Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Gyrodine (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crux / Human Entertainment
Published by Taito in 1986

We gamers all have fond memories of certain video games that came to become personal favorites in our childhood, and more often that not they're not even the most famous titles of the time. Gyrodine on the NES is such a game for me, one that my small group of friends would always play in our weekend competitive gatherings. At the time we played it by means of the Brazilian unlicensed version released by CCE, and only much later in my gaming life I was able to come back to it with the original Famicom cartridge.

It was also much later that I knew this is actually the port of an arcade game of the same name, and a rather important one since it represents the absolute origins of Toaplan. You can see many aspects that would later appear in Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra, for example. Although seemingly simple and plain on a first glance, Gyrodine is actually quite varied in its minimalistic design, as was the game that served as its main inspiration, Namco's classic Xevious. I prefer Gyrodine myself though.

The choice for a helicopter as the player's avatar fits the gameplay like a glove. Press B to shoot your aerial gunfire, press A to sweep the ground with a machinegun and press A + B to fire a heat-seeking missile that tracks the closest enemy ahead while following the chopper's movement. The action is seamless as you fly over land and ocean shooting down enemy choppers, jets, rockets, missiles, tanks, submarines, ships and turrets in all possible configurations. It's indeed that simple on paper, but the execution quickly escalates into a fierce battle where your anticipation and dodging skills will be severely tested.

Battle of the choppers

Your main shot sort of follows the chopper's movement, and finding the rhythm of how this works and where and when to fire the heat-seeking missiles is the turning point to really start enjoying the game. In general this port is graphically very faithful to the arcade source, even though it shuffles the elements that make up the levels into a relatively different experience. Never mind the lack of in-game music and the meek collection of sound effects, what's most important here is the action and the way it keeps you coming back for more after each failure.

What's particularly neat about this port of Gyrodine is that in challenge terms it's superior to the arcade version. While the original flowed with no interruption in the scrolling whatsoever, there are three points where the Famicom version will halt for you to fight a huge turret-ridden boss while flying enemies swarm on you from all sides. You must either destroy all turrets or stay alive for at least 15 seconds for the game to continue into the next territory. This is the reason why I consider this version to have three stages, even though there's no explicit division between them besides the abovementioned scrolling halt. After the third one the game loops but the difficulty remains unchanged.

It's very easy to dismiss the game as a pretentious Xevious wannabe that's too hard for its own good. Perhaps if the item gallery was less secretive it would have a better shot at pleasing shooter fans. The tiny little men on the ground are easy to understand, they either give you 100 points or act as a screen-clearing smart bomb (the red ones), but all of them can be killed by your own ground fire. On the other hand, many people might play the game for a lifetime without realizing there are speed-ups to be uncovered and collected at several points, which greatly improve your maneuvering capability and make the game far less intimidating (if you manage to not die, of course). In order to find them you need to sweep the ground with the A button in specific areas, spraying your machinegun over a horizontal line because the exact location of the item is always a little randomized.

A light red mermaid grants you 10.000 points just for being uncovered (you don't need to fly over her), while a deep red mermaid gives temporary invincibility (as indicated by the duration of the brief musical cue). The white mermaid is the speed-up, and for the whole time you're flying at a faster speed a different characteristic sound will be heard. The additional catch with both the invincibility and the speed-up is that you need to collect the mermaids, and you need to do it quickly because they disappear quite fast. Other secret items exist in the form of a squid (at least it looks like it) that's worth 5.000 points and a gray moving stain which unlocks a flock of ten red animals that if completely killed is worth 10.000 points.

Justice on the blades of a powerful helicopter
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

As such in games of this nature, dying is frequent but fortunately there's a nice extend routine that starts giving extra lives at 20.000 points and continues with 50.000 points, with subsequent extends registered at every 50.000 points. Besides the bosses, the hardest parts in Gyrodine come when the most dangerous types of enemies overlap. Of course there are still many areas where the game keeps you on your toes all the time, such as the one where you need to fight invisible tanks. The action unfolds with no slowdown whatsoever and also no flicker, which is nice.

My advice whenever there are too many attacks on screen is to focus on the aerial enemies first and only going for ground targets when you've safely cleared most of the flying hazards. And if you're using a turbo controller only activate turbofire on button B: by doing that a single tap on button A will shoot a missile without interrupting the main fire, and both buttons pressed will make ground sweeps and missile launching much more effective.

I feel very happy to have finally conquered the loop in this game. Of course I thought I'd be able to do it again, but unfortunately I had to abandon the credit once the score maxed out at 999.990 points, as seen in the picture below. I had just beaten the second boss by then, so I guess I can consider that this was achieved in stage 2-3.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Thunder Cross (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Hamster in 2007

By 1988 Konami was already a force to be reckoned with in the world of video games. Speaking of shooters only, the Gradius franchise was in full throttle, with notable spin-offs Salamander / Life Force and Parodius also kicking off their own series and carving their names into shmup history. It was then that Thunder Cross came out without much of a splash, almost as an experiment in variation on the classic Gradius formula while its most famous bethren flourished.

That's certainly odd considering that Thunder Cross is actually part of the Gradius canon. Experienced players will easily spot the graphical/aural similarities and the influence it had on Gradius III, for example. The influence stops there though, since Thunder Cross is much tamer and definitely more forviging with its instant respawn mechanic, boasting a low to average difficulty level that’s certainly more approachable than the difficulty of any Gradius game that came before or after it. The Playstation 2 port is the authentic Japanese version, not the overseas one where the ship starts out with two options and has bombs called lil' baby (!).   

This port is also the second-to-last release (vol. 18) in the Oretachi Game Center collection. I guess by the time the series was coming to an end things weren't that good anymore in the quality department, that's why Thunder Cross on the PS2 is widely panned for its emulation job and the fact that a few well-known bugs when playing the game in MAME are also present (keep reading). The package does come with the usual extras from the Hamster series, such as the folder with arcade board info and the mini-discs with the soundtrack and videos including a demonstration credit of the game.

Getting to know Thunder Cross on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user ZetaKong)

In order to leave the pea shooter you start with behind, players need to destroy all orange-colored minions in a particular wave or the standalone drones found throughout the game. The released icon will either be a speed-up (S), an option (O) or a weapon, which cycles between V (vulcan), B (boomerang) and T (a 2-way tail gun laser). Stick to the same one to increase its firepower by a small margin. Once you have acquired four options the weapon icon will also start cycling between other alternatives that include L (laser), F (fire) and N (napalm). These new weapons have a temporary effect indicated by a small gauge that appears at the bottom of the screen.

An important detail about Thunder Cross on the PS2 is that a turbo controller is definitely needed since the game lacks an autofire function. Besides the firing button, a secondary input is used to control option behavior: hold it to either contract or expand them in a vertical line above and below the ship. It's a simple resource that proves to be very strategic in several parts of the game. Cruising levels while destroying everything with four options is quite satisfying, as long as you don't die. Deaths strip the ship away of everything you've collected, and can be especially cruel during a boss fight because you're not only severely underpowered but also at the mercy of the sluggish default speed.

For a rather simplistic arcade shooter, Thunder Cross does show a decent level of variety. Simple yet effective parallax layers abound from start to finish, and pretty much all horizontal shooter staples appear. Cave, clouds/skyscraper, fortress and even a high-speed stage are included in the package, which also brings a large battleship level halfway into the credit. Colors are used to great effect and the general flow of the game is that of a relaxed adventure once you figure out the best strategies to deal with the incoming hazards. My favorite weapon is B, but you definitely need to switch to T during the final level.

No mercy for the 2nd boss

In the scoring front the game is also very straightforward. Every surplus item is worth 1.000 points, and some bosses can be exploited for a few projectile peanuts. By and large the best way to score higher is keep yourself powered and pummel everything that shoots and moves. There's a secret octopus-like creature that's worth 10.000 points if you can uncover and destroy it. I have the suspicion it might be related to the ? power-up that doesn't do anything but might sometimes appear as a 1UP. Score-based extends are given with 30.000 points and then for every 200.000 points achieved afterwards.

The bad news about this port is that it inherits the same random bugs experienced when emulating the game in MAME. The main problem is that it might freeze all of a sudden during the part where the mothership is about to leave the screen after you beat a boss. I heard it might happen anywhere, in any stage, but more often than not I was a victim in stages 4 to 6, both in the first and the second loops. Another bug that's more rare but happened to me in the final stage was the graphics breaking up, which completely crashed the level by creating obstacles I couldn't circumvent.

Click for the option menus translation for Thunder Cross on the PS2
I reached stage 2-7 in the high score below, playing on Normal difficulty. I did try to improve it for a while but the game kept freezing on me, so I gave up. The final assessment: Thunder Cross is definitely cool and fun (on top of having a badass soundtrack), but the version for the Playstation 2 is probably one of the worst porting jobs I have ever seen in any video game. As for the sequel Thunder Cross II, it still remains unported as of today.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Space Fantasy Zone (PC Engine CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NEC Avenue in 1991
Published by ? in ?

As two of the most famous franchises created by Sega, Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier certainly had their glory days, be it in the arcades or in console formats. There were always hints of both of them being part of the same universe, but Sega never really dared to mesh their concepts and characters in a single title. However, early in the 90s Nec Avenue dared to develop a bastard crossover in the form of Space Fantasy Zone, which would eventually be nixed by Sega on the account of publishing rights and concerns regarding the quality standards of the game.

Even though the official release of Space Fantasy Zone was cancelled, years later the ROM was found online for everybody to try it. It was complete and perfectly playable, yet not properly polished the way a final product should since it presents a few unbalanced traits in the gameplay and has little music variety (the same song is used in all levels) as well as a few audio glitches. Several fan-made physical releases started appearing afterwards, using the art taken from video game magazine previews of the era. I got my copy in 2010, and for what it's worth it's a decently-made bootleg that fits the collection nicely.

Pocarius stage from a different point of view

In simple terms, this game mirrors the original Fantasy Zone in a rail shooting fashion, with details from Space Harrier thrown in and music that borrows from both games. You see Opa-Opa from behind and most enemies and bosses are taken from Fantasy Zone, whereas obstacles and a few other creatures are inherited from Space Harrier. The first major change in the gameplay is that there are no coins to collect anymore, so all you need to worry about is blasting everything to oblivion as you move forward against incoming enemy waves and pillars. The second major change in Space Fantasy Zone is that you now have a life bar instead of regular lives. 

Even though there’s no need to collect coins anymore, players do have the chance to acquire upgrades in the Weaponald’s shop (!) that appears in between levels. The sympathetic lady offers players all sorts of items in different categories in exchange of some of their score. Speed-ups, power-ups, life recovery/extension items and special weapons comprise the bulk of what you can purchase there. All the accompanying text is in Japanese, but the icons should give you an idea of what to expect.

Autofire is implemented by default, and you even get the same shot bending effect from Space Harrier (where shots will automatically hit enemies that are close enough to the bullet’s firing direction). Since button II is used to shoot, firing the extra weaponry you get from the shop is done with button I. All extra weapons purchased are stacked for use one after the other, as seen in the indicator on the top right corner of the screen.

Just like in the game that is its main inspiration, the use of colors in Space Fantasy Zone is nothing short of excellent. The brief intro showing Opa-Opa departing for battle is a nice preamble for an experience that’s visually very charming. However, even though it doesn’t do anything wrong the gameplay does suffer from the poor frame rate in later stages. Things start scrolling by too fast, making dodges even trickier than they normally are. The design sort of deteriorates towards the end, and a clear sign of that is the lack of the traditional boss rush in the 8th level. You get a generic boss and then proceed to the final stage to fight the very last (and kinda lame) enemy. 

Three levels of Space Fantasy Zone
(courtesy of YouTube user Fukuten / ふくてん)

Besides getting used to the increasing scrolling speed you also need to cope with specific attacks such as those from missile projectiles, which seem to harm you regardless of their perceived distance. Getting hit over and over often ends up in disastrous results in any level, forcing you to deplete all your score in health recovery items after the boss is defeated. Memorization and continuous practice helps change that, as well as being wise about using your hard earned points in the shop. After a while I figured it was a lot better to just purchase the strongest power-up (level 4) instead of getting the intermediate ones. It makes it easier to kill enemies faster, including bosses. That’s great for scoring because the remaining time whenever you destroy a boss is cashed in as bonus points.

The only other scoring technique in Space Fantasy Zone – besides not taking any hits, of course – is killing complete enemy waves for extra points. Beware of ground obstacles when going for full wave bonuses, since they make you trip and leave you at the mercy of enemies for a few seconds. Despite the somewhat uneven and to a certain extent unfair challenge, the shop mechanic allows players to adopt all kinds of strategies, such as spending all your score in extra additional health and special weapons so that you can limp your way towards the end.

Space Fantasy Zone does come off as an interesting oddity for fans of the main franchise. It's worth a try, at least. Unfortunately my CD has a problem and always freezes once the screen fades after the last boss, so I couldn't see the ending in any of the clears I got in the Normal difficulty (the high score below was taken from pausing the game as soon as the final bonus registered after the boss kill). Note: perhaps as a leftover from debug resources, the SELECT button skips levels entirely; it's certainly useful to practice later stages if you feel like doing it.