Saturday, May 28, 2022

Dariusburst (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pyramid
Published by Taito in 2009

With the Darius series on a hiatus since G Darius (1997), in 2009 Taito tried to bring it back to the shmup spotlight with Dariusburst for the PSP. I believe longtime fans were caught by surprise not only by the release itself, but also by the new direction the company applied to the gameplay. Developer-for-hire Pyramid introduced fresh ideas that certainly proved successful, as hinted by the several revisions/sequels that came out on the trail of the PSP game. Dariusburst also plays a particularly important role for me since it was the reason why I finally purchased a PSP, the first ever handheld system in my personal collection.

Storywise the events of Dariusburst take place after Darius II, with the ongoing war of planet Darius against the Belser army prompting the Silver Hawk engineers to devise a powerful weapon deployed with the so-called "burst system". This new element is the game's defining gimmick and sort of replaces the capturing mechanic last seen in G Darius, squeezing the most out of the spectacle provided by contemporary pseudo 3D backgrounds. Granted, lasers and laser battles aren't as huge anymore but now they can be used in a more flexible way, adding new layers of strategy both for survival and for scoring.

When first starting up the game you'll only have Arcade mode to tackle (all other modes are unlocked first by beating it and by fulfilling a few other requirements). Perhaps due to the limitations of the PSP hardware this main game mode has only 5 stages, with the first couple of them fixed. Only after you've completed area B the famous branching system will kick in, allowing players to choose from areas C or D and so on and so forth. Each stage has the same boss regardless of the selected branch except for the final level, in which you might fight four different end bosses. These final formidable creatures are definitely easier in the upper route, getting harder the lower you go in your chosen path.

Release trailer for Dariusburst on the PSP
(courtesy of YouTube user ndsfans2009)

Only one ship is available upon start in Arcade mode, the Silver Hawk Legend. Once you've beaten the game once (continues allowed) you'll unlock the Silver Hawk Next. Beat Arcade mode once more in a different path and you'll unlock Mission mode, and a third time with another different path to unlock Burst mode. Finally, by clearing Burst mode you unlock the Silver Hawk Original, the official ship from the first Darius. This series of unlocks is obviously aimed at providing replayability and more value for money, but it's at least arranged in a way that makes sense challengewise.

All three ships share the same classic routine for upgrades. Destroying colored enemies releases colored orbs that upgrade three distinct aspects of the ship's firepower: main shot / missiles (red orbs), bombs (green orbs) and shield (blue orbs). The evolution of each element goes through missile → laser → wave, bomb → twin → multi and arm (green shield) → super (silver shield) → hyper (golden shield). Secret icons can also be found by shooting the terrain: grays orbs grant random bonus points, golden orbs act as screen-clearing smart bombs and the small ship gives you an extra life. There are differences between ships: Legend and Origin have the same arsenal except for the burst system, which is absent for the Silver Hawk Origin. On the other hand the burst system is also present on the Silver Hawk Next, which is clearly more powerful than the other ships and even comes with homing bombs. The good news for all ships is that this time around there's no need to worry about powering down upon death, as was the case with all previous games in the series.

In addition to the input for shot, in Dariusburst players have at their disposal another input for the burst attack. The burst gauge fills up automatically as you destroy enemies and gets empty whenever you're using the laser, which can be deployed in two different ways: by holding the button the laser is unleashed with the ship, by double tapping it the laser is dropped in place while you're free to move around. A detached laser behaves differently, consuming the burst gauge more slowly and allowing itself to be rotated up or down. Basically it works like this: if you stop shooting the laser will move towards the ship (Next) or away from the ship (Legend). Since shooting plays a pivotal role in dealing with the burst laser, learning how to properly use this special weapon certainly takes at least a little practice.

The advantages of of using the burst laser isn't of course relegated to sheer firepower increase. It ties in with the brand new scoring system that applies multipliers of up to ×16 as you keep on destroying enemies without getting hit (each hit takes away one multipier point). The catch with the burst laser is that the multiplier increases faster when you use it to annihilate the incoming waves. In the first level, for instance, there's no way to reach a ×16 multiplier just by regular shooting. The use of the burst laser, however, will certainly make it possible. It's interesting to note that even though you still get additional bonuses for extra lives when completing the game, the scoring you're able to achieve with the multiplier mechanic far outweighs these final rewards.

These Gluttons are hungry, very hungry

Two additional details on the use of burst laser are important. There are times when the amount of enemies and bullets is so high that the laser can sustain itself indefinitely (several sections full of asteroids and the whole fight against Hungry Gluttons are prime examples). The second detail is a much more intricate resource and is, quite frankly, the only dwindling aspect of the gameplay. As expected, bosses are also capable of firing their own powerful lasers several times throughout the fight. If you manage to deploy the burst laser just a split-second after you get hit by the laser from the boss, the burst attack will acquire a golden hue and become even more powerful, on top of granting the player with an extra multiplier boost over whatever is destroyed. Unfortunately this golden counterlaser is quite difficult to pull off, and if your timing isn't right you'll lose precious multiplier points by getting hit (the shield protects you but the hits are still registered). 

Everything mentioned above applies to all game modes. Arcade mode is of course the one you should play first. Full of throwbacks to previous chapters in the series, it offers a steady difficulty slope that culminates in epic boss battles by the time you reach the 5th stage. Burst mode is a special campaign locked in the Hard difficulty with different enemy patterns and only one life/ship that's already maxed out in power (orbs will all be of the gray type). On the other hand the burst laser takes longer to deplete and you get new input buttons that let you switch the main shot type (missile, laser and wave). Mission mode is a collection of short sections where you must fulfill simple tasks such as beating a level, a boss or a combination of both (with more bosses on occasion). The music will sometimes switch to the classic tunes from previous chapters, which adds a touch of nostalgia to this particular game mode. As for the main game modes, you can expect another great soundtrack full of engaging and operatic moments alike.

My guess is that completing the challenges in Mission mode will unlock the remaining material included in View mode. Normally you can see your high scores in there, as well as watch the replays you've saved (they can be saved whenever you finish a game without continuing), but you'll also have access to event animations, character close-ups and design illustrations. I did complete all missions in levels 1 and 2 (out of 8), and it was enough to at least have access to all branches of the main menu. Speaking of which, even though the game was only released in Japan the interface is completely in English, with Japanese text reserved for general descriptions that do not affect navigation at all.

On top of being one of the best shmups released for the PSP, in terms of graphic design and gameplay Dariusburst definitely represents a soft reboot of the franchise. Later on it was revised and retouched perhaps beyond what some people would consider acceptable, but there's no denying that Taito and Pyramid were successful in leading the series into new territory. The evolution after Dariusburst is rather complicated, but I'll probably tackle Dariusburst Another Chronicle EX+ next.

All the highest scores for each ship in the photo below for Arcade mode are 1CCs obtained in the Normal difficulty (a 1LC in the case of the Silver Hawk Next in spot #1 through toute ABCEH). Since it's a lot harder than the regular game, I only really tried to 1CC/complete Burst mode with the Silver Hawk Next, succeeding in route ABCEI.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Starship Hector (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft in 1987

I don't have a nice recollection of Star Soldier. For a number of reasons I didn't enjoy playing it as I thought I would have, but regardless of my appreciation the game fortunately spawned a series that continued in the PC Engine platform with remarkable success. However, besides the main Soldier franchise a few spin-off titles were also released by Hudson Soft, and Starship Hector is one of them (the others are Star Parodier and – unofficially – Gunhed / Blazing Lazers). Known in Japan as Hector '87, it's probably the one with least similarities with Star Soldier, which is of course quite interesting in itself if you fancy the other games mentioned in this short paragraph.

With typical Hudson Soft tunes that fit perfectly into the Soldier universe, a creative boss gallery comprised of weird monsters and a difficulty level that doesn’t come off as extreme (provided you have a turbo controller, of course), Starship Hector is certainly bound to please NES shmup fans. All I can say is that I enjoyed it much more than I did Star Soldier, even with the occasional bouts of flicker and slowdown.

The setting is a mix of sci-fi and desolate landscapes. Your starship’s mission is to rid the Earth from alien biomechanical creatures that have dominated the planet after yet another world war. Each stage is labeled “history”, with levels that alternate between vertical and horizontal and are loosely based in ancient civilizations such as the Incan, Mayan and Egyptian empires. Gameplay sounds way more straightforward than any of chapter in the regular Soldier series, even though the general pace is a little slower. There are no power-ups to be found in Starship Hector, and the only items you’ll come across are energy-refilling pills expelled by ground totems hit by your ground bombs.

Pillars of purple doom in History 2

Ground bombs have a crawling abilitity and are fired with button A, whereas the main shot is fired with button B. It’s a variation of the classic formulas first presented in Xevious (vertical) and Gradius (horizontal), with each type of level characterized by its own set of rules. Horizontal parts are often full of walls and obstacles you need to avoid, which are naturally absent from vertical areas. On the other hand ground bombs will only damage ground targets in vertical stages, but they can destroy everything in the horizontal sections. The most important thing about the firing inputs though is that Starship Hector definitely requires a turbo controller to be properly played. Mashing buttons will get you nowhere, on top of giving you serious wrist injuries if you insist on doing so.

Each life comes with an energy/health bar that gets depleted as you receive damage from bullets and enemies. Bullets take away two to four energy cells, but collisions are deadly because if they don’t kill you right away you’ll be left with no spare energy, which means a life will be lost on the next hit. Unless of course you’re able to retrieve and collect the abovementioned refilling pills from the ground fountains. Some enemies have the nasty habit of trying to ram into you either in frontal attacks or by flying behind the ship, so take that in consideration when establishing target priorities while applying at least a minor level of crowd control. Killing the most dangerous enemies quickly is also essential to manage bullet count, especially in the vertical stages. Just beware of exploding mines coming up from below in areas that resemble ravines. The safest strategy is to steer away from them, since they’ll kill you instantly if they take you by surprise.

Perhaps due to the fact that a lifebar is in place, whenever you die you're sent back to the start of the level even during a boss fight. Since stages get tougher as you advance and enemy behavior becomes increasingly more erratic, as I hinted above the best way to go the distance is to play aggressively while memorizing the most threatening enemy patterns. Of course long checkpoints lend themselves to milking once you’ve got used to the stage layouts, and you certainly can try it with the three extends achieved with 200.000, 500.000 and 1 million points. 

History 1 - The "Incaic" empire
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Regardless of the amount of milking you can perform, the bulk of a high scoring run comes from the million points awarded to players who can uncover all characters from the name HECTOR, which are hidden exclusively in vertical levels below circular ground areas the same size of regular turrets. Hit these spots with ground bombs to reveal them, then hit them again to uncover the letters. There's more than one of the same characters within the same level, which gives you the chance to collect the bonus in stage 5 even if you miss one of hidden spots. Another bonus of finding them is that they're worth lots of points.

Concealed ground targets are also important in another context. In vertical levels a few extra hidden spots work as triggers that destroy all turrets in the vinicity, thus making your life a lot easier. These aren't as easy to find as the HECTOR characters though, so try to remember whenever you happen to come across one of these precious secret locations.

The picture below shows my final 1CC score, which is kept in the "Score" choice from the start screen. If you pay close attention to start screen once you've beaten the game you'll notice that it changes colors. If another credit is started right away you'll then be surprised by your avatar, which changes from the regular spaceship to an astronaut in a jetpack! It's just a cosmetic thing though, everything else about the game remains the same. Note: besides the main course in Starship Hector there are also 2 and 5-minute caravan modes for players who enjoy these extra scoring challenges.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Dezaemon 2 [Daioh P!] (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1997

Continuing with the exploration of the sample games included in the Japanese Dezaemon series of shmup-making titles, let's now take a quick look at Daioh P!, the final episode in the consolized and heavily toned down version of a very tough arcade shooter. The previous chapter is Daioh Gale Ver. 2 on the Dezaemon Plus disc, released for the Playstation in 1996.

Daioh P! is one of the five sample games included in the Dezaemon 2 shmup-making title for the Sega Saturn, accessible by choosing the S3 option in the start menu (it's the second sample game I'm playing on it, the first one was Biometal Gust). The "P" in Daioh P! stands for polygons, which means that every visual asset in the game uses this technique, from ships and crafts to terrains and explosions. Since it has five stages, the basic mold upon which it's based seems to be Daioh Gale Ver. 2, yet there are one or two aspects that date back to the first Daioh Gale, originally released for the Super Famicom in 1995.

Daioh P! maintains the general stage layouts and enemies from Daioh Gale Ver. 2, as well as an updated version of the same soundtrack. The main additions include the primitive electronic preamble prior to the start of each level, several new sound effects that give the action a slightly different feel from previous entries, the scrolling speed that varies from time to time and the fact that all bosses have two or three distinct phases instead of just a single attack routine throughout the fight. Other than that, the graphic design is extremely simplifed and lacks details, which is sort of expected for a game developed using standard predefined polygon tools.

Chasing the second boss over a blocky polygon ocean

Playing the game requires basically two inputs, rapid shot in button R and bomb in button C (for those interested, the single shot is mapped to button A). All items are released by destroying a specific carrier, starting with the colored icons for weapon choice: red (spread vulcan), blue (straight shot with homing missiles) and green (homing shot). In order to increase weapon power you need to collect the P (power-up). The remainder of the item gallery consists of SP (speed-up), SH (1-hit shield), B (extra bomb) and a medal that's worth 5.000 points. Weapon icons and medals fall off the screen right away when released, whereas all other items float around for a while before disappearing.

The last aspect of the core gameplay is bomb usage. Bombs work according to the weapon you're currently using. For the red (vulcan) you get a round blast that damages everything around you, green shot (homing) results in a more powerful homing attack with increased damage and the bomb for the blue shot (straight + missiles) consists of a frontal attack that funnels inwards as the bomb energy dissipates.

Most of the time Daioh P! flows at a nice pace, with almost no threats imposing any sort of pressure on players. That said, the only moments where bullet spreads start to become more dangerous are during boss fights, which are now preceded by warning messages inspired by Darius (a huge battleship is approaching fast!). Their final phases can take you off guard with sudden attacks or close-range overlapping blows, and for that the best strategy is still good old memorization. Never mind the spiralling sand columns of the 3rd boss though, the effect is kinda reminiscent of Soukyugurentai but it's harmless, just for show really.

Even though at least one speed-up appears every time after you die, which makes boss fights fair and tougher sections manageable, the final boss is no pushover and requires lots of movement to be defeated. It's also important to note that you're always respawned with the weapon you were using when you died, which in some cases can lead to extremely dire situations because you can't switch to another weapon. Facing the last boss with the homing weapon is such an example since you never know when the homing shot will start chasing the boss itself instead of the drones he drops or the central deadly bullet, which can be destroyed even by a level 2 vulcan shot.

The first stage of Daioh P! (easy difficulty)
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Since you get a few extends in a regular run, starting with 100.000 points and then for every 300.000 points after that, Daioh P! naturally allows checkpoint milking if you feel inclined to do so. I guess it's just a matter of finding the best checkpoints for that, which is something I didn't try to do. One such part of the game, however, is definitely the last boss due to the drones he drops in his first form (as I mentioned above). Marginal score contributors consist of loose projectiles from turrets, but it's also important to not let any medal go by. Medals are the only items that can be dropped not only by carriers but also by specific enemies, so keep an eye out for them.

Although sympathetic thanks to the full polygon design and the ability to play in co-op, overall Daioh P! is very short and doesn't have enough substance to warrant a lasting impression. It's okay but it's certainly of more interest to those who care about the works by Athena or the possibilities to tinker with all sample games, as is usual with the Dezaemon titles. Since I didn't venture into ckeckpoint milking, my best score for Daioh P! was achieved in a no-miss run (Normal difficulty).