With the holiday season over and some initial workplace chaos settling down, Data Driven Gamer enters the new year with a Capcom introductory retrospective!
Some of my favorite posts have been these retrospectives on the early games of Japanese arcade developers, but it's been awhile now - almost three years - since I've done any. Capcom, the subject of this post, is often compared with Konami, as both were arcade developers who successfully launched several console-oriented franchises in direct competition with one another. In truth, Capcom was a relative latecomer to the game, with their first title released in mid-1984, long after the industry had proven its legitimacy.
Capcom skips that awkward phase that seemingly every Japanese studio went through, where their earliest titles are ripoffs of Breakout followed by ripoffs of Space Invaders. That bubble had long burst by Capcom's time. Instead, their first game is ripoff of Xevious.
Game 350: Vulgus
Latin for "common people" and speculated by some linguists to be cognate with "folk," Capcom probably wasn't all that interested in literal meaning when they came up with this title for a space blasty shoot'em up.
Not quite a carbon copy of Xevious, almost every aspect is less interesting than said predecessor, and the few things it does differently don't really advance the genre in a meaningful way. The biggest and most obvious difference here is that instead of having a secondary air-to-surface torpedo weapon, you instead get a more powerful missile with limited ammo, which is clearly intended to be used on big enemies, who otherwise absorb many shots before going down, and on specially-colored enemies who line up in a queue for a few seconds, beckoning you to gun them down in one big chain shot for bonus points.
The removal of your air-to-surface weapon effectively cuts the enemy variety in half compared to Xevious, and the replacement, which is essentially useless for regular combat does little to make things more tactically interesting. Having to weave through enemies and their fire to chase down the iconic POW icons to replenish ammo does create a risk-reward situation, but it's no more interesting than the situations in Xevious of risking your life to bomb targets of opportunity, which were more organic-feeling to begin with.
Along with the POW icons, collectable letters 'E' 'S' and 'D' will spawn as well. Collecting them causes enemies to change in appearance, and the overall difficulty does seem to increase, though I can't tell precisely what changes. Stars worth 10,000 points will spawn after collecting all three letters, which is a good chunk of the change needed to score an extra life, but I tended to make it farther if I forwent these letters and the corresponding difficulty tweaks, not to mention the risk involved in diving headlong into enemy fire to grab them.
Another unfavorable comparison are the ground visuals. Xevious had the illusion of an endlessly scrolling terrain by cleverly using a fairly compact map of forests, roads, and oceans, with the occasional landmark such as the famous Nazsca lines. Vulgus instead has three planets to fly over, but each planet is just a random set of repetitive terrain, and there's no sense of wonder on what you might see next if you make it just a little bit further than before. Each new planet you reach is colorful and visually distinct, but only for the five seconds or so that it takes you to see the entire tilemap.
The brief space interludes between planets do, at least, provide a welcome breather with easy fights compared to the intense surface combat. Except for the last one, where you encounter the titular boss.
The vulgus itself just seems to spawn mini-vulgi forever, blocking my shots and making it nearly impossible to hit it. Not much else to say here except that Andor Genesis was cooler.
GAB rating: Below average. Vulgus overall just isn't remarkable for anything except being Capcom's first game. Sometimes just seeing where a big company started is rewarding in itself, but not this time.
Game 351: SonSon
Based loosely on Journey to the West, you play Son Son the Monkey King and, in 2 player mode, Ton Ton, his pig companion, and must fight through a diverse array of creatures, monsters, and spirits to rescue their friends, while looking out for score-boosting snacks like carrots and french fries. SonSon looks like a Mario Bros-style platformer but plays more like a scrolling shooter, with platforms serving as lanes that you can quickly and freely scamper up and down from.
SonSon offers a simultaneous two-player mode, and I played it with "B."
And wouldn't you know it, this is a neat little game! Much more so than Vulgus, there's a clear sense of progression as new and different types of enemies spawn, with new formations and attack patterns to challenge you, and while later stages can get overwhelming with the sheer number and variety of enemies, whose attack patterns overlap in ways that make avoiding the entire combined barrage so much more difficult than any individual type. But it rarely feels totally unfair - SonSon is quick and powerful, armed with a rapidly firing staff that destroys most enemies and their projectiles with one hit, and no enemy moves so quickly or so unpredictably to make deaths feel unavoidable. Another clever touch, I must note, is that upon being killed, the mercy invulnerability customarily granted for the first few seconds of your new life takes the form of a magic flying cloud, from which you may shoot freely, but vanishes as soon as you move from it, giving you control over precisely when the effect ends and an incentive to do so.
There's a surprisingly deep scoring system here, one that dares you to lunge into danger to score those extra bonus by killing chains of enemies or snagging collectibles at the right time and/or order. Low-scoring snacks give way to high-scoring ones by collecting six in a row, POW icons transform onscreen enemies into high-scoring pickups, hidden bamboo groves can be worth thousands of points for discovering, and Capcom's trademark icon spawns and is worth thousands if you destroy the fortified checkpoints quickly enough. All too often, greed can be your downfall, and you must balance your desire for points with your will to live. With experience, though, comes stronger and more confident point-chasing.
The co-op play, which I must assume was inspired by Mario Bros., is a great feature, and while we didn't come close to finishing a loop, having double the firepower proved handy for eliminating entire waves of enemies, and added a touch of competitiveness as well, with an implied contest to see who lasts the longest and/or scores the highest, as each bonus point opportunity can only be cashed in by the player who scores it firsts. Frustratingly, though perhaps on purpose, both players can work together to destroy enemy chains, but the whole bonus goes to whoever kills the last one.
After our session, I continued to play SonSon in solo mode, eager to reach the end even if I needed save states to get there. After some hours and about four save states made using my usual rules, I was able to rack up enough lives around the midway point of the game that I could finish the last ten milestones in one segment of pretty intense gameplay, after which SonSon found a giant brass Buddha and a scroll of enlightenment or something like that.
GAB rating: Good. This was a surprise, but I really dug SonSon, one of the most obscure games from Capcom's early days. It controls well, plays well, and just feels well designed in so many regards, from its difficulty balance to the hidden depths of its scoring system, and is fun in both singleplayer and multiplayer. It's got personality too, with colorful, expressive sprites that anticipate the likes of Mega Man more than they recall the bland generic Xevious knockoffs from Vulgus, and cheerful, catchy oriental-themed music oscillating with the action. I suppose that with almost 20 milestones, it's a bit overlong and can become repetitive, but overall this is certainly Capcom's best game of 1984, and I recommend it without any reservations.
Game 352: 1942
|"Destroy Tokyo?" I'm just one pilot, not Godzilla!
I've often felt that Capcom's games tended to be more western in style and aesthetic than the exports of their counterparts, which ranged from culturally neutral to unapologetically Japanese. Whether it was Ghosts 'n Goblins' medieval mayhem, Final Fight's gritty urban brawls, the many Disney games they produced throughout the early 90's, or Resident Evil's Alone in the Dark-cum-Night of the Living Dead rural mansion of frights, jumpscares, and viscera, their games often wore a certain stamp of familiar western identity, if that makes any sense.
So their first whale, 1942, happens to be their first game made specifically with western audiences in mind. In an otherwise bog-standard vertical shmup, the action is set in the Pacific Theater of WWII and has you singlehandedly defeat the entire Japanese fleet and win the war in your P-38 Lightning.
The game does have a set ending point, but it features a whopping 32 rounds to complete before you get there - Vulgus had only three, plus the short space interludes. Continues are permitted, and I would certainly never have bothered finishing the game otherwise, not even with save states.
Below is a recording of myself getting to the end, using continues as much as necessary. It isn't my first go, but it is my first and only serious attempt at completion - the unlimited continues and sheer length gave me little incentive to try to improve.
And good grief, this is overlong. The game starts to get monotonous before the second stage is done, and there are still 30 to go after that. I spent about an hour and a half shooting down the same planes over and over again, with multiple pause breaks (thankfully not recorded to video) to give my sore trigger finger (and my poor ears) a rest. The above video cuts out about 10 minutes of gameplay where no progress was made on a full set of lives - mostly from the penultimate stage - but is otherwise unedited.
To be fair, 1942 does feature some gameplay progression as enemy attack patterns become more elaborate and varied, and some scenery variety as you advance from the open oceans around Midway to the volcanic Marshall Islands, the jungles of Saipan, the desolate mountains of Iwo Jima, and the urban districts of Okinawa. But it takes too long to get there, and much to long to reach the end. I can't fault the game too harshly for having less variety than its successors, both official and spiritual, but for what's here, there should have been maybe eight levels instead of 32.
Powerups, now a standard shmup element, are seen here in a way that predecessors Vulgus and Xevious hadn't really explored, with red formations of enemies now dropping POW icons when destroyed that can confer a variety of benefits. It's modest compared to later games, but these powerups include:
- Bonus points
- More firepower, turning your twin cannon into a quad one.
- Wingmen, tripling your firing spread, but also your hitbox width
- A smart bomb that instantly destroys everything onscreen
- Extra lives
- Extra loops
Wingmen are arguably the most useful powerup, but also the most difficult to hold onto, as they themselves are destroyed by enemy fire. This can be used to your benefit, though, as they can shield you from bullets fired from the side or even kamikaze large planes.
Loops are your secondary ability, an evasive move to avoid danger, and a poor substitute for the expendable smart bombs that would come to fill this role in later games. The problem is that it's very hard to know when you're about to get hit and react fast enough to loop out of danger. A loop can also easily drop you into just as bad a position as the one you had looped out of, since it does nothing to eliminate the planes that were threatening you to begin with, and you can't fire during the maneuver. I'd typically use them to escape corner traps, though some levels also force it by pulling the occasional dick move.
Dick moves in general seem to rule the skies here, which I expect is a purposeful result of a quarter munching design philosophy that expects players to die a lot and continue until they finish the game or run out of quarters. Bullets aren't dense, but they come out fast and without warning, and in some stages they blend in with the scenery behind them. And I loved how the only way to take out large planes with any sort of efficiency is to absolutely hammer the trigger button while tailing them so closely that dodging their return fire becomes nearly impossible.
I did eventually finish all 32 stages, but the 31st throws a boss at you, a screen-filling heavy bomber that utterly annihilates your vicinity of the screen with bullets, often at far too close a range to make dodging realistic. And this is no bullet hell game where your hitbox is any smaller than the sprite - just grazing a bullet is fatal. This fight ended in many frustrating failures, most of which aren't in my video, but eventually I had a frantic, lucky run where my loops didn't land me right back into the thick of bullet sprays and where I managed to down it before running out of them.
|This wasn't it.|
Beat it and you're rewarded with an encouraging message ("YOU ARE THE BEST OF PLAYER!") and a final, comparatively easy stage with no climactic moments. And then it's over. The war is won, the atomic bomb sits in a New Mexico lab unused, and generations of nuclear paranoia are averted.
|That "special bonus" comically eclipses any score you could hope for, making the whole endeavor pointless.|
GAB rating: Average. There's fun to be had in 1942, but not nearly enough for so much padding. The WWII setting is a neat change of pace from the saturation of space shooters, even if it just plays like another space shooter. The visual design is appealing with its oceans, islands, and colorful but recognizable historical airplanes, though the audio design is horrible with tinny explosions and an unending loop of whistles and Morse code-like tapping noises when there ought to be bombastic action movie music or just silence. Sequels and other games in the genre would vastly improve on the formula with better variety of enemies, stages, and weapons, but for 1984 standards, this really needed to be more compact and more balanced.