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.

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