Dragon Flight (iOS)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I've been playing a few games on my iPhone lately.  That makes a bit of a change... with the exception of The Bard's Tale, there's been very little to catch my imagination in the last month or two.

Fortunately, people on my Twitter feed, Rev. Stu Campbell in particular, will often champion the cause of a gaming underdog.  And as they're usually either cheap or free, I'm more than willing to give them a try.

It's all happening here.  Look out for that flaming rock!
The first one I had a go at was Dragon Flight.  If you were to just look at the screenshots, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a bullet-hell type shoot 'em up, and as Cave has more or less cornered that market, you could also be forgiven for passing it up.  But Dragon Flight is not what you might think...

That sounds very cryptic, so let me explain.  Dragon Flight is an "endless runner" style of game, where the object is to get as far as possible.  Yeah, I know, yet another one.  But this one is a bit more interesting, enjoyable and addictive than the majority of them.

Cutting a swathe through enemy dragons.
Dragon Flight sees you sitting atop a dragon, your girly pink hair flowing in the breeze, flying upwards and spitting fire.  Yes, it's a vertically-scrolling shooter as well as an endless runner.  Lines of enemy critters stream down at you, and you need to blast a gap in the line that's big enough for you to pass through.   As long as you're able to do that, you should be OK.

It's never that easy, though, and some of the enemies are fairly resistant to your firepower.  It's up to you to spot these as quickly as possible, so that you can manoeuvre to a position that will see you through.  This is certainly enough of an obstacle to make things difficult.

Destroyed dragons leave a shower of gold coins!

That said, there are ways to make things easier.  Shooting any of the enemies will see them releasing items for you to pick up.  The standard items are gold coins... the more of these you pick up, the better, as you can spend them in the shop and permanently upgrade your firepower.  Other items available include valuable gems and one-use items, such as a limited-time dual shot or "hyper flight", which sees you roaring through the enemies at high speed for a few seconds, despatching anything which stands in your way.

I might be getting better, but it doesn't mean I'm any good...

There are two different scores to chase... furthest distance, and highest score.  You can consciously go for one or the other while you're playing... furthest distance is easier to go for, obviously.  But to entice you into going for a higher score, the game has a very well thought-out risk/reward element.  Much like many modern shooters, you score more points for shooting enemies when they're closer to you.  This is a dangerous way of playing, but when you know you can earn many times a "normal" score, it's very tempting to give it a go, and the game helpfully puts a health bar over stronger enemies to help you judge what you're doing.

Dragon Flight is very entertaining and has that crucial "one more go" factor.  If it weren't for the fact it's sharing time with two other iOS games I've also downloaded this week, I'd probably never be off it.  As it is, it's a great little timewaster, and it's free!  Unless you've got absolutely no room left on your iThing, you've got no excuse for not downloading this, at all.

Dragon Flight is FREE on iTunes!

Oh No! (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

There is no way... no way, that you could would buy Oh No! just from looking at the cover art. There's a cow with a space helmet on its head, an odd-looking furry animal, a desert and, in the background, a spacecraft.

The spacecraft is the important part. Oh No! is a shoot 'em up, and although the storyline is odd, the game most certainly is not...

In Oh No!, the year is 1,000,000 AD, and you are a breeder of space oxen. These beasts are very highly coveted by other entities, who will stop at nothing to get their hands or other genetically-modified appendages on them. The rustling bastards. So you must mount up on your trusty space-steed and put a stop to their stealing shenanigans.

The first planet is the easiest, but you'll still have to be cautious...

It's much simpler than it sounds as a game... confined within one screen, you must blast anything that comes within range and stop them from taking the oxen off the screen. If all the oxen are lost, the game is over. Them's the rules, and they're easy to follow...

And indeed, the game is simple in theory. Once you start playing it, though, you'll see that it's much more difficult in practice.

Oh No!, to my mind, stands right up there among the finest of frantic shooters. What it essentially does is to cross Robotron: 2084 with Defender and Missile Command. Wait... let me explain.

That pink thing looks familiar... if it wasn't nicked from Defender, I'll eat my hat.

You have a playfield where you have to protect your oxen... they're like The Last Human Family, but in bovine form. But unlike in Robotron, they're not killed when enemies get to them. Instead, they're captured, and you have a limited amount of time to rescue them before they're taken off the playfield. See, that's like Defender.

The game is split up into different planets, and each planet has nine waves, with each being progressively more manic than the last. There's no break between waves. Once you destroy every enemy in a wave, the next one rushes in without a second thought. If you want any kind of a break for your trigger finger, you'll have to wait nine waves for it.

Leave her alone, you BITCH!

As your only objective is to save your oxen, it's important to keep them close together or, if it all gets too much, let them all go except for one and be sure to defend that one to the end. That's the Missile Command aspect... it's very similar to your endgame there, where you concentrate on keeping one city intact.

Oh No! was well-reviewed by ZZAP! 64, but I'm not sure how well it sold or was received in general. Comments on Lemon64 seem to be mixed, but I absolutely loved this game when I bought it and I still play it occasionally now. It's a really pure shoot 'em up high-score experience, guaranteed to get the adrenalin pumping. Lovely stuff.

Ziggurat (iOS)

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

Well, shit.

We've spent years fending off alien invasions. Sometimes, we've even gone seeking the bastards out, destroying them before they've had the chance to get to us. Call those ones "pre-emptive attacks". We've done whatever has been necessary to ensure the continuation of the human race.

But it's all been for nothing. It all ends here.


And where is "here", exactly? It's on the very highest point of a ziggurat, an ancient temple complex. Basically, you've scarpered up here to take the high ground, in the hope of taking out all the alien attackers.

It's futile, of course. Sheer weight of numbers means you'll be overpowered and killed. It's inevitable. It's happened to everyone else on the planet...

Die, alien scum! I might have said that before.

And so, the scene is set for Ziggurat, an iOS game of immense simplicity. But I like simple. There are times when simple fits the bill just nicely,

You can't move in Ziggurat. Instead, you slide your finger left and right along the bottom of the screen to aim your gun at the incoming hordes. And then you let go, and let 'em have it. And that's it. You do that until you die.

Now that's what I call a close encounter. What?

Like I said, simple. And therein lies its beauty. It's a perfect little time-killer. At first, you won't last long at all, as the initial confusion over how the control method works sees you die stupidly. But it doesn't take long to get the hang of it, and then you might actually last a few minutes (I'm averaging eighty seconds per go at the moment).

You're not really supposed to last much longer than that. You're obviously good, if you're the last surviving human, but you're not that good. They're gonna get ya, simple as that. All you can do is take out as many as you can, in the hope of putting up a number that will impress your friends. I reckon over a hundred is a job well done. Over five hundred would be extraordinary... nobody's cracked a thousand yet...

R.I.P. The Human Race: 50,000BP - 2012.

I think that Ziggurat is well priced at 69p. There's not really much to it... it's got about as much depth as the endless runner games. But it's also about as much fun as they are, and although it's best suited to short bursts, there's still a good chance you'll keep hitting restart for one more go...

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.

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 9 - PicoPicoFighters.

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

If you've been reading my ramblings for any length of time, you'll know that I love a good arcade shooter. I cut my gaming teeth on Galaxian, and since then have always gravitated towards shooty games.

I probably wouldn't have heard of PicoPicoFighters if it hadn't been for Stuart Campbell's short-lived but superb Free App Hero. Then again, a trawl through a few of my friends' Game Center records would have seen me stumble upon it, but let's pretend we don't have such conveniences...

Peeow! Peeow! Die, blue alien things!

PicoPicoFighters looks almost exactly like an arcade game circa 1984. If that's not enough to get you interested, I don't know what is. It's about as simple as vertically-scrolling shoot 'em ups get. There's no storyline whatsoever, which is great... who wants some dopey backstory getting in the way of proceedings?

There are four stages in PicoPicoFighters - that's yer lot. You know what, though? It's plenty. It'll be some time before you've seen all four. In fact, it'll probably be some time before you've scored 10,000 points. Getting through them in one go will take some doing... thoughtfully, the developers have made them selectable (unlockable).

You're not the boss of me.

Controls-wise, this is not one of those games that's saddled with a fixed on-screen joystick and fire button. Instead, you draw your way around the screen. You have free reign to move wherever you wish, by dragging your finger wherever you need to go.

That's probably the best way to go here, but unfortunately, it's the game's one slight failing. Your ship is small, and it's quite easy for it to get lost underneath your finger, meaning that negotiating the hail of bullets and enemy craft can, at times, be more luck than judgement.

Alright, things could be about to get a bit hairy...

Still, it's a small flaw and to be honest, it's not something that has caused me too many problems in playing the game. It's a real rush when you make it through a particularly difficult section, even if there's not much time for respite. Levels are short, but bastard hard, which makes it great for killing off a few spare minutes. I love a good shoot 'em up, and PicoPicoFighters is one.

Oh... PicoPicoFighters is free!

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.

Hybris (Commodore Amiga)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I'm constantly on the lookout for new games to play, not just for the blog but also for my own entertainment and education. I've said it before... I've played thousands and thousands of games in my lifetime, but for every one I've played there are probably ten that I haven't.

Commodore's Amiga is a machine that I have fond memories of despite not having owned one until recently. It has a number of games that I really love, but stacks that I've never heard of. One name that I've heard mentioned in revered tones of late is Hybris.

Pew! Pew! Shooty shooty aliens!

I didn't have any idea what it was about, although I'd gathered it was a shoot 'em up. Great... I love a good shmup. My chances of playing it seemed slim, though, seeing as I didn't own it... but then my mate Alan fixed me up with GameBase, and finally I had a hassle-free way to play the game.

If there's one arcade game that Hybris takes its inspiration from, it's Terra Cresta. The backgrounds are similar, the attack patterns are similar, the weapons power-ups are similar... even down to the way you can split your ship for more deadly firepower. And that's all well and good, because Terra Cresta didn't get a release on the Amiga.

Hey, that's not fair! Stop ganging up on me!

There's a plot, but what do you care about that? All you need to know is that you're flying a heavily-armed craft over a planet's surface, wiping out ground-based defences and enemy craft. What matters is how well it's done. And in Hybris it's done really rather well.

The blasting action is satisfying, although attack patterns are somewhat limited, but even with that being the case it's easy to find yourself getting caught out and having to fight your way out of trouble. You get large points bonuses for wiping out entire formations, and you can pick up other bonuses by uncovering hidden objects, Xevious-style.

There are bosses too, of course. The few I've encountered have been slightly more interesting than usual. Nothing spectacular, but with slightly more unpredictable patterns than usual. You need to be on your game to see them off.

You're not the boss of me...

I'm really glad that I picked up on the talk about Hybris. It certainly ranks up there as one of the better shooters that I've played from the home computer era. Pity I never got to have a go back then, but it's always better late than never, and I'd like to have a bit more time with it. Oh, look, here's a video of one of my games! Let me know what you think, I might try and do more of these.

Amiga shoot 'em up Hybris, in action.

Morpheus (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

Ambition. It's what drives so many people on. Ambition to be bigger, better, faster stronger. The ambition to do what has never been done before. The ambition to create what has never been created before. Or, perhaps, to refine something into the best it's ever been.

Andrew Braybrook's ambition led him back to the cold black of space for his next game - a game more epic than anything he'd attempted before. A game called Morpheus.

And we're off!

Alleykat hadn't really gone down as well as Braybrook's prior games... it was well-received, certainly, but not spectacularly so. It might have been nice to just be allowed to plug away at the next game, but that wasn't to happen... Morpheus became the feature of ZZAP! 64's Diary of a Game. I don't know how that came about... maybe both parties harkened back to Birth of a Paradroid and hoped that lightning would strike twice. It was certainly possible with such an undoubtedly talented programmer...

You can read the Diary of a Game in HTML format here, via the excellent DEF Guide to ZZAP! 64 site. It's also available in scanned format from the site's front page.

Get it! Get it! Oh, hang on... that's the wrong one.

The diary ambled along for eight months... that's a long time for the development of a Commodore 64 game. It makes for tortured reading at times... there were long periods where AB wasn't sure what he wanted in the game, couldn't come up with enemy designs, had to break from the game foran eye operation, had to break from the game to work on new versions of old games... it's almost a wonder that Morpheus was released at all. And maybe it wasn't... throughout the length of the diary, this was going to be a Hewson game, but it ended up being released by Rainbird.

So, it was hardly a smooth path that Morpheus trod. In such cases, the end product can often be a disappointment. It's difficult to say whether that was the case with Morpheus... I suppose it depends on what you wanted from the game.

Haha, yeah, you wish. It'll take ages before you've earned enough to buy this bad boy.

Morpheus is a space shoot 'em up. But just hold it right there before you go rushing in willy-nilly to wipe out wave after wave of attacking space craft. This game isn't like that at all.

It's a knocking bet that your first game of Morpheus will end in confusion and death. Your ship exits the docking station, which fades away as you enter the vastness of space. Then you blunder around, bumping into creatures indigenous to the area, which will bump into you and shoot you. Then you encounter a pulsing star, which will bombard you with bullets. If you're lucky, you will "de-mat" back to the docking station. There, you will see that you don't have enough money to buy anything, so you'll exit the docking station, and this time you will die.

Red scanner at night - space pilot's delight. That means you've shut down the nucleus.

Then you'll notice that you don't lose the credits you've accumulated. Morpheus is not quite the cruel mistress she appears to be... in storing your credits after you die, you can at least give yourself a sporting chance of getting somewhere. It might take a few games and a bit of time, but eventually you'll have the funds to commission yourself a new unit of some description.

Customisation of your ship is one of Morpheus' strong suits... to a degree. There's a large number of upgrades to choose from... if you have the cash, you can treat yourself to a new, bigger hull (essential if you want to get anywhere, as it can carry more upgrades), and other goodies such as weapons, energy supplies, radar, shields, etc. You might need to experiment a little to find the upgrades that work best for you. It's a very deep system, and it's handled in a very interesting way.

There you go, your first upgrade. Now your path will be clearer...

The upgrades don't work the way of most games, where you might find them floating around and pick them up, or you might go to a shop and buy them. In Morpheus, you must commission a new system (this, of course, is dependent on funds and the availability of a space on your ship for installation). Once a part is commissioned, you'll have to wait for it to be ready. You'll have to fly back into space and do battle for a while, and hope the mechanics will have finished working when you get back.

I like this aspect of the game. In this world of instant gratification, it's refreshing to play something where you have to really earn every upgrade. On the other hand, it doesn't make the game any more accessible, and in my time with it this time around, I never did manage to get a hull upgrade. But this isn't a straightforward arcade shoot 'em up, as the programmer takes great pains to point out.

Oh, bollocks. That didn't last long. What a waste of a grand!

Morpheus has fifty levels, or "timeslices". Getting through them all would be a real challenge... or maybe a chore, depending on your viewpoint. Each timeslice has a positive and negative phase, which you can alternate between depending on how much positive charge you're carrying. It kind of reminds me of the Entropy system in Jeff Minter's Iridis Alpha, but I don't think it's implemented as successfully. Unlike that game, in Morpheus, I never quite knew where I was or how the positive and negative was really working.

I think that Morpheus suffers from being too ambitious. Too ambitious for its time, and the technology of the day. Once you start adding stuff to your ship, especially hulls, everything starts to feel cramped. Even at its smallest, your ship takes up a lot of the screen, and it's easy to just blunder into everything willy-nilly. Of course, adding other units helps to compensate for this, but not entirely. I think that a remade version, taking advantage of today's widescreen tellies and higher resolutions, could really be something. As it was, Morpheus was a game for those with extremely high patience and the love of a stern challenge. It's more likely to appeal to the sort of person that liked Elite, Citadel or Hunter's Moon, which I think might have been the idea while the game was in production. But this one is very much an acquired taste.

Uridium (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I doubt that Andrew Braybrook had time to rest on his laurels, or even to really celebrate the success of Paradroid. In those days, time was most definitely money... although you didn't realise it as a thirteen-year-old, the Commodore 64 (and all comparable systems of the era) were saddled with a ticking time-bomb known as shelf-life, and as soon as the next generation of technology became available and affordable, the money to be made on current machines would dwindle dramatically. If you had a big hit, you had to strike while the iron was hot and write another one.

Breathe in... aaaaaand relax.

Braybrook had had a massive hit with Paradroid, so it would be imperative to capitalise on that and get a hot new game out there as soon as possible. He decided to mine a similar vein and set his next game around massive Dreadnought spaceships... but rather than being inside them, you were attacking them from the outside in an arcade space blaster. It was called Uridium.

The game sees our solar system under attack from a fleet of giant Dreadnoughts, and we can't have that. So off you go in your nimble little space fighter to go and bring the blighters down. Each ship is named after a metallic element, getting progressively more valuable (and difficult!) as you go on. The ships are long but narrow, with superstructures causing difficulty in navigating from one end to the other.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Also making things difficult are the enemy attack ships which fly in to defend each Dreadnought. These things are highly efficient and well-drilled, keeping tight formations in an attempt to bring your little mission to a swift end. This can be their downfall, too... you can obliterate entire formations with just a few blasts. But some of those buggers are really fast and nasty. Luckily your ship is very manouevrable, and a quick flip can see you dodging bullets and heading out of trouble.

As if these dangers weren't enough, there are little portals all over the Dreadnoughts, and if you hang around these for too long, they will release homing mines. Possibly even more dangerous than the craft that shoot at you, these things will chase you around meaning evasive action is imperative. That's all very well if you've got some open space, but if there are any structures nearby, you're in real trouble...

I love... goooooold. The look of it, the smell of it, the texture...

Reach the end of a Dreadnought and survive long enough, and a siren will blare, alerting you that you can "Land now!" If you manage this (not necessarily as easy as it sounds... I've often been blown to pieces before I could hit the runway), then you get to land and set off the destruct sequence. Awesome! All you do, though, is play a quick bonus game for extra points, and then you're outta there, completing a fly-by back to the front of the ship... and watching it dissolve underneath you. You'll then be whisked off to tackle the next, more difficult ship...

Uridium is another game that gave my Zipstik a severe working-over when I was younger. Unfortunately, once the game loads up and the excellent title tune starts, memories come flooding back... of my mate Neil Steadman, dancing stupidly to the music in his bedroom. Some things, once they are seen, can never be unseen...

Phew, it's boiling!

Childhood tortures aside, Uridium is quite literally a blast. You can fire more bullets in this game than almost any other Commodore 64 game, as long as you've got a trigger finger that's up to the task. It's hard to say you'll need them... attack waves are fairly small and well spread out. But there are some vicious bastards in there, so wiping them out as quickly as possible can be quite advantageous, seeing that it's probably the difference between life and death...

A large part of the game, though, does not involve shooting. The Dreadnoughts, you see, are very cleverly designed, getting more and more difficult to navigate the further you progress. It's really important that you memorise each ship's layout if you want to weave your way to the end at speed. When you reach a new one, for the first few goes you have to tiptoe your way through, which is a real problem when you're being assaulted by deadly attack ships. After a few games, though, you start to zip around with more confidence, and it's a real thrill to shoot through a tight gap and onto the runway, with a squadron of enemy fighters on your tail.

Hey, don't go blowing that up, it's platinum! It's worth a fortune!

It's fair to say that Uridium is a mite repetitive, but you could say that about most arcade shooters. What's important is how well it plays, how it feels to play. And Uridium feels really good. There's not much to it... there are no extra weapons to discover, and little new from ship one to ship fifteen. It just gets harder, and challenges you to get better, and it remains enjoyable all the way. It's not perfect... it can be a touch annoying, for instance, having to hwait around for the "Land Now" signal (although this would be rectified a couple of years later...), but it is damn good, it looks fantastic and is certainly one of the best arcade-style shoot 'em ups on the Commodore 64.

Paradroid (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Gribbly's Day Out proved to be quite a hit with the critics... which must have brought a certain amount of pressure. Once you've had one hit game, you're expected to have another. Possibly an even bigger hit. Possibly an even better game.

As if that wasn't enough pressure, Andrew Braybrook submitted to a request from ZZAP! 64 to diarise his latest project. You can read it here in HTML form, or go to the excellent Def Guide to ZZAP! 64 website, where scans of the magazine can be found. You'll need Issue 3 onwards...

Oi! Braybrook! Stop mucking about with your last game, and get on with making a new one!

So all of Andrew's ideas and processes were laid bare to the public. For me, as a thirteen-year-old lad, it made fascinating reading. This upcoming game about rogue robots in space sounded amazing. My teenage mind had fashioned 3D dreadnaught decks, bustling with vicious, colourful robots. I imagined peering around deck walls of spaceships, stealthily sneaking up on the robots or dashing from room to room, avoiding detection. And then it was reviewed and got a ZZAP! Gold Medal. It was called Paradroid, and I couldn't wait to play it...

Imagine, then, my initial disappointment when I first saw Paradroid in action. My vision was nowhere to be seen... instead, I had an overhead view of a grey spaceship deck, with little black and white numbers trundling about. What the hell was this? But then I finally got my hands on it...

What? I wasn't expecting "Fun with numbers"!

The idea behind Paradroid, for anyone that hasn't clicked on one of the links I posted or has never played the game, is that robots have gone rogue on a series of dreadnaught spaceships, and are out of control and very hostile. The player controls an Influence Device, which has been beamed aboard the first ship, and you're tasked with clearing out all these robots and taking back control of the ship.

Hold on a minute... you control a what, now?

The Influence Device is the most sophisticated robot of all. It may not be armed to the teeth, but it is able to patch into any other robot and take control of it for a brief time, and in doing so can utilise all its functions. This is, in fact, the most important aspect of Paradroid, and what sets it above the standard shoot 'em up. You're basically able to pick and choose your own upgrades at will, as long as you're good at the transfer subgame...

You must choose wisely.

This is how it works. As you roam the decks, you might spot another robot that you quite fancy. So you casually saunter up to it, initiate transfer mode and bump into it. You're then connected. If only it worked like that in a club or a bar.

Once you're connected, you enter a transfer game. At this stage, you get to choose which side of the game "board" you wish to use. It's vitally important that you pick well, because you only have a limited number of pulses to fire at the board. There are a number of connectors on each side of the transfer board, with the objective being to control more of the board when the time runs out than your opponent. If you do, you take control. If you don't... boom.

See, that's how you do it.

The transfer game is simple, but very sophisticated. Once you get the hang of it, or rather, become very good at it, you can take control of almost anything, given a suitable transfer board. The feeling of satisfaction gained from successfully capturing the 999 Command Cyborg using the 001 Influence Droid is like little else in gaming. That said, it's not wise to try it unless you want to see the Game Over sequence... I've only ever attempted it through sheer blind panic and desperation!

I've talked at length about the transfer game here, which is almost to overlook the main game itself. And I shouldn't, because Paradroid is a very solid and imaginitive shoot 'em up, even without the added bonus game. There are nine classes of robot to attack, avoid and control, and this is where the genius of the graphic display comes in. Had each robot been represented by its actual graphic, things would have looked messy and cluttered, and confusion would more than likely have reigned.

Looks like a firefight has broken out.

By using a numeric display, it's almost as though you're watching from on-ship cameras, from the safety of a command centre. And when you encounter enemies you immediately know what you're up against, as the first number denotes the class of droid, from 1-9. Number 326? Messenger robot, fast, useful for getting around in a hurry. Number 629? Sentinel droid, well-armed, be wary. Number 999? Erm... well, let's just keep out of that one's way...

As well as the obvious stuff, Paradroid is a very clever program, with lots of cute little stuff that you might not necessarily notice. I mentioned the basic droid graphics while you're playing, but if you happen to dock with a console on one of the ship's decks, you can pull up a dossier on each of the robots... but only for those at the level you're at or below. Each dossier contains information including robot type and class, a brief description of its function and a picture, so that you can fill in the visual gaps while you play.


Other features of note include the way you can only see other robots when they're in your line of sight... an awesome touch... and little things like the deck powering down when it's cleared of hostiles, or the ship's ever-changing Alert status being shown via coloured lights around the ship. I didn't notice that until I'd played the game for ages... it's a lovely, subtle touch.

With eight ships to clear, each with sixteen decks, Paradroid was always a massive challenge... and it remains so today. It was a stunning achievement in many ways, and has stood the test of time in that it remains great fun and very challenging to play. It's still a surprise to me that it hasn't been copied more... the actual game mechanics are sound, and the transfer element is something that surely has the scope to be used in today's games.

The inevitable reult when a class 2 robot confronts a class eight robot.

Maybe that's why it still feels quite fresh. There's not much like it out there, over twenty-five years later. There's still a genuine feel of tension as you trundle around the decks... and one of panic when you're on an empty deck with your energy running out! It could do with a save game function... once you get good at it, you can be on for a good while. Then again, it's an arcade game. You don't save arcade games, even sophisticated ones.

Paradroid is not just a Commodore 64 classic... it's an all-time videogame classic. No matter what Andrew Braybrook did after this, it was destined to be his legacy, and it's one for which he can be rightly proud. It's a game that's still loved to this day, and if Andrew ever fancies getting back into games programming, he could do a lot worse than starting off with a remake of Paradroid. In the likely even that that doesn't happen, we will always have this to fall back on, and for that we should be truly thankful.

Top 10 of '10: Number 9 - Hydorah (PC)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Finding new games in the genuine old arcade style these days can be a bit tricky. The current generation of consoles is a decent place to look, with big name companies producing updated versions of their classics, and services like XBox Live's Indie Games being an outlet for bedroom coders to release their latest homages to games from yesteryear. WiiWare and Playstation Network are great outlets for indie innovation, and the iPhone has risen to great heights as a gaming platform. The PC though, as ever, still seems to be the main breeding ground for small-but-great arcade games. Even so, it still takes something really special to stand out... and Hydorah is something really special.

Don't have much choice here... liberation of the human colony it is!

I'm not entirely sure where I discovered Hydorah, but I will remain eternally grateful to that person or place. The reason for this is that Hydorah is a Gradius/Nemesis-inspired shooter, and I happen to be rather fond of that particular arcade game.

Of course, there are plenty of Gradius-inspired shooters that aren't very good. But with Hydorah, programmer Locomalito obviously took a lot of time, care and attention in making sure that this game was a fantastic and authentic shmup.

Isn't the countryside nice? Lush green grass, rolling hills, deadly enemy spaceships...

Hydorah features sixteen levels, although the chances are you'll never see most of them. As I said, this is an authentic arcade shooter, and that authenticity extends to its difficulty level - it's rock! Actually, in saying that, if you're careful then you should progress quite well. Any time you die, it's your own fault, the game will never cheat you. But you do have to be good... really good... if you want to get anywhere.

In a way that's a bit of a shame, because there's so much to love in Hydorah. Of course, there's a huge amount of stuff to blast. It looks absolutely gorgeous, and sounds great too, with some music sounding similar to classic SNES tunes. It's even got little secrets tucked away to try and discover. But as I said, you might never see most of them.

In an interesting twist, if you destroy that factory you'll lose points.

Still, Hydorah is truly worth persevering with, particularly if you have any love at all for Gradius, or any 80s arcade shoot 'em up, really. It's a wonderful piece of work, which makes it all the more surprising that it's free. I would seriously pay good money for this game. I'm not sure if there's a Donate option because the website is down at the moment, but you can download the game here: Hydorah download. I would seriously recommend anyone download this immediately. If it's your thing, there are also two soundtracks available: the original soundtrack, and a selection of arranged tracks.

Hydorah is a brilliant homage to the glory days of the arcades, and a fantastic game in its own right. The only reason it isn't higher on my list is because I'm rubbish at it. But that hasn't stopped me from playing...

EDIT: The website is back up now, and there is indeed a "Donate" button. So I'll be chipping in, it's well worth it. Have a look at the site, there are some cool extra materials, such as an instruction manual, and everything you need to make a DVD version of the game.

Zybex (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Remember an arcade game called Side Arms? It was a horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up for one or two players, where you flew fellas in suits across the landscape blasting all and sundry, and collecting bolt-on power-ups to upgrade your weaponry. It was an alright blaster, if nothing special.

Hey! Didn't I see you in Delta?

The Commodore 64 version, though, was a bit rubbish. And then, from out of nowhere and from an unassuming little budget software house, came a game called Zybex. It was the first release from Zeppelin Games, and it was a hell of a way to announce their arrival.

Zybex is a one or (simultaneous!) two-player game that sees you blasting your way across sixteen worlds. You always begin your game on the first world, Arcturus, but if you can get to the end, you can choose any of the levels from two to twelve in any order. It's an excellent progression system, and it almost guarantees that you won't get bored. You can also spend a bit of time figuring out a preferred route... it's likely that you'll find some worlds easier than others.

Aargh! UFOs! Kill them all!

A horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up would be nothing without extra weapons though, and Zybex has plenty. Shooting certain enemies will release these weapons, five in total, and picking up more than one will increase the power of that weapon. Again, it's a great system, with some weapons working better on some enemies, meaning you'll need to switch on the fly, or you can develop your own playing style. Careful though... if you die, you'll lose a power level from the weapon you were using at the time...

This world is called Diablos. Oddly, it's not that difficult.

As you progress, you'll need to keep an eye out, as the only way you can access levels thirteen to sixteen is by collecting tokens that can be found throughout the levels. They're not that difficult to spot, they look totally different from anything else in the game.

Zybex is a tough game, but a really fun one. Even unlocking one of the later levels takes a heck of a lot of doing, but you'll have a good time trying. Again, this is a game I owned and loved back in the day, and it didn't disappoint when I played it again. Another tremendous bargain at £1.99.

Star Farce (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

I never had a Spectrum... I've mentioned that before... so I don't have a particularly wide knowledge of Spectrum games. A lot of the games I'll play today, I won't have played before. I'm quite looking forward to that... for all the Spectrum was maligned by a large section of Commodore 64 owners (and vice versa, of course), there's no doubt the Spectrum was home to a lot of quality games.

I picked this one because I love the arcade game Star Force. Still, I was a bit wary... would this be a total pisstake? I really didn't know how it would work out.

It turns out that Star Farce is a really good vertically-scrolling shooter. The reason for the name lies in the amusing plot... aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth for years, but every time they do, paranoid Earthlings send out waves of attack craft to wipe out these "aggressors". The Universe is collectively sick of this, and to put a stop to it (and to save those that are left), they've sent in a fighter pilot to destroy Earth's resources and attack craft, and all its inhabitants while they're at it. You are that fighter pilot.

Kapow-pow-pow-pow-pow! Take that, evil Earth scum!

I was amazed by Star Farce. For just £1.99, this would have been amazing value. The graphics are really great, being detailed and colourful. Pretty much everything you see is destructible... it felt fantastic to shoot a power generator and see it set off a chain reaction that destroyed everything connected to it.

There are loads of other tricks and surprises, too, one of which sees you going under the planet's surface to tackle a mothership. You also get loads of options before you even start playing the game. Star Farce is one of the most full-featured and entertaining shmups I've seen on either Spectrum or C64, which makes the price all the more surprising. The only quibble I really had was with the firing rate of the ship. Other than that, I had a really great time with it, and quite fancy another go now...

I, Ball (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

"I, Ball! I-I-I-I, Ball! I, Ball!"

I just about shit myself the first time I loaded this game and it shouted that at me. They could have put some kind of warning in the instructions or on the loading screen, or something. I'm sure it just said "Music and FX by Rob Hubbard".

It's an odd game, this one. I, Ball's family has been captured by the evil Terry Ball (groan) and I, who managed to escape, is in a hurry to get them back. What follows is something of a race against time, with guns!

GIANT ENEMY CRAB! Well, sort of.

You have to whizz up the screen before time runs out on the level. Making this more difficult are the peculiar obstacles in your way... some are merely that, whereas others are radioactive and deadly to the touch. You just bounce off the ordinary obstacles, but this can cause enough of a problem... bouncing into a deadly obstacle or enemy is not nice!

There are loads of constantly respawning enemies, although it's a few seconds before they become active and therefore threatening. It's best to shoot them at this point, but you have to be careful because your lasers can overheat. To help you out, discs can be picked up along the way, and these can contain all manner of impressive weaponry.

Taste the rainbow of fruit flavours, y'bastards.

With sixteen levels, lots of blasting action and a great Rob Hubbard soundtrack, I,Ball was well worth the £1.99 at the time. I enjoyed playing it again now... there are some niggles, with the collision detection on the obstacles being a bit ropey and causing more problems than necessary. It's still an entertaining and challenging blast, though.

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.

Retrograde (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Now I'm really moving into uncharted territory. At this point, Thalamus' games were released when I had other interests... most weeknights I was at my friend's house, playing on his Amiga; on Tuesdays I played for one of the local pub's darts teams; and of course, weekends were spent on pub crawls. Yep... I'd hit 18, and the Commodore 64 was losing some of its lustre at last.

Bloody aliens... they all look alike, to me.

I did have Retrograde, as it happens... but it was buried at the back end of a C90, and I couldn't be bothered with trawling through the tape to play it. So I think had maybe one go, and then moved on to something else, never to return. That means I'm coming into it now with relatively fresh eyes.

Hey, how come he gets a cool speeder bike? Not fair!

Retrograde is a two-way horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up. To being with, it'll leave you reeling. The screen is filled with fast moving enemies of different types, and you're something of a bystander as bullets and ships whizz about your head at dizzying speeds while you have little clue as to what the hell is going on.

Oooh, guns, guns, guns! They won't know what's hit them once I'm spent up.

Once you've taken stock of the situation, you can at least think about flying around amongst the mayhem, and maybe taking a pop at an enemy or two while you're at it. I say "maybe"... you're very under-equipped for the job at hand to begin with, having just one forward-firing weapon at your disposal. It's nowhere near enough, given the sheer speed and number of enemies. Fortunately, most of them drop currency when destroyed, and you can take this to the local shop and spend it on upgrades.

That ground soldier's about to get a faceful of fist.

This is where the real fun begins. Your suit features sixteen upgrade points, and depending on what level you're on and how much money you've got, you can bolt on an array of weaponry to turn you from weedy flying soldier to rock-hard space marine. If you can survive long enough to gather the cash (not necessarily a given), your life will become a lot easier. A player firing in eight directions at multi-upgraded power is a sight to behold, and the more powerful you get the more cash you can rake in for further upgrades.

Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough.

There's a downside to this... call it strategy, if you will. Although you have sixteen upgrade points, you're limited to the number that can be occupied, depending on which weapons you want to own. So you're going to need to use some trial-and-error to see which ones work best for you. Chances are you're going to have to sell some of your lower-level weapons as you progress, so that you can try out the new stuff.

Glad I don't have to deal with those two...

Just in case you were worried that all that blasting would get boring, there's another side to Retrograde. In order to progress through the levels, you'll have to spend a bit of time on foot. As well as landing to visit the shop, there's a need to say hello to the planetside aliens with your fists. Eventually you'll be able to purchase the Planet Buster, which opens a door that leads underground. All you need to do is fight your way down to the bottom. Easy.

With great power comes great responsibility... or lots of dead aliens.

Beat enough of the underground levels and you'll come up against the planet's boss... a huge, Armalyte-esque effort that will take all your upgraded weaponry just to make a dent. They also take a fair amount of time to destroy... time that will see their attacks eat away at your precious energy... and lives.

There's nothing like a day in the country. Wonder if the shop sells ice cream?

I must admit, I found Retrograde to be a pleasant surprise. If I could compare it with anything, I suppose the closest would be Forgotten Worlds, but it has a lot of its own elements too. At first it was frantic and overwhelming, but once I got into it and things settled down, it became a lot easier to play, and once my weaponry started accumulating I had that joyful feeling of being a supreme Death Dealer. It may become a little repetitive in time, even with the two different game elements, but Retrograde appeases an itchy trigger finger with some ease.

Hunter's Moon (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

With Stavros Fasoulas out of the picture, Thalamus had to look elsewhere for someone that could do their label justice. And where they looked was in the direction of Martin Walker. It might have seemed an odd move... his games until then hadn't exactly set the world on fire, although his Chameleon had been praised by the lads at ZZAP!. It would be interesting to see where he would take Thalamus...

An easy start. Shoot your way in, collect the starcell, job done.

It turned out he would take them back into space. Hunter's Moon is a game that I didn't give a lot of time to in its day. I found it too difficult and a bit too odd as a shoot 'em up... it's not an immediate game, it's not instantly action-packed and, as shooters go, it actually takes a fair bit of thought. Over the years it's been championed very strongly by ZZAP! 64's Gordon Houghton (or as I like to call him after one crazy night in Oxford, my pool brother... but that's another story). So there must be something to it that I missed at the time...

Twinkle, twinkle, little starcell...

Hunter's Moon, as previously mentioned, is a space-based shoot 'em up. There are 128 levels in the game, spread across 16 ever-more-complex star systems... a mighty proposition. You're trapped in a galaxy of organically-engineered hives... beautiful structures that it almost seems a shame to destroy. However - these hives contain starcells, and you need to obtain these in order to make your escape.

This is a bonus subgame. No starcells here, just shooting.

Now, when I talk about destroying the hives... you can't actually do that. Workers patrol the perimeters, constantly refreshing the walls. If you damage any part of a hive, it'll be rebuilt on the workers' next circuit. That being the case, you have to get in and out of there quickly, especially as you'll also die on contact with a worker.

It's been quite an odyssey, getting here...

Luckily, you have time to plan your moves. You can fly around the outer rims and use your radar to work out the best, quickest and safest ways to the starcells. And if you pick one up while it's still flashing, you'll obtain one of the four co-ordinates you need to escape the current star system.

OK, now this is getting a little bit hairy.

That all makes it sound terribly easy, but as well as trying to figure out your way in... and take it from me, with the routes those workers take, that's far from easy... you'll also have to watch out for their defensive firepower. Well, you are a thieving, laser-blasting scumbag... they're within their rights to try and ward you off. And they're good at it too... it's not long before they're throwing homing bullets at you, so the idea of just sitting there and planning your strategy goes out the window.

Oh no! They've bricked me in!

Hunter's Moon is a very clever game. It's superbly designed and structured, extremely polished with beautiful graphics and excellent sound, and it's a very challenging game, but not to the point of frustration. It seems like a bit of a slog, especially having to play through from the start every time, but once you get better at the early levels and can start skipping a few, you can concentrate on learning how to get past the more difficult stuff. Having finally played it properly, I reckon it still stands up as a great game, and a unique entry into the shoot 'em up field. I feel a bit silly for not paying it more attention years ago. Great stuff.

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

Space Invaders Infinity Gene (XBox Live Arcade/iPhone/iPod Touch)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Space Invaders, Taito? In 2010? Really? I mean, we just had Space Invaders Extreme not that long ago... surely that's enough? It jazzed up the age-old formula quite nicely, and there's only so much you can do with Space Invaders.

Isn't there?

Not as far as Taito is concerned, and in an attempt to keep Space Invaders fresh (and raking in the cash), they've given it the most radical reworking of an original game... well, ever, probably.

That's bigger than a typical mothership!

The title screen is odd, and should give you a clue that this isn't going to be your traditional Space Invaders game. Although, when it first kicks off it lulls you into a false sense of security by giving you Spacies, straight-up. Just a few seconds in, though, and it wrenches you through time and space and gives you an Invaders game the like of which you could never have imagined...

When a shooter is as radically overhauled as this, it's difficult to think what it can be compared to. It's a bit obvious to say it's Rez-inspired... just because they're quirky, offbeat shooters doesn't mean they have that much in common. No, Infinity Gene is pretty much its own entity, offering a refreshing take on Space Invaders with enough to link it to the past but with plenty there to enable it to stand proud on its own merits.

Oooh, that looks wrong in a small picture. Anyway, all those bits fly around and need to be shot.

Although the classic invaders appear often, they're almost thrown in as distractions; as if the programmers know you'll recognise them and go after them, when greater enemies are always just around the corner. Huge vector spaceships will appear, taking several shots to dispatch. Bizarre frameworks will appear, with invaders travelling along them and hemming you in. Formations will appear from unexpected places, forcing you out of your comfort zone. Infinity Gene never lets you settle, always throwing new ideas at you, constantly making you adapt.

Fortunately, you're able to even things up a little (albeit just a little). The classic saucers that flit about now drop DNA capsules, and when you pick enough of these up they strengthen your firepower. You're never going to turn into a bullet-hell wielding, all-conquering monster, but at least you've go a bit more than the original's pea-shooter. And as the game progresses, you're able to unlock different types of firepower, some of which you might find useful and some not, depending on how you play.

This lot never give up, do they?

The game also features a number of modes beside the main game, which is quite important in ensuring you'll play it for longer than the customary ten-minute blast. Challenge mode gives you 99 stages to clear (or try to clear), Bonus mode gives you, erm, bonus stages to play, which are unlocked throughout the game... and then there's Music mode.

I love things like this in games. Music mode, as you'd expect, lets you play the game to your own choice of music. Better than that, though, it generates the stage around it. So the number of stages available is limited only by the size of your music collection.

OK, this is just getting insane.

This is awesome. Personally, I'm a big fan of instrumental rock, and it lends itself to this sort of thing extremely well. And from the tracks I've used, there can be an incredible amount of variety to the stages you can get. Yngwie Malmsteen is my favourite guitarist... I can highly recommend his tune "Leviathan" for a fun blast, or "Little Savage", which almost turns this into a racing game!

Space Invaders Infinity Gene is an excellent (if slightly mad) reworking of the original arcade classic. The amount of gane you get for your money would make it well worth your while if it was limited to just the main game and the Challenge mode, but with the Music mode giving you so much extra play, it's a steal. Music mode works better on the iPhone/iPod Touch (it's a bit of a pain having to stream playlists on a console, changing tracks on your media player every time), but I prefer the game on the big screen with a "proper" controller. Either way, you can't really go wrong with this.