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Last Hope (NG:Dev.Team)

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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 SolarLast 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.

Initial print runs for the Neo Geo were extremely limited as the components to make the carts had skyrocketed in cost to a whopping price tag at the time of release of 550 euros (that’s like $750).  Mind you, this isn’t the collector’s price tag on eBay, this is the price if you had purchased it directly from the dev team in 2006.  As a result, only 60 copies were sold and this game is one of the most rare titles available.  It was also released on Neo Geo CD for a much more manageable price, although I don’t know what price that specifically was.  Plagued with long load times (like all Neo Geo CD titles), the only benefit to the game was the bright pink bullets that would later be the format used for the 2009 re-release on Dreamcast.  Play-asia.com and a few other retailers produced and sold the Dreamcast port in 2006 for $40 with a limited print run of 500.  It sold out in 5 days and sells for $300+ online these days – personal note: I received a copy at a retro gaming convention I was covering that year and ended up trading it for the much less valuable re-release. 

While it was praised for the technical superiority as a Neo Geo game, and connections to one of the only other Neo Geo shmups Pulstar were constantly made (that I’m not sure I agree with), the game was criticized for having bullets that could hide within the backgrounds and explosions.  This made the title brutally difficult and I don’t think I could pass the third level on the lowest difficulty, my eyes seemingly playing tricks on me as I attempt to dodge a flurry of bullets.  As a response, the bright pink bullets from the Neo Geo CD version and a few extras were worked into the game for a 2009 re-release Last Hope: Pink Bullets Edition.  This made the game much easier but in a fair type of way, which I can now safely say I was eventually able to grind through thanks to infinite respawns instead of checkpoints and purposefully lower difficulty.  This version came in a bright pink plastic case and I traded my original copy for it because I didn’t have the $50 it was selling for and felt the original was too hard for me.  I’ve since come to terms with the value I gave away for an overpriced title (it was supposed to be sold for $25 by retailers).  This great game becomes available from time to time in reprints and I’m happy to announce that another batch is coming this summer for 20 euros (roughly $27) and can be pre-ordered now.

I just love indie development so much that to get my hands on titles like this is a great slice of rare history.  With no region coding and full compatibility with US consoles, this is a cheap shmup by all accounts. 

That wraps up Shmuppreciation Month 2012, thanks for joining us and please feel free to check out all of our articles we released on our central hub.  Stay tuned tomorrow where we kick off April with my favorite April Fool’s Day jokes from the past – remember when we were told Sheng Long existed in Street Fighter II?

Written by spydersvenom

March 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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Shmups on a Budget

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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.

Old School Shmup

  • River Raid – you could try to get an Atari 2600 and drop $20+ for the game on eBayOR you could pay $2 at a GameStop and get your hands on the Activision Anthology on PS2 ($3 if you find one with a Gameboy Advance).  As a bonus this collection includes 40 other games like the sequel, River Raid II and classics like Pitfall! 
    Lazy People: You can get River Raid for $3 on XBL’s Game Room
  • Space Invaders – Taito just basically gives this game away.  Not only has the arcade coin-op sold for mere hundreds of dollars (hint: it was super popular so there are tons of them), but Taito shares its best titles on the cheap.  You can find this along with classics like Bubble Bobble and Rastan on the Taito Legends at GameStop for $1 on PS2.  $1!  Go.  Now!
  • Galaga, Galaxian, and Xevious – Namco has been much more lucky with its collections, especially when you consider its collections will most likely have Pac-Man and other families included.  While arcade versions of these games will run you over $500, the Namco Museum 50th Anniversary Collection is a cheap way to find all 3 of these games in arcade perfect spectacles on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, GBA, DS, or PSP.  All but the PS2 and DS versions will run you less than $10 at GameStop, but for those I’d highly recommend eBay to get the games super cheap ($5).
    Lazy People: Galaga is $5 on XBL, and both Galaga and Galaxian are $5-$6 each on Wii Virtual Console.  Xevious is $5 (NES ver) on Wii VC and $6 on 3DS VC as a 3D title (looks pretty darn good too!)
  • Gradius – There are so many ways to get your hands on several Gradius games, but the easiest and cheapest is securing the Gradius Collection on PSP.  For a mere $7 you can get your hands on not only arcade ports of the first four games, but the rare Japan only Gradius Gaiden that goes for $40+ assuming you can play Japanese games.  Stray from digital and eBay though, that’s gonna cost you $20+.  If you only have a PS2 then Gradius IV (which also includes Gradius III) is $5.
    Lazy People: $5 for the Wii Virtual Console NES port (the best!) of the original, the Super CD port of Gradius 2 (Gofer No Yobo) for $9, and $8 for the SNES port of Gradius III.
  • Life Force – Not as popular in the US and has a different name (worldwide it’s known as Salamander).  Well worth a $5 Wii Virtual Console download.
  • R-Type – A bit common but easiest to just buy the first two games together in the PSN release of R-Types for $6.  Get your hands on the PSN version of the fourth game with R-Type Delta for the same price.
  • Star Wars Arcade – Again, not the Sega arcade/32x version, but the original vector graphics 1983 title.  You could purchase the arcade cabinet for like $1,000 (even more for cockpit version) or you could drop $7 for the GameCube (which means Wii can play it as well) game Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, which has all 3 Atari arcade games in the package.  The only down side is you have to actually play that god awful game to unlock them.

Modern Shmup

  • G Darius and Darius Gaiden – This series is hard to emulate and hard to find on classic consoles (each game is like $50-$150 for the port).  Not only that, it doesn’t hold up all that well.  Instead of the hundreds you’ll spend getting import versions of the old ones, why not try playing the newer 3D rendered games that have unlimited continues and immediate respawns?  For $2 both of these games can be yours in the Taito Legends 2, which is amazingly more common to find than you think.  It also includes Rastan 2 and dozens more arcade ports.
  • R-Type Final – IREM has been making this series by itself since the first title, so the quality of the R-Type series has never been stronger.  Throw in polygonal graphics and about 100 ship combinations and why wouldn’t you want this game for the low price of $2?  That’s how much GameStop wants for it, assuming you can find one in stock of course.
  • Gradius V – Not as significant a find as the above two, but this shmup by developer Treasure is a treat.  For only $13 used at GameStop, if you can find one in the area, this is a steal even in disc only form.  Finding a decent conditioned copy with box, instructions, and possibly the bonus high score/history DVD would be the find of the year.
  • Sin & Punishment – This trendy little Treasure on-rails shooter only came out in Japan for the N64 and it’s addictive as I’ll get out.  It used to go for more than $100 online (and sometimes still does) without even delving into getting a Japanese N64 game to run in the US.  Why not pick it up for $12 on the US Wii Virtual Console?  It’s there right now.
  • Radiant Silvergun – Damn you Saturn!  Every decent game that ever came out in America is worth nearly $100 and this title isn’t even a US game.  That makes its rarity and price skyrocket to starting at $150 used (and apparently $4,000 sealed).  Then again, for 800 MS points ($10) you can get a pretty decent port on XBL.
  • Ikaruga – Here we go again, another Treasure title that costs more than $100.  Granted, this one was a bit more common and the GameCube version was always on store shelves and never peaked over $30, but on native console Dreamcast this guy fetched a pretty penny back in the day.  It, like its spiritual predecessor (above) was re-released on XBL for the same $10 price tag and should be highly considered.
  • Deathsmiles - Cave made a horizontal shmup on the 360 and Aksys was dumb enough to release not just a regular, but a special edition over here!  I love that they did it but I doubt it generated much revenue.  Thankfully you can now get your hands on either for the respective prices of $14 and $25.
  • Otomedius – Speaking of under $14 shmups, Otomedius Excellent! just can’t seem to drop in price.  It’s $40 used at GameStop, not in stock anywhere else, and despite being out for more than a year is still $30-$40 with online retailers.   Given the so-so reviews and brutal difficulty that’s a steep price for me.  Luckily Amazon seems to have gotten a small shipment and is unloading the game for about $13.  If you’re going to bite, do it now because this game was $30 the last time Amazon had copies.

Japanese Love

There is value in loving the Japanese version of games but mostly just high cost.  Fortunately for PS3 owners, the PSN/SEN doesn’t know or really care where you are located when signing up for an account.  Aside from games we never see in the US and free earlier demos of upcoming releases, you can also get access to a huge catalog of very cheap digital titles we never saw here.  Just create a Japanese account on your PS3, pick up a yen points card (due to currency exchange it’s like $50 for 3,000 yen, but oh well) and start buying.  On the PS3 you can even play these games under the US PSN on the same console but if PSOne games ever make it to the Vita, you’ll probably have to do the memory card swap trick.  Here are the great games available for a mere 600 yen apiece:

Alright, well now you’re equipped (and tempted) to spend tons of money as well, but at least you’ll know you’re getting the cheapest version.  Hope you’ve enjoyed this Shmuppreciation month.  Stay tuned for the Shmuppreciation podcast that will be coming out in the next few days.

Written by spydersvenom

March 31, 2012 at 11:17 am

Sine Mora (Grasshopper Manufacture/Digital Reality)

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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.

Concept Art vs. Actual Visuals. Impressive, no?

What’s a new shmup without a new hook, though, right?  Sine Mora is well aware that contemporary games don’t quite have the memorization or bitter edge that old school titles employ.  Furthermore most shmups that still release have that traditional difficulty, which may be one of the contributing factors to poor US sales, so it remains safe with its difficulty.  Instead of lives or a life bar, you are given a time limit that is constantly counting down and each hit you take reduces that timer even more.  This dynamic means that even if you’re flying through bullets, this is tactically feasible provided you’re going full fledge for the end goal.  As a game that touts itself a danmaku shmup, a slowdown mechanic also assists in weaving in and out of the game’s complex bullet patterns (especially with bosses).  Mechanics like these make the game sound too easy, it’s really not.  Your timer will countdown faster than you can imagine and a persistent slowdown bar ensures that if you waste your ability to slow time early on, you won’t have it later (it does not regenerate but you can collect small blocks of time).  Despite the ease of navigating the main campaign, this game can quickly become tough as nails with its scoring. 

Hidden behind a manageable campaign lies a true, score-based challenging game that doesn’t want you to come in contact with a single bullet.  Each level will rate you based on your performance, including amount of times hit and overall score.  If you kill a large batch of enemies without taking a hit, your multiplier will increase with a maximum of 5x the points, but every time you slow the world down or take a hit that returns to 1.  Sine Mora features a traditional cannon and secondary attacks akin to bombs in other shmups – but using a secondary fire will also kill your multiplier.  Doesn’t sound like much of a task when navigating some early levels but it’s a bear on even some of the early boss battles.  After completing the campaign you open the ability to play arcade mode, which allows you to skip the story and play specific levels with various difficulties and ships.  There’s also score mode, which challenges you to get the highest score on a single life and what shmup would be complete with out a boss rush mode to teach you the intricacies of the game’s biggest baddies.  Next thing you know, you’re replaying levels hundreds of times, memorizing spawns and freaking out over a single hit – this hurts even more because in Sine Mora you don’t die.

With Microsoft publishing the title digitally, Sine Mora is a 1200 point ($15) Xbox 360 exclusive that I feel is quite moderately priced when compared to other contemporary shmups.  It is a decent starting point for those entering into the genre and it can be just as brutal as some of the best Cave and Treasure shmups around if you hike the difficulty and set personal goals.  I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this game, but aside from some minor gripes about pointless deaths because the game isn’t clear on what you’re supposed to do, it delivers on all fronts.  A new shmup has been born in Sine Mora and fans of the genre owe it to themselves to pick this gorgeous addicting title right away.

Whew, well that basically wraps up Shmuppreciation month save for tomorrow, the final day, where I will discuss an indie shmup for light reading.  Come join us for the final installment of Shmup of the Day with a Dreamcast indie title appropriately titled Last Hope.

Written by spydersvenom

March 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Beat Hazard (Cold Beam Games)

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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.

Expanding and Going Ultra

Beat Hazard premiered on the XNA channel at a whopping 400 MS points ($5), one of the most expensive titles in a sea of 80-160 ($1-$2) games.  Despite this fact, its quality made the game a runaway hit and was awarded one of the top 20 XNA titles to play by the Dream Build Play 2010 Challenge.  A good friend of mine (Rob aka “TreesLounge” from the EZ Mode Unlocked podcast) recommended the title, which even I was speculative of, and I was immediately hooked.  I even set up my PC for streaming MP3s on my network to get access to all the wonderful songs this game is compatible with – especially artists like Prodigy, Steel Panther, and SpineShank, which would never be in a commercial title.  It also made an appearance on Steam and eventually received DLC in the form of Ultra, which integrated more songs (oh, did I mention it has its own licensed songs included in the game?), more compatibility with the aforementioned file formats, and more enemies.  This version, named Beat Hazard Ultra, with the DLC already integrated was released on PSN with a $9.99 price tag (I think the Steam version was $4.99 and I’m unsure of the DLC cost, if any).  Of course, being a digital game these prices are always subject to discounts (I know the XNA version was $1 for a while, I got the PSN version on sale for $4, and it was a Steam sale for 99 cents for a while).

As one could imagine, both fans of the series (and those hoping to get a copy on their platform of choice) and developer Cold Beam Games want to expand to more platforms.  Back in summer 2011 an interview on Indie Games revealed that a MAC version was in the works (that version has since released) as well as an iOS and Android (not sure if iOS version released, Droid is definitely not available yet).  Unfortunately because XNA development tools are currently in C#, the programming language originally used to program Beat Hazard, and the newer versions (especially Ultra) are in C++ it was rejected by Microsoft.  Unless Cold Beam Games can produce a version ofUltra in C#, which it has already said it cannot due to the massive undertaking of reverse engineering the code, then XNA can’t get the newer versions.  Hopefully Microsoft XNA tools will soon support C++ and Xbox 360 players can get their hands on the definitive version.  For now, I would recommend trying to get your hands on the Steam or PSN version if you can.

The draw of Beat Hazard (Ultra) reaches farther than simple shmup fans – every gamer from those that never left the arcades or Ataris to those that began gaming this year should experience this title.  In fact, I would go farther and say that music buffs who have never played a video game before should try this game out (although I doubt they would ever be reading this article).  It’s truly a game for the masses and I can’t wait to see what comes out of the independent innovators like Cold Beam Games. 

Speaking of something new, tomorrow we will discuss a truly recent title,Sine Mora, which has been out for about 8 days now and comes from the unique mind of game designer Suda 51’s development studio Grasshopper Manufacture.

Written by spydersvenom

March 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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Geometry Wars (Bizarre Creations)

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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. 

When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, Project Gotham Racing 3 was to be a launch title and prior to launch there were plenty of arcade re-releases ready to be a part of the Xbox Live Arcade service.  I’m sure someone at Microsoft saw that featuring a standalone version of Geometry Wars  would be a no-brainer to go head to head with the likes of titles such as Galaga and Contra.  If you picked up PGR3 and headed into your garage, you could play a demo of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved.  This version of the game had the classic style with a full-screen grid and the vector graphics, but it also contained a bright glowing high-resolution version that was larger than the screen.  This meant that as you played, enemies would be bombarding you that you wouldn’t get to see until they were almost upon you.  It gave way to plenty of forum chatter about Microsoft’s newest HD console and some gamers admitted to playing the Geometry Wars demo more than the so-so PGR3

Around Thanksgiving of that same year Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved launched on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 points ($10) and immediately became the must-download title.  I don’t know anyone that has a 360 and doesn’t own one version of Geometry Wars.  Its simplicity gives way to the overwhelming urge to play it again and again – not to mention its small size makes things like load times and slow respawns unheard of.  To this date I get on the leaderboards and try to top my high score (because I’m certainly not competing with the top players among my friends, let alone worldwide).  

As you could probably expect, this title was then ported all over the place.  It made appearances on the DS, Wii, PC and iOS – sure, there’s no PSN version but PS3 players can play near-clones like Super Stardust HD if they need to.  Bizarre even created a sequel, Geometry Wars 2, on XBLA to integrate multiplayer (co-op and competitive) as well as consistent updates on your score versus your friends.  This title is a perfect example of how old school gameplay and mentality can be integrated with contemporary innovation and net glorious results. 

Tomorrow’s journey is for all you music lovers out there.  It integrates your own songs to create levels on the go and convert them into a high-scoring phenomenon not unlike Geometry Wars.  I’m talking about none other than the amazing indie title Beat Hazard.

Written by spydersvenom

March 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Rez (United Game Artists)

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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.

Scene from The Lawnmower Man

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.

While the plot of Rez is easy to comprehend, it’s not so easy to follow as you’re going along in the game.  Fortunately the draw of this title doesn’t lie in the story or even the gameplay, the two biggest staples of my favorite games, but rather the audio/visual experience that it presents.  Developed by United Game Artists, a division of Sega that contained many former Team Andromeda members (the team was broken up after creating the Panzer Dragoon series), there is a clear focus on unique gorgeous graphics mixing with the electronica movement I fell deep into during the mid-late 90s. 

After recently completing the game I noticed that the team thanks artist Wassily Kandinsky, an early 20th century Russian painter.  Looking over his pieces, I was surprised to see he begins his career quite traditional but eventually finds himself in very abstract places.  His return to Russia in 1914 and subsequent painting of the expressionist work Composition VII is a vivid world of swirls and colors.  He would later teach classes at the Bauhaus on color and geometry integration into art and finish his career with heavy cubist paintings.  And here I just thought they copied virtual reality simulations from the early 90s.

Kandinsky's Composition VII

Even if Kandinsky is the inspiration, the whole game feels like the world we see in the movie Hackers – large complex box shapes in CGI cityscapes cascade across the screen where a silent floating protagonist blows up enemies.  Instead of the traditional floating and exploding sounds of shmups we are instead greeted with instrumental tracks and electronic noises with every action we make.  This is complemented by the techno track that graces each level and whether or not they were produced for the game, tend to build as the action commences.  It really is a great experience, especially if your sound system is up to snuff.  Even the game, Rez, is based on the song by the same name from the electronica artist Underwold.  On a personal note I love his work, although the mainstream probably only knows the artist by his Trainspotting sountrack hit Born Slippy.

Needless to say, Rez had plenty of thought and design decisions that went into its creation.  If any game deserved digital forms of the development process or design docs, this is it (hint, hint Q Entertainment).  Even more impressive is that every version of this game you can find is gorgeous.  It was developed first on the Sega Dreamcast, but for one reason or another only saw a Japanese release in holiday 2001 and in Europe early 2002.  I imported this on my modded Dreamcast and with the VGA box it looks dazzling on a huge 36″ monitor, especially when coupled with a 3-speaker setup and a strong subwoofer.  Around the same time it was also released on the PS2, and in January 2002 – the same time other regions had it for Dreamcast – we did receive a port.  I haven’t seen this one myself, but I hear it looks very impressive and from a sound standpoint makes better use of the PS2’s digital port.  Even today it’s not that hard to find and definitely not that expensive.

Going HD and the Prequel Sequel

Rez producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (also known for his game designs in Lumines and Space Channel 5) admitted he always wanted a high-definition widescreen version of the game with full surround sound.  Unfortunately that technology didn’t come around for a few years, at which point he was able to secure the license back from Sega (it was work for hire so Sega kept the rights) and released Rez HD on Xbox Live in early 2008.  This is the version that most people I know have played and at 800 pts ($10) it’s a steal.  Rez HD is identical to the original with updated visuals and sound effects and is, to this date, listed in the top 20 XBLA titles of all times.  It can also be found on an XBLA compilation disc that also contains Lumines Live! and Every Extend Extra Extreme

Mizuguchi got to delve back into his sensory overloaded franchise again with Child of Eden on the Xbox 360 and PS3.  This time around his title would have the gorgeous polished HD graphics and dynamic surround sound right out of the box (and on both consoles) along with the integration of motion controls with the respective Kinect and Move units.  Touted as one of the best examples of motion controls, Child of Eden looked like it could be a commercial success.  It takes place before Rez and tells the story of a virus attacking Project Lumi, which if completed would later become the AI Eden from Rez.  Unfortunately, like Rez, the game is considerably short and most gamers experienced the original as a $10 download whereas Child was a $60 retail release.  I have to admit, even I was surprised with the price tag and did wait until the game got to the more manageable $30 range before picking it up.  Despite being able to complete the game in 2 hours, it has plenty of dynamic replay value and is a great Saturday afternoon game when I get too stressed out.  As you may expect, the title only sold around 34,000 copies on both consoles so calling it a commercial failure is an understatement, but I still blame marketing and pricing.  At this point it’s probably $15-$20 and worth a play if you get the chance – don’t worry, the motion controls are entirely optional and not necessary.

Come back tomorrow when we continue our shmup coverage with the most addictive mini game ever to grace a racing title (and the catalyst for the popularity of the twin stick shmup): Geometry Wars.

Written by spydersvenom

March 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Deathsmiles (Cave)

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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.

It basically becomes a game that’s easy to pick up and hard to master, but like all shmups, the process is a blast.  I really dig this game from both a gameplay and graphical perspective, not to mention the variety.  With multiple witches and the ability to pick your path (there are 3 areas, 2 stages each, and they are completed in any order), it will take plenty of time to try out everything and rack up considerable “practice” hours.  There was some value in completing many of the 360 achievements to learn better strategies.  I do urge you to play the game before getting discouraged by the videos on YouTube (or the one I have here to demonstrate gameplay), these guys have played the Japanese PCB either on MAME or an actual cabinet for hundreds of hours.  It’s the shmup equivalent to a Call of Duty game – it’s all they play.  This game is difficult, like all shmups, but with the various options and difficulties, you can tweak gameplay as your skills increase.

Version

The original arcade version appeared in Japan around Halloween 2007 and a follow-up, Mega Black Label version (Cave loves to do “Black Label” versions of most of its coin-ops) was released about a year later in 2008.  This updated version was limited to only 150 cabinets and added Sakura as a fifth playable witch, it added the Crystal Shrine stage, and the extra hard 999 difficulty level as well as some scoring changes. 

It was released on Xbox 360 in retail form first in Japan in April 2009.  This version contained the 1.1 update that changed even more about the scoring and added some bonuses like boss counter bullets to ease the difficulty curve.  Version 1.1 also allows you to independently control your witch’s familiar.  In addition there was an Xbox 360 version that updated many of the graphics and adds two difficulties for each level and the ability to replay them over and over.  This meant that you could select 3 different modes: Arcade, 1.1, and Xbox 360 on the main menu.  Shortly after release the Mega Black Label version was added as DLC, which was later included on the disc for the Japanese Platinum version, US version, and European version.  The Mega black Label version also received the updates of the 360 modes, adding 3 new MBL modes on the main menu and thus doubling your mode options to six modes.  As if that wasn’t confusing enough, you can get both regular and collector’s editions of all regional releases (and yes, they are all region locked).  The Japanese and US/NA CE contains Manabu Namiki Selection Deathsmiles Premium Arrange Album that has 15 tracks inspired by the game.  In the US/NA version there was also a Deathsmiles face plate for your Xbox 360.  In Europe it was known as the “Deluxe Edition” and released by Rising Star (in Japan and US it was published by Aksis) contains the same arrange sountrack and a second CD that had various PC-based themes and assets.  An early run of this version had the soundtrack misburned as a data CD containing the files in .wav format that Rising Star would replace with an actual music CD upon request. 

Finally it was released worldwide on iOS devices in July 2011 with new touch controls and some special features.  Since I have not played this version, I am unsure what features it contains and what of the various game modes are included. 

There was a sequel in Japan on Xbox 360, Deathsmiles IIX, which was also re-released in the North America Games on Demand service for Xbox Live.  This sequel was not regionalized and therefore contains the original Japanese text and voices and can only be purchased for $30 on this service (which uses credit cards and price tags, MS points can not be used).  Most noteable is that this is one of three horizontal Cave shmups (Progear and Deathsmiles being the others) and it’s the first to use polygonal graphics instead of old school sprites. 

That wraps up the first day of contemporary shmups.  Come back tomorrow where we discuss one of the most unique visual titles: Rez (HD).

Written by spydersvenom

March 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Xevious (Namco)

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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. 

Other than that, there’s really nothing remarkable about the game.  It had a long-lasting series that no one, myself included, has ever cared to play.  It was available in arcade form and was supposed to be ported to the Atari 2600, but never made it.  As a result, the Famicom/NES were the dominant home versions although the prettier ports were on the PC-Engine and microcomputers.  It was also on several Namco collections on the PS1, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, and DS as well as Nintendo doing a “classics” port on GBA and a “3D classics” port on 3DS.  It has also been released on Virtual Console (NES version) and Xbox Live Arcade (arcade version).  Xevious is also unlockable in the Gamecube title Star Fox Assault if you collect every silver medal.

Awkward History

There was a bootleg of the game, Xevios, that was poorly altered to remove the “u” (and I do mean poorly, it’s just literally cut out of the graphic).  The copyright was switched from 1982 to 1980, which implies the game was made by the bootlegger.  What’s even funnier, there’s a copyright code built into the game that reads “DEAD COPY MAKING, COPY UNDER NAMCO PROGRAM” that can be found by moving immediately to the right at the beginning of the game, bombing continually until the first set of rings is close and then shooting them down.  The message appears on the screen after you have done this. 

Xevious is also given plenty of love in more modern Namco titles.  In Ridge Racer “RT Xevious Red” and “RT Xevious Green” are unlockable cars on the “RT Solvalou” team (the name of the ship).  The RT Xevious cars would return in all iterations of Ridge Racer until finally implementing the game into Ridge Racer 7.  You can play two lives while the game is loading and the entire game unlocks after you complete offline grand prix.  Tales of Symphonia features an enemy named “Bacura”, which is an invincible enemy in Xevious and extremely hard in Symphonia.  The background music from the arcade in Earthbound features sounds from Xevious

And that wraps up the illusive Xevious.  Next week we wrap up with contemporary shmups starting with none other than Cave’s Deathsmiles tomorrow.

Written by spydersvenom

March 25, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

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River Raid (Activision)

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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.

If you get interested in the geeky Atari 2600 programming scene (Racing the Beam is recommended reading), you’ll learn this title is most known for having huge non-random levels of scrolling background.  This was difficult to achieve on the limited space of the 2600 and programmer Carol Shaw (known best for the 500, 2600, and 5200 ports of this game and Super Breakout) utilized a dynamic algorithm for the backgrounds.  She was also able to program the enemies via a complex random number generator to determine opponent’s actions, thus increasing the difficulty.  As addicting as it was, Germany would never get its hands on the title because the German Federal Department for Writings Harmful to Young Persons (aka Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Schriften) determined the aggressive nature of the plane made it unsuitable for a video game.  Germany was always a catalyst for video game bans and it appears that was always the case, even back then.

Ports

River Raid was ported heavily to microcomputers because the crash ended most plans for home console versions.  It can be found on IBM-PC, MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64.  Just before the crash it was also ported to the Intellivision, ColecoVision and the Atari 5200 (where it was “improved” but looked and played nearly identically to the original).  It has also been included in a few of the Activision Anthology ports on PS1 and last generation systems – side note, River Raid was officially removed from the German banned list when Activision appealed the decision with the release of the anthology on PS2.  In addition the game is one of the few titles worth owning in the Xbox Live Game Room application – it’s a whopping 240 points ($3) and is the original 5200 version.  There was a sequel, River Raid II, programmed by David Lubar and released in 1988 for the 2600 as well, which increased the difficulty and updated the backgrounds. River Raid II can also be found on Game Room and in the Activision Anthology series.

For another lazy Sunday we’re going to be wrapping up the classic shmups with none other than Xevious.

Written by spydersvenom

March 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Star Wars Arcade (Atari)

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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.

You could find the cabinet in two formats: upright like most arcades or a big boxed in cockpit style cabinet, which is the version we all hoped to find.  The only arcade I remember having it was the Six Flags by my house and it charged the premium price of 50 cents, but there was always a line regardless thanks to the longer play times of each credit.  While it may not look like anything special, vector graphics such as those seen here were a staple for many Atari arcade titles and with the different colors and 3D grid effects it truly was a sight to see.  I also remember the effect when you destroyed a TIE fighter, it would disappear into stars (that literally looked like ASCII stars “*” in a circle) and didn’t strike me as odd in the least.  Not only did it dazzle visually, but there were digitized clips from the movie that made characters like Obi-Wan and Darth Vader sound like they were under water, but given that It’s important to note that most movie license games are crap, even back then, but Star Wars Arcade has a lasting appeal that all gamers can appreciate and enjoy.

I Smell A Sequel

Fortunately for Atari, by the time Star Wars Arcade came out the Star Wars trilogy was a massive hit so it’s no wonder that they quickly released the other two sequels, albeit out of order.  The second game to come out was Return of the Jedi in 1984 and it’s quite a forgettable endeavor.  Unlike the cockpit on-rails “simulation” of the first, Jedi was an isometric view and had you taking out enemies while rushing through sets from the movie.  Instead of the grid-based 3D vector graphics we received traditional cartoon-like arcade raster graphics.  Evidently the game didn’t do as well – I personally remember it being completely ignored when it replaced the Star Wars Arcade game at Six Flags – because Atari returned to the vector graphics with the third and final game Empire Strikes Back.  This was a complete revamp of the original, this time taking place on Hoth as a snowspeeder and the asteroid field as the Millenium Falcon.  Graphically the game was similar to Star Wars, although a bit more colorful with bright green Imperial Walkers, and explosions resulted in pieces flying instead of the circle of stars.  It also returned to both traditional cabinets and sit-down cockpit as well.  There was also an easy conversion to interchange Star Wars and Empire in the same cabinet, which is what many arcades did.

Ports

Contrary to popular belief, the game Star Wars Arcade that released as a launch title on the Sega 32x is not the same game.  That game is based on the Sega arcade title that came out in 1993, which bares a striking resemblance.  In that game you are taxed with being an X-Wing and taking out various types of TIE fighters in outer space alongside Admiral Ackbar.  As for the Atari arcade ports, they can only be found on the Gamecube title Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike as unlockables (despite the game being crap, these unlocks are well worth the $5 if you can find one at a GameStop and still have a “Cube” or Wii).  Star Wars Arcade was ported to, of course, both the Atari 2600 and 5200 as well as a semi-faithful port on the ColecoVision.  As was the case back then, in the mid-80s the original also hit almost every microcomputer including the C64 and Amstrad.  In 1999 John Dondzila ported this game to the Vectrex under the name Star Fire Spirits as part of the Vecmania cart set.

And that just about wraps up the classic shmup section but not before wrapping up the weekend with a couple more.  Tomorrow’s shmup of the day is an Atari 2600 classic: River Raid.

Written by spydersvenom

March 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

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