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.