Friday, December 29, 2023

ExZeus (Playstation 4)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hyper-Devbox / Ziggurat Interactive
Published by Limited Run Games in 2022

Talk about unexpected resurgences, and ExZeus - The Complete Collection is certainly a release that *might* have drawn some attention when coming out for recent platforms a little while ago, both digitally and also in retail form for the Nintendo Switch and the Playstation 4. This collection includes ExZeus and ExZeus 2, two rail shooters with unique approaches to the mecha motif that always flew under the radar ever since gracing the arcades, and in the case of the first game gaining obscure ports such as those made for the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Wii.

ExZeus won't set the world of any rail shooter fan on fire, but it at least has enough spectacle to get you through five stages of uneven intensity and fluctuating stakes. It all starts with the choice between three mechas with varying stats for power, speed and stamina, and then getting used to the slightly unorthodox gameplay, for rail shooters that is. At a distance ExZeus sounds like a Transformers game where you won't be able to transform at all, and up close it's a feast of in-your-face bullets, with lasers and melee attacks often killing you in the blink of an eye.

"Where did my energy meter suddenly go", you wonder? Well, you can either continue (with the unwanted benefit of not resetting your score) or start over if you're one of those players who aim for the 1CC no matter what.

Calista versus Dracaena

Button × is responsible for three inputs: fire, fire guided missiles on enemies targeted by the lock-on attack (button ○) and release the megalaser attack, a special laser burst that works with a meter that recharges over time automatically. Button □ drops the mega bomb over the screen, but you can only use it three times during the duration of any full credit. L1 and R1 provide a quick rolling maneuver left and right,  but you can also double tap in order to achieve the same effect. Items appear floating in the air from destroyed enemies, and although most of them are random at least the POWER for shot upgrades seems to show up under the same circumstances at all times while you're in need of power-ups. Take one to get a 3-way spread, then another one to max out at a 5-way horizontal spread.

The remainder of the items can be lock-on energy (if you run out of it you can't use this resource), gold tokens, booster and either shield or energy refills. The shield is the first barrier against damage and is shown in the upper left part of the HUD. Once without the shield you start losing the energy of the robot, which appears on the left side of the screen and means game over if depleted. Booster just makes you fly faster, helping you out in the time bonus at the end of the level. Finally, gold tokens accumulate in a counter for you to use in between levels in order to extend your energy, shield or lock-on meters, as well as purchase refills. Since the gold counter maxes out at 999, there's no sense in saving gold whatsoever. Watch out for the shop screen though because it opens up right over the Exit button, so try to avoid getting trigger happy there.

Gameplay in ExZeus is rather obtuse, in a clunky and unexpected way. As with any other game that requires memorization it will demand knowledge of what's coming ahead, but given how the screen might move in relation to the character (in a wider scope than what you can immediately see) adaptation is extremely important to survive. Damage is directly related to the amount of bullets or lasers that hit you in a single blow, and it's not uncommon to go from a full energy meter to the brink of death if you happen to be mass targeted. Heavy damage also powers you down one level or even two levels, sending you back to the default shot right away. When in doubt about what's coming ahead it's just better to be safe than sorry, even though you might be tempted to stay in the line of fire to destroy an enemy since all on-screen bullets fired by your target will turn into gold if you're able to kill it.

Boss fights are in a category of their own. The main strategy with all of them is finding their rhythm and pounding their weak spots in between their attacks. The further you get the more aggressive they become, of course. Just note that whenever they're blue they're invincible to regular attacks, and the only way to hit them is by using lock-on shots. On the other hand, a fully powered megalaser also renders you invincible.

Release trailer for ExZeus - The Complete Collection for the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Ziggurat Interactive)
For comparison sake, the version of ExZeus included ins this collection has some striking differences from the port that came out for the Playstation 2 in 2004. There is no rain in first stage, weapon power does not carry over to the next stage (you always start with the single shot), item prices in the shop are different (you also drop by the shop in the middle of the 4th stage, before diving into the depths of the ocean), there are more enemies overall and different details such as bulkier leaves falling from trees in stage 2 and lava spikes of just a single color in stage 3. My lucky guess is that this Playstation 4 port is based on the revised arcade iteration of the game, which ran on the Sega NAOMI board, as opposed to the original European version that served as basis for the Playstation 2 port.

As a result, the Playstation 4 version is slightly harder with less opportunities for scoring. The scoring system preserves the elementary hit counter during levels but implements a series of end-of-stage bonuses based on your performance. Available options do not include any tweaks for extra difficulties or screen swing/shaking, only the possibility to invert the Y axis and to apply a normal/cool graphic mode switch that doesn't seem to do affect anything whatsoever.

And here's my final 1CC result for ExZeus on the Playstation 4. I played with robot Sophia (blue), the most balanced of the three, but my overall impression is that maneuveratibility is still more important than brute force. In that sense, Calista (red) might be a better choice.

Coming up next: ExZeus 2.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Moon Cresta (Playstation 2)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu in 1980
Published by Hamster in 2005

When people ask me what I think about the original Space Invaders game, more often than not it's hard to disguise my disdain. Of course I do understand the importance of the game to the history of this hobby, but I cannot fathom the idea of spending hours playing such a drab shmup that has no ending. But why am I talking about the original Space Invaders anyway? The reason is that I kinda had the same impression of Moon Cresta until very recently, i.e. the idea the game was actually so primitive that it didn't warrant any serious attention.

Yet here I am, writing about it after playing the port released for the Playstation 2, no less. Moon Cresta is in volume 5 of the Oretachi Game Center budget series, a Japan-exclusive collection dedicated to emulated versions of old arcade games. Regardless of the fact that it just sounds dumb to have a full disc dedicated to this little game, at least it comes with a few nice extras such as the folder with info on the arcade board and a pair of mini-discs with original/arranged versions of the soundtrack and sample runs with extra material about this particular series.

You can get a lot of fun and thrill in this trip to the space war!

In order to differentiate themselves and present some evolution to the idea pioneered by Taito, Nichibutsu added a few tweaks to spice up the experience. Besides taking extra inspiration from Namco's Galaxian (in the way some enemies split and/or descend upon the player), Moon Cresta has a unique mechanic based on three ship sizes and a docking maneuver players are supposed to pull off in specific points of the game. Despite the simplicity of it, it's actually an ingenious way to make things more addictive and lure people into wanting to try that next credit in an era where each extra coin spent mattered in arcade centers.

The basic rule in the gameplay is that you're given exactly one shot at a time fired by a single button (any face button of the PS2 controller can be used to fire, SELECT enables the credit to be started). You get three lives, and each life comes with a different ship, or "rocket" as the game calls it. The first rocket (I) fires a pea shot, the second rocket (II) is a little larger and fires a double shot, and the third rocket (III) is even larger but fires a triple shot. If you don't die you'll be required to connect all ships during the docking parts mentioned above, which takes place for the first time after the 4th enemy wave.

During docking the mission aim is to align your current rocket with the next rocket that appears at the center of the screen during an alloted time window. The rocket falls down naturally, but if you need extra space or time to complete the maneuver just press the fire button and use the directionals to help out. A successful docking will result in a combined rocket formation that's naturally more powerful, as well as bonus points for time remaining. Failure will result in the explosion of the ship and the loss of a life. After the 7th wave, where you face a series of meteors that don't need to be fully destroyed, a second docking sequence happens for another chance at further enhancing the ship's capabilites. Note that you can lose two lives at once if you have an arrangement of two rockets and fail to land correctly over the third rocket piece!

Once the purple enemies of the 9th wave are fully destroyed a FAR OUT! message is displayed and the game loops at a higher difficulty with the smallest rocket you have in formation or in stock. In the case of a three rocket formation, for instance, the loop will start with rocket I.

A quick credit of Moon Cresta on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user ZetaMage)

All waves of Moon Cresta are so short that it's pointless to consider each one a separate level, so I always think of it as a single-stage loopable game that can be completed in around three minutes if you play well enough. A word of attention for score chasers is that scoring higher is directly related to the time bonuses of the docking sequences. That's why even though rocket III seems great for survival, it just isn't good for score because you won't get into any docking sequence with it. Achieving 30.000 points gives you a complete free game for your current credit, which means you preserve your score and start the game over from the first wave once your last ship is destroyed (the message ENJOY ANOTHER GAME appears as a signal of this unique feature).

Despite the relatively disjointed nature of the first couple of waves and the rudimentary mix of music cues and sound effects, the looping feature and the embrionary but engaging stage design presented in Moon Cresta definitely puts the game in a different category from Space Invaders and its several endless copycats. It's one of those classics that haven't aged that bad, and while not as flashy or loud as Konami's Scramble it still stands on its own in terms of immediate and quick fun. Several home ports came out besides this PS2 version, the PS1 being a particularly interesting iteration that deserves special attention (more on that in the near future, I hope). Moon Cresta was followed by pseudo-sequel Terra Cresta, in an unexpected series that went on across several systems and platforms.
Click for the option menus translation for Moon Cresta on the PS2

No functional difference exists between the Japanese and English versions of the game that are included in this PS2 release. As you can see from the Options translation above a TATE orientation is included, so that's obviously the best way to enjoy the game if possible, even though fullscreen YOKO is just fine for what the game has to offer. That's how I played it for a couple of evenings to get the high score below, finishing the credit in loop 4.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Detana!! TwinBee (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

Upon a brief research, I just found out that Detana!! TwinBee is actually the fifth chapter in the bell-juggling cute'em up series. Between TwinBee 3 for the Famicom and this one there's also TwinBee Da! for the Game Boy, a title I had completely forgotten about but that's also available in a revamped colored version for the Playstation Portable. Detana!! is the first real arcade entry since the original TwinBee, and represents a huge leap in graphics and audio quality from everything that came prior, in a massive overhaul that sort of kicked the series into a new era that spawned several products across a multitude of genres and styles.

Speaking of shmups only, Detana!! is the third to last TwinBee game ever released. During the 32-bit video game generation it was bundled with final chapter TwinBee Yahho! in the TwinBee Deluxe Pack disc that came out for the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn. Pop'n TwinBee, the Super Famicom game released between Detana!! and Yahho!, is out of this compilation for obvious reasons. These three games share the same high standards established by Konami at its creative peak, and in the case of Detana!! TwinBee, also known as Bells & Whistles out of Japan, I have nothing but praise for the sheer creativity, the exquisite use of colors and the incredibly catchy soundtrack.

And for a guy that always had some serious gripes with the bell mechanics, I admit the gameplay deserves some sort of positive endorsement. Most of the time it's at least less irksome than it was in TwinBee, and that's saying something. A cute backstory and quick character panels between levels are also there for those who fancy this sort of thing, which admittedly acquired a whole new dimension after this particular chapter.

Where have both my arms gone, TwinBee?

Even though the Playstation port of Detana!! TwinBee lacks a TATE mode, the horizontal stretching of the screen isn't that bad to cope with. From the practice rounds I had in MAME, I'd say the game is otherwise pretty much arcade perfect. I certainly missed the possibility to map autofire to the shoulder buttons of the Playstation controller though. The game only allows the configuration of face buttons, and in the default setting you get shot in button ×, rapid shot in button □, bomb in button ○ and rapid bomb in button ∆. Considering you must use a lot of the regular shot, I was fortunate for being able to play well with these default conditions. Holding shot is after all the best new resource the player has against some bosses and many of those cute enemies showering down from above in deadly flocks.

This new charge shot just doesn't work against ground enemies, which is naturally expected. To destroy them you need to use bombs dropped by the tiny hands of bumblebee android characters TwinBee (P1 side, blue) and WinBee (P2 side, pink), respectively controlled by pilots Light and Pastel. Their hands can get hit and lost, which then diminishes the ability to destroy ground targets. If both hands are gone an ambulance crosses the screen once per level to repair them (if you lose them again before the level is complete you won't be able to hit ground enemies anymore). Aerial firepower, on the other hand, can be upgraded in several different ways both by juggling bells coming out from clouds or by collecting specific ground items.

Bell are, as usual, the foundation of the gameplay in Detana!! TwinBee. The very first one is yellow, but it changes its color once it takes five hits. New to the series, the order of the color change is fixed and transfers to all subsequent bells you're able to hit, starting with white (twin shot), blue (speed-up), green (trailing options), red (barrier), purple (tail barrier, solidifies your options and makes them cancel bullets and damage enemies) and finally black (speed-down) before initiating a new cycle. Colors you've already activated are replaced with yellow bells, and you just can't have red and purple at the same time. Last but not least, all yellow bells taken without letting any fall down the screen increase their value in steps of 500, 1.000, 2.500, 5.000 and 10.000 points (max). If one bell is lost the chain value is reset.

Most ground items consist of fruit and vegetables for points, with a few extra ones appearing randomly. The ground bell gives you a 3-way shot and the star is a smart bomb that deals damage to all enemies on screen. GwinBee is special because when taken it hugs and flies alongside you while immensely boosting your firepower. The charge shot, for instance, gets wider and much more powerful. The downside is that the hitbox, which is already big for the regular character, gets even bigger. Much like your arms, GwinBee is instantly lost if hit by a bullet or an enemy.

Welcome to the Valley of the Wind on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Despite the cute looks, the fluffy music and the deceivingly low bullet count, Detana!! TwinBee is a very cruel game for a series of reasons. The first couple of levels aren't exactly demanding, but soon enough all caveats of the gameplay start to show up. First of all, each and every power-up you take increases rank by a certain margin, which means that the more beefed up you get the harder the game becomes. It's naturally full of traps such as enemies materializing out of nowehere or quickly zapping into the screen as you're about to pick up a bell or just trying to get the best of an incoming cloud, an aspect that eventually beats you down to the point of completely discouraging excessive greed unless you have a solid route to score and survive at the same time. Getting back up after dying is extremely difficult, and since there are absolutely no extends this is another case where you'll absolutely end up aiming at a 1-life clear of the first loop. As for the second loop, it's probably one of the hardest things ever conceived even for the most hardcore of hardcore shmup players.

I believe that finding the balance between the use of charge shots and rapid shot is one of the keys to success in beating the first loop. Well placed charge shots do wonders, but in the second half of the game you can get easily overwhelmed if you let enemies live long enough. Some will turn back and ram into you if you let them go by. While a few bosses require charge shots and good timing to be properly beaten (that tentacle boss of the 4th stage is a serious offender), it's just better to fire away against others for a faster and cleaner fight. And regardless of your power-up strategy, the purple bell is simply mandatory no matter what. It's a life saver due to its ability to block even the most threatening enemy attacks, such as those V-shaped projectiles fired by a series of crab-like creatures in the final level.

Detana!! TwinBee might be too hard to actually be fun in the long run, but tough gameplay aside it never feels unfair. Sure, you can still feel royally screwed by taking an unwanted speed-down or dying stupidly while trying to get an item, but to the game's defense bullet count is never overwhelming in the first loop and the challenge level never spikes out of nowhere like in TwinBee. I played in the default difficulty (medium / 4) and got the top result below after dying horribly in stage 2-1 against that duo of materializing grape stems. I forced myself not to fret over lost bells and beat the first loop in a single life, as planned.

A port of Detana!! came out for the PC Engine shortly after the arcade release, and the beautiful pastel shades presented in this game would be put to a much milder experience two years later in Pop'n TwinBee for the Super Famicom, which in my opinion is the true highlight of the TwinBee series.