Sunday, August 27, 2023

Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Naxat Soft in 1997

One of the defining titles in the shmup portfolio of Toaplan is Kyūkyoku Tiger, also known everywhere – with a few gameplay changes – as Twin Cobra. Given the amount of exposure and ports the game continues to receive even today, it’s only natural that many players are still unaware of its sequel. Add to that the fact that Toaplan went bankrupt before it could be completed, thus handing over the project to newly formed company Takumi (with the blessing of powerhouse publisher Taito, of course).

Following the trend of the original, Kyūkyoku Tiger II is also known as Twin Cobra II overseas. I guess we can measure the success it gathered by the number of home consoles that followed. There is only one so far, released for the Sega Saturn in Japan roughly two years after the arcade game appeared. Named Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus, this version includes a special mode made for Sega's console (hence the Plus in the title), which comes with a new soundtrack, color palette changes, an exclusive new stage and lots of cut scenes fleshing out the story.

Many elements of the first game were kept in this sequel, and are mixed with new aspects that try to give it a fresh take. A mid-sized chopper is still the carrier of all power-ups and bombs. Power-ups cycle colors and switch or upgrade the main weapon between red (straight vulcan), blue (spread shot) and green (the "thunder claw", a combo of straight laser bursts and homing side shots). Bombs are stocked up to five, with every further icon upgrading bombs in stock to hyper bombs, a much more powerful version of the regular bomb. As for power-ups, it takes three of the same type to max out your firepower.

A very warm reception over a dark ravine in stage 5

All game modes in the Saturn port use a simple controller button layout of shot (A or C), bomb (B) and credit insert (R). Pause and press A+B+C to revert back to the main menu and switch game modes. The shot input has autofire by default, which despite not being that high still gets the job done so there's no need for a turbo controller. Bullets and lasers are almost always aimed and come in various patterns, but it's possible to "seal" enemies in order to avoid their attacks (stand very close or directly over them if we're talking ground targets). Tapping and sweeping is the bread and butter of survival, but getting sniped is still a possibility later in the game. However, if enemies can't see you they can't shoot, and for that reason sometimes it's better to just stick to one side of the screen in order to avoid unnecessary risks.

Even though the overall level of accomplishment might be questionable, Kyūkyoku Tiger II has interesting dynamics that sort of succeed in addressing some of the most dire traits of its predecessor. It's still harder than its world counterpart Twin Cobra II due to more resilient and more aggressive enemies, but it certainly takes it easy on players during the first couple of levels when compared with Kyūkyoku Tiger. When deployed, the bomb provides instant invincibility instead of leaving you vulnerable for a few seconds. The assortment of bombs is also much higher in the sequel since every carrier releases one power-up and one extra bomb. And if you die you're respawned with the same weapon you were using instead of reappearing with the vulcan shot.

Another striking feature of the sequel is the constant use of sprite scaling to convey the sensation of flying at different heights and diving into deeper and deeper layers of the enemy headquarters. My impression is that visually the game bears a strong resemblance to Donpachi, which is also the first game from another offshoot company that formed from the ashes of Toaplan. However, unlike Cave's perennial debut, Takumi's first game was never able to carry the Kyūkyoku Tiger/Twin Cobra torch into new grounds. Perhaps that wasn't their intention at all since the company decided to focus on Giga Wing instead.

As a result of the lack of development zeal, Kyūkyoku Tiger II ended up halfway into being a truly great shmup. One of the reasons for that is the dreadful unbalance of the weapon system. Once you realize how much more powerful the green shot is you'll certainly feel stupid whenever you take red or blue by mistake, with the obvious exception of the chopper taking off with the red shot at the start of the game. On the other hand, the green weapon is the worst one to die with since it's probably the least useful in a default condition. Depending on where you die you'll be in severe trouble because power-up carriers might take too long to appear, so don't get stingy with bombs if necessary. 

Quick fun with the Sega Saturn mode in Kyūkyoku Tiger II Plus
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryGL)

Speaking of bombs, avoiding to use them is one of the key aspects of the scoring system. At the end of the level each spare bomb is multiplied by 5.000 and by the stage number, whereas each hyper bomb gets multiplied by 20.000 and the stage number. A full stock of hyper bombs in the final level, for example, results in a reward of 600.000 points. Good luck getting that though, especially if you keep collecting repeated power-ups for progressive bonuses, an act that eventually makes the speed of enemy bullets skyrocket. Once max power is achieved, each power-up builds up in steps of 10.000 points until a maximum of 100.000 points per item is obtained (if one power-up leaves the screen the next bonus is reset to 10.000 points though). Finally, ground and aerial stars released by enemies increase in value in steps of hundreds and then thousands until maxing out at 10.000 points each. Dying sends both the dynamic rank and all these bonuses back to their starting values.

So what would you choose, avoid surplus power-ups all the way for an easier game or get them all for higher bonuses at the expense of a much harder journey? In this port you can do it in Arcade mode (a direct TATE conversion of the arcade game), Sega Saturn mode (wobbling YOKO) or Arrange mode (just like Saturn mode but with the added features mentioned at the start of this post). The game has automatic saving while Arcade and Saturn modes share the same high score table, but note that Takumi or Naxat Soft unfortunately messed up with the scoring system by adding a few extra points for the blue helicopter (player 1 side) until max power is achieved. The red helicopter (player 2 side) isn't affected by this, but if you decide to play with it you need to cope with a highly unreliable replacement for the green laser. It's downright awful, honestly one of the weirdest weapons I've ever seen in a shmup.

Regardless of what scoring purists might think of the above and some odd design choices, Kyūkyoku Tiger II is still decent shooting fun, with plenty of action and fairly suitable music. Since it lacks checkpoints, it's also remarkably easier than Kyūkyoku Tiger. Fans of the first game should try the sequel, if only for the new elements related to scoring and the new approach towards rank. I played in Arcade mode (TATE) with the red chopper (player 1) in full defaults, which means Normal difficulty and Power Up set to A. Don't mess with this setting unless you want to tinker with the behavior of weapons when respawning.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Sexy Parodius (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON or OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

After the console venture of Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius, originally released for the Super Famicom, Konami turned back to the arcades for the 5th chapter of the series in Sexy Parodius. While no big aesthetic changes are to be seen here, the company did tinker with the gameplay a little in order to bring new elements to the well-known style established since Parodius Da!. As a consequence, even though it looks like more of the same from the outside, Sexy Parodius comes packed with deeper mechanics aimed at pleasing players of all skill levels.

Does it succeed? I believe it does, but it took me quite a while to figure out why.

The game's also supposed to feature a sexy or risqué design but I didn't notice much of that at all. To be honest, the only real moment I thought could get some attention from a bystander, for example, is the final lady boss, which indeed appears in a very sexy manner and probably acts in the most comical way out of the whole series. That's quite fitting actually, seeing that Sexy Parodius is the final title in the franchise and it fades out, as expected, with a wacky bang. This Saturn port is pretty much arcade-perfect, down to the absolute lack of slowdown, and as far as I know there's no reason why the Playstation version shouldn't be of the same caliber.

Koitsu and his new sexy adventure
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

The main idea behind the story of  Sexy Parodius is a rather funny one, which players will eventually get to know due to the panels that appear in between levels. They show regular characters Takosuke (the octopus) and Pentaro (the penguin) running an enterprise that hires agents (the playable characters) in order to fulfill missions for special clients. There is a preamble to this in the attract mode animation, which also shows Takosuke dreaming about scantly clad girls everywhere (tentacles!). Anyway, that's the reason why you can't play with them this time around. The character roster includes eight pilots and their 2P counterparts with the possibility of co-op fun. Familiar faces such as Vic Viper, Michael, Koitsu, Mambo and Hikaru are back, with a couple of newcomers in the form of Option/Multiple (self-explanatory for Gradius fans) and Shooting Star/Black Viper.

Classic characters like Vic Viper still adhere to the weapon rules originally defined by the Gradius franchise, but newer additions to the roster are so unique that only the speed-up and the shield seem to be relatable to the old upgrade styles. Everything in between might be the most diverse combination of missiles and shots/lasers, which are still upgraded by taking orange capsules and activating the desired slot in the weapon array. This can be completely manual, but you can also select semi-auto and auto modes after the character is chosen. In semi-auto the game does the upgrading for you but allows players to do it as well. In auto mode the game completely dictates how the character should evolve, and you can't even trigger a new speed-up. On the other hand, auto mode eliminates checkpoints, gives you a bell shower upon death and does away with roulette capsules. These are special capsules that make the weapon array go crazy, cycling very fast until you press the upgrade button just like you would in a slot machine.

Speaking of input buttons, they work with (rapid) shot, (rapid) missiles and power-up. Shot also activates bell powers across all game modes (manual, semi-auto and auto) whenever applicable. At every four shots fired on regular yellow bells they change their color so that you can use special powers: brown (3 vertical barriers), purple (turns all minor enemies into capsules), blue (super bomb),  green (inflate + invincibility) and white (Alex, a special option/minion that helps you out in several ways). Yellow bells are only useful for scoring: if you don't let any of them go by they increase in value from 500 to 1.000, 2.500, 5.000 and finally 10.000 points.

Alex is one of the new features of Sexy Parodius, as is the mission gimmick applied to all stages. In each level you're given a task (collect a certain number of coins, kill a certain number of enemies, destroy bosses within a certain time limit). For stages 2 and 3, failing to accomplish the missions will send you to alternate levels with completely different layouts and bosses. A successful mission in alternate stage 3 sends you back to the main stage 4, but regardless of your results in any variation of stage 4 (main or alternate) you'll continue playing in a single route through stages 5 and 6. Additionally, a random level with bosses from previous games can appear anywhere between stages 2 and 6. Finally, if you complete all missions succesfully you'll also play a special stage after the end credits, which just like in Gokujyou Parodius ramps up the difficulty to ridiculous heights.

You will only see this lovely boss if you fail the mission in stage 2

An interesting note about the missions is that they add to the feeling that the game is longer than it actually is. With only six main levels (not counting the special stage), Sexy Parodius is actually the shortest game in the series since the very first Parodius. Another noteworthy aspect of the mission mechanic is that the biggest contributor to rank is the act of completing all of them. Maxing out your power, surviving longer and abusing bells for scoring certainly make the game harder, but there's a clear difference in enemy aggression if you continue to succeed in the missions proposed by Takosuke. I was brutally decimated with little to no fanfarre when I got to the last stage a couple of times after being 100% successful in my missions, and once I tested the game in Mame I knew it was too high a price to pay just to access the special stage.
Then I got back to the Saturn game and cleared in on the very first time I completely ignored some missions. By failing to destroy the required number of geisha in stage 3 and failing to collect the minimum number of coins in stage 5 (don't get Alex, he'll definitely try to help you achieve that), the final level became much more approachable. This also leads to the conclusion that for players with normal skill levels such as myself it's perfectly possible (and maybe even easier) to get decent scores by not pursuing the special stage at all. Bells don't appear as frequently as in previous games, but still represent the primary means of scoring and are certainly easier to deal with when you're not focused in completing missions.

In a nutshell, Sexy Parodius is a shmup that can be made as hard as you want. Fun is likewise relative, and it might take some while to figure out the right amount of dynamic difficulty you're able to cope with, but the game's charm is undeniable. For my taste it goes a little too far with aggression just for fulfilling the proposed missions though, with the added albeit debatable drawback of the most pleasing versions of stages 3 and 4 being relegated to the failure route (I always died by mistake due to the exaggerated colors of the main 4th level, the girl factory). Minor details such as health gauges for bosses and colored bells showing descriptions when appearing are very welcome, but I missed not having a dedicated button to activate bell powers.

Once I saw how Mambo's awesome piercing laser behaved I had to have him as my character of choice, so most of my attempts at beating the game were with him. As I mentioned above, the highest score below (difficulty 4, auto mode) was achieved in my very first run after deciding to not fulfill all missions, thus refusing the see that ridiculous special stage.

Even though the Parodius series ends with Sexy Parodius, some of its traits lived on in Otomedius, which got an improved home version in Otomedius Gorgeous for the Xbox 360.