Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Lost Sunheart (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Manjyu-Do
Published by I'Max in 1992

It doesn’t take much to realize there’s a touch of weirdness in The Lost Sunheart. It's got that offbeat atmosphere often associated with Japanese stuff, and for many people that alone is a good reason to try it out. Though not reaching the heights of something like Ai Cho Aniki, the game has some bold imagery in boss designs whose context gets lost in the story completely presented in kanji. The broad understanding on my part is that five magic crystals are stolen by evil creatures, and our mission as players is to get them back. One fiendish boss at a time.

Also known by the Japanese title Bouken Danshaken Don San-Heart Hen, this little and obscure shooter can be quite deceiving. The overall design is dark and moody, and the start of the journey tricks you into thinking the challenge ahead might not be that taxing. That's the impression we get when each life comes with a health bar, isn't it so? Soon enough the stakes start to get higher though, demanding a little strategy in order to preserve health as you go through each checkpoint. After all, every death sends you back to the very beginning of the section.

If you go to the options there’s a mode switch whose sole purpose is to turn cut scenes on and off (adventure ON or OFF), with no interference in the gameplay whatsoever. Shooting is accomplished with button II and movement speed can be toggled between four settings at the press of the SELECT button. As for button I, besides inputting your initials at the start of every credit it's also used to trigger special powers that become available later (keep reading). Even though your ship is changed for a new one at certain points in the game, these "upgrades" don't add anything to your arsenal except for the first ship replacement, which activates permanent Darius-like bombs.

Silly observation: the first couple of ships remind me of a faucet and a fried chicken. Look closely and tell me if you agree!

A creepy man in disguise or just a pregnant owl?

Aesthetic alterations aside, the ship’s actual capabilities are improved with items released by destroying yellow carriers. The way the upgrade system works in The Lost Sunheart is rather confusing though. The most important items are two interchangeable icons for the central firing stream: C (default) and H (a thicker wave shot), both enhanced three times by picking up successive items of the same type. The other items consist of F (partial or full health refills) and B (adds a fire effect to the bombs). Finally, one-time items appear early in the game: T permanently alters the default pea shot to a 3-way spread pattern and S activates an orb that endows the ship with special powers.

These special powers vary according to the selection you make whenever the game is paused. Four extra choices besides the initial one become available as the lost crystals are recovered, for a total of five: 1 (rotating orb), 2 (bombs home on enemies), 3 (two-way shot from an auxiliary force pod), 4 (bullet-blocking shield) and 5 (extra shot stream). 1 and 3 are fired with the main weapon whereas 2, 4 and 5 use button I. Note that special power 4 cannot be used as a permanent shielding resource since each activation of button I merely creates a single shield with very brief duration, only enough to deflect incoming bullets and damage everything that it touches. On the other hand, just like the main weapon (button II), special powers 2 and 5 do benefit from rapid firing, hence the recommendation to have a turbo controller at hand in order to fully enjoy the game.

Given the intricacies I mentioned above, I reckon it's common to find people who have played the whole game without taking full taking advantage of the weapon system. Knowing about the proper use of the special powers, for example, represents a huge advantage against some of the trickiest sections and bosses. On top of that, a few other aspects of the gameplay deserve to be mentioned. Getting hit downgrades all weapons by one power level, and although it's possible to play with speed setting 2 or 3, in a few areas it's beneficial to maximize the flying speed to evade quick attacks. Narrow passages aren't really dangerous because there's no harm in touching walls, in fact leaning against walls or screen borders is what it takes to place the force orb of special weapon #3 above or below the ship.

Eyes everywhere!
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

The Lost Sunheart unfolds at a steady pace and does a good job at keeping the interest alive by means of the bizarre boss encounters. That said, there's a recurring emphasis in the enemy gallery with respect to eyes. Weak spots of almost all bosses are an eye or an arrangement of multiple eyes, often attached to demon-like creatures or mechanical machinery. I'd say there's a lot of Parodius in the game as whole, as well as a veiled influence from Darius in level backgrounds and ideas behind some stage designs, including an underwater section that ends with the ship entering the mouth of a creepy whale. Besides, pretty much all enemy waves give you varying bonus points when fully obliterated.

Even though attempting to destroy complete waves and dying to cash in on checkpoints are valid objectives when trying to score, in the long run it's just not worth it. A couple of turrets that spit large fireballs in the second level can be exploited forever if you so wish, thus rendering the scoring system useless. Speaking of which, score-based extends are registered with 100, 300 and 500 thousand points, and if you shoot the floating head in stage 3 long enough you'll also be able to collect an icon for extra life (UP).

Certainly the most intimidating foe you'll come across in this game, the last boss is the only thing expecting players in the sixth and final level. It also seems to have been lifted straight out of one of the Fantasy Zone games. I died a few times when going for the 1CC in the top spot of the table below (there are separate high score tables for both difficulty settings). It was a fun and satisfying experience that only lacked a more compelling sountrack to go along with the decent visuals.

Monday, August 22, 2022

1942 (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
32 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1986

It's really hard today to believe there was a time when this game was actually a hit in children's homes around the world. But this port of 1942 was indeed very successful in its era. These days the game is widely panned for its monotonous gameplay and grating music (or lack thereof), however with the glaring exception of the "monotonous" qualifier all aspects of the game are actually inherited from the original arcade title.

In my opinion arcade 1942 is probably one of the hardest classic shooters ever designed. Whenever I feel inclined to play the original I can't help but experience real fear and subsequent horrible defeat. The good news for us wimps is that for many tough arcade shmups out there chances are we'll find a suitable console port that's a tad more approachable. So if arcade 1942 mops the floor with me I can always chicken out and go to the NES version, and that's what I did during a tediously dull evening. I was tired and I was bored.

Here we have the quintessential shooting game of the lone airplane fighting enemies in wide open areas. In a sense, it's a marginally improved take on what you'd find in the Atari 2600 catalog – especially in the audio department, which consists of sound effects and beeps/whistle noises for music. The game box heightens the expectations with all sorts of thrilling and exciting descriptions, starting with the Super Ace moniker given to the Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft. Granted, NES 1942 is far from evoking much enthusiasm, yet one can at least find solace in the fact that it's actually reasonably faithful to the arcade game.

Disrupt enemy formations ready to attack!
(courtesy of YouTube user No Commentary Gameplays)

Controls are simple and straightforward: button B shoots and button A performs the "loop the loop", an evasive maneuver that makes the fighter plane invincible while the loop animation lasts. As a panic function the loop is of course quite an invaluable resource, the only concern is in its finishing part: if you land over a bullet or an enemy you’ll inevitably die. You get three loops at the start of every stage, regardless of how many of them were used in the previous level. Unused loops are converted into bonus points, as is the stage destruction ratio (the more kills you get the better the reward at the end of the level).

As you fly over land and sea flocks of incoming craft the same size of yours will arrive from the top of the screen. There’s not much variety to them, but watch out for the red/orange-colored ones that arrive in specific formations. If you destroy a full formation a Pow item will appear, and the color of the item determines its effect upon collection: double firepower (green), two side/option planes (white), extra life (red), extra loop (red w/ orange border) and instant smart bomb (white w/ red border). All items are also worth 1.000 points each. The only other single item to be collected is the yasichi lollipop that's released if you hit the plane that quickly accelerates upwards from the sides. It’s worth 5.000 points.

Players also need to be cautious of mid-sized and larger planes coming from below, that's why it's not a good practice to hug the bottom of the screen at all times. These are stronger enemies that take more hits to go down, especially the huge one that starts shooting out a spread pattern once it reaches the middle of the playing field. An even larger plane appears four times throughout the game at the end of specific levels, however despite its massive size this boss (the only boss you'll come across actually) can be easily defeated by standing close to one of the wings, thus avoiding the bullet sprays coming out of its tail.

Daring fighter pilot Super Ace intercepting enemy air warriors!

Every four levels the behavior of enemies is different: none of the small planes will shoot at you, in what the original game calls "% and point up" stages. The only enemies that will shoot are the large planes that enter the screen from below. The opportunity is there to rack more destruction percentage bonuses, so having the side fighters to increase firepower definitely helps. Just note that these side planes can also be individually destroyed. Racking up points is the way to achieve extra lives, starting with 20.000 and then proceeding with futher extends for every 80.000 points scored afterwards.

Since the game has 32 stages, a full credit of 1942 lasts well over an hour. Every stage ends with the plane landing in an aircrat carrier, collecting the bonuses and reloading the stock of loops. The impression of going through a repetitive and tiresome ordeal is all over the game, even when you consider the poor choice of background colors that sometimes makes it hard to track enemy bullets. At least in this port bullets don't get any faster as you advance, which leaves bullet density as the sole promoter of higher stakes later in the game. It's nothing outstanding in terms of challenge though, unlike the arcade original. There's no autofire, so a turbo controller that works (mine didn't) is definitely useful.

I was hoping to top my previous best score this time, but it wasn't the case and I simply didn't want to try again. Once the game ends it's really hard to get back to it because of its length and utter lack of excitement. That's why I attached below my old 1CC score, for the sake of keeping up with my records. As we can see from the picture, the high score in the NES port of 1942 rolls over the million mark, with the regular final score (to the left) representing the points in excess over one million. The sum and final result in this case is 1.292.800 points.

The NES was lucky enough to also get a port of the sequel, so hopefully soon I'll be trying out the 8-bit version of 1943 - The Battle of Midway.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

ExZeus (Playstation 2)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
75 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hyper-Devbox
Published by Metro 3 / Conspiracy Entertainment in 2004

The history of this game is quite an interesting one, according to the info on Wikipedia. Developed for the arcade market by a French company, ExZeus was ported one year later for the Playstation 2 exclusively in Europe. Then it was published again for arcades, only now running on the more famous Sega NAOMI board, before appearing for the Nintendo Wii under the title Counter Force. After showing up on mobile phones, a decade later it was again taken out of obscurity by a joint release with sequel ExZeus 2 for Steam (PC), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and the Playstation 4 (also on physical media).

ExZeus is a futuristic sci-fi rail shooter with a post-apocalyptic setting about humans retreating to the underground and sending powerful robots to the surface in order to repel the alien invaders. The art style in cut scenes and during the game is decent enough, if only a bit unpolished in parts. However, the gameplay itself has a very particular flow and doesn't play like the majority of rail shooters out there. You won't get anywhere just by performing circular movements in order to avoid incoming bullets, for example, as you would in games like Space Harrier. Evading and blocking enemy attacks requires a slightly different mindset here.

Besides what I mentioned above, going into the game blindly can be disorienting due to the shaking effect that takes place on pretty much every action you take. Frankly, it's hard to even know what's going on. Fortunately you can disable this by switching off all screen swing/shake settings in the options menu, and I strongly recommend doing this before even starting to play. If you're not from Europe a proper 60Hz option also gets rid of the screen shimmering related to the native PAL encoding system.

Calista below a passageway in the town of ruins

Every credit starts with the choice of a robot. Sophia is the more balanced of them, with equal stats for power, speed, weapon and armor. Dynamis is the strongest one at the expense of speed, whereas Calista is the opposite. Since the only function of button △ is to toggle the view from behind the robot to a little above/behind its position, the actual gameplay uses five buttons: × fires the main gun and charges the laser whenever it's available, □ deploys the lock-on attack, ○ drops a megabomb and L1/R1 provide fast evasion maneuvers left or right (also accomplished with double taps). Charging up the laser happens automatically, with two available power levels that render you invincible when this attack is unleashed.

Death can happen in two ways: by allowing the energy bar to deplete completely or by timing out the stage (a message will warn you to hurry up). An uncommon feature of ExZeus is that the robot actually has two health bars instead of one: the uppermost gauge on the top left is the shield and serves as the primary barrier against damage, whereas the leftmost indicator down below represents the actual player energy, which starts going down only when you have no shield energy left. Both shield and energy have specific refill icons in the item gallery, which also consists of lock-on energy, speed boost, gold (to purchase upgrades/refills between levels) and power-up (increases the firing spread). Most of them are randomly released by destroying enemies. You just need to fly close to the items to pick them up, they will be automatically sucked into the robot when within a certain distance.

The reason why circling around isn't effective in ExZeus is that enemies have attack routines that are mostly independent from aiming directly at the player's position. These attacks are also unusual, with melee-like laser approaches and bullets fired in clusters, yet sometimes you need to face heavy artillery that leaves trails of energy behind. Some of these enemies must either be destroyed or avoided at all costs, especially since successive or powerful blows can drain a huge chunk of your energy. On the other hand, if enemies are destroyed after they have fired, all their bullets will turn into gold. Additionally, enemies destroyed in quick succession add to a hit combo that gives you a few extra points, in what's the only worthy aspect to point out in the game's rudimentary scoring system.

Gameplay on bosses is a tad different. They don't fire a single bullet at the player, a task that's left for occasional enemies that appear throughout the fight. All bosses have a set of attacks that include all sorts of variations of laser beams, fire breathing and melee strikes. The general strategy is to find their rhythm and hit them between these attacks, but note that whenever they're blue they're invincible to regular fire and only vulnerable to lock-on shots. The most important thing to have in mind, however, is to not panic with their initial levels of aggression and the inevitable loss of your shield. For some mysterious reason boss attacks have an extra reach regarding the shield, which is meant to be lost during the fight. Once the shield is gone it's perfectly possible to take advantage of the gaps in their attack patterns, just remember to use L1/R1 to quickly move around when needed.

Continuing through the town of ruins and the cave to hell
(courtesy of YouTube user 10min Gameplay)
I admit it took me a while to finally understand what I just mentioned above. After all, ExZeus is keen on draining the player's resources in a snap if you're not careful enough. One example is the power-down penalty whenever you get hit. It takes two power-ups to achieve the maxed out 5-way spread shot, and normally for each hit the robot takes you're downgraded one level, first reverting to the 3-way pattern and then to the default single shot. However, if the blow is too powerful you'll be instantly sent to the default shot, and this can be a severe handicap in certain areas. At least the game throws more power-ups a few moments later, except during boss fights.

My primary assessment of ExZeus is that the price of admission to the fun side of the game is a bit too steep. Even though the gameplay is rather unorthodox, after a while I started digging the intensity, the flashy nature of the visuals and the fact that the enemy gallery keeps you on your toes at all times. The music is energetic and vibrant, although not memorable as a whole. Most of the levels take place in wide open areas, but every once in a while you'll be flying inside closed chambers or tunnels. Cities, forests, icy ravines and even an underwater passage complete the environment selection. The upgrades to be purchased with your hard-earned gold are extremely helpful, with the most important one being the extra energy block (you can have a maximum of six blocks). It's also possible to increase the length of the shield gauge, but I always preferred to spend the rest of the cash on shield and lock-on shot refills.

Difficulty settings in ExZeus are spread across a spectrum that grades alien and boss attack speeds (50%, 75%, 100%, level progressive and game progressive). 75% is the default, which I considered to be the Normal difficulty setting. There's also something called "collision accuracy", which ranges from 50% to 100% and has 75% as default. I played on full defaults (75% in all three settings) and got the final 1CC result below with robot Calista. Quick observation: ExZeus on the PS2 is yet another case of a game where the score isn't reset when you continue.

When the time comes I'll probably tackle sequel ExZeus 2 on the Playstation 4.