Sunday, June 26, 2022

Project Starship (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panda Indie Studio
Published by Red Art Games in 2022

Second chapter of a confusing trilogy developed by tiny developer Panda Indie Studio / Arabong, Project Starship retools some of the elements of Red Death into a slightly more ambitious effort that preserves its minimalistic interface and roguelike approach. The game still feels rather bare bones in almost all aspects, but at least it chooses to focus on a full blown gameplay experience that literally floods the wide screen of HD TVs with colors and bullets, as opposed to the standard 4:3 vertical orientation of the prequel.

Before we move on it should be noted that Project Starship is completely different from Project Starship X. The latter is the third part of the series, yet in terms of physical media it was actually the second game to be published.

Another consideration to be made about Project Starship concerns the whole mindset behind the roguelike design. It is after all an acquired taste, which in this case is put to the test by an uneven balance between enemy patterns and resources and how they get randomized across the 16:9 screen ratio. The overall tone is cartoonish with large sprites, an extremely psychedelic enemy gallery, 8-bit styled music and bullets of all sizes that fly around at varying speeds. There's nothing special about the animations, yet there's so much going on most of the time that the game does feel overwhelming and deserving of the bullet hell moniker.

Release trailer for Project Starship on the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayStation)

Pressing either ×, ○ or OPTIONS/START sends you into the game proper, then you must choose between a boy (Garret) or a girl (Gwen) and select the desired difficulty (Easy/Hard). The difference between the pilots is purely cosmetic, with no distinction at all between them besides ship color (blue/red) and in-game voices (male/female). On your last life the character also comically appears waving for help at the bottom of the screen, but that's it. Shoot with buttons ×, L1 or R1, fly slower by pressing ○, L2 or R2 (focus shot) and deploy the current special item in stock with button □. It's not possible to remap inputs or apply any changes to the game, which has just one single roguelike campaign with five stages.

Levels in Project Starship might differ in terms of environments and backgrounds, whereas enemies are completely spawned and placed according to the procedural generation routine. Level transitions happen when bosses go down and a big LEVEL UP message appears on screen. All stages have a mid-boss and a regular boss with 2 to 4 large health bars, but bosses can sometimes be replaced by a dark maze or by a fiery wall that shoots out almost undodgeable flame lasers if hit by one of the approaching space debris. As a rule of thumb, whenever a big enemy is defeated you get at least one item as reward, and if you're lucky it will be one of the special kind.

Item pick-ups are in a category of their own since they're one of the main sources of confusion when you start playing. There are three types: regular upgrades, weapon/ship enhancers and special attacks. Regular upgrades are denoted by alphabet letters and include P (power), T (rotating turret/option), R (ratio), M (missile), H (homing, very rare) and S (shield/life). Enhancers are denoted by symbols and might provide extra help in the long run or just alter your shot sprite into more powerful forms such as a shuriken, a black firing stream or a blue/red thick laser that's extremely powerful (the so-called "holy grail"). Examples of helpful enhancers include a full stock of spare shields, a small shard-like barrier that rotates around the ship and is capable of deflecting enemy bullets or a Super Mario-like green mushroom, which grants you another chance to succeed before the credit is finished (technically not a continue).

The final item type is the one that can be stocked for later use by pressing the □ button. Once collected they appear in the container at the top of the screen. Some of the most useful ones I can recall are "TV doesn't work" (blanks the screen with static for a few seconds and gets rid of all bullets and minor enemies) and the EMP (screen clearing blast), while "Ultra Mega Super Laser" and "President Button" send more powerful laser/missile attacks upwards.

Low production values aside, it's certainly possible to see the potential of the ideas behind Project Starship. The problem is that this potential is often buried by unfair procedural generation. Even though the hitbox of the ship is clearly shown at all times, it's common to get the feeling that the default speed is too fast and the focus speed is too slow. Tapping the focus button helps with that, you just need to get used to it. Players also need to cope with items that are best avoided such as the overload / lightning sign (it actually increases enemy aggression instead of your ship's firepower) and the skull (takes away one shield/life but only appears in the final level). I don't recommend picking up the large ring either since it splits your firepower in two less powerful firing streams, but you absolutely need to avoid the large red sword. Finally, remember that collisions against walls are fatal and mean instant GAME OVER. 

A red star full of anger

No matter how used you get to all items, I was still seeing new ones by the time I was done with the game. On top of all the confusion the plethora of items can make, Project Starship also throws several special sections called "mad events". These are brief interludes where you're faced with special challenges such as dodging crazy obstacles or evading large laser blasts with inverted controls. There's no logic as to when a mad event will kick in, but if you perform well enough a special item appears afterwards. Difficulty varies greatly in these parts, and evading some of them without losing lives can be quite tricky to pull off.

As for the scoring system, there isn't anything really important to be said about it since score meanderings are quite obtuse. Every shot landed and every enemy destroyed gives you points, but I don't know if there's any sort of hidden multiplier in place for not getting hit, for example. Suffice it to say that most of the points in any run comes from the final level.

Despite the constant feeling that Project Starship is being unfair, in all honesty it's quite hard to put it down once you're deep into a gaming session. In the end that's the best thing about the game, even though it might take a while to actually understand it to the point where success becomes more likely than failure. And though not clearly stated, success when playing in Hard mode earns a few interesting new items shown whenever you start a new credit. The first one is an H that stands for "hardcore" and takes away all your spare lives. Just ignore that and try to beat the game again: after the final boss you'll finally get the chance to face a true last boss with multiple forms that gives you a massive amount of extra points. If beaten, a new B item will appear at the start of every credit to turn the game into a boss rush, and on top of that you'll finally be able to see which level you're playing at the top of the screen.

Truth be told, I certainly had more fun with the game than I had initially anticipated. Since there's no high score table anywhere and no distinction between difficulties in the high score shown at the start screen, I just took the final snapshot at the end of my best run. I only played in the Hard difficulty, and after a while I settled with Garret because I felt more comfortable with a blue ship than with a red ship.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Silpheed - The Lost Planet (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Game Arts / Treasure
Published by Working Designs in 2000

As the direct sequel to one of the most avant-garde shmups ever created, Silpheed - The Lost Planet must have generated high expectations during the first year of the Sony Playstation 2, both in Japan and in the US. In the case of the US version, for instance, it was supposed to come out on the console's launch date. Short delays notwithstanding, the Western disc includes a few nice improvements made by publisher Working Designs over the original Japanese version, namely the elimination of most of the slowdown and the addition of analog controls. Mind you, this is explicitly stated in the game's instruction manual, I haven't been able to try out the Japanese variant.

In the process of designing the game, developer Game Arts brought along the expertise of Treasure, then already quite famous for making Guardian Heroes and Radiant Silvergun. My best bet is that Treasure took care of the spectacle and the design of some of the largest bosses, with the rest of the game still at the hands of Game Arts. Eye candy aside, unfortunately it doesn’t take long to realize that the results of this enterprise aren’t up to the standards set by the original Silpheed, which is kinda baffling considering the powerful resources associated with the Playstation 2 hardware.

Alone in the galaxy against large enemy battleships
The story of The Lost Planet takes place three decades after the events of Silpheed, and is fully explained by a few animated sequences and several long texts narrated in English prior to each stage. Sci-fi buffs will be marveled at the amount of detail, whereas diehard shmuppers will feel relieved to be able to skip all interludes with relatively short loading times. As for the actual gameplay, what’s left is a very simple game since all you need to use is a single button even though there are three buttons in all configuration layouts. In the default configuration □ and ○ are responsible for shooting each of the side cannons, but there’s absolutely no reason to use any of them considering that button × fires both.

Upon starting a level the pilot has to choose the weapons to be equipped in each cannon. The initial weapon gallery is quite meager, but for every stage completed new weapons are unlocked for immediate selection. Halfway the level you have the chance to replace your choices during the reload cycle, which also refills four energy cells of the ship. Ship energy is arranged in two blocks of five cells, providing an initial health bar that lets you take at least nine hits before dying within the level. And once the next stage starts this health bar is completely replenished. How many shmups allow players to have so many lives, I wonder?

Having such a generous health bar for every stage isn't probably just about making the game more friendly to beginners. It actually factors into the risk associated with playing aggressively for score, which is by far the best thing about Silpheed - The Lost Planet. It lifts the game above the level of mediocrity. In essence, scoring is very simple and is based in proximity kills, which means that the closer you are to your enemy the higher your score over its base value will be. Proximity multipliers range between ×1, ×2, ×4, ×8 and ×16. Since enemies have no health indication at all, practice and good knowledge of their behavior is the best way to achieve those precious ×16 multipliers, especially against mid-bosses, bosses or any instance where you might be able to dismantle them piece by piece.

The only catch when going for proximity kills is that you can't just go on a rampage and sacrifice your health in order to get a ×16 multiplier on a boss, for example. If you get hit all your targets will result in ×1 multipliers for a few seconds no matter how close you are to them. Getting hit or touching the boss just before sending him into oblivion is the worst thing that can happen in every high scoring run.

3rd stage of Silpheed - The Lost Planet
(courtesy of YouTube user BelowAverageJoe)

There are two reasons for why this sequel fails to live up to its heritage. The first of them is the weapon gallery, which is full of gimmicky and useless unlocks from the second level onwards. Once the first stage is over, for example, I'll only use a combination of Optics Laser and Napalm Bomb for the rest of the game. The laser is great to deal with enemies from afar, and napalm is just devastating in close range. A few other weapons might get the job done if you get out of your way to learn how to use them, but I don't think they're worth the effort.

The second reason why the game doesn't reach its full potential is the lack of environment interaction, as aspect for which Silpheed is regarded as one of the best Sega CD games ever made. That feeling of flying across obstacle mazes at varying speeds as if you're chasing the core of a death star is nowhere to be found in The Lost Planet. Truth be told, some of the 3D backgrounds are impressive and have great textures, but the closer we get to interacting with obstacles is a few buildings slowly collapsing to the ground here and there in the second stage, which by the way drags.

Of course there's nothing essentially wrong about the game. The slanted perspective is still quite charming to look at, and the constant radio chatter seems to have been carried over unaltered from the first game. Although there are no real standouts in the music tracks, they at least get the job done and even evoke parts of the soundtrack of the original Silpheed in a few areas. The huge last boss is also back for a quick rematch prior to the real final boss in The Lost Planet, which is kinda neat, but there are also a few other large bosses that are quite creative in terms of design and attack patterns.

I tried to squeeze what I could from the proximity bonus system and got the best result of position 3 in the picture below. I think it's perfectly possible to top the highest score of 10 million, but for now I'm done... if only I wasn't constantly being stunned by a hit or just standing too far from a few bosses during the kill!