Archive for March 2012
Under most circumstances, console games are licensed to be released on consoles (meaning the manufacturer sold the right to create a game on its console), however in the case of Last Hope, lead development console Neo Geo was completely out of print. Furthermore the game has seen much more success as a Dreamcast title, where it was more appropriately tweaked and cost a hell of a lot less than the 128 mb carts (basically a small arcade board) they originally produced the game on. This is often the case when a developer makes a game for a system long past its prime, we’ve also seen similar unlicensed titles from indie devs like the recent Genesis/Mega Drive release of Pier Solar. Last Hope is a surprisingly fun shmup in the vein of R-Type that really captures the feel of a classic 80s arcade game based almost purely on score. It’s even more significant that it was originally developed on the Neo Geo, a console fully capable of supporting large sprites in busy shmups but few developers created these types of games for.
To even touch the plot at this point is pretty stupid because you know the drill and can probably guess by the title alone: aliens invade and you are the last hope. What is impressive is that this shmup contains six levels, four difficulties, hand drawn backgrounds (this is a big part of my love for it) and I believe sprite-based ships and enemies. Furthermore the game runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, both the Neo Geo and Dreamcast versions are identical (including identical pixel-to-pixel count in 320×240) and all versions are region free (European players will need to support 60 hz on whatever display device they use). In short, it is programming a game with love for the console and game in mind, not profit.
It’s the end of Shmuppreciation 2012 and after the article that goes live at noon it will be time to stop reading about shmups and start playing them. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, shmups aren’t cheap…or are they? In these articles I have covered many shmups that have extremely high price tags depending on what console you want it on. I stress the fact that most shmups are arcade ports and thus all versions you can find on home consoles revolve completely around making as perfect a port as the developers can. For this reason, it doesn’t really matter what console you get your shmups from, just knowing which ones you can get them at inexpensive prices. The following article discusses the buyer who doesn’t want to drop a hefty chunk of change and some of the amazing deals I have found this month.
Note: Many links in this article will redirect you to retail sites like GameStop.com or auction sites like eBay to demonstrate the highs and lows of purchasing games of this type. I did this to make it easy for you to find them, especially because some deals require an inventory search in your area.
Many would tell you that the shmup is officially dead in the United States, especially when you consider that we’ve never been all that hot at creating titles for the genre and recent sales for retail titles (Deathsmiles, Otomedius) suck. Fortunately a venture between the eccentric Suda 51 (Killer 7, No More Heroes) with his development team Grasshopper Manufacture and Hungarian developer Digital Reality (mostly PC MMOs) brings one of the best contemporary shmups to date.
Sine Mora is all over the place. I can’t quite make out the language, but there’s clearly some German in the spoken word, although looking over the development teams perhaps I’m mistaking a Hungarian/Japanese hybrid for German. A complex story is told in the main campaign, the key to unlocking the true staple shmup options, but don’t worry if you don’t get it because it’s all text-based and has no relevance to the action. Characters are anthropomorphic versions of various animals from leopards to buffalo and even an incomprehensible robot. I was also surprised that while the activities in the game aren’t mature, it definitely deserves its M rating with some severely adult themes and language in the dialogue.
After you strip away all that, it’s just a solid horizontal shmup with gorgeous graphics in a steam punk world. That previous statement honestly sells the graphics short because as a download title the game is stunning. With 2.5D graphics (3D rendered characters on a 2D plane, much like recent fighter Street Fighter IV) it amazes me how close the actual graphics are to the concept art (see example below) and the attention to detail shows. What’s a shmup without boss battles, right? Well Sine Mora is not only filled with them, but they were all conceptually created by legendary anime artist Mahiro Maeda (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame). Each ship also has enough detail to be distinguishable, which is useful when trying to imagine the pilots that occupy it and the strengths/weaknesses when using them. There are also big sweeping moments within the levels that allow you to enjoy the landscape and aircraft you’re piloting before returning to the battle.
When I think about the combination of music and video games, I can’t help but think Konami and Harmonix. Thanks to the Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) series by Konami – c’mon gamers, everyone tried it at one point – your love for music and games could be realized. Unfortunately the series focused on techno music, many tracks from Japan, and there wasn’t that connection with the songs you really wanted (although there was this awesome DDR on the original Xbox that had a remix of the Neverending Story Theme). Enter Harmonix, a company that made its humble beginnings in similar techno infused video games with titles like Frequency, and its idea to take a big cumbersome plastic guitar and mix it with hard rock tunes. Guitar Hero and the slew of spin-offs that Activision juiced out of it had one painful flaw: you were still limited with the songs that were released. Even today Rock Band has thousands of songs but you aren’t able to pick anything you want/like. That’s where Beat Hazard comes in. A twin-stick shmup that utilizes any music track you provide to create an entire level lasting the length of that track.
Okay, let’s get the setup clear because a “level” will be in a fixed location (Asteroids, Geometry Wars) and not a scrolling level (Gradius, R-Type). Enemies will appear along with certain aspects of the code to generate the various obstacles that will be thrown at you – everything from actual asteroids to large bosses. I don’t think that developer Cold Beam Games has released any info on how the game is able to take your music and create a level, but if I were the developer I’d keep that secret until my game had run its course. Even more impressive is that Cold Beam Games CEO Steve Hunt appears to have created (and possibly developed) the game by himself, although I can’t find concrete evidence of that. In addition, Hunt admits to taking the addictive concept in Geometry Wars and adapting it to taking codes from MP3 files. As time has gone on he has updated the game as well as created a definitive version, Beat Hazard Ultra, which now supports many formats such as iTunes’ AAC format and even streaming formats like those found on Last FM. The original, which can be found on the XNA community channel on Xbox Live, only supports MP3 files as far as I know.
Geometry Wars is as genius as it is simple and reminds us that the days of high score popping in titles like Asteroids and Galaga are not over. This is a fast-paced game that requires pattern recognition and the ability to weave between enemies with the hardest of shups. In the end, just like in the arcade, it’s all about the score. The most impressive part of this story is that this multi-million download powerhouse began life as a free minigame.
Project Gotham Racing (or PGR for short) was an Xbox exclusive franchise developed by Bizarre Creations (who also developed Blur) that focused on arcade racing for the win while doing it with style. You advanced your upgrades and car with “kudos” that were awarded by doing everything from clever weaving to power slides. In PGR2 when you entered your garage, where you could customize and upgrade your cars, there was a minigame you could also play called Geometry Wars. It was a basic shooter that used only the two sticks to play – the left stick controlled the movement of your craft and the right stick controlled the direction your ship shot bullets. As you progressed, the game would get more and more frantic until you were getting swarmed at every moment that you were alive. Couple that game design with the Atari-style graphics that look like they could have been lifted from a vector monitor and you have an instant hit.
Rez was one of those games I hear way too many people recommend without mentioning what the game is about. In my mind, it’s an on-rails shooter version of the virtual reality world I so desperately wanted to play in the movie The Lawnmower Man. In truth it’s a bit more like a visual representation of William Gibson’s famous novel Neuromancer with a different plotline. Either way the significance of this title, and it’s predecessor Child of Eden (which came out later), has aesthetic value that is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.
Conceptually the game entails you as a hacker entering the virtual world of a computer known as the K-Project, which I think of as the Internet. An AI controls the goings on of the K-Project, her name is Eden, and she has become overwhelmed with the amount of data stored within. Her solution to the problem is to shut down the K-Project and thus basically shutting down global communications. Your job as a hacker in the system is to prevent her from doing this through five levels that have everything from small, simple enemies to big bosses with many destruction points. I have always been a huge fan of cyberpunk, my youth spent watching movies like Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and of course The Matrix while authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling spoke of things to come when man meets technology. Even the mention of what Rez was all about prompted me to quickly pick up a copy, although for the life of me I can’t imagine why I opted to import the Dreamcast version over the HD remake on Xbox Live.
Welcome to contemporary shmup week, where we discuss recent games that have graced modern consoles and can be found on store shelves even now. Developer Cave, probably best known for vertical shmups including the DoDonPachi series, has only created a few horizontal shmups and Deathsmiles is the only one that saw a true retail release in the US. Of course it didn’t sell very well, the collector’s edition that comes with a faceplate and soundtrack is still found for about $20 in many retailers, but is still significant as one of the few Japanese shmups to release in the US. It’s also interesting because it integrates many themes we’ve seen before including the fact that it’s part of the sub-genres cute ’em ups, danmaku (bullet hell), and has color integration like many Treasure shmups. If you’re into shmups in the least, the content-heavy title is worth picking up at full price, let alone the meager cost found nowadays – on a personal note, make sure you get the Collector’s Edition, it’s so worth it for a few more dollars.
Unlike many shmups, Deathsmiles features four (five in the Mega Black Label version, see below) young witches that you can control as they take on hordes of demonic forces. Each of these girls are young, between the ages of 11 and 17, each with thier own version of magic (typically elemental) and familiar. A girl’s familiar will follow them around, blocking bullets and firing counter bullets as well. In the arcade version the familiar moves opposite the controls that the player uses for the girl (ie: if you move your girl to the right the familiar will move to the left around the girl). This game has plenty of different modes, power-ups and strategies so definitely look them up online, but the most compelling aspect is that you basically have a 3-bar life counter that is persistent (status carries over level to level) and you get a game over when it runs out. There are various ways to refill the counter in addition to knowing techniques that can prevent the loss of life (1/2 bar for collisions and full bar for getting hit by a bullet) including knowing the areas on your witch that are invulnerable and using a familiar as a shield. After being defeated, an enemy releases items and “counter bullets” (yellow in color) that increase your score counter and in turn strengthen your shots and give you optional powers and attacks. Once you’ve gotten used to the items (and started to memorize the levels) you can delve into the balance of saving and collecting these power-ups.
Xevious is one of those games that doesn’t get the credibility it deserves despite being so easy to find on almost every console. I think it’s because it does a lot of things other shmups do, even though in many cases it did them first, and therefore gamers are drawn to the more popular titles. Back in 1982 when Namco released it into arcades – it would be released into US arcades by Atari and have the strongest port on the NES, if you believe that – the textures were amazing for the time. This game also had both air and ground weapon that had their own button so it was up to you to use the right armaments. Even today many vertical shmups don’t discriminate between ground or air when you blow things up, so it added a complexity to the game. It was also one of the first games to introduce in-level bosses with central “cores” you had to destroy. What still turns me and probably many other gamers off is that if you die you restart the level unless you’ve completed 70 percent of the area, at which point you will move on to the next level.
Shortly before the video game crash of 1983, a little company by the name of Activision, formed to give programmers credit for their properties and hard work, released a game called River Raid on the Atari VCS/2600. Released in 1982, this game was a basic scrolling vertical shmup where you control a little plane and blast enemies that appear. Your plane remains at the bottom of the screen, but you can increase the scrolling (plane) speed and move left and right. I know that seems like a basic version of most shmups we’ve seen this month, but when you consider it was an early 80s home video game – on Atari’s limited space, no less – River Raid is an achievement.
There is a surprising similarity between Star Wars Arcade, released in 1983, and Star Fox, released in 1993. For starters they are both 3D graphical on-rails shooters that involve space battle and a predominance toward the cockpit view. In addition they’re all about blowing up things in space while people scream at you with words and phrases that offer no assistance in the gameplay. Okay, so they’re not actually all that similar when it comes down to gameplay (honestly I find Star Wars Arcade to be the better game), but it does demonstrate that the style of gameplay does withstand the test of time.
Even though it coincided more with the movie release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars Arcade was a vector graphics 3D shooter where you controlled Luke Skywalker as he attacked the Death Star in Red 5 at the end of the Star Wars: A New Hope. The game involved three stages of battle, called “waves” in the game, that they had to overcome in order to complete it. In the first wave you would destroy TIE fighters as you approach the Death Star, in the second wave you would destroy turrets on the surface and in the final wave you would fight in the trench against both types of enemies and take a crack at shooting the exhaust port and destroying the space station. If you did so, you would loop into the game again and receive an extra shield that allowed you to play for longer periods of time. Doing so without firing a single bullet in the trench until the perfect shot on the exhaust port would be considered as a “using the force” run and net you a huge point bonus in addition to your additional shield. Because of these bonuses it was possible to play for a long time on one quarter, which was like finding gold in old school arcades, and one guy even played for more than 50 hours on a single credit.