Saturday, August 28, 2021

Space Blaze (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by UIG Entertainment
Published by UIG Entertainment in 2020

I'm not used to categorizing games based on broad labels that don't really add anything useful to a discussion, but it's hard not to come up with the term euroshmup when talking about Space Blaze. Sure it was developed in Europe, but that doesn't mean anything. What does stand out in this game is some well known derogatory features associated with the term, of which the most relevant are the adoption of a life bar, simplistic level designs and extremely unbalanced gameplay.

Space Blaze is a bare bones shooter with seven stages and pretty much nothing else to help it linger longer than the absolute necessary in the memory of shmup fans. It's your classic methodical sci-fi romp that goes from point A to point B while trying to adhere to the basic rules of the genre, which means you'll come across lots of enemies, power-ups and a big boss at the end of each level. Graphics tend to be quite dark and range from average to extremely well done, especially when some sleek lighting effects are applied on weapons and enemies. It looks decent and sounds decent (enough), but it's unfortunately bound to disappoint even the most eager admirer of outer space shooters.

A dinosaur boss inside fiery caves

The world of Space Blaze isn't much complicated for the brave pilots (co-op play available) who accept the mission to destroy another evil alien menace. Below the health bar there are three sections that show the firepower level of each weapon in the game: red (spread vulcan), blue (straight laser shot) and green/white (multidirectional shot). Red is the default, the others must be activated by collecting at least one colored power-up item. Shooting is achieved with button × or □, and cycling through the available weapons is performed with L1 and R1. The special attack (or superweapon) is triggered with button ∆ or ○ and depends on which weapon you're using, resulting in a powerful homing projectile burst (red), a piercing laser beam (blue) or a quick and thick arching blast (green).

Besides icons for power-ups there are also items for options, temporary invincibility shield, energy recovery (P) and superweapon (adds one special attack to the stock). These items are small and dark-colored, but since they're all benign you can take all of them without hesitation. However, there's absolutely no need to worry about them after stage 2, and this happens for a very simple reason: they just stop coming. It's as if the developer simply forgot about them or sadistically decided to deny the player the ability to recover any energy or activate new options after dying. It's not just that though, in fact it gets worse.

Stages 1 and 2 can be learned quickly, never mind the creepy but stupid bosses who barely have a chance to shoot back. After that something's completely off with the gameplay. Once the ship starts descending over a rocky planet, all incoming items will be of the green weapon only. Every single one of them. This sequence is broken in stage 6 when they get swappped for the blue weapon, but green is once again the single item to be found in the final level. This means that from stage 3 onwards players never get the chance to upgrade vulcan again! This imposes a great deal of difficulty because red is definitely the best weapon for crowd control when maxed out. Since deaths take away two power levels of all weapons, a single death makes a severe dent in firepower, leaving you in dire straits against hordes of mindless drones.

Dying during boss fights is particularly punishing since you might soon be back to the default pea shot with extremely capped firing ratio. Earning one extra life per level won't help unless you can endure excruciatingly long and painful boss battles. Another minor hindrance is the fact that in the beginning of every level the game gives you three special attacks regardless of how many you had previously, which is good for restocking but quite bad from stage 2 to stage 3 since it strips you away of the cumulated six. The thing is that special attacks are extremely useful to wear down bosses faster, so holding on to them no matter how badly you have to perform during the level is extremely important in the second half of the game (lives and superweapons are independent from each other as far as their stock goes).

Official trailer for Space Blaze
(courtesy of YouTube user Games Asylum Trailers)

Despite the shortcomings in the botched gameplay, it's still possible to beat Space Blaze on a single credit with a little stubborn practice. Keeping a maxed out vulcan shot is the best way to proceed safely once the game shows its final euroshmupping facet by stage 4 and starts throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you amidst a beautiful blueish underwater landscape. All of that while giving you only green power-ups. Note that when you pick up a weapon item the ship starts firing it at once, so if you want to keep using a different type of weapon you need to constantly re-select it while collecting power-ups. Since each power-up in excess is worth 5.000 points, score-hungry players will often get out of their way to pick them up. When doing that beware of the large hitbox of the ship and the constant obstacles scrolling by on the foreground, which often hide spikes and unsuspected deadly corners.

If I were to pick something good out of Space Blaze I'd say it's stage 7, just because it actually seems to have been thought out a little better in terms of level design, scrolling everywhere instead of just going to the right. Too bad it comes up too late. As a whole this game is proof that nice graphics aren't enough to make a simple, balanced and fun horizontal shmup. The utter disregard for even the most rudimentary balancing in the programming department is quite baffling to say the least. And what's the point of having your score resumed and increased even when coming back and continuing after the console has been turned off? Why have any sort of leaderboard for this, I wonder?

Anyways, the only way to play the game with a clean slate after you've practiced and continued is to do it after deleting the game's save file, which I did before getting the 1CC score shown below.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Hunt for Red October (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Riedel Software Productions
Published by Hi Tech Expressions in 1993

Despite the fascination that surrounds them, my feeling is that submarines were never a "thing" during the golden era of gaming as far as shmups go. However, given the success The Hunt for Red October achieved in movie theaters throughout 1990, its video game adaptations had all possible chances to leave a standing mark in the submarine subgenre. Speaking of the home console market, three games came out for Nintendo platforms, and while they seem to be the same on the outside they're actually quite different from each other.

The NES version, for example, isn't quite like The Hunt for Red October on the Super Nintendo,  which makes sense since these games were developed by different companies. The SNES version also came out a couple of years later, and given how it turned out this leads me to believe the game was only taken out of the development shelf in order to try to cash in on the Super Scope peripheral, even though the light gun bazooka is only used in the bonus areas and during the battle against the last boss. Thankfully the Super Scope is completely optional, as in most of the 11 titles developed for the accessory.

Defection time
(courtesy of YouTube user glennznl)

In the quest to lead the Red October submarine across nine missions that don't really follow the plot of the movie (or the novel), the player has a wide array of functions at his/her disposal. All buttons are used in the SNES controller, starting with Y for torpedoes (frontal attack), B for bombs (downward attack), X for surface-to-air missiles (vertical fire), A for surface-to-surface missiles (an arching frontal attack), L for direction switch, R for cavitation drive (navigate undetected) and SELECT for "electronic countermeasures" (a device that when dropped disables all nearby enemy fire for a few seconds). The lower HUD shows the ammo for each resource, as well as the amount of damage taken by the sub, ranging from 0 to 100%.

You'll be using all four face buttons of the controller a lot, whereas R and SELECT are best reserved for tricky sections or for when you are low on health and need whatever resources you can to survive. After all there's just that energy meter to get through the game, with only a little recovery in between levels and two other opportunities to get some health/ammo back. One of them is a single in-game item that provides the sub with minor repairs and refills the stock for all main attacks, the other is the periscope icon that takes you to a gallery view where you need to shoot down jets and ships (the sections where the Super Scope is enabled).

Since moving the crosshair with the regular controller is so slow, anticipating enemy trajectory is the best way to perform better during the periscope bonus intermissions. A good kill ratio guarantees a good repair level on the sub, as well as the replenishing and even maxing out of the weapon stock. It's by far the most reliable way to keep the submarine in healthy conditions, so try not to lose any periscope items if possible. If the sub gets wrecked either by enemy fire or by colliding against obstacles (100% damage) the game is over. However, if you fail to complete a mission because you depleted the necessary weapons to kill a boss or because the cruise ship you're escorting gets destroyed before reaching its destination you get sent back to the map room instead of ending the credit right away. You don't get to recover any health or ammo though.

While the graphics aren't anything special, with little flair and lots of blue and gray, the physics for the movement of the submarine and the behavior of weapons is rather well implemented. The soundtrack is as repetitive and boring as it gets though. Getting used to the rhythm of the game and the reload cycles of enemies proves to be essential in the long run, especially during later levels. Prior to each stage the map room shows the available levels/missions with a scrolling text message describing their objectives. Completing the available one(s) will unlock further missions, which can be tackled in slightly different order if you so wish. After the initial defection stage you get two missions in the Caribbean (one of them to escort the abovementioned cruise ship), three missions in the North Pacific (oil platforms is the hardest), two missions in the Mediterranean and a final mission where you return to the USSR to prevent a coup attempt to overthrow the communist party.

Diving in dangerous waters
In spite of the pressure imposed by having only a single health bar and by the lack of continues for explicit practice, The Hunt for Red October isn't an overly hard game. It's got its share of tricky moments, but memorization and careful play will inevitably result in victory. As for the final boss, if you get there in good health conditions you can safely ignore the minor enemies and just bombard the large ship to oblivion. Going out of your way to take them down (or any other enemy for that matter) is useless because the game has no scoring system.

Even though it doesn't do anything fundamentally wrong, the game doesn't do anything to impress either. Fans of methodical and aim-oriented shooting might have mild fun with it, players who enjoy fast and flashy action should certainly stay away. That said, comparisons between this game and the NES version are natural and expected once you've played both. In my opinion the NES wins in pretty much all aspects that matter, including diversity, challenge and presentation (the Game Boy is disregarded for obvious reasons). For fans of the movie, unfortunately there's no mention at all to the character played by Sean Connery in the SNES game.
Neither the US nor the Japanese version of The Hunt for Red October for the Super Nintendo has an options screen, which is surprisingly present in the European cartridge. No need to worry about it though since it only includes the choice for stereo/mono sound and a BGM/sound test.