Monday, January 16, 2012

Thunder Force II

The Thunder Force series, although widely renowned among shooter fans for its awesome Genesis/Mega Drive titles, began life on the more obscure Japanese gaming computers, such as the Sharp X1 and the NEC PC-6001 MkII. The second game in the series, Thunder Force II, first appeared on the Sharp X68000 computer. Although that was regarded as the superior version of the game, featuring slightly better graphics & clearer voice synthesis, it wasn't until the game was ported to the Mega Drive that the series began to catch on. Odd, considering Thunder Force II is mostly considered to be the worst game in the series.

The first thing you'll notice about this game is the music. Being a musician myself, I'm a sucker for a really good tune, and this game is absolutely full of 'em! The soundtrack really helps to convey the intensity of the gameplay (and intense it is!)

The second thing that'll stand out to you is the nearly unintelligible voice-synthesis. When you start a game, you hear the following dialogue:

"This is Exceliza"
"Roger, good luck!"

Thank god for Google, otherwise I'd have no idea what the hell they're saying. Also, during the game, when you pick up a power-up, a female voice announces the name of it. This is equally unintelligible. It's a nice touch, and doesn't really add or subtract anything from the game other than giving you a few seconds of entertainment from the garbled, computerized engrish.

Although the hallmark of the Thunder Force series is its power-up system, which gives you an arsenal of weapons all at your disposal rather than having to choose just one, what sets Thunder Force II apart from other shmups (to me) is the different level types. Levels are divided into 2 missions, A and B. The A missions are top-down 8-direction scrolling, similar to Bosconian (which is my absolute favorite shooter of all time.) The object of these levels, like Bosconian, is to destroy a set number of enemy bases. Once you have destroyed them all, you move onto mission B, the "side-view" mission. These are side-scrolling levels similar to games like R-Type, Gradius, Darius, etc.

So with an awesome soundtrack, unique power-up system, and varied gameplay styles, what is it about this game that people don't like?

The answer is quite simple: Thunder Force II is balls-out COMPLETELY unforgiving. The top-down missions in particular are really difficult. You are given no map with which to find the bases, and your ship is in constant motion. Dodging bullets is easy enough, but it's easy to slip up, hit a wrong direction on the D-pad, and find yourself running into things. The side-scrolling levels are pretty difficult as well, but less so than the top-down ones. Apparently people disliked the top-down missions so much that Technosoft decided to omit them entirely from every Thunder Force game following Thunder Force II.

In short, I love this game. The great soundtrack coupled with the unique, Bosconian-style gameplay had me hooked immediately. It's pretty frustrating at times, but it's still fun nonetheless. I've played much more difficult games that people would rant & rave about how good they were, so I'm not sure why Thunder Force II gets so much crap. Oh, well. Haters gonna hate.

3.7 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sky Kid

Ahh, Sky Kid! Namco's obscure offering to the side-scrolling shooter world. Konami gave us Gradius, Taito gave us Darius, Irem gave us R-Type, and Namco gives us Sky Kid.

First of all, you absolutely CAN NOT compare Sky Kid to any of those side-scroller figureheads. Namco is known for their simple, addictive, quarter-eating arcade-style games, and that's exactly what they've given us here.

In Sky Kid for the NES, you play as the "Baron" (there's also a 2-player co-op mode where the second player is "Max") flying a cute little red bi-plane with your scarf blowing in the wind as you fly over enemy territory. The object of the game, at its core, is to survive to the end of the level However, you are bombarded by enemy planes, tanks, anti-aircraft fire, and later on, boats and hot air balloons. On top of that, halfway through the level, there is a bomb awaiting you on the ground. You are to swoop in & pick up the bomb, then drop it on the enemy base (which, interestingly, seems to bear the Nazi eagle symbol.) Hitting the base right smack in the middle awards you the most points, but hitting it at all gives you a slight bonus.

A unique mechanic of this game is that, although you are sent
spiraling to the ground with one hit, you have an opportunity to save yourself. Mashing the B-button repeatedly will pull your biplane out of the dive and back into the action! However, if you're carrying a bomb when hit, you drop it & cannot attack the enemy base.

Also, you can perform loop-the-loops to dodge enemy fire and, in many cases, end up behind the enemy fighter, giving you a clear shot.

At the end of the level, you must land your plane on a runway. Doing so completes the level, with the game throwing a message at you to the effect of "nice landing!" So, to reiterate, the only real object of the game is to get to the end and land your plane. However, any arcade veteran will tell you that it's not about getting to the end of the level, but the points you score on the way.

Sky Kid may seem a little odd at first, given its cute style & upbeat, militaristic overtones, but it's crazy addictive & even more fun to play with a friend. There's not much depth to the gameplay, but there's plenty of fun to be had trying to outmaneuver the opposing planes, timing the bomb just right so you hit the base dead-on, pulling out of a potential crash and making a spectacular comeback, etc. The game is pure fun, and I urge you to pick up a (dirt cheap) copy & invite a friend over for some "Baron & Max"-style Nazi ass-kicking!

5 out of 5 stars!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Fantasy Zone

Okay, so most of you will probably think this is completely ridiculous, but I have this habit...When I'm playing a shooter, and there's a lull in the gameplay either during the level, or at the end when it's tallying up your score, I'll move the d-pad up & down and make my ship "dance" around the screen to whatever music's playing. Call me stupid, n00b, or whatever, but there it is. So I popped in this game, started the first level, and was immediately struck by the "funky" music. So, naturally, being silly, I started dancing my ship around...and that's when I noticed the enemies moved to the rhythm in a similar fashion!

This is Fantasy Zone for the NES, where the vast array of cute enemies dance to the music. Be not deceived, though; this game is brutal & those "cute" enemies will make mincemeat of you in a heartbeat at the slightest misstep.

Fantasy Zone is, like so many shmups for the 8-bit consoles, a port of an arcade game. However, to my knowledge, the game was never released to arcades in the States. This game in particular has seen many ports to home consoles, including the Turbografx 16, the Famicom (yes, the Famicom port is different from the NES one) and the Sega Master System, a natural choice given that Fantasy Zone was produced by Sega initially.

"Then why," you ask, "was a Sega game released on a console by Nintendo, Sega's main competitor?" The answer to that question is quite simple. A third-party company called Tengen got fed up with Nintendo's strict third-party developer rules and released several unlicensed NES games, most of which were ports of arcade games. Tengen's releasing of Sega-based games is widely considered to be one of their biggest 'F-you's to Nintendo, second only to their selling of their own version of Tetris, a game which already had an official Nintendo release, which ultimately caused Nintendo to sue the company & bring their production of unlicensed games to a halt.

Anyway, I digress. Fantasy Zone is a game noted for its colors, and colors it has. The amount of color on-screen is impressive for an NES game. The cute sprites are all rendered with all that color & everything looks pretty nice. Not as nice as the Master System version, but still...

For being one of the earliest games that fall into the genre of "cute-em-ups", this game is deceptively difficult. You fly your sentient, winged aircraft named Opa-Opa left and right in a similar fashion to Defender. However, when you move at full-speed in either direction, there's little space between your ship and the edge of the screen. It is in these instances when enemies choose to appear and take you by surprise, thus smiting poor Opa-Opa and causing him to explode in a puff of stars. The object of the game is to destroy a set number of enemy bases, and once that is completed, you fight the level boss. Destroying enemies earns you coins, which you can use to buy upgrades for your ship at the game's shop.

The one major gripe most people have against this game is the slowdown/flicker. The scrolling of the backgrounds is kind of choppy, though it doesn't bother me much. The bosses, however, tend to slow the game down quite a bit. For me, however, this is a blessing in disguise. Bosses tend to barrage you with a screen-filling maelstrom of bullets, so the slowdown gives you an opportunity to bob and weave in between them. It can get troublesome at times, but I don't mind so much.

Fantasy Zone is an excellent game, brought down a couple notches by a bit of choppiness and flicker. If you aren't a fan of the cute-em-ups, pick it up anyway; the game's degree of challenge is certainly enough to keep you interested, if not the incomprehensible Japanese ridiculousness. It's not the best port, but it's certainly the cheapest. I picked up my copy for about $5. "Was my victory really worth the price I had to pay?" I'd say so. :)

4 out of 5 stars.