Thursday, October 21, 2021

Aero Blasters (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Inter State / Kaneko
Published by Hudson Soft in 1990

Trouble Specialty Aero Blasters. This is written in minor characters inside the emblem in the cover of Aero Blasters for the PC Engine. It gives an interesting idea when put in context with the cover art and the game's story, which involves starships in a mission to destroy a mysterious and evil mechanical fortress that's orbiting Earth. And boy, this really means trouble! Just like in many other cases in the shmup genre, what we have here is the quintessential idea of fighting against the odds in a larger-than-life, almost suicidal undertaking. You are the pilot, you are the hero and the future of the planet depends on the success of your mission.

Originally released for the arcades, Aero Blasters (also known as Air Buster) was ported for the PC Engine almost at the same time the Mega Drive version came out. Both are frequently compared to each other, so I'll drop my impressions right away: the Mega Drive port is the closest to the arcade original, with better and more detailed graphics; the PC Engine version has slightly better music and modifies or simplifies a few sections of the game, but it's nothing substantial or disfiguring. Both ports are extremely challenging and rank quite high in the 16-bit difficulty scale, but the PC Engine is downright cruel during the last couple of levels.

One of the most glaring aspects of Aero Blasters is its exquisite use of color. The palette is vibrant and lively, applied to levels that are very distinct from each other. Every stage feels unique, with nice parallax effects and a specific pace dictated by the scrolling direction and/or speed, as well as a diverse enemy gallery. Props to Kaneko, which was never a development powerhouse but was clever enough to infuse the game with such flair. One can still spot influences from other shooters though, such Namco's Ordyne (cloudy and colorful skies) and Konami's Gradius (the spawning orbs in stages 3 and 4).

Out of gravity amidst outer space debris

Button II shoots and button I is used to unleash a "flash" attack that melts regular projectiles and weak enemies. This attack is performed by holding down the button until to fill up the charge gauge, upon which the ship will move a little slower until you let go of the button and trigger the attack. Don't make the mistake of taking the flash attack for granted, it's actually one of the most useful resources you can have in several parts of the game.

The story progression sees you departing to defend a city that gets oblitared by the time you reach the boss, then you must blaze through a series of maze-like corridors before scrambling towards the stratosphere amidst the clouds. Once in outer space the ship's movement is severely affected by the absence of gravity during two stages (every press of the d-pad sends you flying a little farther than expected). Gravity returns when you enter the alien fortress, but the final stage itself becomes the enemy when walls start moving as the screen relentlessly scrolls up and down.

Every once in a while a large yellow balloon will appear from the right. Shoot and watch as it explodes and releases several items, but stay alert to grab the one(s) you want because they fall away rather quickly. The most important one is P (power-up), which upgrades the ship's main shot. All others are interchangeable and take over the current auxiliary function when collected: S (satellite options), red M (missiles), green M (homing missiles), R (2-way rear shot), 6 (6-way shot) and H (rotating shot). There's also B, which stands for bumper and provides a minor degree of protection against side collisions. It only shows up close to walls in the second level.

If you're aiming for the 1CC achievement Aero Blasters can be considered one of the most demanding shmups of the 16-bit era with only three lives, no extends of any kind, deceiving enemy behavior and a slew of random dangers everywhere (not to say traps). The first couple of levels mislead you into thinking this might just be the next triumph of the weekend, but then the game throws all kinds of walls at you without an ounce of slowdown whatsoever. The major ambush in the station approach of the 4th level is a prime example of what's to come, as well as the bullet sprays from the mid-boss in stage 5. Handling and dodging these parts would be enough of a challenge in a regular shooter, but the extra difficulty brought about by the "lack of gravity" makes them a real test of strategy and reflex.

Seaside Front
(courtesy of YouTube user The Tenth Art)
By strategy I mean sticking to certain auxiliary weapons at specific points in the game. Despite its apparent weakness, for example, the 6-way shot is actually the best aid you can get from level 3 onwards, at least until you reach the stage 5 boss. Missiles are a nice choice for stage 2, and the rear shot really shines throughout the death circus in stage 6. The only weapon I couldn't find use for was the revolving shot (H). And then you have the flash attack, which is absolutely essential to increase your survival chances against the final boss and its antechamber.

Other details are more elusive, such as the opportunities bosses give you to milk a few more points from them (never mind the fact that the score display disappears during boss fights), or the fact that a medium-powered shot has better efficiency than a full-powered shot in the beginning of the game. Aero Blasters keeps players on their toes all the time, but is nice enough to include brief moments of peace for us to take a deep breath and move on to the next enemy wave. My favorite such moment is when you reach the highest possible altitude and the music changes in synch with the action as the outer space caterpillar mid-boss comes chasing you from below. The tune is upbeat and groovy, the enemy is mortal and the stakes are just about to get high. It's no coincidence you're halfway the journey towards victory.
Truth be told, just like its Mega Drive counterpart this port of Aero Blasters can be fun and infuriating at the same time. The PC Engine version however is a tad harder and certainly requires a little more patience to be conquered. There's no way around the fact that players need a deep knowledge of the game and of all factors that might disrupt a well-established plan towards the 1CC, as is the case with all shmups that demand a very strict approach.
Once beaten, the game loops and starts again with the same initial three lives, only with more bullets and enemies that suddenly become indestructible. The 1CC result below was achieved when I reached stage 2-3 on the player 1 side. Solo pilots can still choose the second craft if they want to, but there are no noticeable differences between them besides their color (player 1 is red, player 2 is yellow). Perhaps facing the game with a friend in co-op play makes it less daunting, I wonder? There's a secret code for the selection of two extra difficulties, but it's so flimsy and difficult to pull off I didn't even consider trying them out.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sonic Wings Special (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Mediaquest in 1996

For various reasons, many video game development houses quit their activities after years of successful operation during the 90s. Video System was no exception to this closure wave, but before finishing their business they delivered a final game for what certainly was the company's highlight series: Sonic Wings Special. Direct follow-up to Sonic Wings 3 / Aero Fighters 3, it was developed and released for the main 32-bit consoles with an arcade counterpart named Sonic Wings Limited. I couldn't find precise info on which version came out first, but suffice it to say that even though they're visually similar Special and Limited have fundamental differences that completely set them apart gameplaywise.

The strongest distinction about this game is that it's actually a remix of Sonic Wings, Sonic Wings 2 and Sonic Wings 3. Aspects of all previous chapters are represented in levels, enemies, available pilots and firing patterns, which means that shmuppers with previous knowledge of the series will definitely feel at home when playing Sonic Wings Special. The ensemble brings back well-known faces such as the Japanese duo of Hien and Mao Mao, as well as the all-American pilot Keaton, Swedish viking Kowful and Whity/Spanky, the most intelligent dolphin pilot of all times.

So brace yourself for the final entry of the saga, complete with a TATE mode that brings the game closer to the roots of the franchise. Mind you, even though you can still play it on a regularly oriented TV, the use of a vertical monitor definitely provides the best experience you can get in Sonic Wings Special. The game is just as fun as the previous entries, maybe even more due to the amount of characters available and the more balanced gameplay.

Opening movie and first stage with Mao Mao
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

The choice of planes and pilots is still associated with countries (or organizations in the case of PKF, which stands for UN PeaceKeeping Forces). Two characters are available for each nationality/agency, and each one has his/her own features regarding plane type, speed, firepower and bomb stock capabilities. Overall the game tries to offer some sort of equivalence across the character roster, in that slower planes will have more powerful weapons and vice-versa. The efficiency and the amount of bombs you can carry also vary between planes, often representing the deciding factor when you're trying to select the character that suits your sensibilities the most.

Inputs haven't changed from previous games. By default button A is shot, button B is bomb, button C is rapid fire and button R hides/shows the score display, all inputs fully configurable as you wish in the options. Items available consist of P (power-up), B (extra bomb) and F (full power-up, appears only once prior to the final boss). The number of necessary Ps to max out the firepower isn't the same for all planes, and once maxed out all of them will degrade to a lower power level after a while if you don't get another P. Note that some planes also have charge attacks when at least one power-up has already been taken, so don't forget to try this when testing out the characters.

Sonic Wings Special preserves the splitting path mechanic introduced in Sonic Wings 3 while still randomizing some of them. Once the first stage in Tokyo is beaten three out of four random levels must be played (Mato Grosso, Paris, New York and "Dark Forest"), then you go through stage 5 in the Syrian desert. In stages 6 and 8 you must choose between two paths that also define the following levels (7 and 9), then proceed to the tenth and final level. The three randomized stages are easier the earlier they appear in the game, with the third one being the hardest. After that the difficulty remains somewhat the same, but you still have to consider a very noticeable rank mechanic that makes the game harder the more powered up you are and the longer you survive.

Every enemy and destructible bullet or boss part gives you points, so performing a wee bit of milking whenever possible is of course good for scoring higher. The biggest chunk of points however comes from collecting capsules in excess (2.000 for power-ups and 10.000 points for bombs), as well as picking up the currency medals released by destroying ground targets. When taken at the very top of the screen they're worth 10.000 points each, quickly decreasing their value to 200 points if collected from the middle of the screen or lower. Going for 10K medals is quite risky though, that's why it's so convenient to get the Dark Forest or Mato Grosso as second or third levels. As for extra lives, there's only one single extend granted after you score 50.000 points.

The skies above Paris were never this dangerous

I really like the difficulty progression in Sonic Wings Special compared to the previous games. It's not ridiculously hard as Sonic Wings 2, not as indulgent as Sonic Wings 3 and certainly not as cruel and in-your-face tough as the similar output from stray company Psikyo (namely the Strikers 1945 series). Sure, the first stage might soon put you to sleep, but everything after presents a gradual difficulty slope that never feels overwhelming even at high rank. Choosing a crappy pilot makes everything a tad harder, but the game spices things up a little by adding secret planes that are only available after you complete it with the default ones (continuing is allowed, just note that in the final stages you need to restart the level when doing so). 

When a secret plane is unlocked a medal will appear over the character in the selection screen, prompting you to pick the desired plane once the pilot is chosen. If you manage to get all secret planes two new teams will be unlocked: the NATO team (also with unlockable secret planes) and two secret characters accessible by pressing UP from the USA team or DOWN from the NATO team (no extra planes for them). That means the game offers a whopping 26 different characters to play with, cumbersome unlocking criteria notwithstanding.

Another aspect about secret planes is that the game throws a completely different set of stages for them. Considering that Sonic Wings Special does not loop, it's as if the absent second loop levels were reserved especially for the unlockable planes, so be aware that you'll be facing a much harder game if you decide to play with one of them. Finally, a data save function can be used only once per credit when the pilot image appears between levels: press L + R and START to save, then return to this saving point from a fresh new entry in the start screen. The Sega Saturn edition also comes with an extra mini-disc with three songs dedicated to Mao Mao.

My pilot of choice for the 1CC on Normal difficulty was Kohful the viking and his default plane the AJ-37 Viggen. As for the splitting paths, I chose Panama in stage 5 and Mexico in stage 7. Other characters I enjoyed playing with were Volk and Keaton. Unfortunately good old ninja Hien was botched by too much spread in his daggers and an annoying effect that makes them stick to larger enemies before exploding, causing much visual confusion at least for me. Maybe I'll try to use a secret character when I get the chance to play the Playstation version, we shall see!