Thursday, April 27, 2023

Wonder 3 [Chariot] (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2006

Three full-blown games in one single arcade title isn't something you see regularly. Three Wonders, also known as Wonder 3 in Japan, was Capcom's take on such an odd formula, featuring a platformer, a shmup and a puzzler. The elf characters of the platformer Midnight Wanderers - Quest for the Chariot (Roosters in the Japanese version) are the same ones that appear in Chariot - Adventure through the Sky, whereas the puzzler Don't Pull features a cute design reminiscent of Pengo and Bomberman. Since this is a shmup-oriented blog, the option I played last week was obviously Chariot. It's actually my second time doing it, since I had already spent some time with the port released for the Sega Saturn in 1998.

Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 on the Playstation 2 is one of the several ways you can experience Three Wonders in the comfort of your living room. It's a perfectly fine version that includes automatic saving, full button remapping with additional autofire and a few related extras. The game itself is extremely colorful with a sweet art design that kinda predates the visual style Capcom would later infuse in titles like Eco Fighters. It's also got a simple rank progression that makes the game slightly harder the longer you remain alive, which is something I didn't really notice back when I played the Saturn port.

First stage of Chariot
(courtesy of YouTube user Oto Mitas)

As you take to the skies with any of the two characters (co-op possible) you’re allowed to shoot and to fire a "crash" attack based on your tail energy. There’s no autofire by default for the shot input but you can activate it the options (set rapid fire to ON). Shot type is dictated by colored power-ups released by floating chests. The wide shot (red, default) has a good spread coverage and generates a single straight blast as crash attack, whereas the straight/rapid shot (green) is totally focused but fires a wide staggering blast for crash attack. 

The basic and most important strategy to succeed in Chariot is to power up as fast as you can. Four consecutive items of the same color are necessary to maximize the shot power level, but chests also release other essential upgrades such as the option that increases the size of your tail (up to seven segments), the bomb (B) that activates a ground projectile (a second B adds a trailing effect that extends the reach of the bomb) and the emblem that gives you a 1-hit shield in the form of a golden chariot (appears only once in selected stages). Regarding tail size, it’s important to mention that the larger the tail the more crash attacks you can fire in succession. Each one consumes 3 tail segments, but fortunately tail energy recharges rather quickly over time. Tail energy is also consumed when you use the tail to deflect bullets and damage enemies coming from behind, so take note of that if you're surrounded by enemy flocks closing in from all sides. 

Remaining items related to survival and scoring can come either from chests or from destroying particular enemies or enemy waves. The first one is the heart that adds to an extend counter: the small heart adds +1 and the big heart adds +5 towards milestones of 50, 70 and 90 for three possible extra lives. The second item is the coin, one of the backbones of the game’s scoring system. The common rule in every stage is that for each coin collected before the next one appears its value increases in nine steps from 100 to 4.800 points. Special situations happen after mid-boss encounters (always take the coin of highest value last) and during sections with lots of coins appearing at the same time, where coin value increases slowly no matter how many of them are on screen.

Throughout the level the most simple way to increase coin value is by killing the enemy waves that give out coins, that's why you need to avoid destroying turrets that spit out said waves (each stage has its own type of coin-generating turret). A few other simple scoring techniques allow for easy extra points if you play well enough, such as speed-killing bosses and collecting all surplus power-ups once everything is already upgraded. Each one is worth 5.000 points, but another extra chariot on top of an active one yields 10.000 points. Finally, upon completing the game each remaining life is worth 50.000 points and all hearts in stock are also added to the score.

Choose your destiny

Within its classic structure and the somewhat uneven duration of stages, Chariot is certainly a charming fun shooter that's bound to please those who enjoy fantasy themed games. While it doesn't really fall into the cute'em up realm, the diversity is refreshing and bosses are a sight to behold with some incredible designs that evoke – or try to evoke – astrology signs. The item shower they spit out when dying is an amusing detail as well. On a broad assessment the game isn't overly hard, but rank does impose more pressure later on because it causes enemies to fire more bullets and bosses to become more aggressive. Remember that it's not harmful to touch walls and surfaces.

Even though the naming of the game is confusing with Three Wonders, 3 Wonders and Wonder 3 being thrown out there without much ceremony, it's clear by the name of the platformer (Midnight Wanderers) that I have played the World/Western version of Chariot. I noticed a few differences here and there when comparing my runs with footage of the Japanese version, such as the smaller size of bullets, slightly diverse movement/placement patterns for enemies and one noteworthy difference in the absence of debris from the moving blocks in stage 2. Some sources state that the Japanese version is harder, but I'd say there's not much to warrant any heated argument on difficulty differences.

My 1CC score was achieved in the Normal difficulty on the player 1 side. If you feel the continue feature is annoying because it registers automatically if you press the shot button during the continue countdown, just switch continues to NONE in the options screen.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK Playmore
Published by SNK Playmore in 2004

An unexpected sequel that nobody thought was coming in 2004, Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse is actually one of the first games released by SNK Playmore, which was formed from the ashes of the old SNK. Despite carrying the style of the predecessor in its veins, this sequel came out completely under SNK Playmore since the company had by then acquired the rights to all titles developed by ADK, including of course the first Twinkle Star Sprites.

Since almost nothing was changed from the core gameplay of the first game, many people hesitate or even refuse to consider La Petite Princesse a proper sequel. I for one can surely remonstrate this perspective, after all the game adds brand new characters while bringing a few old faces from the original, on top of applying a full 3D makeover to the cute approach to graphic design. In fact, the game is a real treat for anime fans since it's almost unbearably cute, it's just a little underwhelming that all voices and interactions are conveyed in Japanese only. Honestly, even character names are difficult for Western people to figure out.

Players can have fun in three game modes. In Story mode you take the role of a witch named Time Buttermint, fighting six adversaries in order to save the world from a dimensional star distortion rift. She flies a broom and is always followed around by her faithful dog, who also determines the behavior of her magical powers. Time Buttermint takes over the protagonist role from Load Ran, which is now only available in Character mode along with 14 other cute competitors with the most diverse stats for power and speed. However, from my experience no matter which mode you choose La Petite Princesse is definitely easier than its predecessor. Finally, Versus mode is only applicable when two people get together to face each other in glorious shooting combat mayhem.

Riding a powerful guitar to reap the spoils of victory

Even though shooting is the basic input as usual, combat is the core element of the gameplay in La Petite Princesse. In a nutshell, it's exactly the same as in the original Twinkle Star Sprites. The few differences are in the number of levels in Story and Character modes, which is now 6 instead of 7, a new item that can show up in the flipping coin (P), a few new golem wave formations and one single extend registered with 500.000 points (previously it was one extend at every 500K).

You can shoot indiscriminately at will, but that might just not cut it to defeat the opponent on the other side of the screen. Default inputs consist of shot (□ and ○), rapid shot (△) and bomb (×). Gameplay 101: several different waves of colorful minions/golems cruise the screen; destroy them in order to send fireballs to the player on the other side; popping all of them together/faster creates more fireballs; you can deflect enemy fireballs by shooting at them or engulfing them in your own golem explosions, which is even better; if the amount of aggression increases you automatically begin sending character-related special attacks to the other side, inclusing boss attacks; these attacks can also be triggered by using charge shots (hold □/○) powered by an energy gauge that fills up automatically; charge shots at max power (3) trigger boss attacks; when hit, fever orbs preceded by two exclamation marks (!!) increase the efficiency of your attacks for a short time; bomb to clean your own screen and survive impossible odds.

Each character gets a health bar of 5 hearts. Damage comes from getting hit by enemy fire or by touching a golem, which also stuns you for a few seconds and reduces your speed/firepower. The fight is lost if the health bar depletes. If the fight drags for too long cute grim reapers will appear alternately for both players and chase them around the screen, killing at contact regardless of the status of their health bars. Grim reapers can be killed though. Some golems are endowed with shields that add to their health, but these shields can be instantly broken if you collect the star item that comes on a flippling coin. In addition to the star, this coin can also appear carrying an extra bomb (B), extra points ($) or extra charge power (P). Health is recovered partially by successfully hitting your adversary.

Besides head-to-head shooting combat there's also an scoring system in place for Story and Character modes, which share the same high score tracking. Everything you hit lands some points, but you can use several techniques to score higher. Destroying golem waves without wasting a single shot, for example, starts a PERFECT chain that can be sustained for as long as you keep doing it. After each victory you get bonus points for max chain achieved and the time taken to beat the level. Time bonus is trivial though, after all sustaining longer fights is obviously better for scoring, it's just hard to do that in the starting levels because opponents will practically kill themselves.

A cute introduction to an even cuter game
(courtesy of YouTube user Hell Tantrumbull)

All the above techniques are familiar to those experienced with the previous game. However, Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse brings a new element that makes all of them pale in comparison. This new element is the $ money sign in the flipping coin: the first one is worth 10 points only, but each subsequent $ you take multiplies the previous value by 10. This means the 6th one will be worth one million points, and so on and so forth! The catch is that this is valid only for the current fight/level, provided you continue getting $ signs consecutively without collecting any Bs, Ps or stars in between. Note: if you're wondering about not seeing the score counter during the fight, just press L1 to toggle its appearance.

Although not outstanding in terms of extras, the PS2 disc is at least competent on a basic level and includes automatic saving, vibration, input configuration, an art gallery and a few special contents to be unlocked. On the first contact with Character mode you'll notice three empty slots at the bottom, which are reserved for Realy Till, Load Ran and Mikoto, the new final boss. To unlock them all you need to do is beat them in Story mode, then complete the game afterwards (Realy Till is the only one that appears randomly in stage 4, so keep trying until you get the chance to fight her). A nice treat is that if you beat Character mode with these three competitors you'll then unlock the original Twinkle Star Sprites, which will be accessible from the start screen. All unlocks can be achieved with continues, so at least there's no 1CC grinding involved in any of this.

Time Buttermint is a nice replacement for Load Ran in Story mode, but except for Memory I admit I didn't try playing with any of the other characters besides the ones needed to perform the unlocks. My best 1CC score was achieved with Mikoto in the default difficulty (3).