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.

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