Saturday, October 28, 2023

Granada (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wolfteam
Published by Renovation in 1990

Ever since Tank and Combat were released by Atari for its arcade and home systems during the 70s, the idea of controlling tanks in a video game wasn't as engrossing as most other motifs but resulted in a few directly inspired titles such as Grobda and Assault. The multidirectional gameplay then branched into similar approaches such as Smash TV and Robotron 2084, but none of these titles were really friendly towards players since they're nothing more than massive quarter-munchers at their core. That's why Granada felt so fresh from the start, after all it's a tank-based shooter where you definitely feel success is a possibility despite its fair share of obstacles.

The Mega Drive version is a port of the original game released for the X68000 home computer system, and as far as I know represents an improvement except for the amount of onscreen colors and the lack of cut scenes. The gameplay on the Mega Drive is faster and more dynamic all around, generally throwing more obstacles at the player as well as a brand new stage (7th). The sound design is a debatable subject though, yet you can't go wrong with another nice soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba. Even if it isn't in the same league as other Wolfteam games like Sol-Deace or El Viento, the soundtrack to Granada is definitely one of the highlights of the game.

How to get the secret cannon blaster upgrade in stage 2
(courtesy of YouTube user про игры)

Every stage in Granada takes place in a confined area shown in the radar map at the lower corner of the screen. Inside the map red dots indicate your targets, which range from simple turrets to tanks and larger bases, depending on the level. Only after all targets are destroyed you'll be able to fight the stage boss, in a progression of nine levels that take you through both ground and aerial bases with varying degrees of difficulty. You have four lives with 15 energy cells each to get through the game in the Normal difficulty, and once all of them are depleted the journey is over. There are absolutely no energy refills and no extra lives to be found, so do your best to remain unharmed and preserve energy for the hardest parts of the game.

In order to achieve success a balance needs to be stricken between agressiveness and caution. Default controls work with A for shot, B for locking/strafing and C for the cannon blaster, a single burst attack that's more powerful than the regular shot. In the Options screen you can also switch the rotation setting to "slow", but there's no reason to do that since you definitely need agility when dealing with hordes of enemies coming from all sides. Controls work like a charm and service the fast pace of the game really well, an aspect that's sort of unexpected if you're coming from older tank-based games. Here we're talking about a highly advanced armored tank after all, but I can't help but feel something is off when I see it bounce and glide so fast at times. It just feels too light, and in my opinion a better sound design could've certainly alleviated this impression.

Regardless of the initial impression, Granada is a game that tends to grow on you. It's definitely a slow burner, one that becomes really engaging once players start to complete levels with little to no damage taken. Eventually you'll end up devising optimal routes for each stage, not only to tackle the necessary targets but also to collect and use special weaponry that enhances your basic firepower. Known as "support units", they might appear as reflector squares, homing missiles, boomerang discs, explosive bombs and spinning balls. These additional weapons are only active during the level in which they were collected except for the secret item found in stage 2, which is active for the whole credit. In order to get it head to the end of the left large wing right away and move towards the thin extension down below, hovering at its very tip for a few seconds. A flying item will appear and sink into the tank, doubling the power of the cannon blaster. The recoil becomes even stronger, so watch out whenever you're blasting the cannon while standing on borderless surfaces. Falls are fatal and make you lose a whole life instantly.

One particular quirk of Granada is that generally you don't suffer any damage by touching enemies, only by being hit. Some attacks might take more than one energy cell though. Boss fights are in a category of their own since their routines vary considerably. Some cycle through several attack patterns, others expose weak spots after a while. Glaring exceptions are the 4th boss and the need to bounce your firepower on walls to hit him from an angle, and also the 5th boss, which can be easily destroyed by going behind him and firing away. The hardest fight happens against the 6th boss and its multiple detachments, which represent the first big wall players need to climb in their quest for the 1CC. Well-placed blasters should do the trick there, but the fight can quickly deteriorate into a panic feast if you don't keep your cool.

Having a showdown against the 3rd boss

When speaking about the scoring system, the simplicity of Granada can actually be a little deceiving. In short, it rewards players who take more risks while preserving health, don't procrastinate (cannon blasters make you move faster backwards!) and suicide when needed. Since each life is timed and time completion is the most important factor in the end-of-stage bonus, exploiting this to maximize the score is just a matter of bringing the boss to the brink of defeat and then dying by timeout, finishing it off as soon as you're respawned with a full timer. The bonus is a simple multiplication of the remaining time × 100 × difficulty factor × stage number. On Easy and Normal settings the difficulty factor is 1, whereas on Hard and Mania it gets boosted to 2 and 3 respectively.

I played the game in the Normal difficulty to get the high score below. A known bug of the Mega Drive version is the lack of the last bonus for the final stage, which isn't computed in the final score. I'll settle with this result though. I could certainly play a little more to refine my strategies, especially in the final level, but alas... It's time to move on. So many games to play, so little time!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Nanotek Warrior (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tetragon
Published by Virgin Interactive in 1997

In the 23rd century nanotechnology is so advanced that starts to turn against the human kind, with nanorobots creating nanocolonies to dominate the galaxy. The player takes the role of the commander of a new class of remote-controllable nanowar machines, navigating through nanotubes in a desperate attempt to destroy eight mega nanobosses. Yes, there are lots of mentions to "nano" everywhere when you check out the instruction manual to this game but make no mistake, there's nothing "nano" about the gameplay of another unsuspectedly decent entry in the Playstation shmup library.

Not counting Tempest X3, which is in a league of its own in terms of gameplay, Nanotek Warrior is part of the tube shooter trifecta of the Playstation platform and is certainly recommended, as is iS - Internal Section. These games are often dismissed as old 3D novelties, but suffice it to say that all of them (including N2O - Nitrous Oxide, which I still haven't played) are more approachable than any rail shooter of the same era for a very simple reason: they behave just like fixed shooters set on a scrolling torus. Released in all main gaming regions, Nanotek Warrior is a great example of how to implement such a concept, providing solid fun, good hit detection and a difficulty slope that feels natural, even offering the ability to practice individual levels with a simple but efficient password feature (the existence of a password system obviously means that the game has no saving functionalities).

Checkpoints are determined by rings of light along the tube

Don't get frightened by the control settings of Nanotek Warrior, which offers no less than 14 variations of button layouts. Half of them are labeled "flight" and the other half "arcade". The only difference between them is that the vertical directions are normal for arcade and inverted for flight. Then you have inputs for shot, jump and special attack, as well as strafe and bank, which always work with the shoulder/trigger buttons. Strafe is a weird designation since you're actually always strafing while navigating the game tubes – what it does is actually fire one single diagonal shot towards the chosen direction. Bank makes the ship fly vertically on its wings for approximately one second. While strafing is quite useful throughout the whole game, banking is only needed in the final stages, and even so quite sparingly (you can do without it, honestly). Finally, by pressing up and down you can accelerate and slow down the speed of the ship.

As you slide both outside and inside the nanotubes (mostly outside), an energy bar allows the ship to take some damage, but if this bar is depleted a life is lost and you get sent back to a checkpoint. Enemies and obstacles will require the use of pretty much all basic inputs mentioned above. Sometimes it's just not enough to dodge, you will have to jump or even jump while accelerating or slowing down. Good timing is required to pass through giant fans, laser gates or horizontal barriers without getting hit, whereas tiny ramps are strategically positioned to help you jump even higher, in most cases with the purpose of allowing the collection of otherwise unreachable items.

Speaking of which, items come in three colors. Yellow ones recover lost energy. Red ones provide the ship with an assortment of special attacks, including scattering bombs, piercing wave shots, forward-clearing ground blasts and outward boomerang-like shards. Some of them will also endow the ship with a temporary 3-way shot (additionally, whenever a few selected enemies are destroyed the default single shot gets upgraded to a two-shot blast). Regardless of how you end a stage, the next one will start with a full energy bar and no special attacks. Finally, the green item gives you an extra life. Besides that, score-based extends are granted at every 100.000 points you're able to score.

An aspect that deviates from the rest of the game are the boss fights. They all take place inside a chamber instead of over a running tube, in what the game calls "orbit" mode. You need to fly around the boss, dodging its attacks and aiming at weak spots. While some bosses are easy, a few of them can be quite tricky due to the weird perspective of orbit mode. In order to circumvent that my strategy was to move a lot either hugging the top or the bottom of the screen, and always take out smaller satellites before targeting the boss itself. Besides making the battle easier, most satellites release either yellow or red items.

A full credit of Nanotek Warrior
(courtesy of YouTube user Completionator)

With eight very distinctly themed stages, Nanotek Warrior leans towards a dark design that takes advantage of varied textures and lighting effects. It feels a little gritty overall, but everything moves along nicely with no hiccups whatsoever. The game might feel longer than it actually is due to the duration of checkpoints and the presence of two bonus levels after stages 3 and 6 that play a lot like the bonus areas of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (!). Some checkpoints are very short while others, such as the starting checkpoint of the final stage, can be excruciatingly long. Another source of dynamic halts can be mid-bosses, which show up twice in each level and reappear once in the last stage. All of them can be safely taken out with well-established strategies and some practice. Practicing is in fact very much needed from stage 6 onwards due to a noticeable leap in difficulty.

Decent gameplay aside, it's just a little disappointing that Nanotek Warrior can't be played for score. All extra lives keep reappearing in the same place if you die, which means players can exploit checkpoints indefinitely to achieve higher scores. Since you do get lots of extra lives just by regular game progression, the impression is that final success is always around the corner the closest you get to the finish line. On a final note, since the techno music often seems engulfed by sound effects, it might be good to tinker with the sound balance in the options.
Without any checkpoint milking I barely surpassed one million points in my successful attempt to the 1CC the game in the Normal difficulty, as seen in the picture below (I used the "flight B" control setup). It was a fun and fulfilling ride nonetheless. The ending shows a nice animation where the blue ship is upgraded to a red ship, and if you use the bonus password the game gives you the credit will then start with this new ship. It comes with a brand new 3-way pattern instead of the default single shot, as well as infinite special attacks that cycle through all types endlessly (red items are all replaced by the point tokens of the bonus levels). For quite a satisfying spectacle of destruction one might as well have the special attack button set to permanent turbofire! Just for reference, the bonus password I got for the Normal difficulty was ×□×□□○×∆×.