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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Deathsmiles Deluxe Edition (XBox 360)

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.


We interrupt your regular programming, a run-through of the Thalamus Commodore 64 catalogue, for something a bit more deadly. Normal service will be resumed... soon...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Retrograde (Commodore 64)

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.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Snare (Commodore 64)

Once upon a time, way, waaay back when, I had my own website. It wasn't anything flash... I was bored and so I decided to make a little website in an attempt to learn basic HTML. And it worked quite well, to a degree... although so lacking were my skills that the reviews were stitched together using JPEG and PNG images that I'd created, rather than through code. The problem was, it was on GeoCities, so it only took about eight views before my bandwidth allowance was smashed, thanks to those images. Still, it was quite a nice little ZZAP! 64 rip-off, if I do say so myself. It was called Retro-Active Reviews. Did you ever see it? It's gone now. Quite sad.

One of the games my team reviewed (yes, I had a team!) was the Commodore 64 game, Snare. A Thalamus release (their seventh) coming on the heels of the amazing Armalyte, it was probably one of their lowest-profile games, and to be honest I probably didn't give it a fair shake at the time. Had puzzle elements to it, see. That was about seven or eight years ago, though... time to give it another shot, I reckon.

Look, the arrows point the way. How hard can it be?

I remember the advert for Snare... "One man's killing joke". As the story goes, in the year 2049, Andre Thelman, one of the world's richest men, died. Prior to this, he'd spent years building a massive twenty-level maze in a temporal cavity in the grounds of his home. Once finished, he ventured into this maze with his most prized possession, where he promptly snuffed it. Rich, then, but not very smart.

In the years since his death, the rumours built this treasure into legend, and many have died attempting to retrieve it... to the point where all attempts are now televised, in what must be something a bit like The Running Man. Well, as far as contestants getting offed on live telly goes, anyway.

Oh, for fork's sake... which way do I go?

Snare puts you in the seat of a ship designed especially to conquer this maze. It can accelerate and decelerate at incredible rates, it can jump and it can shoot. This is important... there are huge gaps in the maze that you really wouldn't want to fall down, and this is no empty, ghostly relic... guardian ships are on patrol, ready to ward off treasure hunters at a moment's notice.

Actually playing the game takes some adjustment... it's not like anything else you've played before. It sounds straightforward enough, but as soon as you take your first turn, you'll be confused...

Success! Those sparkly star-like tiles are the teleport to the next level.

Designed, I'm sure, especially to mess with your mind, Snare snaps the screen ninety degrees with every turn you make. I now know what Automan's mate felt like. Your brain just can't cope at first... it's really difficult to condition yourself to the fact your ship always points up the screen, no matter what direction you're actually travelling in. Once it clicks you become OK with it, and it's just one extra puzzle to stay in tune with.

The switch on the left has activated the bridge. Hurry... get across while you can!

It's very cleverly done, with the initial levels gently working you into the game, introducing you to the different tiles in a way that you can learn their effects without too much danger. And your ship, despite the ninety degree snap-turns, is fairly manoeuvrable, being able to accelerate and decelerate at speed. At least, it can to start with... you don't half get a shock when you reach a level where you can't stop!

What's going on here? I thought the Triple Jump was in Hyper Sports!

Snare is a very well-conceived and well-executed game. It's a bit of a mindbender, and it's satisfying when you manage to successfully complete a level you've struggled with. I enjoyed it a fair bit more, second time around, so I'm really glad I gave it another chance. Oh, and about that "killing joke"... thanks to emulation, I've discovered what Thelman's most prized possession was... very naughty indeed, Thalamus!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Armalyte (Commodore 64)

If ZZAP! 64 had courted controversy over Thalamus' releases in the past, either with the awarding of Gold Medals that people didn't agree with or the supposed under-rating of Delta, there was nary a murmur when it came to their opinion of Thalamus' sixth game - Armalyte. Why the quiet? ZZAP! 64 gave it a Gold Medal... but this time, almost everyone agreed.

Once more, unto the breach... do they have to make it so claustrophobic right from the outset?

The plot of Armalyte is... oh, who cares? Some twaddle that loosely ties it in with Delta... apparently, it seemed like a good idea to market this as a sequel to that game, as if this wasn't good enough to stand on its own. It's more than good enough, and certainly doesn't need the Delta II subtitle it was lumbered with.

With no structures to run into, this doesn't look so bad... just don't get rammed.

Armalyte is a game that takes every other shoot 'em up on the Commodore 64, and ramps up all their best bits by a few notches. It starts in classic Nemesis/Gradius fashion, with your ship flying from left to right as waves of enemies fly toward you, intent on your destruction. The power-up system is different, though... rather than collecting pods left behind by the destruction of enemy formations, a la Konami's classic, weapons pods are to be found floating in space, and you activate them by blasting them.

Mmmm, eggs. Wish I'd had a proper breakfast before I left...

Shooting the floating pods repeatedly switches them through a cycle that includes increased forward fire, rear fire and vertical fire, among others. And if that's not enough for you, you have two huge laser weapons you can switch between that are very satisfying to unleash. Oh, and you start the game with a drone ship which replicates your firepower, which is just as well, given everything you have to attempt to cope with...

Don't go spitting that stuff at me. That's just rude.

There are a few things that elevate Armalyte beyond the bog-standard shooter. The first thing you're likely to notice is the number of enemy ships that you have to deal with. The attack waves come thick and fast, with each containing a good number of attackers. They're relentless, and they're difficult to deal with as they whip about at an often alarming rate. It's overwhelming at first, and you'll find yourself crushed to dust far more often than you'd like.

OK, big fella... get a load of what I'm packing.

Then there are the levels themselves. They're huge, and you'll often be praying for the relative safety of deep space, as you'll frequently find yourself with just a small gap to squeeze through, which mightn't be so bad if it wasn't for the alien attack ships waiting on the other side... There's quite a bit of variety to the levels, which is highly commendable. OK, so the game loaded each level separately, but I can think of plenty of multiload games that didn't try so hard. The levels change in colour as you move through them, and each has its own style, giving the game a massive sense of scale.

It's not the scary heads I'm worried about. It's that giant wall beyond them.

Should you negotiate the countless minions and treacherous landscapes, you'll find that each level has its own gigantic boss to overcome. These are actually probably the weakest points of Armalyte. They're not bad, don't get me wrong, just a bit too similar to each other. It's always been pretty difficult to come up with good enemy boss ship it seems, and for all they look impressive, especially when they take it upon themselves to fly across the screen at you, I can't help but feel they could have been better. But that's as much a constraint of the horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up as anything else.

Die, alien scum! OK, I've used that one before. If it ain't broke, etc...

Armalyte is pretty much a wonder of the 8-bit era. It came at a time when people thought they could no longer be surprised or impressed by a Commodore 64 game, and were proven wrong in slack-jawed amazement. It was easily Thalamus' most impressive release to date from a technical standpoint, although whether it's actually a better game than Hunter's Moon is something we can argue about over a pint down the pub one day. Regardless, it was fully deserving of its ZZAP! Gold Medal, and any other honours that may have been thrown its way. It's good enough to make me want to play again now that I've finished writing about it... the sign of a top-notch game if ever there was one.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Gamer Forever Saying "Ouch".

Sorry for the lack of updates at the moment... there's a good reason for it, and it is this. There are many ailments of the human body, and one that afflicts me is psoriasis. But here's the thing... it only affect my fingers. How weird is that? And mostly, it's my two thumbs, two index fingers and two middle fingers.

It's really bizarre, but what it also is is really painful. When it flares up badly, it makes gaming and typing really difficult. In fact, it makes a lot of things difficult. I've almost lost debit cards in cashpoint machines because it's been almost impossible to pull thenm back out.

Anyway, I've been suffering from the death by a thousand cuts for the last week or so, with all six of those fingers badly cut. I guess this is a weird post to make, and I suppose I really don't have to explain myself (thanks to the cunning name change, if there's not a game a day I don't look quite as bad!), but I just thought I'd throw it out there. Hopefully I'll be healed a bit by the weekend, and back to the Thalamus games... although I've got six weekends' worth of overtime coming up, which might affect my free time somewhat...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Hawkeye (Commodore 64)

The ZZAP! 64/Thalamus controversy continued with Hawkeye, which was awarded a Gold Medal by the magazine; incorrectly, in the views of many. My mate Reedy bought the game, and we spent a long, long while playing it and enjoying it. If those are any criteria that should count towards a good review, then we'd certainly have given the game very high marks back then.

I wasn't sure I'd think so highly of it now, but then my expectations have changed over the years.

Awww, look at that cute ickle fing! Makes a great noise when it explodes, too.

It was a tricky start... it turned out that I'd completely forgotten how to play this game. And so I piled along as far right as I could go as quickly as I could go, hair flowing in the breeze, synthetic muscles rippling in the sunlight, bullets flying like, well, bullets. And I had to shoot this big dinosaur-type thing. So when it died, why didn't the level end? And why did the dinosaur-type thing come back when I scrolled the screen?

Ooh, I love dinosaurs. But... it's not stopping. Shoot it! Shoot it!

And then I remembered... the game is called Hawkeye, and at the top of the screen are two rather majestic-looking hawks' heads. And when the eye flashes on one of those heads, it's telling you that that's the direction you need to go in to pick up the next of the puzzle pieces need to complete the level. It all came flooding back...

Well, alright... will it take long? I've got a bus to catch in thirty minutes.

Hawkeye, as expected of a Thalamus game, is really well presented, having maybe even more bells and whistles than any of their previous games. There's the Mix-e-load to mess with as the game loads, this time featuring the music of Jeroen Tel; an animated storyteller providing the backstory of the game; and everything is brilliantly set out, with a helpful title sequence letting you know what to expect from the in-game icons. There's even a secret level in there, if you're good enough to unlock it...

Jesus Christ! Look at the size of that flying thing! I'll have to swat it with my laser...

But it also has a pretty damn good game attached to that. Although it's a simple collect'em up at heart, it throws loads of baddies at you as you're running around, which makes it a lot more intense to play than it otherwise might be. That said, you can choose to avoid a lot of the combat, if you wish. Each level, although only one screen in height, is littered with platforms. The majority of the creatures in the game hop and bounce around in such a way that you can often duck underneath them or run straight past them.

Aaahhh... nothing like a quick recharge...

It might seem a bit strange to even want to do that, but your ammunition is limited, although more can be picked up, if you're lucky. More importantly, your energy depletes over the course of a level... it's a kind of time limit, in essence. Again, this can be replenished occasionally, but there's no point in risking losing more than you need to, if you can help it. Especially as, once you get to level four, enemy attack patterns get more complicated and make things even more difficult...

Well, I can't say I was expecting that.

I enjoyed Hawkeye a considerable amount whilst playing it for this. There are times when the shooting action is really frantic, and you have to be quite selective about what you're doing if you want to progress. I wouldn't say it's a thinking man's shoot 'em up, but with a choice of four weapons, each of which is effective in different ways, and this element of having to pick your battles carefully, it keeps you on your toes at all times. It's also a pretty good high score game, and with plenty of levels it's a real challenge. Another high point for the Thalamus catalogue, in my opinion.