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!

Friday, September 8, 2017

S.C.A.T. (NES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Natsume
Published by Natsume in 1991


Have you ever wondered what would happen if Contra merged with Forgotten Worlds? Well... S.C.A.T. is one of the possible answers. In fact, it's as if the characters from Contra had suddenly acquired the ability to fly, and given the sci-fi backdrop we could even take this game as a spin-off evolution for Konami's platformer classic. Known as Final Mission in Japan and Action in New York in Europe and Australia, S.C.A.T. is a short for Special Cybernetic Attack Team, the last hope of mankind against the threat brought about by an alien invader called Vile Malmort.

Yes, the name also reminded me of that little literary phenomenon about a wizard kid.

Let it be known that I have played the North American released of S.C.A.T., whose differences to the other versions go a little beyond what could be called merely aesthetical. The most evident visual change from the original release titled Final Mission is that in S.C.A.T. you can assume the roles of either "Arnold"or "Sigourney" as you start the credit. The game rides high on the movie hype and even shows their likenesses in the character selection screen for a 1-player campaign (when in co-op player 1 will always be Arnold and player 2 will always be Sigourney). In game there's no difference at all between them except for sprite color (he is blue, she is orange/red). Still on the movie hype thing, note how Back to the Future is openly referenced at the title font.


The Earth is counting on you! Good luck!
(courtesy of YouTube user Video Game Previews)

Since you start playing on a devastated New York and proceed into outer space territory, the game certainly shows a neat environment progression that loosely matches the increase in difficulty. Button B is used to fire while button A locks and unlocks the firing position of the twin satellites that move above and below the character. It's not possible to lock the character firing direction as in other bidirectional shooters, so a little bit of caution must be used to take care of all incoming hazards. That's when the secondary shot provided by the twin satellites is useful, since they can hit enemies positioned in different angles.

By destroying a small gray crate an item is uncovered for immediate pick-up. Don't wait too long to collect the desired ones, for they will soon catch up with the scrolling speed and go away. Weapon types consist of L (laser), W (wide spread) and B (bomb). My favorite one is the wide shot because it combines the faster firing rate of the laser with the power of the bomb. The instruction manual says the laser can shoot through some walls but that poses no advantage when the weapon is simply so weak, whereas the concussive force provided by the explosive bombs suffer from a capped shooting rate of only one shell at a time. None of these weapons can be upgraded nor have any influence on the firepower of the satellites.

The remaining item types appear as S (speed-up) and R (health recovery). Speed-ups can be collected at will because the characters will never move too fast. Each R refills three slices of the health meter, which should never reach zero or else it's instant GAME OVER. At the start of the credit you get six health/life blocks, and besides collecting the recovery items you also get extra single refills at predefined scoring intervals, which I assume to be 10.000 points. The reason for the "assuming" part is that the score isn't shown anywhere while you're playing, only at the establishing panel prior to the start of the level.

Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on the orbiting platform

Stages in S.C.A.T. are of decent length for an 8-bit shmup, but the game feels very short nonetheless. Named the "Astrotube", stage 3 has a vertical part where you fly really fast inside an ascending shaft towards outer space; unfortunately visibility takes a little punch there because the color choices aren't the most reasonable. In stage 4 players fly around a huge battleship with lots of cheap lasers that enter the screen already shooting and give little to no response time for reaction; the tip is to remain as close to the battleship's hull as possible, after all there's no harm in touching surfaces. Beware of the scenery though, instant GAME OVER occurs if you get stuck and caught up by the scrolling effect.

In the final area the challenge picks up a notch, with blue lasers fired from invincible turrets bouncing around the screen and leaving little room for maneuvering. I had to continue a few times there to get comfortable with the level. As for bosses, they're all quite varied and at times creepy, but none of them offers any decent resistance whatsoever. Besides the fitting soundtrack, the boss gallery is the aspect that reminds me the most of Natsume's previous NES shooter Abadox. There are a few other traits that seem to bleed over between both titles, but in general S.C.A.T. comes off as more generic and doesn't feel as accomplished as Abadox. For its shallow nature at least it's reasonably fun, something that can't be said about Japanese Final Mission: that one has only three health cells, weaker weapons, severe power-down penalties and no recovery items at all. Ouch.

The opening moments of S.C.A.T. include a cool animated intro and a digitized voice message cheering players after the mission is started. That goes a long way in setting the mood for what's to come, but I wish the consumed resources had been used for more noble *shooting* purposes. My final 1CC score using Arnold is below (don't reset the console or that hi-score number will be reset as well).

Friday, September 1, 2017

Gradius IV (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by KCET in 2000


With the release of this compilation in 2000, Gradius fans were finally getting the cream of the crop in regards to the arcade chapters of the series. Most interesting is the fact that Gradius IV had been released just a year prior, exactly 10 years after Gradius III and a couple of years since Gradius Gaiden had hit the previous video game generation on the Playstation. I'd certainly be thrilled to play an arcade-perfect port so soon after launch, even though these days the general concensus is that the fourth arcade chapter falls a little flat in its attempt to continue the legacy held by Gradius Gaiden. This is certainly debatable, but regardless of any relative merits gamers ought to pay respect to Gradius IV, after all it still stands as the last Gradius game ever released for the arcades.

By choosing to play Gradius IV in this disc players are welcomed by a rather different experience to the one posed by the excruciating Gradius III. Up front there’s the higher resolution for graphics and a series of neat graphical effects. Coupled with a more straightforward set of gameplay options, these aesthetical refinements end up creating a very distinct visual identity, one that builds upon the colorful design of Gradius Gaiden while recycling a few key areas of previous chapters. Checkpoints are still to blame for the perceived excessive difficulty, but the good news is that no matter where you die in Gradius IV it will always be possible to get back up with some practice and patience. This alone corrects one of the issues that made arcade Gradius III such a legendary nightmare... Impossible checkpoints are a bitch and not so many people are willing to deal with them.

This time around Vic Viper returns to battle all alone with fixed weapon configurations, as opposed to the different ship types and weapon edit modes of Gradius III and Gradius Gaiden. There are six variations to choose from, plus the mandatory choice of shield or force field. Regardless of the chosen configuration, all upgrades are applied with collected power-up capsules and proper management of the weapon array, which evolves in the following order: speed-up, missiles, double/tailgun, laser, options, shield. Screen-clearing gray capsules appear from time to time, as well as the option thief bug if you manage to survive long enough while powered up to the max.

A postcard from battle

The first four configuration/ship types have already been seen in previous games and are very familiar, but the last two come with some new ideas. Type 5 introduces vertical mines as missiles, which take advantage of the ship's momentum so that players can perform crazy stunts with them. Type 6 has flying torpedoes that are naturally fired forward when using rapid missile, or travel vertically and dart forward by holding and releasing the missile button (not rapid); upon touching surfaces the flying torpedoes will then move forward. I dabbled a bit with them and then decided for type 6, but the determining factor was the laser: type 5 has a long pink laser that takes forever to recharge, whereas type 6 comes with the best laser in the game, plus the much useful tailgun instead of double. For button layout I had rapid shot/missile set to ×, missile set to □ and power-up set to R2.

By the way, there's a common idea about Gradius IV that all lasers suck when compared with the default shot, except for type 6's twin laser.

In keeping with the tradition of the arcade titles, double upgrades for missiles and laser as seen in Gradius Gaiden are gone. Rank is still in place and contributes a lot to the increase in difficulty the more powered up you are and the longer you survive. If you play the game long enough it's possible to know how hairy things are gonna get depending on your performance. Fortunately, as mentioned above, Gradius IV will never make you outright give up on certain checkpoints as Gradius III did, and that's a great plus in my opinion. Never mind how stage select mode is obtained here (by 1CCing the game, altered lives/difficulty allowable), after I got it unlocked I used it only for a short while on the moai level. Then I decided to hammer the game the old fashioned way, that is, by continuing multiple times and as long as I needed to get comfortable with every single stage.

Speaking of stages, allow me to break them down and add some insights for reference:
  1. Liquid metal – The opening stage screams of Gradius II all over, in fact it seems to be just a repaint of the first level from that game. The boss has three different second forms, all quite easy although one of them gives a few more points for some mild milking.
  2. Plant – The biological environment is quite distinct from the plant stages seen in previous chapters. There's this cool type of plant that shrinks when hit and bursts out with a slingshot effect unless you’re able to destroy its base roots first.
  3. Bubble – A beautiful level made very tricky by the mixing of bubbles from Gradius III and ice cubes from Gradius II. Dismantling large bubbles isn’t as simple as it was before, nor is it that easy to navigate around the indestructible ice cubes. The idea is to keep the left side of the screen free of bubbles so that the ice cubes will drift away to the left. For the boss the most important thing is to prioritize the bubbles and not the core, since the boss moves slowly and its lasers can be easily avoided.
  4. Magma – The second half of this stage is what attracted my attention and made me want to finally play Gradius IV. It’s kinda like flying into the innards of the sun, you can almost feel the heat when weaving through the volcanoes moving over the lava stream.
  5. Moai – If there’s a reason why I hate moai, this is it. They must also hate me back, for this time they’re even able to reform themselves upon death in the second part of the level. Jokes aside, this is the busiest and most intense stage in the game, borderline frightening for an outsider. My strategy was to use laser, devise a basic route for at least 70% of the level and never stay put unless there’s a wall protecting me. Laser is also great against the boss if you manage to clear the way to his mouths before they open.
  6. Cell – Another level where despair is a constant companion. The spores breaking out of destroyed pipes/arteries are almost as annoying as the moai statues, and the return of the tentacle creatures from Gradius in the second half is overwhelming at high rank. After a couple of deaths you’d better just avoid the things and let them move away. I quite like the fight against boss Berial because he makes you move around a lot, which reminds me of Crystal Core.
  7. High speed – It took me some time to finally come to grips with the moving parts of the level. The very last section also needed some careful maneuvers because I only used two speed-ups. As for the boss, it’s actually one of the easiest foes in the game if you get there with at least three options.
  8. Boss rush – Finally a boss rush that understands players, you don’t have to fight the defeated enemies anymore! The bad news is that the pre-stage with the capsule blocks that home into the ship is probably the hardest one in the whole series.
  9. Fortress – Even though it’s got its share of tight passages, hatches and cannons, the final stage in Gradius IV is a lot less stressing than, say, the final stage of Gradius III, not to mention shorter and totally approachable upon death. The final tricky part is a new section with spring-loaded cylinders, after that you proceed to an easy take on the mechanical beast prior to the grand finale.
To the fortress on one life, then panicking through the rest of the credit

Looking back in retrospect, Gradius IV had it all to be the best title in the series. There are however a few key aspects that undermine its appreciation, especially for seasoned fans. One of them is the evident unbalance in difficulty, made explicit by some petty boss encounters and a couple of challenge spikes that feel clearly displaced. Case in question: moai and cell. Given how oppressive these stages are, seeing them for the first time at full rank can be frightening. I was in awe of how much pressure one has to endure there! And then when you get past that you face a comparably easier stretch until reaching the final fortress. I certainly can't complain, but this definitely isn't good for the game's pace/flow. As for bosses, Rolling Core (high speed) and Planet Core (boss rush) are a disappointment. Fortunately all other bosses are relatively engaging, except for the first and the last ones of course. The other minor aspect that might cause some controversy is the soundtrack, which is nice but gets kinda sappy in the final stage.

When coming directly from Gradius III, as was my case, the fourth chapter certainly feels more relaxed and less hard even though it's not an easy game by any means. Like I mentioned above, it obviously wins lots of points for having no impossible checkpoints, but it still has them and getting comfortable with the most delicate ones can take quite some time. As usual, Gradius fans will feel at home while neophites will feel the pain and most probably yell in protest. The extend routine starts at 70.000 points, continues at 150.000 points and proceeds with extra lives awarded at every 150.000 points afterwards, so it's not that many extra chances in a first loop campaign. The second loop brings lots of changes in the scenery, to the point that it feels like a completely different game and a completely distinct challenge.

On the scoring side of things, the game is even more simple than its predecessors. Power-up capsules are worthless, and enemies killed with the gray capsule don't result in any points whatsoever. A little milking is possible in certain areas or bosses, but nothing major. What's most important, as it has always been with this series, is the sense of fun and the larger than life feeling of defeating a powerful enemy against all odds. It feels grand, it makes you feel powerful like few other old school shmups do.

The Gradius IV branch in the Gradius III and IV disc has the abovementioned stage select feature unlocked with a 1CC (which also unlocks a boss rush mode), auto save and the ability to choose full screen or the original arcade resolution (which produce minor horizontal bars on a regular TV). Since the game already runs at its native speed, a wait/slowdown option like the one seen in Gradius III does not apply here. My final high score was obtained in difficulty 4 (medium), type 6 configuration + force field, arcade resolution. I was able to reach stage 2-2.


Next: Gradius V.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Blue Wish Resurrection (PC)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by X.X Game Room
Published by X.X Game Room in 2006


Blue Wish Resurrection is the first PC freeware game I am covering in the blog, and for very good reasons. The main one is that it's loads of fun. And then there's the fact that you can run it on pretty much any computer, anywhere. Finally, in my opinion it represents a great starting point for people who want to get into the world of bullet hell shooters, and here's the direct download link if you want to check it before reading any further. Just unzip the file anywhere, find the executable and run it (for fullscreen change the first character of screen.txt from 0 to 1).

This game is an evolution to Blue Wish, which was released in 2005, and comes before a final iteration called Blue Wish Resurrection Plus, last updated in 2008. They were all created by the same one-man Japanese developer and owe a lot to the works by Cave, most notably Dodonpachi (treatment of weapons) and Ketsui (bullet patterns / scoring system), with lesser contributions by Mushihimesama (game modes), Espgaluda (Accel mode) and even Giga Wing (Blue Hope shot pattern similar to Sinnosuke's).

The inspiration sources mentioned above should be enough to warrant anyone's trust in the quality of this game, even though it doesn't shine in any particular way regarding the graphic design. As implied by its name, a blueish hue permeates the graphics in Blue Wish Resurrection, and while the humble art certainly gets the job done what really shines is the non-stop action dictated by an ever-growing amount of enemy bullets and a good deal of intensity, which of course represents one of the main reasons why Cave games are so rewarding gameplaywise.

Where do I go from here, boss?

First of all you need to configure three essential inputs: (focused) shot, bomb and full auto (autofire). By keeping shot pressed the speed of the ship will be reduced, whereas bombs behave differently depending on which type of shot you're using. If idle or using full auto a round bomb blast will be detonated right in front of the ship, while a bomb deployed when using shot will greatly enhance your firepower for a few seconds. Both bomb types make the ship immediately invincible during their respective animations. Cave fans will be right at home here, since this is the same scheme used in almost all vertical shooters made by the company.

Game modes consist of Heaven, Original, Hell and Accel. Heaven is aimed at beginners, Original is your regular bullet hell shooter and Hell is kinda like the Ultra mode from Cave games. Accel mirrors the effect of the kakusei overmode from Espgaluda, which makes bullets increase speed as they travel farther, and is chosen by pressing down when the cursor is over Hell. There are initially two ships to choose from, Blue Wish and Blue Hope, which differ mostly in the way the regular shot works. P items are responsible for upgrading firepower, B items grant you extra bombs and golden cubes add to the bonus counter at the top of the screen. Besides these basic gameplay rules a few common staples of the bullet hell shooter are also present in Blue Wish Resurrection, such as the ship's hitbox appearing as you play (focused shot keeps it on even when you're moving) and the presence of health bars for all large enemies so that you know how much damage you need to inflict in order to destroy them.

When talking about the amount of damage on large enemies we automatically go beyond mere survival and enter the domain of the scoring system, which is of course where all shmuppers are bound to arrive eventually. Anyway, the death of a large enemy cancels all nearby bullets (sometimes all on-screen bullets) and turns them into bonus golden cubes. Timing these events in order to convert the maximum amount of bullets must be one of the objectives for score-driven players. Also important and kinda related is point blanking, since the farther you are from the top of the screen the lower the value of the golden cubes will be. Finally, every level has several hidden ground fountains from which golden cubes emerge and are sucked into the ship as long as they're on screen. Just fly over the terrain and shoot these hidden spots to uncover them - obviously the sooner you uncover the chests the more cubes you'll collect in the end.

One of the features that makes Blue Wish Resurrection friendly to beginners is "auto guard". Activated by default, auto guard is a resource that prevents you from dying by sacrificing one of your bombs while wiping all enemy bullets. This means that if you have 5 bombs in stock you can get hit 5 times before biting the dust in the final blow. Even though using auto guard is perfectly okay and certainly helps players achieve the much desired 1-credit clear, it also brings a bit of laziness to the table because it inevitably reduces the importance of bombing. On the other hand, "guarding" is detrimental to scoring because each extra life upon game completion is worth 2 million points instead of the 2,5 million you get with auto guard set to OFF. Regardless of having it on or off there's a 1/3 penalty loss in cube count whenever you get hit, which of course leads us to the conclusion that bombing is always better than guarding when playing for score.

Blue Hope, Original mode, auto guard OFF
(courtesy of YouTube user Giest118)

As one can see, the risk/reward ratio is finely interwoven into the mechanics of the game. Speaking of Original, my chosen game mode, the jump in difficulty from one level to the next represents one of the most clear difficulty slopes I've ever seen in the genre, in that the leaps in bullet speed/density and enemy aggression require immediate stepping up from the player. There is no rank, no such thing as point blank safe zones exist and slowdown is nowhere to be seen (intentional or not, in Windows 10 at least). Halfway into the game you are already required to perform at least some minor crowd control in order to survive, let alone study realiable ways to come out alive from the most intricate boss/mid-boss patterns without bombing because, you know, at the end of the level you get several bonuses for number of lives, bombs and cube count, among others. Note: cube count starts decreasing during every boss battle, so a compromise must be made between speed-killing and timing the destruction of boss parts in order to finish the level with the maximum amount of cubes possible.

Besides the regular score-based extends granted with 4 and 10 million there's a hidden 1UP to be taken in stage 3, which is the only essential secret players need to know: uncover all 10 cube fountains within the level and fire in the middle of the screen right before the boss with regular shot. Other minor secrets consist of a different ship color (press bomb instead of shot at the selection screen), new ships unlocked by beating/1CCing the game in Heaven and Original modes and a true last boss only unlocked by 1CCing Hell mode starting at least in stage 5. For those who care, extra ships and the TLB can be accessed faster by means of a couple of cheat files provided by the developer (check them here). All other pertaining data regarding the game can be found here, whereas data on all games by X.X Game Room can be found here. It's all in Japanese, but Google Translate is our friend.

Make no mistake, this is the best free and fun bullet hell shooter you're bound to get. Even with the brutal action of its final stretch, Blue Wish Resurrection definitely has that one-more-go factor that comes with all great shooters, catered to all skill levels thanks to the different modes available. In the beginning I used to switch the songs in the game to my favorite rock tunes (just replace them in the correct folder), but ultimately decided to go with the original soundtrack, an energetic collection of tunes that perfectly fit the action. The ability to save/watch replays is very welcome (saving is disabled if you pause though), as well as a practice mode for all stages and bosses you're able to reach in a normal credit. Players can also change the color of enemy bullets and alter the volume of music and sound effects in the options.

My high scores for Original mode playing with Blue Wish are pictured below, with the best one achieved with auto guard ON. To my sadness only the analog pad of my Xbox 360 controller worked, but alas! At one point I had auto guard OFF for the sake of forcing myself to properly learn the game, then switched it back on so that I could have the leeway of not dying for common mistakes, a more advantageous condition for players of my skill level.