Saturday, March 26, 2022

Dodonpachi Daioujou (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Arika in 2002

As we all know, the shmup way of gaming can be a fascinating ride. And the more we play these games the more we go down the rabbit hole of bullets and shooting styles. I say this because the Playstation 2 port of Dodonpachi Daioujou (also frequently written as Dai-ou-jou) was one of the first shmups I purchased when I started collecting, and by then little did I know about the game or this series as a whole. The first impression is still very fresh in my memory though: the game just felt impossible, an early realization that only melted after years of casual flirts and a steep learning ladder of dozens of other similarly cruel (yet most fulfilling) shmup journeys. That's why it feels so good to finally have looped of the game.

Since Dodonpachi II - Bee Storm was made by a different company, Dodonpachi Daioujou is Cave's true sequel to Dodonpachi. It greatly enhances everything that made Dodonpachi a success, including the difficulty. It's a game that's clearly tailored to the hardcore audience, with no concessions of any kind and a cruel challenge level that requires deep knowledge even in survival terms, let alone scoring. The port is based on the first iteration of the arcade game, commonly referred to as White Label (WL for short) and regarded by most people as being harder than the later board for Black Label (BL for short), which found its way to home consoles in the Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra release for the Xbox 360.

Being difficult, of course, doesn't mean the game is devoid of fun. Especially when you have a strong combination of exquisite graphic design and pumping music at the service of unabashed, pure gameplay intensity in a stellar port that's not only extremely faithful to its source material, but also full of additional tweaks and some alternate game modes.

The gameplay essence of the series remains the same: there's a button for shot, another for auto shot and a third one for bomb, all fully configurable. When using shot you fire a laser beam and move slower, and bomb animations differ whether you're using laser or shot (auto shot). What's new in Daioujou is the choice of ship, which is now restricted to types A (red) and B (green). After the ship is selected you must decide on its power emphasis, whether it's S (shot), L (laser) or E (expert): if S is chosen when you die you lose only one power level for shot while laser is reset to default, with L it's the contrary and E makes you lose only one power level for both. The caveat of expert is that you start with only one bomb in stock, whereas L gives you two and S gives you three bombs. Moreover, each death adds another extra bomb/bomb slot to the stock, limited to the number of bombs you have when starting (maximum of two slots for E, four slots for L and six slots for S).

How about hypering a little bit, buddy?

There seems to be a solid backstory to the choice between S, L or E power, in that each one is related to a so-called "element doll" that determines how the ship behaves in terms of weaponry. Shotia enhances shot, Leinyan enhances laser and Exy enhances both (at the expense of the bomb stock). The choice of element doll also applies minor changes to the ship's firing pattern or speed, which in turn are decisive on how advanced players approach the game.

Firing up a credit of Dodonpachi Daioujou is always a reason of joy due to the smart design of the first level. Graphics, colors and music serve the purpose of luring players while giving them the chance to learn the game's rhythm and basics. Common items are the well known P for firepower and B for extra bomb. Ship's hitboxes are very small, which allows you to squeeze them between seemingly impossible bullet curtains. Dodging bullets and blowing up stuff is of course a fun trait by itself, but if you do it in a certain way large numbers will start appearing on the top of the screen to indicate the hits in your "chain". To keep this chain going the player needs to kill enemies in succession without letting the vertical bar of the chain meter get empty. Hit count is then applied as a multiplier over the base value of everything you destroy, in what's clearly the backbone of the scoring system.

On the surface the chaining mechanics are unaltered from that of Dodonpachi, at least until you collect the first hyper and unleash its power. It's the main new feature implemented in Daioujou, a visually impressive boost of power that also gives you more hits per enemy and makes chaining easier. On the other hand, hypers make the game harder every time they're used, adding to the natural rank increase that's already in place for mere survival.

With the appearance of golden badges that come from the top of the screen and tail the ship once collected, hyper medals are generated based on your ability to chain and to point blank enemies. They supercede bomb usage, which means that pressing the bomb button activates your hyper stock instead of triggering a bomb. You can of course bomb during an active hyper, but then you cancel it on top of breaking your chain. While good as a survival aid due to the brief invincibility window it gives you upon activation, hypers also send enemy aggression through the roof while active. The risk/reward relation is clear: hypering is the key to higher scores, but it also makes the game tougher in the process. The number of hyper medals you have before hypering (maximum of five) determines the duration and increase in hit count of the hyper phase.

Besides chaining and hypering, other aspects of the game are also important for scoring in the long run. Each life in reserve at the end of the first loop is worth 10 million points, for instance. Every stage has 10 hidden bees unlocked with laser, and if you collect all of them without dying the last one will come with an extra ×2 multiplier, on top of increasing the base value of bees in the following stage. Adding another bomb to a full bomb stock displays the word "maximum" over the bomb display, progressively adding more points provided you don't die and don't bomb. Lastly, bonus stars of all sizes appear everywhere.

It's important to mention that the gameplay in Dodonpachi Daioujou goes a lot deeper that what I described above. Survival is already a huge challenge, but scoring makes the game even more elusive. The more you play the more you'll learn about the tiny details of how hypers are generated and behave, for example, as well as the consequences of using them in certain parts of the levels. Devising routes in order to better deal with the onslaught of enemies and bullets while trying to keep the chain going is always possible, but also increasingly difficult. Committing to the absolutely brutal difficulty and the strict demands of the chaining system isn't for everyone.

1st stage with type A-L and the arranged soundtrack
(courtesy of YouTube user Redd Arremer)

No matter how you look at it, brutal is indeed a fitting qualifier for this game. The difficulty spikes considerably from one stage to the next, already leaving unaware players in dread by the time stage 3 is reached. Three extra lives can be obtained, two by scoring (at 10 and 30 million) and one by destroying the huge cannon in stage 4 without bombing. As usual with every game in the series, a second loop can be accessed if you fulfill certain requirements in the first round, which in the case of Dodonpachi Daioujou are: maximum of two deaths, no more than three bombs used or all bees collected without dying in at least three stages. Not only is the second loop even crazier than the first in terms of difficulty, but all extra lives you have in stock are taken away so that you start it with only your current life. This means that a death in the first stage ends the credit, but if you manage to go on you'll get one life back for each level you complete. And at the end of the second loop extremely gifted players will finally face true last boss Hibachi.

The main mode in the Playstation 2 port is Arcade. In this mode it's possible to turn on replay saves before starting the credit, but strangely these saves work by level, not by the whole credit. A "no bullet" additional mode within Arcade can also be activated for learning purposes. Simulation mode is a thoroughly detailed and versatile practice area where you can also load your own replays or permanently saved super replays, taking over control at any moment. The final game mode is Death Label, which loads an infamous boss rush whose otherworldly difficulty defies everything you have ever imagined. The package is completed by two resolutions for TATE orientation, the option to turn on an arranged version of the soundtrack, mandatory save features, an art gallery and a map function with several wallpapers for YOKO displays. A special DVD with four superplays is also included in the PS2 release, so there's no doubt this is the full package for fans of the White Label variation of Dodonpachi Daioujou.

Since this game always represented a sort of wall for me with its ruthless difficulty and strict scoring rules, my objective was to simply beat it while conquering the access to the 2nd loop. I did learn how to confidently chain the first level and the second level to a lesser extent, focusing on survival for the rest of the game. I played in TATE in the Normal difficulty and my choice of ship was A-E (type A, Expert). My passport to the 2nd loop was collecting all bees without dying in the three initial stages.

Next for me is Black Label in the Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra release for the Xbox 360, then I guess I'll finally be ready to tackle Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver. 1.5.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Red Death (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panda Indie Studio
Published by Red Art Games in 2021

Cheapness alert for every PS4 gamer! Want to add a dirty quick clear to your conquer list? No only that, do you happen to be an achievement whore? What about adding another platinum trophy to your PS4 profile with little to no effort whatsoever?

If you've answered YES to any of the above questions, Red Death is definitely recommended. Vouching for it in shmup terms is a little bit harder, given the lack of content and the extremely low production values involved. It doesn't mean the game is worthless, for you might actually have some good time with it while it lasts, even attempting to perfect run after run in search of a higher score. The problem is that Red Death is over way too quickly, never mind the extra endless roguelike mode that's unlocked when you finish the regular game course.

More of an exercise in programming than a fully developed game, Red Death is the prequel to both Project Starship and Project Starship X. Perhaps the devs had it stashed deep in some basement vault and thought it would be worth to release it as a standalone title instead of an extra mode in one of the sequels. Minimalistic to the bone, Red Death adopts a four-color palette for graphics while using an extremely limited asset array to deliver only three scripted stages, playable right away in the START choice of the game's menu. Reduced number of colors aside, this is an aspect that actually works in pure visual terms. You're even tricked into not noticing how the graphic designers seem to have used very elementary sprite-based software such as MS Paint. Yes, it's that primitive. 

Console launch trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

According to the constant communication messages from an unseen operator, the pilot and the tiny ship are identified by the codename RED-001. The ship is capable of shooting a main weapon and also deploying a temporary overpowered version of said weapon once it collects enough star energy left behind by defeated enemies (shot is in button ×, overload activation is in button ○). You can also decrease the speed of the ship by pressing L2 or R2, which comes with just a wee bit of slowdown and is of course essential to navigate the most intricate bullet patterns.

Weapons available consist of P (default straight vulcan), L (laser) and M (missile). The amount of items you need to pick in order to upgrade your weapon varies: P requires several of them, L can be upgraded only once and M can be upgraded twice. All of them need to be powered up separately, however the main game is so short that M is made completely useless because it appears only once. It's a pity because a fully powered missile is devastating. In default conditions it is the worst weapon, followed by P and then laser. Interestingly, a fully powered L is less effective than a fully powered P. Note that you hear "power" as you collect P, but it's obviously no power-up for the other shot types.

Another item that appears a lot in Red Death is S, which stands for ship / extra life. These come in steady numbers and help players move along, except for when you die during a boss fight. However, that doesn't make much sense because there are only three stages and three main bosses, with the last one fought with a permanently overloaded weapon (overload isn't lost there even when you die). By the way, talk about a cheap way to make your short game less short... just block players from skipping the plethora of text messages in the final level, something you were perfectly capable of in the first couple of stages (not only is this annoying, but the abundance of the word FUCK in the written dialogue is certainly uncalled for).

RED-001 against and all-out red angry (happy?) boss

Once the main course is beaten an "Arcade" mode is unlocked in the main menu. The differences are in the randomized enemies and bosses and the lack of an ending, with difficulty ramping up slowly as you make progress through the levels. Arcade mode does include some new enemies and a completely new boss, but it's not enough to avoid the feeling of repetition that might come up very soon if the procedural generation isn't creative enough with the limited resources at hand. Another troublesome detail in this mode is the stage number being permanently displayed right in front of the area your ship is supposed to be when dodging heavy enemy fire, i.e. close to the bottom of the screen.

No matter the mode you're playing, the rules for scoring are the same. Killing everything and not dying is obvious, but you can also increment your score by collecting stars left behind by enemies, which fill up the overload meter but are also worth a few extra points. The little catch is that when some enemies (and boss phases) are destroyed they turn all visible bullets they fired into stars as well. This means that it's often good to let them live long enough so that you can profit from their bullet sprays. In addition to that, whenever you die all on screen bullets are also converted to stars. This allows several optimization alternatives, and I must confess it made me spend more time with the main course of Red Death than I had anticipated up front. 

At least until you get tired of it all, what I mentioned above is the main reason for the strangely alluring aspect that makes you come back for more credit after credit. That's the best compliment you can say about such a bare bones release, other than the decent danmaku sensibilitites and the good use of a tiny hitbox. That's a lot more than what you could state about other budget titles published by Red Art Games, such as Ice Cream Surfer or Fullblast.

The first picture below is my best 1CC result in Red Death's main game. The second one is my best result in "Arcade" mode, reaching stage 10. The latter high score display is shared by both game modes (yuck), but thankfully you can take snapshots on the fly on the PS4!

Coming up next: Project Starship.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Isolated Warrior (NES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by KID / Vap
Published by NTVIC in 1991

Make yourself a challenge and try to name more than five true isometric scrolling shooters. Chances are most people will fail at that, and even those who possess a deep knowledge of video game history in general will have a hard time filling out such an innocent list. That's why Isolated Warrior is unique among the multitude of shmups available for the NES, a bold attempt at something rarely seen even in the arcade realm before and after its release in 1991. The closest thing I can think of is definitely Viewpoint, and the fact that the latter would only be released one year after Isolated Warrior says a lot about this particularly intriguing 8-bit title.

Also known in Japan as Max Warrior, the aesthetics surrounding the game itself are quite interesting, from the cover art by a Susumu Misutani resembling something made by American artist John Romita Jr. to the bits of storyline that tell the heroic path of Max Maverick, the only surviving warrior of an elite force who's out on a mission to stop evil aliens from invading his planet. Everything is told in the intro and in between levels, with a few brief animation snippets spicing up the narrative at key points of the adventure.
The first stage unfolds in a city with bombarded buildings and strange creatures emerging from holes in the streets. Max advances on foot firing his laser rifle with button B and jumping with button A. The action is pretty straightforward, and while the addition of the jump mechanic feels sort of alien to this type of game you'll soon be thankful for the ability to dodge enemy fire simply by jumping over whatever comes towards you. The jump animation is quite cool as well, and if you keep the button pressed Max will even somersault for a higher reaching jump. Just watch out for his shadow when landing after a pit, because if you fall in it a life is instantly lost and you're respawned in a previous checkpoint.

Welcome to your isolation, warrior!

Lives, by the way, come with an energy meter that allows you to take some hits before biting the dust. Besides enemies and bullets you also need to beware of a few harmful walls and surfaces. Robots, crawling maggots, mines, bikers and drone waves comprise most of the enemy gallery, which might randomly leave behind a slew of power-ups for immediate pick-up. The rule of thumb is to collect them all in order to quickly increase your firepower, but the main ones are the upgrades for both weapons (L for laser and W for wide), speed-up (S), bomb power (B) and bomb stock (small blue orbs). A refill item recovers two energy cells, the barrier protects Max from 5 attacks and another blue type of orb adds some bonus points. Last but not least, you might also come across a few rare extra lives (1UP).

Take three W or L items to increase the respective weapon power by one level, and choose which one to use by pressing SELECT. At default conditions wide is just like laser, perhaps that's why you'll automatically switch to wide when it's upgraded to the initial two-way spread pattern. When maxed out it results in a very wide 5-way shot, with laser firing a thicker forward beam combined with a less powerful rear shot. As seen in the lower right part of the HUD, the arsenal in Isolated Warrior also includes bombs, and the method to use them is very simple: just tap A again while jumping. At bomb levels 4 and 5 Max will drop a series of flaming projectiles around him, but if it's still at level 3 or lower you can determine the direction of the single flaming projectile with the D-pad.  

Since this is an isometric shooter, it takes a little while to get used to how the game treats hit detection. Although confusing at first, it's at least never unfair. The capped firing rate (autofire included) might also be of slight concern up front, but the game is cleverly built around it. Stage design is quite varied and includes all sorts of terrain, with moving platforms and areas that demand some basic crowd control if you don't want to get overwhelmed by enemy fire. In some levels the main character moves faster with the aid of a backpack or a hoverbike, which speeds up the action a good notch. The 4th stage in the highway is particularly challenging because of the abundance of pits, especially during the boss fight. My advice is to memorize the sequence of power-ups prior to the boss, pick up the shield and keep jumping only on the right side of the screen as you pummel him with a maxed out laser. The music in this level follows the fast paced action and is full of energy, standing as the highlight in a soundtrack that overall fares rather decently for NES standards.

Go Max Maverick, our hero!
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

Another unusual feature of Isolated Warrior is the special requirement to reach the 7th and last stage. In order to get there you need to beat all prior levels in a single credit, without continuing. The reward is of course the chance to see the real ending, but be prepared to face a final stage full of very strong enemies and little to no life recovery items. Dying there makes things even harder, but here's a little piece of advice: note that when you die only the weapon you're currently using is reset to its default power (on top of bomb power being reduced by 1). Since a fully upgraded laser is by far more powerful than a fully upgraded wide shot, just remember to switch to wide whenever you're about to die. Then you'll always have a good chance of overcoming the harder parts of the game, final boss included.

Speaking of difficulty, perhaps it's good to look out for secret spots unlocked by bombing. They can lead you to three types of secret areas: a high speed bonus stretch with lots of items, an intermission where your energy bar is fully recovered and a visual panel where Max meets a wounded friend warrior (I guess). Obviously the intermission areas are quite handy, especially in the last couple of levels. Unfortunately I only knew about this after I was done with the game, so I didn't get to uncover any secret area.

The scoring system includes a progressive end-of-stage bonus based on weapon power, remaining life and bomb levels. Scoring is also good for survival because you receive an extra life at every 300.000 points. Unfortunately the game can be broken as soon as you reach the second boss just by parking the character to the sides and firing away with wide shot to destroy the large bullets fired by the boss. This is the only real flaw of a game that's otherwise fairly engaging and fun, with occasional cool designs for bosses and a few impressive effects here and there, such as the rippling surface in the second half of stage 3.

Not only is the scoring system broken, but the difficulty after the first loop remains exactly the same with no bump in challenge whatsoever. Just to have an idea, in the picture below I died a few times in the first loop but completed the second one in a single life. I took the photograph as soon as the third loop started and called it a day. Well, at any rate it was worth the ride, so if you want to try something different in the gallery of NES shmups there's no denying Isolated Warrier is a competent pick.