Saturday, September 24, 2022

Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
11 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Dreamloop Games
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2018

Provided a few basic features are properly implemented, sometimes all it takes to make a game memorable (especially a shmup) boils down to two defining elements: good music and pleasing action. However, there are developers that will do whatever they can to bring something new to the table, which is in every way highly comendable. The inherent risk is that reaching so far into new territory can result in a game that ultimately fails to deliver because something is lost or overlooked along the way, hurting its long term appeal. That’s the case of Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax.

Originally released for PCs in 2015, the game was later tweaked and found its way to the Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch and the Playstation 4. I assume they’re all the same, yet the Switch and the PS4 versions were lucky enough to receive physical releases. Just for reference, the PS4 disc mentions version 01.02 in its opening screen.

Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax adopts a classic horizontal shooter approach with mechas as protagonists in a futuristic setting. Five robots with different specs are instantly available for selection across all game variations, starting with the main campaign mode. Common attacks consist of regular shot (R2) and sword melee (×), whereas specific attacks for each robot can be triggered with buttons □ (special move) and ○ (distortion technique). Note that in order to have the secondary weapon fired with the regular shot you need to activate/toggle it with L1, which makes no sense at all in practical terms. On top of that, the primary weapon can also be deactivated with button R1. Why would you not want all weapons deployed by default, I wonder? Finally, button △ is used to revive friends when in co-op play (up to 4 players can join).

The guardian of the abyss wants to say Hi

Upon selecting the robot, players must then choose the primary weapon (out of six) and the secondary weapon (out of seven) mentioned above. The range of primary weapons goes from basic straight guns, lasers, a flamethrower and a couple of different spread patterns. Secondary weapons add an assortment of lasers and straight/homing missiles with cluster explosions. All weapons vary somewhat in power and rate of fire, so prepare to spend some time testing out all of them to see which ones combine better with the mecha you have chosen. Different combinations might also work better depending on the level you’re playing.

Every stage in the campain mode is divided in three sections, with bosses often appearing in the second and third ones. In between sections you choose one out of three upgrades to improve aspects such as attack power, shield strength, shield regeneration, critical hits (a.k.a. probability-based damage), distortion accumulation and temporary power-up effectiveness. After defeating the main boss you go into a shop where you can buy these upgrades and many more special performance enhancers with the bonus currency achieved for the whole level (transferable to the next shop if not used). Finally, in-stage power-ups that give you the abovementioned temporary upgrades / recovery aids are dropped randomly by destroyed enemies. Robot health uses a two-phase meter composed of shield and armor: shield refills automatically if you stay out of harm’s way, but armor can only be refilled by collecting a particular item. 

With varied graphical themes and an enemy gallery that tries to match them, stages are quite unique and distinct from each other. Even though there’s absolutely no interaction with environmental obstacles, graphics are decent and provide a good feeling of flying over eerie planets or exploring the outer space vastness. Action is slow upon start but eventually picks up, boss battles are fun for the most part and the upgrade system allows for all sorts of experiments for aggressive and defensive players alike. All of that culminating in a fight against a last big enemy that's going to fairly test your dodging skills.

So what’s wrong with Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax? In pure gameplay terms not much actually. My only gripe is the occurrence of attacks that can kill you instantly, finishing your run in a single blow. The insect boss in the 5th stage is one such example, and until you figure out his unorthodox charging routines you’ll probably die a few times. And by all means keep an eye out for those vertical lasers in the scrapyard stage (8th), which will also obliterate you no matter how strong your shield/armor is. By the way, the 8th stage has one of the best songs in the game, in a soundtrack that shines and certainly sticks with you after a while. In all honesty, it's the only feature that's truly deserving of the stellar qualifier.

Trailer for Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax
(courtesy of YouTube user Playstation)

The actual problem with Stardust Galaxy Warriors - Stellar Climax is related to the general notion of performance follow-up. Anyone would imagine that a 10-stage long game clocking at almost one and a half hours would have at least a solid, if not engaging scoring system. However, it’s baffling how this aspect is totally thrown out the window. Scores appear both for individual sections and stages, but are reset in every single level. They are also completely unrelated to the currency bonus achieved after you beat a boss. I reckon the ×2 multiplier that gets reset every time you’re hit and goes up again one enemy at a time should have something to do with it, yet this doesn’t matter anyway because there’s absolutely no score tracking in campaign mode.

Another point of concern in campaign mode is that you can change the difficulty setting between levels, which of course makes score tracking useless. There'd be nothing wrong with that as long as we had a campaign course with fixed parameters, but unfortunately no option exists to lock the difficulty setting for a full run. Having nothing less than 11 predefined settings (plus a fully customizable option if desired) is quite a bold decision as far as flexibility goes, but it certainly makes more sense to try all of them when four people play together for sheer shooting fun. And perhaps someone in the shooting party might see a little value in the story mumbo jumbo, which is completely conveyed with plenty of text but no cut scenes or voice narration at all.

The other game variations included in the package are a separate mode with five challenges with specific durations and rules, as well as two extra endless modes with increasing difficulty (Gauntlet has only regular upgrades and Strike comes with shops, just choose the level theme and fire away). These ones keep track of performance, but no distinction is made when you apply difficulty tweaks.

After trying out all mechas I settled with Silver Wolf, the "dasher". He's got a dash maneuver that's excellent to evade bullet barrages, as well as the regular smart bomb to clear things up a little. When beating the campaign mode I paired him with the laser cannon and the proximity rocket (primary/secondary weapons) during the whole game, and for the majority of the run I only purchased special upgrades in the shops. Some of these items are great life-savers, such as the "distortion shields", which fully recharges your shield gauge whenever a distortion attack is used. As seen in the picture below, upon clearing the game without dying you get the YOLO achievement (a good association with the 1CC in this case). I played all levels in the Normal difficulty. Note: you can replay campaign mode again in the same save slot to continue upgrading your mecha.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Terra Cresta (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu in 1985
Published by Hamster in 2005

Dear readers, I guess a mea culpa is definitely in order. I don’t recall exactly, but for a long time I’ve had a personal grudge against this game and the exact reason is now blurred in the past, most probably with confusion regarding a perception of having to control a humongous blocky ship in a game that looks like Xevious. It just so happens this is a very wrong assumption, for Terra Cresta isn’t anything of the sort. Nothing better than properly playing a game to see what it’s all about.

Originally released in the arcades in 1985, Terra Cresta appeared in a stand-alone disc for the Playstation 2 as part of the Japanese Oretachi Game Center series, more especifically in volume 10. Direct sequel to the primitive Moon Cresta (which is also found in the same collection by the way), it builds upon the visual ideas of Namco’s Xevious while adding new elements that give it a whole different feel. One of these elements is the music, which despite being restricted to just a single tune is quite charming and obviously prone to get into your head you if you play the game long enough.

In the world of Terra Cresta players must patrol the surface of the planet in an endless quest to defeat alien enemies. The terrain is constantly changing and there’s no stage distinction whatsoever, so progression is mostly determined by the appearance of three progressively harder bosses. Most people consider the game looped when the third and largest one is beaten, and since the minor bosses appear in uneven intervals it’s just common sense to consider Terra Cresta a single-stage shooter. And a rather quick one, it takes roughly less than ten minutes to be completed.

A vintage trailer of the Terra Cresta arcade
(courtesy of YouTube user Fuzzy)

As the game unfolds small electrified hatches will appear surrounded by one or more numbers positioned very close to them. By destroying all these numbers an extra ship part will emerge from the hatches, and by collecting them you'll combine the current ship with these new pieces. Each piece increases the ship's size while improving the shot pattern a little: 2 thickens the main shot, 3 adds a rear shot, 4 adds an extra frontal shot and 5 creates a rear barrier that's able to destroy enemies on contact (just out of curiosity, part number 1 is the default basic "Winger" ship). If you've collected at least one ship part you won't die if a bullet hits you, only the part(s) will be lost. On the other hand, if the player is able to collect all pieces without losing them or dying, the ship will turn into an invincible phoenix for a determined amount of time before reverting back to its regular form.

SELECT adds a credit, START begins one. Shot is permanently mapped to buttons □, △ and ○, with autofire applied to the latter two. A second input provided by button × provides the gimmick that defines Terra Cresta and ultimately makes it memorable. Commonly referred to as "transform", this button splits all extra parts the ship is carrying and makes them fly alongside you for a brief while (the same duration of the phoenix phase), after which the ship/parts will sink back into their original form. During this transformation period the firepower is enhanced (the more parts you have the more powerful you get), and as you move it around the only piece that's vulnerable to attacks is the basic ship itself.

The amount of transform attacks available is dictated by the Ps at the bottom of the screen. Even though you can't transform at will, using this ability gives the game a few additional layers of strategy. On top of being an extremely useful aid during tricky sections, there are certain enemies that can only be destroyed by the extra power you get from a formation attack (those energy bars that descend and split in two at the bottom, the detachable base of the small homing missiles). Besides, considering that each ship part collected adds three new transform cycles to the stock, transforming right before collecting one is a very nice idea if you still have at least one P left. After all, extra firepower is always useful no matter what.

Meet the second boss, guys!

The first loop of Terra Cresta, i.e., until you beat the huge boss that shoots out boomerangs, showcases the whole game in a reasonably approachable manner. Enemy bullets start slow, bullet density isn't that high and hatches with ship parts are evenly spaced out. Once you proceed after that the difficulty starts ramping up nicely, with ground and aerial targets appearing in equal measure. Since the spawning routine of some flying enemies is based on your position in the screen, with practice there comes a point when you'll know where to stand in order to have better survival chances. Sure you can twitch your way through the game, but other than the aimed bullets this is pretty much the main source of randomness there is to the gameplay, which immensely rewards memorization. 

Regardless of the loop you're playing, an aspect that can't be taken for granted is the fact that every single extra ship part isn't just there for the taking. There's always a threat nearby that's perfectly positioned to give you trouble if you go straight for the extra piece, be it one of those dinosaurs, a sudden enemy wave coming from the sides or one of those ground turrets that's only revealed when you get close to their location. Scoring is very straightforward, and the little opportunity you get to amass a few more points is by exploiting the minions expelled by bosses. Bosses do time out and leave the screen after a while though. In the case of dragging out the fight against the third boss there comes a point where you won't need to face him again if you die, you just go straight into the second loop once you're revived in the checkpoint. Extends are given at 20.000 points and then for every 60.000 points afterwards.

I admit I had great fun playing the game, much more than I thought I would. There's that one-more-go aura written all over it, which certainly vouches for the success it achieved during its original arcade run. The only gripe I have with the transform mechanic is that I often get confused when transforming with only two ship parts (the one where you get a wide wave shot as the formation attack). And then I die because I start controlling the ship part instead of the ship itself! This doesn't happen with the other formations simply because the parts appear right ahead instead of flying beside you.

Click for the option menus translation for Terra Cresta on the PS2

If you just want to play Terra Cresta the PS2 port has all the essential resources you might need (TATE mode, save feature), but the package also includes an extra guide book, a music mini-CD (16 minutes of sound effects, music tracks and two remixes) and a mini-DVD with a gameplay sample of the first loop of the game and general advertising for the Oretachi Game Center series. A handful of ports were released for the most varied platforms, while the first sequel Terra Cresta II came out for the PC Engine in 1992.

I played in the Normal difficulty and in all the results shown below I died in the second loop.