Sunday, June 28, 2015

SolarStriker (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
I love classic video game box art like this. It symbolizes
the imagination many artists put into the artwork. Imagination
that unfortunately, rarely ever captured the true look and
feel of the game. Still, it gave us hope of the contents within.

One of the video game genres that I've been a big fan of over the last 20 years or so is shoot-em-ups.  No, I'm not talking about "shooters", those fast-paced, first-person games where you brandish a firearm of some sort and snipe guys at 300 feet, reveling in every headshot.  No, I'm talking about the scrolling shooter, one of the staples of what we now know as classic, or "retro" gaming.  You see, from the early-mid 1980's, until around the mid-late 1990's, the scrolling shooter genre evolved tremendously, from humble beginnings like 1942, Vulgus, Star Force, and the like, to highly sophisticated games with deep, complex scoring systems like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, Radiant Silvergun, and many more.  While I appreciate the complexity and replayability of games like that, give me a simple "shmup" (a term, coined by Zzap!64 Magazine) with twitchy game play, a simple control scheme, and solid action any day.  While there's room in my heart for "danmaku" games (aka bullet curtain, or "bullet hell" shooters), I generally prefer classic shoot-em-ups to their more grown-up descendants.

Someone needed to remind companies during the 80's
and early 90's that changing the logo design between the
box and the title screen caused confusion. Which logo
was the "official" one, and which was a design mistake?

Leave it to Nintendo to do things differently.  While we know in today's modern world that Nintendo prefers to go their own way and do their own thing, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, it was everyone else who was doing their own thing, while Nintendo were the stalwarts of the scene, at least in North America.  We didn't know any better until years later, when we found out about the Tengen stuff, companies only being allowed to publish so many games each year for the NES, having to buy cartridges and hardware from Nintendo, etc.  During that time, Nintendo was leading the charge, and everyone else was either following, or trying to differentiate themselves somehow to stand out.  From the N64 forward, however, we saw a much different Nintendo.  So to some fans in 1990, a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up might have seemed like it came out of left field from Nintendo.  Be that as it may, they made a solid game.

"Space...the final frontier."  Also, graphically kind of boring.

The setup for SolarStriker reads like any other bog standard shmup from that time period.  You're a lone spacecraft either tasked with a suicide mission to save civilization, or a loner bent on revenge and the destruction of an alien planet/race/culture/technology/etc.  It doesn't matter much, as there's no story in-game, and the back of the box doesn't exactly give you much of a reason for blasting alien baddies, anyway.  What does matter is that you've got 3 lives, an upgrade-able weapons system, and tons of alien craft and weaponry in your way before you reach the end of the game's 6 stages.  Throughout your journey, you'll collect power-ups, destroy flying ships, tanks and trucks, alien life forms, and large boss enemies to reach the final showdown.

I'm sure you'll become quite acquainted with this screen
as I did in my play through of the game. It gets annoying.
Thankfully, you can press Start to jump right back to the
title screen, and Start again to get back to the action.

Graphically, the game isn't too shabby for the Game Boy.  Your ship, while devoid of a "tilt" animation when you move left to right, is rendered nicely, and the backgrounds generally strike that balance between interesting and utilitarian, leaning more toward the latter in favor of the player's ability to see what's going on.  Enemies move in various patterns, and while some enemies rotate or change as they attack, others just move on the screen and their sprites are static; only their movement fluctuates.  Explosions are also decent, given the small screen size, but they don't distract from the action.  As a side note, this game was released early enough in the Game Boy's life cycle that it has a special palette programmed into the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Game Boy Player which reverses the "black and white" contrast, so that space looks like space with black space and white stars, and similar changes.  If you want the original experience, you'll need to play it on an original DMG or Game Boy Pocket unit, otherwise, you'll see the game much differently than R&D 1 had in mind.

I can only assume since we started in space, and this is
Stage 2, we're in the sky above the alien planet, raining
down destruction and chaos everywhere.  Neat.

The audio of the game is an area that I think was relatively strong, given the time of the game's release.There are only a handful of music tracks in the game.  The title screen has its own ominous theme, and then there are 3 tracks shared by the subsequent 6 stages, each track playing for 2 consecutive stages before the next theme is used.  There's a separate track for boss fights, and then of course, separate music for when you lose your last life, and for the game's ending.  All tracks are reasonably well composed, though I'll wager that most people will say the Stage 1/2 music is the best tune in the game, in part because it's super catchy, but also because that's the music they'll likely be hearing the most.  Sound effects are also decent, though very minimal, using white noise bits for explosions, sufficient beeping and noises for your craft firing, etc.  Most enemies don't make noise when they fire projectiles, so you don't get that extra warning - you'll have to be mindful of their incoming fire by sight only.

Stage 3 goes over some roadways, which look suspiciously
like our own on Earth.  Wait a minute, am I blowing away
aliens on Earth? Why didn't anyone tell me?

Game play is pretty standard.  You can move the ship up, down, left, and right on the screen, and have no real restrictions as to where you can go within the game's field of vision.  The actual stage width is greater than what you can see on screen, so as you move the space ship left and right, the screen scrolls slightly to display the rest of the area you have to fly in.  It feels natural, and didn't distract me when playing like in some games.  The difficulty is pretty standard throughout the first 3 stages, increasing relatively gradually, though the bosses for the 1st 3 areas are quite easy.  Things get very hairy starting with Stage 4, however, as the difficulty ramps up quite a bit.  In particular, the Stage 4 boss rains down a lot of fire on your ship, making it quite tough to get in a few hits here and there.  The Stage 5 boss is only slightly less forgiving, having a more predictable pattern.  From Stage 4 through 6, there are mini-bosses, and there's a small mini-boss rush at the end of Stage 6 before the final boss.  Strangely, though the final boss throws a lot at you, it feels like a less complicated battle than the 2 preceding boss fights, so it comes off as a bit of a relief in comparison.

Stage 4 adds the first mini-boss, this big fella here. You
have to destroy the shielded units around him to get to
the actual core of the unit itself, not unlike another famous
series of shmups where you have to "Shoot the core!"

This is a shooter based on the template laid down by a number of arcade and early console titles that came before it, and in some ways, served as a template for all shoot-em-ups subsequently released for this platform.  There's not a 2nd loop for "New Game Plus" mode, and there's not even a high score table.  You just fly, maneuver, and shoot through 6 stages, and that's all there is.  It's not a particularly long game, though the stages themselves are sufficiently long before the boss encounters.  Yes, the game comes off as a pretty no-frills affair, but for a portable title, that's pretty much all you need.  It's a solid game with tight game play.

This is the Stage 4 boss, just before it starts shooting a
metric ton of bullets at me. This was long before the term
"bullet hell" was coined, but that's not far off the mark here.

If I had to level some complaints against SolarStriker, I would say the game's major difficulty spike after Stage 3 would be one.  The game just doesn't feel that hard through the first 3 levels, once you memorize enemy wave patterns.  Starting with Stage 4, however, things become much more manic.  You start to encounter fast moving enemies that can only be destroyed at the highest level of ship fire, and even then, only if you're at the bottom of the screen firing at them constantly until they're nearly on top of you.  The enemy bullet timing and patterns are kind of goofy as well.  Sometimes it feels like they're targeting you, while other times, it seems like they're just shooting a bullet, hoping to hit something.  In later levels, when half the enemies start shooting directional lasers that always shoot straight down, it becomes less twitch-reflex dodging, and more risk/reward, where you decide whether or not you want to risk potentially being taken out by a laser, versus the points you'll earn for destroying that enemy or group.  It's a little unbalanced in that sense, and is a bit too obvious in the game's setup.  I also would have liked the other 2 stage tunes to be a bit more memorable, or better yet, have dedicated music for each of the 6 stages.

Oh look, a stage that looks like highly advanced
technology and stuff - that's not a trope at all, is it?

Despite these less than perfect design choices, SolarStriker remains a highly playable, and reasonably enjoyable game.  It's a solid shmup that benefits from some good graphic design choices to make the game easy to see and play on the original hardware, despite the Game Boy DMG's tendency toward motion blur.  The music and sound, despite the sparse nature of it, is fitting to the game, and you'll likely find yourself whistling or humming the Stage 1/2 song at some point.  Just don't throw your Game Boy against the wall when you die on the Stage 4 boss the 12th time.  I'll give this 2 thumbs up for shooter and arcade game fans, and a casual recommendation to anyone else.  It's a very common game, and I picked up a copy for $4.  If you can't find it that cheap, it might be worth paying a little more for, but I wouldn't go out of your way to acquire it, because it's so common in the wild.

The final stage looks vaguely like you're inside some giant
alien being, not unlike Life Force/Salamander or Abadox. The
final boss appears to be the creature's heart that you have
to destroy. Why it shoots bullets at you is anyone's guess.

Yeah, we kind of figured that part out with the preceding
cut scene, but thanks for telling us anyway.

"Finally, I can dock my ship and go meet up
with that cute engineer from Section 3!"

This is my SolarStriker cart. It appears that perhaps my
cart fought in the conflict with the aliens alongside the
space ship you pilot in game...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Nail 'n Scale (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from Game FAQs.
Flying lizards, giant bugs, robots, and dragons as
enemies? Count me in! Wait, what's with the nails?
The mid-late 1980's, and early 1990's were a magical time.  Forget Iran-Contra, forget Black Friday, forget the rampant materialism of the Baby Boomer generation, forget "yuppies", and forget the Gulf War.  During that period of time, we had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Karate Kid, G.I. Joe and Transformers, Ghostbusters and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!, and so much more.  And we had video games.  If you're reading this, you're likely either from my generation, and have fond memories of the 80's and early 90's, or you're experiencing them for the first time, something I often wish I could do, as I approach 40 years of age.  For those in the latter camp, I envy you.

So, the logo doesn't match the box art logo, but it still
makes it looks like the game will be more "bad" than
it actually turns out to be, with its extra wide drop-shadow.

One of the things any child of the 80's and early 90's can tell you is that, in the pre-internet age, we had to take a chance any time we bought a new video game, music album, or other medium that we couldn't preview ahead of time, like theatrical release movies.  With that, we often had to literally "judge a book by its cover", by interpreting the cover art for a new video game or album/CD we wanted, and try to make decisive purchases based on our reaction to an artist's rendering on the front cover.  Depending on your viewpoint, i.e. glass half empty or glass half full, it was either a total crap shoot, or an adventure that always had an element of "danger" to it.  Would your purchase be rewarded with an excellent experience that you would cherish for years to come?  Or, would your hopes be dashed, as you discovered that the artist, whose work adorned the front cover of the purchased item, let you down by painting something that didn't truly communicate what you were getting?

The game starts out pretty slow, with very minimal work
required to get to the exit door. It does a good job of
teaching you how to play by introducing elements slowly.

Nail 'n Scale, by then stalwart publisher Data East, sort of fell into that trap.  Based on the cover art on the box & cartridge, it looked like an intense journey through a unique world, where formidable enemies besieged you at every turn, you clung to life while hanging from nothing but a large nail, traversing vast expanses of blocks and platforms suspended in mid-air.  The artist gets it half right, but the menacing enemy designs, combined with the highly stylized, chrome logo akin to that of the era's heavy metal bands, promised a much more frenzied experience than what was delivered.  Having said that, it's not a bad game.  As a matter of fact, it's a fun little romp.

You'll quickly learn how to break blocks under your feet,
a vital skill in this game, especially in later levels.

Here's the setup: you're Spike, an unassuming guy, presumably a construction worker of some kind, who, for reasons unknown, is trying to scale walls in a building that is made up of all square blocks of different make-up, and in each room, your goal is to find the door to escape each room.  How you get dropped into each of these rooms is unclear, but you must escape.  After 9 stages of scaling walls, fighting or dodging enemies, and finding doors, you encounter a boss character, usually an over-sized animal of some sort, who always spits out some kind of projectile at you.  Once you discover their weak spot and hit them several times with your nails (or spikes), you defeat them and it's on to the next 9 levels of climbing action.  Your only weapon, which doubles as a tool to help you climb walls, is an endless supply of nails/spikes, which you can throw either to the left or right of you, straight up, or straight down.  You also have the ability to jump, including a unique mechanic where you can jump in mid-air, provided you have stepped off a platform.  This feature becomes a critical component in the game as you traverse through the various levels.

"Some like it hot and some sweat when the heat is on."

The impetus behind the name is the way you get from place to place in the game.  There are several types of blocks in the game, some of which you can toss your nails into and they'll stick.  If you throw a spike into a brick horizontally, you can then stand atop that brick.  If it's a plain "white" or "gray" brick, jumping on that nail twice will break and destroy that brick.  If it's one of 2 or 3 other varieties, the block won't break, and you can continue to stand or jump on that nail until it vanishes within a few seconds.  If you throw a nail downward, you can do the same thing, breaking a brick by jumping on top of the nail's head.  For large groupings of blocks that you need to break into, you can use a horizontal break to open a hole, then use a vertical throw to stick a nail into the corner of the next brick you want to break, then jump on top of it.  This has been dubbed "corner breaking" by those who have written FAQs on the game, and it's a technique you'll want to master, along with the mid-air jumping.  Some blocks cannot be pierced with spikes, so you'll need to be cognizant of those as well, knowing when you have to find an alternative path or way to scale the heights.  You have 3 power-up icons available to you, should you find and accumulate them through play.  The "white" nail will pierce bricks as normal, but breakable bricks will not be broken by standing on these nails.  Striped spikes are explosive, so once you throw one, get out of the way, because the blast radius is just a bit larger than what the explosion animation would lead you to believe.  And, for those who give up easily, there's a small door icon you can grab, and using that power-up will allow you to simply skip a level, effectively creating an exit door wherever you're standing.  Oh, and to keep things interesting, none of these powerups are available during boss fights.  As with most puzzle platformers, one hit and you die, fall into a fire pit and you die, etc.  Some enemies are impervious to your spikes as well, so they'll just need to be avoided.

At first blush, this looks like an insurmountable level.
Pause the game, look around, and learn quickly how
to corner break, and you'll figure it out soon enough.

Nail 'n Scale suffers from a few issues.  First and foremost, the game was released in 1990 as Dragon Tail by Japanese developer I'Max, and wasn't localized in the west until 1992.  By then, developers had really begun to eek a lot of impressive things from the Game Boy, so by the time this game hit our shores nearly a year and a half late, it had been eclipsed in the audio-visual department by nearly everything else out there at the same time.  The game is also somewhat unique, which works in its favor, and I felt it was relatively intuitive, but the concept of throwing nails into walls and jumping on them to break them seems like a dated, hold-over kind of idea from the early arcade development days.  I'Max did something interesting with it, but on paper (and on the back of the box), it doesn't sound that appealing.  As you get into later levels, some of the puzzles become very obtuse, requiring odd choices as far as your character's path through a level.  Unless you can figure out the one most effective way to beat a level, you may end up "cheating" slightly, and racking up exploding spikes by dying once or twice after collecting them so you can stockpile a bit to help you get through a level.  Once you get up past level 40, the game also becomes quite punishing, even on the Easy difficulty level.  Some of the precision required to complete a couple of the last levels is downright maddening.  When you crank up the difficulty to Hard, it cuts your jump height by roughly 1/3, so those precision jumps become nigh impossible without pixel-perfect accuracy and timing in their execution.  The game has 50 levels, but lacks a password system, so if you want to complete it, even with unlimited continues, expect to play for an extended period of time.  Works in theory, but for a portable system, it would be especially useful to have a password every 5-10 levels, especially with as many tries as some levels may take to solve.

I won't show you the level, because it's devious and evil.
Given its number, however, I'm convinced that mastermind
Milo Rambaldi was involved in its layout & construction.

Despite the game's flaws, I had a lot of fun with it, and if you're anything like me, you'll have that "Eureka!" moment from time to time when you figure out a particularly hard level.  It helps that you can pause the game and use the D-pad to look at the entire layout of the level, sans enemies, to plan out your strategy, and that certainly makes the game a bit more forgiving.  Having said that, the fact that level 43 and up on Easy Mode made me want to pull my hair out, I'd say my motivation to play on Hard Mode is pretty much zero.  When I discovered this game out in the wild, there were 2 loose carts side by side in a display case, priced at $15.  I asked the clerk if there was any wiggle room, and she checked the computer to discover that both should have been priced at $10.  I had enough fun over many weeks to justify that price, but I wouldn't recommend paying any more for it loose, despite the fact that it's probably not a particularly common cart.  It won't change your world, and it's one that, unless you pull it out every few years to refresh your memory on the puzzles, probably won't be frequenting your Game Boy much.  Recommended for puzzle platform nuts, and casually recommended for anyone else if you can pick it up cheap.

Turns out, this is the "dragon" part of the game's original
Japanese title, "Dragon Tail".  You face him as the last boss,
though this screen looks far more dragon-like than what
you actually see when you're fighting him.