Thursday, October 21, 2021

Aero Blasters (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Inter State / Kaneko
Published by Hudson Soft in 1990

Trouble Specialty Aero Blasters. This is written in minor characters inside the emblem in the cover of Aero Blasters for the PC Engine. It gives an interesting idea when put in context with the cover art and the game's story, which involves starships in a mission to destroy a mysterious and evil mechanical fortress that's orbiting Earth. And boy, this really means trouble! Just like in many other cases in the shmup genre, what we have here is the quintessential idea of fighting against the odds in a larger-than-life, almost suicidal undertaking. You are the pilot, you are the hero and the future of the planet depends on the success of your mission.

Originally released for the arcades, Aero Blasters (also known as Air Buster) was ported for the PC Engine almost at the same time the Mega Drive version came out. Both are frequently compared to each other, so I'll drop my impressions right away: the Mega Drive port is the closest to the arcade original, with better and more detailed graphics; the PC Engine version has slightly better music and modifies or simplifies a few sections of the game, but it's nothing substantial or disfiguring. Both ports are extremely challenging and rank quite high in the 16-bit difficulty scale, but the PC Engine is downright cruel during the last couple of levels.

One of the most glaring aspects of Aero Blasters is its exquisite use of color. The palette is vibrant and lively, applied to levels that are very distinct from each other. Every stage feels unique, with nice parallax effects and a specific pace dictated by the scrolling direction and/or speed, as well as a diverse enemy gallery. Props to Kaneko, which was never a development powerhouse but was clever enough to infuse the game with such flair. One can still spot influences from other shooters though, such Namco's Ordyne (cloudy and colorful skies) and Konami's Gradius (the spawning orbs in stages 3 and 4).

Out of gravity amidst outer space debris

Button II shoots and button I is used to unleash a "flash" attack that melts regular projectiles and weak enemies. This attack is performed by holding down the button until to fill up the charge gauge, upon which the ship will move a little slower until you let go of the button and trigger the attack. Don't make the mistake of taking the flash attack for granted, it's actually one of the most useful resources you can have in several parts of the game.

The story progression sees you departing to defend a city that gets oblitared by the time you reach the boss, then you must blaze through a series of maze-like corridors before scrambling towards the stratosphere amidst the clouds. Once in outer space the ship's movement is severely affected by the absence of gravity during two stages (every press of the d-pad sends you flying a little farther than expected). Gravity returns when you enter the alien fortress, but the final stage itself becomes the enemy when walls start moving as the screen relentlessly scrolls up and down.

Every once in a while a large yellow balloon will appear from the right. Shoot and watch as it explodes and releases several items, but stay alert to grab the one(s) you want because they fall away rather quickly. The most important one is P (power-up), which upgrades the ship's main shot. All others are interchangeable and take over the current auxiliary function when collected: S (satellite options), red M (missiles), green M (homing missiles), R (2-way rear shot), 6 (6-way shot) and H (rotating shot). There's also B, which stands for bumper and provides a minor degree of protection against side collisions. It only shows up close to walls in the second level.

If you're aiming for the 1CC achievement Aero Blasters can be considered one of the most demanding shmups of the 16-bit era with only three lives, no extends of any kind, deceiving enemy behavior and a slew of random dangers everywhere (not to say traps). The first couple of levels mislead you into thinking this might just be the next triumph of the weekend, but then the game throws all kinds of walls at you without an ounce of slowdown whatsoever. The major ambush in the station approach of the 4th level is a prime example of what's to come, as well as the bullet sprays from the mid-boss in stage 5. Handling and dodging these parts would be enough of a challenge in a regular shooter, but the extra difficulty brought about by the "lack of gravity" makes them a real test of strategy and reflex.

Seaside Front
(courtesy of YouTube user The Tenth Art)
By strategy I mean sticking to certain auxiliary weapons at specific points in the game. Despite its apparent weakness, for example, the 6-way shot is actually the best aid you can get from level 3 onwards, at least until you reach the stage 5 boss. Missiles are a nice choice for stage 2, and the rear shot really shines throughout the death circus in stage 6. The only weapon I couldn't find use for was the revolving shot (H). And then you have the flash attack, which is absolutely essential to increase your survival chances against the final boss and its antechamber.

Other details are more elusive, such as the opportunities bosses give you to milk a few more points from them (never mind the fact that the score display disappears during boss fights), or the fact that a medium-powered shot has better efficiency than a full-powered shot in the beginning of the game. Aero Blasters keeps players on their toes all the time, but is nice enough to include brief moments of peace for us to take a deep breath and move on to the next enemy wave. My favorite such moment is when you reach the highest possible altitude and the music changes in synch with the action as the outer space caterpillar mid-boss comes chasing you from below. The tune is upbeat and groovy, the enemy is mortal and the stakes are just about to get high. It's no coincidence you're halfway the journey towards victory.
Truth be told, just like its Mega Drive counterpart this port of Aero Blasters can be fun and infuriating at the same time. The PC Engine version however is a tad harder and certainly requires a little more patience to be conquered. There's no way around the fact that players need a deep knowledge of the game and of all factors that might disrupt a well-established plan towards the 1CC, as is the case with all shmups that demand a very strict approach.
Once beaten, the game loops and starts again with the same initial three lives, only with more bullets and enemies that suddenly become indestructible. The 1CC result below was achieved when I reached stage 2-3 on the player 1 side. Solo pilots can still choose the second craft if they want to, but there are no noticeable differences between them besides their color (player 1 is red, player 2 is yellow). Perhaps facing the game with a friend in co-op play makes it less daunting, I wonder? There's a secret code for the selection of two extra difficulties, but it's so flimsy and difficult to pull off I didn't even consider trying them out.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sonic Wings Special (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Mediaquest in 1996

For various reasons, many video game development houses quit their activities after years of successful operation during the 90s. Video System was no exception to this closure wave, but before finishing their business they delivered a final game for what certainly was the company's highlight series: Sonic Wings Special. Direct follow-up to Sonic Wings 3 / Aero Fighters 3, it was developed and released for the main 32-bit consoles with an arcade counterpart named Sonic Wings Limited. I couldn't find precise info on which version came out first, but suffice it to say that even though they're visually similar Special and Limited have fundamental differences that completely set them apart gameplaywise.

The strongest distinction about this game is that it's actually a remix of Sonic Wings, Sonic Wings 2 and Sonic Wings 3. Aspects of all previous chapters are represented in levels, enemies, available pilots and firing patterns, which means that shmuppers with previous knowledge of the series will definitely feel at home when playing Sonic Wings Special. The ensemble brings back well-known faces such as the Japanese duo of Hien and Mao Mao, as well as the all-American pilot Keaton, Swedish viking Kowful and Whity/Spanky, the most intelligent dolphin pilot of all times.

So brace yourself for the final entry of the saga, complete with a TATE mode that brings the game closer to the roots of the franchise. Mind you, even though you can still play it on a regularly oriented TV, the use of a vertical monitor definitely provides the best experience you can get in Sonic Wings Special. The game is just as fun as the previous entries, maybe even more due to the amount of characters available and the more balanced gameplay.

Opening movie and first stage with Mao Mao
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

The choice of planes and pilots is still associated with countries (or organizations in the case of PKF, which stands for UN PeaceKeeping Forces). Two characters are available for each nationality/agency, and each one has his/her own features regarding plane type, speed, firepower and bomb stock capabilities. Overall the game tries to offer some sort of equivalence across the character roster, in that slower planes will have more powerful weapons and vice-versa. The efficiency and the amount of bombs you can carry also vary between planes, often representing the deciding factor when you're trying to select the character that suits your sensibilities the most.

Inputs haven't changed from previous games. By default button A is shot, button B is bomb, button C is rapid fire and button R hides/shows the score display, all inputs fully configurable as you wish in the options. Items available consist of P (power-up), B (extra bomb) and F (full power-up, appears only once prior to the final boss). The number of necessary Ps to max out the firepower isn't the same for all planes, and once maxed out all of them will degrade to a lower power level after a while if you don't get another P. Note that some planes also have charge attacks when at least one power-up has already been taken, so don't forget to try this when testing out the characters.

Sonic Wings Special preserves the splitting path mechanic introduced in Sonic Wings 3 while still randomizing some of them. Once the first stage in Tokyo is beaten three out of four random levels must be played (Mato Grosso, Paris, New York and "Dark Forest"), then you go through stage 5 in the Syrian desert. In stages 6 and 8 you must choose between two paths that also define the following levels (7 and 9), then proceed to the tenth and final level. The three randomized stages are easier the earlier they appear in the game, with the third one being the hardest. After that the difficulty remains somewhat the same, but you still have to consider a very noticeable rank mechanic that makes the game harder the more powered up you are and the longer you survive.

Every enemy and destructible bullet or boss part gives you points, so performing a wee bit of milking whenever possible is of course good for scoring higher. The biggest chunk of points however comes from collecting capsules in excess (2.000 for power-ups and 10.000 points for bombs), as well as picking up the currency medals released by destroying ground targets. When taken at the very top of the screen they're worth 10.000 points each, quickly decreasing their value to 200 points if collected from the middle of the screen or lower. Going for 10K medals is quite risky though, that's why it's so convenient to get the Dark Forest or Mato Grosso as second or third levels. As for extra lives, there's only one single extend granted after you score 50.000 points.

The skies above Paris were never this dangerous

I really like the difficulty progression in Sonic Wings Special compared to the previous games. It's not ridiculously hard as Sonic Wings 2, not as indulgent as Sonic Wings 3 and certainly not as cruel and in-your-face tough as the similar output from stray company Psikyo (namely the Strikers 1945 series). Sure, the first stage might soon put you to sleep, but everything after presents a gradual difficulty slope that never feels overwhelming even at high rank. Choosing a crappy pilot makes everything a tad harder, but the game spices things up a little by adding secret planes that are only available after you complete it with the default ones (continuing is allowed, just note that in the final stages you need to restart the level when doing so). 

When a secret plane is unlocked a medal will appear over the character in the selection screen, prompting you to pick the desired plane once the pilot is chosen. If you manage to get all secret planes two new teams will be unlocked: the NATO team (also with unlockable secret planes) and two secret characters accessible by pressing UP from the USA team or DOWN from the NATO team (no extra planes for them). That means the game offers a whopping 26 different characters to play with, cumbersome unlocking criteria notwithstanding.

Another aspect about secret planes is that the game throws a completely different set of stages for them. Considering that Sonic Wings Special does not loop, it's as if the absent second loop levels were reserved especially for the unlockable planes, so be aware that you'll be facing a much harder game if you decide to play with one of them. Finally, a data save function can be used only once per credit when the pilot image appears between levels: press L + R and START to save, then return to this saving point from a fresh new entry in the start screen. The Sega Saturn edition also comes with an extra mini-disc with three songs dedicated to Mao Mao.

My pilot of choice for the 1CC on Normal difficulty was Kohful the viking and his default plane the AJ-37 Viggen. As for the splitting paths, I chose Panama in stage 5 and Mexico in stage 7. Other characters I enjoyed playing with were Volk and Keaton. Unfortunately good old ninja Hien was botched by too much spread in his daggers and an annoying effect that makes them stick to larger enemies before exploding, causing much visual confusion at least for me. Maybe I'll try to use a secret character when I get the chance to play the Playstation version, we shall see!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Quattro Arcade [F-16 Renegade] (NES)

Vertical / Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
20 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Codemasters
Published by Camerica in 1992

I've never had much contact with the titles released by Camerica for the NES. The company has a special history with the platform because it only published unlicensed games developed by Codemasters, which is of course known for many other video game related endeavors such as the Game Genie. I now wonder if I should've started my journey through Codemasters shmups with a different game since F-16 Renegade is a lot like Mig-29 - Soviet Fighter, which was released at least a couple of years earlier and also seems to be the better choice from both.

Anyway, F-16 Renegade is one of the four games included in the Quattro Arcade compilation, the others being one racer and two platformers. It's a uniform mix of vertical and rail shooting stages where the main character is a young pilot fighting to defeat his crazy professor, who has hacked into the US Air Force's computers and programmed all of the jets to fly off and start World War III. Yes, the story is ambitious and told in fine details in the instruction manual, in what's clearly a very nice effort for an unlicensed title. Unfortunately the same compliment can't be made about the game itself.

Trying out F-16 Renegade for the first time
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Once F-16 Renegade is selected from the initial menu and a credit is started you can't help but feel something's really off. First of all, that music you hear in the attract mode is gone, and all that's left to accompany the pilot in battle during the whole game are sound effects. Then you realize you have to cope with inertia, which makes moving and dodging a real pain until you get used to it. And once you start to try out the inputs (A for shot, B for bomb) it's impossible not to get annoyed by how unresponsive they are. Waiting until the enemy is ahead of you to shoot can be fatal, so just hold that button for whatever rate of fire you can get. And yes, bombing can be equally unresponsive.

Stage symmetry is guaranteed from beginning to end, meaning that odd-numbered levels are vertical and even-numbered levels unfold in rail shooting fashion, complete with a brief take-off animation that poorly emulates After Burner. The general approach to each type of level is of course quite different from each other, but the upgrade items appear in both. Besides P for power-up you'll also come across S for (smart) bomb and L for extra life. It takes five Ps to achieve maximum power, and both bomb and life stocks extend beyond the nine you're able to see if you manage to collect too many of them.

Due to the stage count and the rather repetitive nature of the game, F-16 Renegade certainly feels like a marathon. Graphics are quite simple throughout with drab colors and not so much variation in backgrounds, and the gallery of sound effects clearly tries to compensate for the lack of music. Everything comes together in an underwhelming and mostly forgettable experience, but at least the game presents a fairly steady progression for firepower upgrades and overall difficulty. This is sort of mirrored by stage names that categorize your performance from "rookie" in the first stage to "untouchable" in the final missions.

A natural evolution to River Raid, perhaps?

Each power-up improves the jet's offensive capability by a good amount either by providing more spread or more immediate power, and every time you die only one power level is lost. The game increases the challenge marginally in every stage by adding new enemy formations or by making boss patterns just a little more menacing. The only exception to this rule are rail shooter bosses, which behave practically the same from start to finish. On the other hand, those heat-seeking bullets in rail shooting areas do demand more careful maneuvering than the regular circular movement this type of game normally requires.

On vertical sections covering the whole screen can be a tad hard especially when ground turrets start firing lots of those guided missiles. They're often the reason why players get cornered and die. There's a catch to make the game easier though: the only enemies that will release upgrade items are those of the blue color. Destroying all enemies in a blue wave or a single ground blue target will always result in the appearance of an item (this information is also in the instruction manual, but who actually reads them?). As a result, you'll always acquire a decent amount of resources to complete the game if you get out of your way for blue enemies. A few further notes on upgrades: the blue enemy rule for power-ups is also valid for rail shooting areas; whenever your firepower is maxed out a P will give an extra bomb instead; bomb stock is independent of life stock, so you don't need to worry about losing all your bomb inventory when dying.

Only when I figured out that blue enemies should be my favorite target I was able to achieve the 1CC, as seen in the high score table shown below. The addition of a 2-player competitive mode in F-16 Renegade is an interesting albeit feeble twist, at least going by what's described in the instruction manual.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Viewpoint (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by American Sammy
Published by American Sammy in 1994

A unique game in its own right, Viewpoint wowed arcade environments at the time of its release thanks to a solid combination of exquisite game design and intricate difficulty. The port for the Mega Drive only appeared at the end of the console's lifespan exclusively for the North American Sega Genesis market, and while it does take a hit thanks to the adaptation to a less powerful platform it still retains the game's peculiar atmosphere. The distinctive nature of the isometric perspective is put to good use here, which is always nice since this style of shooting was and still is quite rare these days.

Though not as grueling hard as the arcade original, the Mega Drive port still packs a punch in terms of difficulty. There are lots of tough sections in the game, of which the first challenge is actually getting used to dodging. One has to admit that projectiles flying over a flat isometric surface require a slightly different approach as far as the judgement of bullet speed and proximity goes. Once this first barrier is overcome the game opens up in terms of fun, mainly because it rewards good strategies and the natural memorization that comes with repeated play sessions.

Warning, intelligent turrets ahead

Each stage in Viewpoint has its own flavor and share of trippy enemies, from giant tires and moving springs to floating fish and insect flocks, as well as a crazy mix of mechanical and animal beasts awaiting at the end of the levels. According to the instruction manual you're the pilot of the "Byupo" fighter ship, and that's it for story. Viewpoint is all about gameplay and the use of only two buttons to succeed: button B fires your main gun and buttons A or C trigger the available special attacks. By holding B you build up a more powerful shot that's unleashed when the button is released, with three charge levels that naturally depend on how long you keep the button pressed.

Special attacks or bombs come in three types that can be restocked by collecting the corresponding item: a fire expanding barrier (red F), a series of homing cluster bombs (green H) and an all-encompassing shockwave bomb (blue W). You can carry a maximum of three at the same time, with the newly collected bomb replacing the oldest one (note that special attacks are independent of life stock, so don't spend all of them expecting you'll get a new set after dying). The remainder of in-game icons consist of option (creates two hovering satellites that increase your firepower and block regular bullets), barrier/shield (sustains three hits but does not protect against lasers or enemy collisions), star (bonus points that eventually max out at 81.560 points if you don't die) and 1UP (extra life).

Touching walls is harmless in Viewpoint, and even though some surfaces seem to be transparent there's no danger of falling through them and losing a life. Flicker is minimal, but slowdown kicks in heavily whenever sprite manipulation requires more of the hardware. Since the speed of the ship is finely adjusted to the gameplay you'll also be at the mercy of moving at a snail's pace, so don't rely on slowdown as a survival aid. What helps, at least in this particular version of the game, is the amount of extra lives you achieve based on your score.

The extend routine is a bit odd. It starts with 50.000 points, but once you get past the first hundred thousand a new life is granted at every 30.000 points. There would be no problem with that if it weren't for a few checkpoints where you're able to score more than the amount needed to win an extra life, such as the fourth skull boss. If you manage to reach his final form you'll have gained over 40.000 points already, which means this is yet another unfortunate case of a broken scoring system.

Warping into stage 2 and breaking through the crab boss
(courtesy of YouTube user GDRI :: Game Developer Research Institute)

Although many people consider Viewpoint to be a very difficult shmup (in whatever form you find it), the Mega Drive version always allows a good means of recovery on every checkpoint, either by quickly granting an option item or even one bomb if you have depleted your stock completely. The port is known for including a secret warp gate in every level, of which the only one I saw was the warp in the first stage (destroy the core of the revolving obstacles). You're also supposed to come across a 3-in-1 special item that replenishes your shield and your whole bomb stock, but I didn't get to see it during the time I spent with the game.

Speaking of bombs, considering it's not possible to carry more than three at a time players are encouraged to use them if they know a new one is coming ahead. It's important to stress however that the homing bomb does not nullify enemy bullets like the other ones do, which makes it less effective as panic relief against bullet clouds. The best bomb in this case is definitely the blue shockwave, with the fiery barrier only blocking bullets that get engulfed in its deadly trail.
Don't take the score you see during the end credits as your final score. In the 1CC result below I beat the game with 22 lives left in stock and got an extra bonus of 26.000 points that only showed up when I got back to the start screen. Not that it matters much, as I mentioned above there's no point of measuring your performance in this version of Viewpoint based on score.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Space Blaze (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by UIG Entertainment
Published by UIG Entertainment in 2020

I'm not used to categorizing games based on broad labels that don't really add anything useful to a discussion, but it's hard not to come up with the term euroshmup when talking about Space Blaze. Sure it was developed in Europe, but that doesn't mean anything. What does stand out in this game is some well known derogatory features associated with the term, of which the most relevant are the adoption of a life bar, simplistic level designs and extremely unbalanced gameplay.

Space Blaze is a bare bones shooter with seven stages and pretty much nothing else to help it linger longer than the absolute necessary in the memory of shmup fans. It's your classic methodical sci-fi romp that goes from point A to point B while trying to adhere to the basic rules of the genre, which means you'll come across lots of enemies, power-ups and a big boss at the end of each level. Graphics tend to be quite dark and range from average to extremely well done, especially when some sleek lighting effects are applied on weapons and enemies. It looks decent and sounds decent (enough), but it's unfortunately bound to disappoint even the most eager admirer of outer space shooters.

A dinosaur boss inside fiery caves

The world of Space Blaze isn't much complicated for the brave pilots (co-op play available) who accept the mission to destroy another evil alien menace. Below the health bar there are three sections that show the firepower level of each weapon in the game: red (spread vulcan), blue (straight laser shot) and green/white (multidirectional shot). Red is the default, the others must be activated by collecting at least one colored power-up item. Shooting is achieved with button × or □, and cycling through the available weapons is performed with L1 and R1. The special attack (or superweapon) is triggered with button ∆ or ○ and depends on which weapon you're using, resulting in a powerful homing projectile burst (red), a piercing laser beam (blue) or a quick and thick arching blast (green).

Besides icons for power-ups there are also items for options, temporary invincibility shield, energy recovery (P) and superweapon (adds one special attack to the stock). These items are small and dark-colored, but since they're all benign you can take all of them without hesitation. However, there's absolutely no need to worry about them after stage 2, and this happens for a very simple reason: they just stop coming. It's as if the developer simply forgot about them or sadistically decided to deny the player the ability to recover any energy or activate new options after dying. It's not just that though, in fact it gets worse.

Stages 1 and 2 can be learned quickly, never mind the creepy but stupid bosses who barely have a chance to shoot back. After that something's completely off with the gameplay. Once the ship starts descending over a rocky planet, all incoming items will be of the green weapon only. Every single one of them. This sequence is broken in stage 6 when they get swappped for the blue weapon, but green is once again the single item to be found in the final level. This means that from stage 3 onwards players never get the chance to upgrade vulcan again! This imposes a great deal of difficulty because red is definitely the best weapon for crowd control when maxed out. Since deaths take away two power levels of all weapons, a single death makes a severe dent in firepower, leaving you in dire straits against hordes of mindless drones.

Dying during boss fights is particularly punishing since you might soon be back to the default pea shot with extremely capped firing ratio. Earning one extra life per level won't help unless you can endure excruciatingly long and painful boss battles. Another minor hindrance is the fact that in the beginning of every level the game gives you three special attacks regardless of how many you had previously, which is good for restocking but quite bad from stage 2 to stage 3 since it strips you away of the cumulated six. The thing is that special attacks are extremely useful to wear down bosses faster, so holding on to them no matter how badly you have to perform during the level is extremely important in the second half of the game (lives and superweapons are independent from each other as far as their stock goes).

Official trailer for Space Blaze
(courtesy of YouTube user Games Asylum Trailers)

Despite the shortcomings in the botched gameplay, it's still possible to beat Space Blaze on a single credit with a little stubborn practice. Keeping a maxed out vulcan shot is the best way to proceed safely once the game shows its final euroshmupping facet by stage 4 and starts throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you amidst a beautiful blueish underwater landscape. All of that while giving you only green power-ups. Note that when you pick up a weapon item the ship starts firing it at once, so if you want to keep using a different type of weapon you need to constantly re-select it while collecting power-ups. Since each power-up in excess is worth 5.000 points, score-hungry players will often get out of their way to pick them up. When doing that beware of the large hitbox of the ship and the constant obstacles scrolling by on the foreground, which often hide spikes and unsuspected deadly corners.

If I were to pick something good out of Space Blaze I'd say it's stage 7, just because it actually seems to have been thought out a little better in terms of level design, scrolling everywhere instead of just going to the right. Too bad it comes up too late. As a whole this game is proof that nice graphics aren't enough to make a simple, balanced and fun horizontal shmup. The utter disregard for even the most rudimentary balancing in the programming department is quite baffling to say the least. And what's the point of having your score resumed and increased even when coming back and continuing after the console has been turned off? Why have any sort of leaderboard for this, I wonder?

Anyways, the only way to play the game with a clean slate after you've practiced and continued is to do it after deleting the game's save file, which I did before getting the 1CC score shown below.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Hunt for Red October (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Riedel Software Productions
Published by Hi Tech Expressions in 1993

Despite the fascination that surrounds them, my feeling is that submarines were never a "thing" during the golden era of gaming as far as shmups go. However, given the success The Hunt for Red October achieved in movie theaters throughout 1990, its video game adaptations had all possible chances to leave a standing mark in the submarine subgenre. Speaking of the home console market, three games came out for Nintendo platforms, and while they seem to be the same on the outside they're actually quite different from each other.

The NES version, for example, isn't quite like The Hunt for Red October on the Super Nintendo,  which makes sense since these games were developed by different companies. The SNES version also came out a couple of years later, and given how it turned out this leads me to believe the game was only taken out of the development shelf in order to try to cash in on the Super Scope peripheral, even though the light gun bazooka is only used in the bonus areas and during the battle against the last boss. Thankfully the Super Scope is completely optional, as in most of the 11 titles developed for the accessory.

Defection time
(courtesy of YouTube user glennznl)

In the quest to lead the Red October submarine across nine missions that don't really follow the plot of the movie (or the novel), the player has a wide array of functions at his/her disposal. All buttons are used in the SNES controller, starting with Y for torpedoes (frontal attack), B for bombs (downward attack), X for surface-to-air missiles (vertical fire), A for surface-to-surface missiles (an arching frontal attack), L for direction switch, R for cavitation drive (navigate undetected) and SELECT for "electronic countermeasures" (a device that when dropped disables all nearby enemy fire for a few seconds). The lower HUD shows the ammo for each resource, as well as the amount of damage taken by the sub, ranging from 0 to 100%.

You'll be using all four face buttons of the controller a lot, whereas R and SELECT are best reserved for tricky sections or for when you are low on health and need whatever resources you can to survive. After all there's just that energy meter to get through the game, with only a little recovery in between levels and two other opportunities to get some health/ammo back. One of them is a single in-game item that provides the sub with minor repairs and refills the stock for all main attacks, the other is the periscope icon that takes you to a gallery view where you need to shoot down jets and ships (the sections where the Super Scope is enabled).

Since moving the crosshair with the regular controller is so slow, anticipating enemy trajectory is the best way to perform better during the periscope bonus intermissions. A good kill ratio guarantees a good repair level on the sub, as well as the replenishing and even maxing out of the weapon stock. It's by far the most reliable way to keep the submarine in healthy conditions, so try not to lose any periscope items if possible. If the sub gets wrecked either by enemy fire or by colliding against obstacles (100% damage) the game is over. However, if you fail to complete a mission because you depleted the necessary weapons to kill a boss or because the cruise ship you're escorting gets destroyed before reaching its destination you get sent back to the map room instead of ending the credit right away. You don't get to recover any health or ammo though.

While the graphics aren't anything special, with little flair and lots of blue and gray, the physics for the movement of the submarine and the behavior of weapons is rather well implemented. The soundtrack is as repetitive and boring as it gets though. Getting used to the rhythm of the game and the reload cycles of enemies proves to be essential in the long run, especially during later levels. Prior to each stage the map room shows the available levels/missions with a scrolling text message describing their objectives. Completing the available one(s) will unlock further missions, which can be tackled in slightly different order if you so wish. After the initial defection stage you get two missions in the Caribbean (one of them to escort the abovementioned cruise ship), three missions in the North Pacific (oil platforms is the hardest), two missions in the Mediterranean and a final mission where you return to the USSR to prevent a coup attempt to overthrow the communist party.

Diving in dangerous waters
In spite of the pressure imposed by having only a single health bar and by the lack of continues for explicit practice, The Hunt for Red October isn't an overly hard game. It's got its share of tricky moments, but memorization and careful play will inevitably result in victory. As for the final boss, if you get there in good health conditions you can safely ignore the minor enemies and just bombard the large ship to oblivion. Going out of your way to take them down (or any other enemy for that matter) is useless because the game has no scoring system.

Even though it doesn't do anything fundamentally wrong, the game doesn't do anything to impress either. Fans of methodical and aim-oriented shooting might have mild fun with it, players who enjoy fast and flashy action should certainly stay away. That said, comparisons between this game and the NES version are natural and expected once you've played both. In my opinion the NES wins in pretty much all aspects that matter, including diversity, challenge and presentation (the Game Boy is disregarded for obvious reasons). For fans of the movie, unfortunately there's no mention at all to the character played by Sean Connery in the SNES game.
Neither the US nor the Japanese version of The Hunt for Red October for the Super Nintendo has an options screen, which is surprisingly present in the European cartridge. No need to worry about it though since it only includes the choice for stereo/mono sound and a BGM/sound test.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft / Compile
Published by Naxat Soft / Compile (Nazac) in 1992

When joining forces under the common label Nazac, Compile and Naxat Soft produced and graced the PC Engine CD with two shmups in the same series, even though they aren't anything alike. The sole aspect shared by Spriggan and its sequel Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project is a story-related detail about their mechas being built out of the same alien material from planet Mars. Other than that both games couldn't be more different in concept, execution and gameplay. The first one is a vertical shooter with lots of fantasy elements, whereas the second game veers into pure futuristic Gundam-style sci-fi territory in a horizontal shooting fashion.

Spriggan Mark 2 is also notorious for its lengthy story segments with plenty of cut scenes, narration and in-game dialogue. If you're the kind of player who likes these foreign elements in a shooter you'll be in for a treat, as long as you're able to understand Japanese of course. Everybody else can at least be content about the ability to disable all this mumbo-jumbo in the options, which then turns the game into a regular shooter where the general idea is to battle an enemy armada of mechas and mechanical bosses while controlling more advanced mechas of your own as you progress though the game.

The change in style comes with lots of visual flair since graphics are colorful, diverse and full of several layers of beautiful parallax without any slowdown. The soundtrack on the other hand is a little hit-and-miss, but in its best moments sounds very similar to the electronic style of Compile's own Robo Aleste. Sadly the audio balance is strongly biased towards the sound effects, making it hard to listen to the songs whenever there's any action going on.

Fighting on the surface of the moon

Controls seem simple on a first glance, but the gameplay goes a bit deeper than just pressing buttons. Button II fires your selected weapon, button I toggles shot direction and SELECT is used to choose the desired weapon. Weapon choice can also be done by pausing the game (button RUN), but the main purpose of doing it is to select your flying speed. All mecha variations are equipped with a basic cannon with unlimited ammo but the resources are limited for remainder of the arsenal. Whenever the ammo for a specific weapon is depleted you can't use it for the rest of the level. This alone requires at least a minor degree of strategy in order to get through the levels properly, even though the game isn't really taxing throughout most of its duration thanks to the shield/energy bar recharging slowly whenever you're not taking any damage. There are no items at all to be collected in Spriggan Mark 2.

Now here's the main catch: keeping the shot button pressed will not fire any of your non-basic weapons. If you do that you'll only get the basic cannon stream (with the glaring exception of the saber), so in order to trigger them you need to actually tap the button. Although weird, I must admit that this is a nice way to deal with the gimmick of limited ammo in a shmup. You can of course use a turbo controller to get regular autofire by holding the button, but then you'll be at the mercy of running out of precious ammo when you need it the most.

It's a fact that something still feels off in the gameplay, which tends to be clunky in regards to dodging especially during boss fights. That's why it's so important to memorize the order of the available weapons to better deal with enemies or enemy formations. Once you nail this mechanic the game becomes less of a mess, unless you absolutely don't mind pausing it to perform weapon choices. Another important realization is how efficient the saber is against enemies that allow you to get close to them without taking damage. It can even be used to block bullets!

Having allies fighting by your side is a great idea in sci-fi shmup with important story elements like Spriggan Mark 2, but the constant flow of mecha and ship allies that help you throughout the game is another source of confusion, at least upon a first contact. Since they often look like the enemy forces, it took me a while to get used to it and not lose precious time and resources trying to take them down. It's quite neat, however, to see some allies commit the ultimate sacrifice by ramming enemies and bosses in order to strike the final blow against them.

First stage of Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project
(courtesy of YouTube user Ryusennin)

Going by how intense the in-game dialogue is (the little I've seen of it), I bet the story details behind the abovementioned sacrifice moments must be quite engaging and extend much beyond what we get to see during the game. An example happens at the end of stage 3, when you are destroyed and start to control another mecha right away, an occurrence that precedes the choice you need to make prior to the beginning of every level afterwards. A total of six mechas will be available by stage 6, yet it's then obvious that the best ones are mechas E and F.

As an example of the style clash between Compile and Naxat Soft, Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-terraform Project isn't quite the experience you'd expect, especially considering how solid the first Spriggan was. My impression was that Compile had a bigger say in the actual gameplay, whereas Naxat Soft took care of the storyline aspect. It's interesting that the offensive option weapon, for instance, behaves just like the search option formation from MUSHA, targeting and chasing after enemies around the screen. The game's overall results are a mixed bag though, which is understandable seeing that this was Compile's only horizontal shooter. Unlike Spriggan, the game was left out of Naxat Soft's Summer Carnival series, so there are no score attack or time attack modes this time around.

My 1CC result is below, playing on Normal difficulty. Since the screen gets stuck after the end credits are over players are forbidden to see the high score table, so you have to be quick once the final boss dies if you want to get a record of your final score. The series continues with Spriggan Powered, released for the Super Famicom in 1996.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Side Arms Special (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
2 Difficulty levels
12 / 10 stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom / Nec Avenue
Published by Nec Avenue in 1989

The whole point of having a cartridge or a HuCard game reappear in the CD format was always related to a major improvement in sound quality, at least during the dawn of CD gaming with 16-bit console add-ons. Little or no graphical upgrades were to be expected, so under this point of view Side Arms Special definitely belongs to a special category for going beyond the basic sound makeover of the Side Arms HuCard. While it does come with the same game with a remastered CD soundtrack, it also includes a special arrange mode that might be seen by some as a step-up from the original experience.

Integrating Capcom's early efforts in the horizontal shooter genre, Side Arms expanded on the ideas of Section Z by basically increasing the pressure around the concept of bidirectional shooting in a bare bones sci-fi setting. Players take control of a space mecha known as "mobilsuit", moving through several colorful environments outside and inside an alien planet in order to defeat an evil empire. That said, in Side Arms Special you're prompted to choose between two game variations as soon as the disc is booted: Standard mode is a relatively faithful port of the arcade game, whereas Before Christ mode shifts things around for a completely different Side Arms experience.

Standard plays just like the HuCard version albeit with CD-quality sound. Button I shoots to the right, button II shoots to the left and RUN allows you to switch between the weapons you have already collected (SELECT is used for just pausing). In order to activate or power up your weapons you must shoot at the items released by a destroyed carrier to make them change in a fixed order, picking up the desired one before the item settles into a star or a yasichi (looks like a candy/lollipop), which correspond to the "auto" shot and a few bonus points respectively. The order prior to the latter is Pow, bit (an orange orb), SG (spread gun), Pow, MBL (mega bazooka launcher), Pow, 3way, Pow and mirrored Pow (light blue color).

Stage 7 of Before Christ mode

Pow and mirrored Pow are actually speed-up and speed-down. You don't die by touching walls, but you can bite the dust if the mobilsuit gets squeezed by a scrolling obstacle. Upon death the currently used weapon is gone, so you need to pick it up again in order to keep firing it. Other special items might appear from destroyed enemies and by shooting specific locations: strawberries and barrels are worth 3.000 points, the cow is worth 10.000 points, the small mobilsuit gives you an extra life and the α/β icon endows the player with an exoskeleton that adds a constant 8-way pulsating shot to your arsenal while also providing a 1-hit shield. Hidden 1UPs can be found, but you also get score-based extends at every 100.000 points (they stop coming once you score half million points though).

While relatively frantic and even quite demanding at times, one aspect that always bugged me in Side Arms (either the Standad mode or the arcade original) is the fact that regular items block your firepower unless you shoot them enough so that they stop cycling. It's really annoying when you're heavily surrounded by enemies in the heat of the battle. Being a single uninterrupted mission from start to finish due to the lack of stage separation is also kinda weird, but an ultimately harmless deviation from the norm. Nevertheless the count of 12 bosses always meant 12 stages for me.

And then we come to the mode called Before Christ, where stage separation is one of the defining differences from the standard game. You'll see pretty much all original assets (graphics, items and music) rearranged in ten levels with new gameplay rules and brand-new bosses. Another important change is the adoption of checkpoints for the whole level and bosses themselves, but you also need to deal with weapon upgrades in a different manner. Flying speed is fixed and items now cycle automatically through Pow → straight shot → 3way → boomerang and back to Pow (the first item to appear is always random though). You don't need to restrict yourself to the same item to upgrade your weapon, so by the third one you'll already have it at a good level. It will eventually max out after picking up a few more power-ups.

Apart from the three available weapon choices you can also fire a charge shot that behaves just like the MBL (mega bazooka launcher) from Standard mode. This laser beam is the perfect attack to be used on bosses due to the concealed nature of their weak spots, which are only vulnerable at certain intervals. Sure you can inflict damage with your regular arsenal, but once you get the hang of the charge shot it's much better to use it. At least this was my case, so I was always switching the turbo function of my controller on (during the course of the level) and off (during boss fights). Playing with a turbo controller is a must because the only weapon with native autofire in Side Arms Special is the "auto" shot from Standard mode.

Introduction and first stages of Standard mode in Side Arms Special
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-Bit Days a Week)

Before Christ includes a few other interesting twists, such as the need to power up the mobilsuit from scratch in every single level. At first this isn't such a big deal, but since the game becomes more and more demanding as the stages unfold it's very important to find and collect the hidden yasichis whenever possible. Each one adds an option orb that not only gives you a little more firepower but also serves to absorb two hits (upon which it disappears). Up to two orbs can be activated above and below the character. Some boss battles are quite twitchy or bullet-laden, so the extra "health" provided by the option orbs certainly comes in handy.

All gameplay changes in Before Christ mode are definitely a breath of fresh air, but the greatest addition by far is the beefed up scoring system. Hidden bonus items are the same only with different values, and with each successive Pow item collected within the level you get progressively more points, starting with 200 and maxing out at 3.200 from the fifth one onwards. The biggest chunk of the score, however, comes from every remaining life being converted into 320.000 points when you complete the game. This means that in the long run the best strategy to score higher is to just not die. Besides the score-based extends (a total of eight if you manage to achieve at least 2 million points) there are also a few hidden 1UPs to be found along the way.

In all honesty, Before Christ mode is more interesting, fun and engaging than the main game itself, in whatever form you find it. It just makes the standard/original experience stale by comparison, in a rare case of a release with an arrange mode that's clearly superior to the core game.

My final 1CC results for both modes of Side Arms Special are shown below. Standard mode was played on Normal difficulty. The high score in Before Christ mode was achieved in a no-miss run (there's no difficulty selection in this case).

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Total Eclipse Turbo (Playstation)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crystal Dynamics
Published by Crystal Dynamics in 1995

Even if you weren’t exactly into the new 3D trend, I bet all gamers who lived through the 32-bit generation were eager to try any title that dared to present 3D innovations. Even if they were adaptations of games previously released for competitor systems, as is the case of Total Eclipse Turbo, which was both a launch title and a direct port of Total Eclipse from Panasonic’s 3DO. The sci-fi rail shooting adventure set in outer space is pretty much the same in both variations since the differences between them seem to be in negligible details only, except for a password feature in the Playstation version that allows you to start playing directly in later stages.

My copy of Total Eclipse Turbo is the jewel case CD version that came out three years after the original longbox launch release. Once again the idea behind the game is that the Earth is under attack by alien scum, who now aim to turn the sun into a supernova with a powerful mortal weapon (hence the game's title). A lengthy introduction and a wealth of narrated briefing messages tell everything you need to know about the story. You are of course the last hope of mankind, so prepare to fly into all sorts of environments inspired by the likes of classics of the genre such as Galaxy Force II and After Burner.

The game does come with its own flair though, and while it doesn't always succeed it's at least honest in its attempts to provide a genuine rail shooting rush.

A burst of shooting in the Aqueous Major area
(courtesy of YouTube user 10min Gameplay)

There's not much you can do in the main menu of Total Eclipse Turbo, but it's very important to decide early on between one of the four controller configurations available. In Simulation A and B verticals are inverted, while in Arcade A and B they're not. Other inputs consist of shot, bomb, roll left, roll right, accelerate and brake. This definitely seems overwhelming up front, but once I realized that the roll buttons are almost useless things became less complicated. I went with Arcade B myself so that I could have a pseudo racing-type configuration with acceleration and brake on R1/L1.

Each stage is divided into four sections with similar structures. You often start the section above ground, flying over terrain and avoiding obstacles along the way. A blue beam of light pointing upwards is the entrance to a tunnel area which might lead to a way out before the section ends. When flying outside you can guide yourself by the overhead map, which not only shows the layout of the terrain but also serves as a radar for all incoming items. While you certainly can do without the map in the beginning of the game, later on it becomes very important in order to navigate stages that have dead ends or multiple looping paths. Due to the reduced space inside the tunnels the map is not active when flying through them.

One thing is certain in Total Eclipse Turbo: you will get hit, either by incoming enemy fire or by colliding and rubbing against terrain and obstacles. The catch is that instead of restricting shield recovery to the S item alone, the game also grants you extra energy for every enemy you destroy. Some of them give you back more energy than others, so knowing which ones are the best targets to keep your energy level high becomes second nature after a while. Besides, since the bomb is a destructive flash that expands forwards it's also the best way to quickly regain energy by destroying everything that lies ahead. If the energy gauge gets empty the life is lost and you're respawned in the last checkpoint.

Items placed at fixed locations give everything you need to upgrade the ship's firepower. Besides the abovementioned S for shield recovery you'll also come across a nice array of weapons: the stellar blaster (a stream of 3 straight shots), the ion whipgun (spread pattern that comes out in a horizontal plane), the photon strafer (fires in two planes simultaneously), the scatter gun (an all-encompassing spray of bullets) and the rotary gun (a wide ∞ shaped pattern). The green dots below the weapon indication on the upper left show your firepower level, which is upgraded by sticking to items of the same type. Lastly, you might also come across extra bombs, extra lives (1UP) and stars that provide extra points (take five consecutively in the same area for progressively higher bonuses).

Follow the lava river for great justice

Though a bit raw by today's standards, graphic textures are competent enough to allow for a decent hit detection. Mixing wide open areas with claustrophobic tunnel parts is definitely a nice idea for a rail shmup, but Total Eclipse Turbo goes beyond the regular dodging schedule by succesfully adding speed control to the gameplay. Accelerating and braking are essential to conquer several areas that demand a fine sense of timing and placement. Moving passageways, closing doors, narrow ravines, splitting pathways and energy barriers that either push you forward or drain your energy are quite common in the second half of the game. The gimmick definitely works, I only wished the developer also added a speed gauge so that we could know how fast we're flying.

On difficulty terms the game requires just the right amount of dedication to be learned, with a few aspects that help players advance. One of them is the fact that all items appear again in the same place if you replay a checkpoint, which means you can reclaim lost lives by repeatedly collecting 1UPs (note that score-based extends are also granted at every million mark). One variation of stage 2-3, for instance, has nothing less that three 1UPs for grabs, which means you can hoard extra lives as much as you want before moving on (this is reason enough to invalidate the game's scoring system). On the other hand, this same stage is quite hard due to the amount of enemies that fire red bullets, which are much more deadly than the initial yellow ones. Flying slow towards a turret or an enemy that drops many of those might kill you almost instantly.

When you consider the forgiving nature of the energy gauge feature and the several little challenges imposed by the game, Total Eclipse Turbo ends up being a nice entry point for the rail shmup subgenre. Not overly hard like the arcade classics but not a pushover either, and a nice diversion for cheap sci-fi aficionados. The unbalance in the sound design is a pity though (sound effects are too loud and will not let you listen to the soundtrack whenever you're shooting).

The picture below was taken at the end of the spiralling escape sequence after you beat the final boss. That's the final chance you have to see your score. Interesting note: the game received a sequel for the North American Sega Saturn called Solar Eclipse, which was soon ported for the European market as Titan Wars (also on the Playstation).

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Raiden DX (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu
Published by Hamster in 2000

By the middle of the 90s arrange modes in video games weren't an unusual thing anymore. Variations on the main experience were already seen both in the arcades and in the console market, even though in the former they were restricted to alternate boards, region swaps or different upgrade mechanics creating new experiences (famous examples in the case of shmups are Grind Stormer and V-V, as well as Kyuukyoku Tiger and Twin Cobra). Raiden DX was one of the first releases to take the concept of the arrange mode further, using the assets of Raiden II in order to deliver a seemingly similar experience, albeit endowed with an even bigger challenge and much deeper scoring shenanigans.

The Sony Playstation was lucky enough to get a port of this much revered arcade game, which many consider to be the apex of the series. Two versions came out, a first one released by NSI in 1997 and a second one by Hamster in 2000 under the "Major Wave" budget seal. As far as I know there are no differences between them, which offer the full arcade experience at home with a few tweaks and welcome features such as alternate soundtracks, TATE mode and the ability to record/save your latest run on the memory card.

As lauded as it is, Raiden DX is also a tough, relentless and punishing shmup that takes the risk-reward mechanic to extreme heights, a perception that's somewhat clouded by the fact that the game offers three very distinct modes of play. First mode/course Novice is a single stretch of terrain that lasts around 20 minutes and kinda serves as a preamble for the other two modes: Training and Expert. Training corresponds to the first five levels of Raiden II with cosmetic changes only, while Expert consists of eight new levels + a ninth area exclusive to those who can get there without dying and without using any bombs (the famous NMNB acronym of "no miss, no bomb").

My main objective when playing he game was to loop the Expert course. I did get clears of Novice and Training, which do not loop but can be "bridged" starting in Novice if you're brave enough to fulfill very specific criteria. Each mode has its own high score table, so they can all be tackled as unique challenges within the glorified collection of arrange modes that comprise Raiden DX.

Blue has always been the warmest color in Raiden

In order to fully enjoy Raiden DX the first recommendation I have is going to the options and cranking up the autofire rate to 30 shots/second. Both shot and bomb inputs can also be fully replicated and remapped as you wish in the options. Another detail that might make the difference is the choice of player side: player 1 controls the red ship and player 2 controls the blue ship, and while they do seem similar it's important to note that the red ship moves faster vertically while the blue ship moves faster horizontally. Since sweeping and tap dodging is the bread-and-butter approach needed to succeed in the game, it's very clear that the blue ship is the best choice in any given situation.

Gameplay basics remain the same across all game modes. Item carriers and ground targets release a variety of upgrade items that cycle colors and include weapon power-ups (red for vulcan, blue for straight laser and purple for a plasma latching laser), missiles (M for nukes and H for homing) and bombs (red for nukes and yellow for cluster bombs). Weapon firepower maximizes once seven of the same type are collected, missiles max out with four of the same type and up to seven bombs can be stocked at any given moment. Other regular collectibles include yellow and blue ground medals, the miclus creatures, the hidden fairies that give you a batch of recovery items upon death, the P for instant max power and very scarce occurrences of 1UPs (extra lives).

Knowing the basics is one thing, but playing the game and coming close to mastering it is a completely different story. In the arcade difficulty setting mere survival is enough of a challenge already, while scoring higher actually justifies Raiden DX being more than just a meager reworking of Raiden II. Enemy fire is relentless, speeds up the further you advance and never subsides. The risk of being sniped, cornered and summarily slaughtered is constant, and no amount of practice will ever make you feel comfortable unless you devise very strict routes and strategies to overcome the odds. You blink, you die. You hesitate, you die. There's absolutely no going around that in Raiden DX.

An example of why the game is so punishing is the sole extra life in the 4th stage of the Expert course, released by destroying the mid-screen bunker prior to the boss. If you die before you get there you're simply denied the 1UP item, so instead of granting you a breather in order to move on you're just reminded of how much harder it will be for you to fulfill your mission.

And then there's the carrot on a stick appearing in multiple forms in the scoring system. For instance, this time it's not enough to just collect the medals that are multiplied by your bomb stock for the end-of-stage bonus. Instead of the customary 500 (yellow) and 3.000 (blue) points, every medal uncovered slowly fades in color until it's worth only 10 and 100 points respectively. However, before fading for good each medal glows again for a fraction of a second, and if you collect them right when this happens each one will be worth 3.000 (yellow) and 10.000 points (blue). The same goes for the miclus, which will stop moving for a split second for a whopping 50.000 points instead of the regular 10.000 points if you manage to time it right. Medals still count for the end of level bonus though, regardless of their individual values (micli are excluded from this count).

My loop on the Expert course of Raiden DX

Players have many other ways to boost their score, of course. A staple of the series is acquiring items in excess, and one of the most interesting tactic is this regard is to always pick up extra bombs of the same type with a stock that's already full of them (you get 50.000 points for each extra bomb). Note that the choice of default bomb type is made at the start of the game, according to the color of the lightning on the top of the screen as you decide which course you'll play. Exclusive to Raiden DX is the uncovering of sol towers (in Training and Novice only) and hidden radars (hover over their places to reveal them, destroy for 200.000 points each), as well as the ship alignment bonus after you beat bosses and the extra points you get from speed-killing them. Finally, a special end-of-course tallying after the credit ends gives you a final reward based on enemy destruction, radar destruction, skill and "fighting spirit" (whatever that's supposed to mean).

Applying all scoring techniques to your game is obviously easier said than done. Regardless of your approach some important points that should be considered include learning the firing patterns and the reload cycles of enemies, tapping a lot in between sweeps, bombing proactively, abusing point-blanking whenever possible, using visual cues to engage in particularly difficult sections (gosh, I even used musical cues in stage 7) and having special attention towards those floaters that tend to sidetrack and snipe you before fleeing. I won't even talk about dealing with greed and always striving to be conservative when collecting power-ups, after all everybody has a ceiling for how much risk they're willing to take.

It's clear that Raiden DX can be enjoyed in several different ways, so it's reasonable to say that the fun factor varies accordingly. Even though in its essence the game is just a retake on the elements that make Raiden II, it does come off as a step-up in graphical terms since it's got a bit more color and detail. The soundtrack is awesome, peaking in stage 7 of Expert mode with an absolutely pumping tune that sets the mood perfectly for the final stretch of the game. It's also interesting to note that Raiden DX is the last arcade entry in the series prior to the pseudo-3D visual shift of Raiden III, which is another reason why many people consider it to be the high point in the franchise.

Once I was done with Training and Novice I focused exclusively in the Expert course, all of them in the ARC (Arcade) difficulty. Even though Training and Novice do not loop, beating Training while fulfilling a few requirements (99% enemy destruction, 100% radar destruction, NMNB) will start the Novice course in its 2nd loop difficulty, and if the same requirements are met when you beat Novice you’ll then proceed to Expert mode’s level 6 on loop 3 difficulty, continuing from then on as if you were in Expert mode. And that's how you're supposed to bridge all modes of Raiden DX. A credit played this way will still count as being achieved in the Training course.

If you're purist about having the same exact arcade experience at home, note that beating any course in ARC (continues allowed) unlocks new difficulty settings ARC 2, 3 and 4, which correspond to loops 2, 3 and 4 of Expert mode. By beating any course in ARC 4 you'll then be able to switch "Judgement" to OFF in the options, thus bringing the port close to the arcade original by omitting all radars and the end-of-course bonus in Expert mode. I didn't bother with it all, so I got my high score in the ARC difficulty with Judgement ON while using the blue ship with cluster bombs. It was a remarkably tough and somewhat bumpy ride, but the efforts paid off and I'm quite pleased to have reached stage 2-1 in a single credit (no, I didn't gain access to the 9th level).

Mission accomplished, now I bid farewell and hope to be back soon for Raiden III!


Monday, June 7, 2021

Xenon 2 Megablast (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by The Bitmap Brothers
Published by Virgin Games in 1992

Fondly remembered by fans of the Amiga computer system, Xenon 2 Megablast was quite popular and successful at the time of its release, and soon became available for a few others systems such as the Master System. This 8-bit port actually came out at the tail end of the console's lifespan and roughly a year before the Mega Drive version, and much like its 16-bit counterpart was published exclusively in Europe. My copy is the second one by Virgin Games (a first release by Image Works came out the year before).

Having played the Mega Drive game a few years ago, I never nurtured any particularly good expectation for the Master System conversion. I did believe however that it would fit the console’s capabilities better than it did the Mega Drive’s, provided the porting job was at least decent. Unfortunately even trying out the game proved to be quite difficult since it showed graphical glitches that made it unplayable on any regular 60 Hz Master System console from other regions other than Europe.

Then a few weeks ago I plugged the cartridge on my Japanese Mega Drive with a non-official adapter and bang, the Master System version of Xenon 2 Megablast was finally free of glitches. The time came to venture into a brand new adventure in torture! Even though I could say this particular port shares the same sorry fate of the original with regards to its terrible ageing, it's also important to consider the fact that the development team clearly tried to achieve more than Sega's baby console could handle. 

The impending dangers of the volcano area

Xenon 2 Megablast boasts six slow-moving levels with otherworldly environments and one single song that plays from start to finish, a rearranged take on a music by Bomb the Bass named "Megablast". Although interesting on its own, I’d rather have a few more songs and variety on my soundtrack. At least players can turn off the music before starting the credit if desired, replacing it with some other live soundtrack to go with the game and its subpar sound effects.

Both buttons are used to fire, and the scrolling direction can be reversed by forcing the ship against the bottom of the screen. This is necessary whenever you reach dead ends, and proves inevitable during the maze-like corridors of the fourth stage. Each life comes with an energy gauge that allows the player to withstand some damage before dying. Losing energy happens whenever you get hit or touch enemies and walls, so do your best to memorize the movement patterns of enemy waves and to not get stuck in unsuspected corners. Lives are lost in a snap if you get sloppy, so it's always best to be cautious rather than hasty.

Power-ups can be acquired either by shooting at item containers that cross the screen from time to time or after the stage is over by purchasing them in the shop. Once inside the shop you're first given the option to sell your current items to Colin the alien, then you proceed to the buying section. The initial wallet in the shop corresponds to the exact amount of points achieved in the current level (a simplification from the original game, where bubbles supplied money independently from your score). The game balance around cash is really tight, so try to spend it wisely until the very last cent, after all you can't carry money over from one stage to the next.

One of the few positive aspects about this port is that it can be considered graphically quite faithful to its source, even including a single background layer for proper parallax effect. But that's where the positives end, unfortunately. As the stages progress it becomes clear that the game sliced the original levels in order to extend the stage count to six, yet it doesn't even include all scenes seen in the already butchered Mega Drive port. There are no mid-bosses and only two recurring main bosses appear, the nautilus in the odd levels and the crab in the even levels. My general impression of the game is even more dire than those I got from the Mega Drive version: it still feels like navigating through mud at the mercy of erratic enemies, but their attacks inexplicably do not obey frame rate limitations like your sluggish ship does. The result is that you might be bombarded with bullets you can barely see coming, so be ready for another painful exercise in frustration and patience.

A brief section of the first stage in Xenon 2 Megablast for the Master System
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

My strategy for power-ups was to get side shot, autofire and the last power-up on the first shop, then on further opportunities acquire laser and spend the rest of the money on health refills and whatever I still missed of side shot and autofire. Some of the upgrades can be bought more than once, which means they have more than one level of power/efficiency. I didn't bother purchasing double shot, cannon or the useless super Nashwan power, which lasts for ten seconds only at the start of the level and isn't really that "super" once you realize how much more potent a laser-equipped spaceship is. Make no mistake though, no matter how powered up you are you'll never really feel comfortable to tackle the enemy swarms in the last couple of levels. Memorization and clever positioning are still the best strategy you can come up with in order to succeed in Xenon 2 Megablast for the Master System. 

All things considered, including the atrocious frame rate which drops to a crawl whenever the screen gets too cluttered, the game does offer a challenge that's tightly tuned around its design choices. Some of the special items to be purchased in the shop serve as examples: extra lives are so expensive that in certain levels you won't even get enough money to buy one. Since there aren't any score-based extends, unless you sacrifice precious firepower along the way you'll pretty much have only three lives to complete the game no matter what. At least the appearance and consequent opportunities to use the zapper smart bomb seem to be more reasonable this time around.

Beating the top spot in the high score table requires you to at least loop the game and advance a few more levels. Once I did it I was able to reach the 6th stage again (level 2-6) before dying my last life. There's no increase in difficulty on the second round, it's the same endurance test all over again.