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 Daimaƍ 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.