Saturday, June 23, 2012

Com-piling it on

Let's talk Compile!  A recent high score contest at AtariAge helped reignite my love for the sadly defunct developer, responsible for some of the most incredible shooters from the 1980s and 1990s.  You may not be familiar with the name, but if you ever spent long, white-knuckled hours struggling to survive in Zanac, MUSHA, or Space Megaforce, you already have an appreciation for their work.

Most of their software follows this template, with occasional deviations.  You're a small ship, fighting the seemingly endless forces of some shadowy evil.  It could be a rogue artificial intelligence, or a bunch of mutant plants turning the world's populace into zombies, or medieval Japanese robots.  Whatever it is, you'll be blowing it to bits with a laser cannon and your choice of eight sidearms.  The laser cannon starts out pretty wimpy, but can be boosted to respectable levels by collecting P-chips held by tiny delivery ships.  However, the secondary weapons are the star attraction, giving your aircraft the power to carve its way through the walls of bullet-spitting foes.  Each weapon is marked with a number and offers its own distinct strategic advantage.  One might give you a rotating shield that soaks up most (but not all!) of the shots thrown your way, while another could arm you with lasers that snake their way up the screen, scorching everything they touch... while leaving your ship vulnerable to attack from behind.  Each weapon is tailored to a different style of gameplay, ensuring that the game is customized for the player before it even leaves the box!

Granted, Compile isn't just known for this successful formula... in fact, it's probably better known for the Puyo Puyo series, which was hugely popular in Japan and shoehorned into a half-dozen unrelated franchises here in the United States.  However, I'll always have the most respect for their line of shooters, which were always comfortably familiar and consistently excellent.

Well, almost always.  I only remember Compile dropping the ball with their shooters twice, and both times it was because they parted ways with the Zanac formula that had served the company so well in the late 1980s.  The first game was A.E., recently released for the ColecoVision as Anti-Environmental Force.  Designed by Compile back when it called itself Programmers-3, A.E. combined the mesmerizing enemy patterns of Galaga with explosive rockets.  You held down a button to fire one of these missiles, then released it to detonate the warhead and hopefully catch a flock of flying stingrays in the explosion.  It was a clever idea in theory, but in practice, it forced the player to plan way too far in advance to take out the cartilaginous fish. If you hadn't memorized the extravagant enemy patterns, you were going to spend a lot of time shaking your fist impotently at the stingrays as they sailed off into the distance.

Then there was Guardic.  I was excited beyond belief when I discovered that there was a prequel to the NES favorite The Guardian Legend, but that was only until after I spent some time with it.  The big issue with Guardic is that it's a shell game.  It presents itself as a deep action-adventure title, with weapon customization before each stage and long, maze-like pathways, but you don't get enough of the in-game currency to keep yourself well armed for more than a few stages, and nothing really happens in the corridors... they're just a brief distraction before the next cramped stage filled with mindless, hyperactive enemies.  Speaking of the stages, they're often filled with impenetrable barricades, blocking your bullets while leaving your opponent's own small flickery shots intact.  The lead developer Pac Fujishima went on to start his own company, FUPAC... which will likely be your response to the man after you've played this.

However, it's easy to forgive these two duds when you weigh them against Compile's dozens of successes (all chronicled on Hardcore Gaming 101... you just gotta love that site!).  Break out your favorite emulator and spend some quality time with classics like The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, and Space Megaforce... you'll be glad you did.