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.

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