Friday, 2 May 2014

Final Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

Final Soldier PC Engine title screen
Today I'm ticking off another title from my game requests list by taking a quick look at PC Engine game Final Soldier. I was also asked to play more PC Engine games as well (by the same guy) so I'm killing two birds with one stone here!

The name Final Soldier makes me think that this is going to be a Contra-style run and gun, but the spaceship on the title screen says 'shoot 'em up'. One thing I'm pretty sure about though (if series like Final Fantasy, Final Fight, Final Zone, Final Lap etc. are anything to go by), is that this wasn't the final game in the franchise by a wide margin.

In fact this is the third game in Hudson Soft's long running and popular Star Soldier series, which lasted from the NES all the way until the Wii. Popular enough in fact to be featured in their "Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival" tournament, which toured the country each year letting players compete to see who could get the most points in a set time limit on specially modified versions of the games.

Personally though I've never had much interest in getting high scores (or playing shoot 'em ups for that matter), so forgive me if I drift off after five screenshots or so and start rambling about something else without realising it.


Seems like this is all the intro I'll be getting. The fighter flies past, fires up its thrusters, and... that's it. Well it wasn't like I was expecting a plot I suppose.

If I ever lose my mind and make a tumblr full of images, (like the VGJunk tumblr for instance [random free advertising]); it'll be entirely made up of looping animated launch scenes from classic shoot 'em ups.

Either that or floppy disks from Amiga loading screens.


STAGE 1: FUTURE ZONE.


Well it's definitely one of those vertically scrolling overhead shoot 'em ups, and already I'm spotting a problem: I'm killing the enemies too fast for them to show up on the screenshots.

It's all very fast and slick and playable, it's just hard to capture in a still image.

Hey I blew up a power up ship and got a 'V' from the wreckage. It seems that the game's throwing weapon pick ups at me rather than letting me select them myself from a Gradius-style power up bar.

There you go, you can see a few more enemies up around the top of the screen. They swoop down at me in waves, believe it or not, but they've been pretty reasonable about it so far.

Collecting one 'V' mounted diagonally firing bullets on the front of my space fighter and collecting a second 'V' added some onto the rear as well. I can't wait to find out what the 'L' gives me!

Wow, I've only just got my three way [L]aser shot installed and already they're throwing an 'F' at me? I guess it's worth grabbing just to get the weapon power upgrade.

Alright, I've figured out how the power up system works now. Sadly collecting an 'E' after an 'L' didn't boost my weapon power any more than collecting that 'L' after a 'V' did, it just makes a lateral switch to a different weapon type of equal power. So if I want to get maximum firepower I've got to keep collecting letters that match, and there's a whole lot of 'V's around so that's what I'm back to.

I also found a 'M' for homing missiles, plus I grabbed a few helpful option pods along the way as well, so they're following me around and joining in now too.

Oh right, I totally forgot to mention that I've reached a mid-boss! He fired green lasers at me and then my bullets made him explode. So I carried on automatically scrolling up the level.

Crap, think I just flew into something. I definitely heard a 'you got hit by something' kind of noise and my ship clearly flashed grey. And yet I still live, which is interesting.

Hang on... didn't I have a whole lot more firepower a second ago? Oh I see what it's doing here, my weapon upgrades are pulling double duty as hit points! I don't lose all my power ups when I die, I lose all my power ups and THEN I die. It's an unusual way of operating, but I'm not complaining about having hit points for a change.

Oh this is great. I was having enough trouble when there was just the one giant robot walking down the side of the screen and spraying out fireballs at me, but now he's dragged his buddy into this as well. You'd think it'd be easy enough to aim at them at least seeing as they're standing on the walls, but they keep grappling onto the opposite side and pulling themselves across the screen. Right now I'm just focusing on avoiding getting my own ass shot and letting my bullets fall where they may, because trust me this is a lot more chaotic in motion.


STAGE 2: DESERT ZONE.


Stage 2 was like a blur for me, I just held down the 'kill everything on screen' button, dodged the bullets, and enjoyed the scenery. But now as actually have to pay attention for a bit, as a giant truck armed with a flame thrower turret just showed up. You'd think a tank would be a pretty limited threat to a starfighter, but shoot 'em up rules clearly state that I have to engage all targets at point blank range and never leave my tiny slice of sky.

Actually he really isn't all that challenging to fight as long as I don't get cocky and swoop in too close to the flames. I'm going to stay well out of his way and try to make some of my bullets connect when I can.

Damn, I just noticed the happy face on the front of it. I'm going to see that every time I look at the thing from now on.

Oh come on, that shit ain't fair! You can't bring out the bullet hell fireball bursts in 1991, it's far too early for this crap. Though to be fair I'm finding I can dodge the shots without all that much trouble, so it's not exactly Ikaruga out here right now.

In case you're not familiar with any of my other shoot 'em up articles, I should probably point out that I am not a good shoot 'em up player. In fact it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that I am rubbish at them, so the fact that I'm making it through these stages and boss fights with no deaths on my first try is kind of unusual.


STAGE 3: OCEAN ZONE.


I always loved it in old game magazines where they'd stitch together screenshots of a level like this. It's nice to see what these ships look like in their entirety.

The ol' TurboGrafx may have not have been the graphical powerhouse of the 16-bit console era, (in fact it's arguably not even 16-bit), but it shines when it comes to shoot 'em ups and I think it's doing alright here. The game definitely moves fast enough, even while throwing around all these... enemy sprites. There really are lot of enemies in this game, trust me, they're just a bit camera shy (and fragile). It gets so busy in fact with all the bullets around that I can barely see what I'm doing a lot of the time.

Crap, I just did a piss-poor job of dodging this guy's bullet spray and he stripped away all my hit points in seconds. Then he went and blew me up as well, to add injury to incapacity. First time I've lost a fighter.

The good news though is that I just reappeared again exactly where I was destroyed, so I have a second chance to kick his ass.

The bad news is that I reappeared without any power ups, so I had crappy firepower and zero hit points, and was blown up again almost instantly.

Also he's brought a friend along, so I suppose that counts as bad news as well.

Man, remember that picture of the boat from three screenshots ago? This enemy just destroyed my fighter five times in the time it took me to fly past one of them. I've been hit by enemy fire roughly... a dozen times I imagine over the last three stages, and this guy got me for eight of them. In twenty seconds.

Everything sure goes to shit fast in this game if you ever lose your maxed out firepower.

Fortunately I was saved at the last second by a boss turning up and scaring my nemesis away... which I now have to beat with no hit points and my puny starting weapon.

Its routine involves launching those two pods either side of it, which then shoot out darts to try to catch me in a crossfire. Once I figured that out though, I just made sure to blow up the pods first before concentrating on the ship itself. You know I say a lot of shit about boss fights, but they actually seems pretty reasonable in this. They have their patterns to figure out, but they're not cheap.

SURPRISE UNDODGEABLE ENERGY BEAM ATTACK!

Well okay it's dodgeable if you know it's coming, which I didn't. There's a little warning light on top of the ship to let the player know when it's charging up its laser, but there's no way to know what that means except through harsh experience. I bet that if I had just one life left though I could've probably used this information to defeat it. Oh well.

I got the high score at least!! This is my best ever run at the game and also coincidentally my first.

Hang on, why is there a set-up option here? There wasn't a set-up option on the title screen. What could that do?

Oh cool, it's an options menu that lets me adjust the effects of three of the weapon types (plus missiles). I'm not entirely sure why the third laser type is literally bubbles, but it seems like the kind of baffling upgrade that could leave enemies more confused than I am.

I can also change the difficulty level, which seems like the kind of thing to put at the start of the game as well, but whatever. I like how it goes from 'Hard' to 'Expert', with 'Normal' in the middle, as it literally means that I've been playing on one step down from 'Expert' mode this entire time. Sure they're almost certainly just in a weird order, but there's always that slim chance that they're not!

Choosing to continue put me right back at the very start of the stage I was on, so now I've got to get past that asshole enemy again with only two lives instead of six.


SIX MINUTES LATER, ON STAGE 4: URBAN ZONE.


So I've played Desert Zone and now I'm at Urban Zone? All I need now is Jungle Zone, Soviet Zone and Nuclear Zone and I've got the whole Desert Strike set. Stage four is carrying on from the end of stage three when it comes to difficulty, so I'm losing a couple of fighters here, but I bet I'll get back up to speed again once I collect a few 'V's.

I have to be honest, I wasn't enjoying this a great deal when it was effortless and I'm not any less bored now that it's putting up some resistance. But like I said, its not really my genre, so I guess you'd expect that. It certainly seems to be a step or three above Apidya, which brought me nothing but misery a couple of months ago.

Also this stage's music is so catchy: youtube link. Actually that's a link to halfway through a video of the entire soundtrack, so you can just leave it running afterwards. I know I will. In my head. All next week.

Yeah like I thought, once I'd gotten my power ups back I was able to breeze right the way through stage four as well. I've even earned a couple of extra lives back...

... which I then lost at the end to this Cylon bird's razor sharp steel feathers. It wasn't my fault, they kind of drift erratically in the breeze. Avoiding erratic things is actually kind of difficult! I did make it through in the end though, with just a single life remaining.


STAGE 5: OUTER ZONE.



Okay, this screenshot's a little dull, but I'll try to explain its significance. These two robot space station things are bouncing around the screen right now, firing off eight-way lasers every now and again, so the significance is... I can't dodge these shots long enough to kill them. This is as far as I can get.

On the plus side, I wasted so many continues getting back up to here time after time that I'm reasonably certain now that I have infinite of them. So at least I learned something here.

But seriously, this game doesn't have a difficulty brick wall, it has a difficulty ramp pointed right towards a pit of spikes. Spikes guarded by... sharks, somehow. I dunno, maybe there's a foot or two of water down in the pit as well for them to swim around in. Only instead of water it's actually some kind of corrosive acid. I guess in this analogy the sharks are acid resistant, I dunno.

What I'm getting at here is that I flew through the first four stages so fast that I wasn't prepared in the slightest for what I was speeding into. The worst thing is, these guys are just the stage five mid-boss!


22 MINUTES LATER.


Okay I restarted the game and played through from the beginning again, and this time I know what I'm doing! Actually that was a blatant lie, but I do at least know now that I can sacrifice my option pods to unleash a screen clearing super attack! Good for wiping out mid-bosses and other irritants.

So I actually did manage to make it past the robot space station things in the end! Then I survived for 14 seconds afterwards before losing my final life.

On the plus side, I beat my high score!!

So there you go, there's an accurate measurement of my shoot 'em up skill level. You can compare this number to your own score to judge my worth as a person who talks about video games.

While I was back at the title screen after the restart I also discovered that there's an option hidden there to play on a Caravan tournament style score attack mode with a 2 or 5 minute timer. This came with its own stage, with a whole lot more going on in the background for me to shoot than a standard level.

I also found the set-up screen hiding there as well, so it turns out that it is possible to change the difficulty without dying first.


CONCLUSION

Okay here are some thoughts I have about Final Soldier:

The game seems like a very polished, fast, well designed and mostly fair shoot 'em up with great music and appealing visuals. I say mostly fair, because it does pull a few bullshit moves occasionally, like enemies racing in from the bottom of the screen and attacks that will likely catch a player out first time around. But you respawn immediately where you died and you get infinite chances to replay a stage, so it's not a huge annoyance.

There are two issues I had with it though during the hour or so I played. Well okay three issues, but don't pay too much attention to the last one.
  1. It's too easy. Not a huge concern for me, but more talented players might be frustrated about playing through four whole stages with nothing much there to challenge them except beating their last score. Of course raising the difficulty might help with that, but that leads to problem #2.
  2. It's too hard. Turning it up to Expert mode becomes less enticing when you know that there's a difficulty spike pit waiting for you on stage five. Plus even the easier stages can suddenly become a struggle if you screw up and lose your firepower, as it also doubles as your hit points. Those lives you've been accumulating can disappear in seconds when you die in one hit and can't protect yourself from enemies fast enough any more.
  3. I, a person who is often bored by shoot 'em ups, found the game boring. It does the shoot 'em up thing pretty well, but I feel like I've done all this before in a hundred other games. It didn't really do anything special to make it stand out to me.
I give my misleading Gold Star for Not Being Crap badge to games that I want to keep playing, but I just don't want to keep playing this. It's got charm for sure, but it's not for me.


If you have anything you'd like to say about Final Soldier, game franchises with 'Final' in the title that refuse to ever end, my article, how my crappy excuse for a rating system has failed yet again, or anything else approaching relevance then leave me a comment!

3 comments:

  1. Yai, a Turbografx-16 game!! I have an odd interest for these ones. Mostly because for some reason I didn''t even know this console existed so it's fascinating.

    But don't all or nearly all shoot'em up games feature power ups that increase if you collect more of the same, and that also double as extra health?
    Granted, I don't like shoot'em ups either but I know this from having seeing my brother playing them as a kid.

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    Replies
    1. Increasing your firepower by collecting more of the same pick ups seems pretty common, but I don't remember ever seeing them double as extra health before. In my experience shoot 'em ups want to kill the player off as soon as possible, so they're pretty harsh when it comes to hit points.

      Of course there's probably an entire series of classic shoot 'em ups I've never heard of that work this way, but it was new to me.

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  2. Yea, another PC Engine game review!
    Thank you for giving this shoot-'em-up a go. I must agree with you that the first 4 stages are relatively easy, stage 5 is more 'medium' difficulty, while stages 6 & 7 are excruciatingly difficult. All-in-all a fine shoot-'em-up, but I can understand your view of it considering you're not too big on shoot-'em-ups. You are correct though, in that the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine really excelled at the shoot-'em-up genre.

    Here's to hoping you'll be able to get another TG-16/PC-Engine game review in this month!

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Semi-Random Game Box