Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Asuka & Asuka (Playstation 2)

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

I’m a real fan of the Playstation 2. An amazing system full of great games for all ages and tastes, it will certainly remain a powerhouse of fun no matter how old it gets. And as far as old school arcade ports go, in terms of sheer value for money there are very few discs capable to go toe to toe with any of those Taito Legends or Taito Memories compilations. They’re simply amazing, and the game selections hardly fail in delivering a handful of interesting titles across all video game genres.

Of course there are exceptions to the above expectations. One of them is Asuka & Asuka, included in the Japanese Taito Memories II - Vol. 1 collection and serious contender for the most annoying vertical shmup the company has ever put out in its entire history. Granted, one of the purposes of these compilations is to somewhat showcase Taito's evolution throughout the years, but Asuka & Asuka certainly takes the cake as the black sheep here. Rayforce, Scramble Formation and Fighting Hawk are the other verts in this particular Taito Memories disc, all of them of clearly higher caliber with regards to gameplay and fun factor.

Well, to its defense let it be known that a few online sources say that the actual developer of Asuka & Asuka was Visco, not Taito. You can definitely see graphical similarities with Ashura Blaster, for instance, but unfortunately Asuka & Asuka lacks the same punch and is far less exciting.

Travelling back in time to meet wild dinosaurs

Anyway, the premise of this primitive shooter is quite interesting, at least on paper. In the near future, alien invaders manipulate space and time to attack Earth in several different timelines. Enter the Asukas, the newest military marvels able to time travel, sent to battle to defeat the enemy and save the planet from an impending doom. Prepare to fly over a modern day metropolis, a jungle filled with dinosaurs, a demon-ridden ancient landscape and a military area with remnants of a World War. Suffice it to say that this idea found a much better rendition in Taito's own Gekirindan, released six years after Asuka & Asuka. By the way, I wonder if this weird title might be related to the fact that you can't play solo with the secondary jet (on the right side of the screen), which means you need to insert two coins to play a mandatory co-op credit if you want to see what the second jet looks like.

Your jet/plane is capable of shooting and bombing, actions that can be configured at will in the PS2 controller. Two types of upgrade items appear floating from the top. The power-up (P) increases your current firepower by one level, whereas the other icon cycles very slowly between S (straight shot), L (laser) and B (wave beam), also serving as a power-up if you stick to the same weapon type. Three upgrades max out weapon power, but while S is the strongest one it also has a shorter reach when compared with the others. Since there's no autofire available, a turbo controller is definitely recommended if you can afford to have one. As for bombs, even though they can nullify nearby bullets they offer no panic function and can't be completely trusted for defense.

The only single ground item you might eventually find is the B for extra bomb, but it's unfortunately very scarce. It doesn't help that the playing field is wider than the horizontal screen span, which demands players to sweep left and right in order to scoop the area for extra bombs or just to get a few more points from killing enemies. That's when the problems with Asuka & Asuka start, for enemies do not care if they can see you or not. They just go about their schedules and shoot non stop, often taking you by complete surprise if you happen to move in front or close to their bullet sprays. This can be really infuriating at first, but on the other hand players can count on the fact that enemy spawning routines are always the same no matter what. This means there's no way around thorough memorization, or the lazier strategy of sticking to one side/area of the screen and absolutely avoiding to venture sideways.

Watch as the game itself cheats in the attract mode for Asuka & Asuka
(courtesy of YouTube user Replay Burners)

Some vivid inspirations from Dragon Spirit and the back catalog of Toaplan aren't enough to give Asuka & Asuka any edge whatsoever. With no extends of any kind, unremarkable sound design, uneven difficulty (the 3rd boss is harder than the last), simplistic but unpredictable bullet patterns and lots of cheap death mine fields, the game can be considered a true representative of shmup kusoge. Besides a sorry lack of real intensity and fun, it throws a half-assed bonus area once a boss is defeated (you can still die and perfect destruction ratios give no extra points at all). And I don't know if it's an issue related to the porting job, but the controls tend to be slippery and unreliable at times, with directionals sticking randomly for no apparent reason. I also came across a few events of complete disc freeze, which didn't happen once with any of my previous Taito Memories experiences.

Just like with all other vertical shooters from Taito Memories II - Vol. 1, at least it's possible to play Asuka & Asuka in TATE mode. Then you might have a better view of when you are unfairly blindsided by enemy fire.

Click for the option menus translation for Asuka & Asuka on Taito Memories II - Vol. 1

For a brief while the enigmatic ending made me believe I could've dealt with the first boss differently, since he's the only one that escapes no matter how damaged he gets. But alas, as much as I tried and bombed him he'd still flee like a real coward. My best 1CC score in the Normal difficulty is below, playing with a turbo controller for great justice. A final note about this PS2 version is that the Normal difficulty is clearly harder than the default setting of the ROMs I tested in MAME. Bullets are definitely faster, thus requiring a higher degree of attention from those brave enough to try it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Magical Chase (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Quest
Published by Palsoft in 1991

Sometimes video games are so aptly named that almost everything you need to know about them is already in the title. Magical Chase is exactly what its name implies, for example. It’s a chase, and it’s magical. It’s also about a little witch flying on a broom, which is of course the most important design aspect of the game and mirrors the setting of a much more famous shooter featuring another witch named Cotton. Since the witch in Magical Chase is named Ripple, wouldn’t it have been a wise move for the developer to also release the game as Ripple? We could’ve have another similarly long and successful franchise then.

Jokes aside, even though no sequel was ever developed for Magical Chase the game at least got a port for the Turbografx-16 that holds the distinction of being one of the rarest titles for NEC’s console in the West. No differences exist in the core gameplay between both versions, but the Turbografx-16 port translates all Japanese texts and applies a few visual tweaks to character sprites while repainting the whole first level with a new medieval setting. Either way players are bound to experience a charming shooting romp with neat graphics, nice music and great variety from beginning to end. It doesn't take long to see the game's got plenty of personality without sounding too derivative, on top of exhibiting great parallax effects with absolutely no slowdown.

A brief snippet of the first stage of the Japanese PC Engine version
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Cute little witch Ripple accidentally released six devilish creatures from a forbidden book, and off she goes to undo this with the aid of two star friends/maidens. There’s a total of six levels to go through with increasingly higher survival stakes as you fight mechanized enemies, enchanted forest demons, a huge flying fortress, evil snowmen with hockey masks, a dreadful floating knight and a slew of powerful wizards and other strange beings. Ripple is capable of firing magical shots with button II, as well as have her star options locked in place or freed with a press of button I. A secondary and very important resource consists in pressing buttons I and II at the same time, which then fixes the direction of the bullets they fire. Just do it again to unlock shot direction.

Since the stars can fully block most enemy fire (exceptions are lasers and large ball-shaped projectiles), learning how to use them properly is extremely important in the long run. For every credit you get a health bar with 8 hearts and 6 slots for magic spells. The leftmost spell is used whenever you double tap button II (this is why you can't activate any turbo fire in Magical Chase), and if the hearts in the health gauge deplete the game is over. Health can be recovered by taking the candy lollipop (1 heart) or the cake (2 hearts), which are always left behind by killing specific enemies. Hearts can also be refilled by purchasing the necessary items from the shop that appears at certain points throughout the stage.

Shop purchases use the stock of crystals you're able to collect from every destroyed enemy or as a special bonus at the end of the level. Getting familiar with each item in the shop is important to devise an upgrade/recovery strategy, however the first and most important purchase is definitely maximum speed. Then you're set to experiment with all other items. The gallery of more powerful weapons includes 3-way, wave, staggering, bubble, homing, reflective and piercing shots. While there are no upgrades to these weapons, two specific improvements can also be applied to the behavior of the star maidens (cracker ball and cyclone), thus increasing Ripple's overall firepower. Magic spells consist of heart (recovers 2 hearts), bomb (screen-clearing blast) and × (stars turn green and also inflict damage for 15 seconds). Finally, the medicine completely refills the health gauge, the elixir gives you a full new health bar when the current one is gone and the fruit of life expands the health gauge by one heart.

Certainly not Super Mario Bros pipes!

At first Magical Chase doesn't impose any sort of pressure on the player. There's no damage incurred in touching the terrain, but you can still get scroll-crushed by objects and walls. The difficulty slope is relatively steady, nevertheless the bulk of the challenge is reserved for the last couple of stages. Some boss attacks can drain two and a half hearts, quickly leading to a horrible death if you don't have a good reserve of recovery spells to get back up during the battle. Every stage has a boss and one or more mid-bosses, and some of the later ones are quite demanding in terms of dodging. An interesting detail here is that it's not the main boss that gets quickly glimpsed at the start of every level, it's the mid-boss.

What makes Magical Chase an approachable game for everyone is the shop, definitely a lifesaver for the toughest sections mentioned above. Some of the items increase in value after a few purchases, but fortunately the inflation is nowhere near what you see in games like Fantasy Zone or Forgotten Worlds, which also have a similar shop gimmick. On a different note, if you're interested in scoring higher you absolutely can't purchase medicines, elixirs or extra health slots since each one deduces a good chunk of the final completion bonus. Other factors that contribute to this final reward include the number of crystals multiplied by 10, total life remaining and the chosen difficulty level. Even though some bosses can be milked for a few points, doing it isn't trivial and would take a long time to actually be profitable.

At the start screen the middle option corresponds to the setting for Normal difficulty (わくわく / Waku Waku / Bumpy). When played on Easy (らくらく / Raku Raku / Breeze) the game ends after three stages, whereas on Hard (どきどき / Doki Doki / Rough) players will face more bullets and a few different attack patterns from bosses. On my best 1CC result below I maximized all bonuses in the Normal/Bumpy difficulty. I only purchased swing shot and cracker ball in stage 2, then ×4 before the mid-boss in stage 5 while keeping the magic stock full of hearts at all times.