Thursday, June 15, 2023

Andro Dunos II (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Picorinne Soft
Published by Studio Storybird / Pixelheart in 2022

There once was a horizontal shooter with a ship that looked like Zero Wing's but behaved like the one from Hellfire. While not well known even within the shmup community, it was an honest effort that graced the Neo Geo library with lively colors and decent fun factor. Other than that very few people really knew about Andro Dunos until recently, after all Andro Dunos II was released for several different platforms. An oddity in itself that finds very few parallels these days (Sol Cresta is perhaps another example), Andro Dunos II is the kind of sequel that comes off as quite surprising no matter how much love you had for the original. After all, what can one expect from such an unexpected continuation to a game released more than 30 years ago? 

Some of the best things in life, including gaming of course, is to be positively surprised when you least expect it. And that's the case of Andro Dunos II. In short, it makes you feel the same kind of thrills people experienced during the 16-bit era. There's a great sense of scope backed up by solid gameplay concepts, a package that's nicely crafted to provide players with lots of versatility in terms of challenge, strategy and fun. It totally respects and preserves the tone of the first game, but there are also elements that evoke classic series like Thunder Force and Gradius. Graphics make the most out of humble assets and look great, with simple yet efficient visual effects and a soundtrack that's quite engaging, often evolving in sync with important moments and transitions.

Once the game is started a brief tutorial shows you how to basically use all buttons to begin playing. It can be skipped by pressing any button, whereas to quit the game at any moment all you have to do is pause and simultaneously press L1, R1 and OPTIONS. 

My 1CC run on Andro Dunos II for the Playstation 4

There are four main weapons cycled by pressing the shoulder buttons (L1 and R1): a straight shot, a spread shot, a rear shot and a slow-firing laser that acquires an X-shaped pattern when you achieve power level 4. Getting there is just a matter of collecting the floating power-up when it displays an S, which then upgrades only the weapon you're currently using. Power-ups are released by incoming carriers and cycle between S, M and U before leaving the screen, so if the one you want doesn't appear right away just wait for the power-up to change. Each weapon is maxed out when reaching power level 7. As for the M and the U, they're used to upgrade missiles and summon/upgrade shield barriers. These extra resources can only be upgraded up to level 5 and behave differently according to the weapon you're using. Shield barriers deplete if too many shots hit them.

For each weapon there's also a hyper shot that can be unleashed by pressing a separate button. The caveat is that during the recharging time said weapon remains in its weakest form. On the other hand, this powerful attack does not depend on the current upgrade level of the weapon, which means it will always be the same no matter how powered up the weapon is. Using hyper shots and switching weapons in between is the secret to handling difficult sections and succesfully dismantling bosses. The hyper shot for the straight weapon is the strongest and can block regular bullets, but the one for the spread shot is definitely the best for crowd control. The laser hyper shot lacks power but is also a good means of shielding yourself from incoming bullets.

Amidst the action you'll also come across blue orbs that give you points and bonuses. Each stage has 30 of them, and for each 10 you're able to collect you get one token to be exchanged after beating the boss. You can either level up any of your weapons or auxiliary shots, as well as trade them for 5.000 points each. Considering that each power-up in excess is worth 2.000 points during the level, that's when you start to realize the built-in possibilities of the scoring system. Add to that the ability to destroy boss parts for a few more points and the strict nature of the game design, which never changes enemy patterns and totally rewards solid memorization. I felt that there might some rank involved if you survive long enough on a single life, but it's pretty mild and only affects bullet density.

Besides missing a few seconds of the action, the only penalty for losing a life in Andro Dunos II is the downgrade of one power level of the weapon you were using (missiles and shield are unaffected). No bonuses of any kind come from extra lives when beating the game, therefore the score extends granted with 100.000 points and then at every 150.000 points are there just to increase your survival odds. While the game isn't remarkably difficult, deaths happen quite frequently in the beginning due to incorrect weapon cycling. Sure you can stick to a single one that feels more comfortable, but using the whole arsenal according to the challenge imposed by each stage is quite amusing.

Zero Wing vs. Mech Warrior?

That said, the true fact of the matter is that Andro Dunos II definitely shines in the level design department. It puts all sorts of hazards on screen, scrolls up and down every now and then and showcases large bosses with attack patterns that always throw some sort of marginal variation, often taking players by surprise. I just missed the screen scrolling backwards as in the second stage of the first chapter. There are some other clear nods to Andro Dunos though, most notably the rearrangement of a few bosses in several parts of the game. By the way, my favorite part is the high speed section of the fifth stage (machine city), but the best music is certainly the one that plays during the underwater level.

There's no need to fear the pixellated resolution on the PS4, the game is so good that in no time it won't bother you anymore. An assortment of wallpapers is available when the game is booted, with the possibility of also applying scanlines over the mock-up of a curvy TV screen. It's nice for nostalgic old timers, I guess. A stage select option allows you to restart the game in any stage you've already reached or just replay them at will, even though the starting power levels are fixed and don't allow any adjustments. By beating the game you unlock a boss rush stage, which in turn unlocks two extra independent levels modeled after stages 1 and 3 of Andro Dunos. Just a couple of pointless curiosities, I'd say.

I 1CCed Andro Dunos II in the middle difficulty (Arcade) with the high score shown below, aiming for all blue orbs and just bonus points in the end-of-stage reward screen. The 10 at the end of the scores are a nice way to give away the chosen difficulty.