Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Arcade Shmups #13

Formation Armed F (1988)
By: Fillmore / Nichibutsu Genre: Shooting Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 102,400 (one credit)
Also Available For: PC Engine

Classic arcade developer, Nichibutsu, were most famous in the early 80's with iconic games like Moon and Terra Cresta, but as they battled on through the rest of the decade and into the next, they released a few other notable games. One of them was this blaster which takes place in our very own galaxy where a mysterious Star Trek-style 'anomaly', known by the rather catchy designation of Point X1Y7Z94, has erupted causing uptold chaos to nearby stations and colonies. Rather than sending an exploratory probe or a scientific research vessel, however, the Milky Way Federation instead sends in their most advanced star fighter, with the almost-as-catchy name of Vowger RC30, to clean up the possibly-innocent intruders. Still, enough jesting as this is a rather interesting game as it happens.

Well, I say 'interesting' but it's actually a fairly standard vertical-scroller in most ways, but it does have a few things to help it stand out a little. The Vowger starts the game equipped with a weak forward shot - a weapon it retains for the entire duration of the game - but it isn't long before power-up-dropping enemies start appearing. These otherwise-non-hostile (unless you crash into them) craft each release a lettered icon for improving the Vowger. The usual speed-up (S) is present and correct and there are also four decent weapons that can be collected, although only one can be possessed at a time. There's a forward-firing twin laser (L), sideways firing bomb things (B), homing missiles (M), or weird diagonally-firing elipse things (C) and each of them gives you a different type of 'Armer' as well.

Armers are pod-like devices positioned either side of your ship which produce the weapons-fire and they can be repositioned to a limited extent. Once you've collected a weapon, you might come across an 'F' icon. This gives you three opportunities to change the formation of the Armers to direct their fire further forward or backwards for a limited period. During this time, the Vowger's default gun is also increased in power for as long as the 'formation' lasts. Collecting another 'F' when you already have some adds another to your reserves and collecting successive weapon icons will power-up the weapon accordingly. The only other icon gives you 10,000 bonus points. Whilst quite original, the Armer concept is hardly the biggest innovation around, but there's another point of moderate interest too.

There are seven stages in total and each has a named theme and ends with a similarly-themed boss fight. The first stage, for example, is called the 'Insect Stage' which is filled with scary bugs and unfriendly plant life. Other stages are titled Bone, Machine, Sarcoma, Different (yes, really), an unnamed sixth stage, and then Final which consists of lots of power-ups before the final boss battle. The most notable thing about the stages is how much of them is taken up by scenery which usually covers both sides of the screen and sometimes intrudes much further, jutting out into the playfield or even forming 'islands' in the middle of the screen, all of which can of course be crashed into! As well as lots of alien ships and creatures, the scenery is also packed with guns of many types.

The result of this is not only lots of stuff to manoeuvre around but also that you often get very little notice of incoming fire. Fortunately, to even the odds a little the Armers can absorb standard enemy bullets and can also cause damage by touching enemies themselves, so unless you're using a 'formation', the sides of the ship are generally well protected. Enemies do appear from all sides though and not many are felled by a single shot so choosing the right weapon for each area is essential. If you don't, restart points are fairly generous though. That said, this isn't a 'one life' game which suddenly becomes next to impossible when you lose a life either so, while often tricky, it's a pretty well-balanced game as well, although the fairly creative bosses aren't much of a challenge.

Graphically, things aren't bad. There's certainly a good number of enemy sprites and the choice of colours is a little strange in parts but also unusual for a game of this type - the explosions are a weird bluey-purpley colour, for example. The first stage certainly makes a great first impression though - detailed backgrounds, a few nice (albeit NES-like) colours, and some detailed, suitably creepy enemies, but after that things are a bit more hit and miss. The Bone Stage is fairly uneventful, with the exception of lots of inconvenient asteroids and blasts of what looks like liquid nitrogen but some stages are quite memorable like the delightfully-named Sarcoma Stage or the suitably strange Different Stage. The audio is just as forgettable as some of the stages, sadly, which is a shame as there's enough good bits in Armed Formation F to suggest it could've been a cracking game with a bit more effort. Some parts of it even play like an overhead version of R-Type but it has few other things in common with Irems's classic. It's as if Nichibutsu thought up a couple of good ideas but then lost interest in building a top game around them. Definitely worth a try for its unusualness but it probably won't hold your attention for too long.

RKS Score: 6/10

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