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.