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).