Fixing shmups

So a while ago I lamented how NiGHTS into Dreams was a score attack game, the only tiny problem being that Sonic Team forgot to tell anyone and then wondered why most of the reviews said the game was too easy and too short with no replayability. This time around I’m going to look at shmups, which sort of have exactly the same problem but in a completely different way.

“Proper” professional shmups from developers like Cave, G:Rev and Triangle Service are score attack games at their heart too, and they also suffer from the same problem NiGHTS does – that by and large they don’t bother telling anyone that the “point” of the game is to try and use every trick in the book to rack up a really high score. Shmups however go one step further than NiGHTS by:

a) Consistently failing over a number of years/releases to explain what these points are

b) Not even appearing to care that they almost never explain the goal of the game, the tricks needed to achieve the goal or even the terminology that shows up on the end-of-level score tally (no-miss, chains, etc.)

Us fans aren’t much better either – “credit feeding” (a term which you’d reasonably have to explain to the uninitiated) is something that must only be done as practise for “the real thing”; “the real thing” being a 1CC TLB no-bomb run played for score. Oh, you don’t know what those acronyms mean already? Noob.

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But the problem is that shmup fans do buy shmups, so for many years now the genre hasn’t really attempted to cater for anyone that doesn’t already play them and they’ve paid for it dearly – just check out Cave’s official Twitter, which is now mostly about Hello Kitty’s Puzzle Chain (F2P phone game), Shin Megami Tensei Imagine (F2P MMO), and DonPacchin (another F2P phone game) or the, to be polite, “disappointing”  Radirgy spinoff on 3DS or Eschatos – a 360 shmup who’s main selling point is that it includes a digital version of the otherwise expensive and relatively rare WonderSwan shmup Judgement Silversword.

Shmups have essentially niched themselves to death.

Now the reason this annoys me is because I really like shmups - just look at the URL/background for this blog! I like the ones that require you to learn four different ways of killing enemies just to get a decent score. I even love Hellsinker, which is probably the ultimate logical extreme of all this gauge/meter/esoteric mechanic stuff. But none of the games I like help the interested but inexperienced join in the fun; even Ikaruga, perhaps the most readily available “real” shmup which does explain its mechanics balances this out by beating players over the head every time they mess up a chain and then awarding them a miserly D rank at the end of the stage.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that with the typical heavy-hitters bowing out or drastically trimming down their releases there’s been room for some smaller developers to slip in and get shmups back to the one thing we all started playing them for in the first place – fun.

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Steel Empire (3DS), Astebreed (PC) and Crimzon Clover: World Ignition (PC) are three very different games that all tackle the shmup problem in their own way. Steel Empire is an exciting cinematic experience that will have you in complete control of your craft and the game simply by trying out all the buttons and working out which does what. Astebreed is a visually remarkable game by any standard with a neat (although clichéd) little plot and it has the common decency to label the gauges that pop up on screen. Crimzon Clover is the most “traditional” of the three, but it gets away with this by giving clear visual feedback for everything from the differences between ships to questions like “Is Double Break mode a good thing?” as well as not going out of its way to make new players feel like lesser beings.

I’ve wrestled with exactly how to sum this all up and the best way I can think of is this: shmup developers have forgotten that the people playing (and paying!) are meant to be having fun, and in turn us shmuppers have forgotten that it’s OK to credit feed, use bombs, and pick your favourite ship based entirely on its colour so long as you’re having a good time.

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So shmups are dead – long live shmups!

The Gladiator

Original Title
神劍風雲
Format
IGS PGM
Genre
Action
Developer
IGS
Official Website
Here

Much like it’s arcade-only stablemate Knights of Valor 2, The Gladiator is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up with a distinct Chinese style that goes under a different name in every region it was released in. The full list of official names is as follows:

“The Gladiator” – English language version

“Shen Jian Feng Yun” (神劍風雲) - Taiwan

“Shen Jian Fu Mo Lu” (神剑伏魔录) - Mainland China

“Tou Gen Kyou/Road of the Sword” (闘幻狂) -  Japan 

“Singeom Ui Pung Un*” (신검의풍운) – South Korea

*Probably inaccurate pronunciation– please correct me if you’re familiar with Korean!

All versions of the game run on IGS’ PGM hardware, although the Japanese version comes on a dedicated PCB rather than a cart to be used with a PGM motherboard, much like certain Cave shmups – Ketsui and ESPgaluda for example.

The basic gameplay involves up to four people choosing one of six characters and beating the living daylights out of anything and everything they come across. Before each stage starts (including the first one) players are required to choose which level from a choice of up to three they wish play through, with some routes being harder than others and most of them offering different bosses, different hidden items and in the final choice’s case, which end boss and ending you will encounter.

Stages can also have hidden requirements that unlock secret areas or make progress easier, for example reaching a certain point in a stage within a tight time limit or dash-attacking statues to push them across entrances, preventing enemy reinforcements from appearing.

As with the majority of other PGM games, The Gladiator uses a four button setup – A performs standard attacks, B is used for special skills (these consume qi), C jumps and D initiates a defensive dash or air recovery. This simple setup is complicated by a variety of button combos, extra skills, a counter system and “desperation” moves -

Auto/Normal combo – This is the first choice you have to make after picking a character. Auto characters are weaker but they’re easier to use

A+B – Pressing these two together performs a powerful attack, at the cost of some life

A+C – Initiates the same move as the above (and also consumes a portion of the life gauge) but also gives the character a trail of shadows for a short period of time allowing every move to perform multiple hits (much like Street Fighter Alpha’s custom combo system)

B+C – When timed correctly and at the right distance this is used to cancel the special attacks performed by some enemies and bosses. If done correctly the player then has to mash the A button to counter the boss and perform an attack. This move consumes qi.

B+<direction> – Each character can have up to five special skills; some are earned as they level up and some are hidden items found in certain stages. These attacks can also have additional effects such as removing poison or increasing attack speed. If the player finds a skill that occupies the same slot as one they already have they are forced to choose between keeping or replacing the one they have, even if they have other slots free.

Countering – A well-timed A attack at close range may start off a counter – arrows will appear on screen and the player will need to push their joystick in the same directions to perform a counter.

Dashing then attacking, using A+<direction>, and jumping also perform different attacks too.

As with Knights of Valor 2, The Gladiator also has a selection of alternative modes to the standard story game, with some of them only unlocked via button codes.

The other mode that’s available by default from the main menu is a boss rush mode – players can choose which bosses to face in any order they like, completely randomise it, or pick a few and then randomise the rest.

The next has to be unlocked by pressing DDDBBB on the mode select screen (the one after the “How to play” screen). This is another boss rush style mode, but this time instead of choosing which bosses to face the player gets to choose which special skills to equip themselves with before the gauntlet starts.

There are three other button combinations for the mode select screen too – BCBCBC, DCDBCB, and DBDBDB, but to be honest the descriptions online are vague and there’s no obvious immediate difference in play when they’re activated – if you can tell me exactly what these do please get in touch!

I wanted to give a quick comment on the current state of this game’s MAME emulation – it’s certainly playable as intended as far as I can see, but the music is a poor imitation of the real thing. However, even as somebody who does own the arcade original I have to admit that until IGS do the sensible thing and stop making all these incredible side-scrolling beat ‘em ups arcade only MAME is the most practical way to play and it does at least give everyone a chance to experience this excellent game.

Packaging
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Screenshots
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Normal game special! Resident Evil CODE: Veronica’s battle mode

Those of you following me on Twitter or Tumblr may have noticed I’m currently in a bit of a Resident Evil mood this past week or so – what started as just a brainless way to spend a day when I was feeling ill somehow mutated (ha!) into a burning desire to dust off my tank-control cobwebs and once again enter the world of survival horror.

The most recent game to fall under my head-squishing boot was CODE: Veronica (I’m not playing them in any sort of order, which is why I’m now working my way through RE2), which has a really fun battle mode to mess around with once you’ve beaten the main game. This mode’s about as canon as Resident Evil: Gaiden; although CODE: Veronica’s battle mode has the added bonus of actually being an enjoyable experience.

I spent a lot of time with this battle mode back when Dreamcast was new an exciting and the online world was your oyster with nothing more than a trusty 33kbps modem tying up the home phone line, so much so that this bonus game is now embedded in my DNA alongside other useful genetic traits such as the primal need to watch Youtube videos of cats doing stupid things. I thought it’d be a good idea to offer a bit of help for those who wanted to know how to make their way through the hardest battle mode scenario – Wesker’s, so here we are.

Yep, my screenshots this time are actual shots of a screen - sorry!

I don’t think there’s much point in doing a room-by-room walkthrough as that doesn’t really help anyone understand how to play better, so I’m going to give some general points to follow instead -

Point #1: Channel Wesker’s inner Chihuahua – go for the ankles! Always. Even when facing enemies that probably don’t have ankles. Low blows have a wide arc and will hit the same enemy multiple times with a single slash, which is exactly the sort of thing you’re after.

This is exactly how to do it - back against the wall, aiming low and with lots of dead people on the floor!

Point #2: Wesker is a huge knife enthusiast and is keen to prove how powerful his shiny pointy death stick is – even going so far as to prioritise targeting un-knifeable exploding containers. Yep, the programmers couldn’t be bothered to make an exception for Mr. Always-Finds-The-Time-To-Gel-His-Hair-Back, meaning you will have to deal with Wesker auto-aiming at containers even when he’s up to his eyeballs in the undead.

Point#3: Be patient. You automatically get an S rank (or an A – whatever the highest rank is in your version of the game) just for finishing Wesker’s scenario, so don’t be afraid to use healing items or think that you need to rush.

Point#4: Enemies come in three flavours as far as Wesker’s concerned – zombies, not-zombies, and Alexia. Zombies are actually his biggest threat; it’s easy for him to get surrounded and caught in a fatal cycle of neck-biting so the best thing to do is place his back to a wall, make sure his knife swing isn’t going to bounce off the sides and let them come when they’re good and ready. Not-zombies (that is, Hunters and Bandersnatch) should be run at and attacked at close quarters, as their ranged leaps/head grabs are far more dangerous than anything they can do at melee range. Alexia should be dealt with using the Magnum found in the one-armed bandit within the sole optional room – oh and keep your distance, even traitorous eyewear fans die when they’re grabbed by the throat and set on fire.

That’s really all there is to it apart from “grab all the items and kill anything that moves” – which should hopefully be obvious enough anyway. Happy hunting!

(As an apology for covering something that’s not only available in English but also common as muck I promise I’ll make up for it by writing about a super-obscure game next post, OK?)

A Little Look At… Fantastic Danmaku Festival

To a lot of people Touhou is doujin gaming, and Japanese doujin developers, artists and musicians have been keen on producing Reimu & co. games (the Koumajou Densetsu series being a personal favourite), keychains, manga, figures, albums and just about anything else for many years now.

So I’ve always thought it was a little odd that for all the general popularity Touhou has, there’s never been any serious attempts to bring those characters to life outside Japan – until now.

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Fantastic Danmaku Festival, to use the game’s English title, is a Touhou-themed shmup straight out of China, which suits me down to the ground. The game released only last month but the developer has already had a couple of patches to iron out a few bugs.

Some Touhou games choose to use the setting and characters, dispensing with the shmup part of ZUN’s original work entirely, but Fantastic Danmaku Festival goes in entirely the opposite direction and is so close to the style of the main Touhou series it could easily pass as the latest entry – the only real difference is that  Starx have someone on their team who can draw (sorry ZUN).

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Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with a Touhou shmup will feel right at home here, with four selectable difficulty levels ranging from the easiest “Enemies might take a quick pot-shot at you” option right through to the appropriately named “Lunatic” setting that’s exactly the sort of deadly light show danmaku fans like to test their reflexes on. Practice mode allows players to push themselves a little further or to try a new technique on a tricky boss without having to go through the entire game first, and limited continues in the main game give players some flexibility to either relax and just enjoy the ride or to see what happens past that all-important first credit. Score-loving gamers will be pleased to know that using a continue adds a single point to the score counter, making it easy to distinguish between 1CC and credit-feeding scores without forcing players down a particular path before they’ve even started the game.

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All in all this is an excellent shmup whether you enjoy Touhou or not, and at the grand old price of free there’s no reason to not pop on over to the official website and try it out for yourself. The only snag is that you’ll need to either use AppLocale or change your PCs regional language settings to simplified Chinese, as attempting to start it under any other settings will cause the game to crash.

Oh and if you do play it let me know – I’d love to know what you think!

Twenty years of The Legend of Heroes III

To celebrate twenty years of this excellent RPG I could talk about how Shiroki Majo did away with the more typical slimes, dragons and other fantasy fare of the first two Legend of Heroes games (although even those have far more to them than you’d think from a first glance) and paved the way for the infinitely elaborate Kiseki series, but I won’t because… well, it’s probably been done before, and better, by other people. The journey Chris and Jurio go on through Tirasweel is a fantastic tale by turns comical and serious, and something I’d recommend almost unreservedly to every JRPG fan if it weren’t for that awful English translation.

So, I thought instead it’d be a nice idea to take a look through all the different reimaginings the game’s had over the years, and have a quick look at what’s changed between them. To do that I’ve filled up my hard drive with screenshots of the intro sequence and the first chapter up to the part where Jurio fights a big boar as that shows off dialogue, field, and battle sequences without me having to dedicate the next month of my life to five different versions of the same game.

It makes sense to start at the beginning, so that’s almost what I’ve done. On the left are screenshots from the PC-98 “Renewal” version of the game, with screenshots from Falcom’s later PC remake on the right. Lots of scenes and images here are directly comparable, although the PC remake has an extended intro with a few interesting scenes not present in any other version of the game.

Introduction:

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Field/dialogue screens:

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Battle screens:

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The next one out was the Saturn version by Hudson, released in February 1998. The intro ditches Falcom’s original art entirely for this flashy (and unique) anime opening sequence mostly made from chopped-up bits of the impressive in-game FMV. It feels far more light hearted than Falcom’s take on the story, and this more “Let’s go on an adventure!” approach touches everything in the game.

The game itself uses an isometric viewpoint with some incredibly detailed and well animated sprites. It’s also heavily reworked – the plot still unfolds as expected, but it’s far more linear and any battle that’s not relevant to the plot has been eliminated entirely. It sounds alarming but it actually works well, especially with an RPG as story focussed as this one is.

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Just a few months later GMF released their own take on The Legend of Heroes III, this time for the Playstation. It’s very similar to the original PC-98 game; the main differences are the poor CG intro sequence and the ridiculously large sprites that make finding your way around far more irritating than it should be.

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Last but not least is the 2004 PSP port; notable for being the only version to see an English release in the game’s twenty year history. The US version was rightly slammed in reviews for it’s awful translation, unnecessary tinkering with the battle system (which is different again from the Japanese version pictured below), and Bandai not even releasing the trilogy in the right order, I’m sorry to say that it gave The Legend of Heroes a rather poor reputation that it thankfully recovered from with the later English release of Sora no Kiseki (AKA Trails in the Sky). The Japanese version, free from the meddling seen in its US counterpart, is actually a very pretty and well done remake.

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In addition to the various ports shown above, the game has also been officially translated into Korean (DOS version) and traditional Chinese (PC remake version), with no particular differences to the originals other than the language.

It’s hard to believe now that not only has The White Witch’s story been around for over two decades at this point but also that even the most recent retelling is now ten years old. We’ve gone a whole decade without an update – surely a game as good as this deserves at the very least a Vita remake, doesn’t it Falcom?

Kimimi’s Final Thought™: If you’re interested in playing the game but now have no idea which version to go for here’s a quick guide -

Most authentic: PC-98 version (buy it from Project E.G.G.) or Falcom’s later PC remake

Most fun: Saturn version – Hudson did an absolutely stellar job, far and away the best Falcom remake they’ve ever done in my opinion.

Best balance of authenticity/quality/accessibility: Japanese PSP version. Beautiful to look at with a few modern conveniences, while being more conservative with its changes than the Saturn version.

I hope that helps!

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