Monday, February 1, 2010

Some You Win, Some You Lose

XII Stag
Amongst my various video game purchases recently, I had a package arrive with two STGs (Japan-derived acronym for 2d shooters: ShooTing Game) in it. Despite being in the same genre, they are incredibly different in most ways… including quality. Good examples of how much variety there can be even in what is perceived (by the mainstream) as a very limited, niche gaming style.

As a baseline for comparison, both games are arcade ports, vertical scrolling, and both are running on a Playstation 2 with a Hori EX Pro joystick used to control.

First the bad:
XII Stag for the PS2. I’m kind of a sucker for buying 2d shooting games (not arena shooters like Smash TV or Geometry Wars), though I’m not so blinkered about being a completist that I will overlook anything. Since you have to do quite a bit of research to track down niche video games, finding opinions just goes with the territory. For me STGs are not one of those game genres where the shitty ones are collectible BECAUSE they are shitty or weird. A shitty shooter is usually unplayable. So you aren’t going to get to enjoy whatever weirdness might be on tap without putting in way too much effort.

XII Stag is an exercise in mediocrity. I read reviews and mostly they said something along the lines of ‘doesn’t do anything new, but does it fine’. This is not what I found to be the case at all. XII Stag has ONE new thing to it, but pulls it off tepidly. Everything about the game is tepid.

I watched snatches of online videos and thought it looked pretty cool. The graphics weren’t groundbreaking, but they seemed detailed, speedy, and interesting enough. Now in real life? Bleagh. Wrong. The objects in the game are all pre-rendered sprites, and they have a kind of shiny aspect that looks pretty good on some of the bosses, but mostly they have this really blocky outline around all of them that just looks budget. Like the blue matte lines in old movies. The backgrounds and scrolling look cool at first, but as you play you realize each level’s background have very little variation and is not going to change. Whatever moonscape, swamp, or mountain range you are flying over… that’s what you are going to see for the rest of the level. Cave games do this to a degree too, but at least Cave usually knocks it out of the park with the enemy designs… along with so many bullets you almost can’t see the backgrounds. Background variation or transitioning started to become a staple of STGs back in the early days of the Genesis, but no one told the staff behind XII Stag apparently.

You get only one type of ship. That’s fine. Really, REALLY old school, but fine. There is only one type of power up. It makes your basic forward shot a little bigger with each powerup gained, up to four levels. The difference between your level one shot and your level four shot is, again, tepid. FAIL! Nothing else. No options, no additional or different firepower. Nada. The bombs it gives you operate in a somewhat interesting fashion… a huge shield from which you can shoot out, but the enemy cannot shoot in. But that’s all there is. Not fantastically spectacular or destructive.

The unique mechanic of XII Stag, ‘the gimmick’ since a lot of developers seem to think a shooting gimmick of some sort is needed, is the side and back shots from your ship. They are very short range but powerful, and raise up the multiplier for whatever enemies you kill. So the risk/reward system of the game is that you need to get close alongside a lot of the enemies in order to use your best weapon. The designers decided that wiggling the joystick back and forth was the way to trigger the side shots, but of course the shots are so limited in range that when you get that close to the enemy or its guns, jerking your ship left and right is the last thing you want to do. You CAN assign the side shots to a button, but your ship still goes all spastic when it fires these off. If you try to just NOT use the side shots you will find your front shots too weak, even fully powered up, to destroy a lot of the enemies in a reasonable amount of time… and your score will really suffer too.

I was so bored I credit fed through the game just to see what the ending was like. I need to research online to see if credit-feeding netted me the shittiest ending because just like the rest of the game it was a big fat nothing much. I finally beat Last Resort for the Neo Geo recently, a game notorious for giving you a crappy ending after such a difficult game… but at least Last Resort is pretty fucking spectacular on the way to the end. And Last Resort is OLD. It isn’t from this century. There is no excuse for XII Stag not giving you ‘something’. The whole game feels like they did the absolute minimum that they could and still have a game. Especially graphically.
XII Stag came out in the arcades in 2002, ported to PS2 in 2003. The developer of the game, Triangle Service, may not have had the budget of the established shooter companies, but it should’ve at least tried to match or beat the competition on some level. I also know Triangle Service HAS done better games. Cave’s first shooter Donpachi, was graphically kind of bleah next to some of the other stuff of the day (like Batsugun), but they made up for it with the unique play ideas that would become their bread and butter in modern times. In similar circumstances another small developer, G Rev, came out with their debut shooter Border Down for the Dreamcast a year after XII Stag, and it was wwaaaaayyyyy better than this game.

The ship controls just fine (when you aren’t side-shooting), and is pretty small with no crazy hitbox problems. The level of enemy fire is sort of manic-lite. A bit heavier and slower than a typical Psikyo game. I have Shooting Love 200X on the way too, a compilation of later Triangle Service releases, but Shooting Love has actually garnered a lot of enthusiasm, particularly for the ‘shooting task’ game included. XII Stag hasn’t dampened my anticipation for it because every company has its blech moments, frequently their first game. My kid is just getting into STGs and he wants to hang on to XII Stag for awhile to see if it gels for him.

Strikers 1945

Now the good:
Strikers 1945 I & II for the Playstation 2. The games in this two-pack are arcade ports as well. My play time, and therefore these comments, are geared toward the first of the two games, though all evidence indicates the second is very similar. A good thing if you enjoyed the first, which I did.

Strikers 1945 came out in 1995 originally, some seven years before XII Stag. As stated in a previous entry the mid-90s was the tail-end of the shooter golden years. So there was plenty of history and competition to look at in designing an STG. Released by Psikyo, a developer known for cultivating a certain ‘style’ in shooting games the same way Raizing, Toaplan, and Cave all have. Psikyo was known for their very clean and colorful art style (frequently risqué) and bullet patterns that have come to be characterized as ‘few but fast’ in opposition to Cave’s manic style of ‘many but slow’. Psikyo game mechanics and techniques are the older style that hearken back to ‘twitchier’ games where memorization was important but not necessarily critical, and fast reflexes helped the player more than being able to thread your hitbox through labyrinthine bullet patterns.

Firing the game up, I was instantly reminded how lo-res the old arcade games were, but how much joy there was in the presentation. The game is set in an alternate 1945 where a new technologically superior threat masses against the former Axis and Ally nations. Psikyo’s art in the game is very precise and shiny, but also very detailed (considering the resolution) with really sharp animation. Particularly for the bosses who all transform from a ‘typical’ vehicle, like a ship or a train, into a mechs that have a sort of post-WWII style to them.

You get a number of planes to choose from, each with their own firepower spreads, options configuration, movement speed and bomb types. The powerups come frequently during the game and you can get your weapons up to pretty massive proportions. Your plane controls really well. The hit box matches the outline of your plane which will vary depending on how big the plane you selected is. There are a few primitive screen options, including ‘tate’ if you are able to flip your monitor or TV on its side.

The early levels are deceptively short and easy. When I was first playing, I knew Strikers did not have a rep as a particularly easy game, but I was blown away by how quickly I was ploughing through it. But there are more than the usual five levels that today’s shooters all seem to sport… and they get a lot more difficult, particularly the ‘boss rush’ that makes up the last quarter of the game. The final section that contains the end boss is worth the price of admission, ranking high on the ‘just when you thought it was over’ scale.

There is nothing super-fancy about this game, just like XII Stag. But this is an example of a game doing everything right. Everything about it is just polished to perfection. A new generation gamer might fire this up and be put off by the pixel-obvious visuals, but once you start playing it all becomes so right. This game is greater than the sum of its parts. I am something of a latecomer to the Psikyo party, as I was with Cave. So as much as I love shooters and have collected scads of them, I’m still getting to discover these extensive pockets of goodness. Psikyo is one of those companies who developed a reputation. Some players may not like the ‘style’ of shooter (few but fast bullets), but there is little doubt that they were good at what they did. There’s a reason why software houses develop followings, and this game is a really good example. It doesn’t even really have a ‘gimmick’ in its mechanics, like XII Stag, it is just a straight-forward blasting good time. When you play the much-more-recent Raiden Fighters games (collected on Xbox 360), which have been described by many as ‘good old-school games that gets back to basics’ this is the game the newer game is referencing. Raiden Fighters has an elaborate medal-chaining system, for modern players who need a deeper scoring mechanic, but at root it can be enjoyed in much the same way as Strikers 1945. They even look really, really similar.

So there you go. I’ve discovered it really is possible to find an absolutely dismissable example of my favorite game genre. One that doesn’t even have the benefit of being ancient. So mediocre it doesn’t even have any camp or ‘so bad its good’ factor. And then in the same mailing, the first of what I hope will be a lot of old Psikyo shooters flowing into my collection. Not EVERY Psikyo game is a winner (I’m still not over the mental scars of Sol Divide, probably why I haven’t bought Psikyo since then), but there’s a lot to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Oh you HAD to use that headline didn't you, and put JOURNEY in everyone's heads? Smartass.


    I hate brain-worms. Thank you SO much!