Friday, September 29, 2023

Space Elite Force (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rising Moon Games
Published by QUByte Game Studio / Red Art Games in 2023

A tiny little shooter developed by a tiny indie company, Space Elite Force comes bundled with its sequel in the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 package, recently honored with a retail release for the Playstation 4. I could state that a secondary honor is to be featured here thanks to the curiosity that moved my daughter and I to try out the game on a whim during a lazy Saturday. We did get along with it during the short time we had, and she was even able to follow me along in co-op until some of the boss fights. Given this good first impression, later on that night I decided to get back to the game and see what else it had in store in a serious solo run.

Space Elite Force is a straightforward shooter with little flair for backgrounds and not much variety as far as the enemy gallery goes. The good news is that it doesn't do anything wrong with these assets, which can be considered a strong positive in light of some of the dreadful disfigurements that many recent independent games sell as innovations. Get the basics right and offer decent fun from start to finish, never mind the game not being tailored to the hardcore audience that's always hungry for seemingly undodgeable bullet curtains.

In a nutshell, Space Elite Force is great for beginners. Often compared to Steredenn - Binary Starts in how it looks, even though I also see throwbacks to Aegis Wing here and there, the game is otherwise much more simple and straightforward. It's beatable in a single short session and can be played with a friend sharing power-ups, with good dodging fun, no complicated mechanics, no inertia for the ship and a gentle difficulty slope across seven stages. The sound design is by the book and follows along nicely.

Planetary dust rings, lasers and space carriers

The start of the game pays homage to Star Wars in the introduction story section, and once you skip it the action starts. Default inputs consist of button × for the main weapon, button □ for the secondary weapon and button R1 to slow down the ship (a third button for an extra weapon appears in the options but it's never used, probably something the developers forgot to exclude and nobody cares about). Both weapons come with autofire, but note that you can't use them at the same time. The secondary weapon takes precedence, so under normal conditions a balance needs to be achieved between shooting the main weapon and tapping the secondary weapon when needed, after all it's more powerful but has a much lower firing rate.

As you destroy the enemy armada tiny dots are left behind and get automatically sucked into the ship when you get close enough to them. This is the money that you'll be able to spend in between levels to purchase upgrades to both weapons and the ship itself. Expected upgrades exist for the starting pea shooter and the auxiliary missile, such as double, triple and spread shots or more powerful, versatile heat-seeking missiles as well as mines and piercing shots. A little catch is that you can only choose one of each prior to starting the next stage. Ship enhancements include reduction of enemy bullet speed, increased resistance to damage, more health and more temporary power-ups, and the good news here is that all these upgrades are permanently applied to the ship (or ships when in co-op). Another great touch when playing with a friend is that all weapon purchases are available to both players, and each one can configure his/her ship differently before going into the next mission.

Lives are treated as a single health meter that gets refilled every time a new stage starts, and if this meter reaches zero the game is over. When you begin the game you get 10 health cells on Normal, whereas on Hardcore you get 5. Lost health can be recovered within the level if you happen to come by the + item that appears from destroyed power-up carriers. These carriers might also release temporary power-ups in the form of a rotating shield, firepower boosters (a lightning bolt), money magnets (attracts money dots from all over the screen) or an extra score multiplier of ×2. The regular multiplier is shown below the score counter and increases as you kill enemies in succession, decreasing slowly whenever nothing is being destroyed and faster when you get hit. The secret to cranking it up is taking advantage of those waves of small enemies that appear from time to time, then surfing the rest of the level while trying not to destroy everything too quickly.

With a combination of all kinds of aimed shots and spread patterns, as well as lasers and enemies coming from all sides, which is always properly warned by exclamation signs at the borders of the screen, Space Elite Force's gameplay is as solid as it gets, if only too simple at times. All bosses have a health bar that tell you when they're about to die, I just felt they could be a little more menacing. Some of the later bosses are easier than the initial ones, for instance. This is one of the examples where the game could've use some fine tuning, but there's also the slight visual confusion when the magnet power-up is on and showers of coins start coming from the other side of the screen amidst enemy fire. Both points are minor though and shouldn't be taken as real issues.

Trailer for the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 combo for the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

In spite of how well it plays and feels, Space Elite Force does have a few functional shortcomings. While I do appreaciate the way power-ups are implemented in the regular game modes, Infinity mode is an inexplicable alternate experience where you play randomly generated levels and bosses one after the other, but power-ups can only be acquired by dying and ending the credit. Then you start again with the new equipment, and the only way to upgrade any further is to keep dying over and over. Another botched feature is the ranking table. There's no local ranking, and the online rankings for all modes were never updated for me even though I was able to place myself amongst the meager slots available for high scores.

Anyway, since we're talking about the Playstation 4 we all know you can easily record footage as you play. By doing that I was able to extract the final result below before it quickly disappeared from the screen, playing in Hard(core) mode. Hopefully soon I'll get the chance to try Space Elite Force II.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Burai Fighter (NES)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by KID / Taxan
Published by Taxan in 1990

An arena shooter disguised as a horizontal with a great fantasy theme, anyone? Burai Fighter is the answer, and a rather good one too. Often compared to the likes of S.C.A.T. and Abadox, this game might in fact be the best of this bunch for a series of reasons. We can start by mentioning the solid action and the creative design, two characteristics that shine and help make this a highlight of the NES library, even a hidden gem of sorts. The multidirectional aspect of the gameplay is another feature that's tightly implemented and should please those who don't feel comfortable with rotating control mechanics such as those seen in Forgotten Worlds, for example.

Quick curiosity: the game was later ported to the Game Boy as Burai Fighter Deluxe, and to the Game Boy Color as Burai Fighter Color in Japan and Space Marauder in the West.

A powerful race of aliens called Burai is bent on conquering the universe, deploying all sorts of robotic mutants throughout the galaxy. The player is the only hope of mankind as a lone fighter piloting a proton pack, so off you go bring justice to the strangest confines of the universe armed with a main gun activated by button B and an assortment of bombs triggered with button A. By aiming and keeping button B pressed you lock your shot in any of the eight available directions, a resource that gives players a lot of freedom in how they want to tackle the different environments across seven increasingly harder stages. If you wish, a simple password feature allows you to start the game in any stage, just take note of them as the stage is about to begin.

Fight the evil Burai!
(courtesy of YouTube user NesShortGameplays)
Special items can appear simply floating in the air or from carrier pods that must be hit in their center orb to be destroyed. These pods keep changing their position at regular intervals while closing in on the player, so beware not to die by failing to destroy them in time. The most important items are weapon power-ups, which give you special powers depending on their letters: laser (L), missile (M) and ring (R). Each one has three power levels related to the amount of items you collect (1, 5 and 10/A). Weapons are upgraded separately just by taking items, and at maximum power they all acquire very efficient spread patterns (X-shaped for laser/missile and 3-way + one rear shot for ring). The missile is the only one that mandatorily fires forward (to the right) in its initial form, the other ones follow your firing direction. The ring shot is the only one that can go through walls.

Other important items are the speed-up (S) and the rotation pod, which looks like a spiky object (watch out, at first I thought it was harmful and avoided it for a few credits). The pod rotates around the player and destroys enemies on contact, but is incapable of shielding you from bullets. Additional pod items will make it rotate faster. As for speed-ups, from my experience two of them are fine to play the whole game. If you take more than that controlling the character might become a problem when there are too many enemies or dead corners around, after all you can also die by screen-crushing. Deaths reset the power of the weapon you're currently using and send you back to a previous checkpoint.

"Cobalt" bombs are acquired by collecting the red orbs left behind by destroyed enemies. For each white mark in the bomb meter you get one cobalt bomb that can be detonated with button A, wiping bullets and killing all regular enemies in the screen (there is no effect on bosses though). If you keep accumulating bombs and reach the EXTRA mark you earn a new life and the bomb meter is reset. Even though it's tempting to avoid bombing to get extra lives, it's always best to use them if the going gets tough. That's especially true when you realize there's a better way to gain more lives, which is simply related to scoring. A new one is obtained at every 100.000 points, and there's also the possibility of finding free extra lives in the form of 1UP items.

With practically no slowdown and tolerable bouts of flicker, Burai Fighter is a joy to play once you get the hang of the basic gameplay. The screen scrolls in all directions, and there isn't a single instance that makes you feel that you died cheaply. Of course it's better to stay in the center of the screen until you get used to the stage layouts. There seems to be an obvious inspiration from Irem, given the vague similarities with titles such as X-Multiply (level 2) and Image Fight (level 5). You do get two completely different levels in stages 3 and 6, which unfold in a top-view perspective. The objective there is to find and destroy a turret base as you move around non-stop, just like in the overhead levels of Thunder Force II.

At the beginning of the overhead stages a radar appears showing the location of the base relative to yours. In the words of the instruction manual: be careful to remember your location and the location of the base, because if you don't you might wander the barren cosmos for all eternity. The map rolls over itself, so if the base is up there and you're down below just move down to find it easily instead of going all the way up.

Ascending the platforms of stage 5

Ten hidden rooms can be found throughout the game, but getting access to all of them is actually a mystery. The one that appears in the first stage is clearly visible, but as much as I tried I couldn't make the screen go up to enter it, not even once in all my time playing the game. I did get to access the small detour to the left with a 1UP in the descent phase of stage 2 a few times, but I have no idea how I triggered it. In any case these hidden rooms aren't really important in the long run since all you need to succeed is provided in the regular paths of the game anyway.

Although it's not exceedingly hard Burai Fighter does have a few tense checkpoints such as the one that leads to last boss Slimedragon. Dodging his molten rock fireballs can be a pain, but note that by using ring the fight doesn't drag for too long. In fact, the instruction manual mentions that each boss has one weapon as weakness. Besides that, it's also very useful to abuse point blanking for faster kills. The fourth boss won't even get to the middle of the screen if you hammer his weak spot at close range with laser. End-of-stage bonuses multiply your weapon levels by a certain amount of points depending on the difficulty, doubling these numbers if the weapon is maxed out. In the Normal difficulty (Albatross) the maximum bonus is 120.000 points, for example, whereas on Hard (Ace) it's 300.000 points, which is  also equivalent to three extra lives. Unfortunately the scoring system is broken because you can just wander around forever in the overhead stages killing hordes of enemies, in what's the only true reprimand that can be given to Burai Fighter. The music might be another undignified feature, but while not memorable it's at least decent.

By beating Burai Fighter on Normal (Albatross) the game teases you with a graphic ending before starting again on Hard (Ace). A panel with the character looking at the colorful horizon is finally shown upon beating the game on Hard, but then it loops again in another final difficulty called Ultimate. The high score below was achieved starting on Hard and ending in stage 6 of the second loop (Ultimate). Sadly I wasn't able to recover once I died there.

Monday, September 4, 2023

GG Aleste II (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile in 1993
Published by M2 in 2020

Okay, time to resume the Game Gear Aleste saga brought to the spotlight again by M2 in the Aleste Collection. GG Aleste II follows on the footsteps of GG Aleste as Alice Pfeiffer, cousin of previous protagonist Ellinor, boards the cockpit of the Lance Bird prototype space fighter in order to restore peace in another fight for the future fate of the Earth. Some folks are remarkably keen on knowing more than that about the story, but I'd say it's enough to set up the premise and the mood for some more 8-bit handheld shooting action blown up to the big screen in this relatively odd entry in the Shottriggers revival series.

As we can see from the intermission screen when you boot the PS4 disc, GG Aleste II was also released as Power Strike II in Europe, a title that's totally unrelated to Power Strike II for the Master System. For all purposes both Game Gear variants are exactly the same bar the title, so go figure why have both in the disc. Perhaps to propagate the confusion with this series even further? No matter how much I think I'm familiar with this franchise I still find myself quite confused every now and then. That's why it's much better to just play these games and shoot mindlessly, regardless of how similar they all feel at first glance.

Lance Bird departs into the Space Plant wielding the Hammer hawk
Yes, on the surface GG Aleste II is a lot like GG Aleste. Stage design seems to be all over the place and can't help but feel generic, yet the game compensates all of that with intense action and a few cool bosses. There are some crucial differences between both games though, starting with the reduced amount of air across all six levels and two bonus areas that unfold like a rail shooter after stages 2 and 4. The basic rule of upgrading the main shot and the auxiliary weapon separately still applies though. Power chips are released in groups of four from specific drones and slowly increase the ship's main shot, whereas a P icon powers up the auxiliary weapon. These are reduced to only four this time: N (Neo napalm gun), H (Hammer hawk, your quintessential homing shot), R (Rising masher, laser beams) and D (Delta form, a series of options that surround and protect the ship in a triangle formation).

The auxiliary weapon needs 3 Ps to be maxed out, and upon coining the credit you're allowed to select which one will be initially used. At the start of the game and at every respawn after dying you're also equipped with one G-Strike bomb, a powerful blast with a ripple effect that damages everything on screen. That is the second button input you have in GG Aleste II, the first one being the regular shot of course. Note that this bomb doesn't give you invincibility, so don't expect to survive impossible odds with it. However, as in pretty much all Compile games of the Aleste series, split second invincibility is still in place for every item you collect.

Besides the bomb, other new gameplay features are related to the continuous collection of power chips. The ship receives a 1-hit shield whenever 20 chips are collected (the front hull aqcuires a blue thick outline). If you continue to pick up chips while the shield is active this counter will stop at 19, meaning that upon death the very first chip taken will grant you another shield. In parallel, an extra G-Strike bomb is granted for every 32 chips you're able to collect. Both the shield and the extra bombs highlight the importance of the gadgets prepared by M2 for this port, which allow you to track how many chips you need to receive the extra resources. If you play the game on an original Game Gear you'll never have an exact idea of when they might be coming, unless you're an expert at keeping count of things amidst the shooting mayhem.

GG Aleste II by M2, from the second boss to the end of the third stage
(courtesy of YouTube user alienparadox)

Though not by a large margin, GG Aleste II is certainly harder than the first game. It's still an easy fun clear, but some bosses can definitely take you by surprise with a few tricky attack patterns. Another way of getting the clear more easily is by sticking to the Napalm gun as your auxiliary weapon of choice, since the napalm spreads are capable of cancelling all regular enemy bullets. Saving bombs for the hardest sections is also a good strategy because the bomb stock is not depleted upon death, a very rare treat when it comes down to shmups (if you have at least one bomb in stock you don't get another bomb with a new life though). Finally, dying is an event that's not that harsh since you lose only one power level for each shot type. Just don't die twice or three times in a row and you'll get back up quite quickly.

The routine for score-based extends starts with 50.000 points and continues with 100.000 and 500.000 points. After that a new extend is registered at every 500.000 points. An item-based extra life can be found easily in stage 3 by destroying all space debris halfway into the level.

Click for the option menus translation for GG Aleste II in the Aleste Collection

Pretty much all the options for GG Aleste II are the same as those for GG Aleste. including the screen settings and interesting tweaks such as several steps for rapid fire and "comfort mode", which eliminates the original flicker and slowdown. I just wish M2 had added a language switch so that we wouldn't have to go into the trouble of translating everything, but alas! It's fine as it is, I guess.

My best 1CC score below was achieved in the Normal difficulty with comfort mode set to ON. I didn't tinker with rapid fire settings because they messed up the efficiency of the napalm gun. Since you can theoretically exploit bosses with no time limit for item carriers, M2 considered GG Aleste II broken and only allowed completion time as a method to track the player's performance, just like they did with GG Aleste. However, climbing up the online leaderboards in the sequel is a lot harder to do because it requires uncommon strategies such as suiciding in order to have more bombs available.

Next: GG Aleste III.