Sunday, December 26, 2021

Battlemania Daiginjō (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Vic Tokai
Published by Vic Tokai in 1993

The fate of certain game franchises can be a cruel one, both for the games themselves and for fans. When Trouble Shooter came out in the US a Japanese version called  Battlemania soon followed, granting players with a lighthearted adventure that packed a nice sense of humor and a somewhat original concept for gameplay. However, when the more ambitious Battlemania 2 followed in Japan, no sign of a corresponding Western release ever materialized. Even worse, the Japanese cartridge had such a low print run that it soon became one of the rarest Mega Drive games, not to say one of the most desired prizes in any shmup collection around the world.

Primarily known as Battlemania Daiginjō, the sequel expands on all features of the first chapter to a great degree. Although it doesn't show much upon a first contact, the last half of the game is a tour de force on excellent game design, sheer boldness and creativity elevating graphics, music, presentation and gameplay to a whole new level. In general character interactions are also more frequent and fleshed out, too bad everything is in Japanese (a special translation for the ROM exists if you fancy emulation though). The only aspect that wasn't better handled and fails to deliver, just like in Trouble Shooter, is the scoring system. A blind completion is enough to counterstop the game, unfortunately.

Regardless of the way scoring works and how it deeply affects the game's lasting appeal, Battlemania Daiginjō is definitley a no-brainer as far as immediate fun is concerned, with non-stop action, scrolling in all possible directions, parallax galore, crazy bosses with multiple forms/parts and a pumping soundtrack to boot.

Now this is an ugly angry truck!

The pretty ladies introduced in Trouble Shooter are back to battle another crazy enemy gallery. Protagonist blonde Madison/Mania continues to take the lead while blue-haired Crystal/Maria has her friend's back throughout most of the journey. Following an intro that connects the end of the previous game to the new quest, the start screen is displayed. Going directly into the game is fine, however this time around you can tweak the behavior of your weapons and firepower in the options. Besides choosing from three different button settings (default is A for special attack or "heap", B for shot and C for firepower flip), you can also select between three ways of manipulating shot direction and three different behaviors for the pod/probe.

Regarding directions, 1way is the well-known setting where Mania shoots exclusively forward and only Maria turns her firepower left and right; in 2way both characters flip while in 8way you can point in all directions and lock fire when shooting. Don't get too excited though, even though 8way seems to be the most efficient choice it's also the one that requires the most practice to be properly used. As for the pods you select prior to each level, you can have them set between homing (default hovering pod), roll (circles the player) and negative (goes your opposite direction vertically).

The level progression of Battlemania Daiginjō is backed up by neat cut scene intermissions whose cheerful humor unfortunately gets lost in translation. Except for the vertical nature of the first stage, which sees Maria fighting alone while her partner is asleep, the game has them both together in a series of levels that are quite decent in terms of variety. The second level is an obvious throwback to the original Trouble Shooter, but everything after brings something new and exciting to the table. Giger-esque enemies and obstacles protruding from walls appear in the 4th stage, yet the real highlights are reserved for the couple of levels that follow. During the giant truck part the girls are stuck to their car on ground level, in the single part of the game where Mania is allowed to shoot upwards regardless of the chosen direction setting. Then comes an outer space station with revolving backgrounds, definitely one of the most impressive stages in the Mega Drive shmup library.

In each credit you're given an enegy meter that's constantly refilled either at every 20.000 points or by collecting heart items released by enemies or hidden in unsuspected corners of the scenery. That makes for another remarkably easy ride that doesn't demand much in the way of challenge. The only real threat players must look out for is getting crushed by the scenery, an event that causes instant game over regardless of your life meter. Of course this only applies to main character Mania, since Maria is invulnerable and often falls behind due to obstacles that hold her back as the screen scrolls. In any case there's no harm from touching walls, another defining aspect in the game's overall low difficulty.

Lonesome hunters at heart!
(courtesy of YouTube user Wan1993)

Besides hearts for extra health/life, other items you'll come across are P (power-up), S (speed-up), ↓ (speed-down) and coin (extra points). The pod is powered up with the regular weaponry, and each of the four available types results in a different special attack to be used once the charge gauge is full. Note that unleashing the attack before the gauge recharges completely results in nothing and also resets the gauge. While pod types aren't really advantageous over each other some of them might be better for certain levels, as is the case of the blue pod in the giant truck section (it creates a destructive vertical energy bar for a few seconds).

After each stage you receive a few score bonuses for level completion, special attack usage (each one deducts 100 from 1.000 points) and "guts", which is related to the amount of energy you have after beating the boss (100 points for each health cell). You're also given a shooter rank that ranges across 11 classifications, from Ultimate A (best) to Failure, a designation that comes below D minus. An extra mode called "Score attack" can be selected from the start screen, but it's just a disappointing afterthought where you play only stage 2 for score without even getting to enter your performance in a high score table.

I got the counterstop in Battlemania Daiginjō in my first clear on a single credit playing at full defaults (Normal difficulty, 1way direction, homing probe). I did have a few goes afterwards with other weapon settings, just for the fun of it.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Magmax (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu
Published by FCI in 1988

The NES was home to many games that didn't really have a proper ending, choosing instead to repeat themselves forever in neverending loops designed to either crush, tire or bore players to death. Magmax is one such example, but let it be known that this looping structure is actually derived from the original arcade version. The game is also a spiritual sequel to Seicross (or Sector Zone), even though it doesn't achieve the same gameplay excellence as far as NES adaptations go. In fact, chances are you'll be as bored as I was when playing it. There are far better shmup entries in Nintendo's 8-bit console, that's for sure.

Magmax invites shmuppers to embark on another sci-fi adventure by allowing them to build upon a bare bones spaceship in order to turn it into a badass robot. This robot is the last hope of the human race and bla-bla-bla, with the sad realization that he will never actually fulfill his mission due to the everlasting nature of the game, a seamless amalgam of four different areas that repeat over and over with a difficulty slope that only starts to get taxing by the third loop.

A quest to defeat the first mechanical monster Babylon
(courtesy of YouTube user nesguide)

Shooting is accomplished with any desired button (A or B) in the controller. Mashing the button won't produce outstanding results because the firing rate is severely capped, but a turbo controller certainly helps to alleviate the stress on the player's wrist nonetheless. The main objective is to collect the robot parts spread out along the way, which consist of the torso, the legs and a special cannon that can only be activated after you have at least collected the torso. Each added body part adds a bit of extra firepower but increases the hitbox a huge deal, thus making it harder to keep the robot in one piece. The good news is that getting hit just destroys a body part instead of killing you right away (you only lose a life if you're hit with the bare ship).

There are two playing fields in Magmax, a surface area and an underground area. Once the small ship is thrown into the action you appear over the surface, and to travel between these areas all you have to do is touch the icon for the oval transport tunnel. In the surface area the robot/ship glides over the terrain destroying ground targets, whereas the undeground parts play like a regular horizontal shooter with flying enemies and obstacles detaching from the ground and the ceiling. Even though there's no division between levels, there are four distinct areas to go through before you loop the game: plains, desert, water and machine city. The underground area does not change from plains to desert and takes place inside a cave.

A mechanical dragon with multiple heads called Babylon is the only boss that appears at the end of the desert and the machine city areas. During the levels the action is based on destroying all kinds of drones and creatures arriving in waves, but the scrolling on the surface is a little faster and harder than in the underground, mainly because you only get a single firing stream even when in complete robot form (on the surface the cannon turns into a laser that points down instead of shooting forward). Nevertheless the cannon does offer an advantage because it can destroy all indestructible obstacles both above and below ground.

Inside the machine city undergrounds

Despite the potential variety hinted by the dynamics of playing in two different fields, there's no escaping the fact that Magmax is extremely drab and repetitive. It is however relatively faithful to the arcade original considering the system's capabilities (the impressive ground parallax of the surface areas are of course absent on the NES). It's also quite an easy game in the first couple of loops, after that the robot parts don't come so often and the marginal increase in enemy aggression starts to impose a litle more pressure on players who are patient enough to get that far. If you're wondering about the music, different tunes play for surface and underground areas but sadly none of them are engaging enough.

On the scoring side Magmax is quite straightforward, yet you can exploit some aspects of the game to get a few more points, such as using the debris of the exploding bombs on the surface or the spikes from the underground sections to get extra 1.000 points from each enemy you destroy with them. The first extend is registered at 30.000 points, and each further one is granted with every 50.000 points. There's a faint sound cue that plays when the extend is achieved.

My demise in the high score below happened in stage 4-4. Weird note: as soon as I entered the fourth loop my score display was replaced by the word MEIGETSU, but soon got back to normal when I died.