Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What's In A Name?


Two days ago, while having a go at an old video game, I unexpectedly found myself 'in the zone' and finished it. I had a little time between various kid events and really hadn't expected to do anything with it but get in some practice. The game is the Saturn version of Galactic Attack from Taito, which is also known as Layer Section... or Gunlock... or Rayforce. The game must be on the FBI's Most Wanted List with that many aliases.

In martial arts, and most sports, there is a state of mind the practitioner strives toward. In Japanese it is the two-fold state owning both 'zanshin' (readiness/awareness) and 'mushin' (no mind). In this place, 'the zone' as many westerners know it is where everything clicks. You've shut out the distractions, nothing can touch you, and your performance is 'on' like you know just where to go and what to do. The better atheletes can enter this state much more easily than poorer players... it is one of the reasons they are better. When I am practicing various kata for swordwork there is a huge difference when I am in the zone and when I am not.

I kind of just fell into the zone playing Rayforce. This is a game I've owned for a long time, and I like it a lot, but I'd never put that much time into playing it... certainly had never finished it. Originally, I bought Raystorm (Layer Section 2), played it, finished it and reading reviews that said the first one was even better, I eventually tracked it down and bought it. I think all the Layer Section games are underappreciated, but the first one has a pretty good rep. The other two not so much, but in my opinion that's undeserved. Much of the play mechanics, looks, and music style eventually made their way into G. Rev's game Border Down. Not surprising considering the ex-Taito folks working at G. Rev.

This first one is a 2D graphic spectacle, has awesome sound effects, and pretty good music if you like 'the spacy jazz stylings' of Zuntata, the old in-house band for Taito. The name 'Layer Section' actually comes from the level design... you move down through 'layers' from space through a planet's atmosphere to a mechanised tower at its core... and the gameplay which has you destroying enemies at two separate heights, an upper and lower 'layer'. As each level ends, your ship smoothly moves to the next with no interruption of the graphics, so the whole thing looks like one continuous journey. It is quite cool and really helps make the game world feel more real. You are given a 'bullets' to shoot down enemies on your layer (at your level) and homing 'lasers' to blast the enemies on the layer below you. There is a crosshairs a short distance ahead of your ship that you use to lock on with the homing lasers. There's a lot of scaling and parallax scrolling effects to reinforce the 3D play concepts but all using 2D objects and art.


Those gameplay basics don't change for the sequels. The changes in the later episodes come with the designers giving you multiple ships to choose from, so the specifics of the weaponry vary slightly though they operate under the same two-layer, lock-on homing idea. They also shift the viewpoint slightly to the rear of the ship (a la Silpheed) so that the switch to polygon graphics (from the sprites of the original) becomes more dramatic. The game is still a 2D shooter, but it is played over a three-dimensional background. I played and finished the second one years ago, but will be giving that another go in preparation for playing the third one, Raycrisis. I didn't really want to do that until I'd finished the first one, which I've been trying to do off and on for a month. Doing things in the correct order, now that I have all the games, was just important to me. I'm retarded like that.

My kids think I'm retarded anyway. They understand liking video games a lot. They do themselves, especially during the long, gonad-cracking winters. What they don't see is the 2D shooter love. My son does a little. He thinks Thunderforce 6 is the cat's ass. But that's a really modern game (despite the oldskool gameplay) complete with super-flash polygonal graphics and multiple unlockable ships. Thunderforce's designers also included a difficulty level a kid can actually handle, so he can make reasonable progress and not feel stymied. But in general, the don't get it. Currently their game of choice is the online MMO for kids Wizard101. Its a 3D collector game, RPG, and social center all in one. Everything the current craze in 'massive multiplayer online' caters to. Having to repetitively practice the same levels with no save points, no customisable characters, and a game length measured in minutes, just has no appeal to them, and no appeal to mainstream gaming itself anymore.

In terms of 'finishing' Rayforce, I'm calling it that for getting all the way through the game on the initial allotment of credits. I don't really use the term 'beating' it. There's a school of thought that beating a game literally would mean getting the 1CC or one-credit-clear... that is, finishing the game on just the inital batch of ships you are given and any extras (extends) you are awarded during the game. Successfully playing for survival. I subscribe to that belief, even though by that standard I will rarely ever 'beat' a game because I just can't put that much time into learning all the ins and outs to be good enough. I look online at how much time some players put into dominating their chosen shooters and it is just more than a responsible parent can probably do. So most of the time, I'm just going to have to be happy with getting all the way through on the basic number of credits/continues. If a shooter has unlimited continues and no way to turn that off, then only four credits count towards the finish. I might use the unlimited continues to practice later levels, but I won't chalk it up as a victory. Again, retarded. At least by some people's standards. But this is how you get value out of what is essentially a very short, but intense play experience. You're simulating approaching the game in an arcade... you wouldn't drop unlimited amounts of money in a cabinet, so I don't use unlimited continues. The last game I 1CC'd for the first time was probably Lords of Thunder.

Rank is a feature of Rayforce. I don't recall if the other Layer Section games enforce rank. I'll find out when I play them again (though I've never put much time into Raycrisis anyway). The more ships you have in reserve, and the stronger your firepower, the more enemies and bullets the game throws at you. Some games (like Ibara or the infamous Battle Garegga) the rank is so furious that suiciding your ships and avoiding powerups is actually a strategy in playing, especially playing for survival. I like those two games, but like a lot of people I think the whole concept of doing 'less than great' in a sense is really a counterintuitive way to play. I get the whole rank thing. These machines were spawned out of an environment where the games were trying to suck quarters out of you. Apart from the natural increase in difficulty that comes with progress (the seventh level would always be harder than the first) the games became 'artificially' more difficult to end your game and get you to feed more money in to see what comes next. I am not a fan of rank, and certainly don't like the idea of rank-control becoming the focus of playing, but fierce as the rank is in Rayforce it didn't totally destroy the fun. A lot of Rayforce skill is based in being in the right place to destroy enemies before they can really do anything to you. And if you get good at that, the extra bullets don't mean much.


On to the other Layer Sections. I know the second one was fun, and as I recall easier than the Rayforce. Hopefully I'll enjoy the last one just as much.

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