Monday, June 30, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox Assault

Star Fox Assault
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release: Nintendo GameCube, 14 February 2005
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator / Third-person shooter)
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Memory Card, 5 Blocks
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$15-30
Star Fox fans just can't catch a break, eh? Considering how rarely new games come out for this series, you'd think Star Fox 64 is its only entry. There's the first game on the Super NES, which runs about as well as a car with square wheels, so we might as well forget about that. Five years of waiting for a follow-up to SF64 left us with Star Fox Adventures, Rare's swan song as a second-party developer for Nintendo, took so many pages from The Legend of Zelda's book that it apparently lost its identity as a Star Fox game. No, I'm sure it's still a good game! I haven't actually played it, but I'm just trying to foster some understanding here. So let's just skip ahead to the next entry, 2005's Star Fox Assault. This one promises a return to form, to the spacecraft-based combat it popularised, only to dilute the experience with generic third-person shooter stages. So the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

In the time since the end of Adventures (I guess), the foxy female... fox Krystal has replaced Peppy Hare as one of the four pilots of the Star Fox team, but apart from that, everything is just as SF64 left it. The first level starts in medias res, with Star Fox and allies fighting a successor to Andross's armies from the old games, only to discover a new threat in the form of the Aparoids: an insect-like alien race prone to corrupting other ships in some capacity. Thus, Star Fox's quest to quell the Aparoid menace serves as the plot over Assault's ten levels. That's a step down from the total of 15 in Star Fox 64, and instead of that game's branching-path system, Assault lays them out in a more traditional linear fashion. However, you can also re-play specific levels at will, instead of having to start a new campaign, in case you're attempting a medal run on a specific level. And besides, the stages are considerably longer than those of SF64, most featuring two or three objectives each. I may have had the same problem with Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends, but with stages lasting generally no more than 10 minutes apiece once you know what you're doing, I guess I can let that slide.
Get bonus points for finishing off groups of enemies, or larger targets like these.
Of the ten stages, only four take place solely in an Arwing, set in an automatically-scrolling corridor. As before, you score points by shooting down enemies, with bonuses earned for taking down large targets, or multiple enemies with one shot, all in the hopes of earning enough for a medal. The mechanics here are much the same as in SF64, including the charged lock-on shots. The other levels take place in more stationary environs, as an evolution of the "All-Range Mode" levels from SF64. It's here that Assault seems to have garnered its bad reputation. Think about it, it's the first "true" Star Fox game in eight years, and it tries to limit the amount of time spent on the gameplay it first became famous for. But you know what? I actually found the on-foot segments as fun as -- or even more fun than -- the Arwing stages. Yeah, fire in the hole, man. Maybe it's because shooter games (not the scrolling shoot-em-up variety, mind you) have over the past few years have gone so far in a direction inconsistent with my tastes that I'm just playing Assault to cleanse my palate, or I just got bored with Star Fox 64 so long ago that the same has been done automatically, but long-winded excuses aside, the all-range levels felt fast-paced and -- most importantly -- fun.

Whilst traversing outside a vehicle, Fox McCloud is armed with his trusty blaster, which can do automatic fire by lightly holding the R button, or charge up a shot by holding the trigger all the way. It's a shame certain larger enemies are shielded against everything but explosives and charged-up blaster shots (and even then, it takes multiple of those to take them down). In these and other cases, you'll want to seek out alternate weapons, like the easy-to-use Machine Gun which is, again, useless against shielded enemies, the overpowered Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, and the generally useless Grenades and Sensor Bombs. As opposed to the Arwing corridor stages, bonus points are awarded by taking down enemies in quick succession. In doing so, you'll continually seek out targets to keep your combo meter full, which does wonders for the pacing of these sections.

Even the Landmaster was fun to use in these levels; its cannon can overpower just about any enemy's shields, and the extra protection from its shields is just icing on the tactical cake. Compare that with how the Landmaster (and the Blue Marine, which is thankfully absent from Assault) was handled in SF64: basically slower and stiffer versions of the same Arwing experience. It is ironic, in that sense, that the Arwing sections of Assault have a slower feel to them. Another thing that disappointed me about the Arwing stages is that whereas in the original Star Fox and SF64, pressing and holding the fire button would launch a burst of four or so shots before (in SF64) charging up a lock-on shot, in Assault, pressing the A button only fires one shot before charging. So if you want to fire a rapid stream of lasers, break out either a turbo controller or your best rapid-tapping technique. May your controller stay intact after the final mission.
I liked taking the Landmaster for a spin, now that I have complete control over it.
The musical score is comprised mostly of tunes from Star Fox 64, albeit re-recorded with a full orchestra. As much as I would cry foul about the use of "recycled" material, let's face it -- for whatever reason, video game soundtracks over the last decade or so have lost the memorable appeal of the 8- and 16-bit eras. So you might as well update something that already works, I guess. The voice actors have also been re-cast since SF64. Whilst I will forever associate the series' characters with their old voices, and even after the re-cast Slippy is still as un-endearing as ever, I will admit these new guys are far more capable of emoting properly. And certain moments in the story, like when the Star Fox team must ally with their rivals Star Wolf and shoot down their Aparoid-corrupted commanding officer in the same mission, are certainly a step above the emotional bar set up by previous games, so it's nice the actors are able to handle that material.

I can understand the disappointment associated with Star Fox Assault. Entries in this particular series are few and far between, and not one of them has seen fit to perfect the formula pioneered by the original -- scratch that, the N64 one. But I'd be willing to vouch for Assault, even for -- scratch that, especially for its all-range stages. Because I realised something while playing them: it feels like a spiritual successor to Jet Force Gemini, only a lot more fluid. Yeah, it would have been nice to get two separate, full-sized games, one for each style presented therein. Obviously, one of those two games would be retooled as a full-on sequel to Jet Force Gemini. ...Hey, a guy can dream. But for what we got, I ain't complaining.

+ I found the all-range sections more fun than everyone's made them out to be.
+ The story makes some honest attempts at dramatic moments.
+ It was nice to hear updated versions of SF64 tunes on the soundtrack.

- The Arwing sections feel less fun than in SF64.
- The levels could have been broken up for better replayability.

Control: 4 Landmasters out of 5
Design: 4 Landmasters out of 5
Graphics: 5 Landmasters out of 5
Audio: 5 Landmasters out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox

Star Fox*
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Argonaut Games
  • Release: Super NES, March 1993
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-20
*Sold as Star Wing in Europe.

Thus far in Shooter Month, I've focused on the top-down, 2D variety of shoot-em-ups. But in an effort to spice things up, I'm taking this special feature in a new direction -- and an extra dimension. And it's not just any 3D shooter I'm showcasing this time around. Flight simulators have employed simulated 3D graphics for a long time now, but 1993 proved to be a banner year in this field. It was the year in which Nintendo, courtesy of third-party developer Argonaut, brought polygons to one of their home consoles in the form of Star Fox for the Super Nintendo. We all know that the Super NES can do some amazing things with 2D graphics, thanks to techniques involving "Mode 7", but certainly the calculations needed to handle polygons in three-dimensional space would be out of its reach, right? Well, that's why Nintendo and Argonaut developed an additional sub-processor called the Super FX chip, which was built into every copy of the Star Fox Game Pak. It did bump up the sale price of the Game Pak itself, but I suppose we should be thankful that they went down this route, as opposed to developing an expansion console, like the Sega CD or 32X.

In a world -- a solar system, rather -- populated by human-like animals, an army led by Andross, the emperor of the planet Venom, is extending its reach across the rest of the system -- the hard way. The only force who can stop him is Star Fox, a motley, elite fighter-pilot team consisting of four members and their space-capable ships, the Arwings. And that's where you come in. Before starting a new game, you get to set up your control scheme, which includes the option to switch the Up/Down controls. I guess it was pretty neat for them to have thrown that in as an option; perhaps fewer Super NES owners were familiar with flight simulators at the time. After that menu, you choose which of three paths to take in your game, which also serves as a difficulty setting. Each path contains five or six levels, and lasts an hour or less. It's a more linear version of the branching-path system later employed in Star Fox 64, but I like it here. There's more to each of the difficulties than the quantity of enemies and how much damage they take or dish out; but rather, each difficulty is a separate experience. And since there's no medal system, you don't have to play through 6 other levels you've already got medals on just to replay that one level you need.
This screenshot will not prepare you for how poorly Star Fox runs in motion.
But then the game proper starts, and all your expectations are shattered by the first frames of animation. Look, Mr. Super FX chip, if the best you can render in real-time is twenty or so flat-shaded, non-patterned polygons per object, I'm okay with that. But if it takes so much effort that you can only manage that at ten to twenty frames per second, then why even bother? What I'm saying to the rest of you is that the choppy frame rate makes Star Fox painful to look at in motion. And painful to play, too: for some reason, the frame rate makes the movement controls feel a little sluggish and imprecise. Just be thankful they weren't able to fit more obstacles on-screen, or getting through unscathed would be akin to threading the eye of a needle with a car driving on ice. That said, I am genuinely impressed by what they did manage to throw in. For example, one of the bosses can make duplicates of itself and leave after-images of itself in its wake, and one of the later stages forces you to dodge blocks falling from the sky or even forming in mid-air.

The Arwing spacecraft utilises two weapons: a blaster and a limited supply of smart-bombs. The blaster can be upgraded with certain items, adding a much-needed boost to the spaces covered by your shots. Trust me, you'll appreciate the extra coverage, because aiming is a chore. Since most levels lack a targeting reticule, the only way to aim your shots is to adjust based on the last shot you fired. Some levels take place in outer space instead; and in these levels you can press the Select to switch the camera angle in and out of your Arwing's cockpit. Enabling this first-person view displays an aiming cursor, which is a big help for aiming. Except you can only do this in the space stages, not on the planets. Riddle me this, Star Fox: why would you add a convenience which addresses what I'd dare say is a major flaw in the game experience, but only apply it to a select few portions of yourself!? Oh yeah, and it's also possible to break one or both of your Arwing's wings, in which case your blaster goes back down to the base level, and all upgrade items get replaced with wing-repair items until you finally fix the damage. It's bad enough that these upgrades are rare enough as it is, but having to take another step before I can even re-start the process sucks even more.
Helpful target cursors are available... but only on some levels.
I do take other, smaller issues with Star Fox, ones that not even the best of graphical upgrades could address. For example, you share the skies with your wingmen, or rather wing-critters: Peppy the rabbit, Slippy the frog, and Falco the bird. Their radio dialogue isn't accompanied by true voice acting, but looped chattering sound effects which, combined with their relatively uncommon rate of occurrence, aren't nearly as annoying as they could be. But all the same, what little interaction they have with the player doesn't offer them a lot of characterisation. Occasionally they will find themselves chased by a bogey, which you must knock out at your leisure. But my problem with that is: what's my motivation?  They don't do anything for me, and there isn't much penalty if they do get shot down.  And then there's the scoring system: when your points are tallied at the end of each level, you can earn extra lives at certain milestones. But instead of absolute point values for shooting different kinds of enemies, your scores are represented by a percentage of enemies shot down. And I'm pretty sure I've gotten 100%, or an otherwise high percentage, even after having missed a fair number of targets. Are there certain things you're not counting and not telling me, Star Fox? Work with me, please! (Apologies for attempting to reason with an inanimate video game.)

Out of all the sparse entries in the Star Fox series, the majority of the fans' attention seems focused on the follow-up Star Fox 64, and with good reason. I mean, the series' last activity to date was a remake of SF64 on the 3DS. And I cry foul on that account: if any entry deserved a remake on some halfway decent technology, it would be the original. Star Fox 2, its would-be sequel, may have been the most high-profile cancelled video game until Mega Man Legends 3 came along -- or rather, didn't come along. But let's face it -- Nintendo was right to focus on the Nintendo 64. Star Fox may have served as valuable experience for Nintendo in working with 3D graphics, but the finished product just wasn't ready for prime time. Let me put it this way: I'd give it an A for effort, but a D for execution.

+ Ambitious 3D graphics for its time.
+ Creative boss battles.
+ Some of the songs get me pumped.

- Poor frame rate, even with a lack of graphical detail.
- As a result, the game doesn't control well, either.
- Non-intuitive scoring system.

Control: 2 Arwings out of 5
Design: 3 Arwings out of 5
Graphics: 2 Arwings out of 5
Audio: 4 Arwings out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shooter Month: Summer Carnival '92: Recca

Summer Carnival '92: Recca
  • Publisher: Naxat Soft 
  • Developer: Kid 
  • Release: 
    • NES, 17 July 1992 (Japan only) 
    • Nintendo 3DS, 5 September 2013 
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up) 
  • Players: 1 
  • Save: N/A 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • NES: Very rare, US$300-1,000 
    • 3DS: DLC, US$5 
You know when a new video game console comes on the market, but its predecessor still has a good deal of life left in it? That can lead to some awkward, even unfortunate, moments. For example, Shantae has been cited by some as the best game ever made for the Game Boy Color -- I believe I may have implied something of that nature. The problem was, by the time it was released, the Game Boy Advance had been on the market for a year, so for the sake of putting their resources where the hip new thing was at, Capcom made only a limited production run of the game. Oh wait, this was the same Capcom that cancelled Mega Man Legends 3... okay, bad example.

Let's move on to the actual subject of today's review: Summer Carnival '92: Recca, a shoot-em-up released only in Japan for the Nintendo Famicom, but two years into the lifespan of the Super Famicom. From what I've read, Recca was made for an annual shooting-game competition, something which apparently was all the rage in early-90s Japan. [1]  So, it's sort of like Nintendo World Championships '90 and those other multi-game challenge carts, right? Not exactly; it has a fully-featured single-player campaign, albeit a short one, and it had its own production run, with a box and everything. A very limited production run, mind you; a hard copy of the game will either cost you hundreds or even thousands of US dollars. Or you could visit and see how you could get a reproduction copy made for around $20. #NotSponsored  Thankfully, that all changed in 2013, when Nintendo offered the game on the 3DS eShop for a mere $5. #StillNotSponsored  But even at that low price, is Recca worth it?
Letting go of the trigger button charges a bomb, and also builds your score.
Recca offers three modes, all designed for one player: a standard campaign consisting of four stages, a Score Attack mode where you have two minutes to score as many points as possible, and a Time Attack mode where you have five minutes to score a million points. No matter which mode you select, your ship has a main weapon which can be changed and upgraded with blue-coloured items, and will thankfully auto-fire when you hold the B button. But let go of B, and an energy meter at the bottom of the screen will fill up. Press B again when it is full, and you launch a bomb which lingers on the screen for a few seconds. Furthermore, you can pick up red-coloured items to gain and power-up a secondary helper gun, which fires when you hold the A button. Think the Option modules from Gradius or R-Type and you've got the idea. But these extra turrets offer more than just added firepower. Recca has a peculiar scoring system: in addition to earning points for shooting targets, your score increments automatically -- as long as you're not firing your main weapon. So while running through the levels with B held down and guns blazing is a perfectly acceptable strategy for survival, it would not have won you the tournament this game was made for.

And your skills would need to be of tournament-ready caliber in order to thrive, nay, survive in Recca. As I said before, there are only four stages in the main game, each of which last five to ten minutes and host at least two bosses, so it's not much for length. (Unless you beat the game and reset, in which case you get to play a second campaign, like The Legend of Zelda's second quest.) But what it lacks there, it more than makes up for in challenge -- specifically, in its pace. Enemies fly onto the screen from all directions at a tremendous rate, so there will be many, many ships and bullets for you to dodge. And you lose all your power-ups every time you get hit. A lot of games do that, so I'm not gonna single out Recca on this offence, but still, I'm never a fan of this decision. If our ship's gonna be a one-hit-point-wonder anyway, why not let us keep our upgrades until we continue? Or maybe I'm just not good enough to appreciate this game, whatever. Ironically, most bosses tend to be easier than the stages leading up to them, since you only need to drop a few bombs on them to win. Which is why I feel no shame whatsoever in sharing with you an infinite-lives cheat. Ready? Here it goes: Hold Select during the opening Naxat Soft logo. This will open a menu where you can change the score target for Time Attack mode. Before leaving this screen, press Start while holding A, B, Select, and Up. Start a game in any mode and you will have infinite lives.
Recca employs various background effects and doesn't often slow down.
Summer Carnival '92: Recca is a well-put-together shooter, don't get me wrong. But for some reason I just couldn't connect with it. Maybe it's the visual aesthetics; the colour palette seems to focus on reds, blues, and violets, making for a somewhat monochromatic affair. And even though I will give credit to the graphics engine for employing special effects to the backgrounds every once in a while, and only suffering slowdown in rare, specific instances, the combination of warping backdrops and limited colours makes the visual action hard to make out, or at the very least a little ugly. Maybe it's the soundtrack; it seems to be going for a house/jock-jam feel, with intricate beats and lots of sound-effect samples. It's impressive in theory; you don't see, or rather hear, many NES soundtracks emulating real-world musical genres. But it suffers a similar problem I had with 1942 in that with the NES's sound hardware, it just isn't rendered in a pleasing manner. I don't know, maybe if this soundtrack got a remake with some real production, I'd like it a lot more. Or maybe I'm just the type of gamer who demands a difficulty curve on which I can ride a game to the end without relying on cheat codes. Oh well, practise makes perfect, I guess.

+ A unique scoring system that values making your shots count.
+ The bosses are breathers compared to the rest of the game.
+ Innovative graphical effects with limited slowdown.
+ An ambitious house soundtrack.

- Insane difficulty.
- An ugly colour palette.

Control: 4 minutes out of 5
Design: 3 minutes out of 5
Graphics: 4 minutes out of 5
Audio: 3 minutes out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)
[1] ZZZ. "Recca". Hardcore Gaming 101. 21 April 2007

Monday, June 16, 2014

Shooter Month: Super Spy Hunter

Super Spy Hunter
  • Publisher: Sunsoft
  • Developer: Tokai Engineering
  • Release: NES, February 1992
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$20-30
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the NES port of Spy Hunter. And it was... okay. But it turns out, the NES also plays host to a pseudo-sequel titled Super Spy Hunter. Is it any good?

Let me state for the record that I'm not of the mindset that a sequel should slavishly follow whatever concepts were established by its predecessor. I believe my Zelda II review made that perfectly clear. But try telling that to general public. For some reason, sequels that stray from what is commonly perceived as the original formula are forgotten at best, and shunned at worst. For example: what comes to mind when you think of Spy Hunter? You drive a car that can shoot machine guns to disable other cars, and you pick up special weapons like oil slicks, smoke screens, and missiles from weapons vans. Actually, our new game's still got all that. But Super Spy Hunter throws so many little changes into the mix that it develops an identity of its own.

When you press and hold the B button, your car shoots bullets from three directions: one from the front, and two from a turret on the roof, which you can change the angle of by holding A. I suppose this offers a degree of versatility, even strategy, to gameplay, but I for one just found it an unnecessary encumbrance. I had an easier time finding one of the power-ups that automatically sets the angle to lock-on to enemies, but I guess your mileage may vary. Just don't pick up another one of those items, or you'll lose the ability again. Which brings me to my next point...

The weapons vans make their return appearance, in concept anyway. Instead of driving into them, you shoot them up to release whichever item they're holding. The red ones offer upgrades to your weapon power, fire rate, maximum health, etc., and the blue ones hold special weapons and other miscellany. Curiously, special weapons are triggered with the same button as the one that rotates your turret, so if you haven't found a lock-on item yet, enjoy spending a precious extra second resetting your angle. Unlike in Spy Hunter -- and indeed many shoot-em-ups of the time, I'm not singling out its "predecessor" or anything -- you don't go down with one hit. Instead, you have a lifebar, which can be refilled or even extended by picking up certain power-ups.

I found bosses considerably harder than their preceding stages.
Also unlike in Spy Hunter, the structure of this game follows a more traditional format of levels and bosses. Unfortunately, the difficulty curve can be a little schizophrenic. With the right upgrades, the main stages are a breeze, except for the occasional environmental trap (for example, the deep water in Level 1 and the quicksand in Level 2). The boss fights, on the other hand, are disproportionately tougher. They all absorb many, many hits, and from Level 3 on, include instant-death lasers in their arsenals. And when you do get taken down, your upgrades get taken down a peg as well, making your next attempt that much tougher.

Super Spy Hunter ups its game in more areas than just gameplay, though. As a game made for a console which found itself in the shadow of a successor product just a year earlier, it had to stand out in some flashy way in order to have any hope of decent sales. To that effect, Super Spy Hunter employs some innovative graphical moments for its time. On certain levels, the road will curve to the left or right, and the screen scrolls along with it. True, this effect chugs the frame rate something awful, but for the NES in 1992, I appreciate the effort. Other memorable moments include sections of level 2, where you dodge quicksand pits in the desert, and level 4, where you go off ramps to take monster jumps, and attempt to land on the road again as it zooms in from the background. And as further homage to the original Spy Hunter, later levels have your car transform into a boat and even a plane.
Super Spy Hunter employs impressive, if technologically taxing, special effects by the NES's standards.
So many changes... How did this happen? Well, it turns out that Super Spy Hunter was first sold in Japan in 1991, as the Famicom game Battle Formula. But when it came time to sell it in North America and Europe, publisher Sunsoft apparently slapped the Spy Hunter brand on the game. You may also remember that Sunsoft did the NES version of the original Spy Hunter. Perhaps they were on good enough terms with Midway that they borrowed the licence that way, I don't know. What I do know is that apart from the title screen, Battle Formula and Super Spy Hunter are identical. Even the Peter Gunn theme, made famous by the original Spy Hunter, is used in both versions of this game. So if I had to guess why Super Spy Hunter's been left by the wayside of history, my only conclusion would be that no one from the original team was involved in its production. But don't let that be a reason for you to pass it up. It's original among 8-bit shooters and holds up well to this day. Yup, change can be a good thing.

+ Innovative departures from the Spy Hunter formula.
+ You can take more than one hit per life.
+ Graphical effects that are unique for the NES.

- Too-tough bosses.
- You still lose some of your upgrades when you die.

Control: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Design: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Graphics: 4 weapons vans out of 5
Audio: 5 weapons vans out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shooter Month: 1943 (NES)

  • Publisher: Capcom 
  • Developer: Capcom 
  • Release: 
    • Arcade, 1987 
    • NES, October 1988 
  • Genre: Shoot-em-up 
  • Players: 1-2 alternating (Arcade), 1 (NES) 
  • Save: Password (NES) 
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-30 (NES) 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 1942, one of Capcom's earliest arcade games. And it sucked, at least the NES port. Well, it turns out that its sequel, 1943, also got ported to the same system, so have its developers learned some new tricks? Well, not exactly, if only because the 1942 port was developed by Micronics, whereas Capcom did the 1943 port themselves. But regardless, is it any good this time around? Read on.

As can be assumed from the game's subtitle*, "The Battle of Midway", 1943 returns gamers to the Pacific theatre of World War II. There are only 16 stages to the 32 in 1942, but this time around, most of them are split up into two parts. They start out high in the skies, where you have to make your way through aircraft of all sizes, the usual fare. But then you spot what looks like a small flotilla of ships in the water below. Before long, what do you know -- you've entered the second phase of the level, where you strafe those ships, taking out their turret guns in addition to fending off the usual planes. At the end of this section, you'll encounter some sort of boss ship, named after one of the Imperial Japanese Navy's own ships for that added touch of historical accuracy. Oddly, you don't have to destroy the boss completely; rather, you have an unseen time limit when fighting these bosses. When "time" runs out, you'll either move on to the next stage if you've destroyed enough of its weak points, or be forced to re-play the section if not. I don't see why they have to complicate matters so, but whatever.

*Fun Fact: The Japanese release of 1943 instead carries the subtitle "The Battle of Valhalla". So much for facing up to their past...

In addition to dodge loops, the A button can unleash screen-clearing super attacks. (NES version shown.)
The level progression format isn't the only thing 1943 shakes up from its predecessor. As opposed to having a set number of lives and losing one each time you get hit, you instead have one life and a "fuel gauge", which depletes with damage, and also slowly over time. For some reason, you'll never crash by automatic fuel loss alone, you'll just stay with a sliver of fuel until you get hit or find a replenishing power-up. I suppose I should be thankful for taking yet another time limit out of the equation, but that annoying warning music is holding my tongue on that affair. (Still better than the NES 1942's music.) Speaking of power-ups, you can equip several unique weapons by picking up other items. There's a wide-reaching 3-way shot (which, by the way, is way over-powered in the NES version and I love it), a thumb-saving auto-cannon, and a slow and generally useless shotgun. Notably, unlike in most games of this type, you can shoot power-up items multiple times to change their type, which I guess is better than having fixed types, or worse, items that change type automatically. (And I thought you were perfect, Raiden Project...) And just as before, you might even chance upon the item which gives you two wingmen for that little bit of supporting fire.
Certain plane types are coloured uniquely for better visibility. (NES version shown.)
Of course, 1943 got a port on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but considering the failings of the first game's port, is 1943 any better? Actually, yes. In lieu of trying to render the same realistic colours (for the time) generated by Capcom's up-to-date arcade hardware, the vivid colour palettes for both the backgrounds and foreground objects keep everything looking distinct from one another.  The music's far, far less of an earsore, although you could chalk that one up to the original version for having better music anyway. Although the "danger" music, which plays when you're at low fuel, wears just as thin as the one song from the first game. On top of the aesthetic trappings, the NES version adds two notable changes to gameplay. One, you can hold the fire button to charge up a high-powered shot. Sure, you won't be able to do it with the turbo switched on, but hey, that's why you can turn off the turbo on those special controllers. Second, by shooting at certain secret spots in each of the levels, you can reveal upgrades for your plane's stats. It's still easy to die, but hey, it's (based on) a coin-op game; gotta keep that turnover rate high. Like 1942, the home version offers infinite continues, and this time around there's even a password system which saves your progress and upgrades. Anyone who's taken the time to write down longer passwords for games like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Metal Gear will be happy to know that these codes are only five letters long.

In short, 1943 offers the same stripped-down appeal of the original 1942, but with a number of twists on the formula to keep things fresh. And for once, they didn't mess up the experience on the NES. In fact, it's worth trying both of them out, as they provide unique takes on the same concept. If you want to check out the original, you can get it as part of Capcom Arcade Cabinet, a download-only title for PlayStation 3 and XBox 360. But if for whatever reason you wish to stick with the NES, you can sleep soundly with its interpretation of 1943.

+ High and low-altitude sections offer some level variety.
+ Better and more varied music than before.
+ A satisfactory NES port with a few improvements of its own.

- The low-fuel warning beeps.

Control: 5 battleships out of 5
Design: 4 battleships out of 5
Graphics & Sound: 4 battleships out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shooter Month: Space Invaders

Space Invaders
  • Publisher: Taito, Atari (Atari 2600) 
  • Developer: Taito, TOSE (NES) 
  • Release: 
    • Arcade, July 1978 (JP) / 31 December 1978 (NA) 
    • Atari 2600, 1980 
    • NES, 1985 (JP) 
    • Game Boy, October 1994 
    • Super NES, November 1997 
    • Wii*, 17 November 2008 
    • iPhone, 15 July 2010 
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1-2 Alternating 
  • Save: N/A 
*Super NES version

In honour of my recent trip to Japan, I'm dedicating an entire month of reviews to that very Japanese of gaming genres... No, not visual novels; I'm talking shoot-em-ups! Yes, the Land of the Rising Sun has been a specialist in this genre, producing shooters of multiple settings (with airplanes, spacecraft, and even witches as characters) across a wide spectrum (okay, primarily on the hard side) of difficulty levels, from the simple yet skill-testing affairs of yesteryear to the "bullet-hells" of today. Yes, the field of shoot-em-ups is a crowded one, but if you keep your core interests in mind, some of them are bound to stick out. And enough titles have done so for me to kick off... Shooter Month! First on the menu is the one which kicked off the whole craze, not only the grand-daddy of shooter games, but the first great Japanese video game...** Space Invaders.

**Not the first Japanese video game, mind you. Tomohiro Nishikado, the designer of Space Invaders, had worked on several games before, including the Pong-like Davis Cup and Soccer, which he claims are the "Japan's first video game[s]".

Now, I know what you're thinking: "I know Space Invaders, everyone knows about Space Invaders! Its alien characters have become mascots for not only its studio Taito, but for gaming as a whole! Why bother reviewing it at all? And you call yourself alternative..." First of all, don't be so quick to hypothetically judge me, man. Second, you're right. We all know Space Invaders works. But... why? What makes it tick? And why did it catch on as well as it did? I started thinking thoughts like these whilst playing the Famicom port of SI, which I picked up over in Tokyo. And so, in a transparent attempt to fill up space, I shall endeavour to answer these very questions.

We'll start with a basic treatment of the gameplay. You control a moving gun turret shaped like the US Capitol building (huh). And in front of you is a phalanx of alien creatures, who will advance on your position and occasionally shoot laser bolts at you. Your objective is to shoot all of the on-screen beasties out of existence. Shooting the aliens scores you points, and you're awarded with extra lives at certain score milestones. Gotta love having an excuse for scoring points. When they're all gone, do it again, only a little bit faster, and so on. That's it. There's no backstory given to where these aliens come from and why they're invading... whichever territory your avatar represents. But, if you've been spoiled to need more incentive than that, then you're beyond my help Space Invaders is one of those games you play for the simple experience of playing it. It's a little hard to explain myself on that one, but sometimes you don't need an explanation.

Barriers don't offer much piece of mind when they can be broken so easily. (Arcade version.)
I'll be honest, whatever memories I have of playing Space Invaders when I was a wee little gamer were not entirely pleasant. I remember thinking the game to be hard, and even scary a little. See, as the aliens move side-to-side across the screen, when one of them hits the edge, they reverse course, and move a step down towards your position. This means that if given the chance, they will eventually collide with you. To make matters worse, the more aliens you take off the screen, the faster the rest of them move. Furthermore, the background music loop is a descending scale of four notes, which increases in tempo as more enemies are eliminated. (Fun fact: This was because the game's hardware could only run faster when fewer elements were drawn on-screen, but when Nishikado-san noticed it, he kept it in for the challenge.) Way to use multiple senses to put the player on edge, game. But far be it from me to condemn the game entirely based on those qualities. In fact, I have to give it credit for its ability to instill such strong emotions in the player with the bare minimum of artistic elements, and even a virtual absence of storytelling.

You may also notice that when you start out, there are four barriers between you and the aliens. Both your and their shots can damage these barriers, until eventually a hole or two gets cut through them. Admittedly, they're not much for protection. So, why even have them there in the first place? But tactics aside, their mere presence brings a very peculiar allegory to mind, at least my mind. Think about it: your avatar has the ability to move freely, at least along a one-dimensional line, and can dodge attacks or even hide behind objects for protection. Meanwhile, your opponents march lock-step in a fixed, gridlike pattern, never breaking ranks even as their peers are knocked out beside them. Sound familiar? If not, then you're not thinking of the American Revolutionary War, wherein the Native Americans and anti-British rebels came up with the genius idea of eschewing "conventional" warfare in favour of utilising the cover of their environment. To be fair, I'm not sure that's what Nishikado-san had in mind whilst designing Space Invaders, but it's a nice bonus thought to keep in mind and enhance the experience. Regardless, I guess it's true what they say: war never changes.
Later ports offer various colour and background options. (Super NES version shown.)
Home ports of Space Invaders are ubiquitous, given its early release and later influence, and are virtually too numerous to count. There's the Atari 2600 version (1980) which, despite its different looks, is credited as the first home port of an arcade game. There's the Famicom/NES version (1985) which was never released outside of Japan, likely due to Nintendo of America's restrictions which I may have discussed before. There's the Game Boy version (1994) which offers multiple background colour options when run in a Super Game Boy, and the Super NES version (1997) which has all that without the added fuss. And there's the iPhone version (2009) which is essentially arcade-perfect minus the control interface, but I find a tad overpriced at US$5. (Then again, I spent almost 800 yen for my copy of the Famicom version, so what should I care.) But really, you can't go wrong with any of them. Space Invaders is a shining example of how even the simplest of concepts can create the deepest of experiences.

+ Simple but straightforward shooter gameplay.
+ An effective increase of challenge.

- Bare-bones aesthetics.
- The stress of increasingly-speedy targets.

Control: 5 barriers out of 5
Design: 4 barriers out of 5
Graphics & Sound: 5 barriers out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)