Sunday, February 20, 2022

Image Fight II - Operation Deepstriker (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1992

Even though it was relatively well regarded within the circle of arcade connoisseurs, Image Fight unfortunately wasn't able to kickstart a long-running series as its horizontal sibling R-Type did. Sure the game had its share of ports at the time, of which one of the most faithful was the version released for the PC Engine in 1990. The experience for developer Irem on NEC's platform must have been a good one though, after all the PC Engine CD add-on was home for the exclusive sequel Image Fight II - Operation Deepstriker, which still stands today as the last we've seen from this particular gaming franchise.  

With an animated intro subtitled in English and lots of intermissions with Japanese dialogue between stages, Image Fight II is one of those treats of the 16-bit era that catered to the sensibilities of gamers who wanted a little more story to justify the extra space provided by the storage capabilities of the CD media, as was the case of R-Type Complete CD, another Irem offering in the same platform. Fortunately all cut scenes in Image Fight II can be quickly skipped or even made completely absent by switching the correct option on the configuration menu (set Visual Scene  to OFF). What's left is a new outer space adventure that's strikingly similar to the first Image Fight, sharing main themes and environments for most levels but with a more balanced design in terms of gameplay (busier from the start, not overly claustrophobic, single-loop only).

Boss inside the rock planet in stage 6

Since this second chapter mirrors the first in lots of ways, it also requires players to achieve a certain destruction ratio during stages 2 to 5 in order to advance in the second part of the game without having to go through a penalty area. The idea is that you're in a simulation environment during the first half and in real battle from stage 6 onwards. Why the first level was left out of the 90% destruction average requirement is probably explained during the animated intermissions, I just couldn't figure it out because they're all in Japanese. Another intriguing aspect is that you're completely stripped off your power-ups when starting certain stages (2, 4, 6 and the penalty area).

Speaking of power-ups, the rules remain the same as in the original. By destroying floating crates you uncover two types of upgrades. The first one is an orb that switches colors between blue and red: it adds a floating satellite that hovers around the ship, in a maximum of three; the first one appears on the right, the second one on the left and the third one in the rear position; blue adds a pod that fires straight up, red adds a pod that fires in the opposition direction you're flying to. As you grab the initial orbs you can mix colors, but once all three are in place any further orb applies its respective color to all pods.

A second type of power-up adds a frontal attachment armor that creates a completely different form of attack, in a gallery that includes more powerful firing streams and several variations of spread shots and lasers. Most of them are similar to those seen in the first Image Fight, but there are also a few new ones such as a seemingly useless smoking gun that's actually quite helpful against the second-to-last boss. Another important armor is the one that fires a single powerful exploding shot that's essential if you want to blow the 8th boss away in a snap. The catch is that in order to replace armors you need to destroy the current one to collect the next, an action that's achieved by allowing them to receive damage either by swallowing bullets or by touching a wall.

Touching or scraping walls is more reliable when you're moving at lower speeds, of course. Button I switches back and forth between four predefined settings. Button II shoots and the SELECT button sends the lateral orbs forward in a special attack (the same effect of pressing buttons I and II at the same time). The exhaust flare of the ship when changing speeds doesn't cause any damage anymore, but in a nice visual twist the ship now has four different sprite appearances, one for each speed setting. Image Fight II comes with autofire by default.

Introduction and first stage of Image Fight II - Operation Deepstriker
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

With the exception of the relatively busy first stage, levels 2 to 5 are basically softer rehashes of the same levels seen in the first game. Image Fight II only feels like a real sequel afterwards, with levels that feel completely different in design, tone and bosses. The orb mine field in stage 8 is particularly tricky to navigate, and the attacks of the huge spaceship in stage 9 do require some knowledge to be properly avoided. All stages have two checkpoints except for the last one, which actually feels easier than previous levels. Speaking of easier, the ship's hitbox is now more lenient than in the original game, which makes navigation in tight spaces less demanding and allows the abuse of safespots against a few bosses.

Since the game doesn't show your life stock unless you die, it's hard to pinpoint the exact point where you gain extra lives by score. Suffice it to say that during a full credit you get two of them. As for the scoring system, the checkpoint structure does favor checkpoint milking as the main source of extra points. Minor projectiles are worthless, so there's no point in trying to prolong boss fights to destroy more of them.

Regardless of the fact that this sequel was developed from the ground up for a home console, Image Fight II - Operation Deepstriker certainly lives up to the original game. Graphics are just as sharp and the music fits the action nicely, as do the sound effects. It does feel slightly less difficult in terms of pure challenge, which is of course no reason for complains whatsoever. By reaching the end of the game (continues allowed) an Omake selection is unlocked in the options screen. It allows you to play the game with R-Type's R-9 spaceship or Gensan (a.k.a. Gen-San, the hero from Irem's own Hammerin' Harry platforming franchise). There's no change in weaponry for either character though, so it's just a cosmetic swap (I didn't check if there are differences in hitboxes).

It wasn't my intention to milk anything in my 1CC attempts, yet I was forced into replaying a few worthy checkpoints in the final result below. The high score buffer in the options menu shows the result of your last credit only, so before trying again don't forget to check it out as soon as you achieve a score you want to immortalize in pictures.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Commando (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1998

I won't delve into the reasons why I never even considered giving a chance to Commando in any of its forms whatsoever until a few weeks ago, when I had some spare time during the final days of my hard-earned vacation.

Suffice it to say it was out of stubborness more than anything else. And perhaps because it doesn't scroll automatically.

Originally released in the arcades in 1985, Commando is the forefather of all pedestrian shooters, i.e. games with a human-like character walking and shooting on ground levels/surfaces, the vast majority of them vertical. With the success of war and military-based movies released throughout the 80s, it's no wonder Commando became such a huge hit wherever it was installed. Besides a few versions to less powerful systems, the game eventually received faithful ports starting from the 32-bit generation. One of them is included in the Capcom Generation 4 compilation released for the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn. My first contact was with the latter, yet both discs are practically identical and should provide the same experience should you decide to try it.

A quick credit of Commando
(courtesy of YouTube user laspacho)

In Commando (Senjō no Ōkami in Japanese) you take control of a soldier aptly named "Super Joe" and make your way across enemy territory after being dropped in the jungle by a chopper, armed with a rifle that comes with unlimited ammo and a limited stock of hand grenades. It's the classic one-man mission where you'll be facing hordes of enemy soldiers throughout several types of terrain. The game is structured in two campaigns of four stages each, starting over with a marginal increase in difficulty once you beat the 8th level.

By default, buttons A and C are used to shoot and button B is used to throw grenades. If you don't want to tap the shot button like crazy just head to the options menu and set rapid fire to "high". There you can also select between three screen modes (of which the third one activates a TATE orientation), as well as choose a special soundtrack if desired among other regular tweaks you'd normally expect from a decent arcade port (button remapping and saving). The alternate music isn't that distinct from the regular one, a basic set of military tunes that puts you in the right mood to perform heroic exploits in the line of duty.

Landscapes range between areas that resemble a jungle, a desert, a bunker field and an airport base. There are no main bosses in Commando, but at the end of each level the screen stops and you must face a series of soldiers that come out in higher numbers from a fortress. Halfway into the level you'll need to pass below a bridge where an enemy will often park a vehicle over it and start shooting out grenades while soldiers close in from the other side. If you get shot a life is lost and you'll restart at a previous checkpoint. Stepping into water ponds and falling into ground holes or ridges/ravines will also cost you a life.

With no power-ups in sight, the only items available for collection are grenade refills. The small crate adds one grenade to the stock, the larger one adds three grenades. Don't worry about feeling guilty if you die with a substantial grenade stock in your hands, it isn't reset when you die (unfortunately this feature became quite rare as the genre evolved).

What lurks behind these walls and doors?

Since it's such a primitive game, Commando boasts a limited number of colors and might look repetitive on a first glance. What it lacks in design assets, however, is duly compensated by non-stop action with just the right amount of animation needed to back it up. You're allowed to fire in all 8 directions, but since you can't strafe or lock the character in place you must always be moving in order to aim your rifle and use your shots wisely (they only travel a certain length before disappearing). As for grenades, note that they will always be thrown upwards no matter where you're facing.

The worst thing that can happen is getting overwhelmed by enemy soldiers and enemy fire. A simple strategy that works most of the time is to just dart forward and avoid lateral enemies as much as possible, especially when going under bridges. In areas where vehicles approach from the sides you must either memorize their spawning locations or keep your movement restricted to the center of the screen. Finally, grenades dropped by enemies will always target your current position, so try to be alert and avoid to stay put if they're coming towards you. The scoring system is basic and bare bones, but watch out for a cowardly officer dressed in green that crosses the screen from time to time. He's worth more than the usual soldier, as well as those officers who are holding a hostage in the first stage.

It's easy to underestimate Commando going only by pictures or if you're just a bystander. It is however quite an addictive game for several reasons: gameplay is fair and tight, stages are short and the action moves at a brisk pace, with a full credit clocking at just above ten minutes. This formula was copied to exhaustion in future games, yet not always as successfully. Direct sequel Mercs (also included in  the Capcom Generation 4 release) expanded on the original concept with great results.

My best result in Commando on the Sega Saturn in the Normal difficulty ended in stage 2-6.