Monday, June 8, 2009

Genesis Look: Gaiares

If it wasn't already apparent the Genesis was quite well-known for its 2D shooters. Many of them were published by a company known as Renovation. Though they've been defunct for quite awhile their memory lives on among the more hardcore Genesis fans. 

One of their more well-known games is Gaiares. In a doomed future mankind must face off against a powerful alien armada or be wiped out completely(along with their entire planet). This original storyline is supplemented by eight stages that are actually quite long and filled to the brim with a variety of enemy ships, mid-bosses, traps, and all other manner of death. Each stage ends with a large boss. They're interesting in that they are traditional designs(like a dragon, mermaid, or Death himself) except mechanized so they're more like cyborgs. Good luck seeing these guys though as this is a pretty tough game.

This horizontal shooter couples standard checkpoint-based gameplay with a unique weapon system. By using a special pod(that can also block some bullets) the player can gain weapons from enemies. For example if you see a foe firing missiles you can snag their firepower, or maybe another enemy has some kind of spreadfire that you're interested in so you'll go with that. Also by using the pod on an enemy carrying the same weapon as yourself you can increase its power. If the pod misses an enemy it'll report back with an error message. Either way any enemies in the way of the pod's return trip will get destroyed. Be careful though as when using the pod you can't fire. While this makes sense since your weapons system is in the process of updating it can still be annoying since foes tend to attack in groups and you're left with no way to defend yourself for a second or two. Also your ship can switch between three different speeds when you tap the A button. This is a subtle yet very important tool.

The boss fights don't offer much in the way of complicated patterns. They just throw a different array of attacks at you until they die. In a way it's disappointing since they offer such great art design but I guess it would be a bit much to expect for a game from 1990. At least there's a convincing amount of animation in them so that they're not just huge well-drawn static blocks.

The level design is quite good and at times even inspiring. While the enemies aren't much to look at they're organized in a manner where you'll most likely need whatever weapon they have for the next section. Although the stages are long there's a good bit of variety in them like a third stage that will have you flying in-between black holes and later on dodging spikes and swinging ball & chains like out of a random platformer. Some stages also have multiple paths, giving you reason to try other ways on future playthroughs, whether for an easier ride or for more enemies(aka points). One handy aspect of the level design is that since it's not always 100% clear what parts of the walls and floors lead to death your weapons don't pass through anything solid. It's a good visual indicator of what to avoid.

While this game hands out a few rare items like shields(which allow you take three hits) this really isn't something you can approach like a typical twitch-based shooter. Despite what the open-nature of the game implies it's very much a memorization-heavy shooter and you're likely to discover the only way to survive quite a few situations is to get killed in them a couple times. This will likely be a huge turn-off to many gamers(even veterans of the genre) as it'll take several continues to really get into things. Quite a bit of the time in Gaiares you'll find that the best playthroughs involve having the right weapon and being in the right spot, something no amount of skill or reflexes can compensate for. 

The checkpoint system in this game is hell. The stages average about five minutes apiece which is actually quite long for a shooter. What makes this rough is that the checkpoints are very few and far between and don't seem sensibly placed at all. For example if you die at the first boss you respawn just before the fight with no enemies to upgrade your weapons from, if you die anywhere in the first half of the third stage you get thrown back at the beginning and have to sit through a lengthy "hyper-speed" transition. This might sound like nitpicking but if you're familiar with Gears of War you'll remember that classic scene in Act III involving something about juice and hostiles. In Gaiares it's more or less the same thing except there's no dialogue. All of these little scenes in the game are fine the first time around but to show them again after the player dies is just excessive and highlights the poor checkpoint placement. The solution of course is to not die but early on in your Gaiares career you'll discover that's really not possible. 

The sections that can scroll upward and downward tend to be lousy as enemies are likely to appear just as the player is moving towards the bottom or top of the screen, living little time to react. While this is alleviated if you have the right weapon for the job it's not something you'll know the first time around. Some sort of a warning indication would be nice for enemies approaching from off-screen but considering this game doesn't even give out visual cues for many enemies when they should I guess it's just as well. Another matter which I guess is more of a nitpick is that although the game plays with the idea that the player's bullets are one color while the enemy's bullets are another color that really isn't the case as some enemy bullets tend to match up with yours, creating some minor headaches. Oddly enough this is one of those games where the less time you spend on it the more you're going to hate it. Maybe this doesn't apply to everyone but once you get used to its quirks and discover that it's supposed to be played closer to a Gradius than an R-Type you'll have a lot more fun with it and be able to appreciate how well-made it really is.

While it probably isn't the best the Genesis has to offer as far as shooters go I think many gamers would do well to check this one out. It provides something different at least and with eight long stages as well as multiple ways to challenge the player there's plenty of value in the cheap price this game usually goes for. I highly recommend it unless memorization-based shooters absolutely aren't your thing. 

If nothing else give Gaiares a shot because even way back in the day somebody got the bright idea to combine the fire and ice stages into one

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