Sunday, January 24, 2016

Strikers 1945 for the Sega Saturn


In my earlier posts, I had mentioned that shoot'em ups for the Saturn was my favorite genre. Those posts had mentioned the big name games for the system, and many of them are well known.  With retro prices forever on the rise, and the global online market for games shrinking the world, I thought I would review one of my favorites that represents the genre and Saturn well, but won't break the bank.  This is Strikers 1945.

Strikers 1945 was originally released for arcades in 1995, and ported to the Saturn and Playstation in 1996.  The game was developed by Psikyo, and published by Atlus.  If the developer sounds familiar, that's because they were responsible for Gunbird, Sengoku Blade, and one of my favorites: Zero Gunner 2.  Being a huge fan of shooters, but not very good at them, I personally like the option to adjust the difficulty.  They let you know that you are disappointing them with the easier settings, as the two easiest settings are referred to as "child" and "monkey".

The plane selection screen offers some statistical information as well as the subweapon type.

I'm not sure what the story is, as I cannot read the Japanese manual for my Saturn copy, but I'm not sure that it matters too much.  What is odd is that your choice of fighter plane varies from American, Japanese, British, and German models.  So... a common enemy perhaps?  This leads to one of the strengths of the game: the variety of fighters and their attributes.  While each plane differs visually in sprite design, the real differences are in how the plane attacks.  there are three methods of attack:

1 - Basic fire - in most cases, this is a straight-forward vulcan canon (the R button is set to rapid fire).  It can be powered up to three times by collecting the bullet icons released by red enemies.
Some shot patterns are angles, and some are straight-on.
2 - charge attack - If you hold the shot button, you can align your options (if you're powered up) and unleash a specialized attack unique to each fighter.  This is incredibly useful as its usage is unlimited, but there is a drawback - you cannot fire during the charging period, leaving you vulnerable for a few seconds.  Strategic use is necessary against bosses if you want to progress farther into the game.  Of course the more options you have, the more powerful the attack.  This attack is not really that useful if you have only one option.

Regular use of your options with a charge shot adds to the gameplay. 

3 - bomb attack - You have a limited stock of bombs, so having a strategy for when to use bombs is necessary.  In addition to unleashing a deluge of firepower, the bomb attack clears the screen of enemy bullets, getting you out of a tight spot.  Some plane's may have a slight delay before their bomb attack gets going, so be wary of the timing.

The Spitfire's bomb attack is a seriously awesome beam of destruction.

The Planes:

  1. P-38 - This plane is part of the reason why this series is often mistaken as a part of Capcom's 1942/3 series.  The options fire a traditional vulcan machine gun as well.  The charge attack aligns your options to fire in steadfast formation.  The bomb is a loop de loop, just like in 1943, but accompanied with a huge bombshell blast.
  2. P-51 Mustang - This plane has a slightly smaller profile, making it easier to dodge enemy fire. The options fire large shots at a slower rate.  The charge attack unleashes you options in a rotating cyclone attack, that spins forward inflicting major damage and also erasing enemy fire. 
  3. Spitfire - Another smaller plane, this is a good choice for beginners.   The options fire missiles that are powerful, but are slow.  The charge attack aligns your options in a formation that fires at a wider angle, and move as you do instead of flying straight ahead.  The bomb attack is ridiculous... just ridiculous.  A couple of these will make short work of the bosses.  
  4. Messerschmidt Bf-109 - The only German plane represented in the game, it is a very offensively-minded plane.  The options track enemies on their own, acting completely independently.  The charge attack sends the options in a rotating cylcone as well, but this time they fire as they move forward.  The bomb attack is a carpet bomb air raid.
  5. Zero - The first of two Japanese planes, this plane is the most unique in the game.  The options drop bombs at surface targets.  The charge shot sends the options after enemy targets.  The bomb attack is a tsunami-like storm that inflicts heavy damage on bosses and clears the screen of smaller enemies.
  6. Shinden - Veterans of Saturn shooters may recognize this as the first plane in Battle Garegga, a Saturn exclusive.  This plane has a narrow, single file stream of firing.  The options fire a standard vulcan alongside your plane.  The charge shot is interesting as the options fire horizontlly (and vertically, if you have three or more) in a line that moves up the screen.  The bomb attack is the most unique in the game; your craft loops out of the way as it leaves a ghostly silhouette, which darts forward, wrecking everything in its path.  
The ghost bomb is really creative and satisfying to unleash.  

There are 8 stages per loop, and are not very long.  The first couple of stages seem random each time, where as the later stages are set.  I like this idea, as the replay value enhanced.  The bosses are generally huge mechanized ships that transform into a giant robot after taking much damage.  They have their patterns, and once you figure them out they aren't too difficult.   

This is a fun, pick up and play shooter.  It is even more fun with a friend playing co-op.  It is not the most ground breaking, or visually impressive game out there for the Saturn, but it is just plain fun.  

It is still relatively inexpensive but remember that it is a Japanese import, so you will need an Action Replay card or some other region bypass.  As I mentioned earlier, there was a Playstation release as well, but whenever a game is released for both platforms, I'll always pick the Saturn version for its awesome controllers (plus, the Playstation's d-pad is horribly rigid).  

I hope that somebody reads this and give this game a chance. 







Monday, January 11, 2016

My Top Ten Saturn Shoot'em Ups


The Sega Saturn has long been heralded as one of THE systems for shoot 'em ups (the PC-Engine and Genesis are also in the discussion).  The monster 2D architecture lends itself well to the frenetic action and pace typical of the genre.  There is a prolific amount of shooters to choose from on the system (almost all of which were Japan-only releases), so this was an arduous task; I had to lump in a couple of honorable mentions.  As with all top-10 lists, this is an opinion and subject to personal biases.  I picked the games the I find most enjoyable to play, look fantastic, have great music, and retain my interest.  My list will differ from yours, and I'd actually like to see your opinions in the comments section.  If you haven't heard of any of these on the list, I fully recommend each and every one.  O.k., here goes.

Who doesn't love the Hunter weapon?
Free Range sounds like a menu item...so order up some destruction!

10 - Thunder Force V
Tecnosoft's earlier entries in the series had set the bar high as the premier shooters on the Genesis/Mega Drive.  TF 3 and TF4 (known in North America as Lightening Force) pushed the limits of the system graphically, aurally, and kinetically.  TF V uses 3D polygons, and is one of the few shooters on the system to do so.  Honestly, I would have preferred the game without them, but the action more than makes up for it.  The claws, or craws, or whatever they're called are the key to surviving as usual for the boost in firepower they provide.  They can also fuel the overweapon, which is your currently selected weapon on steroids!  After being discharged, the craw needs some time to regenerate before the overweapon can be used again.  The "free range" weapon makes it debut here, and is remarkably more powerful than any other weapon in the series.  It acts as a radar field that is controllable (albeit a bit wonky at first) and can be focused on a certain area of the screen, and when discharged, unleashes a brutal beat down on whatever is in its path.  I don't mean to give the impression that this game is easy, because it is far from it.  Maybe its me, but I get slapped around by this game repeatedly, but I keep coming back because its fun.




9 - Dodonpachi
The sequel to Donpachi is one of the finest examples of bullet-hell shooters on a 32-bit system.  Did I mention that these shooters are frantic?  There is so much going on at one time, you start to develop a Zen-like mindfulness while playing (after several hours of playtime).  The emphasis on scoring is definitely prominent here, with the hit counters and score multipliers.  There is lots of strategy for a seemingly straight forward concept of shooting everything and not getting hit.  From the choice between three very different ships, to selecting strength of bombs or lasers, to when to bomb and how to bomb, there are layers that take time to appreciate, and skill to realize.



The main character's option is a flying cat.  What?

Bosses can be intricate and huge.
8 - Sengoku Blade
One of the most notable characteristics of this game is... its soundtrack (what did you think I was going to say?).  With an ancient-Japan theme, the aesthetics of this game are unique and interesting. The background scenery lush with parallax scrolling, the sprite design, the bosses and music are all stylistically dialed in to deliver a refreshing and enjoyable horizontal shooter.  Instead of piloting a ship, you control a human player that flies, somehow.  Since your character is upright, and the game scrolls horizontally, you become a larger target compared to most shooters.  Being a Psiyko game, there are lots of difficulty settings and options to toggle.  The choice of playable characters, all with their own attack style, options, and bombs give this game a boost in replay value.



The real boss eats the first boss.

Salamander 2 alternates between horizontal and vertical, just like the first game.

7 - Salamander 2 (Salamander Deluxe Pack)
Americans who play this will immediate sense something familiar about the Salamander games as the first game was retitled as Life Force.  A spin off from the Gradius series, Salamander forgoes the red capsule power up system in favor of direct power up drops.  The weapon array is similar to the Gradius series, however.  This game is a horizontal scroller, and the environments you pilot through are organic in nature, a departure from the space or technical themes that pervade the genre. The graphics are gorgeous, as this is from what I understand a nearly perfect arcade port.  Being able to respawn instantaneously instead of a checkpoint lowers the relative difficulty, as well as power up pick ups, making for a more tolerable experience after death.  Hands down the best of the Konami Deluxe packs on the Saturn.

One of the coolest bosses in the game
Taking control of mini-bosses is extremely satisfying.
6 - Darius Gaiden
This is one of the few shooters that was released in the west, perhaps because the series already had some releases on the Genesis and and SNES.  The first word I think of when I think of this game is funky.  The space-rock operatic singing throughout the game is oddly intriguing and most definitely unique.  It is catchy and bizarre at the same time.  The graphics are detailed and the boss sprites are the highlight.  From the first (and best looking) boss, Golden Ogre, you can tell this is not just another Darius game.  The typical power ups are present: shot, bombs, and shield.  A cool addition is the black-hole bomb, which sucks all bullets and weak enemies into oblivion, and heavily damages bosses.  Another tactic is to shoot the orbs on the heads of mini-bosses.  The orbs will be released and if you capture them, the mini-bosses align with you and can output some serious firepower.  The branching stage selection is still present, of course, and I have a terrible memory and forget which path I took perviously.  This adds replay value, and if you can finish the game I salute you.




5 - Batsugun
What is considered Toaplan's swan song, before they went under, Batsugun is credited with bridging the gap between old-school shooters and modern, bullet-hell shooters.  Prior to this game, most shooters involved string patterns of popcorn enemies, set-back respawns, and environmental hazards that needed to be memorized.  This game started the trend of spamming the entire screen with hundreds of bullets, leaving you a few pixels of room to navigate the flood of enemy shots with micro movements.  The hitbox was reduced to a few pixels in the center of your ship, giving you some leeway.  This is very hard to get used to at first, for your mind takes a while to grasp that shots can graze through more than half of your ship without destroying you.  The amount of firepower on screen when fully powered up is insane.  Again, that doesn't mean the game is easy.  There is a level up mechanic, which scales up your firepower as you gain experience points.  The music just rocks, and is best hooked up through a stereo when you play this game.  It lives up to the hype.

The environments are as creative as the weaponry.
Color coded enemies make for interesting strategy during gameplay.

4- Radiant Silvergun
What can be said about this game that hasn't already been said?  Six different weapons to start, each with its own purpose (seven if you count the giant sword) make for a variety of gameplay strategies.  Color coded enemies allow for chaining and score multipliers, if you're able.  I personally focus on surviving, rather than racking up a high score.  The soundtrack imbues a sense of adventure, and that's what this game feels like, and epic, evolving adventure where each play through can be a new experience.  This is a polygon-based game, yet it is an example of expert programming on the Saturn.




Aligning your options basically doubles your firepower for a short time.
Each plane's bomber attack has its own advantages and disadvantages.
 
3 - Strikers 1945 II
The beauty of this game is that it is easy to learn, but difficult to master.  It may be misconstrued as a another descendant of Capcom's 194X series, but while this game may have some cosmetic similarities, the action and playability put it way past that series.  I'm not sure what the story is (does it ever matter in shoot 'em ups?), but each boss starts out as a typical 1945-era military machine, that after a few hits, morphs into a gigantic alien robot monstrosity.  The imaginative boss design is enjoyable to behold, as are the bomb and option effects.  There are several different planes to choose from, each with a specific type of bomb action.  Some are defensive, like a giant bomber craft that swoops between you and the enemies, absorbing hits for you.  Some are offensive, such as calling in an air strike, and some are in-between.  Every power icon you pick up grants you another option which will attack in varying patterns.  Hold down the shot button to align the options, and watch them take on a specific attack formation of their own.  Again, the ability to choose difficulty levels is a nice way to ease into the game while your skills develop.  One of my personal favorites, even if it does get overshadowed by the big names.



The top-down lighting effects are impressive.
The radar web can be offensive or defensive.

2 - Soukyugurentai
Even if you can't pronounce the name of this game, you'll never forget playing it.  It's main mechanic of locking onto enemies with a radar net, only then to unleash a salvo of lasers is addicting and effective.  This idea was observed first in Layer Section (Galactic Attack in North America), but it was improved greatly here. You can choose different configurations of the radar field, focusing on one area quickly, or casting a wider but slower net.  Your main shot can be powered up, but pales in comparison to the effectiveness of the lock on lasers.  There are some seriously gorgeous backgrounds to distract you from piloting; you sometimes want to pause just to take it in.  The original release of this game was a bit glitchy when played with an Action Replay cart on western systems.  There was a re-release, Soukygurentai-Otokuyo, which cleaned up some of those bugs.  The options menu is in Japanese, so look online for a FAQ that will walk you through how to tweak the game settings.  A pure beauty of a game, with challenge to match.



The depth of the visuals is unmatched in this generation.

You have to dodge a lot of bullets and debris.  Seriously, a lot.

1 - Battle Garegga
A shining example of the 2D sprite work that the Saturn was meant to produce, this game is as gorgeous as it is challenging.  There is so much detail, so much action on-screen that learning what is a threat and what isn't is the first skill you'll want to develop.  This game has so much challenge, it will take more than the average amount of play throughs to wrap your head around it.  The game adjusts the difficulty based on how powered up you are.  So it may seen counter-intuitive, but you have a better chance of making it through if you avoid power ups (not that I ever made it through).  There are four initial ships to choose from, with an additional four more if you select the right setting in the options.  As with many of the shooters on list, personal preference plays into which ship fits your style of play.  I can't say if the anyone of them makes the game any easier.  Maybe I'll know in a few more years.  Either way, it's a blast to try again and again.



Friday, January 1, 2016

Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi Review (Sega Genesis)

The cover art is not exactly what you'd expect to see on a Shinobi game.

The Shinobi series is one of my favorite series of games during the late 80's and early 90's.  Sega was on a tear at the time, with stand out hits such as Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner, Alien Syndrome, and others ruling the arcades.

Shinobi was a bit of a departure from its Sega brethren, opting for side scrolling, platforming action rather than super scaling graphics and psuedo-3D visuals.  It was a deliberately paced platformer game, that slowly guided the player through the necessary skills early in the game.  The clever use of levels, shurikens and melee attacks, and ninja magic were refreshing attributes that helped Shinobi make a name for itself.

When Sega released the Genesis console, the next entry in the series, The Revenge of Shinobi (ROS), was heralded as an instant classic.  There is a lot written about that game, so I wanted to review its lesser known Genesis follow up, Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (SD).


Shadow Dancer was a confusing entry in the Shinobi series for a couple of reasons.  First of all, the North American Box art obfuscates the fact that this is a Shinobi game.  You can kinda tell if you look close, but its not obvious.  The Shinobi name is in the subtitle, but the subtitle text is so small that it would not be readable from behind a counter.  If Sega wanted it to be known that this was a Shinobi game, they sure didn't try too hard.

Consider also that the game play is more like the original arcade, and not like its Genesis predecessor; it is almost as if the two games were produced by different teams as there is no real continuity between them.

Whats more, the third Genesis game, Shinobi III, The Return of the Ninja Master (SIII), is a great follow up to ROS...except that it follows up SD.  SIII plays more in the style of ROS.  So what it comes down to, is that two of the games in the series play with an arcade feel, with fast action and single hit deaths, and the other two play as a measured platformer with life bars.  In the end, all games are great.  

A classic trope of old school games is the progress map between stages.


Shadow Dancer has some interesting mechanics in gameplay.  The most obvious being the addition of the helper dog, or wolf, I'm not sure.  When facing an enemy, if you hold down the attack button the dog icon will fill up and flash, and when released, the dog will rush to bite and distract the enemy, giving you an opportunity to sneak in and attack.  This is especially useful if there is an armed sentry firing from a distance.  This does not work all the time, as certain blade-wielding enemies will hurt the dog, rendering him harmless for a period of time.

See the dog biting the enemy sentry?


You can choose to play with or without shurikens, making for a increased replay value.  The melee attacks, such as punching, kicking, and sword slashing, are invaluable to master if you want to make it far.  Contact with an enemy only knocks you back, unless the enemy has a blade.  Knowing the timing of the attacks and recovery from contact are necessary for battling hordes of ninjas in close quarters.

Battle in tight quarters are challenging but rewarding to overcome.
The level of challenge is moderate.  For Shinobi veterans, this will only get challenging in the mid to late stages.  Enemy patterns are easily learned, but additional challenge is incorporated by use of the environment.  An attacking ninja is no real problem alone, but multiple ninjas with limited space is another story.


Boss battles are enjoyable and unique.

At the end of each 3-part round is a boss battle.  Each boss is different and has relatively easy patterns to figure out.  You have ninja magic to rely out to get you out of a jam, and it will deplete the boss of two hit points.  Thus, you have boss fights that aren't too frustrating.

The sky darkens successively from one bonus stage to another, a nice touch.

In-between rounds there are bonus stages where you jump from a skyscraper and hurl shurikens at as many ninjas as possible.  Hit all 50 and you get three extra lives.  A classic shinobi theme that is a lot more manageable than the nearly impossible shooting gallery in the original game.

Beware bricky hands!

There are four different kinds of ninja magic, and you don't have a choice of which one you can use (at least I don't think you do).  Once per stage is the limit, but you score big points if you make it through that stage without using it.

Ninja magic is always fun to watch.

The graphics are excellent through most of the game.  The character sprites are excellently drawn, the movement animations are fluid and natural, and the boss designs are creative.  There are a couple of instances where the background graphics look like they were designed by a summer school intern, like the Statue of Liberty head in stage 3-3.  Other than than, it is a pleasure to look at.

I'm not sure what this guy is wearing, but he seems to be taken straight from Bare Knuckle 3

Stage four is visually interesting as there are looming shadows that conceal enemies as well as your character.  You need to tread lightly and watch for what passes into the shadow as it will eventually reappear on the other side and surprise you.


Overall this is an excellent game.  It conjures the arcade aesthetic of the original game, and plays light on its feet.  It is the overlooked black sheep of the series, but deserves a second look.