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Review: W-Ring: The Double Rings - A Very Good but Obscure Shmup
Platform: TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine (Japan Only Release)
Year: 1990
Publisher/Developer: Naxat Soft
Single Player Only
Or read this on my site with nicer formatting

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The cover art is pretty nice.


W-Ring is a great shmup for the Turbografx from Naxat Soft, one of the stronger third-party supporters of the platform on both card and CD. I've liked this game since the first time I played it, but I went back to the game recently and finished it this time (pretty much) on the highest difficulty setting. As I will explain, this was quite a task; Normal is quite easy to beat once you've learned the game, but Hard is an entirely different story.

This game is a horizontal scrolling shmup released during that genre's peak which lasted from the mid '80s to early '90s. The game was clearly inspired by Gradius, but isn't just a straight clone of that series. W-Ring has normal weapon pickups, instead of the Gradius powerup system, and has a narrow shield ring around your ship that can protect you from some hits from above and below. You also can, as in many TG16 shmups, change your ship's speed with the press of a button between three speeds, instead of needing to use powerups for that as you do in Gradius. Also unlike classic Gradius games, you have infinite continues in W-Ring, which definitely makes the game a bit more approachable. Dodging bullets is much less predictable here than in Gradius or R-Type, though, an issue which is my biggest problem with the game, particularly in Expert mode; the lower difficulty settings are fairly easy and disguise how frustrating the shield and bullet-dodging mechanics can be when the game gets hard. This means the game should be playable by players of almost any skill level; just choose the appropriate difficulty setting for you.

For the plot, I'm not sure what the story is in this game, there isn't really one in the game itself and while I don't have the case or manual for this game, only the HuCard, even if I did it'd be in Japanese so it probably wouldn't be too helpful. I can say that the game is set in the Solar System. I presume that you are defending the Earth from evil aliens who have set up camp in the outer solar system. The game does have an English-language name for each stage -- Stage one is Saturn, 2 is Uranus, 3 Neptune, 4 Pluto, 5 Main Gate, 6 Death Hole, and 7 (if you count it as a level) Stage X. If not for those names you'd never guess where the stages are set, though -- they don't have much of anything in common with their supposed settings. They are just fairly standard stage settings for shmups of the day. I'm fine with that, though. Each of the seven stages looks different, and there is a good degree of variety in the game as well, with nice gameplay variety from stage to stage, great graphics and music, lots of enemy types, interesting bosses, secret alternate versions of most or all stages for you to try to find, and more. The game does have some issues, which I will cover below, but for the most part it's a pretty good game.

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Flying through level 1. Note the ring around your ship and the rocky green and brown visage of ... Jupiter?

Basic Design - Weapons and Your Shield

For weapons in this game, your basic gun shoots a gun ahead and bombs angle down. One enemy type drops weapon powerups which replace your default armament. The powerups alternate between five colored weapons. If you collect several of the same color powerup in a row without getting hit, you will power it up several times. However, it's important to note that if you get hit you lose your weapon powerup and go back to the normal gun, so don't get hit if you want to stay powered up. Getting hit without a weapon powerup will kill you of course. And just like in Gradius (well, the '80s Gradius games at least) or R-Type, when you die you go back to the last checkpoint, you don't continue right where you died. There are infinite continues as I said, but only from the beginnings of levels 1 through 6, not from the last checkpoint in a stage. The final stage isn't a continue point either, it sends you back to the start of level 6, but much more on that later.

There are also alternate versions of those weapons if you are in a stage with a hidden "?" weapon-modifier item to find. The five weapons are colored blue, green (both straight lasers), pink (spread shot), red (shield-orbs), and orange (missiles). Each weapon is potentially useful in different situations, though some are maybe a bit too similar --I'm not sure why the game really needs both blue and green. Still, there is nice variety here, particularly with those hidden "?"-mark alternate weapon variations. These secret powerups will appear if you shoot in the right places. One of the most interesting weapons is the alternate version of the red shield-orbs weapon. Normally, this 'weapon' just gives you the normal gun but with a trail of round shields which follow your ship, ship protecting you from enemies and doing some damage if you maneuver them onto an enemy. It's too close-range to be useful most of the time. But with a secret "?" powerup, this weapon is great! Now it shoots out a constant stream of balls which bounce off of any walls in the stage, taking out bullets and enemies along the way! This is very useful in stage 6, particularly.

A key mechanic surely inspired by R-Type is that shield-ring. As you move forward it moves back, and as you move back it moves forwards, so it is not stationary; this makes using it tricky. Bullets which hit it will bounce off and can hurt enemies. Bullets are very small, fast, and can blend in to the backgrounds, however, and getting your ring into just the right place to bounce back bullets can be hard while you also have to move around the screen. Trying to bounce bullets off of your shield ring can be a 50/50 thing sometimes -- the shield-ring is very narrow and will move as you do, it's not large and immobile unless you hit a button like the shields in R-Type or R-Type Leo, and you NEED to deflect bullets with it at times, particularly in stage 6 of Expert mode, the games' hard mode. W-Ring does have good, accurate controls, but it's not as consistently predictable as those other games are and that is an issue. This game can feel unfair at times. In Gradius or R-Type, with tight controls and clear graphics, when you die it is your fault. To beat those games, next time learn the levels better and don't mess up. In W-Ring, though, sometimes it feels like I did nothing wrong, but just got unlucky. Even so, with only seven levels, infinite continues, and forgiving lower difficulty levels, W-Ring isn't anywhere near as hard as Gradius or R-Type. It's only in Expert difficulty where the issues I just discussed help make the game a serious challenge, and even there Gradius and R-Type are probably even harder, but also more innovative and more fun. Overall, while it is pretty good, W-Ring isn't quite as great as the Gradius games are. Gradius is my favorite shmup series, though, so that is a very high standard. W-Ring is a very good game that I like a lot.

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Game over already? Whoever played this on Gamefaqs for these shots wasn’t very good. Do note the ship in the upper right, though — that’s the type of ship that drops powerups.

Graphics and Music

In addition to playing great, W-Ring also looks and sounds great. This game is one of the better-looking, and better-sounding, HuCard shmups for the TG16/PCE! Every stage looks good, and the background environments are very well animated for a 4th-gen console game. Most levels have animation in both the stage background and also on the platforms and other areas you can't fly over on the screen. From the flowing water in stage 3 to the giant spinning mechanical wheels and moving lights in stage 6, every stage background is interesting. The game looks better than you might expect a HuCard shmup would look, and that animation is cool. Those two levels probably are the two best-looking ones in the game, but every stage looks very good. The game also can throw lots of enemies and bullets on screen with no slowdown to speak of, which is reasonably impressive. Sometimes, particularly in Expert mode, the screen can be loaded with stuff. The lack of slowdown does make the game harder, and the bullets sometimes are too hard to see versus the background colors, but still, it's a nice technical accomplishment to see so much stuff on screen running so well. The game doesn't have any parallax scrolling, as usual on the console, but the animated water on stage 3 has a slightly fake-parallax look to it. The graphics in this game are good enough, though, that for once I don't mind the absence of parallax.

Aurally, W-Ring has a really fantastic soundtrack! This game sounds very, very good. I'm very far from an audiophile so I can't really explain why in detail, but I love chiptune and early CD console game music, and the electronic music soundtrack here is richer than usual on this platform. Every level has different music of course, and each boss as well, but all of the hidden special stages (see below) have unique music too, surprisingly enough. It's very cool, and encourages exploration to find all of them and hear all of the great music! The normal stage 3 theme might be my favorite track, but there are lots of good music tracks as you go through the game. The good graphics and sound definitely add something to this game. This game really sounds fantastic. If you want to hear all the music watch both videos at the end of this post, one for the regular stages and one for the special stages.

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The boss of level 3, the water level. The moving blue 'waves' along the platform edges look very cool. (Image from Youtube.)

Level Designs - Graphics and Gameplay

The level themes are not original, though., just well designed and interesting. I like the designs, and the game has a great and very well thought out difficulty curve, but there's noting too original in the level settings and such. Stage 1, Jupiter, has grassy rock platforms with alien ships scattered around. The stage is several screens high and is a good starting point for the game. Stage 2, Uranus, is a brown stage that looks like something straight out of the movie Alien, with the usual alien heads, dripping fluids, and such. Again the stage is two screens tall. Alien clearly made a huge impression on games, seeing how everything from Contra to W-Ring copy its style. Stage 3, Neptune, is the water level, because Neptune is blue so it's got water on it, right? :p As I said that water looks great. Stage 4, Pluto, is another base, this time a research lab with biological cell and robot enemies and a green circuit-board-like background. There is some animation on the circuits on the platforms. Stage 5, Main Gate, is the fast stage, so you have to set the speed to max and try to learn the layout. This stage is another all-metal base.

Stage 6, Death Hole, has a similar theme to the last stage, but with some pretty cool machinery around the stage as I said earlier, and some animation in the main background behind your ship as well. I love the large spinning wheels of lights, they look pretty cool. Also, things have slowed down; you are now nearing the final stretch, and have a narrow pathway to make your way through, the titular 'Death Hole' I guess. While earlier stages often give you a screen or two of vertical space to move up and down, this level varies between half a screen and very narrow passages, so you are very constrained and there often isn't much room to avoid the enemies. This level is tough! And last, Stage X plays over an animating wavy red screen. The background looks great, but it can be very distracting. This stage is short but the enemies are tough, the background crazy, and the boss hard. And if you get a game over here, you learn one of this games' crueler tricks: if you get a game over on stage 7, you go back all the way to the beginning of stage 6; Stage X doesn't count for continues. This makes the game so much more difficult than it needed to be, when you try to play the game in Hard mode! I wish Stage X was a continue point. Ah well. What's here is mostly quite good.

There is one last thing to mention here, those alternate stages. As with the ?-mark alternate weapon powerups, alternate stages are accessed with hidden "EX" icons which you have to shoot to see. If you touch the secret warp point, you'll go into an alternate version of the level in question. These levels are generally shorter than the regular stages, but can be harder -- the speed stage is even faster for example, in alternate mode. Interestingly, the color palette changes in the alternate version of each level, so the water level has red water instead of blue if you're in the secret variant version. It's cool stuff. It's more fun to try to find them for yourself, but if you want to be spoiled watch the video at the end of this post which shows ways to get into all the special stages. Many do have multiple entry points so there are other ways to enter some special stages, but still it might be handy. I found almost all of them myself without that video, only perhaps missing the one in, oddly, stage 1. That explains why I never have been able to can't find a special stage in level 6 -- there apparently isn't one. Too bad. Stage X doesn't have one either, but I never thought it would with its short length and focused design.

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The level 4 boss, from the computer/bio-research stage. (Screenshot from Youtube.)

Difficulty and Expert Mode

I beat this game on Normal several years back; it may seem challenging at first, but even I don't have too much trouble with it anymore and I'm far from great at this genre. A month or two ago, though, I played the game again for the first time in a while, and started the game on Normal difficulty. I found it surprisingly easy -- on my very first try, I beat the whole game without getting a game over! There were a few hairy moments in level 6, but I got through and beat the game. That's impressive stuff for me, I haven't 1-credit-cleared many shooters, for sure. So I was feeling good... and then it looped over into Expert (Hard) mode, after the short endgame sequence. Everything changed; Expert is an entirely different story! As easy as the game is on Normal, it's BRUTALLY hard on Expert. I got my first game over early in stage 1, and it took a fair number of tries at each of the first five stages to get past each one. I was working my way through Expert mode at a reasonable pace, though. In addition to wanting to complete this great game on its more challenging setting, I also I wanted to see if the game has a different ending on Expert difficulty versus Normal -- nobody online had mentiond if there is one, and there are no gameplay videos of Expert mode online. And then I hit stage 6, and a brick wall of bullets and enemies.

You see, stage 6 plus X in Expert mode is INCREDIBLY difficult. Again, there is no continue point at the last stage, 7 aka "Stage X", so you have to go back to the start of stage 6 upon game over, had me frustrated for hours as I kept trying, and failing, to beat the game. This stage-and-a-half of game is super, super hard on Expert. I did beat it, finally... sort of: I ended up having to use a cheatcode to win because I just couldn't quite manage it otherwise. I came very close once to beating the game without the cheat, though, in my time trying, but more on that soon. I spent more hours trying to beat stages 6+X than I did level 9 of Zero Wing for the Turbo CD, to compare it to another tricky shmup I played recently, and to less avail. Stage 6 is so narrow and confined that sometimes there is nowhere to go to avoid bullets, and there are SO many enemies on screen all shooting at you! Not getting hit is near-impossible at times, even with the best weapon for the stage, the Red + ? weapon that sends bouncy spheres around the screen forwards and back.

In all my tries, I defeated the final boss twice, once without the cheatcode and once quite a few hours later with it. See, that first time, I beat the final boss, but somehow died moments later. I don't know how, I should have been safe with the boss dead. Killing me after beating the game was incredibly cheap, and I never managed to get that far again, frustratingly. Perhaps the worst was a time I got to Stage X with four lives left, only to waste all of them and reach the boss on my last life since Stage X is really hard unless you have weapon powerups when you reach it, which I didn't because I'd messed up at the Stage 6 boss and got hit. Eventually I gave up and turned off the game... then looked the game up on the PC Engine FX forums and found a cheatcode. If you go into the sound test and start playing music tracks 7, 9, 3, and 10 (in that order), you get an additional pair of sphere-shields rotating around your ship. You're not invincible, but this help was enough to get me through Expert mode on this second attempt, though it did take more than a few tries to get past level 6+X even with the help. I'll count it as a win.

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Level 2 looks like something straight out of Alien. (Screenshot from Youtube.)


So, W-Ring is a great game, but the difficulty level is a bit unbalanced. I do love W-Ring, more than many people seem to, but still, the stratospheric jump in challenge between the rest of the game and Expert mode is a bit much. This is a very easy game on Normal, and even EASIER on Easy... and a near-impossible nightmare of frustration on Hard ("Expert"). And in Expert, the last level (6 and X combined) is exponentially harder than any other stage in the game. A smoother difficulty curve would be much better than what you see in this game; it doesn't need to be much easier, just not have as massive a gulf between the rest of the game and this. Just having a checkpoint in Level X so that if you get game over you start from there might have done the trick, really. It's too bad they didn't do that.

My other main issue with the game is that I never really felt like I could just get through with pure memorization -- I felt like there is a random element to the hit detection in this game, more so than a highly-precise game like R-Type or Zero Wing has. It's very hard to tell when a bullet was going to hit my ship versus and when it was going to harmlessly bounce off the shields, and the bullets are fast, small, and SERIOUSLY blend in to the background too, particularly in level 6. So, I often just had to take my chances, and this often resulted in getting hit. And in a level where taking even one hit is doom because you lose your weapon when you get hit and weapon powerups in lv. 6 are far apart, so you'll get hit again and die, that is a problem. I kind of wish the shield was stationary instead of adjustable, or only moved with a button; that owuld make some things harder, but perhaps more parts easier. I still like this game, but I wish the bullets were easier to see and it was clearer about whether something is going to hit the ship or the shield ring. The game has great graphics and music, with impressively animating backgrounds and lots of color and variety, but the hard-to-see bullets are its only visual flaw.

Finally... why is the title "The Double Rings" when that shield around your ship is a single ring? There are some things constructed out of two rings, such as the red-weapon balls or that twin rotating shield from the cheat, but I don't know if it's meant to refer to any of those things, the single ring around your ship is the most obvious thing. It's a weird title. I wonder if the manual explains it... but I don't have the manual, just a loose card for this game, and it'd be in Japanese anyway of course. Someone on PC Engine FX has speculated that the cheatcode's added double shield explains it and the "double rings" refer to those, but I'm not so sure; each of those balls is made up of two rings itself, so that adds up to well over two rings, between teh two of them and that single ring around your ship. So it's a bit of a mystery. Regardless, though, W-Ring is a very good game I highly recommend. The game has flaws, but it also has strengths, and overall I quite like it even if it's not Gradius or R-Type precise. With great graphics and music, varied levels, and plenty of challenge, I give W-Ring: The Double Rings an A-. It's good.

Video - This is a longplay video of Normal difficulty. The player does not enter any of the hidden alternate versions of stages in this run. - In this longplay the same player as above enters all of the special hidden stages. As I said in the review, note that many of them do have multiple entry points so this doesn't show every way to get into the special stages, but it definitely is a nice help for anyone who doesn't want to have to find them the hard way by just shooting at stuff or lucking into one.
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I still don't like the term "shmup".

"But it's an acronym that perfectly describes the genre!" I hear you say. Nah, that's not the reason I dislike it. I dislike it because the word itself, the pronunciation, sounds bad to me.

I'll have to train parasites to infect and breed when they hear that word spoken...
"On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question." ~ Charles Babbage (1791-1871)
Yeah, I did think about using the word "shooter" instead of "shmup" in the title, but that word is a bit less precise since it can refer to multiple genres, so I went with this one... the word "shmup" is kind of funny-sounding, but I don't mind it.
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