Saturday, November 27, 2021

Cloud Master (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Disco / Taito
Published by Taito in 1989

Cloud Master, also known by its Japanese name Chuka Taisen, was somehow considered by Taito a strong title to be cascaded into ports soon after the arcade game was out in Japan. That's probably due to the perceived appeal of the game, which involves a boy flying on a cloud trying to defeat other enemies who also fly over clouds, the so-called "cloud masters". While not as famous as the Master System port (the only one to be published out of Japan), Cloud Master on the Famicom/NES is just as valid a version thanks to a faithful conversion full of color that preserves the original gameplay and even expands on it by adding an extra stage.

Villages, mountains, castles and ancient landscapes scroll by with no variation at all, which leaves to enemies and only a few ground obstacles the task of providing challenge and fun. In this sense the game feels like an early take on the Darius formula, complete with enemies arriving in waves, entering the screen in seemingly erratic patterns or firing from the ground as if they were turrets. No mechanical foes are to be seen, instead what we have is an enemy gallery comprised of animals and mythical creatures, as well as human figures and surreal things like flying bowls, flying swords and all kinds of flying heads.

It's time to become a cloud master myself!
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Button B fires the main shot and button A fires the auxiliary shot. In line with the Japanese nature of the game, all icons are denoted by kanji characters but fret not, just a few credits are enough to get used to them and know what they mean. In order of importance there's power-up, speed-up, autofire, double power-up and extra life. Powering up increases shot power and changes its sprites to spread, double, spread and double again before maxing out at a wave shot that pierces through everything in sight. Once you get the wave shot power-ups stop coming, whereas the double power-up only appears in some of the later checkpoints after you die.

Having a turbo controller is of course the way to go unless you can wait to take the autofire icon. As for speed-ups, I always restricted myself to only two of them because I kept bumping into things with more than that. Just like in all other versions, there comes a point in Cloud Master where the most important strategy to survive is crowd control. That's why it's important to dodge the lightning bolts from the mini-bosses that appear throughout the level and enter the door they leave behind when defeated. There you have the chance to choose one of four available auxiliary weapons, which include rotating walls, directional shots, ball bombs, crawling bombs, exploding bombs and fire versions of a few of them. These increase in power if you continue to select the same type.

The steady difficulty slope of Famicom Cloud Master comes with a few detrimental aspects players need to cope with. By the time you reach the 4th stage checkpoints start to demand a lot more attention if you die, and soon after bouts of stuttery slowdown and a little flicker can make things even worse. A particularly tricky checkpoint to recover from is the second one in the 5th level, simply because the lion mid-boss has tons of health and the overlapping waves don't leave much room to maneuver. It's not uncommon to deplete the life stock there. Speaking of lives, besides the icon-based 1UPs there's also an extend routine that starts with 30.000 points and continues at every 150.000 points after that.

Just one quick note on a nasty bug: never start a game when you return to the main screen after a GAME OVER. If you do that you won't get any extra lives from scoring, so always reset the game on the console before starting a new credit.

A brand new area in the 8-bit gaming realm

Another detail that's important and worth checking out for survival is simply avoiding to maximize the main shot. Although the wave weapon is quite useful during levels due to its piercing ability, it's firing rate isn't as ideal as the firing rate of the double shot that's active before the last power-up. This is crucial to abbreviate battles against all cloud masters, mid-bosses and main bosses alike. I adopted the strategy myself in order to beat the game.

Besides the extra final stage that takes place in some sort of moon in outer space, this port of Cloud Master has another exclusive treat in the secret level you can access in stage 4. From that point on the level continues until you have to fight the regular stage boss. I did enter this secret area by accident once, but all you need to do is shoot and squeeze yourself between the ground obstacles that engulf the second ground dragon (all ground obstacles are harmless, by the way). As for the new last stage, it's a little shorter than the others and brings back three previous bosses for a final challenge before you can see the end of the game (the goblin/demon, the samurai and the dragon).

Is this port better than the Master System game? I think the Sega version is overall more polished, but the NES/Famicom interpretation is also worth it despite the shortcomings and tougher challenge. The PC Engine port is in a whole different league, so I'll leave it out of the comparison.

Once the end credits roll you win a bonus of one million points and the game is restarted with seemingly the same difficulty. However, soon enough you'll realize the enemies are more resilient, which makes checkpoint recoveries a tad trickier than before. My final score ended in stage 2-6 after I bumped into one of those flying heads that cruise the screen from right to left.

Friday, November 19, 2021

G Darius (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
5 stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by THQ in 1998

Three years after Darius Gaiden, the famous shmup series where you blast fish and sea monsters in outer space returned to the spotlight with G Darius (or G-Darius, as some prefer). A huge change in style and one of the biggest shmup efforts from Taito before the company slowed down its activities, G Darius is the fourth installment in the arcade series but also the sixth completely new entry in the franchise if you consider console outputs Darius Twin and Darius Force Super Nova. The first port came out for the Playstation one year after the arcade release, with the new 3D polygon-based graphic design as the main selling point of the game.

Apart from the remarkable shift towards 3D, something that was expected during that time especially after Taito delivered Raystorm, G Darius keeps the trademark gameplay that combines enemy waves and environmental hazards with gigantic bosses preceded by the famous WARNING message. However, this time around the splitting path mechanic adopts letters from the Greek alphabet to determine the stages, with a total of only five stages instead of the customary seven. Each level has two sections though, with the second one being selected by standing above or below a green centerline that appears halfway the level. The designation for each played area comprises both the Greek letter and the corresponding Roman character of the splitting path, such as αA or αB, δG or δH, etc.

The game harks back to the roots of the series in its upgrade system based on colored orbs, with red for main shot, green for bombs and blue for shield. When the specific gauge for each ability is filled a major upgrade is granted, and every time you die the ship is respawned with this basic upgraded level instead of going back to its default state. There are also purple orbs which add to the stock of capture balls, expanding on an idea previously seen in Darius Gaiden to provide the foundation of the game's intricate scoring system. Finally, hitting certain fixed spots in the terrain uncovers extra yellow orbs (wipe out the screen), silver orbs (random point bonuses) or a single extra life in the 4th stage. 

Cruising through the Giant Plant area of the β zone

As soon as you start playing it you'll notice that the initial atmosphere of G Darius is quite different from the previous games in the series. The α stage takes place in open space against a greeny landscape with a futuristic city and harmless structures that collapse every now and then, ending in a fight against new boss Eclipse Eye. It sets the tone perfectly for what's to come but I must admit I didn't like the pacing or the new style up front, most probably because it took me some time to adapt to the 3D textures and also the fact that the game seems to run slower than usual due to the natural slowdown of this particular port. There are tons of variety and the action can get quite intense though, yet sometimes the color contrast just makes it a little tough to distinguish bullets from flying debris or even backgrounds.

Playing the game requires three inputs: shot (○ or R2), rapid fire (□) and capture ball (×). As usual, destroying full enemy waves and all boss parts is still the basic source of points in G Darius. However, what gives the game its special flair and helps determine its staying power is the mechanic around capture balls. With the obvious exception of stage bosses, the main rule is that any flying enemy can be captured by hitting them with a capture ball (don't worry if you miss, lost balls aren't deducted from the stock). Each enemy captured flies beside you and adds to your firepower in a specific way, a feature that gives the game a very strategic feel not only for survival but also for scoring. It goes without saying that experimentation is key to finding out the best enemies to capture in any given level.

Besides their default attacks, captured enemies can also be used in two different ways. The first one is by exploding them: just tap the capture ball button to trigger a powerful localized blast that also protects you from incoming bullets. The second one is firing an alpha beam: hold the shot button to absorb the captured enemy and charge, then release it for an ultra powerful blue laser that lasts 5 seconds. While lasering can be used at any time, it's often good to save a few balls and deploy the attack to counter beams fired by bosses. Then just keep the rapid fire button pressed to win the laser battle. These can turn in a real spectable if you're able to counter more than a single enemy beam, either two at a time or one after the other, with your own beam increasing in size for every counterattack achieved (the 5 second duration resets whenever two enemy lasers meet).

Everything you do with a captured enemy gives you more points in the form of multipliers, which is the bread and butter to score higher in G Darius. Multipliers vary in a wide range, from the basic act of destroying the last enemy in a wave with the attack of a captured enemy (×2) to the glorious dispatching of a boss with a quadruple counter beam (×12). Finding the best ways to inflict damage during the several boss patterns is essential in the long run, as well as figuring out where a beam might be useful for both survival and some more points during the levels themselves. Just remember not to use beams against enemies or obstacles covered with "solidnite", a golden substance that also deflects capture balls and emits a metallic sound when hit. You must always destroy solidnite shields before trying to capture a mid-boss, for example.

Besides using captured enemies to achieve score multiplers, getting to the end of the game can still provide a huge chunk of your final score. Each remaining life is worth one million points, with captured mid-bosses  (a.k.a. captains) and boss kills with counter beams giving you meaty bonuses as well (a quadruple counter boss kill is also worth one million points). A treat regarding captured captains is that they can also fire special attacks, which are triggered with combinations of directionals + shot as if you were in a fighting game. Try performing a hadouken with the first captain, for example.

One of the animated intros of G Darius on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user RetroGameTV)

The way I see it, G Darius only achieves its full glory as a shmup once you've got acquainted with the enemy capturing aspect of the gameplay. It provides an extremely layered and deep scoring system that's great fun and is always making players come back for more, even though the game isn't visually on par with other polygon-based PS1 shmups like R-Type Delta and Einhänder. My biggest personal complaint as a fan is the tiny sprites of the Silver Hawk and the shield, an aspect that always struck me as one of the coolest in the franchise. Still G Darius has its share of special moments, such as the neat animations during boss transitions, which give a great cinematic feel but can still be skipped if you so wish (just press START). Special transitions might also appear during the levels themselves, sometimes making you briefly fly in diagonal directions.

The US Playstation release is really nice since one of the fully animated low-res intros serves to detail the story behind the game, actually a prequel that tells the origin of the Silver Hawk saga. Unlike the arcade original, the port separates both modes (Arcade and Beginner) right at the start screen while adding an extra Boss Rush mode. Configurable controls and a save feature complete the package, but I advise all players who like to enjoy a nice sound balance to reduce the volume of the sound effects in the options. Then you can properly listen to the sometimes weird, sometimes awesome soundtrack by Taito's in-house composers Zuntata.
I tested a handful of routes in Arcade mode to find a nice survival path with a little scoring potential on the side, settling with αA-γE-εI-θO-νY. At least for me the idea that the upper route is the easiest one isn't true at all, Fire Fossil is absolutely no joke at the end of zone η. I beat the game in the abovementioned route on Normal difficulty with the final score below and was ranked Gold Condor, a special classification based on several aspects of your performance during the run. I didn't try any credit in co-op, but I doubt it would thrill anyone given the potential slowdown that could be experienced.

Note: G Darius would later come out for the Playstation 2; it also got a recent HD makeover as G Darius HD for the Nintendo Switch and the Playstation 4.