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!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Eden's Aegis (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by X.X Game Room
Published by X.X Game Room in 2010

Eden's Aegis is the last PC free shooter released by the enigmatic one-man development institution known as X.X Game Room. It's easy to mistake it for Eden's Edge, which is actually one of his first attempts at creating a challenge for those who enjoy the thrill of dodging bullet curtains. For the record, 1.11 is the definitive iteration of Eden's Aegis, so that's what everybody's been playing for years now.

It seems the original page from the developer is offline at the moment, so just head to the download page and extract the downloaded file, plug in your favorite controller, run the executable, hit OK on all pop-up boxes and there you go, bullet hell action instantly available. With obvious influences from the works by Cave, Eden's Aegis can be defined simply as a shooter where your main objective is to destroy larger enemies in order to cancel bullets, thus turning them into precious gold and surviving the odds in the process.

Graphically the game is very similar to the other main work by X.X Game Room, Blue Wish Resurrection and its Plus variation. And that’s probably my main gripe with it, since apart from the choice of the avatar being a flying girl instead of a spaceship both games bear a strikingly undistinguishable appearance, which is very much defined by open space punctuated by raw textures for ground surfaces and a fireworks display of medals and bullet patterns. Of course this is alleviated by the fact that we’ve been given the chance to play these very fine shooters for free, so no big qualms about that.

One could say these games are all about gameplay, meaning 100% substance over style.

Beautiful purple bullet curtains!

Inputs work with shot, full auto, special attack and bomb. By holding shot you get a focused firing stream with reduced movement speed. The special attack adds a concentrated burst of power to your shot pattern that lasts a few seconds, which then recharges automatically for the next use as seen in the meter on the bottom left of the screen. The bomb is self-explanatory, granting instant invincibility to the character during its animation. Autoguard is a feature that’s turned on by default and sacrifices one bomb for every hit you take. “Wait” is initially also set to ON and means that you’ll always have slowdown whenever bullet count reaches a certain threshold (set it to OFF if you’d like to experience a much harder game overall).

In all game modes there are originally only two characters available. You can either beat the game with them to unlock the other two or just create an empty .txt file on the game’s directory named “yutori”. All four exhibit different traits for firing patterns, bombs and recovery times for the special attack. In general the further down they are in the selection screen the harder it is to control them, which means Nanathy is the character to go for beginners while Ridmie requires a deeper knowledge both for survival and for scoring.

The rules of gameplay are the same for all modes (Heaven, Original and Hell). Enemies release golden gems for taking, and if you kill them with special attacks all medals are automatically sucked into the avatar. Death explosions of larger enemies turn every nearby bullet into gems, in what’s the most obvious device in the risk/reward scoring technique: kill them right away to survive or let them live long enough in order to reap more points from on-screen bullets? The good news in that regard is that you'll see health bars for all enemies that are at least mid-sized. Gem counter increases during the level and decreases during mid-boss fights (faster) and stage boss confrontations (slower), getting cut in 1/3 for every hit you take. 

Hidden ground items, such as extra bombs and a solitary extend in stage 4, will only be uncovered by hitting them with the special attack. Bombs are also very important for scoring since they turn all on-screen bullets into gems. Score-based extends are granted with 7 and 30 million points.

Hell mode's first stage with Nanathy
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Like all previous titles from the same developer, Eden's Aegis is a great pick-up-and-play shmup that provides instant fun from the get go, at least in Heaven and Original modes. Enemy projectiles aren't overly fast, the constant slowdown can be considered a nice exercise in tight bullet hell practice and you can even hold the special attack button so that it's repeatedly deployed after each recharge cycle. For a regular bystander the difference from relaxed survival play and high level scoring attempts seems to be trivial, but it actually requires thorough route/positioning choices and tight usage of the special attack. Never mind switching wait or autoguard to OFF, since they do not affect any aspect of the game with regards to scoring.

During the very short time I played the game I cleared it a few times in Original mode, improving my score a little without training any particular section. Eden's Aegis does include practice options though, as well as stage select and the ability to change the color of bullets and save replays – you just can't pause, for pausing denies replay saves and goes as far as not allowing you to write your initials in the high score board. The game does warrant a lot more dedication than the short spell I was able to devote to it, but at least I had good unrestricted fun. My character of choice was Nanathy.

Note: I didn't try Hell mode at all, which is the only one that has a TLB (True Last Boss) in the end, accessible by 1CCing and having at least one bomb in stock when the fifth boss is defeated.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
25 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by HandyGames
Published by THQ Nordic in 2019

Originally launched in digital form in 2017, Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron is the direct sequel to Aces of the Luftwaffe. While the first one is a weird vertical shooter disguised as a horizontal thanks to its original mobile roots, the sequel is a pure vertical romp aimed at modern gaming audiences: instead of adopting the well known arcade structure of the shmup genre it uses stage-specific performances as basis for upgrades and the shooting experience as a whole, with aesthetics based on a World War II military setting with sci-fi undertones.

The retail version of the game includes the complete DLC campaign known as Nebelgeschwader, actually the sole reason for the Extended Edition subtitle. Nebelgeschwader also comes with 25 levels but this time you play as a German squadron instead of the default heroes of the “Squadron One” allied forces, complete with different weapons and enemy formations. In both variations of the game you are allowed/encouraged to play and replay all levels in order to obtain more experience points and maximize the score and as a result.

The good news for those looking for an arcade-like session is that no grinding is needed if you want to play from beginning to end in a single sitting. Just note that the complete campaign takes around two hours to complete.

Squadron One under heavy enemy fire

Capcom’s 19XX series is of course the main source of inspiration in Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron. A slew of cartoonish touches are the main differential in the latter, since you take control of a leader and three wingmen that banter all the time during the game itself. The art design for levels isn't particularly eye-catching, but planes and enemies show a good amount of detail. Controller inputs work like this for the default Squadron One team: button × fires, buttons L1/R1 are used to select the special weapon and button □ triggers it (button ○ has an extra purpose when playing with the Nebelgeschwader squadron). You can’t remap inputs, but in my opinion this is fortunately a good arrangement.

A full campaign has five missions divided in five chapters each for a total of 25 stages (not considering the short introduction part where your squadron is taken down by the final boss). You get five lives for every level, so even if you get through on your last life you’ll start the next stage with a new stock of five. The plane’s health is indicated by a meter that circles the plane and depletes as you receive damage. Each hit from a regular bullet takes away some health whereas cluster projectiles made of many bullets, such as those fired by some of the later bosses, can be instantly fatal. Fire curtains, poisonous mists, lasers and ramming attacks complete the arsenal of the enemy, imposing all sorts of danger as you advance.

The game is pretty self-explanatory regarding item pick-ups, showing brief explanations on how power-ups, medals and skill coins work. Power-ups increase your plane’s firepower, but you need to constantly get more of them otherwise you’ll revert to the previous power level. This limitation in ammo isn’t that contriving after all, even if you’re downgraded it’s not for long because power-ups come in a fairly regular basis. A maxed out Squadron One, for example, will bear an enormous amount of firepower, sending out lasers, wave blasts and shards all over the place for a great destruction effect. The catch is that you start every level with the weakest shot, which requires players to power up the squadron from scratch in every single mission.

Skill coins are used to activate enhancements and special weapons in the Skills menu in-between levels, and are obtained either by collecting medals or by sheer luck in certain areas. The game is balanced enough so that the coins you get are sufficient to enable all or almost all upgrades in a complete run. Other unlockables such as new planes might be awarded when a main boss is defeated – these rewards are random and in the long run players are supposed to replay stages to acquire all of them. Besides the functional upgrades, for Squadron One the most important skills to be enabled/upgraded in my opinion are the "sky bomb" and the "supply request" that immediately summons power-ups.

Official trailer for Aces of Luftwaffe Squadron - Extended Edition
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayStation)

Performing well in Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron is relatively easy. It’s just a matter of avoiding damage, collecting medals, speed-killing enemies when possible and fulfilling all “side missions” in each level. These side missions range from just surviving to destroying specific targets, protecting fellow planes, dropping supplies, pursuing enemies, etc. There’s even a pacifist level (3.1) where you don’t need to fire a single bullet. The main problem is that you need to get used to the mild level of inertia of the default plane (some unlockable planes have less or no inertia), as well as the odd behavior of your wingmen: one of them goes berserk and starts flying around like crazy (killing you on contact), another is narcoleptic and sneezes all of a sudden (you need to protect him from enemy fire) and the girl is afraid of heights (fleeing when the squadron needs to fly at high altitude). Dealing with these problems well also contributes positively to your score.

Although some of the quirks described above rub me the wrong way, at least they’re not excessively harmful or gamebreaking. Relaxed playing is enough to beat most levels and fulfill all side missions, but from the 3rd boss onwards you definitely need to have some previous knowledge of boss behavior if you don’t want to lose all your lives against them. They’re also the obvious highlights in a game that otherwise lacks intensity and sounds generic and derivative, except for the quite decent atmospheric soundtrack. If you want to skip the constant blabbering between characters just press and hold button ○. I do wonder how they tease each other when there are 4 people playing in co-op though. 

When compared with Sky Force Anniversary, which has some visual and functional similarities, Aces of Luftwaffe Squadron is certainly a better choice for the simple fact that you absolutely don’t need to replay levels to beat the game. On the other hand, it doesn't compute your complete score, showing only stage-specific results. The picture below (click to enlarge) has all my stage scores for a total of 4.484.472 points on Normal difficulty in the Squadron One campaign, clocking at 1 hour and 56 minutes of play time. I used the default leader plane from start to finish because the game denied me the flying pancake upon beating the 2nd boss. I didn’t venture into the Hard or Extreme difficulties at all (Extreme is unlocked upon beating the game once), but intend to play the Nebelgeschwader mode on the Xbox One when the opportunity comes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Geimos (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wixel / Ascii Entertainment (Corporation)
Published by Ascii Entertainment in 1985

According to the game's instruction manual, in the distant future an alien race is disrupting the peace in the galaxy. Earth's defense forces then launch a fleet of space fighter crafts to try and stop the invasion. They must battle the enemy across six planets of our solar system: Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto. Take those as designations for the levels, in a neverending adventure that forces you to keep fighting as the game loops over and over.

As a complement to the *aham* non-stop action, the game also comes with a soundtrack that might not make anyone's ears bleed but certainly adds to the endurance test with a brief Star Wars-like snippet at the start of the stage and a four-note beeping noise that's repeated non-stop until the stage itself is finished.

With such primitive video game efforts like Geimos, pretty much all that's left besides the fairly tedious gameplay is trying to understand the context of the market at the time of its release. Geimos is a rail shooter, but one that lacks the all-encompassing influence provided by Space Harrier – simply because it came out before Sega's classic. Hence its main visual influence being Capcom's Exerion, even though that's not a rail but an extremely odd vertical shooter instead.

Lovely craters to the left, the endlessness of the universe to the right

Another influence imprinted in the gameplay comes from Xevious, since button B fires your main shot while button A drops bombs aimed at hitting ground targets. Geimos lacks autofire, so the best way to enjoy the game is to get a turbo controller, activate rapid fire for both buttons and keep them pressed at all times. Flying enemies arrive in waves that start shooting at you as soon as they've travelled enough into the screen, ground targets are mostly harmless but every once in a while an angry turret will show up firing several scattered shots towards your location.

Once you've defeated the regular enemies a large mothership called Phobos will warp into the center of the screen. If you fail to destroy it in time (20 seconds), it will warp out and you'll have to play the level again. If you succeed in destroying the mothership it explodes and you move on to the next stage/planet. The main background and colors change accordingly, in what's certainly the most variation you'll come across while playing the game. And once Phobos is once again blasted into oblivion in Pluto you're sent back to Earth with no fanfare, no ending message, no sign of clear victory at all.

Apart from the timeout constraint on the boss fight, dying is another occurrence that sends you back to the start of the level regardless of where you stand in it. Dying is also the only means for the player to see his/her life stock or the current stage/round that's being played. However, since you're forever stuck with the same firepower and all stages have the same short duration, there's actually not much hassle from deaths in Geimos once you've got used to the game's overly repetitive patterns. Phobos can be destroyed with any particular method every single time, for example (you can't pause when fighting it though, which is just a minor harmless observation of course). The extend routine starts with 20.000 points and proceeds with 70.000 points, with a new extra life awarded at every 70.000 points after that.

Earth is under attack!
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

An interesting additon in Geimos is the possibility to play the game with a different approach as to how the screen behaves (use the SELECT button). Mode A offers the regular experience where your ship moves around freely. Mode B, on the other hand, fixes the ship at the bottom center of the screen while everything else moves around you. Despite adding a reticle to the ship's aim, the latter is quite confusing and tough to get used to, that's why most people will certainly opt for Mode A. Whatever the chosen mode, the difficulty increases and maxes out by the second loop, after that it's all a matter of how long you can hold on to your strategies until you counterstop the game.

Once I got used to how things worked I decided I coud try to max out the score, and so I did. In the picture below the counterstop came in round 45 of mode A, which corresponds to the 3rd stage in the 8th loop. I can't say I was either thrilled or actually amused by the experience, but it wasn't that horrible either. Most of the time it was just a matter of flying low, destroying targets as they approached and moving around before getting hit by enemy fire.

That's Geimos in a nutshell, folks!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Firebird (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1992

In 1990 a new anime franchise started airing in Japan, following the end of the first generation of Transformers. Known as the Brave/Yūsha series, it focused on giant mechas working with humans as peacekeeping forces. Firebird (also known as Taiyō no Yūsha Firebird) is based on the second season of the Brave series, which came out in 1991. Why the developers chose to make the game for such an old platform like the Famicom was in 1992 is a little mystery, since one would naturally expect them to target the most powerful systems at the time. But then again, one could say the Super Famicom was still in its infancy while Irem had absolutely no allegiance with Sega.

Firebird is considered to be a mistranslation that actually makes a lot more sense than the original term Fighbird, so I'll keep using it for the time being. The full name of the game translates to The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird. For all purposes it's just another licensed product that leaves a lot to be desired, so don't get your hopes up when you see the powerful name of Irem in the game box or at the start screen. The game is slow, boring and for most of its duration it's quite frankly just another very effectively designed snoozefest.

There are lots of Japanese dialogue in Firebird, as well as many characters interacting in between levels. That was the whole idea of fan service in a licensed game, of course. You even have the chance to choose one out of both main characters of the show: Kenta (the yonger lad to the left) and Katori (the older guy to the right). There are no functional differences between them though, so it really doesn't matter who you go with.

First stage of Taiyō no Yūsha Fighbird/Firebird
(courtesy of YouTube user AAAA HERO)

The stage structure is very odd here. With the exception of the final level, each stage is divided in three parts with specific gameplay rules. In the first section you must fulfill a certain task while choosing any of the five available vehicles (or "barons") at the press of button A. Firing is accomplished with button B and differs for every vehicle, which in turn is powered up separately by picking up the P icons that appear from time to time. Other items you'll come across are the heart (for health refills), an S (for speed-up) and a clock that serves to extend time. If you fail to complete the mission in the alotted time frame you go directly into GAME OVER regardless of how many lives you have left.

In stage 1 the objective is to destroy seven green bombs, in stage 2 you're supposed to collect seven red canisters and in stage 3 you must arm seven bombs by pressing SELECT in specific orange platforms. Note that a small counter in the lower right corner of the screen shows how many items are missing in your objective list. In these sections Firebird behaves a little like Silkworm or SWIV, in that ground vehicles will not allow you to move freely around the screen. Since everything's so dull and easy, you might as well just pick the last vehicle, the Sky baron, and fly at will to complete your missions.

During the second sections of a level you're in control of a single jet that's powered up by picking up items numbered from 1 to 4, which activate and upgrade new weapons that must (again) be chosen by pressing button A. This is where boredom reaches its peak with endless empty backgrounds and few enemies crossing the screen. If you don't know what to do you might be stuck there for a long time, as I did when I first played the game. There's no timer anymore: the catch is that in order to move on you need to press SELECT as soon as the name of the game pops up in the corner.

Moving on the the final section of the level, you'll be in control of the large Firebird mecha in a quest to defeat the stage boss. It uses the same arsenal of the second section, including the need to switch weapons with button A. Note that the first weapon comes with an extremely powerful charge shot that's devastating against larger enemies. All other weapons require some sort of artificial turbofire in the controller if you don't fancy manually tapping your way towards victory.

The Drill baron in glorious action

In terms of difficulty, Firebird is nothing short of a joke. The challenge never picks up, and with the exception of bosses you'll never feel there's any danger whatsoever. You can take lots of hits because of the lifebar and the incoming refill hearts. Besides, it's also possible to get lots of 1UP items in all types of sections throughout the levels.

The only redeeming quality of this game, for Famicom standards at least, is the music. The soundtrack has decent moments that are sadly used over long stretches marked by tedious action and tepid design. Unless you're keen on having a taste of uninteresting gaming history, I doubt there will be any thrills even for the most diehard fans of the anime.

Firebird keeps no track of scores and even hides the score display when you pause. The result below was obtained by filming the fight against the last boss with a cell phone and then freezing the footage on his death afterwards. Since you can play second sections of levels indefinitely (without pressing SELECT when needed), there's no point at all in trying to play the game for score.