Sunday, September 27, 2020

Subterrania (Mega Drive)

Gravity Arena
Checkpoints OFF / ON
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Zyrinx
Published by Zyrinx in 1994

When Gravitar was released by Atari in the arcades a new type of shooter entered the gaming scene. I was different, and it was decidedly very challenging. Due to its unique gameplay, only a few other titles were bold enough to follow in its footsteps, of which Subterrania is definitely one of the most interesting and exciting ones. Released both in Europe and in the US, this outstanding game was unfortunately a commercial failure due to a combo of bad advertising and word of mouth about supposedly hideous controls and impossible difficulty. Suffice it to say neither of these foul gameplay accusations is true in the slightest.

The overall feel of an Amiga video game is no coincidence, after all Subterrania was developed on Commodore Amiga computers for specific use on the Mega Drive. That's probably why it does not share the same lukewarm or disastrous results of both Amiga shmup conversions for Sega's 16-bit console, Battle Squadron and Xenon 2 Megablast. In fact, it's actually one of the best Mega Drive games I have ever played regardless of genre. Players who're not afraid of a challenge and are keen on experiencing something different and compelling with outstanding music and gameplay will feel right at home here.

Infiltrating underground environments to defeat aliens and rescue trapped miners is how Subterrania initially works. You pilot an experimental fighter craft and need to fulfill several missions in order to go from one stage to the next. Prior to the start of every level, briefing instructions are displayed and indicated over a full stage map, then you're dropped in a specific spot where you need to return to once all mission objectives are completed. Controlling the spacecraft is accomplished by using button B for thrust, down to reverse-thrust and left/right to turn. Button C either shoots the weapon or activates the resource selected by using button A.

Warning for shield low

Firing the regular weapon produces a constant stream of shots that behave according to three colors: red (default), green and blue. These colors can be switched or upgraded (take the same color over the current one) by touching the correspondent cycling flasks found in fixed locations. The differences between weapon colors are minimal when they're maxed out at level 3, but in general red offers brute force, green has a mild homing ability and blue adds side shots to the main pattern. Other types of flasks contain items such as extra lives and special weapons/resources that can be either temporary or essential to the completion of the current level (guided missiles, antipressure device, mirror lazer, etc).

Dealing with gravity is what actually turns many players off since it's such an unusual way to propel your ship. That's why getting used to the controls in the first couple of stages is so important in the long run. Subterrania doesn't allow players to strafe, so whenever you need to hit a target, moving or not, it's necessary to devise a proper strategy that involves good positioning, clever use of gravity and the ideal amount of thrust. Getting hit and bumping into obstacles damages the ship, which is indicated by the red coloring of the current life icon. Dying strips away one power level of the main weapon and forces you to depart again from the take-off point. Finally, besides focusing on the mission objectives you also need to worry about the most precious resource of all: fuel.

Managing fuel is essential for survival. The more you thrust the faster you burn fuel, whereas free falling makes fuel level go down more slowly. Even when you're safely landed fuel is also consumed, albeit at a much lower rate. Once the fuel reserve is low a message will appear on screen, prompting you to look for the closest orange refill canister. These are always located on flat surfaces, and the correct way to refuel is to safely land the ship over them. Blue refill canisters, on the other hand, serve to recover the ship's hull/life to its full original status. Watch out for the message that warns you about the shield being low.

While most missions are straightforward in execution, the puzzle element is certainly more important in a couple of them. In stage 3, for example, you need to use/position a series of deflector shields in order to advance. Later on, as stage 7 begins the computer briefing fails and isn't shown anymore, leaving players alone with figuring out what to do to navigate increasingly larger mazes in between rocky underwater formations, all of that at the mercy of much stronger gravity. During this final part of the game there won't be miners to rescue anymore, and the main objective is to find the way out before runing out of resources. Tip: don't forget to dive left as soon as you start the last stage to pick up the item for unlimited fuel.

A blast of absolute subterranean awesomeness on the Mega Drive
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)
Even though Subterrania does strike people as a hard game, it's never outright impossible or unfair. There are indeed a few enemies that can kill you in a single blow with slingshot attacks, and the ship can explode in mere seconds if you get caught inside a dent in a wall and try to desperately flee with the wrong thrust input. Fortunately the game gives you a few alternatives to help out with some of these hazards. If you refrain from shooting, for example, you'll see the "mega" gauge fill up, which allows you to fire a more powerful blast. This attack can kill several enemies at once if used correctly, as well as inflict great damage on larger targets. In some places there are also rail threads to which you can cling to and ride in order to move around and reach tricky areas more easily. 

The good news about the gameplay is that once you get the hang of the controls the game acquires a whole new dimension. Memorization makes conquered levels easier and might even lead to better time bonuses. That factors in nicely in the scoring system, which makes cheap exploits useless because even if you die and replay the level enemies won't respawn at all. If you happen to completely fail an objective (by killing miners, accidentally destroying items or dropping them in wrong places), all you have to do is get back to the mission starting point to reestablish your directives. You'll still be at the mercy of the remaining fuel cells though, so take that in consideration.

With so much to worry about gameplaywise, it's easy to overlook the fact that Subterrania doesn't have many bosses. In fact, you'll only face boss-like enemies in three levels, and only in the final one players need to cope with a real threat. Thankfully you won't be sent back to a checkpoint if you die on the last boss (also look out for the extra gauge that appears below the mega bar and shows Svin's health in his two forms).

Some people will certainly frown upon the lack of continues in the game. I have no qualms about it but understand those who do, but other than that I can't point out any other aspect that might disappoint the fans. However, a detail that does come out as an incorrectly implemented idea is the acid meter that appears in stage 8. At first I thought it should impose some sort of extra strain on the ship's energy, but it actually doesn't. I also ran into a strange bug a couple of times that made me restart one of the later levels with all mission objectives already fulfilled, so all I had to do was head directly to the way out again. 

My 1CC score shown below was achieved in the Normal difficulty. I had great fun remembering things since this wasn't the first time I beat the game. Note: if you can cope with more severe gravity and more demanding fuel/health requirements, Hard difficulty will also grant better stage bonuses for higher completion scores.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Blast Wind (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

Something weird must have happened inside Technosoft's headquartes as the 90s came to an end and the 32-bit generation was beginning to fade. By 1997 the company had somehow failed to keep the momentum since the arcade and home releases of Hyper Duel, and Thunder Force V would still take another year to hit Japanese shelves. Blast Wind came out with little fanfare in a very low print run, surrounded by rumors that it was actually supposed to be released in the arcades before the Sega Saturn. The game made little impact and its rarity soared, soon becoming a cherished prize for players and collectors alike. 

The reason why Blast Wind doesn't share the same appreciation as, say, Hyper Duel, which is equally sought after as a collectible, can certainly be attributed to a few aspects that aren't usual for a game developed by Technosoft. Being short and easy, for example, isn't a nice combination for a full-blown 32-bit title. The game also lacks the graphical edge you'd expect from such a powerful platform. It kinda feels like a 16-bit game at its essence, only polished by the power of superior processing. Many of its graphical assets and sound effects, for instance, are a throwback to Thunder Force IV. And while typical Technosoft and decent in its own right, the soundtrack doesn't make the lasting impression you'd normally expect from such a beloved developer. Besides, the sound balance is off and the music is almost totally engulfed by the sound effects.

On the other hand, Blast Wind does offer more than the basic shooting thrills of old, expanding a little upon the regular Technosoft completion bonuses well known by fans since Thunder Force II put the company's name on the map.

First stage of Blast Wind with the blue ship on an easier setting
(courtesy of YouTube user MAX 300)
A nifty intro shows a little bit of the story about two pilots being sent to battle an alien threat known as Gorn. Two ship variants can be used by choosing pilot/player 1 (Kyo, blue ship) or pilot/player 2 (Forn, orange ship). They both use two types of weapons, the "switch" shot and the homing shot, which by default work with buttons A and B respectively, with button C reserved for bombs (all inputs are fully configurable in the options). Shot types, however, behave differently for each ship/pilot: Kyo fires a wave shot that can crawl over surfaces and an X-shaped homing pattern, whereas Forn fires a laser and an aiming spread vulcan. Playing with Kyo is definitely easier than doing it with Forn, whose weapons feel all around weaker.

Regular upgrade items materialize as power-ups (P), extra bombs (B) and trailing shields (S). Picking up a power-up not only increases your firepower, but also creates a horizontal barrage of energy that gives you momentary invincibility (the accompanying visual effect is quite cool but odd at first sight). Some enemies will also release coins worth 100 points each. These coins – which look very much like the power chips you see in Compile games of the Aleste series – are very important in the long run because for each 50 you collect the next one will fall as a 1UP (be quick to grab it or you'll see it fall away like an ordinary coin). You can also achieve two score-based extends at 400.000 and 2 million points.

Blast Wind's claim to fame appears in the splitting path mechanic implemented by switches that lead to alternate paths containing different enemies and boss forms. All you have to do is touch the switch with the ship to activate it. Some switches release random items instead, but these are clearly identified so that you know which switches to actually trigger.

Path splitting does provide some degree of replay value, but when you start to play for score you'll often be restricted to specific paths in order to get more points and coins. After all, coins are the means to extra lives and each life remaining gives you 100.000 points when the game is beaten. Other than that, everything else about the scoring system is related to preserving resources. End of stage bonuses are given for the amount of bombs you have, while items in excess grant either 3.000 or 5.000 points each. Certain spots can also be shot at to uncover varying rewards of 1.000 or 5.000 points (signalled by $ and stars). Lastly, some bosses can be exploited by targeting destructible parts before going for the main kill.

Push to bypass
If there's any rank in Blast Wind, that might only be noticeable during boss fights and even so it isn't quite clear how it works. Sometimes one of the side turrets of the first boss just takes a lot longer to be destroyed for no apparent reason, but I also saw some odd unexpected behavior on the third boss. Deaths take away one level of firepower, but fortunately the supply of power-ups is so rich that soon you're back to max power again. Shields are great to block some boss attacks, as long as you remember that after taking too much damage they deplete and turn into a regular power-up.

Another feature that adds to the ease of completion here is the absence of harm when touching walls and scenery. That doesn't mean you'll feel no pressure when navigating those quick levels though. I had many annoying and unexpected deaths because I got stuck in a tip of the scenery, for example. Even though the vertizontal orientation feels a little offset by the side HUDs, some bullet patterns still feel cramped and are better off completely avoided instead of dodged with twitch movements, at least when playing with the blue ship. It just feels a little too fast for my liking. This impression changes when playing with the slower orange ship, which is also the better choice for collecting coins because it lacks those small homing missiles that come with the blue ship weapons.

So which ship to choose then? What is more important, more power or better mobility? The funny thing about this is that unless they're told or they pay attention to the attract mode, many players aren't even aware that you get a ship with completely different weapons on the player 2 side.

The Saturn disc includes automatic save and optional tweaks, also allowing all sorts of button customization. My best final result playing on Normal difficulty with pilot Kyo is below (blue ship, player 1). Yes, Blast Wind is relatively easy fun but you'll feel a lot more pressure when trying to no-miss to maximize your high score. I always ended up screwing somewhere and couldn't get it. Maybe next time!

Friday, September 4, 2020

Tatsujin (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Taito in 1992

Once again, the time has come for more fun with Toaplan's classic Tatsujin. My overall impression lately is that it has become more appreciated over the years, either within the works of Toaplan or in the STG community in general. A long time ago the approach I had towards the game changed somewhat, especially after playing the Mega Drive Western Truxton incarnation. The PC Engine version would take a couple of years to come out after the Mega Drive port, equally standing as a valuable conversion that pretty much paralleled all the original features from the arcade, of which difficulty is definitely the most widely talked about by shooting game fans.

Since it came out only in Japan, this version is only referred to as Tatsujin. A quintessential sci-fi shooting adventure that follows in the design footsteps of Kyuukyoku Tiger, the game consists of five long levels where you must battle enemies coming from all sides, flying over asteroid terrains and wide open sections and fighting huge bosses as the end of each area. Your only inputs are shot (button II) and bomb (button I), with all other resources obtained by collecting capsules along the way. It's a perfect embodiment of the shooters of old, in which surviving tough checkpoints is totally dependent on how you're able to power up your ship and use your stock of bombs.

The start of the journey in Tatsujin
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Old Games Database)

Even though Tatsujin isn't endowed with fancy visual assets (such as parallax), the graphics are still colorful, detailed and do a great job in keeping with the tone of the arcade original. Outer space sections are as drab as it gets but the visuals get better when you're flying over terrain. Granted, they sort of lack the grittier edge of the arcade, which is to be expected with the new resolution in the transition to the console format. You can however achieve a pseudo arcadey look by going into the secret options at the start screen: score exactly 7.100 points and soft-reset with SELECT + RUN, then press SELECT + RUN again and set screen to "slim".

In the vastness of outer space you'll come across small carriers that drop items when destroyed. The basic one is the power-up (P), for which you'll need five in order to get an increase in firepower. This means that it takes ten Ps to achieve max power. Choosing the weapon type is done by collecting a color-based capsule: red is the default vulcan, green is a soft straight shot and blue is a visually impressive laser that expands outwards in five deadly streams when maxed out. The item gallery also includes speed-ups (S) and extra bombs (B). The bomb, a well-known trademark of the game, is a skull-shaped round explosion that inflicts massive local damage while melting all on-screen bullets. 

After reaching max power you can stock 4 power-ups before P items stop coming. There's no unlimited stockpiling of power-ups like in the Mega Drive port, but you can still amass as many bombs as possible even though you only see 9 in the bomb counter. Every surplus P, S or weapon item you take is worth an extra 5.000 points, and that's the main scoring device in Tatsujin. Some people are able to max out speed and surf the rest of the game collecting all incoming capsules, but I suck at that and restrict myself to taking only two speed-ups for the sake of safer maneuverability. Recovering from death can be intimidating in certain checkpoints but it's always possible (note that dying too quickly will send you even further back in the level).

Despite the in-your-face bullets and the unfavorable odds of the gameplay, such as enemies coming with absolutely no warning from below, Tatsujin manages to lure players for more credit after credit. This is usually the case with good strict memorizers, and the game is no exception to this rule. Aimed shots are the norm, but every now and then flocks of more powerful enemies that behave like mini-bosses start firing combinations of fixed and aimed patterns. The good news is that no matter how fast and cruel they are, there's often a nice way to deal with them if you know what's coming. Some just won't fire when close to the bottom line, and methods like point blanking and just staying put work wonders.
The power of laser in outer space
Tatsujin is notorious for not having any actual separation between stages except for the change in the music, with no extra bonus whatsoever for a good performance. Since no extra score is given anywhere besides collecting extra capsules, there's obviously no need to refrain from bombing if necessary. A long section with moving turrets in stage 3 can send your bomb stock through the roof, thus providing the necessary inventory you might need to cheap out on the more intricate sections later on. Wach out for beacons that can be destroyed if you're using the appropriate weapon as soon as you reach the ground prior to bosses, which can give you up to two extra lives. Score based extends are awarded at 70.000 points and for every 200.000 points afterwards.

One special observation about the PC Engine version concerns the difficulty curve. For some strange reason it starts out a tad harder than both the arcade and the Mega Drive version. Bullets are slightly faster and lasers are fired at breakneck speeds, requiring stern memorization from the get go if you don't want to use bombs so early in the credit. Bosses are also interesting in that they don't necessarily get harder as the game progresses. That sort of goes in line with the realization that provided you know what's coming and select weapons wisely this port isn't as hard as its widespread fame indicates.

When put side by side with the Mega Drive port, my perception of this version is that it presents a more even difficulty curve despite the initially high aggression levels of the larger foes in the first stages. It doesn't incur in bullet visibility problems as Sega's version does in the final stage.

The high score below was achieved on Normal difficulty (check the trick mentioned above to see/change the difficulty level). I reached the 4th stage in the second loop.