Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sinistron (Violent Soldier)

1991 (JPN: 1990)

This is actually my second-favorite chip game. When I was a kid, the possibility that it would one day hold that status never crossed my mind. I was only about twelve when I first played it; and as I hadn't developed any shooter skills at all yet, it CRUSHED me over and over and over again. I would get through the first three levels just fine, but then the fourth-stage asteroid field would absolutely murder me. Yet I still loved the game, and I kept trying... and dying... and trying... and dying.

It wasn't until years after I'd purchased the chip that I was good enough to beat that board. And once I did beat it, I kept on playing until I cleared the whole damn thing. To this day, I consider it the gaming accomplishment I'm most proud of.

I don't struggle with those asteroids as much as I used to, but I still find the final stretch of the game to be extremely tough. In fact, I consider this title more difficult than the infamous Rayxanber II. Sinistron starts off easy but becomes completely insane later on. And we're not just talking R-Type-esque difficulty; you can't merely memorize things and proceed. You'll certainly have to do some strategizing, but your reflexes are what will ultimately save you. You'll have to face lots of late-stage enemies who shoot lots of fast projectiles, and if you aren't playing at the top of your game, you'll be promptly obliterated--even if you know the layouts of the levels like the back of your hand. And right before the final fight, you'll have to beat the bosses from the first two stages again--but they're about a BILLION times harder the second time around. Figuring out how to annihilate them for good requires perseverance and thought, but the process is extremely enjoyable.

The entire game is enjoyable, in fact.

The Stage 1 base essentially acts as a warm-up area. Sit back and enjoy the multilayer scrolling and energizing music as you come into contact for the first time with the opposing army, which is made up of an interesting blend of mechanical troops and organic terrors.

Stage 2 is one of the more appealing levels visually (a flashing gas storm acts as the backdrop). It's amazing that the large cruiser vessels can fire off so many bullets and lasers yet pose almost no threat at all, but the intense music keeps the excitement level high.

Gorgeous yet foreboding melodies welcome you to Stage 3's creepy bug lair. Bring hanging creatures down on your fluttering foes while fending off gigantic worms and mushroom-headed abominations.

Cunning alone won't get you through Stage 4's infamous asteroid gauntlet. You'll need a great deal of skill to dodge the many stones and bullets--and having the blue energy weapon in tow won't hurt either.

The devious maze of Stage 5 houses large, fast missile-firing craft, but the biggest threats are the mischievous little drones.

The organic warzone of the final stage has you navigate some very tight, very crowded corridors.

Some of these levels are quite easy while others are hard as hell, but all of them are fun to play through. The ship's steel jaws (which can be opened to enable wide-range firepower at the cost of frontal defense) are an effective novelty and probably the most distinct aspect of the game. And I appreciate the option presented upon continuing to start from the beginning of a level rather than the checkpoint (once you've reached it). Going back to the start might not sound like an appealing option, but it definitely comes in handy at points (in one level in particular), and I can think of some other shooter stages that would've benefited from this feature (Stage 7 of R-Type being the most obvious example). The only downer here is that the "ending" is pretty horrible (although the tune that accompanies it is fantastic--as are all the other tunes).

Yeah, I gush over this game, but I recommend it only if you are willing to put in some practice and won't be put off by repeated deaths. It is HARD. You've been warned. And when you get through it--if you get through it--try its Japanese counterpart, Violent Soldier, which differs from it in more than just name.

Being that I've loved Sinistron since I was a kid, discovering the various ways that the original differs from it was a real treat for me. Some of the differences involve the graphics and audio; I won't document them all here because, if you're a fan like I am, you'll have fun noticing them for yourself when you play the game. But the perceptive player may spot a few interesting ones in this screen alone:

What I will comment on are some of the differences in the actual action that (can possibly) affect the level of challenge.

You know these fellas: the first-stage mini-bosses who float around in circles synchronistically and never, ever pose any sort of threat to your ship in Sinistron. Their approach is different (not quite as simplistic) in Violent Soldier. Not that they're at all hard in VS, but you've gotta wonder why they were rendered helpless in Sinistron. This appears to be an instance of unnecessary "dumbing down."

The fourth-stage asteroid field is much, MUCH different from what we get in Sinistron. Many of the asteroid formations here will be unfamiliar even to Sinistron veterans. In fact, the entire second half of the stage is completely different. And at first, VS's field seems a lot tougher: there are spots where asteroids come at you from every which way and instances when you'll run up against veritable walls of rock that span the screen. But after I came up with a plan, which didn't take long, I didn't have much trouble. In fact, while Sinistron's field doesn't require as much thoughtful planning, it does seem to demand more in the way of reflexes. In VS, I was able to deal with the parts where asteroids come from all over simply by knowing which rock to blast and where to have my ship positioned a second later. Heck, just remembering that the big blue "charger" rocks won't hurl themselves at you if you don't bother them makes a few spots quite easy to deal with after they initially seem daunting. Also, in Sinistron, when I die past the checkpoint, I find myself with little recourse but to continue from the start of the level to reacquire the all-important blue energy weapon. You don't need to do that here, as VS hands you a power-up pod containing said energy weapon following the checkpoint, and another gun works just fine anyway.

The sixth stage is much more challenging in Violent Soldier than it is in Sinistron (where it is also very hard). These small green bums prove to be extremely dangerous enemies, as they emit projectiles that spread in circular patterns all over the screen, allowing you no quarter as you near the game's conclusion.

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