Saturday, December 31, 2022

GG Aleste (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile in 1991
Published by M2 in 2020

Having never seen a Game Gear personally, it was always hard for me to get a feeling for this long dead handheld system. All I've ever known is that it had a serious problem with battery life. GG Aleste is my first indirect experience with it, thanks to the fine folks at M2 and their undying love for the Aleste series. Part of the M2 Shottrigers series, Aleste Collection brings back all chapters of the franchise originally released for the Sega 8-bit platforms plus a brand-new sequel developed with the Game Gear in mind. Unfortunately for many shmup fans, this means none of the MSX or 16-bit games are included. Reserved for a further release, perhaps?

All the old titles in Aleste Collection are somewhat rare in their original incarnations, so this release is an excellent way to experience them in a real console. As usual, the amount of tweaks and gadgets provided by M2 in the porting process is a great differential. The only criticism I have on the Eastern Playstation 4 version is the lack of a language switch for the menus. They're partially in Japanese and partially in English, which in the end makes no sense at all. Anyway, once the desired game is selected from the initial screen, just press the touch pad button in the center of the controller to go to the options.

Click for the option menus translation for GG Aleste in the Aleste Colletion

GG Aleste was the first title made by Compile for the Game Gear. Generally regarded as technically impressive for the system, it adapts many elements seen in previous entries in the series such as Power Strike (also included in the Aleste Collection) and MUSHA. Even though GG is widely considered to be an acronym for Game Gear, it's in fact a short for Galvanic Gunner, in a very smart move by Compile to firmly position its well-known shooting brand in the new platform. It must have worked somehow, after all GG Aleste II followed a couple years later and now we have the brand-new GG Aleste III out in full 8-bit glory for the current generation of HD consoles. For many shmuppers GG Aleste III is the main reason to own the Aleste Collection.

Adapting the frantic Aleste gameplay to the small screen of the Game Gear did require some cutbacks, but nevertheless GG Aleste manages to keep the atmosphere seen in previous chapters. It might lack the enemy density, but everything is there otherwise. Only button 1 is used to fire. Amidst the constant arrival of aerial foes and several arrangements of ground turrets, power-ups are released either by incoming carriers or at specific ground spots. The main frontal shot is upgraded by taking power chips, small tokens that fall down the screen pretty fast, whereas the auxiliary shot is acquired and changed by picking up green icons with letters. There's L (Laser), H (Homing), W (Wave), D (Defence fire), N (Napalm runner) and S (mag Spread). Auxiliary weapons can only be upgraded by taking a red P power-up.

Where have we all seen this before?

There's nothing particularly outstanding about the stage design, which follows the rulebook of standard backdrops with a boss waiting at the end of all eight levels. It's all very well made though, with fast and varied scrolling directions all around. From a floating space city you go directly to an ocean stage, then followed by a ravine passage in the third level. The graphics for this specific stage are lifted directly from MUSHA, as are other parts of the game such as the intro panel showing heroine Ellinor preparing to take off. A huge battleship must be neutralized in stage 5, and in stage 6 you start a long stretch over the surface of the moon towards the chamber of the final boss. A bonus area appears at the beginning of stages 4 and 6, where you're expected to destroy a series of waves that release power chips and power-ups (kill them all for a special reward of 200.000 points each). 

Despite the shooting fun and the decent amount of action, GG Aleste's main game mode is clearly an easy shmup that can be beaten almost blindly if you're an averagely skilled player. I beat it on my first try solely by using the homing weapon, for instance. The punishment for dying is losing one power level of each shot (main and auxiliary), extra lives are granted at every 100.000 points and the invincibility short window you get when taking an item is certainly something you can work into your play style with a little practice. That said, the gadgets provided by M2 are an excellent help to understand these and many other aspects of the game, so I definitely recommend keeping them on screen at all times (just to have an idea of how useful they are, in the original Game Gear game you could only see your score in between levels).

Release trailer for Aleste Collection
(courtesy of YouTube user LimitedGameNews)

Aside from gadgets and expected features such as replay save/download, M2 also provided this collection with several other improvements worth mentioning. One of them is the so-called "comfort mode", which takes care of the sprite flickering and removes all the original slowdown when activated. Another welcome tweak is the possibility of applying an obscene amount of rapid fire to the shot input, capable of obliterating bosses in less than a second if you're using the appropriate weapon. Of course it's not necessary to use these rapid fire settings to beat the game, but it becomes a mandatory resource if you're trying to climb up the ranks in the online/offline scoreboards. Since GG Aleste can be indefinitely exploited for points during certain boss fights (3rd, 6th), completion time is the only performance tracking made available by M2.

The main game mode I mentioned above is aptly named Normal. However, apart from opting for Normal you can also select Special before starting the credit if you want to try a much harder challenge. In this mode every single flying enemy (except for mid-bosses or bosses) releases a suicide bullet upon death, which turns the game into a real nightmare very soon. Some weapons are capable of nullifying bullets but that's it. For example, in this mode there's no such thing as a sealing point-blank distance, a resource generally used in many other shmups to avoid suicide bullets from appearing. Those drones will shoot you in the face no matter how close you are when you kill them.

Once I beat Normal mode a couple of times I dedicated myself to improve my completion time with rapid fire set to 30 shots/s. As of the writing of this short essay I got the final result below, with no milking whatsoever and comfort mode always ON. I did get a better completion time after this one, but for a mysterious reason it didn't get transferred to the online leaderboard. I wonder if it's a system fluke or if it's because I got a slightly lower score then the one below.

Next: GG Aleste II.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Syvalion (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

Surely controlling dragons isn't unheard of in the history of shmups, but here's a game that's definitely deserving of the unique qualifier. After all, the dragon in Syvalion is a golden metallic creature whose segments expand and contract as you move around gracefully breathing fire inside mazes. The idea in itself is quite interesting, but the enormous size and hitbox of the dragon, the procedural generation of level layouts and the trackball controls were quite a novelty when the game hit the arcades back in 1988. As I said, unique, and certainly ahead of its time. Just like many of the endeavors put forward by Taito such as Darius and its triple-screen cabinets.

Syvalion is in fact a part of the Darius universe, with a few direct connections and many design elements for enemies/characters shared between both. Even the story is linked somehow, but be my guest finding these links in more than one hundred different possible endings to Syvalion. Unfortunately the version included in the Taito Memories Vol. 1 (Joukan) for the Playstation 2 is completely in Japanese so the story bits were unbeknownst to me. Players who own the Western release of Taito Legends 2 for the Playstation 2 can experience the game with a full English translation though (sadly the Xbox and Windows versions of this compilation don't have Syvalion included).

Once the credit is started you have to choose between two game courses. The upper choice is the "basic series" and comes with predefined levels, enemies and bosses. It's often referred to as a tutorial mode because it's a nice way to learn the game's mechanics. The lower choice is the "real combat series", where stages are generated on the fly and respond to the actions of Syvalion the dragon. Graphical themes, music, enemies and bosses are random and change from one credit to the next, so the experience is never the same. As a rule of thumb, the better you play the harder the game becomes, increasing the aggression and often making boss attacks more dangerous.
Justice comes in the way of fire
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade 60fps Attract Mode)

There's no automatic scrolling. The screen only moves when you move, and as you make your way across the level a large arrow points to the direction you're supposed to go within the maze. A single input is used to breath fire, but its reach is dimished after a while according to the red gauge at the bottom of the screen. It's refilled when you're not firing, but it recovers even faster if you're moving. While initially painted in gold, for each hit the dragon takes the segment closest to its tail loses its shiny golden hue and turns red. After six hits the dragon is completely red and totally vulnerable, dying horribly in a big explosion on the next blow. Hit detection is remarkably cruel in Syvalion, the whole dragon is a huge target and no grace period exists after it gets hit, that's why a string of tough hazards can quickly kill you. It takes some time to confidently move the dragon around, but what's important to have in mind is that all dragon segments go through the exact same path taken by the head.

Defeated enemies leave behind two types of items. The molecules are solely for scoring purposes, and the more you take within a certain time frame the more valuable they become. The second and less usual item is a triangle that provides +1, +2, +3 or even full health recovery if you're lucky. Items tend to drift down and away in varying speeds, and since health is not replenished in between levels there are moments when it's very tempting to get out of your way to pick up those precious triangles. Even considering that the dragon's breath can deflect almost all enemy bullets (not lasers), it still is quite risky to do that.

A full run of Syvalion takes around 10 to 12 minutes, depending on how fast you decide to get through the stages. Since they are all timed, exploration is out of the question and a good balance must be found between haste and caution, a relation that also applies to the scoring system. The less hits you take and the quicker you complete a level the higher the bonuses you get. Beating a stage without getting hit, for exemple, yields a special bonus of 2 million points in real combat mode (all points and bonuses are cut in half in the basic/tutorial mode). Of course that's easier said than done. Some bosses are just naturally harder than others, for example, and you might even face Syvalion itself as the final enemy. Additionally, all hazards that have a blue aura are invincible and must be completely avoided, such as spikes, bending plants, laser-firing turrets or those skulls that chase you around if you procrastinate for too long. The only blue enemies affected by dragon fire are the floating spores, which shrink quickly and disappear when hit.

"On my way to morph with Dark Helios"

Besides the randomized levels and the possibility of getting higher scores, real combat mode also allows players to get special enhancements whenever a new stage starts (except for the 1st level of course). The requirements to get these upgrades are a mystery, so when it happens you'd better make the most out of them because they're gone when you die. Players might be awarded with a long spell of invincibility, exploding balls, homing missiles, a trailing shooting orb, a rotating barrier or even a gold Silver Hawk that flies behind you and provides extra firepower. Since the game is so unpredictable, receiving any of these special powers can be a lifesaver and might ultimately represent the difference between failure and success.

Although unforgiving and claustrophobic most of the time, Syvalion is also extremely addictive once you get the hang of it. The action is always intense and never slows down, the music is catchy and the inherent weirdness is a real treat for those who enjoy different kinds of challenge. The feeling of being at the mercy of the game only subsides with lots of practice though. Once you realize that levels are created in familiar chunks connected one after the other the gameplay starts to make more sense. The next step is paying close attention to the threats ahead and how to best evade them without taking too long (timeout = life lost + 300 additional "seconds").

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

Despite the innovative gameplay, Syvalion didn't evolve into anything other than sparse participations or mentions throughout the Darius series. It did however have some sort of visual influence in later shmups such as Saint Dragon or Dragon Breed. The game is perfectly emulated on MAME but being able to play it in a home console is a real kicker, so kudos to the ever-so-awesome existence of Taito Memories. The only weird detail is that the default number of lives in the Taito Memories Vol. 1 disc is 2, so I switched it to 3 to keep it in line with the arcade default. Regarding in-game extra lives, there's only one single extend awarded when you score 1,5 million points.

The high score table shows the best results for both game modes. Scores for real combat mode are on the left, scores for the basic/tutorial mode are on the right. I hammered the game for a couple of days until I got the clear in real combat mode, and only then had a few credits in the basic mode. Since the game is so short I might try to improve the high scores below if I have the chance, but first I'll probably tackle the port released for the Super Famicom in 1992.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Section Z (NES)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1987

One of the best impressions I ever had when playing an old video game for the first time was with arcade Section Z. Such a simple yet cool little game with a great sense of adventure and plenty of shooting action. Unfortunately a sequel was never made, instead Capcom decided to release a port for the Famicom Disk System and later the NES. I was really surprised when I finally got the chance to play the 8-bit version though. Except for a few basic concepts, the game doesn’t play like the arcade original at all.

Section Z on the NES looks and feels ordinary, but it’s far from being your regular type of shmup. Playing it as you’d play a normal shooter is more likely to drive you mad than to provide the amount of fun expected from even the most rudimentary 8-bit offering. Blame it on the non linear maze-like structure that makes getting through all 60 stage sections a living hell of trial and error. Definitely not my idea of fun, and up front I’ll admit I just printed out and used one of the stage guides you can easily find online. Props to those who were patient enough to pave the way for all of us peevish ones!

There’s absolutely no information on where you’re supposed to go in order to finish three huge stages comprised by 20 sections each, all of them labeled with numbers from 0 to 59 (0~19 is stage 1, 20-39 is stage 2 and 40-59 is stage 3). Players take control of Captain Commando (yes, that one) in a mission to fight an underground battle against an alien race called Balangool. He’s equipped with a spacesuit and fires right (button A) and left (button B) as the screen scrolls at different speeds through level sections of varying lengths. At the end of each section there are normally two teleport beams that lead to the next areas, but in certain cases you’ll just get through a single straight shaft to move on. 

The problem with Section Z is that you can’t tell where you’re going when entering the beams. You might skip a few sections, repeat the previous one or just go several steps backwards. Since the backgrounds are so repetitive, relying on the enemy types is a better way to memorize things, yet you can still get totally lost after a while.

Shed your earthly identity to become the one remaining astronaut in space!
(courtesy of YouTube user retrogameguidecom)

Survival depends on the energy level shown in the E indicator. You start with 20 energy points, which are deducted by 1 (when you get hit by a regular projectile), by 4 (when using one of the special weapons) or by 5 (when you die). Dying happens by losing all energy, touching an enemy or when you get crushed by a scrolling obstacle, whereas walking on surfaces or leaning against walls is safe. An extra punishment for losing all energy points is that you get sent back to the very start of the current stage (sections 0, 20 or 40). Note that life count is only shown when starting the game or when you’re spawned right after dying, and if all lives are lost the game is over regardless of your current energy stock. 

Recovering 3 points of lost energy is achieved by taking the appropriate icon left behind by enemies or by small brown containers glued to walls called “metal eaters”. Besides this item you can also come across speed-ups (S) and upgrades denoted by letters that show up to the right of the energy gauge. These can be F (flash buster, a short range 3-way spread), M (mega smasher, a powerful V-shaped straight shot) or B (barrier shield, which can withstand 32 frontal bullets). To activate any of them just move right or left and press SELECT when the desired letter is below the arrow marker. Be careful not to do it over the L, thus reverting back to the default laser shot. Finally, if you have an M activated and you collect another M you immediately get the mega buster, which is basically a 3-way megasmasher with reduced firing rate.

When you die the weapon you’re using is lost (except for the default laser of course), but the inventory will still be available to use in the next life. Important note: there’s no autofire at all in Section Z, so unless you don’t want to hurt your wrists by button mashing I definitely recommend using a turbo controller.

There are also special weapons the game calls “shells”. The megamissile is a slow moving missile, the flash bomb is a screen clearer and the crush ball creates a rotating barrier around Captain Commando. Summon and cycle through them by pressing A + B simultaneously, then pick them up and press either A or B to fire. You start the game with the megamissile, but the other two must be found in specific secret chambers/warps uncovered by shooting at certain spots in predefined sections. As pointed above, the cost of using a shell is 4 energy points. In my opinion they’re just not worth it, and I never used them in any of my attempts to beat the game.

Meet the first enemy generator

Even though Section Z isn’t essentially a hard game, it still has its share of traps and tricky parts. As a rule of thumb, you can never stand too close to the borders or you’ll risk getting killed instantly by an incoming enemy. If you see a red beam don’t go into it or you’ll die. In order to clear it and get through you have to find and destroy a generator mid-boss (two per stage). Generators are mostly very easy to beat and the first main boss is a joke, but the remaining bosses put up tougher fights. The good news is that you can regularly expand the energy bank by taking the capsules left behind by generators and bosses, which add 8 new energy points each. A reserve of almost 100 energy points will be in effect by the end of the game.

Due to the many possible paths allowed by the stage design, most but not all sections need to be played in order to beat Section Z. However, unless you’re stuck with the game for a long time or you have an elephant’s memory you’d better have a map or a well devised plan. That said, note that a few secret warps like the ones described above to collect shells can also lead you to new sections. And since it’s possible to replay levels forever there’s absolutely no point in talking about scoring here. On the other hand, scoring at least helps in the long run because you earn an extra life at every 100.000 points (a generous bonus of 3.000 points for each remaining energy point is given when you complete a full stage).

I paused the game and took the picture below as soon as the final boss went down. Then I saw the cool ending sequence and said goodbye to Section Z. Mission accomplished. Once again I thank those who mapped the whole game and made it public, for as long as I knew where I was going it was mildly fun. On a final note, the music – one BGM per stage – is certainly amusing.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Raiden III (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Moss
Published by UFO Interactive in 2007

In the gaming world eleven years is certainly a long time. Video game generations fade and give way to their successors during such a period, and even though new chapters of old franchises seem to be frequent these days it wasn’t really common in 2005. That’s exactly when Raiden III was released in the arcades, more than a decade after Raiden DX. Rising from the ashes of defunct developer Seibu Kaihatsu in the form of new company Moss, it was an important step ahead for the series not only because it reignited a flame that seemed to have faded, but also because it dared to update the formula into a more streamlined experience with sleek 3D visuals.

Even though many diehard fans weren’t receptive towards this third installment, claiming the series had peaked with Raiden DX, in my opinion Raiden III holds up nicely on its own. The game bears a distinct vibe, with gameplay differences that make it more approachable and friendly when compared with either DX or the spin-off Raiden Fighters franchise, whose last entry Raiden Fighters Jet had already been out for seven years. Come to think of it, “more friendly” might be indeed the key qualifier for Raiden III, especially after the overcomplicated or simply brutal nature of the other games mentioned in this short paragraph.

After debuting in the arcades, Raiden III soon found its way to the Playstation 2. The North American version took a little longer to arrive and is curiously known for the inversion of the well-known confirmation input button of Western games. Instead of using ×, everything is only registered if you press ○, as is common with Japanese releases. I’ve even heard of people returning the game to the shops believing it was broken!

Boss of the 4th stage hard at work

When resuming the battle against the evil crystals of doom you can choose either the red (player 1 side) or the blue ship (player 2 side), which behave exactly the same this time around. Gameplay basics are unchanged, with carriers that release color-cycling power-ups used to activate/upgrade all weapons. Main weapons consist of vulcan (red, default), straight laser (blue) and piercing proton laser (green), whereas missile subweapons can be of the nuke (M), homing (H) or radar type (R). The piercing green laser replaces the toothpaste purple laser of Raiden II / Raiden DX, while the brand new radar missiles move forward like the nukes with the added ability of seeking the closest targets ahead. In a nutshell, the green laser sucks and the radar missiles are awesome, easily surpassing the original nukes when it comes down to sheer destruction power.

Other types of items to pick up are extra bombs and the ground medals/orbs. There's no optimal timing to collect medals, which are all worth 500 points. Bombs are of a single type only and have panic function, meaning you can trigger them at any time to escape hairy situations. Their behavior is one of the main elements of departure from the preceding games in the series, seeing that previously you had to time your bomb blasts in order to take advantage or their protection radius. It’s one of the details that make Raiden III much more approachable than Raiden II or Raiden DX.

You can also find two hidden extra lives (1UPs) and two hidden fairies that grant you a bunch of power-ups upon death. The fairies are worth 10.000 points and are quite easy to uncover in stages 1 and 4, but the 1UPs require some work: the first one is obtained by destroying all cranes in stage 3 (not only the final four!), and the second is found by obliterating all turrets in the three rotating rings on the tower prior to the 6th boss. Finally, a small car passing over a bridge in the 1st level gives you 10.000 points. And that’s it for secrets, with no miclus to be found anywhere in this chapter. As for the precius P for maximum power, it appears only after you continue.

New to the table in Raiden III is the "flash shot" technique that applies a multiplier of up to ×2 to the base value of an enemy the quicker you're able to destroy it. It adds a new layer of risk versus reward that kinda leads the player into memorizing enemy spawning routines while looking out for faster kills whenever possible. Abusing point blanking is a key element in achieving this but you have to be careful the longer you go without dying, after all the game has rank. Rank is reset when you die, but so is a large part of your score depending on where it happens. Each medal collected since your last death is worth 10.000 points at the end-of stage bonus, a reward that also grants 10.000 points for each life you still have and 5.000 points for each spare bomb.

My 1CC run

Besides the new panic function provided by bombs, other tweaks have also been applied in order to make the gameplay less cruel and punishing. The most important one is probably the reduced hitbox of the ship, which also starts with a default vulcan shot that has a 3-way pattern instead of a single straight shot. Another very cool change of Raiden III is in the upgrading process not requiring players to stick to the same power-up color anymore. You can switch colors at will and the weapons will still be upgraded, which means full power is pretty much guaranteed whenever you die and collect the item shower from the fairy. Power-up cycling times are also fixed, so you can always trust you won’t be screwed when you decide to pick one up right after it's been released. Make no mistake though, if you're not fully alert the wrong power-up can quickly end a perfect credit.

Raiden III is definitely easier than Raiden DX, but that doesn't mean it's a pushover. Since the game doesn't loop, it tries to make the most out of its seven stages with a challenge progression that's remarkably balanced (the first three levels take place on Earth, the remaining four sees you flying into outer space). The game alters its pacing every now and then and never slows down, except during boss explosions. By the way, boss fights are fun and often benefit from switching to laser so that you can take them down faster. No strict routing is needed because the horizontal span of the screen is fixed, which means you can't be sniped anymore by enemies popping up right on your face. Nevertheless bullet herding, crowd control and the expected combo of tapping and well timed sweeps become more and more important the closer you get to the end.

The porting job for the Playstation 2 is excellent. By pressing △ in "Game Start" you can play the arcade course in three ways: Solo, Dual (regular co-op play) and Double. Double is one of the most interesting game variants I've ever played, a very fun and challenging mode where both ships are controlled by one player with 3 shared lives and a single score. "Boss Rush" is self-explanatory, while "Score Attack" lets you play individual stages you've already reached in a single credit. All game modes can be used for practice because you're able to select the starting stage in all of them. High scores are fully tracked across all modes, TATE mode is available and replay saving is possible, even though saves are accomplished by levels only (just press △ as soon as you see the message at the end of the level). Finally, in "Replay & Gallery" you can watch replays and prerecorded clips, as well as see special artwork for the game, ships and enemies.

My final 1CC result for Solo mode in the Arcade difficulty is below (the default difficulty is Normal). On a final assessment, I commend Raiden III for taking the necessary steps to steer the series towards a new direction. This new direction is further refined in Raiden IV, which I intend to play soon, perhaps after I've tried the Raiden III x Mikado Maniax late port on the Playstation 4. It supposedly addresses the only feature in this game that pales when compared with the previous chapters: the soundtrack. The sound design is great and the music is punchy enough to escort the action, but it somehow lacks the appeal of old/classic Raiden.