Friday, December 29, 2023

ExZeus (Playstation 4)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hyper-Devbox / Ziggurat Interactive
Published by Limited Run Games in 2022

Talk about unexpected resurgences, and ExZeus - The Complete Collection is certainly a release that *might* have drawn some attention when coming out for recent platforms a little while ago, both digitally and also in retail form for the Nintendo Switch and the Playstation 4. This collection includes ExZeus and ExZeus 2, two rail shooters with unique approaches to the mecha motif that always flew under the radar ever since gracing the arcades, and in the case of the first game gaining obscure ports such as those made for the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Wii.

ExZeus won't set the world of any rail shooter fan on fire, but it at least has enough spectacle to get you through five stages of uneven intensity and fluctuating stakes. It all starts with the choice between three mechas with varying stats for power, speed and stamina, and then getting used to the slightly unorthodox gameplay, for rail shooters that is. At a distance ExZeus sounds like a Transformers game where you won't be able to transform at all, and up close it's a feast of in-your-face bullets, with lasers and melee attacks often killing you in the blink of an eye.

"Where did my energy meter suddenly go", you wonder? Well, you can either continue (with the unwanted benefit of not resetting your score) or start over if you're one of those players who aim for the 1CC no matter what.

Calista versus Dracaena

Button × is responsible for three inputs: fire, fire guided missiles on enemies targeted by the lock-on attack (button ○) and release the megalaser attack, a special laser burst that works with a meter that recharges over time automatically. Button □ drops the mega bomb over the screen, but you can only use it three times during the duration of any full credit. L1 and R1 provide a quick rolling maneuver left and right,  but you can also double tap in order to achieve the same effect. Items appear floating in the air from destroyed enemies, and although most of them are random at least the POWER for shot upgrades seems to show up under the same circumstances at all times while you're in need of power-ups. Take one to get a 3-way spread, then another one to max out at a 5-way horizontal spread.

The remainder of the items can be lock-on energy (if you run out of it you can't use this resource), gold tokens, booster and either shield or energy refills. The shield is the first barrier against damage and is shown in the upper left part of the HUD. Once without the shield you start losing the energy of the robot, which appears on the left side of the screen and means game over if depleted. Booster just makes you fly faster, helping you out in the time bonus at the end of the level. Finally, gold tokens accumulate in a counter for you to use in between levels in order to extend your energy, shield or lock-on meters, as well as purchase refills. Since the gold counter maxes out at 999, there's no sense in saving gold whatsoever. Watch out for the shop screen though because it opens up right over the Exit button, so try to avoid getting trigger happy there.

Gameplay in ExZeus is rather obtuse, in a clunky and unexpected way. As with any other game that requires memorization it will demand knowledge of what's coming ahead, but given how the screen might move in relation to the character (in a wider scope than what you can immediately see) adaptation is extremely important to survive. Damage is directly related to the amount of bullets or lasers that hit you in a single blow, and it's not uncommon to go from a full energy meter to the brink of death if you happen to be mass targeted. Heavy damage also powers you down one level or even two levels, sending you back to the default shot right away. When in doubt about what's coming ahead it's just better to be safe than sorry, even though you might be tempted to stay in the line of fire to destroy an enemy since all on-screen bullets fired by your target will turn into gold if you're able to kill it.

Boss fights are in a category of their own. The main strategy with all of them is finding their rhythm and pounding their weak spots in between their attacks. The further you get the more aggressive they become, of course. Just note that whenever they're blue they're invincible to regular attacks, and the only way to hit them is by using lock-on shots. On the other hand, a fully powered megalaser also renders you invincible.

Release trailer for ExZeus - The Complete Collection for the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Ziggurat Interactive)
For comparison sake, the version of ExZeus included ins this collection has some striking differences from the port that came out for the Playstation 2 in 2004. There is no rain in first stage, weapon power does not carry over to the next stage (you always start with the single shot), item prices in the shop are different (you also drop by the shop in the middle of the 4th stage, before diving into the depths of the ocean), there are more enemies overall and different details such as bulkier leaves falling from trees in stage 2 and lava spikes of just a single color in stage 3. My lucky guess is that this Playstation 4 port is based on the revised arcade iteration of the game, which ran on the Sega NAOMI board, as opposed to the original European version that served as basis for the Playstation 2 port.

As a result, the Playstation 4 version is slightly harder with less opportunities for scoring. The scoring system preserves the elementary hit counter during levels but implements a series of end-of-stage bonuses based on your performance. Available options do not include any tweaks for extra difficulties or screen swing/shaking, only the possibility to invert the Y axis and to apply a normal/cool graphic mode switch that doesn't seem to do affect anything whatsoever.

And here's my final 1CC result for ExZeus on the Playstation 4. I played with robot Sophia (blue), the most balanced of the three, but my overall impression is that maneuveratibility is still more important than brute force. In that sense, Calista (red) might be a better choice.

Coming up next: ExZeus 2.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Moon Cresta (Playstation 2)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu in 1980
Published by Hamster in 2005

When people ask me what I think about the original Space Invaders game, more often than not it's hard to disguise my disdain. Of course I do understand the importance of the game to the history of this hobby, but I cannot fathom the idea of spending hours playing such a drab shmup that has no ending. But why am I talking about the original Space Invaders anyway? The reason is that I kinda had the same impression of Moon Cresta until very recently, i.e. the idea the game was actually so primitive that it didn't warrant any serious attention.

Yet here I am, writing about it after playing the port released for the Playstation 2, no less. Moon Cresta is in volume 5 of the Oretachi Game Center budget series, a Japan-exclusive collection dedicated to emulated versions of old arcade games. Regardless of the fact that it just sounds dumb to have a full disc dedicated to this little game, at least it comes with a few nice extras such as the folder with info on the arcade board and a pair of mini-discs with original/arranged versions of the soundtrack and sample runs with extra material about this particular series.

You can get a lot of fun and thrill in this trip to the space war!

In order to differentiate themselves and present some evolution to the idea pioneered by Taito, Nichibutsu added a few tweaks to spice up the experience. Besides taking extra inspiration from Namco's Galaxian (in the way some enemies split and/or descend upon the player), Moon Cresta has a unique mechanic based on three ship sizes and a docking maneuver players are supposed to pull off in specific points of the game. Despite the simplicity of it, it's actually an ingenious way to make things more addictive and lure people into wanting to try that next credit in an era where each extra coin spent mattered in arcade centers.

The basic rule in the gameplay is that you're given exactly one shot at a time fired by a single button (any face button of the PS2 controller can be used to fire, SELECT enables the credit to be started). You get three lives, and each life comes with a different ship, or "rocket" as the game calls it. The first rocket (I) fires a pea shot, the second rocket (II) is a little larger and fires a double shot, and the third rocket (III) is even larger but fires a triple shot. If you don't die you'll be required to connect all ships during the docking parts mentioned above, which takes place for the first time after the 4th enemy wave.

During docking the mission aim is to align your current rocket with the next rocket that appears at the center of the screen during an alloted time window. The rocket falls down naturally, but if you need extra space or time to complete the maneuver just press the fire button and use the directionals to help out. A successful docking will result in a combined rocket formation that's naturally more powerful, as well as bonus points for time remaining. Failure will result in the explosion of the ship and the loss of a life. After the 7th wave, where you face a series of meteors that don't need to be fully destroyed, a second docking sequence happens for another chance at further enhancing the ship's capabilites. Note that you can lose two lives at once if you have an arrangement of two rockets and fail to land correctly over the third rocket piece!

Once the purple enemies of the 9th wave are fully destroyed a FAR OUT! message is displayed and the game loops at a higher difficulty with the smallest rocket you have in formation or in stock. In the case of a three rocket formation, for instance, the loop will start with rocket I.

A quick credit of Moon Cresta on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user ZetaMage)

All waves of Moon Cresta are so short that it's pointless to consider each one a separate level, so I always think of it as a single-stage loopable game that can be completed in around three minutes if you play well enough. A word of attention for score chasers is that scoring higher is directly related to the time bonuses of the docking sequences. That's why even though rocket III seems great for survival, it just isn't good for score because you won't get into any docking sequence with it. Achieving 30.000 points gives you a complete free game for your current credit, which means you preserve your score and start the game over from the first wave once your last ship is destroyed (the message ENJOY ANOTHER GAME appears as a signal of this unique feature).

Despite the relatively disjointed nature of the first couple of waves and the rudimentary mix of music cues and sound effects, the looping feature and the embrionary but engaging stage design presented in Moon Cresta definitely puts the game in a different category from Space Invaders and its several endless copycats. It's one of those classics that haven't aged that bad, and while not as flashy or loud as Konami's Scramble it still stands on its own in terms of immediate and quick fun. Several home ports came out besides this PS2 version, the PS1 being a particularly interesting iteration that deserves special attention (more on that in the near future, I hope). Moon Cresta was followed by pseudo-sequel Terra Cresta, in an unexpected series that went on across several systems and platforms.
Click for the option menus translation for Moon Cresta on the PS2

No functional difference exists between the Japanese and English versions of the game that are included in this PS2 release. As you can see from the Options translation above a TATE orientation is included, so that's obviously the best way to enjoy the game if possible, even though fullscreen YOKO is just fine for what the game has to offer. That's how I played it for a couple of evenings to get the high score below, finishing the credit in loop 4.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Detana!! TwinBee (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

Upon a brief research, I just found out that Detana!! TwinBee is actually the fifth chapter in the bell-juggling cute'em up series. Between TwinBee 3 for the Famicom and this one there's also TwinBee Da! for the Game Boy, a title I had completely forgotten about but that's also available in a revamped colored version for the Playstation Portable. Detana!! is the first real arcade entry since the original TwinBee, and represents a huge leap in graphics and audio quality from everything that came prior, in a massive overhaul that sort of kicked the series into a new era that spawned several products across a multitude of genres and styles.

Speaking of shmups only, Detana!! is the third to last TwinBee game ever released. During the 32-bit video game generation it was bundled with final chapter TwinBee Yahho! in the TwinBee Deluxe Pack disc that came out for the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn. Pop'n TwinBee, the Super Famicom game released between Detana!! and Yahho!, is out of this compilation for obvious reasons. These three games share the same high standards established by Konami at its creative peak, and in the case of Detana!! TwinBee, also known as Bells & Whistles out of Japan, I have nothing but praise for the sheer creativity, the exquisite use of colors and the incredibly catchy soundtrack.

And for a guy that always had some serious gripes with the bell mechanics, I admit the gameplay deserves some sort of positive endorsement. Most of the time it's at least less irksome than it was in TwinBee, and that's saying something. A cute backstory and quick character panels between levels are also there for those who fancy this sort of thing, which admittedly acquired a whole new dimension after this particular chapter.

Where have both my arms gone, TwinBee?

Even though the Playstation port of Detana!! TwinBee lacks a TATE mode, the horizontal stretching of the screen isn't that bad to cope with. From the practice rounds I had in MAME, I'd say the game is otherwise pretty much arcade perfect. I certainly missed the possibility to map autofire to the shoulder buttons of the Playstation controller though. The game only allows the configuration of face buttons, and in the default setting you get shot in button ×, rapid shot in button □, bomb in button ○ and rapid bomb in button ∆. Considering you must use a lot of the regular shot, I was fortunate for being able to play well with these default conditions. Holding shot is after all the best new resource the player has against some bosses and many of those cute enemies showering down from above in deadly flocks.

This new charge shot just doesn't work against ground enemies, which is naturally expected. To destroy them you need to use bombs dropped by the tiny hands of bumblebee android characters TwinBee (P1 side, blue) and WinBee (P2 side, pink), respectively controlled by pilots Light and Pastel. Their hands can get hit and lost, which then diminishes the ability to destroy ground targets. If both hands are gone an ambulance crosses the screen once per level to repair them (if you lose them again before the level is complete you won't be able to hit ground enemies anymore). Aerial firepower, on the other hand, can be upgraded in several different ways both by juggling bells coming out from clouds or by collecting specific ground items.

Bell are, as usual, the foundation of the gameplay in Detana!! TwinBee. The very first one is yellow, but it changes its color once it takes five hits. New to the series, the order of the color change is fixed and transfers to all subsequent bells you're able to hit, starting with white (twin shot), blue (speed-up), green (trailing options), red (barrier), purple (tail barrier, solidifies your options and makes them cancel bullets and damage enemies) and finally black (speed-down) before initiating a new cycle. Colors you've already activated are replaced with yellow bells, and you just can't have red and purple at the same time. Last but not least, all yellow bells taken without letting any fall down the screen increase their value in steps of 500, 1.000, 2.500, 5.000 and 10.000 points (max). If one bell is lost the chain value is reset.

Most ground items consist of fruit and vegetables for points, with a few extra ones appearing randomly. The ground bell gives you a 3-way shot and the star is a smart bomb that deals damage to all enemies on screen. GwinBee is special because when taken it hugs and flies alongside you while immensely boosting your firepower. The charge shot, for instance, gets wider and much more powerful. The downside is that the hitbox, which is already big for the regular character, gets even bigger. Much like your arms, GwinBee is instantly lost if hit by a bullet or an enemy.

Welcome to the Valley of the Wind on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Despite the cute looks, the fluffy music and the deceivingly low bullet count, Detana!! TwinBee is a very cruel game for a series of reasons. The first couple of levels aren't exactly demanding, but soon enough all caveats of the gameplay start to show up. First of all, each and every power-up you take increases rank by a certain margin, which means that the more beefed up you get the harder the game becomes. It's naturally full of traps such as enemies materializing out of nowehere or quickly zapping into the screen as you're about to pick up a bell or just trying to get the best of an incoming cloud, an aspect that eventually beats you down to the point of completely discouraging excessive greed unless you have a solid route to score and survive at the same time. Getting back up after dying is extremely difficult, and since there are absolutely no extends this is another case where you'll absolutely end up aiming at a 1-life clear of the first loop. As for the second loop, it's probably one of the hardest things ever conceived even for the most hardcore of hardcore shmup players.

I believe that finding the balance between the use of charge shots and rapid shot is one of the keys to success in beating the first loop. Well placed charge shots do wonders, but in the second half of the game you can get easily overwhelmed if you let enemies live long enough. Some will turn back and ram into you if you let them go by. While a few bosses require charge shots and good timing to be properly beaten (that tentacle boss of the 4th stage is a serious offender), it's just better to fire away against others for a faster and cleaner fight. And regardless of your power-up strategy, the purple bell is simply mandatory no matter what. It's a life saver due to its ability to block even the most threatening enemy attacks, such as those V-shaped projectiles fired by a series of crab-like creatures in the final level.

Detana!! TwinBee might be too hard to actually be fun in the long run, but tough gameplay aside it never feels unfair. Sure, you can still feel royally screwed by taking an unwanted speed-down or dying stupidly while trying to get an item, but to the game's defense bullet count is never overwhelming in the first loop and the challenge level never spikes out of nowhere like in TwinBee. I played in the default difficulty (medium / 4) and got the top result below after dying horribly in stage 2-1 against that duo of materializing grape stems. I forced myself not to fret over lost bells and beat the first loop in a single life, as planned.

A port of Detana!! came out for the PC Engine shortly after the arcade release, and the beautiful pastel shades presented in this game would be put to a much milder experience two years later in Pop'n TwinBee for the Super Famicom, which in my opinion is the true highlight of the TwinBee series.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Gun-Nac (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Nexoft in 1990

The position of Gun-Nac in the history of developer Compile is a curious one, especially within the NES platform. Besides being the last title released by the company for Nintendo's 8-bit system, it's also naturally related to Zanac both by name similarity and by gameplay aspects that resemble those of the Aleste series. Some people even consider Gun-Nac to be a comical reimagination of Zanac, but in my opinion this is quite a stretch and doesn't hold up if you actually get to experience both games to a certain degree.

Gun-Nac even has an intro that shows animals and objects suddenly attacking people in a planet far, far, far, far, far away. And off you go across eight stages to battle them and restore peace and order (the Japanese version has a completely different story though). Considering it came out much later it's only natural that it boasts more detailed graphics than Zanac and even The Guardian Legend, which was also released by Compile between Zanac and Gun-Nac and mixes elements of shmup and RPGs. However, despite the weird comical starting point and some really cool boss designs, Gun-Nac never reaches the wacky heights of something like Parodius. It's essentially an Aleste-styled shooter with your odd enemy here and there and a fluid performance that's nothing less than remarkable.

Heat flares from the sun of Bengayleum

Coming into Gun-Nac, the only idea I had about the game is what I just wrote above. Soon I figured out that button B is used to fire and button A is used to trigger the bomb. Firepower and bombs are dictated by specific items released either by flying smiley faces, specific turrets or specific waves that get completely wiped out. Numbers from 1 to 5 change or upgrade the current weapon (1 for blaster / regular vulcan shot, 2 for buster / detonating blast, 3 for search driver / homing arches, 4 for dragon napalm / fiery beam and 5 for wide beam / lasers). Four alphabet letters increase bomb stock and also determine the type of bomb that will be detonated next (F for fire bomb / ring blast, B for blizzard bomb / walls of ice that move left and right, T for thunder bomb / ricocheting lightning and W for water bomb / vertical 'rainfall').

There's also a P item that's supposed to also power up the ship, another item that looks like it but glows and works as a screen clearing bomb and a ship-like icon (the 'wing') that increases the size of the ship but gives you a 1-hit shield and allows additional levels of weapon upgrades. You can also collect money bags that give you currency to spend in the shop that appears in between levels, it's just not possible to see how much money you have during the stage itself. What you can see is your score, the life stock, bomb count/type and a number below that indicates the bomb power level.

Yes, there's a plethora of items and upgrades to work with in Gun-Nac. The game also has quite lengthy stages, which gives players plenty of time to get used to all of them. Everything moves at a wonderful pace with no slowdown, and yet in default conditions Gun-Nac falls on the easier side of the difficulty spectrum, mostly because the first half of the game is kind of a breeze and extra lives are handed out like candy just by scoring. I beat the game on my first try, and the score I got is the one you can see at the end of this blog post. I didn't bother to try again because I realized you can exploit several bosses to easily break the scoring system.

It was only after I decided to have a deeper understanding of Gun-Nac that I knew the gameplay is far more detailed that what you see up front. Sure, I did notice that whenever the bomb is used your firepower reverts to the default condition of weapon 1, that the number of bombs is not reset when you die (nor restocked), that red items are fixed and black items cycle through numbers/letters and that when you get hit while having an attached wing you go back to the default power and need to upgrade the ship all over again. These observations were all rather obvious, but several other aspects of the game aren't. One of them is the purpose of the SELECT button, which is used to switch the speed of the ship between four settings. Yes, I played the whole game till the end in the default speed setting of 1 (out of 4)!

Peace is about to be shattered in the vast universe far away
(courtesy of YouTube user nesguide)

Upon reading the instruction manual I learned that the number below the bomb type is its actual power, which can be increased up to level 4 by sticking to the same bomb type when collecting items. Picking up a different one resets bomb power back to 1. Part of the money collected during a level is lost if you die, and that's why I had so little of it to spend in the shop between the final stages (the difficulty picks up a little in the third half of the game). There's also a 1UP icon that looks just like the wing, only a little wider and more golden. Finally, there's a turbo power in the shop that once maxed out never resets even if you die. I'm not sure what it does exactly, but I suspect it's related to the weapon firing rate.

Gun-Nac is often remembered by the rabbit armada and their carrot projectiles from the first level, which takes place over the surface of a moon. The game design is much more diverse than what you see in the first stage though, with a distinct style that shows noticeable nods to titles like Star ForceXevious and of course Aleste and Zanac. It's also got a great soundtrack, with some catchy tunes except for the extremely annoying music that plays in the shop. The assortment of tweaks from the options screen is quite unique for an NES game and includes four difficulty settings, sound test, area select (from the ones you've reached), an optional switch to turn on suicide bullets (ricochet of bullets) and the choice between speed or sprite priority. In speed priority (default) the game sacrifices sprites in order to never slow down, so in this mode a minor degree of flicker is expected during busier sections.

I admit that having suicide bullets activated gives the game a whole new dimension as far as challenge goes. It does away with the abuse of boss milking, for instance. Even though I didn't venture into alternate difficulty settings I do believe the game gets even more fun when you do so. I just deemed my mission complete in the Normal/Intermediate (2) difficulty with no ricochet of bullets and speed priority. As mentioned above, the result below came from my one and only credit with no milking whatsoever.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Granada (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wolfteam
Published by Renovation in 1990

Ever since Tank and Combat were released by Atari for its arcade and home systems during the 70s, the idea of controlling tanks in a video game wasn't as engrossing as most other motifs but resulted in a few directly inspired titles such as Grobda and Assault. The multidirectional gameplay then branched into similar approaches such as Smash TV and Robotron 2084, but none of these titles were really friendly towards players since they're nothing more than massive quarter-munchers at their core. That's why Granada felt so fresh from the start, after all it's a tank-based shooter where you definitely feel success is a possibility despite its fair share of obstacles.

The Mega Drive version is a port of the original game released for the X68000 home computer system, and as far as I know represents an improvement except for the amount of onscreen colors and the lack of cut scenes. The gameplay on the Mega Drive is faster and more dynamic all around, generally throwing more obstacles at the player as well as a brand new stage (7th). The sound design is a debatable subject though, yet you can't go wrong with another nice soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba. Even if it isn't in the same league as other Wolfteam games like Sol-Deace or El Viento, the soundtrack to Granada is definitely one of the highlights of the game.

How to get the secret cannon blaster upgrade in stage 2
(courtesy of YouTube user про игры)

Every stage in Granada takes place in a confined area shown in the radar map at the lower corner of the screen. Inside the map red dots indicate your targets, which range from simple turrets to tanks and larger bases, depending on the level. Only after all targets are destroyed you'll be able to fight the stage boss, in a progression of nine levels that take you through both ground and aerial bases with varying degrees of difficulty. You have four lives with 15 energy cells each to get through the game in the Normal difficulty, and once all of them are depleted the journey is over. There are absolutely no energy refills and no extra lives to be found, so do your best to remain unharmed and preserve energy for the hardest parts of the game.

In order to achieve success a balance needs to be stricken between agressiveness and caution. Default controls work with A for shot, B for locking/strafing and C for the cannon blaster, a single burst attack that's more powerful than the regular shot. In the Options screen you can also switch the rotation setting to "slow", but there's no reason to do that since you definitely need agility when dealing with hordes of enemies coming from all sides. Controls work like a charm and service the fast pace of the game really well, an aspect that's sort of unexpected if you're coming from older tank-based games. Here we're talking about a highly advanced armored tank after all, but I can't help but feel something is off when I see it bounce and glide so fast at times. It just feels too light, and in my opinion a better sound design could've certainly alleviated this impression.

Regardless of the initial impression, Granada is a game that tends to grow on you. It's definitely a slow burner, one that becomes really engaging once players start to complete levels with little to no damage taken. Eventually you'll end up devising optimal routes for each stage, not only to tackle the necessary targets but also to collect and use special weaponry that enhances your basic firepower. Known as "support units", they might appear as reflector squares, homing missiles, boomerang discs, explosive bombs and spinning balls. These additional weapons are only active during the level in which they were collected except for the secret item found in stage 2, which is active for the whole credit. In order to get it head to the end of the left large wing right away and move towards the thin extension down below, hovering at its very tip for a few seconds. A flying item will appear and sink into the tank, doubling the power of the cannon blaster. The recoil becomes even stronger, so watch out whenever you're blasting the cannon while standing on borderless surfaces. Falls are fatal and make you lose a whole life instantly.

One particular quirk of Granada is that generally you don't suffer any damage by touching enemies, only by being hit. Some attacks might take more than one energy cell though. Boss fights are in a category of their own since their routines vary considerably. Some cycle through several attack patterns, others expose weak spots after a while. Glaring exceptions are the 4th boss and the need to bounce your firepower on walls to hit him from an angle, and also the 5th boss, which can be easily destroyed by going behind him and firing away. The hardest fight happens against the 6th boss and its multiple detachments, which represent the first big wall players need to climb in their quest for the 1CC. Well-placed blasters should do the trick there, but the fight can quickly deteriorate into a panic feast if you don't keep your cool.

Having a showdown against the 3rd boss

When speaking about the scoring system, the simplicity of Granada can actually be a little deceiving. In short, it rewards players who take more risks while preserving health, don't procrastinate (cannon blasters make you move faster backwards!) and suicide when needed. Since each life is timed and time completion is the most important factor in the end-of-stage bonus, exploiting this to maximize the score is just a matter of bringing the boss to the brink of defeat and then dying by timeout, finishing it off as soon as you're respawned with a full timer. The bonus is a simple multiplication of the remaining time × 100 × difficulty factor × stage number. On Easy and Normal settings the difficulty factor is 1, whereas on Hard and Mania it gets boosted to 2 and 3 respectively.

I played the game in the Normal difficulty to get the high score below. A known bug of the Mega Drive version is the lack of the last bonus for the final stage, which isn't computed in the final score. I'll settle with this result though. I could certainly play a little more to refine my strategies, especially in the final level, but alas... It's time to move on. So many games to play, so little time!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Nanotek Warrior (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tetragon
Published by Virgin Interactive in 1997

In the 23rd century nanotechnology is so advanced that starts to turn against the human kind, with nanorobots creating nanocolonies to dominate the galaxy. The player takes the role of the commander of a new class of remote-controllable nanowar machines, navigating through nanotubes in a desperate attempt to destroy eight mega nanobosses. Yes, there are lots of mentions to "nano" everywhere when you check out the instruction manual to this game but make no mistake, there's nothing "nano" about the gameplay of another unsuspectedly decent entry in the Playstation shmup library.

Not counting Tempest X3, which is in a league of its own in terms of gameplay, Nanotek Warrior is part of the tube shooter trifecta of the Playstation platform and is certainly recommended, as is iS - Internal Section. These games are often dismissed as old 3D novelties, but suffice it to say that all of them (including N2O - Nitrous Oxide, which I still haven't played) are more approachable than any rail shooter of the same era for a very simple reason: they behave just like fixed shooters set on a scrolling torus. Released in all main gaming regions, Nanotek Warrior is a great example of how to implement such a concept, providing solid fun, good hit detection and a difficulty slope that feels natural, even offering the ability to practice individual levels with a simple but efficient password feature (the existence of a password system obviously means that the game has no saving functionalities).

Checkpoints are determined by rings of light along the tube

Don't get frightened by the control settings of Nanotek Warrior, which offers no less than 14 variations of button layouts. Half of them are labeled "flight" and the other half "arcade". The only difference between them is that the vertical directions are normal for arcade and inverted for flight. Then you have inputs for shot, jump and special attack, as well as strafe and bank, which always work with the shoulder/trigger buttons. Strafe is a weird designation since you're actually always strafing while navigating the game tubes – what it does is actually fire one single diagonal shot towards the chosen direction. Bank makes the ship fly vertically on its wings for approximately one second. While strafing is quite useful throughout the whole game, banking is only needed in the final stages, and even so quite sparingly (you can do without it, honestly). Finally, by pressing up and down you can accelerate and slow down the speed of the ship.

As you slide both outside and inside the nanotubes (mostly outside), an energy bar allows the ship to take some damage, but if this bar is depleted a life is lost and you get sent back to a checkpoint. Enemies and obstacles will require the use of pretty much all basic inputs mentioned above. Sometimes it's just not enough to dodge, you will have to jump or even jump while accelerating or slowing down. Good timing is required to pass through giant fans, laser gates or horizontal barriers without getting hit, whereas tiny ramps are strategically positioned to help you jump even higher, in most cases with the purpose of allowing the collection of otherwise unreachable items.

Speaking of which, items come in three colors. Yellow ones recover lost energy. Red ones provide the ship with an assortment of special attacks, including scattering bombs, piercing wave shots, forward-clearing ground blasts and outward boomerang-like shards. Some of them will also endow the ship with a temporary 3-way shot (additionally, whenever a few selected enemies are destroyed the default single shot gets upgraded to a two-shot blast). Regardless of how you end a stage, the next one will start with a full energy bar and no special attacks. Finally, the green item gives you an extra life. Besides that, score-based extends are granted at every 100.000 points you're able to score.

An aspect that deviates from the rest of the game are the boss fights. They all take place inside a chamber instead of over a running tube, in what the game calls "orbit" mode. You need to fly around the boss, dodging its attacks and aiming at weak spots. While some bosses are easy, a few of them can be quite tricky due to the weird perspective of orbit mode. In order to circumvent that my strategy was to move a lot either hugging the top or the bottom of the screen, and always take out smaller satellites before targeting the boss itself. Besides making the battle easier, most satellites release either yellow or red items.

A full credit of Nanotek Warrior
(courtesy of YouTube user Completionator)

With eight very distinctly themed stages, Nanotek Warrior leans towards a dark design that takes advantage of varied textures and lighting effects. It feels a little gritty overall, but everything moves along nicely with no hiccups whatsoever. The game might feel longer than it actually is due to the duration of checkpoints and the presence of two bonus levels after stages 3 and 6 that play a lot like the bonus areas of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (!). Some checkpoints are very short while others, such as the starting checkpoint of the final stage, can be excruciatingly long. Another source of dynamic halts can be mid-bosses, which show up twice in each level and reappear once in the last stage. All of them can be safely taken out with well-established strategies and some practice. Practicing is in fact very much needed from stage 6 onwards due to a noticeable leap in difficulty.

Decent gameplay aside, it's just a little disappointing that Nanotek Warrior can't be played for score. All extra lives keep reappearing in the same place if you die, which means players can exploit checkpoints indefinitely to achieve higher scores. Since you do get lots of extra lives just by regular game progression, the impression is that final success is always around the corner the closest you get to the finish line. On a final note, since the techno music often seems engulfed by sound effects, it might be good to tinker with the sound balance in the options.
Without any checkpoint milking I barely surpassed one million points in my successful attempt to the 1CC the game in the Normal difficulty, as seen in the picture below (I used the "flight B" control setup). It was a fun and fulfilling ride nonetheless. The ending shows a nice animation where the blue ship is upgraded to a red ship, and if you use the bonus password the game gives you the credit will then start with this new ship. It comes with a brand new 3-way pattern instead of the default single shot, as well as infinite special attacks that cycle through all types endlessly (red items are all replaced by the point tokens of the bonus levels). For quite a satisfying spectacle of destruction one might as well have the special attack button set to permanent turbofire! Just for reference, the bonus password I got for the Normal difficulty was ×□×□□○×∆×.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Space Elite Force (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rising Moon Games
Published by QUByte Game Studio / Red Art Games in 2023

A tiny little shooter developed by a tiny indie company, Space Elite Force comes bundled with its sequel in the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 package, recently honored with a retail release for the Playstation 4. I could state that a secondary honor is to be featured here thanks to the curiosity that moved my daughter and I to try out the game on a whim during a lazy Saturday. We did get along with it during the short time we had, and she was even able to follow me along in co-op until some of the boss fights. Given this good first impression, later on that night I decided to get back to the game and see what else it had in store in a serious solo run.

Space Elite Force is a straightforward shooter with little flair for backgrounds and not much variety as far as the enemy gallery goes. The good news is that it doesn't do anything wrong with these assets, which can be considered a strong positive in light of some of the dreadful disfigurements that many recent independent games sell as innovations. Get the basics right and offer decent fun from start to finish, never mind the game not being tailored to the hardcore audience that's always hungry for seemingly undodgeable bullet curtains.

In a nutshell, Space Elite Force is great for beginners. Often compared to Steredenn - Binary Starts in how it looks, even though I also see throwbacks to Aegis Wing here and there, the game is otherwise much more simple and straightforward. It's beatable in a single short session and can be played with a friend sharing power-ups, with good dodging fun, no complicated mechanics, no inertia for the ship and a gentle difficulty slope across seven stages. The sound design is by the book and follows along nicely.

Planetary dust rings, lasers and space carriers

The start of the game pays homage to Star Wars in the introduction story section, and once you skip it the action starts. Default inputs consist of button × for the main weapon, button □ for the secondary weapon and button R1 to slow down the ship (a third button for an extra weapon appears in the options but it's never used, probably something the developers forgot to exclude and nobody cares about). Both weapons come with autofire, but note that you can't use them at the same time. The secondary weapon takes precedence, so under normal conditions a balance needs to be achieved between shooting the main weapon and tapping the secondary weapon when needed, after all it's more powerful but has a much lower firing rate.

As you destroy the enemy armada tiny dots are left behind and get automatically sucked into the ship when you get close enough to them. This is the money that you'll be able to spend in between levels to purchase upgrades to both weapons and the ship itself. Expected upgrades exist for the starting pea shooter and the auxiliary missile, such as double, triple and spread shots or more powerful, versatile heat-seeking missiles as well as mines and piercing shots. A little catch is that you can only choose one of each prior to starting the next stage. Ship enhancements include reduction of enemy bullet speed, increased resistance to damage, more health and more temporary power-ups, and the good news here is that all these upgrades are permanently applied to the ship (or ships when in co-op). Another great touch when playing with a friend is that all weapon purchases are available to both players, and each one can configure his/her ship differently before going into the next mission.

Lives are treated as a single health meter that gets refilled every time a new stage starts, and if this meter reaches zero the game is over. When you begin the game you get 10 health cells on Normal, whereas on Hardcore you get 5. Lost health can be recovered within the level if you happen to come by the + item that appears from destroyed power-up carriers. These carriers might also release temporary power-ups in the form of a rotating shield, firepower boosters (a lightning bolt), money magnets (attracts money dots from all over the screen) or an extra score multiplier of ×2. The regular multiplier is shown below the score counter and increases as you kill enemies in succession, decreasing slowly whenever nothing is being destroyed and faster when you get hit. The secret to cranking it up is taking advantage of those waves of small enemies that appear from time to time, then surfing the rest of the level while trying not to destroy everything too quickly.

With a combination of all kinds of aimed shots and spread patterns, as well as lasers and enemies coming from all sides, which is always properly warned by exclamation signs at the borders of the screen, Space Elite Force's gameplay is as solid as it gets, if only too simple at times. All bosses have a health bar that tell you when they're about to die, I just felt they could be a little more menacing. Some of the later bosses are easier than the initial ones, for instance. This is one of the examples where the game could've use some fine tuning, but there's also the slight visual confusion when the magnet power-up is on and showers of coins start coming from the other side of the screen amidst enemy fire. Both points are minor though and shouldn't be taken as real issues.

Trailer for the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 combo for the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

In spite of how well it plays and feels, Space Elite Force does have a few functional shortcomings. While I do appreaciate the way power-ups are implemented in the regular game modes, Infinity mode is an inexplicable alternate experience where you play randomly generated levels and bosses one after the other, but power-ups can only be acquired by dying and ending the credit. Then you start again with the new equipment, and the only way to upgrade any further is to keep dying over and over. Another botched feature is the ranking table. There's no local ranking, and the online rankings for all modes were never updated for me even though I was able to place myself amongst the meager slots available for high scores.

Anyway, since we're talking about the Playstation 4 we all know you can easily record footage as you play. By doing that I was able to extract the final result below before it quickly disappeared from the screen, playing in Hard(core) mode. Hopefully soon I'll get the chance to try Space Elite Force II.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Burai Fighter (NES)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by KID / Taxan
Published by Taxan in 1990

An arena shooter disguised as a horizontal with a great fantasy theme, anyone? Burai Fighter is the answer, and a rather good one too. Often compared to the likes of S.C.A.T. and Abadox, this game might in fact be the best of this bunch for a series of reasons. We can start by mentioning the solid action and the creative design, two characteristics that shine and help make this a highlight of the NES library, even a hidden gem of sorts. The multidirectional aspect of the gameplay is another feature that's tightly implemented and should please those who don't feel comfortable with rotating control mechanics such as those seen in Forgotten Worlds, for example.

Quick curiosity: the game was later ported to the Game Boy as Burai Fighter Deluxe, and to the Game Boy Color as Burai Fighter Color in Japan and Space Marauder in the West.

A powerful race of aliens called Burai is bent on conquering the universe, deploying all sorts of robotic mutants throughout the galaxy. The player is the only hope of mankind as a lone fighter piloting a proton pack, so off you go bring justice to the strangest confines of the universe armed with a main gun activated by button B and an assortment of bombs triggered with button A. By aiming and keeping button B pressed you lock your shot in any of the eight available directions, a resource that gives players a lot of freedom in how they want to tackle the different environments across seven increasingly harder stages. If you wish, a simple password feature allows you to start the game in any stage, just take note of them as the stage is about to begin.

Fight the evil Burai!
(courtesy of YouTube user NesShortGameplays)
Special items can appear simply floating in the air or from carrier pods that must be hit in their center orb to be destroyed. These pods keep changing their position at regular intervals while closing in on the player, so beware not to die by failing to destroy them in time. The most important items are weapon power-ups, which give you special powers depending on their letters: laser (L), missile (M) and ring (R). Each one has three power levels related to the amount of items you collect (1, 5 and 10/A). Weapons are upgraded separately just by taking items, and at maximum power they all acquire very efficient spread patterns (X-shaped for laser/missile and 3-way + one rear shot for ring). The missile is the only one that mandatorily fires forward (to the right) in its initial form, the other ones follow your firing direction. The ring shot is the only one that can go through walls.

Other important items are the speed-up (S) and the rotation pod, which looks like a spiky object (watch out, at first I thought it was harmful and avoided it for a few credits). The pod rotates around the player and destroys enemies on contact, but is incapable of shielding you from bullets. Additional pod items will make it rotate faster. As for speed-ups, from my experience two of them are fine to play the whole game. If you take more than that controlling the character might become a problem when there are too many enemies or dead corners around, after all you can also die by screen-crushing. Deaths reset the power of the weapon you're currently using and send you back to a previous checkpoint.

"Cobalt" bombs are acquired by collecting the red orbs left behind by destroyed enemies. For each white mark in the bomb meter you get one cobalt bomb that can be detonated with button A, wiping bullets and killing all regular enemies in the screen (there is no effect on bosses though). If you keep accumulating bombs and reach the EXTRA mark you earn a new life and the bomb meter is reset. Even though it's tempting to avoid bombing to get extra lives, it's always best to use them if the going gets tough. That's especially true when you realize there's a better way to gain more lives, which is simply related to scoring. A new one is obtained at every 100.000 points, and there's also the possibility of finding free extra lives in the form of 1UP items.

With practically no slowdown and tolerable bouts of flicker, Burai Fighter is a joy to play once you get the hang of the basic gameplay. The screen scrolls in all directions, and there isn't a single instance that makes you feel that you died cheaply. Of course it's better to stay in the center of the screen until you get used to the stage layouts. There seems to be an obvious inspiration from Irem, given the vague similarities with titles such as X-Multiply (level 2) and Image Fight (level 5). You do get two completely different levels in stages 3 and 6, which unfold in a top-view perspective. The objective there is to find and destroy a turret base as you move around non-stop, just like in the overhead levels of Thunder Force II.

At the beginning of the overhead stages a radar appears showing the location of the base relative to yours. In the words of the instruction manual: be careful to remember your location and the location of the base, because if you don't you might wander the barren cosmos for all eternity. The map rolls over itself, so if the base is up there and you're down below just move down to find it easily instead of going all the way up.

Ascending the platforms of stage 5

Ten hidden rooms can be found throughout the game, but getting access to all of them is actually a mystery. The one that appears in the first stage is clearly visible, but as much as I tried I couldn't make the screen go up to enter it, not even once in all my time playing the game. I did get to access the small detour to the left with a 1UP in the descent phase of stage 2 a few times, but I have no idea how I triggered it. In any case these hidden rooms aren't really important in the long run since all you need to succeed is provided in the regular paths of the game anyway.

Although it's not exceedingly hard Burai Fighter does have a few tense checkpoints such as the one that leads to last boss Slimedragon. Dodging his molten rock fireballs can be a pain, but note that by using ring the fight doesn't drag for too long. In fact, the instruction manual mentions that each boss has one weapon as weakness. Besides that, it's also very useful to abuse point blanking for faster kills. The fourth boss won't even get to the middle of the screen if you hammer his weak spot at close range with laser. End-of-stage bonuses multiply your weapon levels by a certain amount of points depending on the difficulty, doubling these numbers if the weapon is maxed out. In the Normal difficulty (Albatross) the maximum bonus is 120.000 points, for example, whereas on Hard (Ace) it's 300.000 points, which is  also equivalent to three extra lives. Unfortunately the scoring system is broken because you can just wander around forever in the overhead stages killing hordes of enemies, in what's the only true reprimand that can be given to Burai Fighter. The music might be another undignified feature, but while not memorable it's at least decent.

By beating Burai Fighter on Normal (Albatross) the game teases you with a graphic ending before starting again on Hard (Ace). A panel with the character looking at the colorful horizon is finally shown upon beating the game on Hard, but then it loops again in another final difficulty called Ultimate. The high score below was achieved starting on Hard and ending in stage 6 of the second loop (Ultimate). Sadly I wasn't able to recover once I died there.

Monday, September 4, 2023

GG Aleste II (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile in 1993
Published by M2 in 2020

Okay, time to resume the Game Gear Aleste saga brought to the spotlight again by M2 in the Aleste Collection. GG Aleste II follows on the footsteps of GG Aleste as Alice Pfeiffer, cousin of previous protagonist Ellinor, boards the cockpit of the Lance Bird prototype space fighter in order to restore peace in another fight for the future fate of the Earth. Some folks are remarkably keen on knowing more than that about the story, but I'd say it's enough to set up the premise and the mood for some more 8-bit handheld shooting action blown up to the big screen in this relatively odd entry in the Shottriggers revival series.

As we can see from the intermission screen when you boot the PS4 disc, GG Aleste II was also released as Power Strike II in Europe, a title that's totally unrelated to Power Strike II for the Master System. For all purposes both Game Gear variants are exactly the same bar the title, so go figure why have both in the disc. Perhaps to propagate the confusion with this series even further? No matter how much I think I'm familiar with this franchise I still find myself quite confused every now and then. That's why it's much better to just play these games and shoot mindlessly, regardless of how similar they all feel at first glance.

Lance Bird departs into the Space Plant wielding the Hammer hawk
Yes, on the surface GG Aleste II is a lot like GG Aleste. Stage design seems to be all over the place and can't help but feel generic, yet the game compensates all of that with intense action and a few cool bosses. There are some crucial differences between both games though, starting with the reduced amount of air across all six levels and two bonus areas that unfold like a rail shooter after stages 2 and 4. The basic rule of upgrading the main shot and the auxiliary weapon separately still applies though. Power chips are released in groups of four from specific drones and slowly increase the ship's main shot, whereas a P icon powers up the auxiliary weapon. These are reduced to only four this time: N (Neo napalm gun), H (Hammer hawk, your quintessential homing shot), R (Rising masher, laser beams) and D (Delta form, a series of options that surround and protect the ship in a triangle formation).

The auxiliary weapon needs 3 Ps to be maxed out, and upon coining the credit you're allowed to select which one will be initially used. At the start of the game and at every respawn after dying you're also equipped with one G-Strike bomb, a powerful blast with a ripple effect that damages everything on screen. That is the second button input you have in GG Aleste II, the first one being the regular shot of course. Note that this bomb doesn't give you invincibility, so don't expect to survive impossible odds with it. However, as in pretty much all Compile games of the Aleste series, split second invincibility is still in place for every item you collect.

Besides the bomb, other new gameplay features are related to the continuous collection of power chips. The ship receives a 1-hit shield whenever 20 chips are collected (the front hull aqcuires a blue thick outline). If you continue to pick up chips while the shield is active this counter will stop at 19, meaning that upon death the very first chip taken will grant you another shield. In parallel, an extra G-Strike bomb is granted for every 32 chips you're able to collect. Both the shield and the extra bombs highlight the importance of the gadgets prepared by M2 for this port, which allow you to track how many chips you need to receive the extra resources. If you play the game on an original Game Gear you'll never have an exact idea of when they might be coming, unless you're an expert at keeping count of things amidst the shooting mayhem.

GG Aleste II by M2, from the second boss to the end of the third stage
(courtesy of YouTube user alienparadox)

Though not by a large margin, GG Aleste II is certainly harder than the first game. It's still an easy fun clear, but some bosses can definitely take you by surprise with a few tricky attack patterns. Another way of getting the clear more easily is by sticking to the Napalm gun as your auxiliary weapon of choice, since the napalm spreads are capable of cancelling all regular enemy bullets. Saving bombs for the hardest sections is also a good strategy because the bomb stock is not depleted upon death, a very rare treat when it comes down to shmups (if you have at least one bomb in stock you don't get another bomb with a new life though). Finally, dying is an event that's not that harsh since you lose only one power level for each shot type. Just don't die twice or three times in a row and you'll get back up quite quickly.

The routine for score-based extends starts with 50.000 points and continues with 100.000 and 500.000 points. After that a new extend is registered at every 500.000 points. An item-based extra life can be found easily in stage 3 by destroying all space debris halfway into the level.

Click for the option menus translation for GG Aleste II in the Aleste Collection

Pretty much all the options for GG Aleste II are the same as those for GG Aleste. including the screen settings and interesting tweaks such as several steps for rapid fire and "comfort mode", which eliminates the original flicker and slowdown. I just wish M2 had added a language switch so that we wouldn't have to go into the trouble of translating everything, but alas! It's fine as it is, I guess.

My best 1CC score below was achieved in the Normal difficulty with comfort mode set to ON. I didn't tinker with rapid fire settings because they messed up the efficiency of the napalm gun. Since you can theoretically exploit bosses with no time limit for item carriers, M2 considered GG Aleste II broken and only allowed completion time as a method to track the player's performance, just like they did with GG Aleste. However, climbing up the online leaderboards in the sequel is a lot harder to do because it requires uncommon strategies such as suiciding in order to have more bombs available.

Next: GG Aleste III.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Naxat Soft in 1997

One of the defining titles in the shmup portfolio of Toaplan is Kyūkyoku Tiger, also known everywhere – with a few gameplay changes – as Twin Cobra. Given the amount of exposure and ports the game continues to receive even today, it’s only natural that many players are still unaware of its sequel. Add to that the fact that Toaplan went bankrupt before it could be completed, thus handing over the project to newly formed company Takumi (with the blessing of powerhouse publisher Taito, of course).

Following the trend of the original, Kyūkyoku Tiger II is also known as Twin Cobra II overseas. I guess we can measure the success it gathered by the number of home consoles that followed. There is only one so far, released for the Sega Saturn in Japan roughly two years after the arcade game appeared. Named Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus, this version includes a special mode made for Sega's console (hence the Plus in the title), which comes with a new soundtrack, color palette changes, an exclusive new stage and lots of cut scenes fleshing out the story.

Many elements of the first game were kept in this sequel, and are mixed with new aspects that try to give it a fresh take. A mid-sized chopper is still the carrier of all power-ups and bombs. Power-ups cycle colors and switch or upgrade the main weapon between red (straight vulcan), blue (spread shot) and green (the "thunder claw", a combo of straight laser bursts and homing side shots). Bombs are stocked up to five, with every further icon upgrading bombs in stock to hyper bombs, a much more powerful version of the regular bomb. As for power-ups, it takes three of the same type to max out your firepower.

A very warm reception over a dark ravine in stage 5

All game modes in the Saturn port use a simple controller button layout of shot (A or C), bomb (B) and credit insert (R). Pause and press A+B+C to revert back to the main menu and switch game modes. The shot input has autofire by default, which despite not being that high still gets the job done so there's no need for a turbo controller. Bullets and lasers are almost always aimed and come in various patterns, but it's possible to "seal" enemies in order to avoid their attacks (stand very close or directly over them if we're talking ground targets). Tapping and sweeping is the bread and butter of survival, but getting sniped is still a possibility later in the game. However, if enemies can't see you they can't shoot, and for that reason sometimes it's better to just stick to one side of the screen in order to avoid unnecessary risks.

Even though the overall level of accomplishment might be questionable, Kyūkyoku Tiger II has interesting dynamics that sort of succeed in addressing some of the most dire traits of its predecessor. It's still harder than its world counterpart Twin Cobra II due to more resilient and more aggressive enemies, but it certainly takes it easy on players during the first couple of levels when compared with Kyūkyoku Tiger. When deployed, the bomb provides instant invincibility instead of leaving you vulnerable for a few seconds. The assortment of bombs is also much higher in the sequel since every carrier releases one power-up and one extra bomb. And if you die you're respawned with the same weapon you were using instead of reappearing with the vulcan shot.

Another striking feature of the sequel is the constant use of sprite scaling to convey the sensation of flying at different heights and diving into deeper and deeper layers of the enemy headquarters. My impression is that visually the game bears a strong resemblance to Donpachi, which is also the first game from another offshoot company that formed from the ashes of Toaplan. However, unlike Cave's perennial debut, Takumi's first game was never able to carry the Kyūkyoku Tiger/Twin Cobra torch into new grounds. Perhaps that wasn't their intention at all since the company decided to focus on Giga Wing instead.

As a result of the lack of development zeal, Kyūkyoku Tiger II ended up halfway into being a truly great shmup. One of the reasons for that is the dreadful unbalance of the weapon system. Once you realize how much more powerful the green shot is you'll certainly feel stupid whenever you take red or blue by mistake, with the obvious exception of the chopper taking off with the red shot at the start of the game. On the other hand, the green weapon is the worst one to die with since it's probably the least useful in a default condition. Depending on where you die you'll be in severe trouble because power-up carriers might take too long to appear, so don't get stingy with bombs if necessary. 

Quick fun with the Sega Saturn mode in Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryGL)

Speaking of bombs, avoiding to use them is one of the key aspects of the scoring system. At the end of the level each spare bomb is multiplied by 5.000 and by the stage number, whereas each hyper bomb gets multiplied by 20.000 and the stage number. A full stock of hyper bombs in the final level, for example, results in a reward of 600.000 points. Good luck getting that though, especially if you keep collecting repeated power-ups for progressive bonuses, an act that eventually makes the speed of enemy bullets skyrocket. Once max power is achieved, each power-up builds up in steps of 10.000 points until a maximum of 100.000 points per item is obtained (if one power-up leaves the screen the next bonus is reset to 10.000 points though). Finally, ground and aerial stars released by enemies increase in value in steps of hundreds and then thousands until maxing out at 10.000 points each. Dying sends both the dynamic rank and all these bonuses back to their starting values.

So what would you choose, avoid surplus power-ups all the way for an easier game or get them all for higher bonuses at the expense of a much harder journey? In this port you can do it in Arcade mode (a direct TATE conversion of the arcade game), Sega Saturn mode (wobbling YOKO) or Arrange mode (just like Saturn mode but with the added features mentioned at the start of this post). The game has automatic saving while Arcade and Saturn modes share the same high score table, but note that Takumi or Naxat Soft unfortunately messed up with the scoring system by adding a few extra points for the blue helicopter (player 1 side) until max power is achieved. The red helicopter (player 2 side) isn't affected by this, but if you decide to play with it you need to cope with a highly unreliable replacement for the green laser. It's downright awful, honestly one of the weirdest weapons I've ever seen in a shmup.

Regardless of what scoring purists might think of the above and some odd design choices, Kyūkyoku Tiger II is still decent shooting fun, with plenty of action and fairly suitable music. Since it lacks checkpoints, it's also remarkably easier than Kyūkyoku Tiger. Fans of the first game should try the sequel, if only for the new elements related to scoring and the new approach towards rank. I played in Arcade mode (TATE) with the red chopper (player 1) in full defaults, which means Normal difficulty and Power Up set to A. Don't mess with this setting unless you want to tinker with the behavior of weapons when respawning.