Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Quattro Arcade [F-16 Renegade] (NES)

Vertical / Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
20 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Codemasters
Published by Camerica in 1992

I've never had much contact with the titles released by Camerica for the NES. The company has a special history with the platform because it only published unlicensed games developed by Codemasters, which is of course known for many other video game related endeavors such as the Game Genie. I now wonder if I should've started my journey through Codemasters shmups with a different game since F-16 Renegade is a lot like Mig-29 - Soviet Fighter, which was released at least a couple of years earlier and also seems to be the better choice from both.

Anyway, F-16 Renegade is one of the four games included in the Quattro Arcade compilation, the others being one racer and two platformers. It's a uniform mix of vertical and rail shooting stages where the main character is a young pilot fighting to defeat his crazy professor, who has hacked into the US Air Force's computers and programmed all of the jets to fly off and start World War III. Yes, the story is ambitious and told in fine details in the instruction manual, in what's clearly a very nice effort for an unlicensed title. Unfortunately the same compliment can't be made about the game itself.

Trying out F-16 Renegade for the first time
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Once F-16 Renegade is selected from the initial menu and a credit is started you can't help but feel something's really off. First of all, that music you hear in the attract mode is gone, and all that's left to accompany the pilot in battle during the whole game are sound effects. Then you realize you have to cope with inertia, which makes moving and dodging a real pain until you get used to it. And once you start to try out the inputs (A for shot, B for bomb) it's impossible not to get annoyed by how unresponsive they are. Waiting until the enemy is ahead of you to shoot can be fatal, so just hold that button for whatever rate of fire you can get. And yes, bombing can be equally unresponsive.

Stage symmetry is guaranteed from beginning to end, meaning that odd-numbered levels are vertical and even-numbered levels unfold in rail shooting fashion, complete with a brief take-off animation that poorly emulates After Burner. The general approach to each type of level is of course quite different from each other, but the upgrade items appear in both. Besides P for power-up you'll also come across S for (smart) bomb and L for extra life. It takes five Ps to achieve maximum power, and both bomb and life stocks extend beyond the nine you're able to see if you manage to collect too many of them.

Due to the stage count and the rather repetitive nature of the game, F-16 Renegade certainly feels like a marathon. Graphics are quite simple throughout with drab colors and not so much variation in backgrounds, and the gallery of sound effects clearly tries to compensate for the lack of music. Everything comes together in an underwhelming and mostly forgettable experience, but at least the game presents a fairly steady progression for firepower upgrades and overall difficulty. This is sort of mirrored by stage names that categorize your performance from "rookie" in the first stage to "untouchable" in the final missions.

A natural evolution to River Raid, perhaps?

Each power-up improves the jet's offensive capability by a good amount either by providing more spread or more immediate power, and every time you die only one power level is lost. The game increases the challenge marginally in every stage by adding new enemy formations or by making boss patterns just a little more menacing. The only exception to this rule are rail shooter bosses, which behave practically the same from start to finish. On the other hand, those heat-seeking bullets in rail shooting areas do demand more careful maneuvering than the regular circular movement this type of game normally requires.

On vertical sections covering the whole screen can be a tad hard especially when ground turrets start firing lots of those guided missiles. They're often the reason why players get cornered and die. There's a catch to make the game easier though: the only enemies that will release upgrade items are those of the blue color. Destroying all enemies in a blue wave or a single ground blue target will always result in the appearance of an item (this information is also in the instruction manual, but who actually reads them?). As a result, you'll always acquire a decent amount of resources to complete the game if you get out of your way for blue enemies. A few further notes on upgrades: the blue enemy rule for power-ups is also valid for rail shooting areas; whenever your firepower is maxed out a P will give an extra bomb instead; bomb stock is independent of life stock, so you don't need to worry about losing all your bomb inventory when dying.

Only when I figured out that blue enemies should be my favorite target I was able to achieve the 1CC, as seen in the high score table shown below. The addition of a 2-player competitive mode in F-16 Renegade is an interesting albeit feeble twist, at least going by what's described in the instruction manual.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Viewpoint (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by American Sammy
Published by American Sammy in 1994

A unique game in its own right, Viewpoint wowed arcade environments at the time of its release thanks to a solid combination of exquisite game design and intricate difficulty. The port for the Mega Drive only appeared at the end of the console's lifespan exclusively for the North American Sega Genesis market, and while it does take a hit thanks to the adaptation to a less powerful platform it still retains the game's peculiar atmosphere. The distinctive nature of the isometric perspective is put to good use here, which is always nice since this style of shooting was and still is quite rare these days.

Though not as grueling hard as the arcade original, the Mega Drive port still packs a punch in terms of difficulty. There are lots of tough sections in the game, of which the first challenge is actually getting used to dodging. One has to admit that projectiles flying over a flat isometric surface require a slightly different approach as far as the judgement of bullet speed and proximity goes. Once this first barrier is overcome the game opens up in terms of fun, mainly because it rewards good strategies and the natural memorization that comes with repeated play sessions.

Warning, intelligent turrets ahead

Each stage in Viewpoint has its own flavor and share of trippy enemies, from giant tires and moving springs to floating fish and insect flocks, as well as a crazy mix of mechanical and animal beasts awaiting at the end of the levels. According to the instruction manual you're the pilot of the "Byupo" fighter ship, and that's it for story. Viewpoint is all about gameplay and the use of only two buttons to succeed: button B fires your main gun and buttons A or C trigger the available special attacks. By holding B you build up a more powerful shot that's unleashed when the button is released, with three charge levels that naturally depend on how long you keep the button pressed.

Special attacks or bombs come in three types that can be restocked by collecting the corresponding item: a fire expanding barrier (red F), a series of homing cluster bombs (green H) and an all-encompassing shockwave bomb (blue W). You can carry a maximum of three at the same time, with the newly collected bomb replacing the oldest one (note that special attacks are independent of life stock, so don't spend all of them expecting you'll get a new set after dying). The remainder of in-game icons consist of option (creates two hovering satellites that increase your firepower and block regular bullets), barrier/shield (sustains three hits but does not protect against lasers or enemy collisions), star (bonus points that eventually max out at 81.560 points if you don't die) and 1UP (extra life).

Touching walls is harmless in Viewpoint, and even though some surfaces seem to be transparent there's no danger of falling through them and losing a life. Flicker is minimal, but slowdown kicks in heavily whenever sprite manipulation requires more of the hardware. Since the speed of the ship is finely adjusted to the gameplay you'll also be at the mercy of moving at a snail's pace, so don't rely on slowdown as a survival aid. What helps, at least in this particular version of the game, is the amount of extra lives you achieve based on your score.

The extend routine is a bit odd. It starts with 50.000 points, but once you get past the first hundred thousand a new life is granted at every 30.000 points. There would be no problem with that if it weren't for a few checkpoints where you're able to score more than the amount needed to win an extra life, such as the fourth skull boss. If you manage to reach his final form you'll have gained over 40.000 points already, which means this is yet another unfortunate case of a broken scoring system.

Warping into stage 2 and breaking through the crab boss
(courtesy of YouTube user GDRI :: Game Developer Research Institute)

Although many people consider Viewpoint to be a very difficult shmup (in whatever form you find it), the Mega Drive version always allows a good means of recovery on every checkpoint, either by quickly granting an option item or even one bomb if you have depleted your stock completely. The port is known for including a secret warp gate in every level, of which the only one I saw was the warp in the first stage (destroy the core of the revolving obstacles). You're also supposed to come across a 3-in-1 special item that replenishes your shield and your whole bomb stock, but I didn't get to see it during the time I spent with the game.

Speaking of bombs, considering it's not possible to carry more than three at a time players are encouraged to use them if they know a new one is coming ahead. It's important to stress however that the homing bomb does not nullify enemy bullets like the other ones do, which makes it less effective as panic relief against bullet clouds. The best bomb in this case is definitely the blue shockwave, with the fiery barrier only blocking bullets that get engulfed in its deadly trail.
Don't take the score you see during the end credits as your final score. In the 1CC result below I beat the game with 22 lives left in stock and got an extra bonus of 26.000 points that only showed up when I got back to the start screen. Not that it matters much, as I mentioned above there's no point of measuring your performance in this version of Viewpoint based on score.