Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 7 - Bug Princess.

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I love a good shoot 'em up. Didn't I just say that? Oh well. One of the premier exponents of the shmup is Japanese company Cave, who have given us some of the craziest, most eye-wateringly difficult shooters of all-time. And yet, despite the difficulty levels, they remain fun and playable, which means that every new Cave release is awaited with some anticipation.

Recently, Cave have turned their attentions toward the iPhone. It sounds ridiculous, even attempting to shoehorn arcade machines featuring a million bullets per minute onto a screen the size of a large stamp, but that's what they've done. What's more, they've done it with aplomb.

Scream! It's The Beetles!

Bug Princess, which you might have expected to be called Mushihime-sama if you have any knowledge of Cave games, is their "latest" offering, although it's a conversion of an arcade game from 2004. Have any of you played it? I haven't, but I'd love to see a Cave arcade machine.

Arcade shoot 'em ups have moved on a bit from when I were a lad. Back in the day, you were more likely to die from being rammed by an enemy craft, and you'd have done very well to score 200,000 points. Now, especially with Cave games, you'll die after being hit by bullets. That's guaranteed. However, when you die, you will very probably have many millions of points. That's a trade-off against the difficulty... at least you're rewarded for your pain.

Hmmm. I normally like lobster.

There's a bit of a story, but all you need to know is that you fly up the screen shooting bugs, insects, arachnids, arthropods... all manner of creepy-crawlies. And they in turn will shoot you. I'm not kidding. They'll spew out so many purple projectiles that you won't see right for hours after you've finished playing.

Weaving a path through these is the main skill you'll need. The game shoots automatically on your behalf, leaving you to concentrate on squeezing through minute gaps. You'd think that might be a problem on a telephone, but it's a testament to Cave's designers that it's not just possible, but extremely do-able. In fact, I managed to 1CC the game on the Original mode... something I've never done on any other game like this.

Don't buy this game if you can't bear to look at insects. Or purple.

You might think that this game must be too easy, then, but the Original mode is just a prelude to the main game. Complete it, and you'll unlock Maniac mode, and then there's the Ultra mode to go for. These modes ramp things up considerably, being more difficult (obviously), but they also introduce new gameplay mechanics... chaining comes into play, giving you the chance to get much, much higher scores.

Bug Princess is an absolute joy to play. I find myself surprised to say that, but it's a true wonder of modern technology. Being able to successfully navigate streams of laser death using just your fingertip on such a small screen should be nigh-on impossible, but it's intuitive, straightforward and totally painless. If you have any lovefor arcade shoot 'em ups, you owe it to yourself to get this (if your iThing supports it)... with the varying difficulty levels, there's something for everyone.

Bug Princess is £2.99 at the time of writing.

DoDonPachi Resurrection Deluxe Edition (XBox 360)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Oh boy, here we go again. Let the Japanese bullet hell madness recommence!

Rising Star Games are sticking their necks out for us European gamers, and are publishing some very niche titles from the country that specialises in niche titles - Japan. Last year, they published My number two game of 2010, Deadly Premonition. At the beginning of this year, they published a game I enjoyed very much, Deathsmiles. And now they've mined that very same vein, and published another Cave shooter... DoDonPachi Resurrection.

Awwww, look... an easy one. How nice.

I'll be honest... I was never a great fan of the DoDonPachi series of arcade games. I'm a simple man at heart, and I enjoy just flying up the screen, blasting whatever is in my way. DoDonPachi relies on chaining for the best scores, and I could never get the hang of it. It's not just that series, though... I'm rubbish at chaining on anything. That doesn't mean I didn't have at least a reasonable time... the sheer blasting potential means there's always some fun to be had in any game of this type.

It's not a genre that's heavily catered for these days, so even though I knew it would kick my arse to Kingdom Come, I was determined to support Rising Star and buy DoDonPachi Resurrection as soon as it was released. As is their wont, Rising Star have managed to put together a Deluxe Edition. It's not as impressive as the Deathsmiles Deluxe Edition, but you do get a soundtrack CD in with the game. It's slightly disappointing that the Black Label and V1.51 editions are paid DLC, rather than being included on the disc, but they're only 800 and 80 points respectively, so you might as well fork out the extra (I did).

Yeah... time to start concentrating...

So what of the game? Well, it's a batshit-crazy vertically-scrolling arcade shoot 'em up. The fifth in a legendary series, the storyline sees you transported back in time to 2008, to where (when?) some unknown entity is sending vast quantities of material and data through portals which are spreading like a virus and threatening our very existence!

Or something like that. It really doesn't matter that much what the story is, it's just a thinly veiled excuse to put you in a spaceship and give you the opportunity to destroy many, many alien enemies. And this, you will do. You're given a choice of three ships, each equipped with massive firepower. You have a standard, wide-ranging shot, and a more focused, concentrated laser. These can be switched between at will... simply holding down the fire button activates the laser. You also have a supply of bombs, which you can deploy yourself or which can be triggered by an enemy bullet as a last-ditch defence mechanism.

Looks like someone's chucked a bag of liquorice allsorts at me.

And then there's the Hyper. This is a special, massively powered-up version of your standard shot or laser, but you can only use it once it's been fully charged. It's worth the wait, though... not only is it more damaging, it also cancels enemy bullets and counts as hits to your hit counter, meaning you can quickly rack up a large chain, boosting your score tremendously.

It's very rewarding to see your counter rocketing upwards. It's also pretty difficult to keep it that way... at first, DoDonPachi Resurrection is a bit like a standard shmup, but then the madness kicks in and the screen starts to fill with bullets and projectiles. I'm not kidding... weaving in and out of the mass of blue and pink takes a steady hand, a sharp eye and not a small amount of luck, if you're anything like me!

Hyper! Hyper! Hyper!

I won't lie... I'm not great at these games. But the masochist in me still enjoys playing them. I've been playing this sort of game since the days of 1942, and because I'm quite good at the old-school games, I feel as though I shouldn't let the new breed beat me. It's a faint hope, but I do enjoy trying. Sadly, after a week or so, I was ranked at number 81 in the World on the Normal version of the game. That means that hardly anybody has bought it so far, which is terribly disappointing, if that's correct. Rising Star Games need our support, so that they'll keep bringing these games over here. Nobody else will do it, and they deserve our attention. They're not for everyone, but they're for more than have (apparently) bought it so far. If you fancy a real challenge, and something a bit different from Generic FPS #337, and you've got some money burning a hole in your pocket, be a devil... buy DoDonPachi Resurrection. I love it.

Images courtesy of the Rising Star Games website.

Deathsmiles Deluxe Edition (XBox 360)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

I've been playing arcade games for five decades now. Yeah, I'm only thirty-nine years old, but I started at the back end of the Seventies, with games like Space Invaders and Galaxian. In all that time, I've always gravitated towards shoot 'em ups. There's just some primal thrill to be had from cutting down waves of enemy attackers in a hail of bullets.

In recent years, arcade games have taken a massive popularity hit, particularly in the West, where it seems that the few arcades that are left are stocked with nothing but rhythm or racing games. There is one last bastion of "true" arcade gaming left, though... Japan.

Look at them... they look like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. Well, except for Rosa...

The Japanese, from what I've read, still seem to have a fairly vibrant arcade scene. They have legendary fighting tournaments on games like Street Fighter, and they're also incredibly good at shoot 'em ups. We're not talking about the likes of Galaxian here, though... the humble shooter has evolved in Japan, and there's a sub-genre that is especially prominent... the bullet hell shooter.

The bullet hell shooter is a daunting experience for the novice or the uninitated. Generally, they start off much like any other arcade shooter, but it doesn't take long before you find otherwise, and crazy enemies are spewing ridiculous, screen-filling amounts of projectiles in every direction. There are times where it seems impossible to survive, but for the absolute best players, everything is survivable...

Well, no point delaying any longer... here we go...

I've convinced myself over the years that I love bullet hell shooters, to the point where I wrote an article on my PS2 collection for Way of the Rodent, a few years ago. In truth, there are many of them that I don't love, but appreciate... and some of them are truly hateful. And yet, I still enjoy subjecting myself to them, even though I'm rubbish at them. I can't help buying new releases, possibly in tribute to an age-old game style, more probably because I just love high score games where you shoot things. And so it was that I came to buy Deathsmiles.

If there's one developer whose name stands above all others in the world of the bullet hell shooter, then it's probably Cave (sorry, dear departed Psikyo). They're legendary for making gorgeous games that are a lot of fun, but that will make you cry bloody tears due to the amount of bullets you have to wend your way through. Deathsmiles was produced by Cave. Now my eyes hurt.

Bad doggy! Bad, bad, REALLY BAD doggy!

Deathsmiles tells the story of four girls (five, if you play the Mega Black Label version) that were taken from their world at various points in their lives and relocated to the world of Gilverado. Unbeknownst to them, they each had the magical powers needed to save this world from a demon scourge that is finding its way through a mysterious portal to Gilverado. This is where you take up the story, and control of the girl of your choice, to put down this demon uprising once and for all, and maybe win your way back to your true home in the process...

The story is somewhat inconsequential; it's really just an excuse to put some young anime girls into a bullet hell game. If you've ever played a bullet hell game, you'll have noticed that's another way the games differ from Western shmups... they tend not to have you controlling a spaceship, preferring instead to have a more human-looking central protagonist. It's a bit weird at first to see these delicate flowers whizzing about the screen, dealing large amounts of pink laser death... but only a bit, and not for long.

Fly, fly my pretty...

Deathsmiles gives you six core areas to tackle... only once you've defeated all six can you move on towards the final showdown and the opportunity to save Gilverado. You're allowed to take on these six levels not quite in any order you wish, but you must zigzag between the bottom three levels and the top three. In doing so, you have a freedom of choice... do you take on your favourite levels first for the opportunity of big points, or do you get the ones you like least out of the way as soon as possible?

Another feature that goes a long way towards making the game more accessible is the difficulty select. Each of the first six levels has a choice of three difficulties (four in the Mega Black Label version), thus catering for players of all (well, most) abilities. Now I know I said I was rubbish at these games, and I am, relatively speaking. But in Deathsmiles, set at difficulty level 1, I found I was able to make satisfactory progress. In fact, my very first game was a thrill as I weaved my way through the first six levels on my first credit!

Oh, you're so hard-faced.

That was where it all came crashing down for me, though. There's no such option once you get to Hades' Castle... it's rock hard! And I soon found myself hitting the Continue button again and again. Now, I'd expected this anyway, and in fact I'd expected to be doing it way earlier in the game. It's actually the one small complaint I have with the game, though... it would have been nice for beginners to the genre, or those of a more cack-handed nature, to be given the option of playing all the way through to the end at the easiest difficulty setting.

I mentioned near the beginning of this review that I'm rubbish at games like this, but during my time with Deathsmiles I've noticed a genuine improvement in my playing ability. I'm by no means great at the game, but with a couple of the characters I'm now able to get quite far and with much better scores than I'd have previously expected. I'm not saying you should be looking for me at the top of any leaderboards, but I'm definitely getting better, which is very satisfying.

When I said I looked good in pink, I didn't mean it that way...

Now that I'm coming to the end of this write-up, I must give a special mention to the packaging of this game. I can imagine that games like this can be a difficult sell outside their niche market, so Rising Star has gone well beyond the call of duty in providing a package that will satisfy every whim of the hardcore fan, whilst providing enough extras to tempt the newcomer. You get six (count 'em!) versions of the game... Arcade, XBox 360 (Arcade, but with smartened visuals and selectable difficulty) and V1.1 (a 360 exclusive variant with added gameplay features)... and then you get those three again in Mega Black Label form, with an extra stage, difficulty level and playable character.

As if that wasn't enough, Deathsmiles has shipped in Europe as a Deluxe Edition, and you'll find three discs inside your box. Disc two is an official soundtrack CD. I've had these in games before... usually they'll give you half a dozen tracks from the game, possibly even in edited form. Not here... you get a twenty-three track disc, featuring seventeen tunes from the game for over an hour of music, plus half a dozen vocal tracks, if that's your thing. The tracks come as .WAV files... fine for a PC, but not a CD player. I've read on their forum that this was an oversight and if you get in touch with Rising Star Games, they'll sort you out with an audio CD verion. Outstanding.

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted...

And then there's disc three, which gives you an assortment of PC desktop toys... wallpapers, screensavers, that kind of thing. It's just a little thing, many people might not use it and they didn't have to put it in there... but the fact they did just shows how much they care about giving the customer a quality all-round product.

Deathsmiles is a great game, but it's an outstanding release, especially for the price. It gives you exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat blasting action, and with the number of characters, game versions, game strategies and scoring systems, it's an incredibly deep game, for something that at first glance might look incredibly shallow. If you're an old-school arcade gamer, you owe it to yourself to pick this up. If you're not, you could do worse than give it a try, for something a bit different to the norm. If Rising Star can get hold of more Cave games, give them similar treatment and release them in Europe, there will be a lot of very happy gamers. Rising Star Games... after Deadly Premonition and now Deathsmiles, I'd say your star has truly risen.

Advent Calendar - December 12th.

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

XII Stag (Playstation 2)

I love a good shooter, me, even if the only ones I'm half decent at were in the arcades 20-25 years ago. I find modern shmups a lot more difficult... whether that's because I wear glasses or as a result of reflexes diminishing through age, who knows? I still enjoy the bullet hell games, though... in the main. Some are just too much for me, even with infinite continues.

XII Stag is one of my large and, if I do say so myself, fairly impressive collection of PS2 PAL shmups. I haven't got a Japanese PS2 so I haven't got any of the imports, but I've bought most of the other ones that are available. I even wrote about them for Way of the Rodent.. That was a fun task! So, this is one of those games that I have played before, but it fits in perfectly with the advent calendar, so here we go again...

Cloudy out, innit? Oh... that's just the smoke from wrecked metal ships.

In a world of vertically-scrolling shooters, XII Stag tries to be a little bit different. In the main, it's same old, same old... you fly up the screen, enemies swarm onto the screen spewing trillions of bullets, you die. Rinse and repeat until game's end. So in order to distinguish itself from other vertical scrollers, XII Stag introduces a completely different weapons system.

"Great!", I hear you cry, "Tell me about these marvellous innovations!". Well, don't get too carried away just yet...

As you'd expect for a game like this, your ship is pretty handy at lashing out umpteen forward-firing projectiles per minute. There are no extra weapons to be picked up, although you can power up. There's no bomb either. Instead, you have a barrier which, when activated, opens a bubble around the ship for a short time, and as long as you stay there you can't be destroyed. You have a limited supply of these per ship, so if you choose the right moments to use them you'll maximise their effectiveness.

The green, green, grass of death.

The real difference, and the reason for the name XII Stag, is the side-shooting weapon. If you emply that, rather than your forward-firing weapon, you start up a score multiplier, which climbs until it reaches a maximum of 12X the normal score. The rewards are lucrative, but as is always the case, they don't come without risks...

And here's where the problem lies. The side shooting is only activated by sideways movement. And as the game is designed to throw stuff at you to take advantage of that, you end up doing as much waggling as in the Activision Decathlon. In fact, it brought to mind the days of activating power-ups in Wizball, way back in the Commodore 64 days. Which is fine if the pace isn't too ramped-up, but XII Stag is a bullet hell shooter, and the last thing you need when you're trying to navigate a screen full of laser death is to be waggling left and right to shoot the stuff that's dispensing it.

Of course, you can fire forwards as well, and the power-ups add more and more bullets to that directional firepower. But considering the amount of stuff you chuck out, it's surprisingly feeble. There's not much point in getting behind stuff and blasting them when it's like chucking paper darts at a tank. So you have to go into spinning whirligig of doom mode, regardless. What a bind.

I don't know of an arcade on the planet that had a XII Stag machine in it, and if there'd been one near me it would have probably only got one ten out of me. That's not because it's a bad game... it's perfectly alright. It's just too complicated and difficult for an aging gamer like me.

Phoenix (iPhone/iPod Touch)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

"Hey!", I thought, when I saw the name Phoenix on my iPod. "Taito must be releasing a series of arcade classics on the iPhone. Fantastic!" Then I saw the screenshots and realised it was not Phoenix from the arcades at all, but an entirely different game. Swizz!

Die, alien scum! That was a bit predictable, wasn't it?

It's a little bit naughty giving a game an already-well-established name. It's a bit like forming a rock band now and calling them The Human League, or something. Except you'd get killed for that, obviously.

Still, on second glance I noticed it was actually a shooting game... not only that, it looked like a bit of a bullet hell affair. So I checked the requirements... I'd been very keen to buy Espgaluda II, but I've got a first generation iPod Touch and (disappointingly) that game won't run on the 1st gen models. But all was well... Phoenix runs on everything.

A shield! Nice. Now I can get in there and really give them what for.

If you look Phoenix up on iTunes, the lack of any kind of storyline is both hilarious and refreshing. There are no pretentions here: you just fly up the screen and shoot everything. Great.

Phoenix has got a typical iPhone control method. You slide your finger around the screen to move your ship, which fires by itself. Your ship is quite big, and this makes it quite easy to control. In fact, out of all the shooters I've played on my iPod Touch, this is the one I've had least problems and most joy with when it comes to the controls.

Now we're talking! Come on, I'll take you all!

Although your ship is big, the hitbox is not, so with careful manoeuvring you can steer your way around most of the bullet patterns that are thrown your way. That means it's quite easy to concentrate on blowing stuff up.

I love blowing stuff up, and Phoenix really does do it pretty well. Ships of various sizes stream down the screen, and you blow them up. Various pickups will appear as you shoot stuff, ranging from shields to weapons upgrades to special attacks. When large ships are destroyed, any bullets that remain on the screen will be converted to bonuses, which automatically flow into your ship to add to your points total. It's a familiar mechanic, but no less enjoyable for it.

Ahh, that's the stuff! Now, I am eeenveeenceeblllllle!

Phoenix boasts of being different every time you play, due to a revolutionary procedural content generator that spawns different attack patterns depending on how well you're doing. As you progress, the difficulty level ramps up too, from one star all the way to five. As you only get one life (but can take a few hits before death), you'll have to be careful as those stars light up...

Any possible disappointment that this isn't the 1980 arcade game is quickly washed away in a hail of bullets. Phoenix is a nice, if repetitive blaster, which I've enjoyed quite a bit so far. It certainly isn't on the level of quality or complexity of the Cave shooters, but on the other hand that could be quite a draw to a number of people... sometimes it's too frustrating to have your backside kicked to Kingdom Come. If you've got a first generation iPhone or iPod Touch and are missing out on Cave's games, or feel like dipping your toe into the waters of bullet hell shooters, Phoenix will fit the bill very nicely indeed.

Buy it on iTunes for 59p

You Will Die (XBox 360 Indie Games)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

Just a quickie... although not as quick as my first game of the day! I thought I should make an effort to actually put some words down for the day.

You Will Die is a shoot 'em up, in which you will die. That much is inevitable. They're just letting you know in advance what's going to happen.

It won't be on the first level. It shouldn't be on the second level, unless you're rubbish. But at some point, the game will get you, pounded to death under a hail of gunfire.

That's not me. I haven't done as well as that, yet.

It's just you against an enemy gunship. On level one, it's a small thing you're up against, and it only fires one stream of bullets at you. But for every level you survive, the enemy ship has more parts bolted onto it, until it's a ludicrously huge, death-dealing monstrosity, filling the other half of the screen. And then, the other half of the screen is filled with bullets. It's almost funny, staring down something that size with almost no chance of surviving!

You Will Die boils down to being a test of reflexes, and it rewards you appropriately score-wise for your efforts. It's short, sharp and snappy, a great way to pass a few spare minutes when you don't want to get too involved in anything. I like the way the game appears to throw different enemies at you, depending on how well you've done on the previous level. It's not a game that you'd pay a lot of money for... that makes its 80 Microsoft Points price tag very appealing indeed.