Friday, May 31, 2024

Haradius Zero (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Impact Soft
Published by Neodolphino Productions in 2020

The homebrew scene for the NES has always been fertile ground for all sorts of experiments and new games from independent developers all over the world. Speaking of shmups only, from the depths of inane offerings such as those from Sachen and Mega Soft, fortunately the scene evolved over time to the point of delivering more professional games such as Haradius Zero. It's the first in a series of shooters developed by Impact Soft, a small Japanese company that has been made known to shmup enthusiasts in the West due to the efforts of publisher Neodolphino Productions.

The game had a lot more in common with Gradius when originally released for the MSX as Haradius, down to the weapon array and the use of options. Inspiration for the title was simple since the main person behind development was a guy named Harada. For the NES it was then rebaptized as Haradius Zero to serve as a fresh new start in the company's doujin activities on Nintendo's 8-bit platform. However, even though it retained pretty much all of the original graphic assets, the gameplay completely ditched the traditional Gradius style in favor of a more straightforward approach imbued with aspects of caravan shooters.

Stage 2 of Haradius Zero
(courtesy of main programmer and YouTube user Ichikawa Ejiro)

Of course with 6 stages and a proper ending, Haradius Zero is far from being a caravan shmup. Yet it encourages players to pursue better performances and higher scores by granting a life stock of 10 lives at every stage no matter how you ended up in the previous one – with more than 10 or down to your last life. Each extra life is worth 1.000 points once the level is completed, and given how limited the stage scores actually are the best way to regularly achieve higher scores is simply avoiding to receive damage and collecting these reserve life bonuses.

After you see the ship take off from the base in an up-close animation, you'll notice that it's always firing its weapon automatically, without the need for the player to press any button. It's certainly off-putting for those used to pushing buttons to shoot (at least for me), but fortunately the tendency is that you'll soon get used to it. Both controller buttons have the same purpose, which is toggling the position of your orbs between two predefined settings: close to the ship and far apart, allowing for some diversity in how you want to deal with enemy waves and boss fights. There are no power-ups of any kind, so that's all you can count on in order to advance through a series of enemy bases until reaching the last war vessel in the final level.

While definitely pleasing under a strict gameplay standpoint with some unpretentious but varied layouts in the foreground, Haradius Zero doesn't offer anything of note in the way of background designs. From beginning to end you're flying in outer space against a dark backdrop filled with a few scrolling dots. A compromise for the fluid and clean gameplay, perhaps? Drones arriving at different speeds, turrets of all shapes and sizes, maze-like obstacles, flying rocks, androids, robots and battleships appear throughout simple yet effective terrains with no slowdown or flicker of any kind. Bullet count is manageable but does require lots of macro and eventually micrododging, with some rather intense action in the 4th stage. And I might be wrong here, but I can also see some minor influence from Hellfire in stage 5. 

Captain: take off every Zi.... Ooops!!

Besides the basic gameplay, there are also few secrets to be uncovered in Haradius Zero. A diamond-like item gives you an extra life, but you'll eventually see blinking spots where perhaps there might be another one of these shiny diamonds. In order to make them appear you'll have to hit and destroy a specific part of the scenery (watch out for the sign of inflicted damage). Not only you get extra lives by taking these special diamonds, but you'll also trigger a few additional hazards and alternate versions of the stage bosses. These hidden bosses are more aggressive and resilient, allowing for some more points since most of them release drone waves in between new attack patterns. It's a nice way to add difficulty  and more scoring devices to a base game that won't give much trouble to any medium-skilled shmupper.

Milking bosses is possible for a while, but if you take too long to kill them indestructible vertical energy bars will start sweeping the screen to tell you it's impossible to break the scoring system.

Although not stellar by any means, the mix of soundtrack and sound effects does its intended job of matching the action. One weird detail here is that the game doesn't allow pausing, so if you want to grab a beer while playing all you'll have are slightly longer stage transitions. Regardless of this minor quirk, for a homebrew product the Western version of Haradius Zero is definitely a winner. Surely you can run the game in any decent emulator, but the love and care dedicated to the packaging, cartridge and manual is well worth the praise for those who value the neverending appeal of physical media.

My final 1CC result for Haradius Zero is below. The high score shown at the main start screen is saved, but can be deleted in the options if you so wish.

Next in this interesting doujin series is Haratyler.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Heavy Weapon (Xbox 360)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
19 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by PopCap Games
Published by PopCap Games in 2009

PopCap Arcade Vol. 2 seems like a product out of its time. Second Xbox 360 compilation release of the company that rose to the spotlight with the Plants vs. Zombies franchise, it includes three admittedly casual titles that are believed to have made at least mild success at the time. Peggle is certainly the most famous of the bunch, while Feeding Frenzy 2 and Heavy Weapon will probably ring a bell only for those who dared to look away from the mainstream. It's definitely a charming disc for lovers of underground games, as was PopCap Arcade Vol. 1 (this one with no shmup included though).

Once the disc is booted you're bumped to the single game selection screen, where you'll then be able to choose any of the three games available in the compilation. A unique approach to the Space Invaders formula, Heavy Weapon has the distinction of being a fixed vertical shooter with twin stick controls. If you ever wondered how such a game would play, look no further. With 19 stages of increasingly higher stakes, widescreen over-the-top action and a playthrough that lasts well over an hour, it unites light-hearted humor, fun and challenge in a package that will definitely require some endurance from players to be properly beaten.

Waging war with a partner tank in the Geiger County (mission 4)

Controls are as simples as it gets. Move the atomic tank with the d-pad or the left analog stick, fire with the right analog stick over a 180° area above ground and detonate nuclear bombs if you have them with the RT button. The screen scrolls from left to right as enemies cruise the sky above and approach from the sides at ground level. A meter on the top of the screen shows your progression until the end of the stage, where you'll then have to defeat a large boss. With each stage completed you'll earn the right to assign an upgrade point in each of the upgrade categories, which include defense orbs, homing missiles, laser, rockets (straight missiles), flak cannon and thunderstrike (seeking lightning bolts). It takes three upgrade points to max out each one, and you can redistribute all earned points whenever you're in the upgrade screen.

As the levels unfold you'll be able to collect other upgrades, most of them released by a white friendly carrier. The spread shot is the most valuable permanent upgrade, maxing out at five streams by the time you reach stage 7. Rapid fire, gun power-up and one single speed-up appear in every level, supposedly enhancing the tank even though these improvements aren't really noticeable. There are also shield icons that help protect the tank from damage: the more shields you have the greener the aura around the tank, with a maximum of three possible shields and the automatic refilling of one single shield if you haven't got any left in between levels. These shields only protect you from regular bullets thpough, so enemy lasers and certain bombs are still fatal regardless of your shield standings. Finally, you'll also come across extra bombs (nukes) and a temporary megalaser that's automatically deployed once you have collected four megalaser items.

Heavy Weapon is particularly interesting for hiding a vicious long term challenge under a thick layer of casual graphic design. It all starts on an easy gear, especially when you notice that you can lose up to two lives in every level with no consequence in the long run other than the bonus you'd get for the no-miss (every stage starts with three lives). However, levels start to get longer after a while and always introduce a new enemy to spice things up in the way the game overlaps patterns. It comes to a point where it's necessary to plan ahead to reliably get through certain attacks, some of them unavoidable if you don't take quick action. Bomb stock and shields in excess are always carried over to the next stage.

Even though you can select the country to invade prior to starting the level, it isn't a good idea to deviate from the default path because enemy resistance is totally dependent on the chosen stage. By the time you get to stage 9 the game will already have reached full throttle in terms of difficulty, starting  anew after you're informed that the real battle is about to start. And only when the 9 stages are beaten one more time you'll have the chance to finally destroy the enemy headquarters in the 19th and final level.

Prepare for battle!
(courtesy of YouTube user entexman)

Although you can notice some degree of randomness to enemy behavior in the second loop, it's really not something to worry about. Things are so hectic by then that you'd better focus on the types of enemy waves bombarding the screen in order to exert a minimum level of crowd control. Don't ever stop shooting or else you lose some precious head start against the neverending flocks of jets and missiles. Brute force is very important early on, that's why I chose to favor certain weapons as soon as possible, such as the homing missiles, the laser and the flak cannon. During debriefing at the end of the level you get a few bonuses related to your performance in the combat field. It's a very straightforward scoring system, but note that every single enemy bullet, missile or bomb you're able to destroy also gives out a few extra points.

The military soundtrack isn't bad, but it's certainly not as engaging as the rocking tunes of the versions made for the Playstation 2 or the Playstation Network (PS3). Sound effects and gritty voice snippets are present from start to finish, heightening the foreground action while cosmetic backgrounds scroll by at the same continuous pace throughout. The game's long duration might be a turn-off for some people, but on the other hand the experience can be quite addictive once you're sucked into the rhythm of the destruction mayhem.

Heavy Weapon is also a great choice for a party game since you can play it locally and online with up to four players. Besides the main game mode (Mission), there's also a Survival mode (where the stakes increase exponentially at every minute) and a boss rush (Boss Blitz). The upgrades are the same in these extra modes but the rules for getting them are naturally different.

My 1CC result in Mission mode is the one from the final debriefing screen below, shown after you beat the final boss. Note that this is the last time you'll see your score if you're not online to have it uploaded to the online leaderboards.