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 Post subject: Nostradamus (Arcade)
PostPosted: Fri Sep 15, 2006 4:57 pm 

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“In the year 1993, it shall be born: it will not enter into any home, but will remain confined to a dying world. It will give further portents of the future, and steal the silver of the blessed few, but to most it shall pass by completely unnoticed. Its memory shall be eclipsed as the ages progress, until a lone loser brings its existence to light once more.”

So wrote Nostradamus.

…well, okay, he actually never prophesied anything of the sort. But he might as well have, since a largely unknown and underrated shmup was indeed released in 1993 by an equally-unknown developer called Face (most of their work was on the PC Engine in the early 90’s, in case you’re interested); it never got a home port, and is currently playable only if you own the original arcade game or use emulation. Despite the fact that the game was a bit ahead of its time, most gamers, even most dedicated shmuppers, have never even heard of it: well, remember the “lone loser” mentioned earlier? That’d be me, and via this review I’m going to take a shot at giving this game at least a bit more of the recognition it deserves.

Oh, the game’s name? “Nostradamus,” of course.

To dispense with the basics, Nostradamus is a vertically-scrolling shooter, played on a vertical screen. As usual, your job is to blow up lots of stuff: I don’t know what the game’s plot is so I can’t tell you exactly why you’re out for mass destruction in this case (do you really even need a reason?), but the brief attract sequence seems to suggest that in the year 1999 an old prophecy of 16th century astrologer Michel Nostradamus (hence the game’s name) has come true, as follows:

“In the year 1999 and seven months
The Great King of Terror shall
Come from the sky. He will bring
To life the king of the Mongols.
Before and after, Mars reigns happily.”

To my ears it sounds like one more take on the good ol’ alien invasion you’ve got to try and stop, but in any case it doesn’t matter: whatever you’re blasting and why, there’s fun to be had here. Who knew doomsday would be so cool?

Basic gameplay goes something like this: the 1P and 2P sides have different ships, the former being a bit faster and having a weaker, but wider-coverage shot (it can actually hit stuff behind you as well as in front), while the latter is a bit slower and its shot not quite as all-encompassing, but more powerful. Choose either one (or play with a friend simultaneously) and you’re off: you can power up your shot up to seven times by collecting purple crystals which appear regularly (also keep your eyes peeled for a rarely-seen “Full Power” item). Once fully tooled up it’s actually pretty impressive for a regular ol’ spread Vulcan, especially for a shmup released nearly 15 years ago. You can (and should) also collect the “E.B.A.” (“Energy Boost Acceleration”) item, which attaches a pair of doohickies (to use the technical term) to the sides of your ship, and adds a bit of additional weaponry: collect the E.B.A. while it’s blue and you get homing shots, while a red one gets you some extra straight-ahead firepower. Any time you see another such item appear you can either collect the same color as you already have to power the extra shots up, or snag the opposite color to switch over. Be sure to note that, in similar fashion to many of Compile’s games, when you collect a powerup you get a moment of invincibility, so use it well.

Oh, and did I forget to mention the “wave” weapon?

This is the feature that really sets Nostradamus apart from most other shooters of the era, and gives it a bit of kinship with the plethora of “manic” shooters which were to come after it. You see, as long as you have a pair of E.B.A. doohickies attached to your ship, when you hold down the fire button instead of tapping it they begin to charge up a horizontal column of energy between them, and widen out the longer they’re charged: once you’re all juiced up, you’ll basically be able to drag said energy column, several times the width of your craft, around with you as long as you hold the fire button. You can do a couple of things with it:

1) You can cause “tickle” damage to enemies with it if they touch it.

2) You can absorb most “basic” types of enemy bullets with it. While the E.B.A. thingies, and their energy column, will sit behind you if your ship is stagnant, it “drags” a bit when you move, sort of like the options in the Gradius games, so if you can maneuver correctly you can block bullets from several angles.

3) Release the button to discharge the “wave” weapon. This is the niftiest attack in the game: when fully charged it can cover a lot of screen space, do heavy damage, and eat through bullets in the same manner as the energy column, to boot. This is as close to a smart bomb as the game gives you, so you’d best learn to use it well: depending on the color of your E.B.A. weapon, the effect is different. When armed with a blue one, you get the “plasmic wave,” which can create a column of energy that reaches the full vertical length of the screen, and can thus hit enemies both in front or behind you. A red E.B.A. grants you the “phoenix wave,” which creates a fiery pair of wings that cover and roast a wide horizontal area. You can use the wave weapon as often as you want, but you’ve got to give yourself ample time to charge it up or else the attack won’t be strong enough to justify using it.

As for the rest of the gameplay, as scoring goes, aside from shooting stuff and collecting extra powerups when fully outfitted there isn’t a heck of a lot. Some item carriers and enemies give up “B” items (“b” for “bonus,” I’d imagine) which you can collect for extra points (gold ones are rarer and worth more than the common silver ones); there are also “?” items, which are invisible, but can be revealed by shooting at where they’re hidden a few times (other items are hidden this way too). The more you collect, the more they’re worth, up to 40,000 points apiece, in similar fashion to the medals found in Raizing games: unlike in the aforementioned, however, missing them doesn’t reduce their value, though continuing after a Game Over does. Shooting around to look for hidden stuff does give you a bit extra to keep you occupied aside from “raw survival,” but make no mistake, this game is still very much a blast-‘em-up, so don’t expect particularly score-based gameplay. That doesn’t mean you won’t want to try to score well, however, since the game does offer score-based extends, as well as at least one 1-Up item.

That more or less covers the gameplay: now how does the thing look? Rest assured, it looks quite nice. Released in the days before 3-D graphics had much of a presence, Nostradamus is all about good old-fashioned sprite work, and well-done sprite work at that. The graphical style is somewhat similar to that of Toaplan’s output: although a bit less “chunky” and cartoony, it’s still got lots of details and vibrant colors. Your aforementioned weaponry, especially the wave attacks, is cool to see in action, and your enemies are pretty varied and sharp-looking too, ranging from all manner of mechanical meanies to organic oddities. One notable boss in particular sends out two long beams to create an “alleyway” of sorts to trap you in, and then rebounds asteroids off the walls at you to make you either waste shots taking them out or dance around them (and the other junk he’s throwing at you). The stages themselves are also varied and pleasing: your locales vary from sunken cities to floating ruins to asteroid fields to cloud covers: the latter is a particular favorite, as you can see the silhouettes of the enemy battleships you’ll have to fight showing through the clouds before they make an appearance, a simple but well-implemented effect. Even your death animation is niftier than in most shmups: instead of simply “popping” out of existence when something hits it, your craft is thrown into a tailspin, buzzes with leaking electricity, and finally succumbs to the inevitable. All told, Nostradamus is a very nice-looking shooter.

Sound effects are not as striking as the graphics, but they do their job well. Shot sounds, bonus jingles, and explosions are fine, but not particularly spectacular, although once again I must make mention of the wave attacks, which gives you a cool avian shriek with the phoenix wave and a striking, oddball distortion when the plasmic wave is used. The music, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the presentation: especially when heard juxtaposed with the lovely graphics, it simply sounds much more primitive, relying mainly on Ye Olde Blippity Synthesizer notes with little tonal variety. The tunes themselves aren’t terrible, but definitely aren’t catchy or complex enough to make up for the rest of the soundtrack’s shortcomings.

On the whole, it sounds like a pretty darn great game, right? Well, in spite of its good points, there are also a couple of more justified reasons that Nostradamus has remained in obscurity. For one thing, while all the nifty firepower I’ve talked about is neat to watch, it can also make it a bit hard to tell what’s going on, as your bullets and the enemies’ can sometimes be hard to tell apart in the thick of things (Toaplan’s Batsugun, released the same year, suffers from a similar ailment). For another, the game can sometimes throw some pretty cheap kills your way, with enemies popping in from the sides or rear with no warning at all and insta-death lasers which are nearly impossible to avoid without having encountered them previously. The game is nine stages long, and gets VERY hard in later levels: while powerups do appear pretty frequently, after the first few levels you’ll still have a heck of a time recovering after an untimely death reduces you to nearly nothing. In fact, I’d venture to say that later on you’ll likely end up using your “wave” shots almost exclusively, just to be able to cancel out some of the truckloads of bullets that the enemy will be throwing at you: granted, your hitbox, while not at Cave levels of tiny-ness, is forgiving enough to allow you to weave out of most tight spots with some practice, but when you’ve got near-constant attacks coming from all sides you’ll still be hard-pressed to come out the other side unscathed. As was mentioned, the charge shot’s ability to cancel bullets (and the invincibility window from powerups) is a definite help, but it doesn’t have the instant ability to give you a bit of breathing room like a smart bomb does, so in large part mastering the game is a trial of repetition and memorization, and quite a trial at that. As far as relatively minor annoyances go, there’s the default lack of autofire, not to mention that the game doesn’t reset your score when you continue, so credit-feeding can easily land you an undeserved spot on the high score list.

That all said, 1993 was quite a year for arcade shooters any way you slice it. The aforementioned Batsugun, Toaplan’s final effort, made its appearance. Raizing and Psikyo were just getting started, via Mahou Daisakusen and Sengoku Ace, respectively. Taito released the influential Layer Section. Seibu Kaihatsu unleashed Raiden II. Technosoft put out Hyper Duel. The list goes on. Amidst all the higher-profile fuss, Nostradamus got lost in the shuffle. Now that this reviewer has found it among the rubble, can I, without hesitation, call it a long-lost personal favorite? In all honesty, the jury’s still out on that, considering how frustrating it can be at times. However, despite the game’s shortcomings, I do believe, without reservation, that more people should definitely at least give it a try, as it easily rises above the plethora of justly-forgotten shooters which appeared in droves at the time and turned many away from the genre for good. Heck, just getting to try out all the nifty weaponry is enough of a reason to at least fool around with it once or twice, if nothing else. So if you get the opportunity, I heartily recommend that you give the better-known shmups a bit of a rest, and diversify your shmup portfolio for awhile with Nostradamus. After all, it’s good to know that, even though it’s already been a couple of years since then, you can still party like it’s 1999.


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Left: The title screen, showing the old wacko himself. Maybe that's part of why the game never got as much attention as it deserves, they should have nixed the wrinkled old guy and rented out the Ibara girls or something...

Right: The ship/player side select screen. Methinks that "Dalas" (heh heh) might want to reconsider lighting up that cig around large amounts of rocket fuel...

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Attract mode demonstrations of the Plasmic Wave and Phoenix Wave, respectively. You've just got to love having something like that at your disposal.

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A few more gratuitous shots of the wave attacks in action. In the leftmost shot you can see the second player's E.B.A. thingies all charged up with the aforementioned energy column, which can be used to absorb bullets or damage enemies before unleashing the big guns.

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Two shots of the first stage, the sunken city. At the left you can see a few minor enemies skimming the water in the background before coming up to my level to attack: at right is one of two wormy-looking things that appear a little ways in.

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"This is the first boss. This is the first boss getting blasted by a wave attack. Any questions?"

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The second stage boss is first seen as one big floating island, but splits off from the core into four parts once the battle starts, reattaching and attacking you one by one. If you kill the core quickly enough it might not even get around to reattaching all four.

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At the left you can see a few of the "?" items I've revealed with my shots: collect as many as you can early on to work them up to their maximum 40,000 point value. You can also see a purple powerup crystal and an item carrier dropping off an E.B.A. attachment. At the right, Face, always desperate for more marketing, tosses in a not-so-subtle bit of name placement in stage 3.


That should about do it: I recommend you play the game yourself to see the rest! Please let me know what you thought of the review, and thanks for reading! :)
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