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)

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.