Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Strikers 1945 (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Taito in 2004

As is usual with companies that aren't ashamed to squeeze everything they can from their brands, Psikyo didn't hold back when deciding to grant the Playstation 2 with collections of its shmups. Three official volumes were released (plus a special edition for the Gunbird series), with the first one highlighting Strikers 1945 and Strikers 1945 II, two sci-fi military themed shooters that had already been out for the previous generation of video games. Having both titles in a single disc is a nice way to experience the classic Psikyo gameplay, even if this particular release fumbles certain aspects in the most awkward manner.

Strikers 1945 is an obvious evolution to Psikyo's earlier Gunbird, sharing many of its features while boosting the challenge level a little. Half the game has shuffled levels, rank increases steeply the more powered up you are and a second loop proves to be in a completely different level as far as difficulty goes. An assortment of planes is available to the player in a mission to stop an alien race from taking over the planet, in a divergent World War II timeline that urges pilots from the most powerful nations to unite. Co-op is possible, which makes things even more insteresting if you care about the historical details of these once very powerful planes.

Experimenting with all planes is essential to find out the one that suits your play style. Each plane behaves differently in terms of hitbox, firepower and speed with controls provided by three fully configurable inputs: shot, rapid and bomb. The purpose of the shot button is to activate a charge attack when you have collected at least one power-up, giving the option(s) a more powerful and useful formation. It’s possible to collect a maximum of four power-ups (P), thus increasing the plane’s firepower and acquiring up to four options. Extra bombs (B) can be stocked up to a maximum of six, while gold ingots at ground level provide extra bonus points.

Japanese plane Shinden takes on the evolved Doramascher mecha

Since this is my third time having fun with the game I didn’t want to choose the Spitfire or the Messerschmidt Bf-109 again, so I decided to go with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the same fighter plane made extremely popular by the 19XX series from Capcom. It even has the same type of looping animation on the bomb. It’s got one of the quickest charging times of the bunch, even though the charge shot lacks defensive capability and concentrated power (options are evenly spaced in a fixed straight arrangement). That’s why at times it’s better to just fire at will due to the extra homing shots provided by the options, kinda like the homing bunnies from Gunbird’s Marion.

One of the most distinctive features of Strikers 1945 is the random order of the first four levels. This of course wouldn't be anything special, however the progressive difficulty makes these stages play out much harder the further they appear. Bullet speed, bullet density and bullet patterns from bosses get increasingly harder. The only way to tone down rank is by dying (not acceptable) or by colliding against a flying enemy, an action that doesn't kill you but rather takes away one power level, instantly reducing enemy aggression. It's a valid resource alright, one that I used whenever possible against bosses during the second half of the game.

On the subject of scoring, this is also another game that has an interesting mechanic based on item collection. There's a varying shining effect on all gold ingots, and if you take them when they're the most bright you'll get 2.000 points (a different sound cue will be heard instead of the regular sound effect when you get 200, 500 or 1.000 points). Timing the collection of gold bars amidst the evergrowing barrage of bullets brings up an interesting risk/reward ratio. Another more simple source of points is collecting power-ups and bombs in excess for 4.000 points each. Don't get greedy on bombs though, it's better to use them than die with a full bomb stock, furthermore they don't amount to any bonus whatsoever at the end of the levels. On a last note, a single extra life is achieved when you score 600.000 points.

Unless you're going for the crazy hard second loop, bombing specific boss patterns is a good strategy to conquer the first loop, especially when you start to encounter those random midbosses in the last couple of stages. During the second half of the game continuing sends you back to the start of the level, which seems cruel but is actually good for practicing and coming back stronger next time. 

Strikers 1945's Original 1 mode on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Originally released for the Japanese Playstation 2 market, Psikyo Shooting Collection Vol. 1 - Strikers 1945 I & II eventually appeared in Europe with a shady art design under the title 1945 I & II - The Arcade Games. The box artwork for the Japanese package is rather beautiful to look at, and if you manage to snag the first edition you'll also get a special DVD with five superplays. The ports themselves are very bare bones with no saving functionality, mirroring the same display modes found in the standalone versions for the Playstation or the Saturn. In the case of Strikers 1945 it's Original 1 (fixed YOKO), Original 2 (wobbling YOKO) and Arcade (real TATE). Strikers 1945 suffers from an incredible oversight though, which is the activation of an immediate continue if you keep any of the shot/rapid buttons pressed when you lose your last life. That's certainly annoying because then you can't register your initials at all. Continues add a single point to the score, which keeps counting when you continue the game. Weirdly enough, this problem doesn't happen with Strikers 1945 II.

Below is my final result with the P-38 plane on Arcade/TATE mode in difficulty setting 5 (Normal), dying in stage 2-1. I know I should focus on the next titles in the series from now on, but if I'm still urged to play this one again there is at this moment at least one more Psikyo compilation waiting for a little bit of shmup love. But more on that when (and if) the time comes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Gekioh - Shooting King (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Warashi
Published by Natsume in 2002

The best and most desired shmups come from Japan. It’s been a historical fact ever since the genre gained worldwide recognition back in the 80s. That’s why Western ports of these games are always so celebrated by the shmup Community. However, regardless of their actual quality every once in a while the companies responsible for the porting jobs make weird decisions that can be detrimental to the game’s visibility. Gekioh - Shooting King is one such example, since a lot of people aren’t aware that this is actually a port of Warashi’s Shienryu. Of course one could argue that not many people know Shienryu, but I’m quite sure you get my drift.

On the always controversial subject of ports, the Playstation wasn’t graced with a good conversion of this game, unlike the Sega Saturn. Both Japanese and North American releases have no save functionality and lack an option for TATE orientation, on top of suffering uneven slowdown and making minor cutbacks in graphics/music. It’s not an unplayable game, in fact it’s just as fun as you’d expect a tough and decent mix of Raiden and Truxton to be, however it falls short of exhibiting the level of performance of a true arcade title being played at home.

Once you get tired of watching the animated intro of Gekioh - Shooting King, press start and you’ll access a menu with several game modes. The default arcade experience is in Geki mode, in between Easy and Hard modes (more on the contents of the Bonus menu later). Once the credit is started, just pause if you want to turn off that annoying vibration function.

Ahoy, a giant Polypus boss is approaching fast!

The basic gameplay of Gekioh/Shienryu consists of a shot button (□ or ×) and bomb button (△ or ○). There are three shot types defined by colored items: spread vulcan (red), forward + missiles (yellow) and homing lightning (blue). The weapon is upgraded by taking power-ups (P), faster movement is achieved with speed-ups (S) and extra bombs are stocked by taking the appropriate icon (B). Bombs behave according to the current shot type, so for the vulcan you get an energy blast that closes in and fades at the ship’s centerline, for the forward yellow shot you get a localized blast and for the lightning you get a series of vertical laser beams that materialize over the ship’s current position.

Half the game takes place on Earth and half in outer space. There’s lots of diversity in the game design, both in terrains and enemy variety, with the ocasional flair for intense destruction amidst waves of vessels of all sizes and firepower capability. It feels quite satisfying to go on an all-out spectacle of devastation, collecting all those red/blue LEDs, icons/power-ups in excess for extra 5.000 points each and the slew of extra bombs such as the ones available throughout most of the fight against the first boss. There is a catch though.

Just like its spiritual predecessor Daioh, Shienryu/Gekioh gets increasingly angry the more extra bonuses you get within the game. If you keep on taking those shiny 5.000 point badges and racking up extra bombs there comes a point where enemy bullet speed becomes unmanageable, quickly sending your survival chances down the drain. Rank progression is extremely cruel, so do your best to avoid collecting more than what you need to be at full power, which means 9 power-ups, 3 speed-ups and no more than 3 bombs in stock at any time. The only bonuses that don’t affect rank are the ground LEDs (they look like candles), which result in varying extra points at the end of each level.

Score-based extends come with 1,5 million and for every 2 million points afterwards. A single 1UP is sure to get released by the crab midboss in stage 6, but you can also randomly come across other 1UPs (or a very rare 2UP). A very special pink power-up maxes out your firepower and adds a 1-hit shield to the ship’s beak, but note that the game instantly becomes harder if you take it. For a safe rank management you’d better avoid it at all times. Picking it up was only an alternative for me after dying in the final levels or prior to the fight against the last boss. An interesting detail from my experience with Gekioh - Shooting King is that I never came across the alternate version of the pink power-up, which explodes in a multitude or items when collected. I assume I wasn't able to meet the requirements for it or it's just absent from this particular port.

Animated intro and two runs in Geki and Comical modes
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

One important detail about Gekioh is that the game implements checkpoints during the levels and does away with them during boss confrontations (the only exception is the final boss since it’s the whole stage itself). While an interesting approach for people who dread checkpoint-based shmups, special attention must be given for deaths when fighting bosses. Even though you start the game with the vulcan shot, the ship is always respawned with the weapon you were using before dying. The worst thing that can happen, at least for me, is dying against the 6th or the 7th bosses when using lightning. Lightning is great for scoring during stages but downright awful on bosses. Another tip for survival in the long run is to point blank whenever possible. All ground enemies will also not shoot if you stay above or very close to them.

In an effort to provide more content than the bare bones TATE-less port, the Playstation disc includes a bonus menu that has six alternate versions to the base game. Some of them are quite amusing, such as Pocket mode (a heavily downgraded version modeled after Pocketstation/VMU specs) and Ancient mode (the game is presented with an antiquated graphic filter). No Mercy mode is just stupid, but Comical, Stingy, and Slow mode should be tried at least once each, especially the latter since it's got a weird pseudo-danmaku vibe. Unfortunately not much thought was put into these extra modes, which inexplicably share the same high score table of the main game. Another minor complaint about the interface is that to start a new credit from scratch you need to let the continue countdown finish to return to the main menu.

My best 1CC result in Geki mode (normal) is the one below. Beating the game with lives in stock is the best way to score higher in the end, given that spare lives are worth a lot upon game completion (bombs seem to add some points as well). An odd note about the high score table is that even though Gekioh - Shooting King has 8 levels and doesn't loop the stage indication for the 1CC is 10-1 (the second number refers to the area within the stage).

Next in the series is Shienryu Explosion, sequel to Shienryu/Gekioh released exclusively for the Japanese Playstation 2 along with yet another port of Shienryu in a disc titled The Shooting - Double Shienryu.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Spriggan Powered (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1996

Series like Spriggan aren’t what you normally see (or used to see) in the gaming world. Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project had already shifted lots of things around in comparison to the first Spriggan, including pivotal features such as the scrolling direction. Both games were released for the PC Engine CD in Japan and at least complement each other as far as the overall theme goes, an aspect that the third chapter Spriggan Powered inherits. Final game in the franchise and released exclusively for the Super Famicom at the end of the console's lifespan, its development is credited to ghost company Micronics with no involvement whatsoever from Compile.

With Compile off the boat, it’s no wonder Spriggan Powered feels a lot different from Spriggan Mark 2. Even though a couple elements are kept in place in the gameplay, this time you control only one mecha from beginning to end with no story intermissions across six levels of increasing difficulty. Dynamic performance takes a hit and at times the game feels sluggish, especially during some of the boss fights. The music isn’t bad but not remarkable either and in graphical terms the game is serviceable, yet sprites tend to be small. A touch of mode-7 effects in the first level doesn't really add to the overall appreciation, but I do like the excessive use of green. Such an underrated color, especially when it comes down to shmups.

Recurring enemy Quinsquin stars in the opening movie and shows up in the initial stages
(courtesy of YouTube user Game Archive - No Commentary Gameplay)

Overall the stage structure of Spriggan Powered is quite simple, with a midboss halfway the level and a main boss waiting at the end. Interesting design decisions serve to spice up the action, such as the vertical stretches where you go into outer space or approach the surface of a planet, the light beam that allows to you to see inside the dark caves of the alien-themed 4th stage or the constant threat of being crushed by closing walls in the final level. Moreover, each stage is unique in how enemies attack: in the 2nd level it’s recommended to stay far back due to enemies suddenly coming out from the clouds, whereas in the 3rd you’d better stay in the middle of the screen lest you get toasted by enemies coming from behind. The 5th level deliberately throws a confusing background filled with meteors, thus demanding extreme attention from the player. Lives lost are costly in the long run because the game has no extends and definitely requires some dedication to be beaten.

Our powered mecha always arrives to the action in ship form, quickly transforming into a nifty robot capable of firing a brief bullet salvo at the press of button B. This means you don’t need to mash the button like crazy to achieve a steady firing stream, just tapping it at a regular rhythm will suffice. Every now and then a subweapon power-up carrier appears, releasing an orb that cycles colors between orange (fireball), blue (piercing laser shots), red (shot enhancer) and green (homing shot). It takes two consecutive power-ups to maximize subweapon efficiency.

The reason why there’s no autofire in Spriggan Powered becomes clear after you’ve collected at least one power-up. By holding button B you’ll charge the so-called “potential” attack, which triggers a special maneuver according to the active subweapon color: orange (exploding blast), blue (slows down the action for a brief while), red (close-up flare) and green (outward rotating blast). Each potential attack consumes one third of the elemental gauge, an energy reserve that also serves as fuel for the activation of the shield with button A. The shield is a type of electrical deflector that protects the robot from incoming bullets and cannon fodder, and just like the potential attack can be used for as long as there’s elemental energy available.

Lost elemental energy is then recovered by destroying enemies and by picking up the gray orbs left behind by specific targets. Besides filling the elemental gauge faster, these gray orbs also grant score bonuses that increase in value only for the duration of the level in steps of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1.600, 3.200 and 6.400 points (max). If you die these bonuses are reset to the initial 100 points. The same bonus is applied to power-ups if you keep collecting orbs of the same color, but this progression is valid throughout the whole game. It's only reset if you die or if you take an orb of different color than the one you're using.

A giant creature awaits at the end of stage 4

As mentioned above, keeping the same subweapon throughout the whole game is essential to achieve higher scores. However, at the end of each level you’re also granted a few extra bonuses based on stage completion, elemental gauge stock, risky techs (a rudimentary grazing mechanic that rewards tight bullet dodges) and the refusal to use the shield (No shield) or special attacks (No potential). This gives an immense flexibility to the scoring system, but notice that the further you go the hardest it is to avoid using elemental energy, especially when you realize how effective potential attacks can be against bosses. Except for the slowdown (blue) they’re all capable of nullifying all enemy attacks. Finally, another mundane scoring device is in the act of milking the destructible bullets from some of the bosses. Fortunately they all time out, so you can't leech them forever.

While certainly not in the same league of the most accomplished shmups on the SNES, Spriggan Powered delivers some good mecha shooting action and serves as a decent bastard finale to the trilogy initiated by Compile. Regardless of how players see it, it's certainly the best outing by Micronics on the console if you consider the company was also responsible for Raiden Trad and Acrobat Mission.

Given that the final screen tallying after you beat the last boss disappears quite quickly and the game doesn't have a score buffer, it's good to devise some sort of technique to capture your final result. Here's mine, playing in the Normal difficulty. For those who enjoy cranking up the challenge level, an extra setting above Hard can be enabled with a special code.