Sunday, April 7, 2024

Terra Cresta (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu
Published by Vic Tokai in 1990


Most well known port of the arcade game, the Japanese Famicom version of Terra Cresta came out very soon after the debut of the original in 1986, whereas the NES version came out in early 1990. Even though this long interval between ports might have hurt the reach of the game in the West, my impression as an old gamer arriving quite late to the party is that it's still well regarded among most NES fans I happen to know. That's just another testament to the huge appreciation the platform had in its heyday and still has to this day, I'm quite sure.

What I do know is that the spaceship dogfight of the century, as indicated by the game's box art, is actually quite faithful to its arcade roots, retaining everything about the original gameplay whilst obviously simplifying the assets and the challenge around 8-bit restraints. It still looks simplistic in the grand scheme of things, yet it certainly feels like the arcade game at home – a worthy development over the primitive experience of Moon Cresta and a very welcome evolution to the graphical style first presented in Xevious.

Wave formation attack against giant desert lizards
 
At the center of Terra Cresta's gameplay is the gimmick of collecting extra parts of the spaceship and enhancing its firepower with them, as well as deploying these parts in specific formations in order to have a greater edge against the enemies that have taken over the planet. The barren and desolate grounds are also filled with weird creatures and all sorts of turrets, from the type you can see from afar to those that will only emerge when you're too close to them, sometimes also protected by solid obstacles. If you see numbers close to larger hatches you'll know that hitting all of them will release extra ship parts. With each extra part collected the ship gets bigger but is also upgraded with extra resources such as more powerful frontal shots, a rear shot and a rear shield that damages enemies on contact.

Firing is accomplished by pressing button B in the controller. Button A is reserved for the activation of the formation attack, provided you have it in stock. This is indicated by the F icons displayed in the lower part of the screen, which appear whenever a ship part is collected. The number of parts you have affects the firing pattern of the formation attack: two ship parts result in a dual formation that fires a wave-like arch, three ship parts generate a triangle that heavily increases your firing coverage, a four ship formation is similar but adds orbs that move forward in a circular motion, and the attack for five ship parts looks like the one for three ships only slightly more powerful. Finally, if you manage to get all parts without dying the ship will turn into an invincible phoenix for the duration of a formation attack.

Most of the danger in Terra Cresta comes from enemies appearing from behind. It can also be troublesome to recover from some checkpoints if you need to face bosses with no upgrades at all. Occasional slowdown and flicker happens if the screen gets filled with enemies, most notably those waves with lots of drones that come into the screen in a circular motion. Getting hit can either kill you instantly or destroy parts of your ship, a move that's necessary if you'd like to get the phoenix again. After all, once all ship parts are taken the numbered hatches stop showing up. Formation attacks are certainly more useful against bosses, but remember that whenever a new ship part is taken you get a full stock of three Fs to use. Therefore you don't need to be stingy with formation attacks if you see a new ship part coming up for grabs.

Transforming for great justice!
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

Since Terra Cresta is actually a continuous stroll with no interruptions whatsoever, I consider it a one-loop game where the loop checkpoint is the third and largest boss, a huge mecha that fires slow-moving fists that overlap with regular bullets. There are two other bosses that appear prior to that, but they're smaller and in general less demanding. All of them time out and leave the screen if the fight drags for too long. Each loop takes roughly ten minutes to be completed if you don't die too much, and after a few times playing Terra Cresta it becomes clear that the terrain tends to repeat itself in predictable arrangements. Even though the point of entry of most aerial enemies is still random and an increase in difficulty is expected in further loops, it's hard not to be bothered by the repetitive nature of the game design.

The first extend is given when you score 30.000 points, and for each 50.000 points afterwards you get another extra life (you'll hear a distinct sound cue when it happens). A weird detail is that you can only see your life stock right at the start of the game of after dying. And while a graphic compromise had to be made for the larger bosses, which appear in black screens instead of the normal terrain, the phoenix form of the ship comes with a short music snippet that plays only in this version. The most interesting feature of the NES port, however, is the ability to alter formation patterns in the "Design" options both in terms of ship part location and shot direction. I never bothered to tinker with it.

If I remember correctly, in the high score below I was able to reach the 7th loop using the default formation patterns. I must mention that in order to have at least a decent time with this game a turbo controller is definitely recommended. Terra Cresta has no autofire at all, and trying to play it with no additional help is definitely a no-go. Unless you're a purist or a masochist, of course.


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Space Invaders '91 (Mega Drive)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
18 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1991


In the long running franchise that kickstarted the shmup genre in the end of the 70's, pretty much every single gaming platform has its own port or variation of the title that started it all. The interesting thing about the Mega Drive in this case is that the console was one of the few systems that were honored with a unique entry in the form of Space Invaders 90, which appeared first in Japan and was rebaptized as Space Invaders '91 for its release for the Sega Genesis in the West. Contrary to what you'd normally think, this one has no relation with the arcade game Super Space Invaders '91, also known as Majestic Twelve - Space Invaders Part IV.

The main formula is the same of the original game, but the Mega Drive chapter is special for a series of reasons. One of them is that Space Invaders '91 has a proper ending once you manage to beat all 18 stages, each one comprised of two sections (or scenes) set in all sorts of different backdrops. Which, of course, serve no purpose at all except for setting the tone according to the name given to each specific stage/planet. Another important feature is the soundtrack, an engaging set of tunes by the same composer who worked on the amazing port of Zero Wing for the Mega Drive. 

The Super Crusher (S-Crusher) is the first item you get from the first UFO

Shooting is accomplished with buttons A or C. Except for a few special conditions you can only have one shot per screen at any given time, which of course is a good reason for players to get a turbo controller. If applicable, button B is used to activate special items. As you move laterally you'll need to dodge straight shots fired by the lines of invaders from above, as well as variations such as diagonal shots, fire-like homing bullets and even lasers. Getting hit doesn't kill you instantly because you get a small health/shield bar that can sustain some damage, just note that a few enemy attacks drain more energy than others such as the abovementioned laser. You die by losing the shield completely or by letting one of the invaders reach the surface.

Invader formations vary in size and movement patterns. Sometimes they appear closer to the surface, and every once in a while a few or a complete row of them will be reinforced, requiring one hit to break their shield and another one to obliterate them. Normally you can destroy their regular shots, but if they're fired in red color you can't do it. Unlike in the original game, moving obstacles are few and far between, and never pose any serious risk for the player. Just watch for when they fall to the ground and block your movement.

Killing wave after wave of aliens isn't really the most exciting shooting action one can get, no matter how diverse the invader formations get. The claim to variety of Space Invaders '91 is the assortment of special items released by destroying the UFOs that cruise the top of the screen from time to time. They not only provide the spice the gameplay needs but also allow players to destroy waves either faster or more easily. While the effect of some of them ends after a while (time freeze, shadow ships, shields), there are those that come with ammo to be used by pressing button B (vertical lasers, horizontal exploding lasers, beams, homing shots). All items are carried over to the second part of the level, but once you go to a new stage/planet they're not active anymore. The only one I avoided like the plague is the speed-up, which hinders more than helps, and even though the instruction manual mentions an energy recovery item I never came across any.

Some other details of the gameplay can be used to the player's advantage as far as scoring goes. There's this round invader that approaches on the top and falls on the side, applying a magnetic force that messes with your ability to move normally. If you manage to kill it (it takes two hits) a bonus of 7.000 points will be granted. During the Venus level there are two crags in the ceiling, and if you hit them enough to make them fall you get an extra 3.000 points. Just beware of not getting squashed by these crags when they fall. Finally, according to the instruction manual if you clear one scene with a number of shots equal to the number of appearing invaders you get a special bonus of 10.000 points. The weird thing is that no matter how hard I tried in later levels I could only get it in the first planet.

It's Space Invaders 90 because them aliens got to Japan first!
(courtesy of YouTube user riseandfall420)

If you think that the small shield bar is too little a resource to face such a long streak of invaders, the good news is that you get new full lives with 30.000 and 60.000 points. However, you can never let any invader touch down on the surface of a planet or else the game is over, regardless of how many lives you have left in stock. The gameplay does have some shady aspects though and it's very hard to understand what goes on at times, such as the abovementioned bonus of 10.000 points or when I suddenly got my shield bar refilled to twice its regular size. I didn't complain of course, but it never happened again during the time I spent with the game. And from what I could gather there are slight differences in all these numbers between the Japanese and US versions.

All things considered, this isn't an easy game by any means. Avoiding to stand right below the lower invaders and staying alert for in-your-face shots is absolutely necessary to survive longer. Don't take the diagonal shots for granted though, getting cornered by them is the worst that can happen in any given situation. In addition to that, making the most out of the items dropped by the UFOs is of course another important strategy for survival.

My 1CC score for Space Invaders '91 is below. I can't say I had a blast playing it, but the experience was mildly amusing considering it's a pretty bare bones release with no flashy graphics, no extra playing modes, no options and absolutely no way of tinkering with the difficulty. There are secret codes for a sound test and a level select though, so at least it's possible to practice later stages.


Next I'll probably go for Space Invaders - Fukkatsu No Hi, which was released for the PC Engine at around the same time of Space Invaders '91.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Vasara (Playstation 4)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Visco
Published by QUByte Entertainment in 2019


Developer Visco was never known as a prolific or lauded company, even during the time it existed under the umbrella of Taito. However, by the end of its lifespan the company was able to deliver a couple of shmups that despite remaining relatively obscure throughout the years were still able to garner some attention, often regarded as well-made attempts at providing something unique. These games are Vasara and its sequel Vasara 2, both united in the aptly named Vasara Collection, a compilation released for multiple platforms of which I happen to own the version for the Playstation 4.

As the first half of Visco's swansong, Vasara seems a little derivative of other titles, but whatever inspiration it draws from the works of Psikyo, Seibu or Cave soon vanishes once you start playing it. The game is very colorful, with a pleasant sense of style that extends to the music and the details. The overall setting is based on an interesting mix of sci-fi and feudal Japanese motifs where a character roster of three warriors battle against an evil dark lord, most of them based in real life people. A wide array of voices and sound effects help to establish the atmosphere required by the game, as well as brief interactions that take place prior to boss and mid-boss confrontations in a gallery that includes lots of mechanical machines and mechas of varying sizes.

All voices are in Japanese, but the neat English translations give you an idea of what's going on before the clash of blades and bullets takes over the screen. These dialogues can't be skipped but are relatively short, without incurring in any disruption in the flow of the game.

Saiga Magoichi and Yukimura Sanada against one of the hideous bosses

Each character in Vasara flies over a sort of hoverbike and is rated for power and speed at the selection screen. The most balanced of them is Yukimura Sanada, who fires kunai knives with his main shot. Young lady Saiga Magoichi is the fastest one, and her hoverbike is capable of also firing homing fans. Elderly Keiji Maeda, on the other hand, carries the most powerful shot, which is endowed with the ability to fire extra piercing javelins. Their firepower is upgraded by taking P icons (5 for max), whereas the bomb stock is increased by taking the B icon (a maximum of 5 can be held). All surplus items give you some extra points.

Controls work with × for shot, R1/R2 or ○ for rapid shot and □ or ∆ for bomb (L1/L2 + Options for insert coin and start). While it's perfectly possible to get through the game using the regular rapid shot, most players will eventually opt to charge the shot button and rely on melee attacks instead. Melee attacks are capable of deflecting bullets and killing several enemies at the same time, a move that not only helps survival but also contributes to higher scores because a multipler is applied to successive enemies destroyed in a single blow. By collecting the red gems that fall from hitting and destroying enemies you fill up a gauge, which when full displays the word VASARA in big fonts. This means your next charge attack will be much more powerful with a longer duration.

Reflected bullets and red gems are also a natural source of more points. Another way to score higher is to collect gold released by specific ground targets, as well as destroying certain enemies to get special rewards, the so-called "prestige kills". Enemies that add to the prestige kill count are those that carry a flag, leaving a bloody scroll behind when killed. These are the same scrolls that appear at the end of the level, and if you manage to collect all 30 of them a special bonus of 15.000 points is granted. The only problem is that getting perfect prestige kill counts gets harder as the game goes on. That's why focusing on slashing multiple enemies is a more lucrative strategy on any average, normal run. Finally, bullet grazing also gives you a few more points, but its execution definitely goes hand in hand with the danger involved.

On all accounts, Vasara is a game that defies conventions with its emphasis on melee attacks and the interesting scoring combos obtained with the VASARA special attack, which must be very well timed for maximum efficiency. In this sense, this game is slightly deceiving since - unlike similar titles such as those developed by Psikyo - most bullets fly at reasonably manageable speeds yet the risk/reward balance keeps pushing you into dangerous situations. Special attention must be given to the fact that you don't die by colliding against an airborne enemy, being violently repelled with a metallic clunk instead. This bouncing effect can become aggravating when there are many bullets around or when enemy waves start coming from below. At least it's possible to "seal" ground enemies and make them stop shooting by flying over them.

Launch trailer for Vasara Collection
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher Strictly Limited Games)

On top of the scoring devices described above, there's also the possibility of exploiting boss patterns ad infinitum by exclusively reflecting their bullet patterns. That's why Vasara is considered broken in certain circles. While the above technique sounds attractive on paper, it's actually quite risky to pull off because after a while bosses start spitting out random fast patterns to catch players off guard. I tried doing it during one run, and it definitely isn't a trivial task to sustain the pressure if you're not well prepared.

If you don't care about scoring or milking, Vasara is a very approachable shmup for survival play. It's a fun ride with no in-game dynamic difficulty progression (rank), and the only really tricky boss is the last one. By beating him in one credit you earn the right to face the true final boss, which is pretty much the same boss only with slightly different attack patterns. Watch out for the midboss in stage 5, if you kill him fast enough (before he gets the chance to morph with the stage boss) he will release the only extra life (1UP) available in the whole game.

Unfortunately the porting job provided by QUByte Interactive on the Playstation 4 is quite disapppointing. I have no qualms about the bare bones nature of the game, its lack of HD treatment and the simple interface that doesn't allow button remapping but at least lets people rotate the screen for a TATE-like experience. The real mishap here is that you must cope with an inexplicably botched high score tallying. I don't know how they managed to mess with that, but in almost every credit the score I got wasn't the same one that appeared when I was inputting my initials (for a long while the score that showed up for me was locked at 529.420 no matter what). The actual score is still saved though, although with no initials at all.

I didn't check if Vasara 2 and Vasara Timeless (a special arrange mode exclusive to this release) suffer from the same bug mentioned above. I'll leave it for a future opportunity. For now, this is the final screen for my 1CC result in Vasara (before the input for the high score), playing with Keiji Maeda in the Normal difficulty. As always, the video saving feature of the PS4 is an awesome resource to go back and check out whatever screen you want.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver 1.5 (Xbox 360)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopabe)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010


Fifth chapter of the series that in time came to be synonym with developer Cave and the term "bullet hell", Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver 1.5 is the direct sequel to Dodonpachi Daioujou. The Ver 1.5 exists because the initial 1.0 release of the game contained major issues and was soon revised and replaced everywhere, becoming pretty much abandoned and forgotten afterwards. Released for the Japanese Xbox 360 under its original title, Ver 1.5 also came out for the console in Europe and later for the Nintendo Switch and the Steam PC platform under the name Dodonpachi Resurrection.    

Dearly referred to by shmup fans as DFK, Daifukkatsu is a shmup that successfully adds alements that help alleviate the hardcore aspect that the series had until then, a perception that went through the roof with Dodonpachi Daioujou, also known as DOJ. And I'm not talking about the addition of new game modes such as Novice, a special version targeted at beginners. The bottom line is that the arcade version is a lot more friendly to regular players, yet it brings completely new and fresh nuances for hardcore shmuppers who play for the highest scores possible. So it's not just a matter of heightened spectacle, as one can quickly derive from the graphical differences of DFK when compared to DOJ.

No matter how you see it, playing a game like this to the fullest requires a lot of knowledge simply because there are lots of intricate details beyond the most basic rules of gameplay. The starting point for all game modes are the inputs (fully configurable), which consist of shot (hold for laser), rapid shot, bomb and hyper activation. Yes, now hyper activation isn't accomplished with the bomb button, a detail that was always kinda weird in DOJ. Once activated, hyper massively enhances the ship's firepower for a determined amount of time. Different from the hyper trailing accumulation seen in DOJ, in DFK there is only one single hyper gauge, which is filled up by killing enemies normally and hitting them with the laser, an effect that happens faster if you do it at the top of the screen or at point blank distance (by adding the laser aura). Another interesting twist of DFK is that all ships start fully powered-up, so the only items relased by carriers are extra bombs.

In Xbox 360 mode (arcade) there are two decisions to be made when starting a credit. The first one is the ship, which follows the standard of previous games in the series of type A (red, narrow shot, fastest movement speed), B (green, medium-range bending shot, average speed) and C (blue, wide shot, slowest speed). The second decision is the play style, a choice that affects gameplay in several different ways:
  • Bomb style: moderate shot and laser power with an initial stock of 3 bombs (always increased by 1 on death) with auto-bomb function (bombs are triggered automatically when the ship gets hit).
  • Power style: there's no bomb stock, but the bomb button activates two different attack modes, Normal and Boost. Normal (default) has less power and increased movement speed, whereas Boost has double the firepower with a larger laser and lowered movement speed.
  • Strong style: combines the most important aspects of Bomb and Power styles, with regular bombs just like in Bomb style and firepower close to that of Boost mode in Power style.
Strong style is pretty much a beefed up and slightly harder version of Bomb style, and was actually introduced in the arcade revision for Ver 1.5. It had to be unlocked to become playable in the original arcade board, but as far as I know it's available by default in all home ports.

A sneak peek of Power and Bomb styles
(courtesy of YouTube user njiska)

As always, using the laser reduces the speed of the ship, but speed perception is a lot more diverse in Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu due to the several combinations of ships and play styles. The addition of auto-bombs is the main reason why DFK is considered the first beginner-friendly chapter of the franchise, simply because it completely eliminates the pressure of losing a precious life while carrying a full bomb stock, allowing players to limp through the first loop (at least) with much less effort. However, the duration of the auto-bomb is much shorter than the regular deployment of a bomb, as is its destructive effect. In addition to that, due to its ability to cancel enemy bullets another good resource for survival is the hyper shot, which can always be saved for the hardest parts of any level. It's also possible to cancel bullets by destroying some of the larger enemies, so take that into consideration when devising a survival strategy.

On the other side of the gameplay spectrum, scoring has also been shaken quite a bit from DOJ. You still need to kill enemies in succession to sustain a combo that's shown in big bold numbers on the upper half of the screen (the chain is lost if you fail to keep it going, bomb or die). This time around the combo isn't directly multiplied by the enemy's base value though. The basic rule is that the multiplier levels are now applied according to combo intervals. For example, you don't get anything for the first 499 hits, and between 500 and 999 hits the multiplier is ×2. Then for each 2.000 hits more the multiplier increases by 1, between 7.000 and 9.999 it reaches ×6 and beyond 10.000 it maxes out at ×7. However, the multiplier is only in effect as long as you have a full hyper gauge. Whenever you're hypering or if the gauge is not full the multiplier isn't applied at all.

As a result, the secret for really high scores in Daifukkatsu is to use hypers to send the hit count through the roof, then refilling the hyper gauge and holding on from hypering while you surf the rest of the level sustaining the chain for big points. There are other intricacies involved in the use of hypers, such as a nice invincibility window upon activation and deactivation (important!), rank increase in five steps with each successive hyper use, the resetting of this rank at every new level, the ability to carry over hyper to bosses and between levels and the generation of random "danger lasers", among other minor details. In my opinion, the whole mechanic built around this new form of hyper was a brilliant move by Cave since it truly keeps the scoring system engaging for the most hardcore players. It's also an extremely valid, if only a bit cruel, compensation for the abundance of survival aids and the tamer challenge curve when compared to direct predecessor Dodonpachi Daioujou. Still on the subject of scoring, it should be noted that in DFK the "maximum" score progression for surplus bombs is still present, but the end-of-stage bonuses are negligible.

Elemental dolls waiting for some heavy bullet hell action
 
Looping Daifukkatsu can be achieved in two separate paths, Omote and Ura. Omote (sometimes referred as Tsuujou, which means "regular") is the most simple and requires players to collect at least 35 bee items or use at most 2 bombs. Bees are uncovered by lasering their locations and appear in two colors that alternate between each other: green (refills approximately 1/3 of the hyper gauge) and yellow (gives you points). There are normally 7 bees in each level, which would then require players to collect all of them during the first loop. However, you can enter the Ura route in the first stage of the first loop, a path that has has 9 bees per level and allows players to get all 35 bees by stage 4. The recipe to get into the Ura route is simple: before you reach the mid-boss, destroy 3 of the big silos yourself (before the big tanks do), but when destroying the 3rd silo you must have a full hyper gauge. If successful, you'll see the warp and the appearance of a new midboss, as well as slightly different stage progressions in each subsequent level. You'll be kicked out of the Ura route if you fail to either collect all bee items in the stage without dying or die/bomb during the fight against the midboss. All midbosses in the Ura route are new takes on the bosses from Dodonpachi.

The requirements to enter the Ura second loop are of course much harder than those for the Omote second loop. To activate the Ura loop you need to collect all 45 bee items (which requires playing all stages in the Ura route) and have used at most 2 bombs and died once. Since you don't have bombs in Power style, this is the only style choice for which the death condition is relevant. Only in the Ura loop you'll be able to fight the two extra final bosses.

Speaking of Power style, one of the first things I asked myself when I started playing is why anyone would choose to play it over two other alternatives that come with autobombing. The answer came much later, when I had a little more understanding of the game. Up front, this is a style that's more suitable to experienced players. Hyper behaves a little differently here: overall the gauge fills up faster, and the act of erasing bullets with the hyper shot contributes to that (only laser fills up the gauge in Bomb/Strong style). Boost mode has a higher bullet erasing power than other styles, but there's a little catch. For some strange reason, when starting a chain hyper shot in Normal mode gives way more hits than when in Boost mode. Since you can't have bombs, by picking up a bomb item you're then entitled to a single use of an auto-bomb.

Due to the rugged nature of the laser, visually Power Style is reminiscent of the shot type selection seen in previous chapters. By the way, Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu is very pleasing to the eye, with the customary Cave intensity and a plethora of air and ground gold tokens to be absorbed as you wreak havoc amidst bullets and enemies. The reasoning behind bosses morphing back and forth from mechanical beasts to huge robot girls can be traced back to the game's story, which isn't actually fleshed out in any way besides the loop endings. In short, it's more of the same shallow sci-fi mumbo jumbo. As for the music, it's nice but probably too upbeat for the aggression levels you need to endure later on, and definitely falls short when compared with the soundtrack for DOJ, for example.

Arrange mode A (ver L) of Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver. 1.5

My strategy to enter the loop in the arcade game (Xbox 360 mode) was pretty simple: get into the Ura loop in the first level and collect all bees in the first four stages. Memorizing their locations was obviously the primary objetive. Another aim for me was to reach 10 billion points for the second extend, which is obviously easier said than done. The key point for that is stage 2, since you'll certainly reach that goal if you bridge the midboss, exploit his lasers for big hits, refill the hyper gauge and keep the chain going during the second half of the level. Just like all other enemy lasers in the game, repelling the lasers from the midboss is accomplished by lasering. Just tapping the laser usually does the trick when under heavy enemy fire, but it certainly takes some practice to get the rhythm right. The other extra lives are obtained by scoring 1 billion points and by taking the 1UP uncovered when you destroy one of the huge central turrets after the stage 3 midboss without bombing.

The interface in the Japanese release of Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver. 1.5 for the Xbox 360 is completely in English, so finding your way through resources such as Training, Replay Data and a nice assortment of configurations in the Options is pretty easy. Japanese is only reserved for in-game dialogue and windows. Replays are only saved if you don't restart any level, even the first, but pausing is permitted though. Besides the Xbox 360 (arcade) mode, the port also includes a Novice mode, Arrange A (plays a little like DOJ with trailing hyper medals) and Arrange B (stage-based score attacks with weird mechanics and a striking visual makeover). A version 1.51 was available exclusively in the first-press editions via a DLC code (besides a few gameplay tweaks, it has only one loop with both TLBs waiting in the end). The Xbox 360 limited edition also includes the original soundtrack in a separate disc.

Venturing into the more intricate details about the gameplay does require a lot more time with it. That's not my case though. I didn't even try to find a reliable route through those dreadful laser wheels of the final stage, always burning up a lot of bombs instead... Nevertheless I was able to consistently loop Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu / Resurrection, which says a lot about how approachable this game actually is for us mere mortals. Doing the same in Daioujou, for example, was only possible in an extremely, outrageously good day. B-Strong was my choice for ship/style and as usual I played in full defauls (difficulty 2), reaching stage 2-2 in my best result.


Next in line in the series is Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Black Label, which is the ultimate arrange mode for DFK and received a separate retail release for the Xbox 360.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

600 1CCed shmups!

Time to break the blog flow once again to quickly talk about the milestone of 600 shmups beaten in a single credit and, as a bonus, dabble about the state of affairs in my neck of the woods.

This last hundred took me almost 4 years, which means things have slowed down to an average of two shmups a month, sometimes more and occasionally less. At least I haven't failed a single month and was always able to write about at least one game, which is a good number during those hectic months where work and real life decide to unite and give us a hard time.

Speaking of which, real life has brought about a new aspect that's kinda bugging me as of late. I don't know if all readers are aware of this, but I own every single game I play and write about in physical form (bar the digital-only of course). I have always thought of myself as a player above all and secondly a collector, but unfortunately the collecting part has taken a hit in the latest months thanks to the inexplicable policy adopted by Brazilian customs, which is a complete mess of an organization and has always worked with no standards whatsoever. This lack of standards has worsened as of late, to the point of denying entry to the country of many of my recent purchases and is making importing impossible.

Before anyone throws out the question, it's important to mention that the blockade to imports is a real lottery. I have friends who are getting their packages normally, the same packages that have bounced back for me. "Bounce back" is a soft way to put it though, since there's no guarantee the packages will go back to their origin or just get lost in thin air, which has also happened in the past but very, very scarcely.

If this keeps going on I'll seriously contemplate abandoning collecting. I'm pushing 48 this year, perhaps it's the way the universe found to not so politely tell me "hey, bud, how about moving on and focusing on other ventures?".

In the meantime, shmupping continues. 

Top 5 hardest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Honorable mentions are Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra on the XBox 360, which in my opinion is just as hard as White Label, and gravity arena Terra Lander on the Playstation 4, a game with a couple of insanely tricky levels.

Top 5 easiest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Honorable mentions in the easy category are 1942 on the NES, Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse on the Playstation 2 and Red Death on the Playstation 4.

There was one shmup I could not beat during this last cycle: Iro Hero for the PS4. Not because I was incompetent, but because there's a bug that makes the last boss invincible and doesn't allow you to complete the game. I contacted Red Art Games (retail publisher), eastasiasoft (publisher) and Artax Games (developer) a few times already, but they all disagree about which company is supposed to come up with a patch. A few other shmup enthusiasts have also tried, unfortunately to no avail. I even got to the point of reaching out to Sony, but as expected they don't give a s#%t about it either.

Total number of console shmups beaten by system:

Total number of console shmups beaten by genre:

During the last hundred blog entries, at 19 posts the NES beat both the Playstation 2 and the Playstation 4 by one game only. It's just normal to see the NES getting ahead as the most played console due to its extensive library, but my feeling is that it's just a matter of time for one of the Sony systems to take the lead. As for the Mega Drive, there are only a few shmups left for 1CC attempts. Which one should I target next, I wonder?

No love was given to the Sega 32X (understandable), the FM Towns (impossible, my Towns is dead) and the Neo Geo (inexcusable). It is my intention to play Zaxxon's Motherbase 2000 and another Neo Geo shmup soon, I just haven't decided which one yet.

Other prospects for the future include moving on to a few old acquaintances I've yet to actually try to beat, such as Battle Garegga, Border Down and R-Type Final. You can never take for granted any available time you get to play, and a classic example of this is how a week at home ~ on vacation ~ helped me practice and quickly get the loop on Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Ver 1.5, which had been on my radar for months but remained pretty much untouched until the last couple of weeks.

And I didn't forget the requests received many years ago, such as Kingdom Grandprix. It seems however that my dream of having Mahou Daisakusen / Sorcer Striker released in physical form won't come true any time soon. I probably won't get through the series in order, at least not the way i'd like to.

As always, thank you all for keeping up with me and my shmup rants notes. Hopefully some of you might still be here if by any chance I'm able to make to 700 hundred 1CCs!

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PS. It just seems I won't escape the fate of owning a Nintendo Switch. Pokémon has become quite a big thing at home as of late, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Akinofa (Playstation 4)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopabe)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pixel Lantern
Published by Red Art Games in 2022


The love for pixels goes way back in the history of home computers and, of course, video games. Even today in the era of ultra advanced high resolution graphic techniques people still resource to pixels in order to establish mood, ambiance or a simple connection to the style of old. German developer Pixel Lantern is of course aware of that, as we can see from what they were able to visually accomplish in Akinofa, a horizontal shooter that's completely built around pixels. In concept it's a very weird one too, an aspect that's certainly bound to draw some attention, at least when you first read about it.

Akinofa is a "mysterious undead fish of green flames". It doesn't swim, instead it flies in a mix of gothic and medieval settings populated by tiny creatures and fiendish ghouls. Normally it shoots green projectiles (button × or R1) but after a while it acquires the ability to fire special shots with limited ammo (button □ or L1). When in need and provided you have bombs in stock, the undead fish can summon a bigger version of itself that cruises the screen damaging enemies along the way and making you invincible (button ○ or R2).

Meet the boss of the forest world
 
Unfortunately this is another example of a game that requires grinding, at least until you've maxed out all upgrades by purchasing them with the gold collected during regular play. I actually tried to advance without upgrading anything once I saw you could rely on three random items that appear at the end of every section. Sadly they only allow you to obtain special shots (double, triple and 3-way spread), ammo refills, health points (hearts) and bombs (lightning bolts). You can't increase life and bomb stock, the ammo gauge, the firing rate or improve damage capabilities during the game itself, and while it is theoretically possible to finish Akinofa without these enhancements it would probably take ages to get through an extremely boring and frustrating ordeal.

Akinofa is comprised of three worlds, each one with five sections where you fight a boss in the last one. The first world takes place inside a decrepit castle, the second one is a magical forest and the last world is a medieval fortress. As I mentioned above, in the end of each regular section except the boss fight you can purchase up to three random items, in what's the only aspect that's remotely related to a roguelite nature. Stages unfold in the very same way every time at one single lethargic pace, which at least makes memorization easier. A tiny counter in the lower left keeps track of how many enemies are left in the section, and if you manage to kill them all you collect a "perfect" bonus of 1.000 points.

A single orb that appears in the first world might either release a heart or coins, but this orb is completely absent from the second and third worlds. This means that after the first world you can only recover health if the game allows it at the end of every section. Preserving health is the most important strategy to survive some of the enemy traps later on, and by then you'll certainly be accustomed to the slight inertia applied to the character's movement. That's the main reason why touching walls is often the major cause of health loss and deaths. There are no continues and you'll need to start from scratch if the game is over, even though there's a "try again" option together with "main menu".

Launch trailer for Akinofa on the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)
 
If you accept what Akinofa has to offer, which is mild shooting action with little variety, somewhat grating music and no real rewards in the end, the first upgrade you need to get is "gold", which increases the chance of enemies dropping gold coins. Then it's just a matter of replaying the game over and over, collecting gold, upgrading your arsenal and learning how the gameplay works in the process. Eventually you'll get strong enough to not die by being sorely underpowered. On the other hand, bosses are wimps which can be obliterated in no time by bomb spamming. Once the boss of the third world goes down the game loops with little fanfare and more resilient enemies (new game+ begins now!).

There's nothing basically wrong with Akinofa's gameplay, it's just devoid of any real excitement. However, amidst the snoozy action and the naïve stage design there might be a few thrills in trying to get those 100% kills for the perfect bonus. Chests and vases don't contribute to this percentage so you can skip them, just note that chests will always have only gold coins whereas vases might also give you an ammo refill or an extra bomb. In any case, once all upgrades have been maxed out gold ceases to be important because you'll always have enough of it to get the in-game special weapons and recovery items. Excess gold doesn't even count for any extra points once the game loops, which is a shame. 

Once I looped the game I met my demise somewhere in the first world, pretty much out of boredom. At the time of this writing the result below was enough to put me in 7th place in the online leaderboards. There are no local score tables and no difficulty settings whatsoever, the only tweaks available are audio balancing and vibration.


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Huge Insect (NES)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Thin Chen Enterprise (Sachen)
Published by Sachen in 1993


Object of cult for many, motive of utter despise to others, Taiwanese developer Sachen was definitely one the most - if not the most - prolific unlicensed developer/publisher for the NES, with an immense catalog that includes a few shmups. Some of them are quite a treat to collectors due to their rarity, and Huge Insect definitely falls in this bastard category. Basically a Galaga ripoff, this game has the sad distinction of being the last title the company published in cartridge form in extremely low quantities in the 2000's, even though the main game screen shows a "copyright" from 1993.

Actually there are several sources about the peculiar history of this release. According to this page, it wasn't originally published in a cartridge. Sachen offered it for free download on their website in 2002, but later the game became available to buy in green, orange (2002), blue (2002) and purple (2005) box versions. 78 carts were manufactured, but it seems the green cartridges might have actually been made in 1993. The cartridge I own is the purple box variant.

For an unlicensed game, Huge Insect could've been much better. In its final form it's a misfire that's probably related to the inherent laziness that comes with the end of an era for any company. The misfire is in the fact that the gameplay isn't a complete waste like in some other unlicensed crap, yet Sachen made it so easy that even the inept, the sleepy and a combination of both might be able to beat it in their first try. Basically you get an extra life during every transition from a stage section to the next, which means six extra lives per stage, totalling 29 extra lives per credit. And on top of that you're also able to get occasional 1UPs!

Searching for a huge insect in a nearby pond
(courtesy of YouTube user The VideoGames Museum)

The idea behind the makeover on the Galaga mold is that you control what looks like an insecticide spray can and must destroy lots of insects that arrive in successive waves. Enemies that survive as they come into the screen will enter in formation at the top and dive upon you when the whole armada is complete. Each stage has six sections with the same background and environments that resemble a pond, a forest, a grass field, a cloudy blue sky and outer space. You're only allowed one shot at a time with button A, but the default pea shot can be upgraded by collecting items dropped when blinking enemies are destroyed.

The assortment of items includes a double shot, speed-up (S), a single power-up (P) that turns your regular firepower into laser shots, a 1-hit shield (the golden circle) and the extra life / 1UP (a representation of the basic ship in a circle). There's also a black skull that must be avoided at all times since it strips you off all power-ups you're currently carrying. Note that when taking the double shot your hitbox becomes twice as large because then you'll be controlling two insecticide cans instead of one. Weirdly enough, there are times when the 1-hit shield doesn't work and you die anyway when getting hit, in what's the only glaring flaw of the rudimentary gameplay.

At the second section of each level an invincible bug will appear in the middle of the screen, moving left and right and shielding the enemy from your shots. Each successive section adds another of these bugs until you have four of them in sections 5 and 6, and once all enemies are destroyed in section 6 the stage boss appears. That's the reasoning behind the game's title, but killing the huge insect isn't a big deal. It's just a matter of anticipating his large two-way blast and avoiding the occasional bullets fired by the minions released behind him. Boss attack patterns do not change at all across all five levels, but wave speed and enemy aggression increase slightly as you make progress.

Boss begging for peace after being defeated
 
If you're able to get the P power-up, obliterating insects becomes a breeze and deaths might only occur if you get stuck against a fast-moving wave. Dying isn't that taxing though because soon enough you'll get new upgrades, on top of having (as I mentioned above) one of the most stupid supplies of extra lives I've ever seen in any old school video game. Game variety is practically non-existent, but if it weren't for this atrocious extend routine Huge Insect might have offered a bit of a challenge. Never mind the soundtrack, which has only two very similar stage songs that alternate during the whole game. At least they're not grating, if that counts for something.

Each item you take gives you an extra 100 points, but there's a simple way to score higher. During the boss fights just avoid hitting the boss and keep destroying the minion bugs he summons. The scoring system can be broken this way but it takes forever to do it, you need to move a lot to not die and chances are you'll eventually kill the boss by hitting it every now and then.

There isn't any sort of score buffering when Huge Insect is beaten. All you see is the panel of a kid (you, of course) smiling while celebrating his victory, then the game gets back to the start screen. That's why you need to pause as soon as the last enemy of the final level is killed if you want to take note of your score. In my second credit I did milk a few bosses to get the result below, just for the sake of it.


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by X-Nauts and Psikyo
Published by Global A Entertainment in 2003


After two very similar shmup entries for the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn in 1996, the Cho Aniki series received an RPG game for the Bandai Wonderswan, a weird sports title for mobile phones and then this exclusive chapter for the Playstation 2 called Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu, whose subtitle translates to something like "The Legend of the Sacred Protein". Given how visually crazy the 32-bit shmups were, trying to top that was a hefty challenge that somehow gets accomplished here, and by a different development team no less.

With Masaya gone, the series was taken over by X-Nauts and Psikyo. The graphics changed to an almost undescribable mix of weird 3D backgrounds mashed with stupid enemies in the foreground, as if the intern had pasted half-assed random sprites over the game. For PS2 standards it's honestly ridiculous, but after a while you realize that at least the enemy placement has a purpose, which means that the forté of Seinaru Protein Densetsu is definitely in the gameplay. A little patience is needed, of course, but if you stick with it you might be pleasantly surprised. Yes, pleasantly. At least I was.

If you refrain from doing anything after turning on the console a lengthy intro will show our favorite bodybuilders Adon and Samson doing their thing to the sound of a silly song. However, they're not in the center of the action even though they're on screen at all times. Players control "the legendary protein", a glob-like thing that serves as the single hitbox of the group. Adon and Samson are positioned according to the selection you make when starting the game. You can choose two out of four configurations: covering the sides, trailing, frontal stance and rotating. Alternating between both formations is done with button ×, firing is accomplished with button □ and button ○ is used to trigger a bomb (if you have one). Button remapping is not possible.

  Intro sequence to Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Niels Van Glas)

An unusual aspect of the game is that the left analog stick can't be used to control the protein blob, which somehow frightened me, but fortunately I have a controller with a remarkably decent D-pad. The right analog stick, however, is an essential part of the gameplay since you must use it to "shake your hips and spin" as the instruction manual puts it. If you move the stick quickly in a circular motion the meter in the lower left fills up, and by pressing it you'll unleash a super powerful man's beam whose strength depends on how full the meter is. I'll leave all funny interpretations related to this manly beam to the reader, but suffice it to say it's a sight to behold, on top of being a great means of killing bosses faster. Mind you, whenever the right stick is being wiggled you're not allowed to fire, so my advice is to plan ahead if you want to do it in the heat of the battle.

Each enemy leaves behind a protein orb that powers up the character. This is where the gameplay starts to get interesting. Each part of your team can be powered up separately. By taking the orbs with either Adon or Samson their silhouettes are filled up, representing their ability to fire more powerful shots and take hits for you. If their energy is depleted they enter a resting/sleeping mode and refuse to go into formation, only waking up by taking another protein orb. On the ther hand, if one silhouette gets completely filled you add one bomb to your bomb stock. Orbs absorbed by the holy protein are used to upgrade the main firing stream, and once you reach max power (20 orbs, or 5 orbs per extra firing stream) each consecutive orb taken will increase in value in steps of 1.000 points, maxing out at 10.000 points. These scoring chains are carried over to the next stage, but they're broken if you die or at least one power orb is absorbed by Adon or Samson. Sound cues help with keeping track of orbs taken.

What I described above is the reason why Cho Aniki - Seinaru Protein Densetsu has the best gameplay in the series so far. You do start with no bombs in stock, but since bombs are completely independent of life stock you can just hoard as many bombs as you want to tackle tricky parts of boss fights. By playing defensively a clear isn't that far off no matter how cheap the game gets (those falling enemies in the cave stage are really annoying). Beaming also represents an important aspect of defensive gameplay since both the holy protein and Adon/Samson are invincible whenever you're doing it. Playing aggressively for score is a whole different story though, often requiring players to kill enemies a certain way or to avoid orbs in order to keep the chain going.

A final detail in the gameplay is related to the small ghosts released by specific enemies at certain points in the game. Each one has a different effect depending on its color. The blue ghost gives you full power, the green ghost gives you 10.000 points, the white ghost gives you an extra bomb and the pink ghost fills up the beam meter immediately. None of them results in an extra life, but two score-based extends are obtained when you reach 1,5 and 3,5 million points.

Eyes without a face my ass!

Even though most stages are rather easygoing with few hard sections to deal with, the influence of Psikyo is definitely present here and there. The order of the first four levels is random, for example, just like in Strikers 1945 and Gunbird. Another Psikyo trademark is in the dense bullet spreads most bosses are able to fire. They all have at least two phases with differing attack patterns and intensities that vary as the fight drags on, with the occasional cheap ramming that's bound to take players off guard. The good news is that there's no rank at all, so it all boils down to memorizing patterns in order to survive. Just note that bombs cannot be used whenever you're deploying the powerful beam attack. Another aspect to consider, especially during boss fights, is that if you want to use a certain formation when beaming (such as the full defensive frontal position), switch to this desired formation before Adon or Samson are about to enter sleep mode, otherwise the beam will only be effected with the default side/resting formation.

With 10 stages, Seinaru Protein Densetsu has a decent length and enough variety to quench fans of kusoge. An abundance of manly and childlike voices can be heard throughout in complement to a relatively conventional soundtrack. The most risqué homoerotic designs are reserved for the panels in-between stages and the most ludicrous bosses, which besides just being downright weird often take creepy positions when firing their bullet patterns. During the last level you'll have to face them all over again before confronting the final boss.

My final 1CC score in the Normal difficulty is below. It was definitely a fun ride despite the initial perception of just another mindless shooting schlock. My formations of choice were default/sides and frontal/defensive. My playing strategy: once I got one extra bomb in the first stage I focused exclusively on scoring except for stages 6 and 8, where I hoarded bombs for the bosses I found problematic, mainly the 9th and the final boss. 


Next in the series is Rei Cho Aniki, a.k.a. Cho Aniki Zero on the PSP.