Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Star Parodier (PC Engine CD)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Inter State / Kaneko 
in 1992

When Konami decided to launch a parody game about one of its flagship franchises I bet very few people thought the idea would catch on, let alone have any real influence in the shmup scene in the years to come. In time Parodius proved to be a hit both in the arcade and the home console formats, and most nonsensical shooters released afterwards only came to be because of the success the series eventually achieved. Star Parodier is one of the earlier examples if this, serving as a wacky take on everything about the Star Soldier series and its native platform the PC Engine.

There's a lot to like about Star Parodier, especially if you're into fan favorite Super Star Soldier, which is by far the most referenced game of the series. Next and unexpectedly for a self-referencing title, it goes a little overboard in its inspirational source and incorporates a lot of Konami traits in the gameplay. The first three levels, for instance, seem to have been lifted directly from Twin Bee, down to the characteristic floating domes and islands as well as some of the bosses, whereas echoes of Gradius III appear in the bubble-heavy 7th level. There are also a few rather explicit nods to Namco's Dragon Spirit in the underwater passage of stage 3, the icy landscapes of stage 4 and the corridors full of arrows in stage 5.

Paro-ceaser goes all CASTLE OF ILLUSION in stage 2

All three available characters are so distinct from each other that a lot of Star Parodier feels different depending on which one you choose. They're all capable of shooting (button II) and bombing (button I), as well as selecting three speed settings at the press of the SELECT button. Character-specific aspects of the gameplay include three different weapon types and one particular auxiliary attack, as briefly listed below:

  • PC Engine (power-up item is a hucard) — weapons: red (inverted T pattern), blue (forward/backward CD spread), yellow (basic shot + side/rear homing missiles); auxiliary weapon P for rotating options (up to 4);

  • Bomberman (power-up item is a cute bomb face) — weapons: red (inverted Y pattern), blue (black bomb spread), yellow (basic shot + red staggering balloons); auxiliary weapon O for trailing options (up to 3);

  • Paro-ceaser (power-up item is a regular capsule) — weapons: red (classic 5-way star soldier pattern), blue (straight laser with bidirectional wave shots), yellow (exploding soft clouds); auxiliary weapon H for homing missiles.

The following items are the same for all characters: S (shield), B (extra bomb), 1UP (extra life), golden orb (1.000 points), ? (random power-up), kanji sign (avoid, this sends you back to the basic pea shooter default power) and heart (one respawn). Getting as many hearts as you can is essential for survival in the long run since each one grants an instant respawn upon death – a situation that only happens if you're down to the default power level (getting hit successively degrades your firepower until you're in such a condition). Exactly like in Super Star Soldier, whenever you have respawns in reserve the symbol for the number of lives changes its color. Finally, beware of the white hand that appears randomly and steal items before you can take them.

Even though this game might sound excessively derivative at times, there's no denying it's got lots of charm and provides great fun while it lasts. Some bosses might offer a few thrills, but nothing really out of the ordinary for a 16-bit cute'em up. There is a scoring system in place which grants 2.000 points for every surplus item you're able to collect, but unfortunately the gameplay can be exploited for score if you avoid hearts and abuse checkpoints. After all, extra lives can also be obtained by scoring and some levels offer lots of points, the main one being the bubble area in the 7th stage.


Tids and bits of Star Parodier
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

My favorite character in the game is Bomberman, just because it's so much fun to play with him and find the best way to use his blue and yellow weapons. With the expection of Paro-ceaser and its 5-way Star Soldier patten, the red shot for the other guys sucks. Blue, on the other hand, pretty much decides your character choice due to the way it behaves: for the PC Engine a power level of 2 is often better than max power due to its great forward spread, while the giant wave shots are just too confusing when using Paro-ceaser. Bomberman has the best blue weapon due to the shockwaves that go far beyond the impact spots of those black bombs. It's a murderer when paired with 3 trailing options.

No complaints should be made about the duration of Star Parodier, its lengthy animated intro, the abundance of digitized voices, the nice zooming effects, the absolute lack of slowdown or that marvelous soundtrack, but one thing I missed from the game is a dedicated level/area with a motif specifically designed for the PC Engine character. Lots of places and bosses mimic things from Star Soldier, with stage 6 serving as a very nice homage to the Bomberman series, but the PC Engine emphasis seems to be solely in the cool pixel art that's shown in between stages.

Following the trend established in the Star Soldier games, besides the normal campaign the CD also offers a separate "battle stage" with 2 and 5-minute game modes for caravan fans, complete with two different soundtrack variations. General options allow players to choose from a normal or a vertical/cramped screen ratio, soft rapid ON or OFF (for an even faster firing rate that the default autofire) and the starting stage for the main course (1 to 4).

I have beaten the game with all characters, but decided to show the first 1CC high score I achieved playing with Paro-ceaser on my first credit, Normal difficulty (the default kanji in the options screen). In this run I almost bit the dust halfway into the game and also during all those phases of the last boss.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Salamander 2 (PSP)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 2007


I'm not the one to seriously tackle a twitchy game on any handheld console for a very simple reason: the screen is too small and I often drift my fingers on the d-pad or analog stick after a while, which in the case of shmups can make controlling the ship a real chore. So whenever I take out the PSP for serious play, for instance, I always send its signal to a TV so that the PSP itself functions as a different kind of controller.

On the case of Salamander 2 I did not do the above. I played exclusively on the tiny console for some hours late at night for three days, in order to participate in a friendly competition from a Whatsapp group. I had the earphones on, and by my side my daughter was sound asleep (yes, I'm her guardian knight).


The game is one of the titles included in the Salamander Portable compilation, an absolutely mandatory item in everyone's PSP collection whether you're a shmup fan or not. I never really thought I'd be able to loop it while lying down (sometimes uncomfortably) or sitting on a sofa in the quiet night, but I managed to pull it off so here I am, writing about it for the third time. You can click here for the first instance and here for the second one. They have descriptions of the gameplay, so I'll skip this part in this quick essay. As for the quality of the PSP port, everyone can rest assured it's arcade perfect.

Introduction of Salamander 2 on the PSP, horizontally stretched
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Besides saying that Salamander 2 is awesome, I could also add something in the lines of "Salamander 2 is Gradius for the lazy". As much as I'd be upsetting a few die-hard Gradius fans we all know this statement isn't that far from the truth (at least those who played this great game know that). You got speed-ups, missiles, lasers, options, shields and even half-options (option seeds) at the catch of a single item. Screw those endless capsules and the possibility of catching too many of them and missing the activation moment for that precious shield... If you've ever played a Gradius game and that doesn't ring any bells then Gradius certainly isn't for you.

On top of the unique pick-up items Salamander 2 also grants us with a neat homing attack that sacrifices half-options in exchange for an elegant way to deal with too many enemies or enemies behind walls. In many occasions, especially when I was learning how to play the game, I took this feature for granted or simply forgot about it, venturing into hairy situations that could've been solved more easily. Why perform stunts when such a great resource is at our disposal? Greedy players take note (myself included most of the time), all you lose for using this awesome attack is only half an option. Okay, you need to take the remaining option seed back , but you know what I mean.

Flames of death in stage 2

Was making the game harder when playing with Vic Viper (player 1) a nice touch by Konami? Well, it depends. It's tough to go with Vic Viper once you figure out the challenge gets a lot more manageable when choosing Super Cobra (player 2). Red over blue meaning extra items on bosses and less aggressive enemies sounds irresistible, right? I did try to play with Vic Viper for a little while, but with so much room for error due to my slips on the d-pad I soon returned to good old Super Cobra.

And that reminds I oughta finally tackle Super Cobra on the Playstation. I've been delaying that one for years, trying to make it get chosen in the selection windows of several friendly competitions. I should wait no more, I guess. Hopefully soon?

My score for the first loop of Salamander 2 on the PSP is below, playing at full defaults and dying on the first stage of the second loop. I had a few more runs after that but never came close to beating it again, and since my shmup mates moved on to another game I also decided to say goodbye. However, I do intend to come back to Salamander Portable for that lovely Gradius 2 release for the MSX, which had its choppy scrolling duly adjusted in this compilation.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Search & Destroy (Playstation 2)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
15 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Phoenix Games
Published by Phoenix Games in 2006


The horrors of a gaming library are usually a chapter of their own for collectors. Case in question: Search & Destroy for the Playstation 2. Why in hell would anyone put money and effort in products like these, that seem to have been developed to mock both Sony and gamers alike?

If there's anything redeeming about dealing with such crap is that the history surrounding some of the most infamous publishing companies lives on through our channels, like purulent spores spiking out of sick tissue. Leave it to us, masochistic players, to show everyone the way of the crap and help you avoid it, lest one of the products by Phoenix Games ends up falling onto people's laps.

It was a hot afternoon and I was stuck to a bureaucratic task in my room. I needed to vent some air but was too tired to invest my focus on anything minimally demanding, and there were so many boxes piling up everywhere that the only part of my shelves that I could reach was the PS2 section. So Search & Destroy it was. More Phoenix Games. However, having gone through Guerrilla Strike before, this time around I was prepared for whatever hid within that blue European case, asinine gameplay and boredom included.


Co-op action in Search & Destroy
(courtesy of YouTube user RetroDetect)

The year is 2050 AD. Two groups are fighting for an artifact. Your group is teleported into the enemy camp to capture the artifact. The mission is completed, but you are the only survivor. Your goal is to get out of there alive. Soon after this briefing is shown your helicopter is dropped over cloudy green pastures and the ordeal begins. Players have only one input at their disposal, which is button ×. The first stage drags and seems to last forever while uninspired waves of aerial enemies cross your path, but every once in a while some of the destroyed enemies will randomly leave behind an item for immediate pick-up.

Items can be either a power-up, a shield, an energy refill or an extra life. Power-ups are responsible for upgrading your firepower until you acquire a neat mix of fixed + bending homing shots when maxed out. The shield adds a 6-hit additional protection even though it also increases the already enormous hitbox of the helicopter. Finally, energy refills recover 40% of the vertical lifebar while extra lives can be stocked up to a maximum of 5.

Saying that Search & Destroy is boring is an understatement. Prepare to face fifteen long levels flying over farms, deserts, mountains/ravines and industrial landscapes whose texture seems to have been borrowed from those Magic Eye books (the single exception to that is an ice stage that appears only once). As for the enemy gallery, it's a sorry joke simply rearranged stage after stage. For example, those lonely tanks you see on ground level every now and then are just for show. Since the programmer apparently forgot to activate them, only aerial enemies are to be seen throughout the whole game as you listen to unremarkable music and sound effects that are often way too loud.

Search & Destroy is also very easy when you're fully powered up, yet dying in later stages leaves you quite underpowered, terminating the credit fast if you're not familiar with the enemy spawning routine. And since collisions are the only thing that can kill you or deplete the shield instantly, there is always one type of enemy per level that likes to enter the screen at a higher speed, thus offering some sort of actual peril to the player.

Get out of there alive!

Amidst all the mediocrity of the package, if we look closely to isolated aspects of the game it's possible to notice a few decent touches that could result in something at least less inane, had the developer tried to go beyond the trivial. The fully powered shot, for instance, has a rather satisfying animation. The zoom-out effect that's generously applied in co-op play could also have been used all over the place in a solo credit, and not only prior to those bosses at the end of stages 5, 10 and 15. Having more ice stages would also help marginally, as well as having the basic staple of one boss per level.

But alas!

We don't even get a proper opening or title screen at the start of Search & Destroy, just an access for co-op play and the options, which allow you to adjust audio volume and activate autosave/vibration if desired. I searched and I destroyed in between lots of pauses to resume work and have some sips of soda. Here's my final 1CC result:


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thunder Force IV (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1992


And here we have it. Thunder Force IV. One of the defining moments of the shmup genre during the 16-bit glory days.

I've been replaying the game on and off for a while now, savoring all those spiky corners of the wide open stages presented by Technosoft. Let's be honest, the company had a huge responsibility at hand back then, for surpassing the technical and critical success of Thunder Force III wasn't an easy task at all. And having lived my youth through those days, at the height of the 16-bit console wars, I can definitely vouch for the incredible anticipation created on its release. Nintendo lovers had Axelay, but Segaphiles had Thunder Force IV. As fans we did clash from time to time, but all in the name of healthy gaming. Oh how I miss those days!

In essence, Thunder Force IV amplifies everything about its predecessor. It's more ambitious in graphics, in music, in challenge, in scope, and by doing so it pushes the Mega Drive hardware to its limits. It's a beautiful game to look at either in motion or in screenshots, oozing with effects and diversity while offering an exhilarating, often over-the-top experience. Precisely because there's so much going on we get several moments of slowdown, the only real draw when comparing this entry to previous Mega Drive chapters. Fortunately it's the intelligent kind of slowdown, the one without any frame-skipping or jerkiness, which actually helps to tame the challenge during the busiest moments of the game. Nevertheless if you want to get rid of the slowdown without overclocking the console you can always go to the port released years later for the Sega Saturn in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 compilation.

One of the variations of the second mid-boss in the Bio-Base (8th) stage

Following one of the most amazing openings of all time, which sees the Rynex-R ship flying through the huge moving titles, Thunder Force IV kicks off by allowing players to choose the order of the first four levels (since it's so badass I always go for Strite first). The basic gameplay of Thunder Force III is preserved so you do everything with only three controller inputs: shot, speed selection and weapon selection (B, A and C in the default configuration). Just like before there are five weapons to choose from, but only the twin shot and the back shot are available at the start. They're also the only weapons you don't lose when you die using them. Weapon/power-ups available for pick-up consist of B (blade, upgrade for the twin shot), R (rail gun, upgrade for the back shot), S (snake), F (freeway) and H (hunter). Other obligatory items are the claw (adds two rotating satellites that enhance your firepower), the shield (can withstand three hits, turns red when all that remains is the last hit) and the extra life (a small ship that can also be hidden in tricky areas or must be shot at to appear).

All changes applied to the series beyond the weapon scheme add to the flexibility of the gameplay and the epicness of the story. Most stages now span more than a single screen, demanding multiple playthroughs so that you can explore everything. Each level is also a challenge in itself, with very strong motifs and great momentum build-up. Resource management is still the best way to conquer the game, with good balance between weapons and real need to tinker with the main speed settings especially when weaving through some of the maze-like corridors. Speed can even be adjusted in unit steps, just keep the speed selection button pressed and watch!

What I mentioned above could certainly be enough for people to name Thunder Force IV as the best shmup of the 16-bit generation, but another aspect that stands out is definitely presentation. The awesomeness of the opening titles are just the tip of the iceberg, which is then followed by several moments of cinematic grandeur. For example, a few massive enemies appear in key moments of the game, such as the alien battlecruiser that houses Strite's boss Gargoylediver and bridges the two halves of the journey in stage 5, as well as the invincible robot that takes on the role of harbinger of fate when that ship goes down in flames. Parallax galore, fluid transitions between levels, turrets firing into the screen in the Air Raid stage, high speed scrambles, they're all neat and cool but the wildest bit is reserved for the end of stage 5, when the ship receives a "mohawk" add-on that allows players to trigger the almighty thunder sword, the ultimate weapon in the game.

Using the thunder sword is pretty simple, but you need to have at least the rotating satellitles provided by the claw (which also receive a make-over at the end of stage 5). When you stop shooting the satellites will glow with energy, discharging a potent sword-shaped beam at the press of the fire button. In fact, the thunder sword is so powerful that it pushes the ship backwards a little bit, an aftereffect that can kill you if you're too close to a wall. Using the thunder sword wisely is key to dispatching enemies and bosses faster and more elegantly. Just note that there are two charge levels, with the quicker charge resulting in a shorter reach.


How to open a game with absolute awesomeness
(courtesy of YouTube user DethKikr)

Bosses in Thunder Force IV are able to put up a good fight, and even some mid-bosses have what it takes to keep you on your toes. Most of them are quite creative, menacing or just plain stubborn, frequently equipped with multi-jointed limbs. One of the highlights is the insect lair of the 8th stage, which is preceded by a rather tortuous path and a series of insidious mid-bosses. The whole soundtrack is remarkable, but the music in this particular level has got to be one of the most memorable of all times in the shmup genre. If I haven't done it yet I always crank up the volume when I get there.

The inherent awesomeness evoked at all corners of the game is obvious, but I admit the gameplay requires some getting used to at times due to issues often related to bullet visibility. Regular ones tend to be shiny and can get foreshadowed by explosions or be consufed with backgrounds, while stage 9 has these sonic-like projectiles fired by the mid-boss that are a bit tricky to spot due to some weird color choices. There's also the odd nature the blade weapon, whose sprites are very large and can't do much damage against restricted targets such as Gargoylediver's weak spot. If Strite is your first choice for level the remedy for that is either not upgrading twin shot to blade at all until you get there or taking the hidden freeway in that same level (fire at the bottom of the screen as the ship goes underwater, right before the extra life located at mid screen).

Continuing with the series tradition, great performances are rewarded with nice bonuses during the game and after the ending (one of the most emotional of that era in my opinion). Every surplus item is worth 10.000 points each, so getting out of your way to get all those power-ups is very important for score-chasers. At the end, every extra life and unused credit adds even more points, but the most important reward of all is the huge no-miss bonus of no less than 2 million points. Difficulty plays a part as well, with Maniac obviously granting a higher bonus in the end. Options can be seen by pressing A, B or C + START at the titles, allowing players to choose other difficulties, select distinct controller configurations and even set the default ship speed.

In one of those inexplicable marketing stunts, Sega of America decided to release the game in US as Lightening Force - Quest for the Dark Star, which obviously made me go after the original Japanese release (against my policy of always getting the Western version of a game whenever possible). I heard that besides granting a huge score addition in the end the US version also has a slightly lower difficulty. No matter which variation you decide to play, be warned that Thunder Force IV is one of the few Mega Drive cartridges programmed with region lock. The high score below was made during a no-miss run on a completely Japanese set (cart + console), Normal difficulty, and represents an improvement of 81% over my previous best. Note that beating the game unlocks several omake songs that can be heard in the options.


Next: Thunder Force V or Thunder Force V - Perfect System?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mission Cobra (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sachen
Published by Bunch Games in 1990


All hail the mighty hands of Sachen, for yet another unlicensed shooter made by the company once again graces the records of this humble completionist blog! I still remember the day this game was brought to my attention by my fellow shmupper Ben, along with the ever-so-enticing British denominator that often tags along with titles of this caliber. By that time we used to hunt down all shooters that were still missing from our collections, and being the fanatic that I am I still felt the urge to go after Mission Cobra even after he told me the game was bloody awful.

Given the fact that the original Eastern name of the game is Sidewinder, it's perfectly understandable why Bunch Games changed it to Mission Cobra. If you're going to pilot a helicopter, why not have it be bastardly related to classic Konami and Toaplan for great injustice? If there once was Super Cobra and later on players had to face the evil clutches of Twin Cobra, why not finally endure the ultimate NES challenge imposed by Mission Cobra? You can do it solo or you can force a friend to do it with you. I tried to get a buddy but I failed.

Okay, I'm lying. I was all by myself.

First hideous boss

Although the enemy sprites change a bit from one level to the next, the structure of all stages in Mission Cobra is exactly the same: two initial enemy waves, a face-off with a pair of "black patrolling choppers", another enemy wave, a section with fast scrolling and then the boss. Enemy waves across stages behave the exactly same way, such as the first foes retreating before touching the bottom of the screen (stay there and you'll be safe), the second type bouncing back from the bottom and the final wave flying past you. It's kinda like having an upgraded Atari 2600 game on the NES, which is sort of charming for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately Mission Cobra becomes boring even faster that you'd normally expect, starting with the atrocious low-key humming that's supposed to serve as soundtrack.

The core of the gameplay starts with weapons fired by button A, each one activated by collecting the corresponding icon randomly left behind by destroyed enemies. There's the default single straight shot, a double shot, a triple shot, a 3-way spread shot and a cross-pattern 4-way shot. The more streams you have the lower the firing rate, with no autofire in sight (yes, you should have a turbo controller to play this one). There are no visual upgrades for sticking to the same item, but if you do it eventually you'll notice the ship moving faster and being able to fire more shots per screen. Since you're only powered down when you finally die and lose the credit, that's the main reason why Mission Cobra actually gets easier as the stages go by.

Regardless of how lame Mission Cobra is at least one aspect about it stands out, for which the game might be remembered by many: the fuel scheme that drains your energy as you play. Unless you collect energy refills you'll eventually deplete the fuel tank even if you don't get hit. An empty tank doesn't mean death, but the credit will be instantly over once you touch a bullet or an enemy in that condition. Fortunately there are many ways to preserve fuel, so many that the resulting item gallery for refills is a complete mess.


Wow, that's a really blue sea
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

Starting out with E66, your reserve either steadily goes down towards E00 (zero) or sinks fast as you get hit by bullets or rammed by enemies; a large red potion sends you back to E66 whereas a red droplet refills E10; each patrolling chopper at mid-stage gives you six energy pockets for an extra E30, any weapon item gives a plus of E05 and once the boss is beaten another E30 is added to the fuel gauge. Now for the catch: energy pockets from patrolling choppers allow you to reach a maximum of E99, but there's no limit to how high you can go on droplets, weapon items and boss refills (HEX codes appear above E99). On the other hand, no matter where your fuel reserve stands a single red potion will send you back to E66. This means that both the red potion and the energy pockets can be detrimental to the fuel reserve if you have more than E67 or EA0, respectively. Finally, there's also an invincibility item that freezes the fuel consumption while protecting the chopper from all harm.

The major issue in Mission Cobra is that it throws so many fuel refill items that the challenge never really picks up. If only fuel items got scarcer with each loop things wouldn't be that bad, but alas! It takes just a little practice to play the game forever, especially when you figure out how much more effective the 3-way shot is. With just three stages that loop indefinitely with piss-poor graphics for sea, sky and outer space, the game also counts with simplistic bosses that at least can't be milked for points because only regular enemies are worth something.

It's only possible to see your score or high score in the stat screen that appears in between levels. The screen below shows what I had after stage 10 (4-1) before giving up on the game. If I remember correctly at that point a had a fuel reserve above ED0 (E130).

Monday, October 30, 2017

Crisis Force (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991


With the inevitable arrival of the 16-bit generation, by 1991 the Famicom wasn't as important as before in the video game scene. Even though Konami was obviously moving forward with the development of new 16-bit titles, the company was still brave enough to deliver a late testament to the wonders of the NES hardware in the form of Crisis Force. Unfortunately the game was never released out of Japan, most probably because it used special cartridge components that would certainly require more work than usual in the porting process (a fate that also hit more famous titles such as Gradius II). One of the direct results of such fate is that since I've started collecting video games Crisis Force has always been a rather expensive cartridge.

First of all, it's okay to believe the hype when you hear people talking about how impressive this game is. In a sense, it's as if Konami had brought to the NES many of the effects and gameplay traits seen in 16-bit titles only, such as the densely layered parallax scrolling of some levels. And even if there isn't any explicit or official info in the credits, there is undeniable suspicion of Compile having worked on Crisis Force given how it sometimes feels like a Compile-developed title. A mercenary job from the competition or just pure homage? I can't be sure, but when it comes down to the game itself it certainly has everything you'd expect from a rock-solid 8-bit shmup: graphics, music, challenge and great fun factor.


The fate of the world rests on the shoulders of Asuka and Maya (Easy diff.)
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

One of the aspects that make Crisis Force such an accomplishment is the clever way the NES controller is used, after all you can do a lot with just two buttons. Button II fires and button I can either work as a form switch or as a bomb. Whenever you're firing and button I is pushed a bomb is detonated, whereas a press of button I when you're not shooting will switch the ship's sprites to one of three forms: there's the default forward shot pattern, a secondary form that also shoots backwards and a third one which emphasizes lateral forepower. All forms also have two variations of each weapon dictated by the color of the power-ups you come across: blue endows the ship with even faster firing rates, red results in more powerful and intelligent shots (with wider reach, rotating shields or homing abilities). Blue and red power-ups are the only ones that cycle, and between each other only.

Each weapon can be upgraded three times by sticking to the same power-up. Upon getting hit the ship reverts back to its default status, and any shot taken at this condition means you'll lose a life. Regardless of how powered-up you are, a special badge-shaped item can be taken and stocked, and whenever 5 of them are collected the ship changes into a special form with timed duration and its own dedicated laser pattern. Further badges collected while in this form serve to extend it, getting hit shortens it and when the time is over the ship reverts back to its normal state (in co-op mode the special form combines both players into one ship where player one controls firepower and player 2 controls movement).

Other items players will come across are speed-ups (blue S), speed-downs (red S) and extra bombs (B). For my experience the ship never gets too fast, so I'll always take all speed-ups that come my way. Who knows, maybe they are actually worth something? And why do I ask this? Well, Konami seems to have sacrificed something in order to make Crisis Force such an astonishing game when in motion, after all the only functional info you can see during stages are your lives and the amount of bombs you're carrying. I's only possible to have a glimpse of your score in-between levels or in the GAME OVER screen, which means that during a full credit the last you'll be able to see of your score is the one that's displayed briefly once the 6th boss is defeated.

Damn it, Konami!

Third boss

The opening to Crisis Force is straight to the point and shows twin siblings waking up to their true legacy after Tokyo is bombarbed by an alien fleet. You'll see them again if you manage to overcome seven areas filled enemies and guarded by bosses that tend to be large and move all over the screen. Even though there are opportunities for milking I couldn't find any spot where it'd be possible to safely break the game, so eventually all enemies will perish. Ancient grounds compose a good chunk of the gameplay with Egyptian motifs in more than one level, as well as volcanoes and a sci-fi touch that reaches its peak in the boss rush of the final stage. Each weapon/ship can be handy in several parts of the game, even though the weapons fired by the default ship are the most powerful ones. Nevertheless it's very important to always get a power-up upon getting hit and not be greedy with bombs, especially in areas where enemies tend to enter the screen attacking with no prior warning.

Speaking of bombs, it's also important to mention that every ship form has a specific bomb animation. For the straight shot we get a round blast that expands outwards, the rear shot blows up a hole that sucks everything around it and the side shot sees the ship disintegrating and reintegrating again while being invincible. The best one in my opinion is the round blast, even if it doesn't come with invincibility. By the way, abusing the invincibility window that comes with the ship's special form is a safe way to deal with tricky passages, at least while you're learning them. Aggression and brute force is always the best alternative if you know what lies ahead. From what I could notice extends are granted with 50, 100 and 200 thousand points with another probable one at 400K.

If there's one thing that's technically below other aspects of the game is the soundtrack. It's a good one, but there's repetition of BGMs and none of them is actually mind blowing. It's interesting to note though that the boss theme seems to have been honored with a new rendition in the amazing Judgement Silversword, which in some ways is a successor to the 8-bit tour de force presented in Crisis Force.

The picture below shows my score right after I beat the 6th boss on my way to a 1CC on Normal difficulty. It's most likely the worst photo I have ever taken in the history of this blog because is was daytime and my cell phone hasn't been in its best shape for weeks now. In any case it should read 325.300, and that's my goodbye to this excellent little shooter.

Monday, October 16, 2017

In the Hunt (Saturn)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Kokopeli in 1996 (US)


In a post-apocalyptic world flooded by an evil force called Dark Anarchy Society (DAS), the only hope for the thriving humans is a special submarine designed to crush the enemy's ultimate weapon. The journey takes place throughout six stages of exquisitely crafted graphics, in a colorful mayhem that sees the player battling all sorts of creatures and military gear. It's a peculiar shooter that plays like nothing else, and also quite unique within Irem's library. Due to its aesthetical similarities with the Metal Slug games, which came later and were designed by practically the same team, In the Hunt could even be mistaken as a Neo Geo product.

In the Hunt (Kaitei Daisensou in Japanese) is indeed a special game among its shmup peers, as I mentioned above, mainly because of its flow. The gameplay is extremely methodical, less frantic and completely open to the pace dictated by the player since it uses a push-scroll scheme. The emphasis is in hazard management, not dodging bullets (dodging is still there, but in minimal doses and only in the last couple of levels). Abusive lethargy is avoided by a huge timer that blows the sub to shreds (no more oxygen?) once it reaches zero, which in turn inhibits infinite milking. Speaking of lethargy and coming from games that moved a lot faster, I was negatively struck when trying out this Saturn port. It feels even slower than the Playstation version I beat a while ago, but after a couple of credits the game won me over again so I decided to play it to the end.

The only problem of the Saturn port for In the Hunt, at least the US longbox variation, is that it comes with a few changes and scoring glitches. Though these are not of the gamebreaking kind, they certainly make it ineligible for comparisons with other versions of the game.

Coming back from death against the second boss

Our chubby submarine can fire torpedoes with button A, drop mines with button B and perform both actions with button C, the only input with native autofire. Torpedo types are switched by collecting the corresponding power-up that cycles colors: impact torpedoes (red/default), supersonic torpedoes (blue) and exploding torpedoes (green). There are also two types of mines, which differ in the way the auxiliary weaponry is fired towards the surface: floating mines when submerged and machinegun at surface level (A) or missiles when submerged + homing missiles at surface level (M). Each weapon can be powered up three times by sticking to the same color/letter.

Besides power-ups, players can also collect treasure balls with stars in them. Star count is displayed to the sides of the timer and contributes with one extra life for every 100 star points collected. Small stars are worth 1 point, big stars are worth 5 points, and in every serious credit it's possible to get at least two extra lives by taking treasure balls. Additionally, you should also know that each surplus item when you're at a maxed-out condition will also add 1 star point to this counter.

In the Hunt can be many things, except hectic. Most of the time haste leads to stupid deaths, so no matter what lies ahead caution is always the best alternative. Don't rush to get that item, don't move too far at the risk of being overwhelmed by more than what you can deal with. Wait and only then move. The abusive slowdown can be a pain and almost seems to bring the game to a halt at times (during the fight against the 5th boss, for instance), but eventually you learn to live with it. There is, however, an inexplicable change that required an adjustment to my previous approach in the gameplay: the clusters of the exploding torpedo (green type) are arranged horizontally instead of vertically, which drastically alters is function when compared to the arcade original or the Playstation version. Why the heck did this happen, I wonder?

Stage 1 - The South Pole
(courtesy of YouTube user Euro Retro Gamer)

Besides the unnecessary change to the green torpedo, this port also doesn't seem to have the same scoring rules as other versions. Overall you seem to score less for killing the same waves/enemies, and there's a bug that happens every time you keep the firing button pressed in between levels: if you do this the score you should get by destroying the boss is not computed at all! And no matter how I dismantled the forms of the last boss, sometimes I just scored nothing during the fight. As much as I tried to figure out what was going on I couldn't do it, it's just that messed up so eventually I gave up.

Of course the alterations mentioned above do not take away from the fact that this is still a fun shooter. Each stage has its own particular setting and feel, with highlights being the harbor entry at the second stage (which screams of Metal Slug), the escape from a stone monster that needs to be bombarded with falling rocks to be defeated in stage 3 and the epic final level and its sequence of indestructible giant torpedoes that force you to open tiny gaps between them in order to proceed. The difficulty picks up in the final stretch of the game, which certainly has a good dose of epicness to it, so that kinda balances out the sluggishness that might scare some players away. For those who care, the soundtrack is remixed and there's an additional animated opening in this port.

Once I got the clear I lost interest in improving my score simply because I got no points whatsoever from beating the last boss, as you can see in the picture below. The game was played on Normal difficulty.


Interesting note about DAS, the recurring villainous force from Irem's arcade games that appears as main antagonist in In The Hunt, Geo Storm and Undercover Cops: this source says that if In the Hunt is beaten in 2-player mode both players will then fight each other for the final control over DAS. Now that's a cool objective to have if a friend decides to play the game with me!