Monday, May 22, 2023

Vulgus (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2005

Another first from another important developer, let's go!

Yes, every company has to start somewhere. I'm not saying that Vulgus was the first game designed by Capcom. It was however their first shmup, and as such deserves at least a bolded footnote in the history of the genre. Many would argue with that, and even more people simply ignore it because it was soon overshadowed by the games that followed. Fortunately Vulgus wasn't (and shouldn't be) forgotten, seeing that it was included in all of those compilations backed up by Capcom ever since the 32-bit generation hit the gaming world.

That said, It's possible to play Vulgus on the Playstation 2 by means of the Capcom Classics Collection. Unfortunately this compilation does not offer any option to play it in TATE, but that isn't that much of a loss if you've got a decently sized TV/monitor. The game's primitive mechanics don't require much as you're invited to attend the coming out party thrown by giant insect mutants from a planet callled... Vulgus. Basically it's just a relentless series of enemy waves attacking the player in random formations throughout three ever-looping ground levels separated by outer space intermissions.

Starting the fun with Vulgus on the Capcom Classics Collection
(courtesy of YouTube user VideoGaming4U)

In the world of Vulgus your tiny round spaceship is equipped with a regular shot and a more powerful and limited attack akin to a cannon, missile or torpedo. It drills straightly forward destroying all minor enemies, only stopping against those bigger bugs that cross the screen from time to time. It's mostly indicated against enemies that appear and enter into line formations after a brief while, kinda like those classic patterns first seen in Galaga. The difference here is that you also have other enemies flying around everywhere, which sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to aim the torpedo and kill complete enemy formations to get more points (the more you kill with a single blow the higher the bonus).

Another visual influence here is Xevious, particularly during the forest planet of the second level thanks to the simliar terrain and the appearance of revolving blocks that become invincible and scroll downwards if you fail to destroy them. The difficulty picks up accordingly from the crater planet of the first stage, quickly peaking as soon as you enter the icy planet in the third stage. Enemy movement patterns get more and more complicated, and since their shots are all directly aimed at the player it soon becomes clear that you absolutely can't stay put. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does, after all this is the same gameplay behavior seen in 1942 and Exed Exes, two spiritual successors in the Capcom shmup timeline.

Vulgus is also where you'll first see some trademark icons in the Capcom shmup lore, such as the Pow item and the yasichi (the colored lollipop). The Pow appears randomly as you defeat enemies, and each one adds an extra cannon/torpedo to your stock. The yasichi, on the other hand, is actually an enemy that approaches the ship and darts into its location. Other items show up in the form of letters D, E and S, which seemingly don't do anything. I don't think they affect enemy behavior to a noticeable extent (decrease quantity, increase number, increase speed) as seen in the hint included in this very same collection. What I noticed is that if you take many of them during the same stage without dying you'll eventually be able to collect a yellow star that's worth 10.000 points.

The loop boss!

An interesting aspect of the gameplay that might not be that intuitive in the beginning is that the quicker you take Pows and letters the quicker they will appear. If you fail or refuse to collect an item it will keep showing up until you take it, and only then the item spawning sequence will be resumed (most frequently it's a random letter for every two Pows). Items don't appear in outer space areas, but whenever they're on screen note that if you move left/right and leave it out of sight it might just disappear, as will some of the enemies.

For a quick burst of shooting action Vulgus is quite a decent diversion, given that it doesn't take too long to be looped. At the end of the 3rd stage a bigger enemy with rotating rocks appears, in what could be considered the loop boss. There are a few odd choices in the rudimentary mechanics, such as the cannon stock being retained even if you die and the routine for extends and extra lives. Extends are normally achieved at 20.000 and 60.000 points, whereas 1UPs come from destroying certain enemies and quickly vanish amidst the mayhem. No worries though because they get duly registered. And whatever your life stock is, the maximum amount shown in the life indicator is 4.

My final verdict on this game is simple. If you fancy the style of 1942 and Exed Exes but can't cope with their excruciatingly long campaigns and difficulty, which is my case, then Vulgus is certainly a nice option to try. It's just as relentless, but three stages is all it takes to add it to your 1CC achievement list. Both input buttons can be configured at will in the options screen, as well as rapid fire (a controller with turbo fire will give you better results though). The repetitive music is really the only atrocious aspect players need to endure, but there's a slightly less grating alternative in the Capcom Classic Collection disc. Just go to Options → Game Settings and switch on Sound Remix.

Here's my final result in the Normal difficulty, reaching the icy planet one more time on the second loop.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Tiger-Heli (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by M2 / Tatsujin in 2021

Paying respects to shmup classics is never a bad idea if you have some spare time. It also serves two noble purposes. One of them is to put into perspective their undeniable importance to the development of the genre. The other is, well, to have fun obviously. It could be easy fun, but challenging fun is preferrably the best option. Tiger-Heli is definitely one that fits the bill, and its resurfacing in new consoles thanks to the fine people from M2 offered a great chance to revisit this defining title in the history of Toaplan. After all, the only true arcade port of Tiger-Heli until recently was in the Toaplan Shooting Battle 1 compilation released for the Playstation in 1996.

Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli is the first compilation in the M2 ShotTriggers Japanese series that's exclusively dedicated to Toaplan. It contains Tiger-Heli, Kyukyoku Tiger and Twin Cobra, in what's seemingly a repetition of the aforementioned package released for the PS1. However, it offers much more in terms of available adjustments, interface improvements and extra content since you can also play several console versions of these games through DLC. There's even a port of Get Star, an extremely odd platformer released by Toaplan in 1986. Unfortunately the downlodable content can only be redeemed with Japanese PSN accounts.

Even though it's quite different from the titles that followed in the Toaplan timeline, Tiger-Heli was immensely successful and established the company as one of the main shmup households during the 80s. The main inspiration for the game was Gyrodine, which actually had in its developmment team some of the guys who would later found Toaplan. However, despite the similar use of a helicopter as the player's avatar there isn't much in common between both games. Toaplan's debut enjoyed greater success both in the arcades and in people's homes, given that in certain regions the port of Tiger-Heli for the Famicom/NES was certainly one of the most popular shmups of the 8-bit era.

Art during the initial loading of Tiger-Heli on the PS4

As the first shmup developed by Toaplan, Tiger-Heli established the basic visual grounds that would define much of the company's style for a few years. In terms of gameplay, however, it's quite unique in how it deals with movement speed and bomb management for example. It's deceivingly slow and methodical, and despite the straightforward nature of enemy formations there comes a point when a solid amount of memorization becomes inevitable. It teaches the importance of never underestimating a simple game that uses only two buttons for shooting and for dropping bombs.

Once the helicopter takes flight over an urban landscape, tanks and turrets will fire aimed bullets at intervals that get increasingly shorter as the difficulty picks up proportionally. For each life you get two bombs placed on the sides of the chopper, which can explode if hit by a bullet. The firing rate is capped so you can only have a certain amount of bullets on screen at any time, nevertheless it's still possible to point blank in order to land a lot more shots per second. Bombs have no panic function but can still be used defensively, however a proactive approach can lead to much better survival chances in some of the trickiest sections.

Improving firepower is possible by hitting a tiny ground square that keeps cycling quickly between a white arrow pointing up, a red arrow point sideways and a blue B for extra bombs. The arrows generate "little helis" that float downwards and latch to the chopper on both sides when collected, providing great attack reinforcements. You can have a maximum of two little helis at any given time, but just like the bombs they can be destroyed with a single hit. As for the yellow pulsating squares, an extra life is achieved whenever ten of them are destroyed (a counter keeps track of how many you have). By the way, score-based extends are also registered with 50.000 points and for every 120.000 points after that.

Whenever you die and get sent back to a previous checkpoint the helicopter is respawned with two bombs. This bomb stock is also replenished during the landing/take-off sequence between levels, which is also where you can collect 5.000 bonus points for each bomb or little heli you're carrying when you land (surplus upgrades taken throughout the level give you 3.000 points). These are the main ways to score higher, but there are also a few secrets such as the indestructible red house at the start of the first stage that gives you 10.000 points (and more if you keep shooting it), or the areas where a racing car will slowly travel from right to left if you stand there after having fired exact multiples of 16 shots and is also worth 10.000 points.

Entering the second loop of Tiger-Heli on the PS4
(courtesy of YouTube user FunnyPlace Channel)

Before playing this port of Tiger-Heli, the 16-shot secret for the passing car was unknown to me. Achieving it is possible in all available spots of this version though, thanks to some of the gadgets designed by M2 (the shot counter and the stage map). A staple that has become synonym with the company, these gadgets are invaluable and give much more information than what you can see from the game screen alone. This port also offers four game modes to choose from. Arcade is locked in the Normal difficulty and denies any changes to the game settings, providing the unaltered original experience and avoiding the confusion related to different arcade board versions. Super Easy mode is also locked, Custom allows all sorts of tweaks possible and Arcade Challenge is a collection of stage-based score attack modes.

Since everything in this Playstation 4 version is in Japanese, if you want to watch a replay from the leaderboards note that you need to download it first by pressing ×, then proceed to Replay Theater inside the Materials Room menu to see it.

Click for the option menus translation for Tiger-Heli on Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli

Despite the apparent bare-bones and primitive aspect of Tiger-Heli, its ability to keep sucking players for just one more credit is undeniable. There are no stage bosses, but those large tanks that appear in pairs at certain points could definitely claim the title of bosses if they wanted to. An interesting gameplay detail is that even though a few jets zap through the screen here and there there are absolutely no shots fired by aerial enemies, a concept that Toaplan would employ again in Daisenpu / Twin Hawk. And as far as looping games go, Tiger-Heli is also special because it excludes the first stage from subsequent loops, which then have only three stages instead of the initial four (the high score table mentions areas, with 8 areas comprising a full stage). Finally, the game makes the most out of the available music, changing its regular theme to an equally energetic variation whenever you're carrying at least one little heli.

My best result in Arcade mode / Normal difficulty is below. Once I got familiar with the game again I was able to reach the 3rd stage of the second loop (repetition of the 4th stage).