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.

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