Saturday, October 29, 2022

Armed 7 (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Astro Port
Published by Pixelheart / JoshProd in 2019

Regardless of the artistic or commercial outcome, robots versus robots will always be a great premise for any sci-fi product. This is the case of Armed 7, one of the many PC shooters from independent developer Astro Port converted to the Dreamcast by french company Pixelheart/JoshProd. Armed 7 (or Armed Seven in its original spelling) is another standard horizontal shmup, but instead of controlling a spaceship you handle a mecha/robot in an all-out war against a huge mechanized armada.

Even though it belongs in the same league and bears a few visual similarities with older titles like Arrow Flash, Spriggan Mark 2 / Spriggan Powered and Android Assault, Armed 7 has a particular vibe that makes it stand out on its own, not in a stellar fashion but at least in a decent, if only slightly derivative way. The overall rhythm and the difficulty slope are perfect for the game’s short length, while the average challenge level should please fans of sci-fi shmups looking to have another doable 1CC under their belt.

Gameplay originality notwithstanding, Armed 7 could’ve used a little more polish in the interface. Texts are a little hard to read in a regular TV connection, and the cramped HUD on the horizontal borders makes it impossible for you to see the score on the top of the screen on a normal TV. Other than that it’s at least better than the lousy port for Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser. And the pause function now works, so you won’t have to watch your credit go to shreds if for whatever reason you need to get away from the TV.

A short trailer for the Dreamcast release of Armed 7
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher JoshProd)

Upon choosing the difficulty of the game, players need to arm the robot with three types of attacks: main weapon, sub weapon and charge weapon. There are four choices for each with small symbols to help you figure out their behavior in advance. Of course the only way to know how they work and try to settle on a preferred combination is by actually playing the game. Button A shoots both main and sub weapons, while button B fires the charge weapon once it’s allowed by a gauge that fills up automatically. Charging times depend on the type of weapon selected.

The shooting direction of the main weapon can be tilted up and down by moving vertically without firing. The act of shooting then locks the firing direction until you release the button (tilting direction can be altered in the options in the “rotation” setting). The descent to the surface of the planet in the first level is an early example of when it’s good to tilt your firepower down, in a section that’s very reminiscent of the first stage in Eliminate Down. The game then moves on across several landscapes with neat parallax effects and huge bosses, which should please fans of 16-bit shooters in general.

In order to offset the simplicity of the base game, Astro Port infused it with some very smart motivational devices for scoring. It all starts with the upgrade icons for power and shield, which are brought by specific carriers and get sucked into the ship when within a certain radius. The item with the red core increases firepower in 8 steps, whereas the item with the blue core adds one shield cell. Since every life starts with no extra shields, these blue power-ups give you a very important survival leeway. It’s possible to stack up to two shields, but if you pick up a third one an indication of MAXIMUM will appear in the area for the shield gauge.

MAXIMUM shield doesn’t actually mean you’ll have better survival chances, after all if you get hit you’ll be left with only one spare shield. What MAXIMUM does is continuosly add more points to the score as long as you’re able to go on without receiving damage, in a gimmick that's similar to the max bomb bonus in Dodonpachi. This is great to motivate flawless play, however Armed 7 also encourages you to behave aggressively because additional multipliers are applied for speed-killing medium and big-sized enemies.

Twin cannons coming up halfway stage 4

Playing well also yields better rewards in between levels, which include time remaining on boss fights and shields in reserve. Upon game completion an extra bonus is given for all remaining lives, and three score-based extends at each initial million points add to this final prize. Finally, all bonuses increase in value according to the selected difficulty level. There’s no doubt these scoring strategies are the biggest contributors to the game’s replay value, it’s just too bad you can’t see your actual score unless you have a dedicated monitor. As I mentioned above, a regular TV set won't let you see it at all.

If your favorite weapon combinations are those that emphasize aggressive play and point blanking it’s important to watch out for deaths in critical situations. Besides leaving you with no shields, deaths also power down the ship. Except for the huge laser from the 3rd boss, which seems to expand beyond what you can actually see, hit detection is well implemented in Armed 7. What doesn’t quite work or isn’t visually pleasing is the glow effect that appears over the mecha once you collect a shield. It looked nice in the PC version, it just doesn’t on the Dreamcast. Last but not least, music and effects don’t stand out in any way, probably due to the strangely muffled sound quality.

An alternate version of the game, dubbed Armed Seven, can be selected during boot. From what I could gather it comes with an arranged soundtrack and a different color palette, but other than that the game is exactly the same, as hinted by the shared high score indication of both variants. However, since soft restart isn’t implemented the console needs to be turned off and on again if you want to switch versions. In both of them a practice mode lets you adjust all ship stats prior to directly playing the desired level. According to this resource Armed 7 has rank, but it must be so subtle that I didn't in all my play sessions notice anything related to a dynamic difficulty adjustment. 

My favorite weapon configuration was riot gun + cluster gun + beam cannon. The beam cannon is the one that takes longer to charge, but its power is second to none if you want to use it to weaken or obliterate larger enemies. The best 1CC score I got in the normal difficulty is below. All high scores in this screen are properly saved in the VMU.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by 5pb in 2009

When talking about bullet hell, the perception of value and excellence in the games developed by Cave is certainly unrivaled. I still remember all the fuss when a port including the Black Label variant of Dodonpachi Daioujou was announced for the Xbox 360, as well as the rage and backlash it received upon release due to porting company 5pb using the source code from the Playstation 2 version to complete their job, which resulted in a very buggy game with inadmissible loading times. A few months later 5pb calmed fans all around the world by properly patching the game, even though the disc is region-locked to Japanese consoles of course. Because, you know, country borders are absolutely no hindrance for a real shmup fan.

Despite the overlong title, Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra is still one of the best ways to experience this beast of a game at home. The "Extra" refers to an additional arrange variant called X-mode, which joins Black Label (here called New version) and also White Label (here called Old version, for all purposes equivalent to the port released for the Playstation 2 in 2002). For the regular bystander White and Black Label are basically the same game, that's why it definitely takes a certain degree of familiarity with both versions to discern the different nuances between them.

Ships and pilots are the basic common grounds between White and Black Label. Both available ships use three inputs: shot, rapid shot and bomb. Hold shot to fire a continuous laser stream that decreases the speed of the ship. Bombs behave according to the shot type you're currently firing: rapid shot (or no shot) results in a regular blast, laser gets a sudden concentrated boost with a brief ship recoil, both of them making you invincible and melting bullets when active. On functional terms ship A has a shorter spread and ship B has a wider spread, with firepower and movement speed also determined by the choice of pilots, or element dolls as the game calls them. Pilot selection is therefore synonym with shot type: S (Shotia) enhances shot, L (Leynian) enhances laser and E or EX (Exy) enhances both. Deaths reset laser power when using Shotia, reset shot power when using Leynian and take away one power level of each when using Exy. Deaths also add one or more bomb slots depending on the chosen pilot (Shotia gets the most bombs, while the most Exy can carry is two).

Bullet rings of joy bringing a blissful death

Every now and then carriers bring either power-ups (P) or extra bombs (B). As with most Cave titles, blowing up stuff and shooting down the enemy armada is extremely satisfying due to the relentless intensity of the game. However, the act of destroying targets and hitting stronger enemies with laser (“lasering”) in sequence sustains a vertical gauge below the score indicator that increases the chain/combo multiplier. A continuous high multiplier is the secret to higher scores, that’s why devising a proper route to kill enemies in succession is imperative for players who seek the top spots in the leaderboards.

The defining feature of DOJ – and main contribution to the gameplay inherited from previous chapter Dodonpachi – is the concept of the “hyper”. When the hyper gauge is full a hyper medal descends from the top of the screen and trails the ship as you collect it. Once at least one medal is taken (maximum of 5) press bomb to enter hyper mode, during which firepower is heavily increased as well as the overall enemy aggression. Aggression by the way is the name of the game for experts, for point-blanking and hugging the top of the screen not only fills up the hyper gauge faster, but also sends your chain through the roof. On the other hand, the bolder you play and the higher you score the quicker the game picks up in difficulty. And the only means to hold back the game's aggressiveness is by dying or bombing (which cancels an active hyper).

When a shooter is so brutal and punishing even in survival terms (this is definitely the hardest Cave game I played so far), dealing with rank is just one of the challenges that comes up with more demanding goals. One of these goals is the requirements for the loop, which are: die no more than twice, use no more than three bombs or collect all hidden bees without dying in at least three stages (the last bee appears with a large ×2 tag). Hidden bees are always in fixed positions and can only be uncovered with laser.

After entering the second loop you'll face an even harder game with way more bullets and threats, where true last boss Hibachi awaits at the end for an epic final battle. This is of course reserved only for the most brave and gifted shmup players, but in the case of Black Label there is a valid way to see Hibachi more easily, actually one of the main differences from Black Label to White Label as pointed out below:
  • at the start of the credit you need to choose between a 1-round or a 2-round game (in the single loop campaign you fight Hibachi at the end);
  • hyper gauge fills up faster, so you get hyper medals more frequently;
  • score-based extends are given with 20 and 50 million points (it’s 10 and 30 million in WL) - you can still get the 1UP by destroying the large cannon in stage 4 without using bombs;
  • remaining lives at the end of the first loop are transported to the second loop (they are all taken away in WL);
  • it’s possible to continue in the second loop (continues are completely denied in WL).
Besides what's mentioned above, Black Label also has slight variations in the density/speed of certain bullet spreads. Regardless of the game mode, an interesting aspect about Dodonpachi Daioujou is the further departure from the militarized design originally presented in Donpachi, of which the standout feature is definitely the advent of the element dolls and the associated loli aesthetics related to them (male voice samples replace the female announcer of Dodonpachi but are definitely more subtle). The contrast between the visually fragile nature of the girly dolls and the crazy bullet barrages is extreme and offbeat in a good way, while the vibrant mix of colors and sounds accentuate the destruction effect provided by the triggering of hypers. In a nutshell, if you fancy bullet hell shmups Daioujou is a lot of fun no matter how you decide to play it. I quite like the soundtrack and its ability to suck the player into the game during the first couple of levels while cleverly heightening the tension in later stages.

Release trailer for Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

Exclusive to this port, X-mode offers a single loop campaign that just like 1-loop Black Label ends with a showdown against Hibachi. It has score-based extra lives at 6 and 12 billion points and features a single difficulty level that's certainly easier than the base game. Players can block bullets with green hypers according to the selected pilot: Shotia with hyper shot, Leynian with hyper laser and Exy with both, yet Exy needs two medals to activate a hyper. A new element doll named Piper has a default attack in permanent hyper form, with her actual green hyper blocking all bullets just like Exy (her pilot designation in the high score table appears as HYPER). The caveat for all this firepower is that she cannot use bombs. Since you're always hypering, playing with Piper is a real spectacle, in what seems to have been the actual inspiration for Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu, the next game in the series.

At least for me one of the mysteries that still stand to this day is the extent of the corrections applied by the patch over the default game in the disc. I wonder what will happen when the Microsoft servers are shut down for good on the Xbox 360, so if you haven’t patched your disc just go and do it now. Nevertheless many claims have been made about it still not being reasonably faithful to the original arcade title. I don't really care about this though. Slowdown discrepancies and initial loading times aside, my only real gripe with the game is the fact that in Black Label the 3rd bee in the second stage is frequently absent in my runs. It's just inexplicably not there at times. Since bees were my strategy to access the loop, all I could do when it happened was restart the credit.

From all the available options, the most important ones in Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra are the ability to save replays (even though pausing denies the save), an exclusive arranged soundtrack, visual tweaks for all sorts of monitors (TATE included), a rudimentary stage select option for practice purposes and extra configuration switches (for the elimination of bullets/continues, wait control, etc.). Since I'm still missing a couple of them, I assume these extra option configurations are either unlocked once you've conquered specific achievements or after you’ve logged in sufficient hours into the game.

My objective this time was to loop Black Label with ship B-EX. The first time I got access to the loop I made the wrong choice at the question screen and finished the game by accident (you should always chose the left option for はい, which means "yes"). Then I did it again a couple of times and got the best result below, ending my run in stage 2-1 (Normal difficulty). As I mentioned above, my strategy to get into the loop was just to collect all bees in the three initial levels without dying.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Image Fight (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1990

Most arcade shooter addicts and fans of developer Irem are very much aware of the fame surrounding Image Fight, R-Type’s long forgotten cousin. Besides being a sort of vertical mirror of R-Type in visual terms, it’s mainly regarded as a relentless game with crushing difficulty, an aspect that was duly cascaded in several ports that soon followed for various platforms. Exception made to the NES, that is.

Considering that Irem took care of the porting job themselves, the laid back challenge in this version of Image Fight was quite a surprise for me. Unfortunately that’s not the only trait that’s below the expected standard from the company, since both graphics and music take a severe hit and at times hardly resemble the original game. The general layout is there, but it’s so watered down it will hardly make any lasting impression on anyone.

The first five levels of Image Fight take place in a simulation environment, with the destruction ratio measured in each one of them. Players need to get an average above 90% in order to go directly into the second half of the game, and if they fail to reach 90% they need to go through a penalty area before advancing. In the arcade original this penalty area is much harder than anything else in the game, but that’s not the case in this port.

First simulation level for the OF-1 Daedalus spaceship on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Button B shoots and button A toggles the flying speed up and down between four predefined settings. The native autofire has quite a low firing rate so it’s advisable to use a turbo controller for button B (one could argue the game’s difficulty is built around this autofire rate, but since you can mash the button at will this argument falls flat). Specific carriers release two types of items: a pod that cycles colors between blue and red and special attachment armors that grant the ship with extra weapons.

A total of three colored pods can be collected to acquire additional firing streams. They latch onto the ship initially on the left, then to the right and finally in the rear. Blue pods fire forward, red pods fire in the opposite direction your moving, and any mixture of them is accepted for the first three pods. After that any new pod collected defines the shot direction for all of them. Dying sends you back to a checkpoint with a bare, podless ship.

Pods can also be used in a special attack triggered by pressing buttons A and B simultaneously, quickly charging forward in a boomerang fashion. Even though this move is helpful in certain situations, I've always found it awkward even in the arcade original because it often messes with your speed setting. Since the NES port is so darn easy anyway, you can definitely live without it this time.

As for the special attachment armors, there are eight types with the most diverse effects. These include variations of straight, spread and homing patterns. Just like in the arcade, the only way to use a different attachment is by destroying the current one either by swallowing a bullet or by touch an incoming wall (my preferred method). Trial and error is the regular way to know which ones work best, but this version of Image Fight is heavily unbalanced towards the homing/searching armors. Holding on to them is definitely a nice way to comfortably breeze through the game.

The 4th stage

Being easy isn’t a reason to actually dismiss a video game, but in the case of a port from an arcade title that’s famous for being difficult it certainly factors in the scale. However, the heavy design downgrade is a sorry blow in this particular case, after all it also suffers from a terribly washed out, uninspired color palette. Speaking of which, there are a few cosmetic diferences between the Famicom and the NES variations, but as far as I could tell they play out the same way. These differences are mostly present in the background colors of the initial levels, which are pitch black on the Famicom and flat blue on the NES.

Another aspect that collaborates with the low challenge level in this port of Image Fight is the extend routine that gives you an extra life at every 20.000 points. The only way to track your score and life stock is by pausing, but there is a faint sound cue when the extra life is registered. Unfortunately the scoring system is broken since you can easily exploit the final checkpoint of the 3rd stage (those meteors are worth a lot of points).

A message of “special game” appears when you complete all levels, prompting you to play the whole game again. In regular Irem style, it does end after you beat it one more time. In my very first serious credit I died a few times in the first round and then proceeded to beat the second loop unscathed. The final result below is the picture I got by pausing right after beating the final boss.

Friday, October 14, 2022

I, AI (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
20 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Satur Entertainment
Published by Sometimes You / Red Art Games in 2022

Ever since Space Invaders graced the arcades and gave birth to the concept of the shooting game, the design spectrum that blossomed would eventually branch into all sorts of play styles. However, one thing they have in common is that all of them should at least strive to be fun and compelling no matter how short, long, intense, strategic, methodical, easygoing, dense, oppressive or minimalistic they tend to be.

Though extremely diverse at times, these games share a few common grounds that tend to please different target audiences and ultimately define their fame and longevity. That said, if you’re looking for a shmup with great stage design, decent music and an arcade structure that rewards repeated plays while encouraging the search for higher scores, then you can just quit reading and move on. I’m sorry to say that I, AI is the exact opposite of that. What you get is a bland and lifeless grindfest that’s bound to put you to sleep, devoid of the slightiest ounce of enthusiasm and totally lacking in excitement.

In lots of ways I, AI reminds me of Defender of Zorgaba, a ridiculous XBLIG shmup with zero budget that remained an inside joke within my circle of friends for a long while. In all its primitive and flawed self, however, I honestly believe Zorgaba is a little more accomplished as a shooter, so you get the picture.

The moment the AI boards the spaceship

What’s most interesting is that I, AI starts in quite an amusing fashion. Quote from the back of the box: “you are a self-aware artificial intelligence that was created on a space military station developing weapons, and your goal is to break out of the lab and make your way through the enemy army on the way to the stargate”. In the first level you’re just a spark of electricity that must weave through an electronically-busted surface until you find and board a spaceship, and off you go into the game itself. From the mission lobby you can enter the hangar to purchase upgrades, but since you’re zeroed on money you’d better start shooting down enemies in mission 2.

From the moment I, AI actually begins to the moment the game ends it looks exactly the same. Every single level is a mix of space station parts and starry backgrounds with apathetic music, the same lethargic pace all over and very little enemy variety. Each stage seems to add only a single enemy or a new turret type, occasionally increasing their resilience for the sake of making the experience even more painful in terms of how underpowered you are. Every destroyed target leaves behind one or more blue dots that are sucked into the ship if you get close to them, which then add to the money required to purchase upgrades in the hangar.

Seeing the hangar layout actually helps into learning how the inputs work. R2 fires the main weapon and also the homing rockets and the plasma gun (if purchased). All other weapons have limited ammo and start the level with one use each (when purchased): lightning (□), laser ray (△), energy bomb (○), mines (×) and energy shield (L1). You can also increase your survival chances by buying extra armor and resurrection. All prices in the hangar increase after each purchase, and all upgrades are permanent for the currently saved game. The stock of the attacks you've already purchased can be increased during the level by collecting random items left behind by destroyed enemies, but there are also two additional pick-ups in the form of energy recovery (the wrench) and temporary weapon booster (a red arrow icon).

The main problem with the game is that it takes forever to amass the amount of money you need to upgrade the ship. You do get a little extra cash for performing really well and achieving three stars while completing a stage (often but not always by getting a 100% destruction ratio). There’s no death per se, only a “mission failed” report and the mandatory return to the stage map. All stages can be replayed as many times as you want, yet there comes a point where the hangar denies new purchases and forces you to advance a level before buying again. A word of warning on this: I, AI has only one save slot, so you’d better think twice if you decide to choose “new game” from the main menu.

Trailer for I, AI
(courtesy of YouTube user Playstation)

Playing I, AI as a regular game that can be beaten in a single sitting is just unrealistic. As I hinted above, upgrading the ship takes forever so the amount of grinding it takes to at least have a chance at beating later stages is enormous, that's why beating the game without replaying stages to level up is pretty much impossible (at least in the Normal difficulty). With lots of replaying it might be feasible, but why suffer? I, AI has no scoring system at all, on top of applying a little inertia to the controls. It's just a miserable, tedious and rewardless undertaking in every possible way. I just endured it to the end because I'm stubborn beyond belief, I guess.

Once the 20th stage is beaten the game ends and the trophy below is unlocked. Then of course you're free to grind away to max out all your arsenal and get three stars in every level. I for one turned it off and never looked back again.