Robo-Kid is undoubtedly one of them. While the game didn't fare well critically or comercially, it did make a few appearances as ports in the console market. The PC Engine Japanese version, called Atomic Robo-Kid Special, is more of a rearranged game than a proper conversion since it changes many of the original gameplay elements. Even though they're not substantial, some of these changes actually make the game more friendly and less dire, on top of providing a slightly different experience from the arcade or the Mega Drive port released at around the same time.

The central character in Atomic Robo-Kid Special is this chubby little robot that looks like a trash can with piercing red eyes and a big nose. He's able to walk and fly wherever he pleases, battling all sorts of weird creatures across 25 stages, or "acts" as the game puts it. No story is given this time around, so all you have to do is dive directly into the action, pushing your way through straight corridors and maze-like environments with perils at every corner. In every 5th level you must defeat a large boss inside a closed chamber, and prior to that also face a similar enemy robot in face-to-face combat.

While the graphics have faithful textures when compared with the arcade version and come off as extremely colorful, parallax is minimal and barely visible. A few new enemies and new behaviors for existing enemies were added to the gameplay. Apparently there are no splitting paths anymore, and in certain levels you're bound to find secret passages through walls. In some cases it's mandatory to go through these passages in order to advance. 

Act 1
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Shooting is done with button II, while button I is used to switch weapon types. In order to extend and upgrade your weapon arsenal you must collect the appropriate capsules, which appear either floating at specific places or by destroying insect-like carriers. Hit the capsules to change their type/color before picking them up. Power-ups come as F (fission gun), 3 (3-way shot), M (directional exploding missile) and 5 (5-way straight shot with short reach). A golden capsule gives you a speed-up and successive blue capsules eventually add a 1-hit shield to the robot (take four of them to acquire one shield). Extra lives are hidden in the scenery and need to be shot at to appear in the form of a little white robot that flies to the right. White flocs that look like it add just a few more points to the score.

Note that trying to switch weapons when you're on ground level will make Robo-Kid jump instead, which means it can only be done when you're airborne. Moving about changes his firing orientation, but it's possible to lock and make him shoot in a single direction for the fission gun, the 3-way and the 5-way: all you have to do is hold the weapon switch button. Even though this sounds inconvenient since you need to plan your weapon switching in advance, in time it becomes more manageable.

So far the description of the gameplay is roughly the same as the arcade game or the Mega Drive port. The main difference in Atomic Robo-Kid Special is the life bar that allows you to take multiple hits before dying. Refilling this life bar is accomplished by taking the "life up" orbs that appear whenever you destroy mid-sized enemies and also during/after the duels against the small robots. Moreover, for each main boss you defeat a "life up / level up" orb also serves to expand the life bar. Just remember to get it before the screen fades to black.

Another aspect that's exclusive to this port is the fact that you can power up your weapons five times by taking successive capsules. The AP number indicates the level for the weapon that's currently selected (AP6 equals max power). However, cycling capsules more than five times will destroy them so take that into consideration when trying to upgrade. The most important weapons are definitely the 5-way and the missile, the first one for crowd control and the second one because it blocks bullets when exploding. The missile is, in fact, devastating against some enemies (try it on the third boss and see what happens). Unfortunately in this version the fission gun lost its ability to pierce through bosses, which makes it practically useless.

The super elephant!

If you see the merchant robot you can go to him and exchange one of your extra lives for whatever upgrades he's got in his stash. Deaths can be extremely punishing later on due to the excruciatingly slow default speed of Robo-Kid (which can make some boss fights nigh impossible), that's why it might be advantageous to use the merchant. Deaths also strip you off the weapon you're currenty carrying, so try not to die when using the missile or the 5-way. Lastly, touching bosses is lethal and can pretty much drain your life bar to a near-death condition.

Since Atomic Robo-Kid Special ditches the timer that required players to not procrastinate, there's absolutely no point in trying to score higher in this version. After all, you can go back and forth killing everything forever if you wish. In certain areas that's a litle bit risky though because you can be dangerously engulfed by many enemy clusters that might quickly drain your health.

If I had to choose one 16-bit port as the best option, I'd pick Atomic Robo-Kid Special. Autofire is implemented from the get go and the lenient life mechanic suits the game better as a whole, even though it packs a slightly tougher challenge on bosses and robot duels than what's seen in the Mega drive version, which on the other hand is certainly harder throughout the game itself. In any case I guess both ports are worth trying if for whatever reason you're into any of them.

There's no high score buffer or table anywhere, so you need to pause right after the last boss goes down if you want to take note of your finishing score. And here's the 1CC result I got, with no milking whatsoever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Image Fight (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1990

One of the many ports from the arcade game, Image Fight reached the PC Engine just a couple of years after the original came out. Just like most good ports of that era, it managed the tone down the raw difficulty of the arcade while keeping everything intact as far as gameplay goes. Often regarded as a vertical sibling to Irem's own horizontal classic R-TypeImage Fight shares much of its ambience, sound effects and graphical style, as well as the addictive old school lure that keeps you coming back for more no matter how difficult the game gets.

The story behind Image Fight is that you're supposed to prepare your combat skills across five stages inside a holographic simulator, only then proceeding to depart for the "real fight" against the alien menace in the game's three final levels. Graphics are crisp and colorful, the music suits the alien environments well and the sound effects indeed make you feel as if you're playing a vertically oriented R-Type. The player's performance is evaluated during the combat simulations, and in order to proceed to the actual mission you need to get at least a 90% average kill ratio at the end of stage 5. Failing to do so will make you play a penalty area before advancing, thus adding an extra stage to the journey.

The problem with the penalty area is that it's excruciatingly harder than anything else in the game, to the point it's practically not worth to play unless you're fierce on proving something or shooting for the highest score possible. Exploiting checkpoints is the normal device for scoring in Image Fight, which in this version is acceptable since you don't get more than two score-based extends throughout the credit. The good news in that on the PC Engine you have to perform really badly to not get the 90% destruction rate, so you definitely need to strive to access the penalty area.

Simulated combat at its finest

In order to make the most out of the two basic inputs (button II shoots and button I switches back and forth across four speed settings), the player needs to destroy item carriers and collect two types of power-ups. The first one is a colored orb that cycles between blue and red and generates a pod that floats around the ship. The blue pod fires straight ahead, whereas the red pod fires in the opposite direction of your movement. It's possible to acquire three pods: the first one appears on the left, the second one on the right and the third one on the ship's rear. Once you get three pods the next one will determine the orientation of all pods, so they will either all be blue or red.

The second type of power-up is a frontal attachment that gives you several different options for extra firepower such as spread patterns, lasers, side shots, missiles, etc. These attachments have a particular behavior though, in that they are destroyed when hit and can only be replaced for a new one if you get rid of the attachment you're carrying.

Cruising through the open areas or the cramped corridors of Image Fight requires solid memorization and at least a little strategy when it comes down to power-up management. There are two checkpoints per level, and it's perfectly possible to recover in all of them no matter how hard they are. Wide open spaces get considerably claustrophobic later on, and since the sprites are slightly zoomed in and bigger in this port there's a constant feeling that you're piloting a ship with massive hitbox. I never felt that the game is unfair with hit detection though, and just like in the original arcade game you can take advantage of very strict positioning strategies to dispatch certain enemies. Just don't rely on the same approaches you might have used in the arcade version, they won't always work here.

Image projector OK!
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

The importance of details in the gameplay can even be measured by how useful a few other resources are. The act of switching speeds, for instance, creates a blue flare of energy behind the ship that can be used to damage enemies. There's at least one moment in the game where I switch speeds as an offense strategy. Aggressive point blanking is also very useful if you're familiar with the gaps in the firing pattern of your enemies, especially during the last couple of stages.

Unlike most shooters developed by Irem, Image Fight on the PC Engine does not loop. It also doesn't show your life stock while you play, only when you die. Going by a characteristic sound cue, my guess is that the score-based extra lives are granted with 50.000 and 250.000 points. Besides playing with the OF-1 Daedalus default ship, it's also possible to pilot Mr. Heli (from the game Mr. Heli) with the following simple procedure: press SELECT on the title screen to enter the sound test, highlight "song C" and press down, select and buttons I and II together, then put the cursor over "Mr. Heli" and press button I and RUN. In order to enjoy the game in a faux arcade mode (cramped vertical resolution with borders on the sides), you need to perform a soft reset (START + SELECT) and then immediately hold button I.

The choice of difficulty (or "class" as the game calls it) is made when you start the credit, with Leader class being considered as the Normal difficulty. Then you can choose to activate auto shot / autofire if you wish. That's how I played this version of Image Fight (Leader class + autofire). It was quite a solid, entertaining ride, and the best news as far as the PC Engine goes is that it was also home for the CD sequel Image Fight II - Operation Deepstriker.

Note: remember to pause as soon as the final boss goes down, or else you won't be able to take a record of your 1CC score.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Microcosm (Sega CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1993

Ever since I watched Innerspace and Fantastic Voyage I had wondered about a video game based on the idea presented in these films. We always see vehicles and spacecrafts flying above ground or sent to outer space, but what if they would instead travel into the inside of living creatures? Granted, games like Abadox, X-Multiply and Wings of Wor were partially or fully designed around this premise, but weren't exactly what I had in mind. Microcosm, on the other hand, owes a lot to the abovementioned films, and could actually pass as a video game adaptation had the story been given a distinct treatment.

Originally created for the FM Towns computer system and later ported to other platforms, Microcosm is a very early take on full motion video used as backgrounds for a shooting game. As one of the most important pioneers of this style, Psygnosis did quite a bit of experimentation when developing it. One of the results is that Microcosm plays with a different point of view across the systems it came out for. The Sega CD version, for instance, is a pure third-person rail shooter, whereas the FM Towns original adopts a first-person cockpit perspective.

Meet first boss Torus

Since FMV was all the rage back then a fully animated introduction was almost an obligation for lots of CD-based video games, and Microcosm is no exception. Of special note is the fact that the developer purposedly kept the color palette at an even lower limit than the Sega CD is capable to deliver, which lends a grainier and slightly surreal aspect to the animation. Sending a miniaturized vessel into the body of a living person is of course the main part of the story, which begins at the cephalic vein and ends at the brain. Even though there seems to be no stage separation in the game, there are actually five areas to play through.

The entry into different areas is signalled by a change in the vessel you're piloting. All of them use the same inputs though, with A for shot, B for weapon switch and C for special attack, which can be either a smart bomb (stages 1, 3 and 5) or a brief invincibility period, here named as "sonic shield" (stages 2 and 4). Odd levels unfold as exploration missions with a boss waiting at the end of the organ, followed by a brief portal section that leads you into the next areas (except for level 5, which has two tunnel stretches with two bosses). Even levels, on the other hand, consist of high speed pursuits after escaping enemy capsules. The bad news is that if you fail to destroy them in time the credit is immediately lost, no matter how many lives you have left. In this particular case it's best to take damage, die and play it again from the start than to see the game end all of a sudden.

Microcosm has no continues, so getting a game over like that says a lot about how weirdly the game behaves when it comes down to lives and such. Another strange feature is that you're not able to pause at all during the gameplay itself. You can only pause when some of the intermediary screens between levels are being displayed. A cryptic password made of moving symbols is shown when you lose all your lives so that you can access later levels directly from the start screen. 

I believe the lack of a pause function and the sudden loss of all lives aren't much of a hassle, what's more aggravating is the flimsy hit detection and how it slowly undermines the experience proposed by the game. Sometimes it just takes more than the usual share of shots for enemies to die, as opposed to how easy it is to see your energy depleted by confusing incoming bullets. A full energy recovery is possible by taking the ship-like item, but just like all other pick-ups you need to destroy the enemy that's carrying it first. The item gallery also includes double shot (2), triple shot (3), laser (L), missile (M), orbiter (O) and smart bomb / invincibility (SB). They are all limited, the only unlimited weapon in the arsenal is the default single shot. Well, for all it's worth it's actually the most efficient weapon in the game.

Complete intro for Microcosm on the Sega CD
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaCDUniverse)

Another way to fully recover your energy gauge is by advancing to the next stage. There are no extends of any kind, no matter what the instruction manual of the Sega CD says (by the way, much of the information in there cannot be trusted at all). Note that despite the cheap hits everywhere, in Microcosm you receive absolutely no damage when touching walls. This of course can be exploited whenever you're low on energy and need to play safe. There's a vertical health meter for all bosses and the capsules during the pursuit stages on the left side of the screen. Hint: try to get to the bosses with smart bombs in stock, then trigger them to take away large chunks of their health.

Padding Microcosm with lots of cut scenes makes it seem longer than it actually is, but most unplayable parts can be duly skipped if you want to. The few ones that can't are quite short, and just like the nice atmospheric soundtrack they contribute positively to the cinematic feel of the game. Unfortunately the lousy gameplay does take its toll in the overall appreciation, yet Microcosm on the Sega CD is still more engaging than the versions that use a cockpit perspective such as those released for the PC and the FM Towns (in technical terms it's of course not on par with the 3DO port, which is also a true rail shooter where you see the craft from the outside and actually get to dodge stuff). Psygnosis improved their approach on the spiritual sequel Novastorm / Scavenger 4, a game that shows refinement in pretty much all aspects that matter.

In order to get the picture below I had to film the end of my credit. Once the last boss goes down the final score appears for less than a second only! Then you're treated with the ending animation and sent back to the start screen.