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.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Vastynex (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kigekiyahonpo / Zakichi
Published by Kigekiyahonpo / Zakichi in 2018

The horizontal shooter subgenre has come a long way since its formula was created and soon perfected in the golden era of the arcades. Gradius, R-Type and Darius can easily be considered the classic trio of quintessential horis, yet console games like Thunder Force IV were certainly responsible for cementing the genre's widespread recognition in the home market. What if we had a game that merged all of them in a single adventure full of action and accompanied by a kick-ass soundtrack? Well, the name of this game is Vastynex, and it's free to play in any PC if you just head to the developer's website and download it.

For those familiar with the titles mentioned above, Vastynex is certainly an amusing trip down memory lane. While it's basically a ripoff that would never get a commercial release due to copyright infringements, on the other hand it's truly a wild ride marked by the unique choice for huge pixelated sprites, always mimicking enemies and particular sections from classic games. The pixelated aspect might be an acquired taste for some, but I urge readers to give it a chance in order to check for themselves. Don't go by remarks such as the one made by my 4-year old daughter when she entered the room and caught me playing it, saying the game looked like Minecraft. :)

The main starting point for the structure of Vastynex is definitely Thunder Force IV, but pretty much all games in the series are used as basis for the design, especially Thunder Force III and Thunder Force V.

Pixels galore!

Once you run the executable, pressing ENTER will make it go fullscreen. Inputs are automatically assigned to whatever controller you have plugged in at the moment: for my Xbox 360 wired controller I got shot on button A, weapon select on button X, speed switch on button Y and pause on the right bumper (RB). The gameplay follows the same old rules from the Thunder Force games, where you must collect items to power up the ship. The main one is the claw/craw that creates two rotating orbs that expand your firepower, whereas other icons provide weapon activation or upgrades for blade, rail gun, snake/fire, wave and hunter (cool detail: each weapon is taken from a different chapter in the franchise). Shields provide protection against three hits and extra lives are scattered or hidden around the scenery (you also earn extends at every 2 million points).

Since Vastynex isn't graphically demanding and works on pretty much any PC, the game runs pretty fast with absolutely no slowdown whatsoever. The scrolling speed varies a lot and gets mixed with a wide range of explosions and several bits of short animation transitions, to the point of overwhelming players at first sight. Adapting to the speed of the game is essential if you want to achieve more points, after all the scoring system is based on speed-killing enemies just like in the mechanics used in Thunder Force V, albeit with a little twist.

In every level the base multiplier must be increased from ×1 to ×8 by killing enemies as fast as you can. Afterwards it's just a matter of continuing to dispatch enemies in a timely manner to maintain a high multiplier. Pretty much all mid-sized and larger enemies, however, offer higher multipliers if dispatched quickly, up to ×32 (they're all indicated by a lock-on reticle in their center). Finding the best weapon to use is, as usual, the key to a better scoring performance. Another important scoring device consists of maxing out weapons by taking two items of each one, which then makes all further items worth 10.000 points when collected. A red border in the weapon array indicates if said weapon is already maximized, and if at least one of them isn't red you'll get only 1.000 points for each surplus item.

A "no-miss" bonus of 100.000 points is awarded for each level where you don't take any damage whatsoever. A more accurate term woud be "no-hit" because if you're hit when using a shield you won't receive the bonus. Hovering the ship or flying though certain unsuspected areas is another source of points, so it's always good to venture in unusual places as the screen scrolls.

An exquisite self-imposed challenge on one of the bosses from Vastynex
(courtesy of YouTube user yoss88)

Each extra life is worth 10.000 points when completing the game, a value that seems to be quite low in comparison with any similar bonus you'd get from a Thunder Force game. As expected, deaths take away the current weapon you're carrying, but in Vastynex you can recover it at once by taking the special item that starts bouncing around afterwards (if it appears, of course). While the abovementioned extra life bonus doesn't seem like much in the final game tallying, it's important to note that dying resets the base multiplier and depending where that happens the overall score might be severely affected. 

It's quite clear that the scoring side of Vastynex adds an extra layer of joy to a game that's regularly not that hard, particularly for those who're familiar with the Thunder Force series. For example, many boss aspects and patterns are pretty much the same, while bosses themselves are mixed with enemies from other franchises such as Darius. There are stage sections modeled after Aero Blasters and Darius II, but the whole collection of references is a real delight for shmup fans. Some that spring to mind as standouts are the appearance of R-Type's Dobkeratops mixed with Thunder Force III's Gargoyle, Gradius II's Shadow Dancer in vertical form and the triad boss formation of Vic Viper, Silver Hawk and the R-9. Diehard conoisseurs will also spot minor details, such as the ice curtain from the first stage of Gradius Gaiden or the bomb animation of Darius Gaiden during the death sequence of Great Thing.

The picture below shows all the results of my credits on the latest update of Vastynex (version 1.2a), with the number one spot achieved in a no-miss run. During this quick burst of great fun I tried my best to take advantage of the scoring possibilities, but did not perfect routes and strategies on secrets and bosses. Maybe next time!

Friday, May 7, 2021

Cosmos Cop (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1991

Even those who have not lived it somehow know that the 80s was an awesome decade, especially when talking about video games and the delight they provided kids at home. The NES specifically was an endless fountain of fun for pretty much everyone, but even the best electronic systems couldn't deliver great games only. They also had their share of average titles, as well as the truly bad cartridges almost no one would dare to rent or buy. And then there were those games released by companies such as NTDEC/Mega Soft/Caltron, which in mediocrity terms are in a category of their own.

The more you dig into any video game library the more you learn, and this is as true now as it was back then. NTDEC wasn't on my radar as a child, therefore here I am very late to the party to share my less than enthusiastic impressions of yet another unlicensed product from the company. A rail shooter marketed at the time as having the same thrills as Sega's amazing Space Harrier, Cosmos Cop is another demonstration of the lousy work from some of the same people who delivered stuff like Magic Carpet 1001 (just check the end credits to see it). Although it can't really be qualified as torture, it does stand out as a truly shabby effort that smears the genre's flair for excitement and wonder.

The terror legion from alienation space invaded galaxy!
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Cosmos Cop puts you inside a giant mecha that flies forward in a mission to save the galaxy from outer space scumbags. It’s a simple game with a simple objective: to defeat a giant boss after five short levels of straightforward shooting with very little variety. The scrolling surface never changes from its initial dark blue color, only the background in the distance does in order to reflect the themes for each stage, which is always preceded by a quick message describing the next mission. The first level is a "defensive" area, followed by a flight towards volcanoes, an enemy arsenal, an energy station, the mandatory end-of-game fortress and of course the final boss. This last enemy, in fact, seems to have been the object of most of the design efforts because it's got a really creepy and menacing look. Honestly speaking, it's the single highlight of the whole game.

Button B fires your regular cannon (with autofire) and button A deploys the so-called neutron missile, a supposedly more powerful attack that has limited ammo and no autofire. Each life comes with an energy gauge that allows you to take a few hits before dying. What's particularly weird about Cosmos Cop is the way enemy bullets are fired at the player. They deviate from the norm in that all projectiles explode into cross or × shaped patterns of four bullets that spread out in varying angles according to the enemy that fired them. In that sense, it's not enough to just dodge. You also need to keep your space until all expanding bullets have cleared the area.

Due to the peculiar nature of the enemy fire, losing lots of energy in a short period of time during a quick bullet shower is quite common in the beginning. Lost energy is recovered by collecting the P icon that approaches floating by (the only item you'll come across in the whole game). Besides refilling the energy gauge, this icon is also responsible for adding a few more neutron missiles to the stock. Energy is fully replenished at the start of a new level as well.

As I mentioned above you don't face any sort of boss until you reach the end of the game, but it can be quite hard to preserve health and not die on the way. The good news is that you're granted with an extra life for every 10.000 points you score. If it weren't for this somewhat merciful extend routine Cosmos Cop would certainly be more a challenge, regardless of how bare bones it looks like with all those generic formations of saucers, drones and rocks. At least it scrolls at a decent pace and doesn't incur in any slowdown or flicker.

The impending dangers of the volcano area

In the constricted realm of NES rail shooters it's very easy to mistake this game for Cosmic Epsilon due to their names looking alike. However, while Cosmos Cop's stale experience fails to leave any lasting impression, Cosmic Epsilon might possibly be the best 8-bit rail shooter ever created. Just take note of that if you happen to stumble upon both of them in any game discussion or in your next garage sale. Note that besides the standalone Spanish release by Gluk, Cosmos Cop is also included in the famous Caltron 6-in-1 multicart.

I beat Cosmos Cop in my first attempt playing it, but wasn't fast enough to pause and take the picture of my score (there's no hi-score buffering anywhere and the game halts at the credits screen). Then I played it once more and got a better result, shown in the picture below. It was quite quick, after all a full credit lasts about just 12 minutes!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

TwinBee 3 (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1989

The last game in the TwinBee franchise to be published as a Famicom exclusive, TwinBee 3 - Poko Poko Daimaō never made it to Western shores as did Moero TwinBee / Stinger. Perhaps Konami had a gamer like me in mind when dealing with the series out of Japan, after all I never really cared about its gameplay and the whole concept of a cute'em up where you're supposed to be juggling bells at all times. There's something about this mechanic that doesn't quite click with me in the first entries of the franchise (my perception about future chapters such as Pop'n TwinBee is vastly different though).

That said, one of the most important things to be said about TwinBee 3 is that it returns to the roots of the series by offering vertical stages only, as opposed to the mix of horizontal and vertical levels seen in Stinger. In Famicom terms it plays just like the original TwinBee, only with some changes here and there. Cute and surreal enemies storm about from everywhere in the most erratic movement patterns amidst clouds that release colored bells when shot at. Commands are the basic combination of shot (button B) and ground bombs (button A), but a turbo controller comes in very handy since the game lacks autofire.

Lots of hive-like terrain ahead

Trying to go all the way with the default pea shot in a snail's pace is of course not the correct way to enjoy the game, so one of the first actions you need to take is get a blue bell for a welcome speed boost. The main bell color is yellow, with all other colors appearing after they take a few shots. However, in TwinBee 3 the amount of bells initially generated in blue color is considerable, so flying fast can actually be quite hard to avoid at times. In fact, the feeling I got in this chapter is that it's quite easy to get multiple speed-ups and start moving at breakneck speeds all over the place (the HUD even keeps track of the amount of speed-ups you get).

Keep hitting the bells to see more color variations besides yellow for the following functions: blue (speed-up), white (double shot), red (piercing laser shot), flashing red (trailing options) and flashing blue (shield barrier). Yellow bells serve the single purpose of scoring since for each one grabbed without letting any go down the screen you score 500, 2.500, 5.000 and then 10.000 points (max). Other bell colors do not influence the yellow bell combo, so there's no need to rush in order to juggle a blue bell that's far away or almost out of reach.

Besides the bells, other items can be uncovered by destroying ground targets with bombs. Most of them, such as fruit and money, result in a few extra points, but some items yield better rewards. The bottle gives an extra life, the candy gives you a 3-way spread shot, the question mark might destroy all on-screen enemies (not always), the match sets fire to the next bell for a lengthy period of invincibility and an old man's head gives access to a bonus cloud area once the stage boss is defeated. The old man is actually dr. Cinnamon, the game's villain who has kidnapped Gwinbee and prompts TwinBee and WinBee to go rescue their friend, solo or in a cooperative mission. 

A crazy TV ad for TwinBee 3
(courtesy of YouTube user Satoshi Matrix)

The lower option in the main screen sends the player to the options menu (see translation below). Besides selecting the difficulty between Easy and Hard, you can also choose the character (TwinBee or WinBee) and the order of the first four levels. One of the main differences between both difficulties, aside from the expected enemy opposition, is the fact that the ambulance appears as many times as needed on Easy. In regular TwinBee fashion, the ambulance shows up after you've taken two hits, restoring the character's arms once collected. In the Hard difficulty the ambulance appears only once, so losing the arms again afterwards will make it impossible to hit ground targets.

A feature that expands upon the ambulance gimmick in TwinBee 3 is the "soul recovery system", which leaves behind a ghost of the character that slowly moves upwards when you lose a life. Take it and you'll recover whatever upgrades you had prior to dying. While it's certainly helpful, sometimes it's impossible to pick it up when you die close to the top. There are also times when it doesn't appear at all, mostly during later loops in the Hard difficulty. Just like in previous entries, powering up the character with anything that takes it off its default condition accelerates the music into a new tune that remains playing until you lose a life.

Option menu translation for TwinBee 3
With sceneries that vary from the staple floating islands of the first stage to a psychedelic mix of checkerboards full of cannons in the fifth and final level, TwinBee 3 veers into something a bit different in its middle areas by showing a medieval setting in stage 3 and a coal mine where rail carts slide while shooting at you in stage 4. The last couple of levels is particularly demanding as far as survival goes, so it's always good to memorize where you can get fire matches and extra lives from ground targets.

After firing up the cartridge I went straight into Hard difficulty. While certainly tough in its own terms, my feeling is that most of the difficulty stemmed more from the choppy scrolling than the gameplay itself. If I had to choose a favorite NES entry in this series I'd definitely pick Stinger, yet TwinBee 3 might certainly shine more in the boss gallery department, which is totally wacky and seems more fitting to a Parodius chapter than a TwinBee game. Since extends are earned regularly with every 100.000 points you score and there's no change in difficulty whatsoever after you beat the game, I looped it four times with TwinBee and gave up at the start of the 5th round (stage 5-1) with the score below:

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Exzisus (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1987
Published by Taito in 2005

I always thought highly of well-made compilations of classic games. And one of the truths about this is that few of them compare or even come close to the sheer value provided by the discs Taito released for the Playstation 2 under the Taito Memories and Taito Legends monikers. Amongst the usual company flagships such as Darius Gaiden and Rayforce you'll still find interesting shmups to spend some time with. One example is Exzisus, a rather primitive yet fun horizontal shooter that appears both in Taito Legends (US version) and Taito Memories II - Vol. 1 (Japan version).

Even though Exzisus does have some sort of uniqueness to its gameplay, it’s obvious that the game has either predated Darius by a few months only or was developed concurrently with it. You can easily notice that in the way enemy formations are handled, how the ship form resembles a broken/sliced Silver Hawk and how one of the bosses actually looks like Dual Shears despite being a giant scorpion. Exzisus takes a simpler approach to backgrounds but the same raw, otherworldly quirkiness about the graphics also apply. Just note that the version in the Taito discs is the "conversion kit" variant, not the dedicated cabinet one. Differences between both can be checked in this page.

Exzisus is about a flying robot that’s capable of turning into a spaceship on the fly, in pure and glorious Transfomers-like style. Whenever you're respawned you materialize as the robot, a form that allows you to fly and to walk/crouch on ground level. Only two buttons are used to play the game. The first input fires both the main shot and the missiles that come out from the robot's jetpack, while the secondary input launches forward any options you might have acquired, which hover above the robot in the form of an eagle (above) and a dog (below). Options are acquired with the O item, released by destroying item carriers that appear from time to time.

"My brothers enlisted in the Bacterion empire and left me here alone to die!!"

Besides the options, other available items in the game are D (spread shot), L (laser shot), M (missile upgrade), F (autofire), dark D (smart bomb) and A (aerodynamic transformation). The two weapon types you can actually use are spread and laser, which get upgraded by picking up successive items of the same kind. The same is valid for missiles, which evolve into ground trailing missiles and then homing/heat-seeking missiles. The A item is the one that causes the transformation from robot to ship form, also causing any existing options to sink into the ship's hull. If you get hit in ship form you'll revert back to robot, and upon being hit as a robot you lose a life, respawning in a previous checkpoint.

Each level in Exzisus is split in half by an intermediate section where the player needs to deal with a special kind of obstacle. In these areas you'll be flying amidst meteorites, falling ice blocks, moving barriers and expanding spores. The difficulty increases accordingly, with the final stage being naturally the trickiest to get through. Normally there's no need for heavy memorization since the game does not include physical obstacles of any kind except for the aforementioned midde-stage areas and the ground itself: scratching it slightly when in ship form is admissible, just don't lean into it otherwise it'll count as a hit and you'll be sent back to the robot form.

Between the primitive yet functional graphics and the decent dodging action with enemy waves arriving from all sides, Exzisus is reasonably amusing despite a few awkward details. From very early on you need to get used to the way missiles are fired, for example, and you also need to adapt to the hitbox when in ship form (it looks larger than it actually is). The robot has a much larger hitbox but doesn't incur in a severe handicap during the stages themselves, and lest size becomes a problem you always come across an A item prior to boss confrontations.

A gameplay aspect that can be regularly exploited when in robot form is the fact that both mechanical helpers are able to block and absorb enemy bullets. Besides, there are instances where launching them forward repeatedly is quite helpful, either in robot or in ship form. The first extend is granted with 150.000 points, and further ones come in intervals of 200.000 points.

One quick credit in Exzisus
(courtesy of YouTube user zxspectrumgames4)

Progress in the level is measured by a "map" gauge on the upper corner of the screen. At the end of the level it changes to "dmg" to indicate the health of the boss. Speaking of which, bosses are in a league of their own as far as campy design goes, even though they're not exactly pushovers when it comes down to the amount of bullets they're able to fire against you. I giggled the first time I saw the gold moai (which is a far cry from the most famous moai in the shmup world) and its incredible moving ability in the first level. The mechanical yeti in stage 2 doesn't fare much better, the red scorpion in stage 3 is the one that looks like a boss straight out of Darius and the violet salamander looks nothing like the sort, resembling a giant cobra instead.

Click for the option menus translation for Exzisus on Taito Memories II - Vol. 1

Cheese and camp aside, the game is enjoyable enough and a worthy predecessor to later shmups with similar visual or functional elements, such as Android Assault, Heavy UnitSpriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project and several titles in the Macross franchise. However, when going for the Playstation 2 as the platform of choice players should be aware that the Japanese disc allows full button remapping, unlike the Taito Legends release. Furthermore, upon testing the game in the latter I noticed it stutters during the asteroid shower of the first stage, which of course points to the fact that this particular disc isn’t the optimal choice to play the game. In fact, if you need to choose between regions you should always go for the Japanese releases in this case, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.

I reached stage 2-3 of Exzisus in my best high score on Normal difficulty. The scorpion boss spits out way more bullets the second time around, and losing the ship form while fighting him makes everything nigh impossible.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

For those people who wondered what Konami was thinking when developing and releasing the fourth chapter of the Parodius series for the Super Famicom in 1995, the answer actually came quite quickly. As usual, the game was just too good to be restricted to a single console platform, so the company soon ported it to the 32-bit generation with the added subtitle of Forever with Me, whatever that's supposed to mean. On the outside it looks and plays just like the 16-bit original, albeit with a few standout changes in the core game that are obviously aimed at turning it into a better experience overall.

The aspect that gives Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me its name is a comical announcer who’s always babbling random stuff (in Japanese) as the game unfolds. An extra female announcer is also present in the cooperative 2-player mode, which is one of the most prominent novelties of both 32-bit ports since there is no co-op in the Super Famicom version. Being able to tag along with a partner probably makes this particular chapter the best one for sheer co-op fun because of three things: a character roster that allows for great combinations of powers and abilities, the complete absence of slowdown and the difficulty level being the same as in the 16-bit original.

Vic Viper on manual power-up mode during two stages
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

On top of the nonsensical and colorful design that had its details touched up a little bit, the Saturn version also comes with a few other changes (keep reading). The core gameplay remains intact of course, as defined by the classic mold first introduced in the Gradius series. If you decide for manual power-up mode after selecting the character (the lower option), you'll have to press a dedicated button in order to activate the upgrade that's highlighted in the weapon array, which gets shifted to the right as you collect power-up capsules. By choosing auto power-up mode the game does the upgrading automatically for the player, but it's still possible to activate the upgrade yourself if desired, such as when you want to have more speed. The other inputs are shot, missile (which can be combined in the same button, of course) and bell power.

As all Parodius fans know, rules on the use of bell powers are inherited from the TwinBee franchise. They are either generated periodically in between capsules or released in batches by mid-sized enemies, and come in the following colors: yellow (score), blue (bomb), green (instantaneous inflation + invincibility), white (bullet-cancelling kanji shot), red (three energy barriers) and purple (turns all weak enemies into power-ups and/or bells). Shoot the bells to juggle them and switch their colors, just note that it takes four shots to change from yellow to the other colors in sequence. As one of the main sources of scoring, yellow bells collected in sequence soon max out at 10.000 points each, provided you don't let any bell get past you.
In between regular power-up capsules and bells you also get gray capsules that work as smart bombs. Don't use them if you want to get the scores from the kills though, because all enemies wiped out with the gray capsule yield no points at all. That said, the other main source of points besides bells are the secret fairies that must be uncovered by shooting at their locations. Each one is worth 10.000 points, and if you're the type of player who cares about completing extravagant achievements you can strive to collect all 70 fairies to unlock secret character Dracula-kun, and then a whole new set of 70 faiires to unlock its sibling Kid Dracula. Fortunately it's possible to take a shortcut by means of a secret code if you want to add these extra characters to the default 16.

Relatively easygoing when compared with the arcade games in the series, Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius does not deny its console sensibilities and is probably the perfect chapter for immediate "pick up and play". Inspirations from several Konami titles abound, and not only related to the shoot'em up realm. Tokimeki Memorial, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Lethal Enforcers and Taisen Puzzle-Dama are used as themes for complete stages, with the later two being reworkings or completely new ventures on the Saturn and Playstation versions. New details on enemies and bosses, minor graphical enhancements and a few shifts in the CD-quality music are also in place.

Pentaro to the rescue

Going beyond the basics, high level play also involves the convenient use of the purple bell, which was introduced in Gokujyou Parodius but is absent from Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius on the Super Famicom. Another important alteration in this regard is that the extend routine is not interrupted when you score more than one million points. The first extend comes with 20.000 points, with new ones awarded for each 100.000 points afterwards. It's not uncommon to amass a huge amount of extra lives if you play well enough, which obviously helps in reaching higher loops more easily. Since the difficulty increase after you beat the game is also a tad tamer than what you'd get in any of the arcade titles of the franchise, chances are you'll be facing a dedicated Parodius marathon type of challenge on the first two rounds/loops at least.

As expected, this port also preserves the checkpoint-based save function. When you pause and press L, the middle option contains three save slots while the upper option is used to load them at any time. Pausing and pressing R, on the other hand, allows you to return to the title screen on the lower option. A tiny in-game improvement appears in a new display just below the indication for the hi-score, which shows the current difficulty level and loop. In the title screen you also have the choice of two new special game modes: Omake 1 is a completely new single stage where you're supposed to get high scores, whereas Omake 2 works as a racing mini-game where the objective is to get to the end of the area as fast as possible. 

Click for the main menu translation for the Normal game in Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me on the Sega Saturn

Even though on a first glance both 32-bit ports are very similar, there is a specific switch in the options screen that alters the gameplay significantly. In the case of the Saturn version, this tweak is called "Extra". Its function is to change enemy formations completely, an alteration that makes the game a tad harder than usual. On the Playstation this is replaced by "Accident", which adds polygonal-based bonus areas to the end of each level. Besides these interesting tweaks to the base game, both ports allow the OH! bogus power-up to be replaced by a slot machine for bells if you turn "Slot!" on. As for "Duet", "Ikari" and "Nage", they are specific tweaks for co-op play.

Once I got re-acquainted with the game I decided to play with Upa (the baby boy) and got the result below in one of my first serious credits. I played with auto power-up on full defaults (difficulty 4, Roulette ON, Slot!/Extra/Revival OFF, Oshaberi ON) and reached stage 3-6. I had great fun and felt so comfortable with the automatic handling of my upgrade capsules that I didn't even try to play the game with manual power-ups. I did activate a second speed-up right after the first one though.

Now I guess I'm ready to move on to one of the ports for Sexy Parodius!