Saturday, April 30, 2022

Eschatos (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
26 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Qute
Published by Qute in 2011

Six years are almost a lifetime in the evolution cycle of a video game. That's the time span, for example, that separates Eschatos from Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins. It's fascinating to check out how one-man developer M-kai joined Qute in order to make Eschatos, which by all means is a direct sequel to Judgement Silversword except by name. One should try out the latter first in order to know what I'm talking about, but that's of course not important if you want to dive directly into Eschatos. What really matters is that the Japanese Xbox 360 release includes all three games mentioned in this short paragraph, in a complete package that serves as a perfect entry ticket to the flashy style of developer Qute.

Eschatos is of course the main title in the disc, a fast-paced sci-fi adventure where the player fights hordes of enemies brought by a triad of huge flying saucers that are threatening to take over the Earth’s moon. There’s an organic, seamless progression that unfolds with exquisite cinematic flair and takes you from futuristic urban sceneries to the depths of the enemy lair inside our natural satellite. Expect huge explosions, dynamic transitions and perspective shifts galore, some of them even with bullets and hazards to be avoided or dodged.

Gameplay inputs in Eschatos consist of a powerful straight shot, a less powerful wide shot with shorter reach, a shield that protects the ship against incoming fire (normally activated by pressing straight and wide shot simultaneously) and a switch that cycles back and forth between three predetermined speed settings. Knowing the strenghts and weaknesses of these resourses is essential, such as the dead area right ahead of the ship when using wide shot, the offensive use of the shield whenever possible or the fact that the larger the bullet the longer it takes for the shield to deplete it (yet the shield works against any sort of laser, even those huge blasts that appear later in the game, homing or not).

A quick glance at the blistering action of Eschatos
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Qutejp)

There are three modes of play: Original, Advanced and Time Attack. Even though they share a basic structure and roughly the same enemy patterns, gameplay rules differ. And since most people consider Original to be the main mode, that’s the one I focused on. There’s a single icon to be found in it, a blue F that works as a flash bomb that melts all on-screen bullets and cannon fodder. Beyond its obvious benefits for survival, this flash bomb also factors into the scoring system due to the fact that speed killing enemies grants you better bonuses, so timing the use of the bomb to clear waves faster is definitely encouraged.

The next component of the scoring system in Original mode is the multiplier. Each wave that’s completely destroyed increases the multiplier by 1, and for every death or each enemy that flees the screen the multiplier goes down by 1. In the normal difficulty the ceiling to this multiplier ×10 (it’s higher in further difficulty settings) and during the course of the game it’s only reset after you fight one of the main bosses in stages 5, 11, 15 and 20. Speaking of stages, due to this structure of main bosses some people refer to Eschatos as a 5-level game, yet I prefer to see it with the full 26 areas/stages nonetheless.

Another component of the scoring system is related to the hidden icons known as “wonderwitches”, in a clear homage to the development kit that was used to create Judgement Silversword for the Bandai Wonderswan handheld. In order to reveal the wonderwitches players must shoot at their secret locations in stages 4, 9, 13, 16, 20, 22 and 25. With increasing base values, from 1.000 to 100.000 points, some of them require specific approaches to be found. Since they have the nasty habit of fleeing the screen if you rush to get them, just stay low and let them come towards you before making the move to pick them up.

Finally, a few expressive completion bonuses are granted once you beat the game. For the normal difficulty you earn 1,5 million points, as well as one million points for every life in stock. Several 1UPs appear throughout the game depending on the amount of destroyed enemies, bouncing once in the bottom before falling off the screen for good. Note that picking up the 1UP also grants you a split-second moment of invincibility, just like in Judgement Silversword. This is one aspect of many that’s similar between both games, which also share lots of bullet patterns and enemy behavior routines. Eschatos also throws a few nods to classics such as Xevious and Space Invaders, with the latter serving as the mold for one of the most intense moments of the game in stage 19. 

Choose your destiny!

A different sort of rush awaits players in Advanced mode. On the surface enemy placement and behavior is the same as in Original, but besides the blue F-bomb and the 1UPs this game variant also includes power-ups (P) and golden F-bombs. There's no time bonus anymore, but the multiplier still goes up by destroying full waves; what's new is that it also increases by 1 for each power-up you take, with the caveat that you get less shield energy the more powered up you are (down to 30% shield with max power). All shielded bullets are turned into purple crystals that start rotating around the ship as a barrier for as long as the shield is deployed, being absorbed as bonus points when you stop using the shield. The golden F-bomb also turns all on-screen bullets into crystals while decreasing the multiplier by 1, so the challenge is to find the balance between keeping a high multiplier and using the golden F-bomb to cash in on the purple crystals (normally the blue F-bomb is a no-go since it also affects the multipler negatively). In the normal difficulty the maximum multiplier is ×16.

Both Original and Advanced have four difficulties available and also an "endless" setting where the game has no end. On the other hand, Time Attack mode has no difficulty selection and presents a single challenge where you're supposed to get through the game as fast as you can. I guess the main reason for this is that this mode has adaptative difficulty, i.e. rank, which makes the game harder the better you perform. In a nutshell, beating levels quickly gives you extra time to fulfill your mission, while dying takes away five seconds of the ongoing timer. If the counter reaches zero the credit ends. 

Given the variety and the depth provided by the scoring systems across all game modes and difficulties, Eschatos is a mandatory title in whatever form you can find. Only the soundtrack doesn't quite cut it for me during the first half of the game, but once you're in outer space it gets much better. Otherwise Eschatos excels at offering a nice mix of fun and intensity with a smooth challenge curve that draws players in without much effort. Just beware that with so much incentive to be aggressive (Original mode) or to avoid F-bombs (Advanced mode), trying to score higher often incurs in restartitis if you die too soon. Continuous play grants option "levels" that unlock several extra adjustments in the options menu, which is already well served with resources such as replay saving, a handful of video/audio tweaks and online/offline leaderboards.
My best 1CC results in the normal difficulty of Original and Advanced modes in the Xbox 360 version are below. This edition comes with an extra disc with the original soundtrack, but the best thing about it is that it's region-free!


Sunday, April 24, 2022

Darius Extra Version (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito / M2
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2021

Well, it only took 30 years for this to happen: a port of the first Darius for the Mega Drive. The story behind it is nothing short of a fan-meets-developer's fairy tale. It all started with a fan-made conversion that was eventually picked up by Taito and M2, came out in the game roster of the Mega Drive Mini and was later fine-tuned for a last, definitive version released in cartridge format by a few different publishers.

Besides the absolute class of the porting job, this release allows players to experience the game in any of its three variants, which are directly based on the original arcade boards: Old Version, New Version and Extra Version. That’s the reason for the Darius Extra Version title, which by all means represents a step-up from previous ports Darius Plus and Super Darius, released for the PC Engine Hucard and CD formats a very long time ago.

For those who never played many shmups before or have lived under a rock in the last decades, Darius is an all-out space battle of the stylish spaceships called Silver Hawks against an enemy race empowered with huge battleships that mimic aquatic/marine creatures. Pretty much all aspects that define the series are presented in this first chapter, from the now famous WARNING messages prior to boss fights to the branching path mechanic that makes you choose different routes as you progress through the game - just remember to keep the ship off the centerline when the boss goes down or you'll crash against the rocky splits.

Darius for the Mega Drive as seen in the first release for the Mega Drive mini
(courtesy of YouTube user ElyPhanti)

Of course the basic gameplay does not change from one mode to the next. The Silver Hawk is able to fire a main shot and to drop bombs, naturally mapped to different controller buttons (A and B, respectively) or both to a single button (C). Buttons X, Y and Z have similar functions but with higher firing rates, just check the options to see how they differ. By collecting colored orbs released by specific enemies you're able to improve your ship's capabilities separately according to an upgrade bar that displays your current power level. Whenever each of these bars is completed you start a new upgrade cycle, and the default levels of the new bars will determine the ship's firepower when you are respawn after dying.

With red ords the main gun evolves from "missile" to laser and then wave. Green orbs make you go from bombs to twin (frontal bombs downwards and upwards) and "multi" (four-way bombs on both sides). Blue determines the efficiency of your shield, which goes from "arm" (green) to super (gray) and hyper (golden). Other orbs are hidden in the scenery and must be shot at to be released and picked up: the gray one gives a random bonus from 50 to 51.200 points (there's no logic behind it, don't even try to figure it out), the golden one serves as a smart bomb that clears the screen from bullets and cannon fodder and the orb with a tiny spaceship inside grants you with an extra life. By the way, scoring also grants you a single extend once you reach 600.000 points.

In terms of the overall design there's not much variety in the game's backgrounds, which recyle four themes over and over with different color palettes and textures (cavern, planet surface, inside fortresses and undewater). The music is equally restricted but what's there serves the game's motif very well. Fortunately these design limitations are duly compensated by all sorts of hazards from several types of enemy waves and huge bosses. Following the standard set by Super Darius, each stage has its specific boss so there's no repetition of bosses as is the case of the arcade original (the default setting in the options for BOSS TYPE is "26 bosses", as opposed to the expected 11 bosses of arcade Darius).

For every complete enemy wave destroyed you earn a few more points, in what represents the most important aspect of the scoring system in the Old and New versions of the game. Boss parts are also worth many points, so whenever possible try to dismantle them before going for the main kill. A mild degree of projectile milking is possible, just remember that the timeout cubes will eventually get angry and turn into extremely fast bullets that are nearly impossible to dodge. 

Tiat takes on boss Big Rajarnn at the end of stage D

And what's the difference between the three variants of the game included in the cartridge? The common ground between all of them is that there are no checkpoints, unlike the original arcade version. The main draw of the Old Version is that it has much stronger bosses, to the point where you must be really aggressive with some of them lest the fight drags until the timeout cubes become angry. New Version corrects this by toning down boss health and applying minor adjustments to the rest of the game. The definitive iteration is Extra Version, which completely reworks enemy formations in a few stages, alters some boss attack patterns and gives you one million points per spare life remaining at the end of the credit. Extra Verson is also the only one that allows the use of three continues.

The quality of this port is evident from the game itself but the people behind it certainly went the extra mile, as we can see from the boss rush campaigns for each mode and some nice functional aspects and tweaks you can apply to everything. Besides the choice for boss roster mentioned above, you can also alter rapid fire rates and choose from pilots Proco (default red Silver Hawk) and Tiat (blue Silver Hawk), which serves as an easy difficulty of sorts since it doesn't power down when you die. Note however that playing with Tiat doesn't allow players to register their results/initials. Finally, each mode has its own high score table and a soft reset function is available with A+B+C and START.

My best results in each mode of Darius Extra Version are shown in the pictures below, all of them one-life clears. For these runs I adopted the same route (ACFJOUV', always taking the lower path) so that I could better notice the differences between modes. Obviously beating the game in one life is only important for scoring in the Extra Version.

Final note: let's not forget that the Mega Drive has an awesome port of Darius II (a.k.a. Sagaia), which now makes for an amazing shmup duo with Darius Extra Version!

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Gyruss (NES)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
39 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Ultra Games in 1988

One of the most interesting and unique types of shmups to appear in the 80s is the tube shooter, a subgenre that was kickstarted by Tempest in 1981. Despite Tempest's relative success in the arcades there weren't many games produced in the same style, but from the few that followed the same path Gyruss is definitely the highlight. The arcade game would eventually be ported to several systems, with special attention to Nintendo's 8-bit platform. First released for the Famicom Disk System, soon after the game also appeared worldwide in the more friendly cartridge format.

There are obvious reasons for the special attention over a port developed for a far inferior platform. And it all boils down to the tried and true concept of gameplay, which still is the most important aspect in any video game since the day Space Invaders came to this planet. That makes a lot of sense considering the limitations of the tube formula, which is nothing more than that of a folded fixed shooter. Long story short, the improvements NES Gyruss makes over the original game are the reasons many people prefer it over the arcade version.

In fact they are both very distinct experiences, each one with specific strengths and weaknesses. There are even rumors that the NES port is based on a prototype for Gyruss II that never came to fruition (a glimpse of this can be seen in a hidden Gyruss game in Contra - Legacy of War for the Playstation). In common between both versions are the wave-based mechanics similar to Galaga and the way stages are arranged, in a journey where you must warp through the planets in the Solar System. Each stage is a warp, and in the case of the NES version you always need 3 warps to reach the next target, starting in Neptune and ending in the Sun.

Spiralling armada ahead

A single screen in the attract mode establishes the player's mission in the game, which is – unsurprisingly – to rid the universe from evil. Only a hero can succeed in this death defying risk. Two control options are available as you start: Control A enables all directions for a full circular motion, and with Control B you can only use left and right to rotate the craft (just like in Tempest). Then you're treated with a brief animation showing your approach towards the next planet and off you go, warp after warp defeating enemies and bosses as the star-dotted vastness of space scrolls by.

Button A fires your regular shot and button B fires the "ultra-lazonic phaser" weapon (I'm not making this up, that's how the instruction manual calls it). As you face the approaching enemy waves, occasionally you'll see bonus spheres attached to intergalactic mines. Hit the spheres to get special items such as the mandatory double shot upgrade (purple). Other types of items brought by the mines include extra phaser weapons (yellow, up to a maximum of 7), screen-clearing bombs, bonus points and extra lives (1UPs). Extra lives are also obtained by scoring, the first with 50.000 points and further ones at every 100.000 points afterwards.

Bosses are one of the additions of the NES port, appearing at the end of the 3rd warp when you reach the target planets. With a few exceptions they're an amalgam of turrets that shoot out several types of bullets and get increasingly more complicated to destroy because of the overlapping attacks from the opening/closing of their hatches. That's when the phaser weapon is very useful since one blast is able to destroy two turrets if you aim it correctly. Once the boss is destroyed you enter a "chance stage", which serves as a bonus area where you can't be hit. If you manage to kill all enemies in it a special bonus of 10.000 points is granted, a reward that increases in value if you continue getting a perfect destruction ratio in further chance stages. In these levels you can also get lots of items by destroying enemies of different colors within each wave, and the game is often kind enough to give out double shot upgrades and 1UPs whenever you get there with a bare ship.

The bonuses from perfecting chance stages are the biggest contributors to the scoring system, but you're also rewarded for destroying full waves before the surviving enemies settle in the background / back of the tube. The first wave gives you an extra 1.000 points, the second 2.000 points and all further ones are worth 4.000 extra points each. Additional enemies spawning from turrets might also be included as sources of extra points, though it's probably better to avoid them in the long run if things get too cluttered.

3 warps to Pluto – it comes after Netptune here, so it's astronomically correct!
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

Besides the described additions of NES Gyruss over the arcade original, including all extra items beyond the double shot, players will also have the chance to play fresh new levels in Pluto, Venus, Mercury and the Sun, with story bits thrown in at the beginning and the end of the journey. Expect drones of different sizes and colors, as well as splitting amoebas/meteors, space bugs with protective shells, spaceships, disappearing guns, space snakes and homing fireballs. Diversity is guaranteed as you move through all of the 39 short stages, and it's interesting to note that in sound terms this version of  Gyruss feels a lot like a Gradius game. A few explicit nods in the gameplay are also very much welcome, such as the Salamander-like boss at the end of stage 19.

With so much going on at times a little bit of slowdown and flicker is inevitable, and for an obvious better performance of the system the screen info disappears completely during boss fights. Fortunately there's nothing really troublesome about these limitations. What's certain is that due to the several alterations in the core game NES Gyruss is an easier challenge than arcade Gyruss. Besides the breathers you come across along the way, in the NES it's much easier to destroy enemies in the distance even with a single shot, whereas in the arcade original losing double shot leaves you in severe trouble later on. I'm fond of both versions equally.

The second loop increments the challenge with a few more enemy bullets per warp and more aggressive bosses, which start throwing out spiralling patterns instead of single fixed spreads. A full run of the 39 levels takes roughly 40 minutes, so once you learn the game completely you can expect to play marathons in order to increase your score. My best result below ended in stage 3-5, playing with Control A.