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)

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.