Thursday, July 28, 2022

Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

After its debut on the Super Famicom, it wasn't expected but it was certainly nice to see the fourth chapter of the Parodius franchise finding its way to both 32-bit platforms. Also unofficially known as "Chatting Parodius", 16-bit Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius introduced a few new features while considerably increasing the character roster. Both 32-bit ports were released only in Japan but received the ~Forever with Me~ subtitle while applying graphical, audio and performance improvements with minor extras on the side. The constant chatting of the narrator is of course kept in all its comical (or annoying) nature, yet you can still shut him off with a specific switch in the options menu. 

This is the third version if this game that I play, having previously looped the SNES original with Soitsu and the Saturn port with Upa. This time I had the idea of just pressing START from the opening screen until entering the game, which naturally made me begin the adventure using the classic Vic Viper ship from Gradius, the primordial mold upon which the Parodius series is actually built. The level of parody and wack with Gradius and other Konami games has obviously gone a long way ever since the franchise started, so players can obviously expect all sorts of bizarre enemies and situations here.

The menu in Japanese is a bit intimidating, but as I mentioned above it's actually quite simple if you just want to dive directly into the game. Choosing the first option will lead you straight to the single player character selection (the second option activates 2-player mode, which now works in co-op as opposed to the alternate turns of the 16-bit original). By default there are 16 selectable characters, but you can also choose secret players Dracura (sic!) or Kid-D(racura) with the aid of a special button code to be inserted at the main Japanese menu (←, →, ←, →, □, ○, ↑, ↑, ↓, ↓, L2, R1, L1, R2, ○, □, ←, →). You could also do it the hard way, but that's just stupid and doesn't make any practical sense (keep reading).

Memim against Penkuro, the second boss in the nonsensical Boss Rush of stage 7
Once the character is chosen you must select between auto or manual power-up mode. In manual players are supposed to activate the desired upgrade in the weapon array just like in any Gradius game, thus having full control on how the character is supposed to evolve. Auto power-up mode, on the other hand, gives the game almost full control of the power-up process, leaving little to the player to decide. In a nutshell, it will activate only one speed-up (or two in the high speed stage) and prioritize laser over double, so if you want to have an extra speed-up or use the equivalent to the double shot just activate the power-up as usual. As always, upgrades in the weapon array are shifted by collecting orange capsules, while inputs consist of shot/missile (mapped to the same button by default), power-up and bell power.

What's mostly interesting in Parodius titles, and particularly in this chapter, is the fact that the chosen character can have a huge influence over the difficulty and the scoring potential of any run. This gap is somehow shortened with practice, but it's undeniable that characters like Soitsu and Dracura have the primary edge both for survival and for scoring. When they are maxed out in power bosses become less troublesome and hidden fairies can be found and collected more easily. Fairies are after all a great source of scoring since each one is worth 10.000 points. The same conclusion about the scoring aspect of the game sort of applies to the other main source of extra points: yellow bells.

Reminiscent of the TwinBee series, bells are released regularly in between power-up capsules and are mostly generated in the yellow color. However, at every four shots taken they will switch to a different color that endows the character with a special power: green (inflate+invincibility), white (bullet-cancelling kanji messages), brown (three bullet-blocking barriers), purple (turns all small enemies into power-up capsules or bells) and blue (screen-clearing bomb). Special notes: green forbids you to fire or collect any bells; green and white are instantly activated when collected and cancel all defensive upgrades; brown and blue bells are stored for later use and need to be triggered with the bell power button; whenever brown and blue are in stock you're forbidden from using the character's shield or force field.

Together with hidden fairies, yellow bells are the bread and butter of the scoring system. Don't let any bell fall of the screen and see the value from yellow bells quickly increase from 500 to 1.000, 2.500, 5.000 and then 10.000 points each. If one of them is lost this value is reset to 500. Juggling bells is obviously easier said than done, especially when you destroy those mid-sized enemies that often appear right after the pre-stage and explode into lots of bells of different colors, or during the whole high speed level themed after Lethal Enforcers. The total number of fairies collected can be tracked in a special option in the menu, and one of its purposes is probably to see how close you are to finding 140 fairies in order to naturally unlock secret characters Dracura and Kid-D. Damn it, Konami, at least we can thank you for the button code, huh?

Soitsu on auto power-up mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Tiza)

When compared with the 16-bit original, 32-bit Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius (often abbreviated as JOP) is certainly a completely different beast. The complete elimination of slowdown is the obvious highlight, but the extend routine that goes beyond the million points is another important change since now you can amass many more extra lives as your score goes up (first extend comes with 20.000, then you get a new one after every 100.000 points). Since the game is much more easygoing than any chapter originated in the arcade platform and has a considerably mild rank progression, JOP is also the choice to go if you're new to the series and you'd like a more approachable starting point with many characters to choose from.

Just like with the other versions of the game, this port has a built-in checkpoint-based save function. Three save/load slots are available at the press of the SELECT button. In the title screen you also have the choice of two new special game modes: Omake 1 is a completely new single stage where you're supposed to get high scores, whereas Omake 2 works as a racing mini-game where the objective is to get to the end of the area as fast as possible. Even though both 32-bit ports appear to be very similar, there is a specific switch in the options screen that alters the gameplay significantly in each version. In the case of the Playstation this tweak is called "Accident", and its function is to add polygonal-based bonus areas to the end of each level. On the Sega Saturn this is replaced by "Extra", which changes enemy formations completely. Besides these interesting tweaks to the base game, both ports allow the OH! bogus power-up to be replaced by a slot machine for bells if you turn "Slot!" on. As for "Duet", "Ikari" and "Nage", they are specific tweaks for co-op play.

Click for the main menu translation for the Normal game in Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me on the Playstation

Despite the comical aspect of the ship, playing with this version of Vic Viper is actually very much like going back to the first Gradius. On the other hand I never thought much of its weapon set-up for a Parodius game prior to now, but it was interesting to notice after all these years how good it actually is against some of the bosses. I played on full defaults (difficulty 4, Roulette ON, Slot!/Accident/Revival OFF, Oshaberi ON) with auto power-up mode and reached stage 3-2 with the result shown below. Note: while you're playing you can always see your difficulty level and loop below the indication for the hi-score at the top of the screen.

Next in line is definitely Sexy Parodius.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Kiki Kaikai (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

I guess we can all agree that the shmup genre as we know it today was in its infancy back in 1986. However, this was a very special year in the history of Japanese developer Taito because that's the year when Darius came out. A huge accomplishment in itself, Darius definitely overshadowed everything that the company delivered at around the same time, including titles such as Bubble Bobble, Tokio / Scramble Formation and Kiki Kaikai. Easily overlooked back then, players were given a new chance to play these secondary arcade games at home by means of compilations such as the Taito Memories discs released for the Playstation 2. In the case of Kiki Kaikai, the edition you should look for is Taito Memories Volume 1 (Joukan).

The name Kiki Kaikai translates to something like "Bizarre Mysterious World". Drawing clear inspiration from Capcom's Commando, the game is an unscrolling multidirectional shooter rooted in Japanese folklore. It follows the adventures of Sayo-chan, a shrine maiden that goes out on a quest to free the seven lucky gods kidnapped by a mysterious villain. There's a strong characterization based on Japanese mythology, but given its primitive graphical assets it's fairly easy to judge Kiki Kaiki as another one of those dry, repetitive, bare-bones arcade romps of the 80s. This impression gets even worse if you venture into the game right after being exposed to the visual spectacle provided by modern games.

However, if you're persistent enough to get beyond the drab surface soon you'll find out that being simple in graphical terms is the only feature of Kiki Kaikai that might have aged. The gameplay is tight and the challenge is vicious, with a fun factor that lies somewhere between the punishing gameplay and the game's subdued natural charm. The soundtrack is rather limited and alternates between two tracks only across all levels, but the collection of sound effects is quite varied and diverse. As for the quality of this port, even though it lacks a TATE mode it's pretty much arcade perfect. Unfortunately there's no TATE option for any of the vertical games included in Taito Memories Volume 1, so playing on a large TV is definitely better if you want to get a hold of all the tiny details of Kiki Kaikai.

On the way to meet the fox demon to free god of wealth Juroujin in stage 6

First of all, Kiki Kaikai needs to be unlocked first if you're going to play it by means of the Taito Memories Volume 1 compilation, either by playing any game(s) for at least five hours or by entering the button code L1, R1, R2, L2, SELECT and START at the title screen (which also gives access to all remaining unlocked games). Seriously, Taito, why? Anyway, the game controls are quite simple: one button is used to shoot ofuda scrolls in eight directions, another button swings Sayo's purification rod directly in front of her. Both attacks can be used to dispatch the majority of enemies (there are exceptions), while pressing both buttons at the same time activates the special power related to any crystal ball you have in stock (these need to be found and collected).

Control inputs are fully configurable in the options, but if you have a turbo controller with you I strongly recommend its use. Considering that Sayo-chan is a fragile little lady that doesn't possess outstanding magical powers, autofire will certainly help her go a long distance. She's at the mercy of the gods when it comes down to resources and upgrades to be collected along the way, which leaves her severely underpowered most of the time. Items are released either by destroying a full wave of tiny brown enemies (otamas), by sweeping lit totems with Sayo's purifying rod or by shooting specific places in the scenery. Most of them will be the blue scroll that extends the reach of your regular shot, but every once in a while you might get more useful items.

Scroll item variations include red (piercing shot), yellow (larger/double shot) and double blue (increases the allowed shot ratio), but you can also find an icon that looks like a small house (oniguiri, worth 2.000 points), an extra life (very rare) or blue/yellow crystals. When activated by pressing both action buttons, the yellow crystal clears the screen from all enemies while the blue crystal freezes all enemies for a brief period of time. The only single item that appears out in the open is the golden key, which must be collected to allow your entry in the stage boss chamber. If you don't take it the boss fight will be denied and you'll have to go back all the way to get the key.

The problem with going back is that doing it (or refusing to move on) has a nasty effect in the gameplay. Besides some of the demons and spirits getting faster and more aggressive other dangerous foes might enter the screen, such as a jumping creature that reminds me of Q-Bert and the ring of supernatural fire that chases you around. Of course that doesn't mean the rest of the enemy gallery is less deadly. On the contrary, after the first couple of stages things get quite intense, demanding players to be on their toes at all times. By far the most dangerous enemy is that brown ghost that arrives in flocks and slows you down, only letting go if you're able to pass below one of the red archways. Since archways are far into the level more often than not you'll die horribly as if you were being dragged to hell like Rick Aviles and Tony Goldwyn in Ghost. You can get rid of them if you have a crystal in stock, which is actually the most important strategy to adopt prior to entering stage 4.

First couple of "scenes" of Kiki Kaikai on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Getting comfortable with fighting off all sorts of cute spirits in Kiki Kaikai certainly takes a while. Besides what I just described above, special attention must be given to creatures with odd behavior such as the demon head that suddenly pops out of large huts or the tombstones that follow you vertically, as well as enemies that can't be pushed back with the purifying rod (snakes, folded umbrellas) and environmental hazards such as bridges and pits (avoid getting close to their borders at all costs). At least normal walls aren't fatal, and since you can't strafe it's possible to lean onto them to direct your shots. Bosses are in a different league because you can only hurt them with the regular shot, and sometimes only when you're allowed to. They start quite easy, but later on some of their attacks becomes rather tricky to avoid.

An interesting twist here is that the final level has no boss, but you'll need to collect three hidden scrolls in order to complete the game. The good news is that these special scrolls are always in the same place, so it's just a matter of memorizing where they are. If you can't find them the stage just goes on forever, whereas in the case of success you'll eventually reach a corridor and the game will end as soon as you get through it safely.

Although not clearly noticeable, Kiki Kaikai has a built-in rank system related to the amount of surplus scrolls collected. Long story short, the more of them you pick the more health bosses will have (this is easily noticeable when you die and have to face the boss again). If you don't want to make bosses stronger just avoid collecting more than two blue scrolls or any extra scroll beyond the ones you've already applied to your firepower. In my experience I didn't care for this and collected them all because each scroll is worth a few points and boss battles become more manageable once you get used to their behavior. In essence, score chasers will take every single item the game gives, on top of killing everything that moves of course.

Click for the option menus translation for Kiki Kaikai on Taito Memories Vol. 1

Kiki Kaikai has absolutely no continues, with extends granted at 70.000 and 150.000 points. When the game is over a random counter will give you a three-digit number, and if it matches the last three digits of the player's total score you'll be awarded a new credit. This doesn't make much sense in the console world, but it must be great if you're playing the game in an arcade center. Speaking of consoles, Kiki Kaikai received a limited number of home ports and was followed by two sequels developed exclusively for the SNES. Out of Japan they were released with the name Pocky & Rocky, which is the most common title used for this series since the 90s. Later on a canned sequel was reworked and released for the Playstation 2 as Heavenly Guardian, but even though it shares elements with Kiki Kaikai the emphasis on exploratory gameplay pretty much excludes it from the shmup genre.
Once I beat the game I played a little further in the second loop and found my demise in the rematch against the second boss (scene 10). I did have fun with it, but I didn't feel inclined to play again to improve my score. For now let's leave it to one of the ports or sequels!