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Archive for March 2012

Galaga (Namco)

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Just as America was tapering off from “Pac-Man fever” (we were obsessed with Pac-Man in the late 70s), arcade powerhouse Namco unleashed Galaga on us.  While it was quite popular and generated plenty of income for Namco, Galaga has always been the counterpart to the Pac-Man series that wasn’t as lucrative – it’s often bundled together with Ms. Pac-Man in re-released cabinets.  That’s not to say that Galaga doesn’t have its rightful place in American history, these days it’s more popular with my friends (and in bars, no less) than more traditional arcade staples.

Some may not know this, but Galaga is actually a sequel of Galaxian, which was released a year earlier in 1980.  Galaxian was basically a clone of Space Invaders that improved on the formula by featuring full color graphics versus the two colors of Space Invaders and had the enemies drop in pattern formations from different parts of the screen.  It also removed the barriers at the bottom.  Galaga updated the formula even more by allowing the ship to fire more than one bullet at a time, awarding bonus points for clearing stages and had an enemy that could capture your ship.  If your ship was captured you would lose a life but it would remain in possession of the thief until you destroyed it, at which point the ship would join your current one and you could fire with two ships.  This becomes a tactic that those in the high score world tend to take advantage of, although I’ve met a few that prefer to keep their ships out of alien possession.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

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Defender (Williams)

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As a classic Defender‘s reputation is one of those titles that surprisingly few people have played.  I know as a child I was discouraged by the looping screen – unlike Asteroids the screen would scroll with your ship, looping after you reach the edge of the map.  Not only that, it was a game where you tried to survive a “wave” of enemies and protect soldiers on the ground.  In the days of Gears of War’s “horde” mode and various other versions of the same concept, this is nothing new, but it was difficult to wrap my head around in the early 80s.  It was also really difficult, which is now a staple of the shmup genre but back then it was discouraging next to Space Invaders and Pac-Man.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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Space Invaders (Taito)

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It is the world’s most popular arcade machine of all time, caused such a craze in Japan that there was a temporary shortage of 100-yen coins (equivalent to a quarter in US arcades) and grossed a whopping $2 billion worldwide in 1982.  Not only that it skyrocketed sales of the Atari VCS/2600, its “alien” creatures are now symbols representing video games as a whole and the Guinness Book of World Records labels it the top arcade game ever made.  I’m speaking of none other than Space Invaders(Supēsu Inbēdā in Japan), the very first shmup and the arcade game that ushered a new action focus in arcades instead of the previous sports focus.  Whether you played it, or a derivative game like Galaga, this game is so well-known that it still spells gold for developers even today.  It was probably one of the first games I ever played and anytime I see a cabinet I have to plunk down a quarter for a play.  Even Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto (responsible for Mario, Link and plenty of other Nintendo staple titles) admitted that Space Invaders was the game that got him interested in video games.  I know it sounds like I’m singing the praises long after they’re due, but this truly is the ideal example of a game that is both easy to play and addicting as hell.  This is a true video game.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Asteroids (Atari)

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Back in the 70s, before the VCS/2600 dominated the home market, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell created the first arcade game, Computer Space.  Intended to be a single player version of what is considered by some to be the first video game, Spacewar! by MIT students on a PDP-1 valued at $100,000, it was a marvel of ingenuity that was met with commercial failure outside of the scope of nerdy college kids.  Shortly after, Bushnell created the much more user-friendly Pong and raked in over $1 million annually for Atari.  Unfortunately back then it was much easier to copy a game and get away with it (home versions of Pong that didn’t come from Atari/Sears were actually referred to as “Pong clones”) so the way Atari stayed on top was to make the newest and best games.  The apex of the concept begun in Spacewar! came with the Atari coin-op Asteroids in 1979.

Although the connection with Spacewar! and Computer Space hasn’t been universally made, I always view the games as being generational improvements on the formula.  If you ask Atari exec Lyle Rains, which is credited with conceptualizing the game, he would probably tell you it came from his famous discussion with Ed Logg, a then Atari programmer, when he asked, “what about a game where you smash asteroids – big rocks into small rocks?”  After that Logg and designed and programmed the game with fellow co-worker Dominic Walsh.  One of the basic concepts to be born out of the early days of arcades, Asteroids is not only one of the highest regarded titles of all time but it holds the top slot in terms of sales at Atari.  Selling more than 70,000 units domestically, many of them needing to be modified with larger coin boxes to keep from shorting out, this game was so popular that when the next big game, Lunar Lander, came out some were custom installed with Asteroids instead because the customer was only interested in that specific game.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

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Darxide (Frontier)

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Darxide is a game that probably few people know about given all of the obstacles it faces to get into gamers’ hands.  First off it was released on the 32x…only in Europe…and it had a very limited print run.  I haven’t been able to find out how many carts were produced, but the game fetches hundreds of pounds in its native land.  I found one on eBay for about $700 (and that doesn’t even count the fact that the game will only run on a PAL/European 32x) and the gaming store I borrowed the game from sells the game with a European/PAL Mega Drive/32x combo for $900.00.  Assuming you can get beyond that expensive barrier for entry, you’re supposedly awarded with a decent shmup.  Now that I’ve played it, I’m not so sure I can agree.

Darxide was developed by Frontier Games as a launch title for the Sega Neptune, which was a hybrid Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and 32x combo console in one.  In truth, you can do a little work arounds and get a 32x to fit into a Genesis 2 case still attached if you remove all the plastic components, but due to some issues with a permanently installed 32x (a few Genesis games and all Master System games won’t work with 32x) I never actually did it.  Either way the failure of the 32x for several reasons we’ve covered, resulted in the cancellation of the Neptune and Darxide without a good release window.  Being a native United Kingdom developer, my guess is that it was cheapest and best to launch the game first in Europe and based on its success to release it worldwide.  Well in 1995 the 32x and Darxide failed in tandem, resulting in the game’s overall rarity and exclusivity.  I must say having played it that it takes on a similar arcade on-rails shotter feel like Star Wars Arcade and Star Fox, but with cleaner, more impressive graphics.  It also runs very smoothly in comparison to its more popular brethren.  The gameplay, on the other hand leaves much to be desired.  I guess you should just see for yourself before I say more:

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Zero Wing (Toaplan)

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Ah, Zero Wing, good ole “All your base are belong to us.”  For those that don’t know the story of the legendary line, feel free to check out our localization article, but despite the horrendous translation this was supposed to be a solid shmup.  Sorry, Europe, but from what I can tell, save for the Parodius series, the exports that hail the only English translation from across the pond kinda suck.  The reason I bring this up is that I wanted to like Zero Wing, I even tried for more than 3 hours to like the game and despite completing it (thanks to endless continues), it’s just not the shmup I had hoped for.  It’s got a power-up system that’s sub-par to the Darius series and a grab-and-throw mechanic that is a stripped R-Type staple, but this hybrid doesn’t net any benefits.  Additionally the controls, while responsive, and the framerate, which suffers little slowdown, makes for a clumsy sluggish ride because your ship is so slow.  I’m also not too keen on the fact that this game utilizes a low enemy count with high hit points.  Stronger enemies are okay from time to time, but I need to take out groups of weaklings for that little ego boost and to soften the blow of a death.  In Zero Wing, if you die within a level you may have to restart the same checkpoint tons of times to overcome the mass of strong enemies that continues with only your basic cannon.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that Zero Wing doesn’t have its good points, and frankly I really enjoyed the “true” boss battles, but it’s a headache to get PAL (European standard def) games to play in the US and I would be disappointed if I did all that work and spent all that money on Zero Wing.  Fortunately I got my hands on a European Mega Drive/32x combo this weekend to test drive this game and the super expensive Darxide.  I’m going to be recording that video tonight and I’m frankly psyched to play a nearly $1,000 game, but I’m guessing it will disappoint based purely on the high value/price tag.  Look for it tomorrow!

Written by Fred Rojas

March 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Bangai-O (Treasure)

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Up to this point, we’ve had a relatively small number of shmups that don’t fit into a simple criteria: either vertical or horizontal raster arcade shmups.  Sure there was some discussion about on-rails titles with Silpheed and even the mention of old school vector graphics in our introductory shmup article, but there are some games technically called shmups that fit a different category.  These are games where you control a single character or duo and battle large numbers of enemies in rudimentary level designs.  The actual size and shape of the level is irrelevant, the point is that you are getting bombarded on all sides and must survive against a mass of trigger-happy enemies.  From a certain perspective, this is considered a shmup and I definitely agree with that sentiment.

It’s important to note that the title originally started as a remake of Hover Attack, a Sharp X1 type-in game from 1983.  For those not familiar, a “type-in” game was a program you purchased in book form for a few dollars, you would type in the (often times) hundreds of lines of code.  Usually the program didn’t run the first time, various syntax errors would claim responsibility, and it was always because of a single character issue on literally thousands of lines of code.  This was before floppy disks, it was a different time.  Anyway, Hover Attack was a game that allowed a ship or and carrier to move in all different directions and fire independent of its movement.  It was one of the first games to do so and for comparison is a very basic version of a twin stick shooter.  This is why the game/level design seems a bit dated for a game that released in 1999 at the end of the N64’s life.  It eventually became its own property and remains a unique independent title, although certain concepts like the streaking of bullet patterns remain from Hover Attack.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Ikaruga (Treasure)

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Ikaruga is shrouded in praise and wonder from those in the critical and shmup communities, but if you were to just pick it up and play you wouldn’t really see what all the fuss is about.  First off, it’s pretty freaking hard and absolutely impossible if you don’t understand the special gameplay mechanics.  Second of all, like so many other shmups, it started life in Japanese arcades so unless you’re lucky enough to get the US Gamecube version you will need to figure out how the game is played before you embark.  I don’t know about you, but most of the gamers I know tend to not do critical things like read instruction manuals before playing.  This is a big mistake with Ikaruga.

This game is the spiritual successor to Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun in that it borrows the ideas of color connection and polar opposites as its main gameplay style choice.  The plot is basically irrelevant, but you are fighting forces in a specialized jet fighter known as the Ikaruga.  Polarity, or opposites if you will, are the main objective in the game – you need to figure out how best to handle the light (white) and dark (black) polarities in enemies to plan your strategy.  Your ship is capable of swapping polarities at any time under your control with the same polarity granting you invulnerability and the opposite polarity dealing dual damage.  It’s a balance between a heavy offense or an unbreakable defense and trying to decide which is most important.  Mind you, even though you are invulnerable to bullets of the same polarity, you are not invulnerable to the collision of ships so destroying them should be a high priority.  Unlike other danmaku (bullet hell) shmups, you will be weaving in and out of enemy fighters just as much as bullets.  In addition, the invincibility option also puts you in situations where it’s not possible to dodge all the bullets.  In other danmaku shmups it will always be possible, no matter how tight or specific, to dodge the bullets if you know the pattern.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Radiant Silvergun (Treasure)

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Now we are getting into the thick of Japanese shmups that are more than 10 years old but just made it stateside for the first time within the last few years.  One of the most dynamic shmup teams, Treasure, had just begun its long career of shmups when it came up with Radiant Silvergun.  A dynamic vertical shmup released in Japanese arcades in 1998, the well-known producer of the title Hiroshi Iuchi claims it was inspired by Image Fight – another solid shmup by developer Irem (of R-Type fame) that released to arcades and Nintendo consoles in 1988.  This also started a familiar concept found in many shmups, especially ones by Treasure, where you need to focus on the colors of the enemies you destroy.

In the arcade version, there was really no story but basically the game entails Earth under attack by, wait for it, an alien presence.  You will begin with sky battles on Earth and conclude with battles in space and near space stations.  What is significant about Radiant Silvergun is not its story, though, nor is it the impressive 3D effects and moving backgrounds.  It’s the fact that the game features seven weapons, all of which are built into the ship from the start.  You do collect power-ups that strengthen your weapons, but the bigger key is to know what type of weapons (in the arcade it’s based on combinations of the 3 buttons, on ports there are more buttons to help correspond to each weapon).  In order to make it through certain waves of enemies and destroy the multi-stage timed iterations of each boss you need to know the correct weapons to use.  In many cases this will reward you with a bonus, especially when fully destroying a boss or taking out 3 or more enemies of one color.  In many cases you can get by using whatever weapon you want, but no hardcore shmup player is satisfied with “good enough”, right?

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Parodius Series (Konami)

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There’s been a lot of build-up for the Parodius series, especially because I mentioned it was my favorite series and not one iteration (except maybe technically Otomedius, but I consider it a different series) came out in the United States.  Unfortunately there really isn’t much to say because the game completely parodies the Gradius series and thus it follows the exact same formula.  There is also the fact that I cover the series quite well in the Cute ‘Em Up article on this very web site.  Furthermore, since it has been such a scattered series there are only a handful of titles but they span almost every console in both Europe and Japan.  Why the series never released in the United States is really anyone’s guess.  Some say it’s because so many of the bosses are either mildly sexual or blatantly mock American culture.  Others say that the regionalization team for Konami wasn’t that great and didn’t want to worry about what to trim and what not to trim to get through our audience.  Whatever the reason, and mind you the Japanese don’t have the best track record with US localization, we haven’t ever received a single one.

Parodius

As most would guess, the first title in the series is called Parodius, but it began life on the MSX microcomputer system only in Japan.  At this point it was more cartoon-like and lacked any of the risqué sexual innuendo that the series has always been known for.  Mind you, this sexual undertone is rather innocent and in other countries doesn’t even make a gamer blush.  In the innocent United States, our parents would have probably gone nuts.  Regardless of the content or the controversy, one thing remains constant: Parodius titles are fun and challenging versions of Gradius.  Contrary to popular belief, this game was released solely on the MSX with no ports save for the various collections that had it as an option on Playstation, Saturn and PSP.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm