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Operation Wolf

I’ve always appreciated light gun games from afar but was rarely interested enough to spend my quarters on them for various reasons. Light gun games back then were typically always a quarter more than everything else and when it came down to it I’d rather spend my 2 or 3 quarters on Street Fighter or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than a game of Lethal Enforcers that usually ended in less than a minute. That and some random asshole would somehow break the damn machine making it worthless. Operation Wolf, alongside Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and the awesome Terminator 2 was one of the few gun games I bothered to try in the arcade. I liked it, which made me anticipate the NES port. Unfortunately as much as I wanted to like it the control options and the game’s high difficulty make this not worth a purchase.

Operation Wolf, despite its status as a light gun shooter ranks up there with Bubble Bobble and Chase HQ as one of the most heavily ported games of all time, hitting every possible platform of the time. Most of these systems lacked a light gun which presented an interesting challenge in terms of retaining the same experience at home but the NES and Master System did not have that problem. This a game that I only managed to play using the NES Zapper a few times. Let’s be honest, the Zapper wasn’t the most accurate light gun in the world (oh the wonders of 1980’s technology) and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that once the novelty of Duck Hunt and the few other games that supported it wore off it went into the closet never to be seen again. Luckily the game is perfectly playable using the traditional controller although it is less than ideal. This NES version is an adequate port of the arcade hit but I feel it could have been better with a little bit of balancing.

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Surprisingly using the normal NES pad works out far better than the Zapper. The cursor moves at a decent speed (but not fast enough, more on that in a bit) but the most important factor is that you can press the button repeatedly for rapid fire. Once you’ve exhausted your supply of grenades you’ll have no choice but to pepper the tanks and helicopters with bullets and the Zapper with its slow calibration simply can’t keep up. This is absolutely mandatory in the late game as the game becomes sheer chaos and will chew you up in seconds. It isn’t perfect however as the hit detection is loose and will cause you to waste many precious bullets.

Operation Wolf differed from other games in the genre in that the goal of each level wasn’t to simply make it to the end. Every stage has a set number of soldiers, tanks, and helicopters that must be destroyed. Once those parameters were met the level ended, meaning it could take a few minutes or up to 10-15 depending on your skill. The NES port retains that but differs even further by playing the levels in a set order. In the arcade you could tackle the missions in any order and there was some strategy to the order chosen such as hitting the ammo dump before tackling the tougher airport and concentration camp. You could even skip half the game if you wanted. Here there is a set order which to an extent presents a difficulty curve but in the end the game is particularly brutal no matter what.

Regardless of which control scheme you end up using Operation Wolf is a tough game, especially in the later stages. The Zapper suffers from its lack of rapid fire and by the middle of the game that is crucial to survival. While the cursor moves at a decent clip with the controller it can’t keep up with the sheer numbers of enemies that litter the screen later on. As the missions require you to kill more and more soldiers and helicopters on top of saving prisoners it starts to feel all but impossible to survive longer than a few minutes. If the game weren’t so stingy with health power-ups it would be manageable; you’ll be lucky to ever see more than one per stage and it doesn’t even heal you that much. With just a few small tweaks I would actually recommend this as I do still like it to an extent but not so much to overlook how frustrating it is.

Perhaps the high difficulty was to mask just how short the game is. This is still an arcade game at heart which means it is designed for short bursts of play and to suck the quarters out of your pocket. Each of the six missions can be completed in a few minutes if you are good enough. While the requirements for completion increase it can’t hide the fact that the game is only thirty minutes long. The chances of anyone beating the game that quickly is low without an insane amount of practice though.

Taito certainly tried and succeeded somewhat in replicating what made Operation Wolf great. However it is painfully obvious that this should have stayed in the arcade. Pass on this one.

6-out-of-101

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Super Nova

I wonder why Taito decided to rename Darius Force when bringing it to the US. Did Darius Twin leave such a bad impression that they wanted to distance themselves from it that bad? While I found that game middling it still had its good points. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this: Darius II was renamed Sagaia for some strange reason I’ll never know. Darius Twin borrowed heavily from both the original and its sequel and in that regard Super Nova is a much better exclusive effort and one that I recommend to fans of shooters in general.

When it comes to weaponry the series has always been a bit reserved which is to say it has been pretty lackluster. Thankfully that has been overhauled here. You have your choice of three silverhawks much like R-Type 3 although the difference in weapons isn’t as pronounced as that title. The green Silverhawk comes from the original Darius, the blue mirrors the ship in Darius II, but the most interesting is the new red Silverhawk. The three ships come with one primary weapon and two side weapons that can be changed with R. Each ship can upgrade its weapons to level eight at which point it changes dramatically. Personally I still found them to be a little weak (or maybe the bosses are insane bullet sponges) but you’ll needed that increased firepower as well as a shield to survive more than a few seconds in each level.

Unlike the other games in the series the way both bombs and your primary cannon are handled is different. Both weapons are upgraded at the same time here which is a plus as the game can be a bit stingy with power-ups. However using bombs reduces your main weapon’s power by one level when in use. It’s an interesting trade off and one that requires some nuance but I like it although it does make an already difficult game harder. Switching between bombs and lasers is a bit finicky in the heat of the moment but certain bosses almost require it due to positioning, adding even more strategy.

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The Darius series has always marched to the beat of its own drum it terms of pacing and Super Nova is no different. This is one of the slowest paced shooters I have ever played but it is no less intense than some of the bullet hell games that have taken over the genre. Unfortunately part of that comes from the game’s reliance on enemies that spawn from behind far too often with no warning which is a petty tactic to take your lives. There is a rarely a moment when the screen isn’t crowded with 10-15 enemies as well as an array of bullets. Literally. There are plenty of enemies that explode into the stuff. You’ll never encounter any slowdown due to the pace although oddly enough you might wish for it for the second or two it would buy you to dodge fire. If you can survive long enough to reach the end level bosses you’ll be treated to multi-phase battles against all manner of crustacean that are one of the game’s graphical highlights.

Where Darius Twin scaled back the amount of choices when it came to picking a path through the game Super Nova has stepped it up. There are 15 levels altogether with a single run usually consisting of six or seven stages. Usually when there is a choice between two stages they will still share the same end level boss however the creators have given them unique attacks and patterns for the sake of variety which is really cool. Another cool feature is that there are a few stages with branching paths mid-stage! There are three critical paths to the end each with a separate ending which gives the game huge replay value for those skilled enough to actually reach the end as this is one of the hardest games in the series.

The series has a reputation for being challenging but I found Super Nova to be particularly brutal. Until you’ve upgraded your weapons to a moderate level (I would say about level 3 or 4) you’ll be hard pressed to take out every enemy in a formation and unfortunately it is necessary for items to drop. Enemies spawn from behind routinely which is completely unfair and I’m not exaggerating when I say that once you lose your shield death is not far behind. This is the only game in the series to feature checkpoints, one mid-level and another once you’ve reached the end level boss. It isn’t as much of a blessing as it sounds however. You lose all weapons upon death and starting off from mid-level where things really become hectic like Gradius often leaves you in an impossible situation. I wasn’t expecting it to be this hard but it is doable, you just won’t be finishing the game in one afternoon.

Super Nova tends to get lost in the conversation whenever SNES shooters are spoken of. While it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of say Axelay or Space Megaforce it is certainly one of the better games in the genre for the system and in my opinion one of the best in the series.

7-out-of-10-1

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Seirei Senshi Spriggan

Games like Seirei Senshi Spriggan are the reason I wish the Turbo Grafx-16 were more popular in the US. Even taking into account the glut of shooters released in the 16-bit era Spriggan would have stood out. With the masters of the genre Compile behind the wheel that should be expected but even still Spriggan is still amazing even by their high standards. If you are both a fan of the genre and don’t mind imports (it’s not as though you are missing an award winning story) you should seek this out if you can somehow avoid the high price it commands.

As an offshoot of the Aleste series Spriggan should be familiar to anyone who has played M.U.S.H.A or Robo Aleste. For the less fortunate expect large giant robots juxtaposed against a Japanese setting although in this case the Japanese influenced design is traded for a high fantasy. You’ll spend more time fighting sorcerers and other fantastical demons rather than massive mechanized ships although those are still present. While it does share a similar look to that series Spriggan differs considerably in terms of gameplay.

In terms of weapons the list is kept short at only four. Each of the four colored orbs (red, blue, green, and yellow) correspond to a different elemental alignment and a unique power such as an extremely powerful spiraling ball of wind or a water shield. Aside from the elements the occasional smart bomb is dropped and you can also sacrifice your current weapon to use as a bomb as well. The game is extremely generous with power-ups with new drops appearing every 10-15 seconds. The frequent weapon drops will allow you to take advantage of the game’s greatest asset.

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On their own each weapon is adequate and will provide a secondary shield that will protect you from one hit. What truly puts it over the top is the ability to mix and match weapons and combine their effects. Like Soldier Blade you can hold up to three weapons at a time however all three are activated simultaneously and depending on the combination will produce wildly varied effects. My favorite combination is red, blue, and green which provides a circular shield, and multiple large bursts of fire in a zig zag formation that covers over 50% of the screen. Some of the effects produced are actually pretty surprising and the system encourages experimentation. While the cut scenes depict the mission as a two-man team your partner will only occasionally fly in to assist in dealing with enemies but it isn’t long before she is shot down.

In stark contrast to most Compile shooters Spriggan is surprisingly easy. The game’s hit detection is extremely generous allowing you to brush up against the largest demons without taking a hit. All of the game’s weapons are overpowered and while some enemies can soak up damage most will go down in a few hits. Weapon drops are so frequent you can even spam bombs continuously since another item will appear in less than 10 seconds to replace it. Coming from someone who more or less expects shooters to crank up the difficulty this is a welcome surprise although it does mean even the worst gamers will complete this is one or two runs.

As this was part of Japan’s Summer Carnival competition it also comes with a two-minute score attack mode. More so than some of the other entrants in the competition Spriggan truly manages to pack its two minutes with intensity as the opposition is relentless in order to build up as high a score as possible. It is in this mode that your choice of weapon will truly matter since you need to concentrate more on destruction rather than staying alive. Normally I don’t bother with the score attack in shooters but the game is so compelling I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised.

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Spriggan bears many surface similarities to its predecessor M.U.S.H.A. but differs in a number of ways visually. The medieval setting means you’ll spend more of your time flying around castles and dungeons rather than mechanized Japanese temples and such. But seeing as they are both loosely part of the same series the mech designs are still relatively the same. The beautiful parallax scrolling so present in that game is largely absent here but the game more than makes up for it with large sprites at every turn and a generally crowded screen that rarely slows down. The cutscenes are kept to a minimum compared to something like Macross 2036 but are still pretty cool as a reward for completing a level. The pulsing techno soundtrack benefits from CD audio as the sound quality is high, allowing you to enjoy the excellent soundtrack.

When stacked up against the more than plentiful shooters that fill the system’s library Spriggan still manages to stand out due to its setting, pacing, and awesome weapons system. Even though you will complete the game in short order it still remains fun and replayable since the challenge isn’t so high. I would still recommend this to those who have experienced shooter fatigue as it is just plain awesome.

9-out-of-10

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Robocco Wars

I really miss Taito as a publisher. I realize that technically they still exist as a part of Square Enix but between their arcade output and console games they were once a known quantity worldwide and that has been lost. They were somewhat underrated back in the day too; everyone knows Capcom and Konami but Taito were right there releasing classics like Bubble Bobble, Shadow of the Ninja, and Little Samson. One cool little game we didn’t get was Robocco Wars, an action game starring a transforming robot and its human pilot. The premise sounds reminiscent of Mega Man but gameplay wise it is anything but. Despite its Japanese exclusivity there is very little text so anyone can enjoy this little gem.

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The best way to describe Robocco Wars is a platformer/shooter hybrid. Of the games nine worlds the focus is clearly on platforming as you control your mech as this comprises the majority of the game but you also take flight in ship form, and travel by sea as a submarine. Unlike most titles that span multiple genres equal attention has been given to all three parts making this an enjoyable ride from start to finish. While there is no standout feature Robocco Wars is still worth tracking down.

When in robot form the game is a standard platformer, albeit one on wheels. Since you have treads instead of wheels the physics are a little different with momentum playing a factor. Once you adjust you’ll find great level design along the lines of mega man. There aren’t many power ups to make things more interesting however your default weapon is plenty powerful as is and only gets stronger as you progress. It should be noted that they had to get a bit creative in terms of enemy designs considering these levels are comprised of land with train tracks. The level design is varied and creative, with multiple routes to the exit, vertical drops, and tunnels. It gives off a similar feel to Kirby’s Adventure although this was released a year or two before that game. Even the stage names such as Sweet Castle, Selena Island, Rainbow Syrup, Starlight Smile, and Mysterious Dream are evocative of that series. In my opinion that’s good company to be in although this isn’t nearly as varied.

When it’s time to move on to the next island you’ll transform into an airplane or submarine for some quick shooting action. These sections are nice diversions if a bit simple. Mechanically they are sound but compared to other shooters on the market they are a bit simple, especially the submarine. Granted the only thing to compare it to is Sqoon but they could have jazzed up the underwater portion of the game a little bit. Perhaps that is why there are only two sub levels compared to three plane sections.

Partially because of its excellent pacing but mostly by design, Robocco Wars is pretty easy overall. Your life bar starts at three hearts but every platforming stage will increase it by at least one and up to a maximum of eight. That is overkill in my opinion. Generally life restoring hearts drop regularly and the few tough bosses still have easy to recognize patterns. Not even limited continues poses much of a deterrent to most reaching the end in short order. The easy difficulty will make the game’s nine stages fly by, making you wish there more.

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The simple visual style is bright and colorful along the same lines as Kirby’s Adventure but obviously not as great as that title. The presentation seems heavily tilted towards the shooter segments as it seems the artists really put a lot of work into making these levels look great. The backgrounds here are highly detailed and sometimes abstract and just look great. The lone outlier would be the submarine portions which are a bit bland. You can’t even use the excuse that it is underwater; Capcom’s the Little Mermaid did an awesome job of providing visual variety in the same environment. I found the music to simply be decent; there are a few catchy tunes but for the most part the soundtrack is simply unmemorable.

Robocco Wars would have been a cool addition to the NES library had it been released worldwide. Granted in 1991 some truly standout games in the action genre were released so it might have been lost in the shuffle but at least it would have been exposed to a wider audience. There is no language barrier to overcome so for those plumbing the system’s library this is an easy sell.

7-out-of-10-1

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Aldynes

While the PC Engine was a solid number two in Japan its aging hardware was starting to fall behind the Genesis and SNES. Clever programming tricks allowed its games to shine but it was only a matter of time before consumers moved on. The Supergrafx was supposed to be its successor, boasting true 16-bit hardware to allow it to better compete alongside those titans but in the end it would go on to become one of the industry’s biggest failures alongside the 64DD and Virtual Boy. The system failed so badly that only seven games in total were created for it with two of these also being backwards compatible; even the Virtual Boy eventually had a library of almost 50 games in Japan.

Of its seven total games Aldynes is one of its highest profile. At its core Aldynes is a standard shooter of which the PC Engine had plenty but the added grunt allowed it to show off many tricks not possible on the older system and served as an excellent showcase of what the Supergrafx was capable of. It also doesn’t hurt that the game itself is fantastic.

The number of weapons is kept small but all three have their uses throughout the game. The typical laser is the most powerful but starts out thin but with further power-ups will increase in size dramatically. The rebounding laser travels along the floor and ceiling in an arc making it perfect for enclosed spaces, less so for boss battles. Lastly the spread gun fires in a wide arc that covers a good portion of the screen but lacks power. Curiously if you hold the shot button you’ll power up a shield that will absorb bullets but can also destroy smaller enemies on contact, not that it’s a safe option.

Speaking of options you can have up to four which isn’t impressive on its own but they are bigger and more versatile than in most other shmups. They can be set up in 3 different formations: the standard focused fire option where they supplement your attacks, a rotating shield by holding down button I and to follow your ship. The last option is the most useful. Here they move up and down and will aggressively attack any enemies within their range. Having up to four options simultaneously is almost game breaking yet the game still manages to balance them out. Even though Seek mode is the best option it isn’t completely infallible. The game throws so many targets once that they are easily confused and with the bigger ships they are more or less useless unless you switch to focus fire mode. Also changes in terrain can potentially leave them separated from you and vulnerable.

You’ll still need expert flying skills to dodge the hordes of bullets that pepper the screen let alone survive against some of the tougher bosses. You won’t have an easy ride to see the end credits as the game picks up significantly after the first few levels. The singe hit deaths are soul crushing since they send you back to a checkpoint with no weapons and any shooter veteran knows this is usually an impossible situation to recover from. Somehow in spite of that the game is still fair in its challenge.

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Visually the game is spectacular, far beyond almost any shooter released for the stock Turbo Grafx. Despite lasting a scant seven levels the game manages to avoid the typical gaming clichés of an ice level, fire level, etc. with most of the game taking place in industrial environments. The scrolling is often seven or eight layers deep which is truly amazing to see in action. Stage three in particular is insane as its background layers stretch back as far as the eye can see with multiple screen filling warships and bullets flying everywhere. Sights like these aren’t uncommon and there is no trace of slowdown whatsoever.

The bosses are all gigantic mechanical monstrosities that leave little room to maneuver; at this point the designers are basically showing off. There are even gratuitous scaling effects present throughout the game. The game has the look of a late era Genesis shooter like Lightening Force except with more color (at times) yet it was released in 1991. If the intent were to sell gamers with its production values the developers definitely succeeded.

Even the music is pretty catchy; the sound hardware is the one area the Supergrafx did not really improve on the Turbo Grafx yet the composers have graced the game with a great soundtrack. Unfortunately the sound effects lack any impact which dulls the overall aural component.

Aldynes is a great game but unfortunately it is hard to track down let alone play. Because the Supergrafx never left Japan and was a flop it sells for large sums of money on Ebay (usually over $300). The game itself it cheap in comparison but your best bet is to buy it on the Japanese PSN. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does offer a glimpse of what could have been if the system were actually successful.

8-out-of-101

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Rendering Ranger: R2

Whenever Rendering Ranger: R2 is mentioned the first topic of discussion is its exorbitant price. With a low print run due to its late release in Japan the game can sometimes run well over a thousand dollars. It’s insane that any game can ever sell for that much but the mystique surrounding RR is something else. With Manfred Trenz, one of the designers behind Turrican at the helm its pedigree can’t be denied. But I don’t think anyone expected the game to be such a graphical tour de force. Rendering Ranger backs up its ridiculous technical accomplishments with excellent gameplay and if you can find it for a decent price buy it as soon as possible.

Make no mistake Rendering Ranger is a Turrican game in almost everything but name. The protagonist is different but those who are familiar with the later action oriented games in the series will find the side scrolling segments here to be very similar. However the levels are strictly action focused, ditching the wide open exploratory nature of those games. In that regard Rendering Ranger most resembles Super Turrican 2 but on steroids if you can believe it. The split between Contra style action and shooter segments does make the game feel wholly separate in my opinion.

This is a game of two halves with both sides given equal billing. The side scrolling levels are just like Contra. The four weapons cover the usual staples: red spread, Blue spear, green rebound, and the yellow pulse. The names are self-explanatory with the exception of the yellow pulse which fires in almost every direction at once. Unlike most action games you keep all of your weapons when picked up and can switch at any time. In fact knowing when to switch is absolutely crucial to making any headway in the game. Certain weapons perform better against different bosses to say nothing about taking out enemies from a distance. You’ll also need to abuse the game’s bomb system as boss battles run a bit too long. Bombs regenerate after use and differ by weapon. Hoarding them is flat out stupid as the system is devised for constant use.

Once you take to the sky things change. The weapons carry over and are also joined by satellites (or options). Although this isn’t a dedicated shooter it’s still probably some of the most intense shooting action on the system. At its most frantic the game will throw 20-30 enemies at once with no break in between and it never slows down. Ever. This isn’t a nonstop thrill however as the levels vary their pacing consistently. I like that the levels scroll in every direction as it presents unique challenges for the genre. It does get a bit cheap once the game asks you to navigate tight corridors and mazes at far too great a speed. Sequences like this feel like they were designed specifically to sap your extra lives but maybe that’s just me.

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Throughout all of these trials and tribulations prepare to see your SNES do things you never thought possible. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most technically accomplished games of that era. This really could pass for a Saturn game. The pre-rendered graphics are simply amazing, calling to mind Donkey Kong Country but with even more detail as the sprites are higher resolution. Nearly every level is filled with jaw dropping moments that will have you scrambling to replay the game just to experience it all over again. Stage 7 features a dizzying city raid that scrolls both left and right at a rapid fire pace as an innumerable fleet of ships attack at every turn. The use of Mode 7 and rotating sprites can seem a bit gratuitous at times but when the experience is this incredible I wouldn’t blame the developers for going even more over the top.

A lavish amount of attention was garnished on both sides of the game with the shooter levels coming across as even more impressive since there is never a hint of slowdown no matter how hectic the game gets. And trust me it borders on insanity at times. There are maybe 2 or three times you’ll see some flicker and all things considered I’m flabbergasted that it isn’t worse. The soundtrack is suitably excellent; Manfred Trenz pulls out a score that is reminiscent of Turrican yet still unique. There’s some deep bass going on that you don’t normally hear out of the SNES while still managing to sound symphonic.

To see all of the game’s visual splendor however you are going to have to work for it or cheat as the game is brutally difficult. You only have 3,5, or 7 lives to see the game through to its conclusion and they drain pretty fast. Even with passwords you’ll be hard pressed to make it a few levels in without running out of lives. As much as I like the weapons they feel woefully underpowered in the face of the massive bullet sponge bosses. This is the type of game where dying removes any enhancements to your currently selected weapon and it is very possible to lose everything, at which point you might as well start over. The later levels are especially cheap as they descend into navigating mazes with little margin for error and multiple boss rushes. The difficulty is a massive impediment but not a deal breaker; far from it. But if the game were more balanced it would have been classic.

Even if you were to judge the game by its individual parts it would still be fantastic. When taken as a whole Rendering Ranger is a phenomenal game and one of the best action titles of the 16-bit era. The only problem is finding it; the game was severely undershipped with few copies in circulation. The few times it does show up for sale the game runs in the hundreds or sometimes well over a thousand dollars. Your best bet is to buy a reproduction cart as paying that much for a game is simply retarded. If you love action games than you absolutely will not regret buying Rendering Ranger: R2.

9-out-of-10

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Cabal

Nowadays I have little interest in military shooters but growing up I couldn’t get enough of it. Commando, Contra, GI Joe, I loved that shit. Cabal was fairly innocuous release back in the day but looking back it was pretty ground breaking. It’s actually kind of funny to think about it but Cabal was a pretty innovative take on the action genre popular in the 80s. Honestly I’m surprised this version of the third person shooter wasn’t more popular; outside of the unintentionally funny Nam-1975, Dynamite Duke, and the awesome Wild Guns it gained little traction. Damn shame too as despite their simplicity these games are intense in a way that most action titles can’t manage. The NES port is very well done and aside from a weird control setup (which is perfectly workable I just don’t like it much) is one of the better action games for the system.

When you boil it down Cabal is basically a shooting gallery with limited movement. You have a small space to move around in with the cursor trailing slightly behind. When firing you are locked in position but can freely target anything on the map. For defense every level has a few brick walls or other such objects you can hide behind for cover but much like Space Invaders it will gradually be destroyed. Once that happens you’ll have to master using the dodge roll; you’re invincible while rolling but it is easy to get hit by a stray bullet once it ends. Your only power-ups are a shotgun and a machine gun that last about 10 seconds; go wild! Grenades are in ready supply but due to the controls you’ll end up wasting a bunch of them.

With just two primary buttons it was a challenge adapting the arcade game’s setup to the NES controller and I don’t think they have done the best job of it. The arcade unit used a three button setup, one for shooting, one for grenades, and one for dodging. Here both grenades and the fire button are shared with the B button used for moving faster and dodging in combination with the D-pad. It’s less than ideal and will see you wasting grenades really fast.   It is at least manageable unlike Rare’s port of NARC.

Since this is essentially a shooting gallery length is a bit of a concern however overall this is a pretty meaty game. There are five main stages with four sub-levels each. The objective is to cause as much destruction and death possible to fill the meter to move on to the next stage. Depending on your skill these can last close to 10 minutes each or go by in as little as thirty seconds. Once you know the points where enemies will spawn on each map it’s easy to clear the screen to focus on destroying tanks and the environment which fills up the bar the quickest.

That type of ruthless efficiency is necessary as the game can be a bit of a challenge. It isn’t as cheap as most arcade games of the time but between the control setup and limited continues it will take some doing to get to the end. Overall I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly tough game but it does feel cheap at times as your cover is shredded within moments and there’s nothing you can do about it. I would say the roughest part is getting the mechanics down; the dodge roll isn’t the best survival mechanic even though I like it. The later levels tend to go overboard with the tanks, molotov chucking generals who can actually dodge just like you, and dive bombing jets. The boss battles I found to be easy in comparison; there’s usually a safe spot or two where you can sit and whittle them down.

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As a port Rare has done a pretty good job of recreating the arcade game’s look. Many of the background details have had to be redesigned but it’s all there and fully destructible. The NES reduced color palette does mean that the color is more garish and colorful than the dull grey and brown of its quarter munching counterpart. I will say that I’m surprised that there is no flicker or slowdown even though the screen can get busy in short order. Despite the staunch military setting the game comes across as a bit goofy; your commando is a little too happy at the end of every level having murdered the population of a small town and that end level celebration dance never gets old.

There isn’t a whole lot of substance to it but in the end I really liked Cabal. Maybe the simplicity of the genre wasn’t to everyone’s liking which is why more games in this style were never made which is a pity. This is a quality conversion of a good game.

7-out-of-10-1

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Dick Tracy

I remember the insane marketing blitz surrounding the release of the Dick Tracy movie back in 1990. I was too young to know about its origin as a newspaper strip from the 1920s and viewed it as a movie starring a colorful cast of villains like batman. With all the radio watches, fast food meals and other merchandise came video games of varying quality; the less said about the NES game the better. Its Sega counterpart fared better and outside of its steep difficulty is a pretty cool title but one that I have a hard time recommending because of it.

The 1990 film featured a star studded cast with the likes of Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna lending their talents. It was one of the movie events of 1990 with Disney going all out to saturate the market in Dick Tracy products. To me it seemed as though they were going for the Batman audience and considering the surface similarities between the two you can’t blame them. It didn’t exactly pan out the way they hoped but some cool stuff came out of it. The Genesis game wasn’t a direct tie-in to the film but was close enough and featured the majority of Dick Tracy’s rogue’s gallery and a few unique gameplay hooks. However its execution lets it down. This is still a good game but it can be incredibly frustrating.

In terms of mechanics I’m reminded of Shinobi/Rolling Thunder. Your pistol has unlimited ammo and doesn’t need to reload thankfully. When up close dick will belt enemies with his fists. It’s a simple setup however you have to deal with enemies on two planes, including the background. For these you’ll bust out the Tommy gun. This is probably the coolest aspect of the game and its most distinguishing feature. It’s so unique in fact the enjoyable boss battles use this mechanic specifically.

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The level design bears out the similarities as well. Both are action games however you can’t blindly charge into either with guns blazing. Although the generic criminals here aren’t as, uh, “unique” as the Geldra they follow along similar lines, with specific enemies having specific forms of attack. Rarely are you ever walking in a straight line as there are boxes, crates, and support beams scattered about to hide behind for cover or just as a general nuisance. Being aware of your surroundings is crucial as enemies spawn in groups or roll in from off screen at any time. If you pay attention it is obvious where the next group will spawn although in what direction and how many is always a surprise.

Unlike Shinobi however you’ll find no power-ups to aid you whatsoever which is what makes the game brutally difficult in the end. The one concession the game makes is the bonus game at the end of every stage which is a shooting gallery where you can earn extra continues. Good luck with that however; it ramps up so fast you’d swear the designers purposely wanted to make sure you never earned your keep.

While the majority of the game consists of your typical side scrolling action it does break things up occasionally. For certain levels Dick Tracy will be unable to use his gun, forcing you to rely on your fists which is interesting in the later parts of the game to say the least. Also there are a few driving segments that see you perched on the outside of a police cruiser as you pick off rival drivers. These are interesting diversions but like the rest of the game tend to drag on too long. Some of the level themes repeat far too often

The challenge presented is pretty steep and not always for the right reasons. You’ll have a level or two at most before the game asks a little too much of you in my opinion. The rate enemies spawn is extremely high to the point where you are better off inching forward since there’s no telling where they’ll come. Without any items, even something as basic as health, the margin for error is extremely low and I’ll warn you now that most stages are long with no checkpoints.   While I can appreciate a good challenge every now and then it has to be fair and by Dick Tracy’s midpoint it crosses that line.

If that isn’t a deal breaker however the unique two plane action is engaging and rarely explored even today. With a little more polish this could have been a great game instead of a flawed gem.

6-out-of-101

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NARC

I remember NARC as that ridiculously violent video game about drugs. After seeing a brief clip of it in the Ninja Turtles movie I wanted to play it badly because it looked really cool. The anti-drug message was lost on me as I didn’t care, I just wanted to shoot guys in the face with rockets and make them explode. The arcade game lived up to my expectations but the NES port was a huge disappointment. NARC deserved better.

NARC was released at the height of the War on Drugs, a period where every piece of media was urging kids to say no to drugs. Even the cartoons took the time out of their 30 minute fuckery to air special episodes designed to show kids the dangers of drug use. If I hadn’t grown up in a shit neighborhood I’d think all drug dealers dressed like the villain of the week on Miami Vice. Some of that stuff was downright scary man, I mean they straight up killed a kid on Bravestarr, how hardcore was that? NARC was similarly over the top in its messaging but in this case it was awesome, with great graphics, tons of gore for no apparent reason, and good controls.

At least in the arcade. The NES port by Rare went horribly wrong somewhere during production and is a terrible game all around. Between the awful visuals, screwed up controls and borderline insane difficulty nearly all of the charm of Midways’ arcade classic has been lost.

The absolute worst offender is definitely the controls. In the arcade Narc used a four button setup with a button dedicated to firing, jumping, crouching, and rockets. With only two buttons Rare had to be creative to adapt that setup but in my opinion they went about it in the worst way possible. Holding down B will fire your machine gun but to let off rockets you have to tap the button. Trust me, it almost never works consistently. The crouching and jumping controls work similarly; holding A will let you crouch while tapping it will jump. It’s even more frustrating in this instance but to the game’s credit you almost never have to jump and crouching is relegated to fending off dogs.

The world that NARC takes place in is one huge warzone where drug dealers and junkies engage in shootouts with the cops around the clock. Killed enemies drop bags of drugs that will grant point bonuses at the end of every level. Aside from that busting perps, by standing next to them for a second or two, is also a good source of points for extra lives. You really don’t want to bother with that option as it will just result in you dying amidst a hail of gunfire. Each level basically consists of moving from point A to B, entering a room and killing random criminals until a key drops and moving on to the next stage. It sounds simple but as with all bad games it is anything but.

Between the jacked up controls and the game’s relentless pace you’ll be hard pressed to move a few feet without dying in seconds. Enemies spawn infinitely and will never stop chasing you. While you do need the points to build up a stock of extra lives it is actually better to simply run for the exit immediately. The second part of each level is a brutal gauntlet where you’ll simply move back and forth in one long corridor killing anything that moves until someone finally drops the necessary key. The problem is this could take seconds or upwards of ten minutes if you are unlucky. You won’t last that long anyway because of the crushing difficulty.

With no life restoring items your extra lives are sapped quickly as syringes drain health in chunks, hard to kill gods pursue you and bodybuilders stick to you like glue. Pray you don’t run out of ammo (which happens frequently) since you’ll have to deal with one bullet every 3 seconds and hope a thug will drop more. If you have the stomach to stick with the game up until its conclusion the final boss battle is right up there with the Jacquio in terms of frustration as the hit detection on Big Boss is absolutely terrible. God I could go on for days but I think you get the picture.

Considering Nintendo’s stringent content guidelines in the eighties and nineties it’s an absolute miracle that NARC was released almost completely intact. All of the drugs are still here which makes sense as it would defeat the purpose of the game. Hitting enemies with rockets will cause them to explode in a shower of body parts, which I’m not sure how Akklaim got past the big N. It’s definitely toned down from the arcade which was a bloody spectacle. One curiosity is that you can’t kill animals; they merely shrink and run away when shot. Someone’s priorities were a bit screwed up here.

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There’s no sugar coating it; this is a hideous game. Midway did a bang up on the arcade game as it hosted some pretty revolutionary visuals and technology for its time. You’ll find no evidence of that here as the developers did a piss poor job trying to replicate that look. The backgrounds are heavily repeated and feature color choices so ugly I refuse to believe an actual human being okayed it. A large number of enemies were cut from the game so you’ll end up facing the same two or three drug addicts and pushers hundreds of times per level. And the creepy final boss that was one of most impressive things my nine year old eyes had ever seen? Let’s not go there. This had to have been created under a strict deadline or by the D-team at Rare as they did better work than this.

In every possible way this version of NARC is a huge disappointment. Both the developer and publisher are capable of far better than this which makes the fact that they released this turd all the more disappointing.

4-out-of-101

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Contra Spirits

It’s interesting just how many unlicensed and bootleg variants of Contra are out there. There are enough for it to be its own subgenre at this point. I can see why: even though it was released early in the system’s lifespan Contra remains one of the NES’s best action games. Hell it is one of the few games that I actually enjoy playing in coop. While many of these unlicensed games are terrible Contra Spirits is actually pretty good for what it is and manages to capture a lot of what made the SNES game a classic. There are some pretty glaring flaws but I’d certainly rather play this than Contra Force.

You can forget about the extensive weapon list of the original as that is the first element that had to be cut back. Here you only have access to the spread gun and the laser. This is a huge blow and a step back from even the first Contra. In terms of their functionality the laser is the same but the spread gun has been neutered. Its radius is smaller at 3 waves of bullets rather than five. The rate of fire has been reduced and is inconsistent; sometimes you can fire a consistent wave of shots and others there is a slight delay. It’s still far and away the better choice but lost what made it so special. Contra veterans know that satisfying sound when you get up close and every individual bullet hits a target all at once. That has been lost. You can only hold one weapon at a time and the bombs are still present but are reduced in power.

Even with the reduction in power-ups the game is still playable. I’m actually surprised just how much they were able to keep from the original. Of the six levels only the fifth stage from the original has been cut and the level order has been rearranged. The third level is now the second and stage four’s motorbike sequence is now the third. The overhead view of stage 2 is the game’s midpoint and the final level is still the same. Jumping from missile to missile, the weird turtle beehive creature, even the rematch against Red Falcon’s new form from Super C is present. A few of the minibosses have been excised which does kind of give this version of the game a greatest hits feel to it.

For all of the praise that I’ve delivered you can clearly see where they cut corners. Levels 2 and five are identical aside from a mere palette swap and one new enemy. Obviously the heavily Mode 7 based overhead stages needed to be changed but from a technical standpoint they fare better than the rest of the game. You just can’t rotate the camera willy nilly. While it looks the same the layout has been so simplified you can simply run through it. The final level is severely cut short and gets right to the point as it tosses you into the final boss battles within seconds. Some criticized the original for being short but I think it was the perfect length. I can’t say the same here although the difficulty makes up for it.

The Alien Wars was noted for putting up a fight even on normal difficulty and this features the same it not greater level of challenge. However that comes from a few unfortunate factors. Some levels feature no weapon drops at all and it is painful to try to soldier on with the standard machine gun. Bosses take way too many hits to kill, to the point where I started to wonder if the game were broken. But possibly the biggest crime is the fact that you get no extra lives and there are no continues. Depending on the version of the game you can set your starting lives to 9 or 30 but that’s it. Don’t expect the satisfying ending you got for completing the game on hard either; what you get is actually pretty hilarious instead (for the wrong reasons).

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This remains incredibly faithful to the source material in terms of presentation. Obviously the Mode 7 effects are gone but you’ll hardly miss them. The backgrounds sport an incredibly high level of detail and a layer or two of scrolling. The enemies have been redesigned to fit within the NES limits and sadly barely resemble their counterparts. Nearly all of the boss battles are in, even the crazy creature at the end of Area 3 that rips through the wall in gripping fashion. It loses its visual impact but they at least tried. It isn’t completely positive though. The game suffers from heavy sprite flickering and the reduced color palette is pretty ugly in spots. Worst of all is the music; they’ve made some pathetic attempts to replicate the classic soundtrack of the Alien Wars but the music is so soft and subdued it might as well not exist.

Considering how drastically different most 8-bit versions of 16-bit games are Contra Spirits turned out surprisingly well. While it mimics the look though the “feel” is off. The many tiny details it gets wrong demonstrate why Konami were so beloved in that era. I give them a C for their effort.

7-out-of-10

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Darius Gaiden

As much as I have enjoyed the Darius games over these past decades to be completely honest the first few entries were merely solid games, more notable for their use of a triple monitor setup in the arcade than any interesting mechanics. Darius Gaiden changes all of that as it introduces a host of new features and could be considered the first truly great game in the series. If it weren’t for the ridiculous difficulty it might have been one of my favorite shooters. While it is a great game only the truly dedicated shooter fans need apply as the challenge borders on insane.

There’s been a bit of a shift in terms of the level design. While previous games have had an expansive grid of levels this is the largest to date at 28. However with that many stages they have become far shorter as a result. You can look at the brief intermissions between boss battles as a simple means to power-up for main event but in truth the relentless enemy swarms are just as intense as the bosses themselves. But in truth every boss is an event unto themselves and where the real meat of the game lies. These battles last as long as the levels themselves and right when you think it’s over the bastards transform and have an all new pattern of attack.

To help you deal with these threats the power-up system has finally been given a much needed overhaul. Rather than simply upgrading the useless missiles as in the prior games now your main cannon, shield, and missiles can be raised multiple levels. This is a huge boon in dealing with the aggressive enemies, especially your main guns. Power-ups are dropped frequently enough so that you are rarely left at default power and in addition death only sets you back one level of power.

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The fun doesn’t stop there either. Every level has a miniboss with a special circular ball located on its body. If you are quick enough and destroy you’ll “capture” them and they’ll actually fight by your side for a brief period. Trust me it’s hard to manage but at least worth trying as the boost in firepower is needed. Darius Gaiden has probably my favorite smart bomb of all time, a giant fucking black hole that sucks in everything on screen before exploding in a shower of lightning. If it sounds overpowered it is, at least against standard enemies. Your stock of 3 bombs is replenished when you die; do not be afraid to use them!

That’s because even with the new additions to the weapons system it still doesn’t feel like enough. Darius Gaiden is one of the most brutal shooters I have ever played and unfortunately the high challenge is a bit of a turnoff. There is some intricacy when it comes to the difficulty; collecting too many red power-ups will increase your rank and the game scales to match which kind of defeats the purpose of even having higher powered weapons. It makes little difference though; enemies attack from all sides and their appearances are so sudden that it feels a bit cheap. The boss battles feel like a war of attrition as they cycle through multiple forms and attack patterns and they either eventually go down or you run out of continues. Speaking of which you have a measly 2 credits to work through the game. 2! Thank god there are cheat codes but even with that only the best shooter fans will ever see one of the game’s multiple endings.

The ones that manage to soldier on and learn the game’s intricacies will be rewarded with the rare shooter that has a ton of replay value. The standard Darius level grid is present and has been massively expanded to cover 28 levels. One run will only cover seven of these so you are looking at six or seven separate runs to see everything the game has to offer. Granted some bosses repeat and there are a few stages that are only a slight variation on others but as an overall package there aren’t too many shooters that have this much content.

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In light of the 3d games that were starting to hit the market and the exquisite artwork of In the Hunt Darius Gaiden’s visual impact was slightly lessened. But even then this was still a pretty game. The 26 zones don’t feature the prettiest backdrops but every so often there will be a scaling or line scrolling effect that is particularly eye catching, such as Zone O’s line scrolling corridors. The massive screen filling bosses are certainly the visual highlight; you probably won’t ever see sea creatures rendered this good ever again. For my money the soundtrack is the true star; Taito’s Zuntata sound team have created a score that is both epic and somber in tone which sounds like it would be out of place in such an intense shooter but fits perfectly.

Next to G-Darius this is the best in the series. While I wish the game were a little easier (even easy mode will kick your ass) I still think the game is great. Both the Saturn and PlayStation versions are excellent ports of the game. The Sega version is easier to track down and cheaper but in my opinion you can’t go wrong either way.

8-out-of-101

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Macross 2036

Macross 2036 was one of my first imports when I finally had enough disposable income to indulge my video gaming habit back in the early 2000s. An obscure PC Engine title might seem like an odd choice in light of the innumerable PlayStation games that should have come overseas. But I had just seen Macross Plus on DVD and it reignited my love for the series. While the game itself is solid it does have a few gameplay flaws that make it fall short of its wonderful production values.

The developers went all out on the game’s production as evidenced by the vast number of animated cut scenes in between levels and the fact that they hired original character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto for the project. Set in the period between Macross: Do You Remember Love and Macross II 2036 follows pilot Maria Jenius in her battles against a renegade faction of Zentraedi. The plot advances in between each level in fully voiced cut scenes that stretch for minutes at a time. Sadly it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese but you can at least appreciate the effort spent on what is essentially just another shooter. Outside of its animation this almost comes across as a lost OVA episode of the series rather than just a game.

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Visually the game itself is pretty amazing. Like the rest of the game things start out pretty staid and become more spectacular as you progress. The backgrounds feature multiple levels of scrolling and become more daring, such as Mission three’s line scrolling water that features a reflection of your ship on its surface or the all-out war taking place in the background of Mission four. Boss fights often feature large screen filling mechs ripped straight from the series that really add a sense of awe to these battles.

The soundtrack is similarly incredible as it features perfect recreations of the show’s signature tracks, all in red book audio. The music is also dynamic and will adjust to the onscreen action. The game’s measured pace allows plenty of opportunity to build tension or to rally your forces. Even the sound effects pack an audio punch as explosions are incredibly loud if you have suitable speakers.

Where the production values are top class the rest of the package does fall a bit short. Macross does not make the greatest first impression going by its first stage. Armed with nothing but the standard cannon and missiles there is little excitement to be found as you go through the motions. Your only power-ups slightly increase the size and power of your shots. To an extent you could say this is to acclimate you to the games mechanics but there isn’t much to learn outside of boss battles.

The true breadth of the weapons system does not become obvious until the next mission. In between missions your experience grants access to a burgeoning arsenal of weapons that run the gamut of shooter staples with a few unique ones thrown in. Like Super Earth Defense Force you can only choose one and while some are more optimal for certain stages with skill you can make any of them work. All weapons are governed by a power meter that fills with use; at its max they overheat and become unavailable briefly. Each differs in terms of how fast they burn out and recharge with some like the laser having nearly unlimited use. But that is balanced by its lacking power.

While the game features a robust set of weapons overall it is a bit bland. This is as routine a shooter as they come as enemies pour in through their preassigned formations at set intervals with little in between to mix things up. The only seemingly random element would be the occasional fighter jets that rocket by and the game (wisely) telegraphs them in advance. Until the games final few levels there is very little reason to bother using your special weapons as what little opposition you face does not warrant it.

While you can’t freely transform into Battroid mode the game does make the switch during boss battles. Here the controls are different and require some adjustment. Auto fire is permanent with both buttons controlling your rotation as you freely fly about the screen. Once you’ve grown accustomed to the setup it does a fine job of recreating the space battles seen within the anime, albeit within a confined space. My only issue is that the bosses are massive bullet sponges that present little challenge which does kill some of the enjoyment of these segments.

It almost feels as though the games shooting portion is an unnecessary distraction needed to bridge the next extensive cutscene. That isn’t to say the game is bad but it is clear where the majority of the focus was spent. By the midpoint of the game it picks up considerably with more aggressive enemies, more elaborate level design and actually challenging boss battles. It’s just a shame that that amount of care wasn’t lavished on the entire production.

I would rate the difficulty as medium overall. The later weapons trivialize the game a great deal but luckily it’s balanced so that no matter how skilled you are you still won’t have enough experience until close to the end. Death holds little penalty since you keep your basic weapon upgrades and respawn in the same spot.   Despite the limited continues I doubt most will have trouble seeing the climax within an hour or two.

My thoughts about Macross 2036 are all over the place. On the one hand its bland opening stages paint the picture of a middling shooter designed to impress you more with its lavish cinemas than its game play. But midway through there is a spark that elevates it above mediocrity. That unevenness is what is so disappointing. There are better shooters available for the system but that doesn’t mean Macross 2036 is completely worthless; you’ll just have to temper your expectations, especially in light of its asking price.

7-out-of-10

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Die Hard

Say what you will about Activision’s NES output but at least they tried. Most publishers at the time were guilty of putting out the cheapest tie-ins possible and hoped to coast on the brand alone but some thought was put into their licensed titles and they were at least somewhat unique. That however doesn’t mean they were good. Both Predator and Ghostbusters were some of the worst games I played in my childhood and unfortunately Die Hard isn’t that far behind. The ideas put forth behind each game were sound but it’s the execution where they all fall short. Die Hard is almost a decent game but in the end its structure is far too aggravating to deal with.

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Unlike the majority of the licensed games from LJN Activision and developer Pack-In Video tried something fairly ambitious here and it succeeds in some respects and outright fails in others. The game follows the movie’s plot pretty thoroughly and uses it as the basis of its gameplay. As John McClane you have free reign to move about the various upper floors of Nakatomi Plaza as you try to reach Hans before his men can unlock the vault and he escapes. In some respects I liken it to the Genesis version of Shadowrun in that there are many ways to reach your end goal and you don’t have to do them in any particular order. The game is so free form in fact there are as many as seven endings that take into account your actions with some ending in your failure. It adds replay value to the game but I seriously doubt anyone will want to want to revisit this after their first few failures.

The main reason being that nearly every other aspect of the game is frustrating. McClane can only move in four directions and the game practically demands 8-way movement as the enemies are under no restriction. There are only 34 enemies in the game (it keeps track) and all of them are aggressive and seem to possess machine guns that fire in a wide arc. Your movement speed is tied to how damaged your feet are (yes, the game even keeps track of that!) as broken glass can erupt from nearly every wall. As if that wasn’t bad enough ammo management is also a factor. If you run out of bullets for either weapon just start over as you’ll never survive long enough to get into melee range for it to be effective.

Time is the most crucial element in the game and what makes it both unique and also fail at the same time. Much like in the movie Hans’ men are working to break the locks on the vault and you can check their progress at any time by pausing. This is basically the timer for the overall game and once all 7 locks are cracked there is a countdown until Hans gets away. This aspect I like as you have to consider every move you make and it mirrors the frantic pacing of the film. Moving between floors takes up thirty seconds or so which also means you can’t simply louse about.

That being said however what ruins it completely is the fact that the clock moves far too fast. If you spend even 2 minutes or so exploring a floor one of the locks will be opened. For a game that gives you no direction putting such a strict limit on your actions and not letting you at least stumble into exactly what you’re supposed to be doing is game breaking. If you look at this as a rogue like in which each time you die you have at least learned something I guess it could work but to be honest you’ll never get that sense of satisfaction here.

The myriad number of issues is doubly disappointing because you can see the kernel of a good game beneath it all. The game goes out of its way to recreate nearly every aspect of the film in exacting detail. Downed guards will drop a radio that lets you eaves drop on Hans communications and the guards movements. Technically your goal is to gain access to 30th floor where Hans awaits and this can be accomplished in a few ways. If you can gain control of the express elevator before the hackers you can travel to the fifth floor and blow up the computer blocking access to the 30th level. The chances of that happening are slim as the window of time to perform these actions is insane. If you are brave enough you can simply wait out the clock at which point the floor opens automatically and the final countdown begins. Beware, as every enemy remaining will all converge on your location at that point. Just describing all of this makes it sound really cool but to even see a fraction of this stuff will require god level patience or a game genie.

I applaud Activision for trying something different but you only get credit if it works. Die Hard is a broken mess of a game that could have at least been average with a few small tweaks. As it is however its flaws are far too frustrating to deal with to get to its good points.

4-out-of-101

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Space Harrier (Famicom)

While I found it strange growing up to see bootleg cartridges of Sega arcade games for the NES I will admit there was something pretty cool about playing the “other” guys games on your platform of choice. Alien Syndrome turned out pretty cool and Fantasy Zone was decent. It wasn’t all gravy however; the less said about Afterburner the better. Of all of Sega’s arcade games from the 80s I certainly never thought they would even try to port Space Harrier but they did! At least in Japan. The even bigger shock is that it’s actually pretty good all things considered. Why couldn’t this have been released here instead of that awful, awful version of Shinobi?

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The most important question is how does it look? The scaling tech Sega used in the arcade machine was pretty advanced for its time and there is no reasonable way the NES/Famicom could reproduce that faithfully. However that being said Takara has done an admirable job of simulating the game’s look. The checkerboard pattern of the floor has been simplified and all of the sprites have been shrunken dramatically. Otherwise the scrolling is some of the smoothest I’ve seen on the system and far better than something like 3D World Runner. It also beats the pants off the choppy mess that is the Sega Master System version which comes as quite a surprise.

There are some drawbacks to the presentation however. The game is prone to some truly awful slowdown and flicker which can be game breaking at times. The Harrier moves noticeably slower than the arcade which has an impact on playability. None of the voice samples have made it intact and the music isn’t the greatest either. In the grand scheme of things some of these problems are unavoidable while others are reasonable sacrifices to even get the game on the system.

Space Harrier was known for its blazing fast speed in the arcade and that element has been significantly toned down here. This is downright leisurely compared to the coin op and that is both a blessing and a curse. Since the game is slower you can actually react to bullets and avoid the random pieces of the environment that come speeding by. Unfortunately you also move a lot slower and I can almost guarantee will die to some not so random bullet far too often.

This was already a pretty difficult game due to the viewpoint and lack of any power-ups but this Famicom version takes it a step further. The slowdown and flicker really are pretty terrible and has a significant impact on the game. Although the game is less populated (be it enemies, bushes and stone columns) it still manages to be pretty intense which is a testament to its design that even when the elements that practically define it have been compromised it still turns out good. While I can appreciate the diversity in the game’s environments it does start to repeat itself by the halfway point. There are only a few bosses and standard enemies and the game simply shuffles them around the deeper you progress. Sometimes less is more.

For a rail shooter this is pretty long and I doubt most will see the end of this version of the game for a myriad number of reasons. Aside from the reasons outlined above you only have three lives to complete the game and that’s it. There are no continues, passwords, or battery back-up. The chance of getting any extra lives throughout the course of the game is practically non-existent; on my best run I received one extra life. One. Considering they managed to cram all eighteen levels into the game every stray bullet is terrifying; imagine reaching the 15th level only to die because a bullet that looked like it should fly by you hits you square in the face. I don’t because that’s exactly what happened to me. Its soul crushing on a level only old 8-bit video games can achieve but also makes this slightly less attractive as a package.

Considering the gap in technology this version of Space Harrier shouldn’t even exist. Yet it does and for what it is it’s actually pretty good. I’d have certainly played it had it left Japan.

7-out-of-10

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Panorama Cotton

It was commonly accepted as fact that the Genesis simply was no good at scaling sprites without the Sega CD. Early titles such as Super Thunder Blade and the sad port of Galaxy Force 2 were choppy disasters while later games such as Dick Vitale’s Awesome Baby Basketball and Red Zone showed that it could be done competently. Meanwhile Mode 7 was used in SNES games like it was going out of style. Fitting then that probably the most impressive example of that entire generation would be a little known Genesis game in Japan known as Panorama Cotton. PC belongs in the same conversation as Vectorman and Sonic 3d Blast as games that nearly broke the system. All of the technical wizardry in this case is backed up with a game that is awesome but really expensive.

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Beyond anything else Panorama Cotton is technically brilliant, to a degree that I would say makes it one of the best achievements of the 16-bit era. The game makes excellent use of scaling sprites like Space Harrier but is far smoother than that game could dream of. The backgrounds suffer from pixelization but are still clear enough that it barely matters. All of the technical finesse is married with beautiful art direction that brings the magical world of Cotton alive in a way we’d never imagined as the levels twist and turn in ways most games of this type avoided. This truly pushed the system to its limits and really showed what the hardware was capable of.

Cotton’s primary weapon is her magic shot which starts out weak but is upgraded through experience up to five levels. At each level it becomes more powerful and covers a wider arc however taking hits actually decreases your xp and can potentially downgrade your power. There is some nuance when it comes to rapid fire; holding down the button will produce a consistent stream but also makes Silk rotate around Cotton for a magic attack and stop your stream. Learning the timing of how long to hold the button and doing a quick release to keep the momentum going is key, especially in the later stages of the game where absolute chaos reigns from the start.

Shooting down groups of enemies will release gold bars that represent one of the three different elemental spells you can keep in stock. By shooting these bars three times you can change the color to gain a different spell, all of which have unique ranges and effects. To take it a step further by holding the attack button Silky will orbit Cotton, at which point using a spell will modify it for a new effect. Tricky to perform in the heat of battle but devastating when used correctly.

From a design standpoint this is the antithesis to every other game in the series. Whereas every other Cotton title moves at a measured pace Panorama Cotton is a blindingly fast epic journey. This is probably one of the fastest paced shooters for the system, with enemies and obstacles all streaming in at fast clip. At times the game might be a little too fast as there are times when walls and such open or close too quickly for you to react. But having said that I can’t picture the game any other way. The game’s breakneck pace never lets up as it moves from one set piece to the next and the visual variety as well as the new sets of enemies on every level go a long way towards keeping the game fresh throughout. Moments of calm where you can actually take your hand off the attack button are fleeting and brief and while that should be overbearing over a length of time it seems appropriate here.

Maximizing your point bonuses, be it through shooting parts of the environment or going ape shit during the tea time bonus after boss battles is key since there is no other way to restore health than score. Occasionally Cotton will roll after taking a hit when low on health; this negates any damage but is only randomly triggered. You only have one life and limited continues to complete the game but the game’s checkpoints are evenly spaced and the game even retains your attack level, experience, and magic! The viewpoint makes judging the angle of bullets and enemies troublesome but most will not have a problem completing the game in short order, ironically because the game itself is short.

The one big negative would be the game’s length. At only five chapters the game can be completed in about an hour and a half which is standard for most shooters. However as much as I don’t like to factor in a game’s price it can’t be avoided here. For the $1-200 you’ll most likely pay you’ll certainly enjoy the experience while it lasts and play through the game more than once just to ogle the graphics and amazing art direction. There’s also a cool bonus mode where you can play through the game as Silk with Cotton as your support “fairy”. It’s interesting since she has a smaller hit box but not a significantly different experience. One or two more levels would really have made this phenomenal.

Unfortunately this is one of the most expensive Genesis games ever as it suffered from a small print run. Shooter fans will more than get their money’s worth if they manage to track it down; to that all I can say is good luck! The game is excellent but not worth the potentially hundreds (yes, hundreds) it goes for; to that I say get a reproduction cart. This desperately needs to be re-released somehow.

9-out-of-10

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Psychic Storm

Psychic Storm was a game I bought blindly years ago after only seeing a few sparse screenshots and thinking the name was cool. Once upon a time I had more money than common sense but in this case it didn’t bite me in the ass. This is a pretty good game that only suffers due to the heavy competition in its genre on the system. Considering Psychic Storm is cheaper than the majority of those better titles it serves as a worthy substitute if you don’t like pricey imports and is a good game in its own right.

In the distant future Earth is under attack by a race of insectoid aliens who devour the planets in their path and integrate them into their bodies. The planet’s last hope of survival lies in the hands of four brave pilots, each with their own unique ship patterned after the very same aliens destroying the planet. It is up to you to guide Alex, Charr, Joe, and Nastasia with their Stormbringer ships and save the world.

Each character comes with their own unique set of weapons with half the fun coming from choosing the right hero for each level. Alex is your basic shooter hero with a standard Vulcan cannon and missiles. Joe is my favorite; his hellfire is strong plus his nuclear spread missiles explode on impact and linger for a second or two. Charr is the most disappointing which sucks as his weapons look cool. The psycho shell is the strongest but has the shortest range plus his missiles suck. Nastasia doesn’t fit into any particular niche. The ion laser is similar to the hellfire but smaller but her missiles aren’t as good. A separate bar automatically charges and allows you to also unleash a special attack when full.

What makes each ship special is its ability to transform. Each Stormbringer has a unique insect form that features massively increased firepower and a unique form of attack. Alex’s ship turns into a giant butterfly that releases waves of fire from its wings. Joe turns into a scorpion that can grab enemies and charge up energy in its claws for a massive burst of force. This form lasts a short time which can be replenished by picking up special icons. It is a bit of a double edged sword since your body becomes huge but is worth it since it’s so overpowered. You only get three of these per stage but trust me it’s more than enough.

Psychic Storm tries its hardest to be an intense shooter but overall the game is pretty easy. With your life bar you can sustain 7 or 8 hits which is pretty uncommon in the genre. Technically you don’t have lives but your 3 special weapons serve the same function. When your life dips too low one is automatically used which doesn’t seem like much of a punishment considering in your powered up form you can blaze through the levels and bosses while it lasts. While I can see how someone who decided to use them early on could be screwed there isn’t much reason to until a boss fight. Even playing half seriously I still managed to breeze through half the game before I died because I chose a bad character for a particular level. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve played through my share of cruel shmups so any game that is fair in comparison is welcome in my opinion.

With the game’s laid back pace and ease of difficulty it helps that it is pretty long. Each of the seven levels is split into two halves with each running close to 10 minutes or longer. After the second round you can choose your path through the game not that it has any real bearing. The long stage length is mostly due to the pacing which is a bit slow for my tastes. Enemy waves are slow to spawn and sometimes you’ll fly for close to a minute without being attacked. Not every game needs to be a bullet hell shooter but the game could certainly use a shot of adrenaline at times.

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Visually Psychic Storm has its moments but they are fleeting. The game begins on a high note with a beautiful flight over Tokyo at night, full of glittering lights and detail. But from there it’s a significant drop off with each subsequent planet featuring less exciting environments. It picks up again towards the end but still never manages to match its opening level. The one area that never disappoints would be the bosses. The antagonists are a weird assortment of insectoid creatures with the game’s mayors being the strangest of the bunch. Large, impeccably detailed and well animated these are the game’s visual highpoint. The soundtrack is a bit strange. The music is a series of symphonic arrangements that seem a bit out of place in a scrolling shooter and don’t match the action. It’s good but out of place.

Psychic Storm isn’t the greatest shooter for the Turbo Grafx but it doesn’t need to be. This is far better than some of the crap that was actually released here like Dead Moon and Deep Blue. Due to its low profile it’s also cheap by import standards. A worthwhile addition to any gamer’s library.

8-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Batman & Robin

Disappointing games are a dime a dozen, with many aiming for greatness and falling far short. Bad games are quickly forgotten yet it is the games that were on the cusp of greatness that seem to leave the most lasting impression. The Adventures of Batman & Robin is one of those games. There are so many likable elements to the game the fact that it falls apart so spectacularly in its second half is a god damn crime. Only the most patient gamers on the planet or those armed with a Game Genie will have the fortitude to see this to its conclusion which is a shame as it could have been truly special with some balancing.

Mr. Freeze has declared war on Gotham, with plans to freeze the city for…..reasons. As a distraction he enlists the aid of some of Batman’s most infamous rogues such as the Joker, Two-Face and the Mad Hatter. Going with Mr. Freeze as the main villain is an odd choice but certainly welcome as just about every other Batman game ends with a confrontation with the Joker. Here they get it right out of the way as he is one of the first bosses you’ll face. Not that the “story” actually matters of course but it is something different.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin came from Clockwork Tortoise, a relatively new developer comprised of former Malibu Interactive employees. I’ve played some of their prior work and none of it showed that these guys were capable of pushing the hardware to this extent. But great graphics do not make a classic game and if they had spent less time polishing the graphics and more on the gameplay this could have joined the greats.

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Having said that though, holy shit the graphics! Prepare to see your Sega Genesis do things you never thought possible. Even with technical monsters such as Vectorman and Toy Story on the same platform I’m still pretty confident in saying no other game pushed this aging hardware as hard as Batman and Robin. Line scrolling is used on almost every element of the game’s exquisite backgrounds, giving them a three dimensional look. Once you take flight in the Batwing and see this effect on all of the buildings and the view all the way down to street level your jaw will drop. The special effects don’t end there as there are scaling sprites, transparencies (well as good as they could manage on the Genesis), color cycling a la Chrono Trigger and incredibly realistic lighting. I don’t know who developer Clockwork Tortoise are but they must have possessed some kind of magic to achieve this level of finesse with their first game.

The art style is incredibly dark, much darker than Konami’s SNES game yet still manages to capture the stylized look of the show to an extent. The boss battles are especially a highlight as each of Batman’s rogues dons some manner of large contraption to do battle. Admittedly these seem incredibly out of place but you’ll be so awed by the production values that I’m pretty sure most won’t care. The sprites are small but that is so the game can pack the screen full of enemies without a hint of slowdown, which it does frequently. It is in this regard that the game stumbles considerably.

Unlike the typical brawlers that comprise nearly all of the caped crusader’s games this has more in common with Gunstar Heroes or if you go back even further, Revenge of the Joker. Both Batman and Robin use projectiles as their standard attack but will switch to a variety of melee attacks when in close. Weapons come in the form of batarangs, shuriken, and bolos (never, ever switch from bolos) which vary in terms of power and can be upgraded multiple levels. Speaking of power, when not attacking a small power meter fills up which increases the strength of your chosen weapon, usually allowing it to plow through multiple enemies at once.

All of that power means very little however as the difficulty is off the scale. I’m not joking when I say more than likely you’ll punch a wall or slam a controller in frustration. Enemies attack in large groups and never, ever let up from the moment the game starts. Even Gunstar Heroes and Contra Hard Corps are not this bad at their highest levels. At least initially if you take things at a measured pace you can make decent progress. Despite the constant horde of enemies the game is not stingy with hearts, weapons, and screen clearing bombs to help you out. The game is greatly varied in its first half as you swing from ledges and pummel thugs into the pavement and if it had maintained this same pace for all of its four multi-level stages than the challenge could at least be forgiven.

However while the early stages of the game are manic but manageable that completely goes out the window starting with level three. At this point there are so many enemies that require multiple hits to destroy that if you aren’t fully powered up you’ll die in seconds. It’s also evident that the developers had to rush to finish the game as the final two levels drag on way too long and recycle the same enemies to the point of absurdity. The spark that made the beginning stages so great is missing which sucks because the last levels are astounding from an artistic standpoint. Too bad they are such a slog to get through that you won’t even care.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is not a terrible game, just incredibly disappointing. With its production values it had the potential to be one of the best games of the 16-bit era but is weighed down by terrible balance and pacing. The high difficulty will deter most from seeing all the game has to offer, to which I say slap in a few cheat codes if only to see what these developers managed to wring out of the system.

7-out-of-10

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Uchuu Keibitai SDF

I’d say we received a pretty solid spectrum of shoot em up choices in the US when it comes to the NES. There are some dogs but the classics outweigh them. But even with that in mind there were still plenty of classics from big publishers that slipped through the cracks. How bizarre is it that Konami passed on Gradius 2 and Parodius? Hal Labs was no stranger to the NES with nearly all of their games hitting our shores but one curious exception would be Uchuu Keibitai SDF, a really cool shooter that shames most of the genre on the system. This hidden gem backs up its exorbitant price with good design and is one of the better games for the NES if you can find it.

Collecting any weapon pod will attach two satellites to the front of your ship. These fire your weapons and can act as a shield to absorb a hit but can also be destroyed. At the touch of a button they can be sent to the sides where they will fire homing missiles rather than the current option. The weapon selection is pretty light and while serviceable I do wish there were a few more options. The laser is obviously the most powerful but suffers from a narrow attack radius. The wide beam fires in three directions but will also change to the opposite of your movements. It sounds confusing and it is which is why I don’t really like it. The spread shot is my personal favorite as it covers a nice arc but lacks power.   Honestly while all of them have their uses there is no overwhelming favorite that is ideal in every situation which can be attributed to the level design.

The game uses a wider playing field than normal which does take some getting used to. Generally the game does a good job of making sure off screen enemies will not attack you unless you are herded in their particular direction. The level design is a bit odd in that sometimes there are entire chunks that can be avoided if you stick to one side of the screen but more often than not you will be ushered in whatever direction the designers want you to go. Each stage tends to vacillate between open areas and tight corridors that forces encounters which is necessary as the more methodical pace can be a bit boring at times.

I’ve frequently mentioned stages but in this case that isn’t so clear. There are no traditional level breaks outside of the few times the screen fades to black and you are in an all new area. After defeating what are very clearly supposed to be end level bosses the game will simply continue on its merry way. Its odd and few games do this like Truxton. Uchuu Keibitai is decently long by shooter standards and if I were to hazard a guess I would say there are about 8 or 9 “levels”, plenty to keep you busy for a while by genre standards.

In terms of difficulty the game puts up a fight but is also fair. The slow pace doesn’t hide the fact that the enemies are pretty aggressive and attack in large numbers. Despite large swaths of the game taking place in open spaces there are just as many tight corridors filled with turrets which make your choice of weapon all the more important. Weapon drops are frequent enough that even if you die it will only take seconds before another power-up appears. Unlike most games I found the journey to each boss more challenging than the actual battles themselves; despite their imposing appearance the bosses are pushovers in my opinion. All in all the balance is about perfect outside of the incredibly cheap closing gates that give no indication that you will die if you are on the wrong side. Overall though I wish more shooters were more along the lines of this rather than being soul crushingly hard.

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Although it doesn’t look it at first glance Uchuu Keibitai SDF is a technically accomplished game. No matter how hectic the game gets (which is often) it rarely if ever suffers any slowdown. While it primarily takes place against an empty space background the times where you fly through enemy bases or planet side are filled with extremely detailed backdrops and even layers of scrolling on the same level as Crisis Force. The frequent bosses pit you against large motherships that are creatively designed and quite unlike any other shooter for the system. This is one of the better looking titles for the system let alone one of its best in terms of graphics.

Seeing as nearly every other Hal Labs game was released worldwide I’m surprised this never came to the US. It required no localization and was certainly better than similar titles such as Starship Hector and Image Fight. Without question this is one of the better shooters on the platform unfortunately its low profile also means it is also expensive.

8-out-of-101

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Darius Twin

When the SNES first launched it was kind of funny to see all of the shooters released with crippling slowdown. Some of these were absolutely dire like Super R-Type and Gradius III despite still turning out pretty good. Meanwhile the less ambitious games within the genre turned out alright. Darius Twin is a forgotten relic of that early period for a number of reasons. While decent it is also forgettable as it simply lacks the excitement of the many superior titles around that time frame like U.N. Squadron and Space Megaforce.

Calling Darius Twin a console exclusive is only half correct. In truth the game lifts many of its elements from both Darius I & II. About half of the bosses and even stage themes and backgrounds come from those prior games. Calling this Darius Remix would have been more appropriate. Still it isn’t all recycled content and the new levels created for the game do give a glimpse of what could have been if this were a completely new game. The game desperately needed that spark as it is pretty bland overall. Darius was notable for 3 things: its branching paths, the triple monitor setup in the arcade, and the fish themed enemies. Take away the monitor setup and a half assed branching path system and you are left with a slow game where you shoot robot fish. Doesn’t sound very exciting does it?

At its heart the game is pretty simple with very few weapon upgrades and a slow pace. That wouldn’t be damning in itself but the slower pace leaves the game feeling incredibly boring. Despite the steady stream of enemies they don’t seem the slightest bit interested in your presence. The occasional mid-level boss will pose a threat but those are generally slightly bigger regular enemies. The game simply moves at its meandering pace and even the inclusion of coop fails to generate any excitement.

One of the most crucial features of any Darius title, the branching paths, is present here but is implemented so badly that it is insulting. There are far less levels, cut down from a robust 28 to a mere 12. The few choices available on the map are largely irrelevant as both stages are almost always a simple palette swap of each other. The one or two times they differ you’re facing the exact same enemies anyway. It not only cheapens this feature but severely cuts down on the replay value as well.

The Darius series is noted for its difficulty with this game being somewhat of an exception. Despite the fact that the enemies seem to lack any drive in seeking you out they take many hits before death and attack in large groups. The game does a good job of making sure you are almost always equipped with a shield of varying strength which helps but once it’s gone you’ll die in seconds. Once you’ve acquired some firepower however it is easy to breeze through the game as the bosses are the only ones that pose a threat.

A large part of the difficulty comes from the lacking weapons. Aside from the primary laser and shield your only other option is a four way laser that is nearly useless. Between both weapons it will take until the middle of the game before they are sufficiently powered up to a decent level to make any real difference. The game wisely lets you keep all weapons collected upon death unlike nearly every other shooter otherwise this would have been impossible otherwise. The addition of at least one or two other choices would have made significant impact on the game and relieved some of the boredom.

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In terms of presentation the game is solid if a bit lazy. The fish themed adversaries are certainly unique although they do become repetitive in short order. The backgrounds are pretty lively and feature a decent amount of scrolling although some of these are lifted from prior games. Most importantly however there is no slowdown, which is a god damn miracle for a first generation SNES game. That is due in part to the game’s laid back pace than any technical wizardry however. The Zuntata soundtrack can be good at times but the synthesized music is not a good fit for the SNES and can be grating at times.

The Darius series relies on its few unique features to stand out in a crowded genre. Once those aspects are stripped away or implemented in a lesser form it exposes the generic game underneath. Darius Twin simply does not stand out among the SNES shooter lineup and is largely forgettable because of it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Nexzr

When you have a genre that is as saturated as shooters on a console it is only a matter of time before the games start to blend together. I like a good outer space romp as much as the next man but good god was it run into the ground in the early to mid-90s. Nexzr bears more than a passing resemblance to Hudson’s Star Soldier series and while that would be damning in most cases the game is at least different to stand on its own. While not wholly original it is still a damn good game that is better than most similar titles for the platform.

In the year 2012 Earth comes under attack by a large invading space armada. As the pilot of the Slasher, the most advanced ship on Earth this is not just a matter of saving the world but a mission of revenge. Your female partner was killed by an unknown armored assailant who is part of the alien fleet. The extensive intro might lead you into believing this is a heavily story driven game like Macross 2036 but that isn’t the case. While the introduction is nice don’t expect to see any more cutscenes until the end of the game.

Surprisingly Nexzr is light on weapons and is disappointing in that regard. Your only option with regards to primary fire is a three-way shot that is less powerful than the standard cannon but its wide firing range leaves huge gaps. There’s no sugar coating it, it sucks. Fortunately your secondary options are far more interesting. There are a variety of bombs and missiles that are all effective in their own right. There are homing lasers, crawl missiles which are basically the same as Gradius that explode on impact and my personal favorite, satellites that aggressively seek out enemies and stick to them like glue. Sadly the shooter staple bombs do not make an appearance which makes the game seem a bit simple but this is anything but. While I have my issues with the paltry weapon selection which partly adds to it but at least they are serviceable.

I found this to be a bit different from your average shmup in that smaller cannon fodder enemies don’t appear in great numbers with a greater emphasis placed on larger mecha and capital ships. Nexzr can be a pretty difficult game due to a number of factors. One hit equals death and you’ll only occasionally receive a shield that can absorb one hit. The game isn’t fast paced however there is rarely a moment where something isn’t shooting at you. Most of your deaths will come from some random bullet that you didn’t keep track of. Death means you’re sent back to a checkpoint and sometimes you’ll have to retrace a significant amount of ground. Oddly enough the end level bosses are incredibly easy to the point I was surprised they were over in less than thirty seconds. The mid-level bosses put up more of a fight if you can believe it.

Although the difficulty curve is a bit steep it isn’t insurmountable. The game is challenging but never comes across cheap however which is the ideal. The generous scoring system means you can rack up extra lives pretty quickly so long as you aren’t a scrub. More than likely you’ll blow threw them by stage four at which point the game becomes vicious. I do find it odd how much I enjoyed the game in spite of some of its flaws but I chalk that up to how engaging the game is in the end despite its simplicity.

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This is a pretty spectacular looking game which is odd considering how little variety there is in settings. Aside from stage six the game takes place completely in space. Without the diversity that comes from visiting different planets the game’s visuals rely completely on its mechanical designs, which it does in spectacular form. The numerous imperial class ships and enemies bear a strong resemblance to Soldier Blade yet still seem unique. The graphics are bright and almost never slow down which is an accomplishment considering how busy the game gets at times. There are only a few cutscenes but they are long and filled with spoken dialogue that even someone like me with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese can follow. The CD soundtrack is fantastic, full of hard rock tunes that ebb and flow with the action.

Nexzr is a great addition to the TG-16’s shooter library and while it bears some similarities to a few titles still feels unique. There are two versions of the game that are both expensive; the original release and Nexzr Special, which included a few time attack modes as part of the summer carnival of 1993 competition. You’ll be paying a hefty sum either way but I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth out of it.

8-out-of-101

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Curse

 

I remember seeing Curse in old issues of EGM in their import coverage. The trippy pictures of the box art with its exposed brain inside a mannequin’s head was certainly eye catching. It obviously did not give off the impression that this was a shooter but I’m sure plenty would have looked at it all the same just out of sheer curiosity. The game was scheduled for an US release but mysteriously disappeared. Back in 1989 it would have stood out among the meager offerings of the system but going back and playing it shows that an early release is all it would have had going for it as the game is strictly average.

Curse is what I consider a “safe” game. The type of game that is created early in a system’s life and doesn’t push any boundaries. It does just enough to get by and isn’t exceptional because it needs to get in that early rush when gamers will purchase anything for their shiny new console (see Toshinden). It does everything competently but never crosses over into awesome territory. Many of its best moments will simply remind you of the better games it copies rather than a unique experience unto itself. That being said there is something oddly compelling about the game that I can’t quite put my finger on. While I am a shooter fan I can ignore average games in the genre yet for some strange reason I wanted to see the game all the way through to its conclusion. While it sounds like an endorsement it isn’t enough for me to recommend the game however.

Curse bears a heavy resemblance to R-Type but then again how many shooters don’t? There’s a nice selection of weapons available and the game does a good job providing item drops frequently should you want to switch or if you die. The V-laser and Wide beam are your typical shmup weapons however the Crash shot could have been unique. This weapon fires what looks like a disco ball that explodes on contact and shatters into pieces for splash damage. However it is far too slow to prove effective in most situations.

As in most games of this type there are options that can be attached to your ship and placed either on top or the front and back. It sounds cool but honestly you won’t be making much use of that feature. Atypical of most games in the genre your ship is armed with a shield that can sustain three hits before imploding. Between your shield and the frequent power-ups that replenish it nearly all tension is sapped out of the game. I feel if the game removed the shields it would have been much better for it since you might actually sweat during the levels.

I was thoroughly surprised at the ease with which I blew through the game. None of your weapons are especially strong yet most enemies and bosses go down extremely fast. Occasionally the game will try and pull a fast one with enemies who come from behind or spawn really fast but the generous respawn system means there is little penalty for death. At least until the last level, where you are thrown back to the beginning upon death. That poses little threat however as you will have more than likely racked up extra lives on your way to the finale. With little challenge everyone will tear through the game’s five levels in short order. With little thrills to be had on this half hour tour there is no reason to go back once you’ve seen the credits.

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For the longest time I conflated Micronet with Micronics and went into this expecting the worst but found a game that was technically on the same level as other shooters released in that period such as Whip Rush and Thunder Force 2. It does still share certain lackluster elements of their work however; the backgrounds feature many lines of scrolling but it is jerky with evidence of flicker and slowdown. The game’s color palette is heavily dithered and is distracting. There are some creative creature designs buried underneath the average presentation, most notably the bosses with the game’s box art appearing in game. The music is the standard techno tripe that most shooters resorted to except in this case it is forgettable.

Overall Curse is inoffensive; it doesn’t have any real high points but also doesn’t botch its core gameplay. However that leaves it as an unremarkable game and when you are surrounded by some of the most legendary titles in the genre that simply doesn’t cut it. We missed nothing when its worldwide release fell through.

5-out-of-101

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Gungage

I wonder why Gungage was released only in Europe and Japan. There was definitely a shortage of arcade style action games and it wasn’t as if the two Contra games were filling that void. Games like One and Apocalypse were good but flawed, a trait that Gungage also shares. While this is not most accomplished game within the genre there were certainly far worse games shitting up store shelves that would have made this C-tier release stand out. If you can put up with its warts the game is an enjoyable if short romp.

Initially you control Wakle Skade, the stereotypical well rounder. Wakle is a bit nimble and comes equipped with a shield and paralyzing shot which freezes enemies in place. Once you meet certain criteria you can unlock a further three characters, each with their own special items, moves, and story path. I can tell you right now that Steyr seemed to be the creator’s favorite as she has four special moves compared to everyone else’s one or two. Her playstyle is faster paced as she can dash and duck in addition to sidestepping and strafing. Plus she has three weapons although they are weak. Kard is the strong but slow man of the group although that is a plus in my opinion as you can plow through the game with ease. Dee is harder to classify as his physical attributes aren’t anything special but his weapons are awesome.

Gungage uses tank controls which are my kryptonite. However in this particular instance they are at least functional although less than ideal. Unlike most games that employ this ridiculous control scheme you are adventuring in wide open areas rather than tight corridors. This isn’t the fastest action game on the planet so quick movements and such are rarely called upon. And even in that instance there are a number of additions that make up for it. You can strafe with the L1 and R1 buttons and in combination with the D-pad can keep your current target in view a good portion of the time. A double tap will execute a side step and you can center the camera and sort of lock-on although it is rather poor.

All of these amenities are nice but they can’t cover up all of the flaws with this setup. Character movement is incredibly stiff leaving maneuvering in a narrow space frustrating much like the Resident Evil games. Trying to line up your jumps to leap on platforms is far more frustrating than it should be although to the game’s credit it is rarely called upon. Turning is incredibly slow which is the biggest detriment; boss battles are usually against much faster opponents who will literally run circles around you; combined with the spastic camera this will lead to many cheap hits and deaths. This was released too early to adapt the lock-on method both Ocarina of Time and Mega Man Legends employed which sucks as the game would really have benefited from it like nearly all action games since.

The nine missions cover a lot of ground although there is very little plot connecting the locations you’ll visit. While the levels can sometimes be large they are mostly a series of small arenas mashed together. It keeps up the frame rate and tends to keep the action focused although camera issues do crop up. The few enemies you’ll face tend to appear right in front of you or conveniently are hiding out of sight which makes the slow turn speed a real hassle. Generally speaking I like the mission variety overall with only one (the Desert) being a conceptual nightmare. While the earlier missions are short and bereft of interesting enemies the late game picks up considerably although it’s over a bit too fast depending on your choice of character.

Since this is more or less an arcade style action game on a console it comes as no surprise that it is a bit short. There are nine missions total and those with a modicum of skill should be able to complete the game in a little over an hour. True, you can unlock a further three characters who each play differently but at the end of the day you are still going through the same levels in a different order with a few alternate paths. If the mission available were longer or if the additional characters had exclusive levels it would have greatly extended the life of the game.

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As a 1999 release Gungage competed against games like Konami’s own Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VIII, and Soul Reaver visually and in that regard it comes up short. The boxy environments suffer from low resolution textures, warping textures, and really bad draw distance. The art direction carries the game somewhat but in terms of the enemy designs but it is ultimately let down by this shoddy engine.

The one saving grace of the presentation would be the music. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and honestly sounds completely out of place here. Castlevania series composer Michiru Yamane contributed to the score and the orchestral sound incorporates a ton of rock, jazz, and techno that accentuates the atmosphere. Because of the composers involved the music wouldn’t seem out of place in a Castlevania title however it does fit here, even if the style is unusual for an action game of this type.

Gungage is far from the greatest run and gun action game for the PlayStation but still would have helped to fill an underserved genre had it been released in the US. Despite my misgivings with the controls I still enjoyed it and have no problem recommending it, especially since it is usually dirt cheap.

7-out-of-10

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Sylphia

And now something different from the shmup masters at Compile. With the exception of the Aleste series nearly all of Compile’s shooter output were of the space variety. As much as I like a good space shooter they don’t offer as much diversity as you would expect. With its fantasy theme Sylphia is like Phelios’ prettier big sister. With its intense action, high production values and excellent pace this is one of the best shooters for the system. Too bad you’ll have a hard time finding it.

An Ancient City in Greece is invaded by demons who slaughter its inhabitants. One of these citizens is a warrior maiden struck down protecting the innocent. The gods reward her bravery by transforming her into a fairy with vast mystical powers, powers that will now be used for revenge. As a late 1993 release Sylphia was one of the last PC Engine CD games released in Japan. The game is much more reserved in its use of the CD when compared to a game like Renny Blaster which was released around the same time. The only cutscenes are the intro and ending and aside from the music this could have been a Hucard title. That isn’t a knock against the game as the lucky few with enough money to buy it will be well rewarded.

Sylphia makes excellent use of its fantasy setting, more so than any other shooter with the same theme. The areas you visit look and feel unique and as an added bonus you’ll face a different set of enemies on every level. That much variety is absolutely staggering and unheard of plus keeps the game feeling fresh for the length of the quest. The creature designs are both familiar and original; they really dug deep into Greek myth to come up with such a diverse list of monsters. I made the comparison to Phelios earlier but that game has nothing on this. Some of the enemies wouldn’t look out of place in some of Atlus’s RPGs; the skeleton gladiator riding a chariot driven by flying manticores is a particular favorite of mine and resembles one of the 8 fiends in Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. That’s a compliment by the way.

Like other Compile shooters the game makes use of color coded weapons that correspond to the elements. The Red fire travels and Blue reverse fire possess some homing capability although it is hard to determine which is stronger. The green ring blades are pretty devastating as they linger in one spot and cover a wide arc but are a little weak. That leaves the earth rocks which are terrible. The boulders produced distract from enemy bullets and obstacles and only drop straight downward. Supplementing this is a giga attack that has limited uses but an experience bar that can be increased by collecting mirrors and gems will award more. As much as I like the weapons I wouldn’t have minded a few more since one of them is essentially useless.

I found the difficulty about perfect for both novices and diehard shooter fans. The game’s pace varies between bouts of all out chaos and slower moments that allow you to catch your breath before the mayhem starts again. With different enemies on every level the game provides plenty of reasons to switch weapons rather than sticking with a favorite. While one hit deaths would have made the game more intense providing a life bar was a smart choice as the game would have been impossible otherwise. In an odd twist I found the bosses to be absolute pushovers compared to the journey just to reach them which is strange as it is usually the other way around. The difficulty means it will probably take a few hours to beat the game despite unlimited continues which is pretty good value for a shooter.

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Visually Sylphia is spectacular and just shy of being one of the best showcases of the hardware. There’s a generous smattering of scrolling backgrounds that are simply beautiful. On the other hand there are an equal number of flat and drab backdrops that are just ugly in comparison due to some hideous color choices. The fantasy theme is heavily Greek inspired, from both its scenery to most of its bosses. The bosses are the games’ true visual highlight. You’ll recognize Medusa, Cerberus, the Minotaur and the Titans but you’ve certainly never seen them like this. Medusa in particular is pretty stacked. Actually there’s a surprising amount of bare breasts although it isn’t salacious.

I was pretty surprised to hear a heavily techno influenced soundtrack rather than symphonic score. The music is excellent, heavy on the drum and bass yet still melodic. My only wish is that the music were louder as it tends to get drowned out by the punchy sound effects.

I approached Sylphia with no expectations and was absolutely surprised. This has quickly become one of my favorite shooters of all time alongside Harmful Park and Gradius Gaiden. The only problem is its price; since this was one of the last PC Engine games released in Japan not too many copies were printed making it rare. If you see it at a decent price buy that shit, you will not regret it.

9-out-of-10

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Rayxanber II

For some inexplicable reason I was obsessed with Rayxanber II & III. I’ve already described how being a Turbo Grafx owner was a lonely experience so if I wanted new games I had to buy them. It was just another shooter among a sea of the things but the screenshots in EGM looked really cool. Sadly the series never came to the US. Or maybe it isn’t so sad in the case of Rayxanber II. I can safely this is one of the most frustrating and difficult games I have ever paid and I will never play it again.

The Rayxanber series is one of the few that never left Japan and I can see why. The first game was released for the FM Towns Marty, one of the most obscure platforms in existence. From all accounts it was a vicious game and it seems developer Data West did not learn from their mistakes as this second installment is just as grating. Even with an emulator and save states I still found myself frustrated at just how badly designed the game is. Literally any good idea is trumped by bad decisions all around that make me question who the game was even targeting. Stay away from this one folks.

Weapon selection is light at only three choices. The flame laser, multi-shot, and explosion gun are all you get. Depending on the direction the icon is facing when picked up the weapon will only fire in that direction, good for very specific situations but stupid otherwise. Charging up the weapon briefly will supposedly unleash a more powerful blast but it is so small and weak you would be a fool to even bother. Activating turbo fire on the controller is not only better but I would even say mandatory as you won’t last more than seconds otherwise.

See the thing about the weapons is no matter which one you pick they are all woefully underpowered. Literally every enemy is a bullet sponge to an absurd degree and they always attack in groups. The opening seconds of the game demonstrate this beautifully as you will encounter moving turrets before receiving your first powerful that will not die no matter how hard you pound on them. I’m sure the explosion gun is more powerful than the multi-shot but they are all so weak they might as well be cosmetic choices. The weapons at the very least needed to be twice as strong to not be an absolute joke.

And even then it still would not make much of a difference. It isn’t just weak weapons that make the game so hard. Enemy placement is completely unfair and the number one cause of death. The game delights in having enemy waves sneak up from behind with no warning. Staying in the middle of the screen isn’t always viable so you’ll have to risk being blindsided at any time until you memorize the exact enemy spawn points. That kind of trial and error level design doesn’t work in a shooter, especially one with no checkpoints aside from boss battles.   Speaking of, if you die during a boss fight you might as well reset the game. Trying to destroy these monsters with the standard pea shooter is just flat out stupid.

I mentioned that the game’s few good ideas are sabotaged by some flaw at every turn and it’s true. The third level is sees you flying underneath a massive mecha crab and avoiding its legs. It would actually be pretty cool if you didn’t have to random enemy waves from the left and right, tanks on the ground, and the occasional turret from above. Try to process all of that. Just no. I love the premise of stage 4; the entire level is encased in ice that your ship can break. You can carefully carve your own path and avoid enemies but the nearly game breaking slowdown ruins it. The last level is a maze of tunnels with plenty of cover to avoid walls and bullets but runs way too long, which makes the lack of checkpoints even more pronounced.

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What makes the fucked up game balance and difficulty so sad is that it is obvious that money was put into this production. The graphics are pretty damn amazing despite the derivative nature of the game’s theme. There’s a healthy amount of parallax in every level with some of the backgrounds, especially stage 2 being especially bright. The bio-mechanical enemies aren’t all too different from similar titles but are large, varied, and impressive nonetheless. The similarities to R-Type are definitely there but the exceptional quality of the sprites really sets it apart. Unfortunately all of this spectacle is ruined by crippling slowdown that reduces the game to a slideshow at times. Stage four is especially bad about this; nearly the entire level moves in slow motion.

The soundtrack is fantastic and really puts the CD to good use. There’s a nice selection of techno tunes and symphonic arrangement that almost seem out of place in a shooter. Most of the music however is recycled from the first game. The overpowering music tends to either drown out the sound effects or make them disappear completely which can screw up your timing.

It’s just too bad the ridiculous difficulty will hinder your enjoyment of the game’s production values. I’ll be honest, even if the game were balanced this would simply be a decent game and not a true standout like Lords of Thunder or Soldier Blade. You are better off listening to the soundtrack on youtube than buying the game and punching the wall in aggravation. At least they got it right next time.

5-out-of-101

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Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles

I loved side scrolling action games during the 16-bit era and they were second only to RPGs as my favorite genre. But to an extent the pickings were a bit slim. After loving Contra III, Hard Corps, Alien Soldier, and the various Turrican games what was left were games of middling quality, especially by 1995. Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles aimed to fill that void but stumbles in the process due to a lack of polish. If you persevere you can appreciate the game’s few good points but when there are better alternatives out there why bother?

Mutant Chronicles is a tabletop role playing game much like Shadowrun or Dungeons & Dragons with Doom Troopers being its action focused spinoff. Some knowledge of the IP will provide some backstory context for the game although it isn’t necessary. In the distant future mankind colonizes the entire Solar System by terraforming other planets. It all goes wrong when they try to inhabit the tenth planet Nero and unleash the Dark Legion and their leader the Dark Soul. As one of two commandos, Mitch Hunter or Max Steiner it is your job to rid the galaxy of the Dark Legion once and for all.

As a shooter the game closely resembles Contra with a few notable differences. Ammo is not unlimited which is an odd choice for a game of this type. Generally it isn’t an issue as extra clips are almost always available. If you do run out your ammo will refill up to 10 shots on its own. Melee attacks are available but are more or less useless in my opinion. The only differences between characters are their special weapon and that Max takes less damage than Mitch otherwise it comes down to who you think looks cooler.

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Doom Troopers is gratuitously violent to an almost comical degree. Enemies that have been shot a few times will have their heads or torso explode in a shower of gore which is followed by a cartoony blood spurting sound effect. What remains of their bodies will still try to fight until you reduce it to a puddle of red stuff. Hanging bodies will decay from the jaw down in gruesome fashion and some enemies even lose both limbs before keeling over and dying. Why the developers chose to go all out in this fashion I don’t know as I’m not familiar with the trading card game this is based on but it comes across as incredibly crass instead of mature. Not that I’m squeamish or anything but this game really didn’t need the gore. What it could have used is more enemy variety as you’ll fight the same three or four dark legion soldiers for the length of the entire game which is lame. They sure do die in spectacular fashion though.

The controls are not the greatest as they can be a bit unresponsive at times. What’s worse than that is the idiotic decision to relegate aiming to a button. That’s right, you have to hold a button down to aim in multiple directions which is just plain stupid. It slows the game down considerably and forces you into positions where you might have to take a few cheap hits in the process of lining up a shot. Aside from the terrible aiming the game’s hit detection and collision are not up to snuff. Point blank shots and kicks regularly pass through enemies while they are under no such restrictions, able to walk through barriers and have lethal aim.

Anytime platforming is called for it’s a crapshoot whether the game’s collision will work or not. I have fallen through solid pieces of ground only to jump halfway through the same ledge and land properly. The game’s level design can be confusing as to whether certain areas will damage you or not, most especially on Mercury.

The game tries to mask its faults by providing a constant supply of health packs and extra lives but its problems are still pretty evident. If it were not for the abundance of power-ups this would be an impossible game to finish. As is it is difficult but you can brute force your way through thanks to the generous respawn system. The game’s few boss battles are creative and a highlight, providing the only real challenge in the game. I just wish there were more of them. This is not the longest game in the world at just seven levels and I don’t imagine most will have trouble completing it in one afternoon.

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For a 1995 release Doom Troopers is an ugly game. The pre-rendered sprites are low resolution to the point where you can barely make out their design. In many ways the sprite work looks like a low quality Genesis title that was ported to the SNES with little done to take advantage of its higher color palette. The art direction is also highly derivative. The jungle of the first level is a poor man’s attempt at mimicking Donkey Kong Country’s stylized forest and is just sad in comparison. The lava filled caverns of Mercury look suspiciously similar to the What the Heck? Level of Earthworm Jim, which is ironic considering Playmates would published both games. It isn’t completely bad however. The few times the game decides to forge its own identity its backgrounds can look pretty amazing at times. However these moments are few.

With a little more polish Doom Troopers could have at least been a good game with some rough spots. But its various middling issues combine to make it an exasperating experience. The moments where everything clicks are fun but those are separated by a whole lot of frustration. As much as I wanted to like it you are better off giving this a pass.

6-out-of-10-1

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Truxton

I briefly played Truxton in the arcade but had no recollection of it before finally renting it completely by chance. My memories of a fast action game that never let up held true but I wasn’t prepared for just how difficult the game is. Truxton manages to pack more action into its five levels than two whole games combined. In most cases that would be a good thing since it would seem you are getting your money’s worth but the high degree of difficulty brings down an otherwise solid game. You have been warned.

The weapon system is simple yet elegant. Weapons come in three colors: red for the standard bullets, blue for homing thunder, and green for lasers. To power up your weapons five P icons need to be collected which sounds like a lot but the game is actually pretty generous in that regard. Unlike most shooters the regular cannon is a three-way shot that isn’t completely useless so if you die you can at least survive long enough to collect a few items. Sadly there are no shields but the extremely cool skull bomb will erase any bullets on screen when used. Hell sometimes I used it just because it looks so damn cool.

The level setup is different from most. Each individual stage is one long scrolling act with virtually no pauses in the action right up until the final battle. There are frequent minibosses thrown in, sometimes against more than one ship that do break it up somewhat but aside from that the game never breaks from its slow march. There aren’t even any sort of traditional level transitions! The only way you’ll know it is a new stage is a change in scenery and music. There’s a blandness to the visuals that extends to the enemies and were it not for the constant enemy assault I would even say the game has a lazy atmosphere about it.

That last point is pretty funny in retrospect as this is one of the most difficult shooters I have ever played and that’s saying something. Generally I stay away from the bullet hell stuff and in that regard this game can’t compete. The attacks are relentless, the enemies insanely fast, and checkpoints relatively scarce. In other words the odds are stacked against you. It isn’t that your weapons are weak, far from it. But the enemies are so aggressive and can come from any corner of the screen without warning that you will die constantly. By stage 3 the game is practically throwing bombs and power-ups at your feet because you’ll need it. By that point if you die you might as well start over since it is nearly impossible to build up your weapons without dying again. The game isn’t quite Rayxanber II levels of frustrating but it can be grating. At least it’s doable unlike that…..game.

Despite a mere five levels the game definitely feel like you’ve gone through twice that number in the end. For the truly skilled gamers who manage to beat the “final” boss the game loops and becomes even more difficult. The arcade game repeated infinitely but at least in this version there is a definite conclusion. Defeating the fifth boss will reveal a brief ending in which he gets away. To see the game’s true ending you must complete five rounds or loops; a feat worthy of the greatest gamers among us. I have confidence in my gaming skills but honestly, fuck that.

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Truxton was never an exceptionally pretty game and its Sega port is even uglier. The color palette is incredibly subdued and because of that bullets have a tendency to blend in with the background leading to cheap deaths. The game has little in the way of interesting scenery. Most of it is empty space and different colored asteroids. I don’t know why they bothered but a portion of the screen is taken up by a status bar similar to Phelios and Elemental Master. That wouldn’t be a problem if the playing area weren’t forced to scroll as a result and left you open to off screen fire. The bosses are the sole visual highlight as they are large screen filling battleships and tanks. You’re not playing this game for its visuals.

Overall Truxton is a pretty good game but the high difficulty is definitely off putting. This is not a game for casual fans of the genre. While I’m not one to be put off by a game’s challenge in this case I do think it is a detriment. Only go into this knowing what to expect

7-out-of-10

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Salamander

Any fan of NES shooters is undoubtedly familiar with Life Force. As the sequel to Gradius we all thought the game was excellent, building on what we loved about Gradius and more. However what nearly all of us were not aware of is that Life Force was actually a loose port of Salamander, an entirely different series from Konami. Salamander would see many ports and sadly the excellent PC Engine version never came to the US. This is an excellent addition to the system’s shmup library and one worth seeking out.

Those who have played Life Force will be pretty surprised at just how different Salamander really is from that game. For one there is no power-up bar; all weapons are dropped randomly from enemies. I can see why Konami adapted the Gradius weapon bar when bringing the game to the US as it drew an automatic connection to Gradius but the Salamander method is actually pretty quick. Item drops are a regular occurrence although you’ll have to remember what each weapon looks like to avoid ditching the laser for the ripple for example.

As a shooter Salamander mixes both horizontal and vertical scrolling much like some of the Twinbee games. This could have been a recipe for disaster but the game is equally adept at both. It’s interesting to note some of the other differences between this and Life Force. Where Life Force adapted a biological theme Salamander is more straightforward (although all of these changes would be incorporated into a new version of the arcade game too). The fourth stage of Salamander was moved up to become the second level of Life Force. Sadly the original stages of Life Force aren’t present, which sucks. While they definitely seemed out of place (seriously an Egyptian themed level?) their presence would have increased the length of the game and made you feel like you got your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is quite low compared to the typical entries in the series. Due to the frequent weapon drops you can reach full power pretty quickly at which point you will blitz through the levels easily. There is still a ton going on with stray bullets and enemies blending into the background but nothing so intense that would be considered unfair. This home port adapts the checkpoint system of Gradius but isn’t as punishing since the game is so generous with weapons. There is no Konami code and continues are limited but that is little deterrent. The lacking challenge does however highlight the one crucial flaw with the game however.

The only major flaw with the game is its length. With just six stages shooter veterans can complete the game in under thirty minutes. Those less skilled will probably average an hour or so and while I like the game there is still something to be said about its value proposition. On the plus side the game is relatively cheap by import standards and I’m sure most will run through the game a few times as it is pretty awesome.

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Salamander was a significant leap forward in terms of presentation over Gradius which is surprising considering both games were released a year apart. The generic star fields of old have been replaced with more varied terrain such as fortified enemy bases, asteroid fields, and fiery planets. There is also a unique boss for every level which sounds minor but goes a long way toward keeping you from getting bored. I’m pretty confident no one wanted to spend another game blowing up the same mothership over and over again. This version of the game is near identical outside of differences in resolution and some minor loss of background detail. The FM synthesized music has been improved over the arcade game but the voices announcing the names of weapons and levels have been removed.

The one flaw with the game’s presentation is the slowdown. Much like the NES version of Gradius II with four options and a weapon like the Ripple filling up the majority of the screen the game can and will slow to a crawl frequently. This is especially egregious during boss battles but at least there it is welcome as the game can move too fast otherwise. How’s that for a problem? It isn’t game breaking but is pretty annoying as it really stands out amid the rest of this fantastic package.

Outside of the Salamander Deluxe Packs for the PlayStation and Saturn this is the best port of Salamander and one that should have made it overseas. If the game’s length is not an issue for you I see no reason not jump in unless you have access to the previously mentioned Deluxe Packs.

8-out-of-101

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Image Fight

I was always surprised that Irem never produced an NES port of R-Type. The NES/Famicom basically ruled the world at that point and it would make sense to bring your hottest property onto the best-selling console of the day but it never happened. While the Master System and Turbo Grafx-16 ports were well done those platforms were not exactly thriving. Instead we were given ports of obscure games like Image Fight. Not to completely disparage the game but Image Fight is little consolation for R-Type; it’s a decent game but with plenty of other quality shooters available there is little reason to bother with it.

You have a choice between two pods: the blue pods only fire forward, creating a concentrated burst of shots that is more destructive. The red pods follow the direction of the ship. It can be tricky to direct them in a pinch but it is far more versatile. You can have up to three, with two at your side and one at your back. By pressing both buttons together the pods can be sent out as a weapon though it isn’t particularly strong. Weapon selection is kept pretty light, not that the game needed any more than what is provided. There’s the V-cannon which follows its namesake and is near useless, seeking lasers that target the closest enemy in a straight line, a piercing laser, reflecting shot, and homing missiles. These attach to the front of your ship and can function as a one-time shield. Annoyingly you have to destroy your current weapon to grab a new one which is just plain stupid.

Image Fight is one of the few NES shooters that allow you to control the speed of the ship. Speed can be changed up to four levels which makes the ship faster and more maneuverable. It’s a decent option but outside of one boss encounter I never bothered with it and even forgot it could be controlled.

The game is broken up into two parts. The initial five levels are a sort of simulation or test and you are graded on your performance. Score less than 90% at the end and you have to do it all over. If you pass then it’s on to the final three “real missions”. In the arcade achieving a passing score was a grueling ordeal but here the game has been so simplified you would have to be brain dead to fail. The last three real missions are only a slight step up in difficulty, leaving the whole affair a sedate experience from beginning to end.

While a game leaning on the easy side isn’t so bad perhaps Image Fight’s biggest sin is the complete lack of excitement. This is an incredibly slow paced game and while there isn’t anything wrong with that when done well this is anything but. You will rarely be attacked by more than two or three enemies at a time, with plenty of time and room to dodge their fire. Even the bigger space ships pose little threat as their turrets are easily destroyed. The few weapons available are massively overpowered in comparison leaving you with to spend large amounts of time waiting for something to spawn.

One weapon in particular is game breaking: the homing missiles. Once you’ve acquired these you can literally park your ship on one side of the screen and let them do all the work. While they will occasionally try to follow an enemy behind a wall it is easy to get around that and utterly decimate the end level bosses in seconds. Even the last three “real missions” are no match for the homing missiles. True, you can always opt for a different weapon and option combo but realistically who gimps themselves on purpose to look for a challenge?

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Compared to its arcade big brother the NES version of Image Fight is the definition of a cheap port. Entire backgrounds have been removed, leaving a flat black backdrop in its place. It is incredibly boring to look at and was certainly not done for technical reasons as even earlier 1985 releases like 1942 and Zanac look better. The system is capable of better. The one positive I guess is that the larger ships and such have an extremely “clean” look to them that stands out against the backgrounds but you can tell I’m struggling to say something positive.

Image Fight is a strictly average shooter that maybe would have stood out had it been released years earlier. But by 1990 games like Gradius 2 and Parodius were pushing the system hard, making the complete lack of effort here more pronounced. There’s literally no reason to bother with this game.

5-out-of-101

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Mega Turrican

I really did not like Turrican on Genesis and I’m sure I’ve elaborated on why in my review. So the fact that I love Mega Turrican and its follow-ups so much is an absolute miracle. All it took were the developers abandoning a lot of what made the game unique in favor of a tighter focus on straight up action. That’s not to say that the series prior emphasis on exploring wide open levels was wrong but its execution left much to be desired. Mega Turrican still keeps some of that but its switch to Contra style action makes it a much better game in my opinion and one of the top run and gun shooters for the system.

Years have passed since Bren McGuire donned his Turrican suit and defeated the Machine to save the galaxy. But that peace is shattered as the Machine has returned with a vengeance, destroying numerous planets and enslaving thousands. Bren takes up the suit once again when he hears a distress call from a lone girl as her planet is being overtaken. I can’t believe they somehow found a way to shove a save the girl plot into the game. The game’s intro features anime style artwork that really looks out of place but you don’t play these games for the plot.

There are many radical changes to the typical series formula with all of them for the better. Most of these changes were also present in Super Turrican such as the segmented life bar and wheel mode that has its own separate meter. The three weapons are the same but look a bit different, especially the rebounding shot. Here it releases a burst of energy that travels along the ground and ceiling and despite appearances might be the strongest weapon. Temporary shields and a homing missile round out your offensive arsenal.

The lightning whip  has been replaced with an energy based grappling beam for some Indiana Jones style swinging. It is a cool addition but unless you are taking the time to find hidden items throughout each level it doesn’t see much use until the final two worlds at which point it is mandatory for progress. Getting used to the swing mechanics is a bit tough as many of the tightly packed spaces where you’ll need it aren’t conducive to building up momentum. Luckily the few levels where it is necessary give you ample time to make up for your inevitable mistakes.

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Most levels in the game are a set path with little deviation which might turn off fans of the series but is done extremely well. The action is much more focused and measured with a constant barrage of enemies in your path. Most levels have one or two mini boss encounters before the big finish against a multi-jointed monstrosity. It is very much in the mold of classic Japanese action games such as Contra except a notch lower. The few levels that are spacious try to recapture some of the old Turrican vibe but unless you enjoy collecting crystals for a higher score you won’t find much beyond more weapon upgrades and the occasional shield.

All of the base changes to the game make it a far more manageable experience this go round. The difficulty is about medium; in the game’s more chaotic moments it’s easy to lose one or two lives just trying to manage but this is backed up by more frequent extra lives and power-ups. I did the bare minimum when it came to exploration and still managed to rack up about 10 lives by the game’s midpoint. With that as a buffer you are free to make mistakes to identify boss patterns, such as they are. I will say that as cool as some of the bosses are (they blatantly rip off the Terminator and Alien in a few cases) they were easier than I expected. Not that I’m complaining of course.

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Mega Turrican looks phenomenal but that is to be expected when the game is co-developed by Factor 5. While it lacks the sheer spectacle of a Gunstar Heroes or Alien Soldier it more than makes up for it with incredibly detailed artwork. The cold metal factories and ruined cities are a perfect complement for the Genesis’ darker color palette with the kinds of lavish detail you would expect from a title released later in the console’s lifespan. Both Mega and Super Turrican were in development in tandem and they both share a few design elements and even levels. While it lacks that game’s color palette in some respects I found this to be stronger visually, especially the bosses.

The music is generally excellent full of excellent tunes reminiscent of the Genesis’s best. The soft and melodic soundtrack manages to dodge the completely robotic sound of its peers but this is still FM synth so a bit of that rough guitar twang is still present. The sound effects oddly enough are a bit weak and lacking punch, something you can’t say about too many Genesis titles.

Mega Turrican is an excellent action game on a system with more than its fair share and yet it still manages to rise to the top. Those seeking more after spending time with Contra: Hard Corps and Alien Soldier should definitely apply.

8-out-of-101

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Cosmic Epsilon

It’s curious to look back on the NES library and see which genres were underrepresented. Despite Nintendo’s absolute dominance of that era not every genre was fully supported in the US with the rail shooter being a prime example. Outside of Tengen’s illegal port of After Burner and 3-D World Runner (if you can even call it a shooter) fans were left wanting. Cosmic Epsilon is clearly patterned after Space Harrier and at least compared to the Famicom port of that game is far better and probably the best rail shooter for the system, not that there was much competition.

Once scheduled for a worldwide release (it was even demoed at CES!) Cosmic Epsilon was cancelled for reasons unknown. This was an interesting title as it was one of the few that supported the Famicom 3d system, a large pair of Virtual Boy style glasses that made you look like a bigger dork than the clowns that bought the power glove. Wisely Nintendo never brought it out over here but the 3d mode is still there in the game much like 3-D World Runner.

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What immediately stands out about the game is its presentation. The viewpoint and use of scaling is identical to Space Harrier except here it is much smoother. The backgrounds of each alien world also do an excellent job of setting a mood even though they are static and the game becomes more impressive the further you progress. The scaling of the enemy sprites isn’t as well done but they aren’t distracting. Only Tetrastar (ironically from the same developer) and Square’s JJ produce a more convincing 3d effect which is high praise.

The selection of weapons is surprisingly kept light. Your lasers are simple but functional and can be charged to produce a much stronger single blast. You have a limited supply of homing missiles….that are useless. Seriously I can count on one hand with extra fingers the number of enemies I’ve successfully shot down with a missile. The missiles are a worthless inclusion made worse by the fact that aside from an invincibility power-up you get nothing else.

Fortunately the game itself is set up so that you don’t really need anything else. This is as basic a shooter as they come. Enemies come in preset waves and you must either dodge their fire or destroy them across eight stages of scrolling action. The game alternates between piloting your transformable mech in its humanoid form and jet form although the only difference between the two is being a smaller target.

At eight levels this is pretty long by shooter standards and not in a good way. Each stage drags on longer than it should and the extremely limited enemy variety and staggered waves stand out as a result. You’re fighting the same five or six enemies for the entire trip and their tactics never change. By the midpoint of each level you’ll simply want it to end. Boss battles are pretty frantic as they attack aggressively, forcing you to always stay on the move. These are the highlight of the game outside of its technical prowess and if the game were better paced you could actually look forward to these encounters rather than wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.

Much like Space Harrier and its ilk targeting enemies and dodging bullets is a bit of a problem due to the viewpoint. In this regard at least Cosmic Epsilon has the advantage when it comes to shooting down enemies. Since your fire comes from the two orbs that follow your movements and act as crosshairs lining up enemies between them will almost always guarantee a hit. Dodging bullets and other hazards on the other hand is more of a hassle as it can be very hard to discern whether they will fly over you or right in your face.

As such you can probably guess the game can be viciously hard, especially in the later stages. The enemies attack in waves from all directions and while they are staggered the game’s POV means any random bullet can take you out. The game also relies a bit too heavily on heat seeking bullets that are hard to dodge unless you are already in motion, especially during boss battles. I get that that’s the point but it feels really cheap. Luckily you respawn immediately so death isn’t as big a detriment as it could have been; if the game sent you back to a checkpoint it would be impossible. There’s a particularly nightmarish sequence of laser dodging before the final boss that will sap all of your extra lives.

The high difficulty isn’t a deal breaker however. As a rail shooter this might be the best for the system which isn’t saying much seeing as there are so few but take what you can get. There is a fan translation for the game but it is completely unnecessary as there is only a paragraph of dialogue at most. Though flawed this is a much better experience than the NES version of Space Harrier and worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Mystic Formula

Top down shooters were pretty rough affairs on the Turbo Grafx. Final Zone 2 is just a bad game overall, Last Alert is decent but has some of the worst voice acting in history and as much as I want to like Kiki Kaikai Pocky & Rocky simply outclasses it. Mystic Formula is one of the rarer titles for the system and while certainly better than the previously mentioned games it feels like the developers were more interested in telling a fun story through cutscenes than making a good game. The levels feel more like necessary busywork to get to the next cinema. Even in spite of that the game is decent but not worth its hefty asking price.

With its fantasy setting and similar overhead view Mystic Formula resembles Elemental Master but has more in common with Capcom’s Mercs. All four heroes differ in terms of their range, strength and means of attack. In the end however they are all viable since the game is so easy, meaning it comes down to who you think looks cool. The game makes use of a charging mechanic that determines the power of your shots. Spamming the attack button will produce weaker bullets that only travel a short distance while letting the meter charge fully creates a bigger long distance projectile. Since the meter charges automatically and quickly at that you will most likely rely solely on the larger blasts. Power-ups aren’t too common and are few, with the most useful summoning one of your allies to fight beside you until death.

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It’s pretty obvious where the bulk of the game’s budget went and it wasn’t in the gameplay. The game’s frequent cutscenes are long but not fully animated. Despite that I will say that the game’s cast of characters are a likable bunch and exuberate a ton of personality that is easy to discern despite the language barrier. The in-game graphics however are lackluster. The first level is pretty interesting with its cool armored midboss and dual end level gargoyles. But from there it drops off considerably. The following levels look like they were cobbled together from one repetitive tile set which is incredibly lame.   The soundtrack on the other hand is fantastic. Micro Cabin has a long history of excellent music in their titles and MF is no exception. The hard rock tracks suit the game well although I wish they were longer as they tend to stop and repeat quickly.

Average graphics aside the pacing in Mystic Formula is the only thing keeping it from being truly great. There are long gaps in between enemy attacks and when they do occur most of the time they are so slow there is very little excitement. The last two levels do ratchet up the intensity somewhat and if the game had that same enthusiasm throughout the length of the quest this would have been excellent. Not that every game needs to be a nonstop thrill ride like Smash TV but the game can seem a bit too laid back. My dudes are armed with exotic weapons, give me a reason to use them!

With sparse enemy waves and overpowered weapons the games falls on the easy side. Part of this of course comes down to your choice of character; Raiden is simply too well rounded. The other characters vary things up a bit but you will never feel any pressure since you are fighting little bats and such instead of aggressive soldiers. About midway through the game when the real villain makes his appearance the game steps it up a bit as you’ll fight larger mecha but they come in prearranged groups and still fall in a single shot. Even the bosses are pushovers in spite of their menacing looks. I finished the game without continuing and I’m sure most will be able to accomplish the same with no trouble. Aside from playing around with the other characters there isn’t any reason to run through the game a second time as the experience is ok at best.

Adequate about sums it up. Mystic Formula nails the fundamentals but does little to surround them with an exciting game that has you itching to pick up the controller. I really wanted to like the game more as the cast are a fun bunch and the bosses are extremely cool but it simply isn’t enough. The game is pretty pricey unfortunately and is simply not worth the prices it commands. As a $10 downloadable title maybe and that’s the best praise I can give it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Titan Warriors

Overall there is no question that Capcom was one of the top NES publishers in the US, with a library that spans nearly all genres. However looking back there shooter output for the system was a bit mediocre. 1942 was a typical Micronics hack job and an embarrassment; TaleSpin could have been decent if not for some bad design decisions and Legendary Wings is only slightly above average. 1943 is the only one of these games that is great. Capcom’s 1988 sales brochure at CES that year made mention of a game called Titan Warriors, a sequel to their very first game Vulgus. While it looked cool TW was ultimately cancelled although it was more or less complete. Thanks to the magic of the internet however a complete prototype is available and aside from some bugs the game is excellent. We missed out on a great game.

Those that like a robust set of weapons in their shooters will be disappointed that there are only two options available. The laser is the standard single shot weapon, thin but extremely powerful. The Reflect laser can bounce of surfaces but is weak. Each can be powered up multiple times although in the case of the laser the difference isn’t as pronounced. In lieu of options your first weapon upgrade will attach armor to your ship that doesn’t protect you from hits but instead can be detached from both sides and provide additional fire for a few seconds. At full power this will give you a temporary shield for a brief period although it isn’t too common.

I’ll admit to some disappointment that the weapon selection is so small but in terms of functionality you don’t need more. The levels are so well designed there are plenty of reasons to use both. Each of the game’s six stages is split between a land zone and a space zone, making this one of the longer shooters of the time. The land zones tend to be full of wide open spaces that allow more maneuverability allowing the laser to shine. Out in space there tends to be more confined spaces making the reflecting shot invaluable. Despite this however more choices would not have hurt the game at all.

Owing to its status as a prototype (albeit feature complete) there are some notable bugs and such. Disappearing enemies tend to crop up here and there but the most noteworthy would be the wonky hit detection. Direct hits do not register frequently and if they do the appropriate sound effect is missing. This tends to occur with the reflecting shot the most and on some bosses I couldn’t tell if I was hitting the right target or not. Still however the game is completely playable despite these annoyances.

The difficulty is moderate overall in contrast to many shooters of the time. The enemy groups come in arranged patterns and outside of turrets in enclosed areas you’ll have little trouble avoiding being hit. Most of your deaths will come from off screen shots due to the wide playing field; it is a little cheap doesn’t occur too often. There are no checkpoints so dying sends you back to beginning of the level which in true shooter fashion is brutal. Mounting a comeback from that can be tough, especially against the quicker bosses but isn’t insurmountable. For those that want a true challenge finishing the game will activate a second loop that is brutal.

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For a 1988 release Titan Warriors would have been an exceptionally good looking game. The game has a bio mechanical theme going on that resembles an 8-bit version of Truxton. It isn’t as bullet heavy as that game but does get busy at times which causes slowdown. The space levels are a bit dull for obvious reasons but anytime you are planet side the world’s boast an extravagant level of detail. The bosses in particular are a pretty cool looking bunch that really pushed the envelope for that year. I shouldn’t be so surprised considering 87-88 are when developers were really on fire yet Titan Warriors is still pretty impressive all things considered.

The same lavish attention given to the graphics has also been applied to sound. The music is overall excellent, full of catchy tunes that might remind you of Bionic Commando and Mega Man. Chances are some of the same composers worked on all three titles so the similarities would make sense. A vast amount of the game’s sound effects have also been lifted from both Mega Man and Legendary Wings but that so much a complaint as an observation.

I wonder why the game was cancelled seeing as it is comes across as a top flight production for the time. Had Titan Warriors been released in 1988 it would easily have been one of the best shooters for the system. Lord knows it would have wiped the bad memories of 1942 from my mind. The rom is freely available on the web; fans of excellent games in general should check it out.
8-out-of-101

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Pop’n Twinbee

The Twinbee style of shooters never really appealed to me, although I must admit that my disdain comes from playing Stinger on the NES. After spending the better part of two hours going to and from the department store to buy a new game only to be greeted by…..that I’m pretty sure soured me on the series’ mechanics. Turns out all I needed was to play the right games. Detana Twinbee really changed my opinion and this excellent gem made me a fan. Pop’n Twinbee is a truly excellent game and one of the SNES’s finest, which makes it that much more frustrating that it was only released in Japan and Europe.

Pop’n Twinbee loses the side scrolling stages and completely focuses on its vertical action and in my opinion is a much better game for it. Juggling the bells for power-ups, one of the main tenets of the series, is now much easier. At times I was able to juggle up to eight bells at once with no trouble, not that I recommend it. The bombs have also been improved for the better. Now the bombs will automatically target the closest enemy but aren’t completely perfect and will sometimes miss. There’s also a nice tradeoff in that you need to cease using your main weapon to use them.

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A few changes were made to the power-up system that bring it closer to Gradius while still keeping the flavor of Twinbee. Your options hew closer to Gradius and you can pick up a trio to supplement your fire. You also have three choices as to how they function depending on the character. Sadly you’re only other weapon upgrades are a more powerful single shot and a three-way shot although they are both pretty effective. Aside from bombs you can also wind up a punch to smack enemies in close range and even bullets if you can get the timing right.

Since this is an SNES exclusive it was designed around the system’s strengths and as such this is a slower paced shooter than most are probably used to. The game’s leisurely pace should not be taken lightly however as it is just as intense as the twitch action games popular in the genre. The game cleverly mixes in ground based targets among its more straightforward enemies, forcing you to prioritize since you can’t target both at once. While I do feel the game could have used a few more primary weapons aside from the two available the few on offer are more than adequate to complete the game.

Although the game is only 7 levels long it will still take most about 2 hours or so to complete as each stage is pretty long with some stretching up to 15 minutes. You’ll never get bored however as the visual design of the world will keep you interested as well as the pacing of the game’s action. The boss battles are the game’s true highlight as each goes through multiple phases like a raid boss. Just be grateful they aren’t as difficult.

Speaking of difficulty overall the game is balanced pretty well. On the default setting the challenge is about medium. For the most part the game is fairly easy with the occasional spike here and there. Towards the end it picks up considerably like it should and for those that want a real challenge crank the setting up to 8 and cry. Part of what makes Pop’n Twinbee so accessible would be its use of a life bar instead of lives. Although you have a single life and limited continues health can be replenished regularly, plus you can tank an absurd number of hits before death. Power-up clouds almost always arrive in clusters so unless you are absolutely terrible at the game you can maintain a set of options and a shield at all times. Yet somehow in spite of all this the game still manages to put up a fight. Like I said, perfect balance.

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The visual evolution the series underwent with the release of Detana Twinbee continued here as the game looks like an anime come to life. Pop’n Twinbee looks absolutely fantastic, full of bright, vivid colors, and a level of detail in its world that wouldn’t look out of place in the arcade. The backgrounds depict a beautifully stylized steampunk world full of industrial machinery and giant sized mechs. The closest comparison would be Atlus’s PS2 gem Skygunner. The game is light on special effects with transparency used pretty frequently yet the game does not suffer in the slightest because of it. In many ways I wish more developers would show this level of restraint. All of this visual splendor is done with only the barest minimum of slowdown, a miraculous feat.

I fully expected the soundtrack to be full of bright and chirpy music that would grate on my ears after one session but instead was greeted by a symphonic score that is just excellent. The music is appropriately happy and adventurous when setting out but can also become dark and menacing at a moment’s notice.

It’s a bit curious that the best shooters for the SNES never came to the US. With the likes of the Parodius games and Twin Bee maybe the system wouldn’t have such a bad reputation (although partially true) when it came to the genre. Pop’n Twinbee is Konami firing on all cylinders and a game you absolutely need to play.

9-out-of-10

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Spriggan Powered

Spriggan Powered is a game I discovered years after having seen the anime Spriggan. As much as I try to associate the two in my brain they have nothing in common aside from the name. As an offshoot of Compile’s incredible PC Engine CD series the game has a lot to live up to. And while it is solid it can’t match up to its legendary predecessors. This is still far better than most of the shooter library on the SNES but its exorbitant price will keep it out of the hands of most.

The weapon selection is kept pretty light and personally I found it a bit weak. The colored orbs correspond to an individual weapon but outside of the orange…flamethrower none feel especially powerful. The homing orbs are useful against smaller trash but are incredibly weak, not to mention they also cause the game to slowdown (seriously!). The blue back laser doesn’t have a niche it excels in and is just….there. The red machine gun lets out a spread of bullets in rapid succession and is only hampered by a narrow radius.

The most interesting mechanic is the game’s shield. At any moment you can bring up a shield that protects you from all damage, even head on collisions and the occasional trip through scenery. The longer you hold it the more energy it drains but you can replenish the meter consistently. It can also be charged to unleash a more powerful version of your current weapon. Two of these super weapons in particular are pretty overpowered; the lasers actually slow time while the homing orbs produce four larger orbs that remain on screen and damage everything they touch. You can decimate bosses in seconds if you time it right! These are pretty draining but well worth the time they save.

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The overly dark intro and box art are in stark contrast to the game’s actual level presentation. Overall this is a pretty bright game as you fly over sparkling waterfalls (complete with rainbows), rolling forests, and a bout among the clouds at sunset. Compared to the dull metal cityscapes of most games in the genre this is a breath of fresh air, even more so since most pre-rendered games of that era were incredibly dark due to the limited color palettes of the 16-bit consoles.

Overall this is not the most fast paced shooter on the system but it does have its moments. Most enemies are small in size but pepper the screen with bullets, mostly so you can take advantage of the tech bonus received from flying one step too close to fire. It’s a mechanics used in a few import only shooters like Psyvariar (love that game!) and is a nice reward for cheating death. At six levels this is a short but memorable excursion that could have done with one or two more levels, especially as it isn’t too difficult.

Despite limiting you to two credits this is about average in terms of difficulty for shooters. You can make liberal use of your shield as power-ups to refill the meter are pretty frequent. For those that are truly terrible at the game weapons drops are also a constant and even if you die there is still a brief window to collect your weapon again. The more skilled pilots can totally abuse the tech bonus to rack up point bonuses that award extra lives. There are definitely points where the challenge steps up, most notably stage four with its limited field of view and it has its fair share of bullshit enemy placement. But overall it’s pretty refreshing to play a shooter that isn’t trying to kick sand in your face at every turn.

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Visually Spriggan Powered has its moments but is a product of its time. The pre-rendered sprites are both impressive and disappointing; most normal enemies are small, low resolution, and not so impressive in their design. The larger capital ships and mechs impress with all kinds of smaller details like specular highlighting that for the time looked great. The true star of the graphics are the backgrounds which are absolutely spectacular.

The pre-rendered graphics do come with a cost however as there is some truly awful first generation slowdown present. For the most part the game runs fine but in tight spaces and especially when using the homing weapon it slows to a crawl. We’re talking single digit frame rate. Seeing as it was developed by Micronics (the butcher of many fine arcade ports on the NES) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In this case though it doesn’t completely ruin the game. For a game released in 1996 it is pretty bad especially since other shooters such as Pop n Twinbee and Scrambled Valkyrie are largely free of such constraints.

Slowdown aside however Spriggan Powered is a still a solid shooter but not the world class shmup its production values would suggest. Unfortunately it has never been rereleased and so it fetches a high price on the aftermarket. As much as I like the game I would recommend the Parodius games first as they are much cheaper and better.

7-out-of-10

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Coryoon

Once it became obvious that the Turbo Duo was not going to save the Turbo Grafx in the US I turned my attention towards the game’s released only in Japan with envy. There were so many cool Rpgs and legions of shooters we would never receive (although shooters were a bit saturated over here at the time) that it was downright criminal. Of course it would be almost 10 years before I would ever play most of those games I once ogled and I discovered some true gems. Coryoon is a game that has a low profile as it was released after the PC Engine CD and so went unnoticed. That is a shame as the game is simply amazing and much better than many of its later CD counterparts.

If Coryoon bears more than a passing resemblance to Air Zonk it is with good reason. Many of the same staff worked on both titles and while it might feel derivative it also means the game has a solid base. Air Zonk is one of my favorite shooters but even taking that into account I’m surprised just how much I like the game. Overly cute games are usually not a part of my gaming diet (The Twinbee games are as far as I go, you can keep your Otomedius) but I’ll be damned if Coryoon didn’t win me over. If the game were a little more challenging it could have been a classic.

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The game is visually fantastic and one of the most impressive traditional Hucard titles. Like Air Zonk the game uses very large sprites set against multi scrolling backgrounds that are incredibly detailed and full of life. Unlike that game Coryoon is decently long and so it covers far more varied terrain. The settings cover most of the traditional video game staples such as a fire zone, underwater level and forest but the cartoon presentation means they certainly don’t resemble any other game you’ve seen before. The boss designs are similarly excellent and imaginative which is appropriate as they are the visual highlight of the game. The soundtrack, while bright and chirpy, doesn’t rise to the same level unfortunately. The music isn’t bad per se but unremarkable.

Coryoon keeps its primary weapon selection small at just three that can be upgraded a further two times. Red orbs change your fire into a flamethrower which is powerful but has short range. Blue produces a wave attack that increases in size at higher levels. Yellow is the thunder orb, which shoots lightning bolts in a spread formation that covers nearly the whole screen at its highest level. When you aren’t firing Coryoon will charge a powerful breath attack which can decimate bosses quickly. There are an number of secondary support items based on playing cards that grant additional powers such as a smart bomb, fairies that will aggressively seek out enemies and absorb bullets and mini dragons whose function changes based on your weapon, really cool. Weapon storks are always present so you can freely experiment to find the best fit for the current situation.

The games cute exterior belies the fact that it has some teeth. This is one of the most frenetic shooters for the system which is saying a lot. There is rarely a moment where the screen isn’t filled with bullets, fruit, enemies, and even power-ups that is hard to process at first. It is very easy to fly straight into a random bullet since they are so small in comparison to the large sprites. Yet somehow throughout all the chaos it still becomes easy to follow after a level or so. This is a much more active shooter as enemies attack from all sides meaning you’ll have to actually fly around the screen to avoid taking hits rather than simply hanging back and waiting for them to come to you. The game does a nice job of varying up its enemy waves with level hazards such as exploding crystals, maze like blocks, and other such items that will actually test your flight skills.

The only area in which Coryoon falls short is its challenge. Despite the games pace and onscreen chaos it is ridiculously easy. Provided you have a power-up you’ll never die since taking a hit will only take it away. The game is extremely generous with items so it’s rare to be caught without one; during boss battles the item stork will fly by every twenty seconds or so or immediately after you die. With all the fruit thrown around your score will shoot through the roof and extra lives are rewarded like candy. With all that in mind anyone can brute force their way through the game. It makes the game very accessible but at the same time it is disappointing in the sense that the game is so fun that it is a shame its over so fast.

I wouldn’t let that stop you however. If you are even a slight fan of shooters coryoon is an excellent purchase and well worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Dinosaurs for Hire

Dinosaurs for Hire? Sure why not? We have Turtles that are ninjas and toads that love to battle so mercenary alien dinosaurs aren’t too far-fetched. It would be easy to lump this in the same category as Battletoads, the Street Sharks, and Biker Mice from Mars but DFH predates all those by almost a decade in some cases. All jokes aside my knowledge of the original comics from Eternity and Malibu is spotty at best but what I remember is a comic that didn’t take itself too seriously despite its premise and actually poked fun at its many contemporaries. The game goes in the opposite direction and plays it relatively straight. While the humor of the comic is only present in small doses that is a minor complaint as I’m sure 90% of those who will eventually play aren’t even aware of the comic’s existence. Luckily the game is enjoyable on its own merits.

The Dinosaurs for Hire as the title suggests are Archie, Reese, and Lorenzo, a tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, and triceratops respectively. Although they look identical to our prehistoric beasts they are actually aliens who happen to resemble dinosaurs. Along with pterodactyl pal Cyrano the quartet moonlight as guns for hire to pay the bills since they are stranded on Earth. There is no story presented in the game but it doesn’t need one to give you an excuse to kill an army of mutants and ninjas. So, so many ninjas.

Of the few games based on Malibu Comics properties Dinosaurs for Hire is undoubtedly the best. Ex-Mutants is just a terrible game from start to finish and Prime never rose above being a mediocre side scrolling brawler. Dinosaurs for Hire is solid in part because the comic has the perfect setup to send them out on missions of destruction. Make no mistake, Konami and Treasure were not lying awake at night worried that Dinosaurs for Hire was about to steal their lunch. But the game is more than worthy enough to occupy your time after you are done with those developer’s classics.

All three characters play identically with the exception of their melee attack which is a slight disappointment. Weapon selection is surprisingly light with your only options being a spread shot, exploding shots, or a devastating combination of both. Melee attacks are for enemies that get in too close but is problematic. Most enemies (humans or ninjas) are a lot shorter than your dino and so the attack will miss as they run past you in groups. I mean yay for accuracy but it is frustrating as hell to see a virtual midget run under the butt of your gun and pelt you in the shins repeatedly.

Despite what the game’s box art suggests this isn’t actually a nonstop action extravaganza. Most levels are actually fairly quiet with few enemy encounters as you work your way to the exit. While most stages tend to be pretty straightforward and short there are a number such as the dam and toy factory that are large and confusing in their layout. With no guidance it is easy to get lost or accidentally die falling into some hazard that looked like a platform. Where the game’s individual stages run hot and cold the boss battles are always a delight as you will often face off against multi story mutants and robots that need to be taken apart piece by piece.

Overall the difficulty is fairly median. There are many instances where you’ll take shots from off screen enemies or turrets but the game is balanced so that life restoring food is usually close by, even during some boss battles. The confusing level design will lead to some wasted lives but you can set the number of lives and continues in the options menu to offset that. The boss battles can be particularly brutal, especially if you die since you are stripped of all weapons. It can be a tall order to take down some of the more aggressive mayors in the game with nothing but the standard machine gun but even in light of that I doubt most will have trouble completing the game in one afternoon.

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In terms of graphics the game comes across average. The game has a very grainy look to it overall which helps with certain environments such as the graffiti covered subway and dark toy factory. But once you are outdoors it tends to look like a first generation game. The sprites are incredibly large, especially the screen filling bosses but the animation is pretty poor. By 1993 when this was released the Genesis was on a roll with titles like Shinobi 3, Ranger-X, Eternal Champions, and Gunstar Heroes pushing the system hard. Dinosaurs for Hire looked out of place in Sega of America’s lineup by comparison. Luckily the gameplay carried it.

The game has its fair share of problems but nothing so bad that it should be avoided. This is a solid action game in the Contra mold that can be found dirt cheap. At that price it is more than worth your time.

7-out-of-10

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TwinBee 3: Poko Poko Daimaō

Well they certainly tried with the Twinbee series on NES. For all of their faults the Famicom editions of the games had good ideas buried under average production values. My experience with the series for the longest time came from Stinger, and I was not impressed to say the least. After spending a few hours with family on the bus and walking to buy a new game that was what we came home to. Yeah. Eventually Konami would find their grove with Detana Twinbee but Twinbee 3 was on the right track at least. This is not a great game by any stretch but is a significant improvement over its lackluster predecessors.

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What is immediately apparent is the significant graphical overhaul the game has received. The game is a lot faster and smoother and exhibits a much wider color palette that is put to good use throughout the game’s imaginative worlds. The game still has a weird assortment of random enemies that don’t look like they belong in this world yet you still go along with it because the series in general is strange. This is exhibited by the just plain weird bosses. The dragon with a mouth full of little demons that needed to be excised from its teeth is certainly original. But then there’s the ghostly music trio who are putting on a show with deadly musical notes as part of the ensemble. While it is an improvement it does pale in comparison to similar titles released around the same period even from Konami; you can’t help but feel this was a redheaded stepchild with no budget compared to Gradius II and Salamander.

Konami wisely decided to completely focus on vertical scrolling action and its impact immediately apparent. Juggling the bells in a side scrolling view was problematic since lining up your shots was far more difficult as well as dealing with a smaller playing field. While bell carrying clouds aren’t as plentiful as in the later games there are enough that you shouldn’t go too long without being able to collect a potential power-up. There aren’t as many ground targets to deal with unfortunately which sucks but that element of the series has never been shown a great deal of love.

In terms of weapons there are slightly less this time around and the ones that remain have seen their utility dampened. The standard options of speed-up, double shot, and lasers are present and accounted for. Collecting flashing bells awards two options that mimic your actions but here they move and shoot slower which almost defeats the purpose of having them. Not that the game needed new weapons as what is here is more than adequate but something new to show that this wasn’t a cheap sequel would have been appreciated. Unfortunately the lone new addition does more harm than good.

The Soul Recovery system nearly breaks the game as it completely trivializes and possibly makes it impossible for you to die. Whenever you take a hit an ambulance will appear and if you grab it you can avoid dying and also regain any power-ups collected. There’s no limit to how many times you can keep doing this meaning sloppy play has few penalties. Heavier attacks will insta gib you generally you can see those coming from a mile away. Couple this with a too few levels and you are left with a game with little staying power.

As much as I like Twinbee 3 however it can’t overcome the fact that it is so short. With a meager five stages everyone will blow through this in half an hour or less. Not that most shooters are long but that is damn near criminal in this case. The option to tackle the levels in any order you choose would be better appreciated if there were more of them. The challenge is pretty low which makes it even worse and while there is a hard difficulty it isn’t that much worse. At least there’s a different ending for beating that mode. With a few more levels this could have been a more solid release.

Twinbee 3 is a far better game than Stinger but still comes up short in a few key areas. There are far too many great shooters available for the NES to bother seeking out a slightly above average game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Chuuka Taisen

Cloudmaster was one of the last Sega Master System games I ever played and it was kind of a bittersweet send off for the little system that could. It wasn’t an especially good game but it certainly stood out due to its setting. While it isn’t based on Journey to the West it certainly has that vibe. While it was released in the US for Sega’s console its Famicom port was left behind. Honestly with the wealth of quality shooters available in America we weren’t missing anything as it shares the same flaws as its arcade parent; it’s boring.

While Chuuka Taisen isn’t based on any particular story its influences are pretty clear to see. You control Michael Chen (right), a Monkey King style character who rides a flying cloud through ancient China defeating ever so racist enemies such as flying ramen bowls and a few bucktoothed, slanted eyed enemies that are a callback to the types of propaganda used to demonize China during World War II.

There are a few sparse power-ups dropped by enemies that will increase your speed and change your shots to a double shot or a wider shot. Neither one pack any real punch so you’ll end up relying on the secondary weapons more. Every level has two shops that offer your choice of four weapons that have a variety of effects, from bombs to bouncing grenades, wave beams, and even a four way shot. These all have unlimited ammo so you can spam them infinitely however they are slower than your default shots. Each shop also has a rotating set of weapons making it worthwhile to check out each one regardless of how much you like your current selection.

Chuuka Taisen’s problem is pacing and the lack of any real excitement. It never becomes as bad as something like Blaze On but there are periods where little to nothing is happening before suddenly exploding into a ballet of bullets. Each level follows the same general flow, with a few waves of enemies and ground targets and at about the 50% and 75% mark a stronger demon will appear who will grant access to the shop once defeated. The level design does very little to make use of its setting with the same background elements repeated ad nauseam to stretch out each stage. They don’t even try to hide it cleverly either; if it weren’t for the different enemies you’d think something was wrong and the levels repeated infinitely.

Despite the odd pacing this is a pretty tough shooter. When the enemies do attack its always in packs that move in odd formations that are hard to judge. Power-ups drop pretty frequently but it is easy to develop tunnel vision and fly head first into a group of bullets. Your standard shots are weak and even when powered up still don’t feel as though they pack the necessary punch they should. The bosses have easily identifiable patterns yet you’ll probably still die in the execution of their demise. Death kicks you back to a checkpoint sans power-ups but your chances of survival aren’t as dire as something like R-Type.

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Whether it was intentional or not the Famicom version of Chuuka Taisen is interesting. While the Master System version is definitely superior it still holds its own visually. Due to the console’s limitations the overall color palette has been reduced. Most of the background details are still there but a bit washed out and it gives the graphic direction a Sumi-E vibe that is fairly distinct. While it does give the graphics a unique flair they are also let down by repetitive architecture. The bosses are all fairly large sprites that look impressive but are barely animated, which is disappointing.

This is pretty short even by shooter standards and even though it puts up a fight most will have it beat in one afternoon. At the end of the day Chuuka Taisen isn’t so much a bad game as it is disappointing and just average. But considering its arcade counterpart was the same you could make the argument that they were aiming for accuracy when porting it but that still doesn’t make it worth playing. Regardless it was popular enough to end up ported to numerous platforms and while I find this Famicom edition mediocre its PC Engine counterpart is a legitimately good game. Go for that if you are genuinely interested in this game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Gaia Seed

I’ve always been fascinated by the expensive, rare import games. You hear stories of games like Radiant Silvergun and Psychic Assassin Taromaru that used to routinely fetch anywhere between $150-300 on Ebay and wonder what all the fuss was about. Limited print runs or publishers going out of business tend to make even mediocre games desirable; luckily Gaia Seed doesn’t have that problem. Although its original publisher is long gone thanks to monkeypawgames everyone can play this solid shooter at a fraction of its after market price. Is it one of the best PlayStation shooters? Far from it. But for 6 or 7 bucks you could certainly do worse.

The power-up system is kept fairly light but the options available are more than enough to suffice. The main cannon has two options, the Blue laser or the Red Needle shot with each powering up three levels. The laser is more or less exactly what you would expect, a thin but powerful beam of force that expands in size with each level. The Needle shot becomes wider with each upgrade though not as much as it probably should have. Secondary options are the Green Cipher Wave, which fires blobs of homing energy and the useless Yellow Energy Blaster, which is more or less another needle shot. Lame.

Two of the most interesting features are the regenerating shield and “Intense” fire. Like the shooter equivalent of Halo both will slowly regenerate over time, effectively granting infinite life if you are careful. Amazingly it is balanced fairly well; random shots inflict enough damage that you’ll die in 5 or 6 hits yet it charges fast enough that you can afford to make a few mistakes here and there. The Intense shot depends on your main weapon, with the needle shot producing a series of homing lasers straight out of Panzer Dragoon and the laser emitting a boss decimating beam of destruction. This regenerates slower so it can’t be spammed; at most you might get two shots during a boss battle.

While the regenerating shield mechanic doesn’t completely break the game overall this is still a fairly easy shooter. On normal a fully charged laser can almost completely destroy a boss in one burst. Hard isn’t that much different either; you simply take more damage from stray bullets. Since you respawn instantly upon death you can easily zerg your way through the more difficult situations in the game. Five continues sounds fair but that is actually overly generous; I only used one to reach the end and I was only playing half seriously. Bottom line no one should have any trouble seeing the game’s conclusion.

Each of the game’s seven levels is nonstop chaos as there is rarely a moment when a stream of enemies isn’t pouring in. The complex bullet arrays and mix of bad guys were clearly designed so that you would prioritize your shields; I doubt it would be possible to get through the game if a single hit resulted in death. I would have liked to have seen at least one more weapon type as the two available while functional never seem as powerful or fun in their usage as they should be. While the levels cover the majority of the standard shooter tropes (asteroid field, doing battle amidst an armada of ships, etc.) the timed boss battles do present some challenge. Most bosses will shed their armor or change forms multiple times before dying and are usually equipped with massive shield draining lasers. The timer isn’t as much of a factor as you would expect until the final level, where your decision to let the end bosses live will determine which of the three endings you’ll receive.

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In terms of visuals Gaia Seed resembles many an SNES shooter and even has Mode 7 style effects sprinkled throughout. That isn’t a knock against the game but it is a bit underwhelming, especially compared to games like Lightening Force and Axelay. There are definitely elements that could not be done on a 16-bit platform such as the large multi-jointed bosses and some of the special effects going on in the game’s backgrounds. While the game isn’t impressive technically artistically it has its moments such as the massive debris field of stage one and the line scrolling background of stage 3. The soundtrack is excellent, blending many different styles of music together in one aural package that is surreal yet fits the action pretty well.

Gaia Seed is a fairly conventional shooter that doesn’t break any new ground but is as solid as they come. Previously the game commanded large sums of money but thanks to its PSN release through Monkeypaw games it can be had dirt cheap. If you are a fan of shooters it will provide a few hours of entertainment.

7-out-of-10-1

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Thunder Spirits

Where the Turbo Grafx and the Genesis shared many multiplatform shooters the same definitely could not be said with the SNES. It’s an irrefutable fact that the system’s slow processor hampered it when it came to the genre and so most developers wisely chose to either create new titles aimed specifically at either platform or didn’t bother. The lone exception to this is Thunder Spirits, a loose SNES port of Thunder Force III that in many respects shows exactly why the series largely stayed with Sega. While not a bad game it isn’t as good as its counterpart.

Calling this a port isn’t entirely accurate. Thunder Spirits is actually a port of the arcade release of Thunder Force III. While largely the same some stages have been removed with new ones taking their place and the graphics have seen a slight bump. To an outsider not familiar with the two the games they would seem to be identical. The SNES port of Thunder Force Arcade is pretty well done but suffers from heavy slowdown and illustrates the differences between it and the Genesis succinctly.

The basic gameplay is largely the same allowing veterans of the series to hop right in. Not all of the weapons have made the transition from Thunder Force 2 such as the Wide Shot and Destroy but they aren’t needed as the arsenal available is vastly overpowered compared to the game’s content. The Wave beam and the Front shot both cover so much of the screen that lesser weapons such as the homing shot can’t compete.

The vertical scrolling levels of the series second installment have been excised leaving a much stronger side scrolling shmup. Unfortunately they’ve also done away with the level select feature, not that it had any impact beyond running through the game in a different order just for the sake of it. Where this port and the arcade game differ are in their levels. Two planets have been removed, Haidis the cool underground world and Ellis the ice planet. The omission in particular is a huge blow as that was one of my favorite stages in the game. There replacements are lackluster in comparison. The generic star field of level 4 is eerily reminiscent of Eliminate Down and offers few thrills. One of the levels is even rehashed from Thunder Force 2! To make matters worse the game is missing a level, making this an even shorter journey.

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The graphics are both impressive and disappointing at the same time. This was not an exceptional looking title even in 1990 and a year removed has only made this new version look worse in comparison. The game replicates the look of the Genesis original pretty well with all of the same nifty effects. But at the same time it also inherits its weaknesses, in this case very low color depth. It’s weird to see an SNES game this dark and dithered and a shame that they didn’t make use of its higher color palette and special effects.

The one area that the game suffers in the most is slowdown. This is bad, like even worse than Super R-Type and Gradius III. The frame rate slips into the single digits at times and the game even has flickering. The flickering is so bad during boss battles that you’ll actually lose a few lives because a massive fireball disappeared for a second or two. The extreme instances of flicker and slowdown stand out more than usual since the game runs identically to the Genesis game for the most part. The music does a very bad job of replicating the FM synth of the original soundtrack and the sound effects are heavily muffled; once again this is another element that could have been better.

The slowdown makes the game slightly more difficult but in the end this is still a pretty easy game considering how overpowered the weapons are. The generous respawn system (you only lose the currently selected weapon) means even the most weak sauce fan of shooters will complete this relatively quickly. I’m not a fan of overly difficult games but I do at least want some opposition and Thunder Spirits comes up short in this category unfortunately.

Thunder Spirits is a competent port of Thunder Force Arcade/Thunder Force III but could have been better. While this isn’t a bad game there are far better shooters in the SNES’s meager shooter library that only the most ardent fans will want to bother.

6-out-of-10-1

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Ordyne

Generally speaking I’m not fond of overly cute games. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of man’s man but I can only take so much saccharine sweetness before my eyes glaze over. Ever play Paladin’s Quest? That was a little too much for me. I’ve mostly avoided the cute em up (it’s a totally made up name) but have dabbled in it here and there with the likes of Parodius and Death Smiles (such a deceptively excellent game). Ordyne from Namco shares that company but isn’t as good. This is a decent conversion of the arcade game and nothing more.

The cute em up subgenre of shooters has largely stayed out of the US and this was probably one of the very first to reach our shores. At first glance Ordyne gives off the impression of a parody or light hearted shoot em up like Parodius. Aside from its cute exterior however it owes most of its inspiration to Gradius. The enemy attack formations and even some of the enemies themselves look as though they came from Konami’s classic. It also borrows the forward facing cannon and missile/bombs for ground targets idea.

However where Ordyne differs is in its weapon system. Defeated opponents drop crystals of varying quantities that can be used to purchase weapons in the shops. Each shop has a different selection of three weapons which span the usual genre conventions. Three-way shots, the two-way after burner shot and a variety of different bombs comprise the list and unfortunately these are temporary. There are even a few esoteric weapons like the Stock Bomber, which manifests as a Pac-Man style shield that gobbles up enemy bullets.

One cool bonus in the game would be the Dream Co. Ltd. Robots that has a lottery that can award huge prizes, the most important being 20 or 100,000 crystals which can potentially set you up for the rest of the game. Good luck winning that prize though. You can also win power-ups but the chance of winning in general is extremely low but still worth the minor cost to participate.

Since the arcade game ran at such a large resolution the Turbo port makes use of an elevated playing field to contain all of the action. It works better than in most similar titles since you won’t have to deal with unseen enemies attacking from off screen. Some levels have more than one path to the exit which is pretty cool and can potentially save you a few lives. Unfortunately some things had to be cut to fit the game on a Hucard. Some of the cooler obstacles you faced were large rotating and spinning objects that required deft flying skills but sadly those had to be changed in the conversion and their replacements are just sad.

The weapon system is different but also isn’t as well implemented as I would like. You can only purchase one item before being kicked out of the store. The selection is randomized and unfortunately upgrades such as speed-ups (which really should be separate) take up spots on the list. Later in the game some items are bundled together but it doesn’t help matters much. Being stuck with a bunch of stupid bombs with an extremely limited supply is as your only choices is flat out bad. To the game’s credit there are least three shops in every stage but since weapons are limited by ammo or a time limit you are forced to rely on the standard cannons far too much.

Even without any special weapons and a gimpy regular shot that has no turbo (you have to buy it, get comfortable button mashing) this is of medium difficulty. The game is suitably lengthy but even with the standard fire it won’t pose much of a challenge outside of the occasional boss. If you tackled the game with a buddy in coop it becomes even easier since both of you can buy a different weapons and dominate. Even with just 5 continues I don’t see anyone having trouble beating the game on the first try.

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As a port this version looks competent but pales in comparison to the arcade game. The multiple levels of scrolling in the backgrounds are completely gone, leaving the game with a flat appearance that is off putting. This is most evident while battling the first boss, a massive battleship in the clouds that was foreboding in the arcade with its thunder cloud filled sky but loses the effect at home with almost all of the clouds missing. The cool scaling and rotational effects are simply gone with static obstacles in your way. To the game’s credit it does manage to replicate nearly all other aspects of the arcade game’s visuals faithfully and it was released early in the system’s life but the system is certainly capable of better.

A bit too cute at times but otherwise solid, Ordyne overall is an above average shooter that isn’t thrilling enough to compete against the multitude of better games in the genre the system has to offer. Only the most dedicated of fans need apply.

6-out-of-10-1

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Adventures of Dino Riki

The Adventures of Dino Riki is a game that should have been decent but instead suffers from the types of bad game design and balance that most early NES efforts grappled with. For a game released in 1987 you could maybe overlook its problems but it took two years to make the trip overseas. By 1989 classics were being released left and right and old games like Dino Riki simply could not compete. What should have been a unique on the shooter genre instead is just a subpar effort.

Dino Riki is a top down shooter rather than the standard platformer you would probably expect. To me the game looks as though someone wondered what Adventure Island would be if it played from an overhead perspective. Riki vaguely resembles Master Higgins and even uses similar weapons like a hatchet, boomerang, and fire. Like Elemental Master and other similar titles the game auto scrolls as you dodge enemies and collect power-ups. Aside from the previously mentioned weapons there are a number of secondary items such as boots for speed, hearts to increase your life bar, meat to restore health, and wings that let you fly for a bit. Flight might seem out of place in a game of this type but that’s because Dino Riki adds a healthy dose of platforming into the mix and unfortunately it completely ruins the game.

A scrolling shooter apparently wasn’t good enough and so Hudson Soft decided some Mario style platforming that simply does not work. Most ledges are simply too small and thin to balance on and the addition of the constantly moving scrolling means you have little time to line up your jumps. Disappearing platforms are a nightmare and unfortunately moving lilypads don’t carry you with them, meaning you have to try and adjust so you don’t fall off. All of this while the game decides now would be a good time to throw some flying enemies at you. It is utterly broken and your stock of lives will drain fast dealing with this crap.

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Good luck with that.

For such a short game the difficulty is off the charts. Enemies attack in relentless waves a good 30 seconds into the game and truth be told it almost never lets up from that point. If you have the fire it’s easy to deal with and maybe you can skate by with the boomerangs. But if you go below that you might as well get ready to reset the game. Taking hits and downgrading your weapons wouldn’t be so bad if it also didn’t drop your speed too. What sick bastard thought that one up? It makes gathering power-ups to avoid the death cycle nearly impossible.

Somehow the game finds even cheaper ways to kill you other than just hordes of enemies. Indestructible enemies abound and I find their placement extremely dubious. There’s nothing like trying to avoid a torrent of instant death fire only to be met with some unkillable dinosaur in a tight hallway while also trying to avoid falling into a sand pit. Yes, that is a real scenario that crops up frequently.   It leads to cheap hits that will more than likely leave you facing a boss with nothing but rocks and I’ll tell you right now; don’t even bother trying. Who knew that behind the game’s simple façade lies one of the most vicious games of that era?

Despite their technically being four levels the last one is simply a remixed versions of the initial three split into multiple parts. The stages tend to run pretty long and by the middle of it you just want it to be over. And for all of the trouble you might potentially go through if you play this game there is no conclusion, it simply loops again. Yay.

Even if all of Dino Riki’s flaws were amended it would still be a mediocre game. Some of this stems from the time of its release; in 1987 most developers were finally getting a handle on this video game thing and we would soon be graced by future classics such as Mega Man, Castlevania, and Metroid. By 1989 when this was released here the NES was on a roll, leaving first generation efforts like this looking like relics. You are better off playing Guerilla War, a similar title released the same year.

5-out-of-101

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Fantasy Zone

Fantasy Zone is a strange case in my video game playing history. Like After Burner I played it on the NES before ever learning that these were originally Sega games repurposed semi illegally by Tengen in those weird black cartridges. While I certainly was not a console fan boy (or even would have known what that meant at the time) I do think it would have felt kind of scandalous or seedy playing the competition’s games on your platform of choice. Fantasy Zone is a more than competent port of the popular arcade game but also pales in comparison to its superior Japanese counterpart.

Despite the Twinbee inspired look of Opa Opa Fantasy Zone has far more in common with Defender than that series, only cuter. Each level is free roaming as you pick off all the enemy generators before fighting the end level boss. The controls are simple but also take some adjusting to; even when you aren’t manually moving around the ship is still in motion. The screen doesn’t scroll until you get close to the edge which is annoying but due to the reduced enemy count it isn’t an issue. All enemies drop coins that can be used to upgrade your ship since there are no traditional power-ups.

The game keeps its weapon selection light and relatively cheap which is a bit disappointing but what it does have is particularly effective. There are only two additional weapons you can purchase, the laser and the wide shot, both of which have a limited duration. What’s actually pretty cool is that you can buy both and when one runs out a balloon will appear that will allow you to outfit your ship with parts again. The different engines and wings affect your movement speed which is important; the turbo engine is the fastest and allows you to scoop up coins quickly but is a detriment when it comes to dodging boss fire. You’re too fast and can slip up easily. There are bombs but truthfully I’ve never used them and have even forgotten they were in the game at times.

There is no time limit so you can spend as much time as you like picking off enemies to build up money for upgrades. Or you would if the game weren’t so sparsely populated. There are very few enemies at all times which is a sharp decline from the arcade game’s intensity. You have to actively seek them out and they’re in such small groups that there is very little challenge to be found. It doesn’t affect your ability to make money however since the generators give $10000 each and you’ll end up with more money than you know what to do with in little time.

The balancing in this version is completely screwed since it is very easy to destroy all the necessary targets within minutes due to a lack of enemies. Buying items in the shop will increase their price in the following level but you are so flush with cash it makes little difference. The only challenge comes during the boss battles which can be pretty intense, especially if you die since you lose all power-ups. But if you have played any shooter that is nothing new. The game’s eight levels fly by pretty quickly and I reason most will finish this in less than thirty minutes which is disappointing.

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When it comes to the game’s presentation things become a lot more interesting. There are two versions of Fantasy Zone, one by Sunsoft in Japan and the other by Tengen. Sunsoft’s version of the game is pretty incredible given the disparity in hardware and paints a much more accurate picture of the arcade game’s bright visuals. Aside from resolution the level of detail is similar and generally excellent. Tengen’s port is shoddy in comparison. The color palette is way off and the backgrounds do a poor job of approximating the arcade’s look. Worst of all is the heavy flickering that occurs when even a few enemies are on screen. It’s still playable but certainly less than ideal.

I am far from being a weaboo but in this case it certainly applies; the Japanese version of Fantasy Zone is far better than Tengen’s reprogrammed port. Why they simply didn’t bring that version over if possible we’ll never know but at this point you can find arcade perfect editions of the game for nearly every console dirt cheap, making this extremely expensive game redundant.

6-out-of-10-1

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Gradius Gaiden

I’ll always lament the death of the shmup in the transition to 3d. There were still a few released in the US thanks to Working Designs and their Spaz label but the truly exceptional games in the genre were left to become high priced imports. Honestly I could see it coming; dear god were the Genesis,Turbo Grafx-16 and especially the arcade overrun with these games and as much as I like a nice shooter I doubt they were that popular. You know things are bad when Konami decides it isn’t worth it to bring a Gradius game to the US when no localization is required. We missed out on one of the best shooters of all time however as Gradius Gaiden is brilliant and I’m here to tell you why.

The traditional power-up system of the series returns with some smaller tweaks added such as powering up all offensive weapons twice, giving you a reason to collect those extra power capsules. You also have a choice between four different shields although some (Limit) sound cooler than they are in practice. What has changed is that rather than the full on Edit Mode of the prior game Gradius Gaiden instead offers four ships with preset weapon configurations. It’s a large blow to be sure as the wealth of options the Edit Mode presented was part of what made Gradius III so fun however the differences in each of the ships makes up for it slightly.

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The Vic Viper retains the classic weapon lineup of missiles, and a double shot. The Lord British represents Salamander and comes equipped with two-way missiles, the Ripple, and a piercing laser called the Disruptor. The new kids on the block come with a few weapons brand new to the series that in some cases will change your approach. My personal favorite the Jade Knight is well rounded and comes decked out with a spread bomb, twin laser, and the Round Laser. The round laser pulses like an echo around the ship which is different but extremely effective in tight spaces. The Falchion β is not for beginners as its weapons take some getting used to. The rolling missiles split in two directions when they hit the ground, the Auto Aiming weapon actually doesn’t home in on its targets but instead fires a second shot anywhere between its 90 degree radius. The gravity bullet creates miniature black holes and is awesome.

While the Edit Mode from Gradius III is missed what is literally a game changer is the gauge edit. After selecting your ship and shield you can rearrange the order of the power-up bar as you see fit which is huge. You can make the shield and options the first two in the gauge and only cost one or two power capsules which is nuts. With this you can power-up relatively quickly if you are smart about it but the real benefit of editing the gauge is being able to mount a comeback after death. You will die frequently in this game with checkpoints located in really bad spots. It’s not uncommon for the series and is usually a hopeless situation as it takes too long to amass a decent amount of power. Now however dying against a boss isn’t so disheartening since you can actually fight back.

The game’s nine stages avoid the standard video game tropes with some truly original levels thrown in the mix. The giant crystals of stage three will reflect certain lasers which can be used to your advantage. The organic fortress of stage 5 pulses and changes shape as you progress like a living organism. My favorite level is stage 7 which is slowly being pulled into a black hole. Background elements are constantly pulled in and spit out and it makes excellent use of scaling effects to make it all the more convincing. There are recurring elements thrown in with a twist such as the boss rush and requisite Moai head level but you’ll be shocked to see them spit massive beams of destruction, sometimes even as they crumble!

The game is still just as difficult as its arcade brethren however I found it more manageable than in prior installments. Now it could just be the fact that I’m a Gradius veteran but in actuality I feel the game is simply better balanced. Power-up capsules are in greater supply and if you are smart about editing the weapon gauge you can reach near full power in less than a minute. Its power you’ll need as there is simply more of everything, more enemies, more indestructible objects, and especially more bullets. The bullet patterns don’t come anywhere near the insanity of later shooters of that era but it does become pretty manic every few seconds. Where the bullets are easy to see many bosses also release little bits of shrapnel that blend into the space dust in the background which will lead to many a cheap death but that is about the only negative I can think of when it comes to the game’s challenge.

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Gradius Gaiden combines intricate sprite work with the occasional polygonal element to create a look not too far removed from the rest of the series. The artwork in the game is top notch with beautiful backdrops and larger enemies than before. The game manages to avoid all of the typical video game clichés when it comes to thematic levels and the few that are reminiscent of the past still feel unique. The game’s 3d elements are kept minimal thankfully, mostly reserved for scaling enemies and the occasional background element. The one negative I guess I can point out is that certain larger enemies tend to be pixelated, as if they were drawn smaller and scaled up. The rest of the visual package is so spectacular that this is almost irrelevant in my opinion.

Next to Gradius V this is the best game in the series and one of my favorite shooters of all time. The only US release came as part of the Gradius Collection for PSP which might be hard to find now but well worth the investment. Shooters rarely are better than this.

9-out-of-10

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Alpha Mission

Going to Sears and Toys R Us to buy new games in the mid to late 80s was practically a religious experience growing up. Video game magazines were still in their nascent stages if they even existed at all so perusing the back of the box was still enough to get excited. Occasionally however there was always that game that seemed like it would be awesome but left you with nothing but crushing disappointment after you’d endured the 30 minute/car bus ride home. Alpha Mission was one such disappointment and is definitely a product of its time.

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Originally released in the arcade in 1985 Alpha Mission bears more than a few similarities to Xevious. There are a mix of air and ground targets that need to be destroyed and it also shares a similar graphical style. Alpha Mission comes from that old school mentality of trying to attain the highest score possible as there is no definitive end to the game; once you’ve beaten the equivalent of a final boss the game simply loops back to the first level. There’s nothing wrong with that except the game needs to be compelling enough for you to even bother completing the first loop which AM isn’t.

I freely admit part of my disillusionment with Alpha Missions stems from the fact that I played it after Gradius. While it wasn’t the greatest game in the world Gradius represented a significant step in the evolution of the shooter and going back to something so quaint in comparison is a bitter pill to swallow. SNK would eventually find their “voice” for a lack of a better term on the NES with games like Guerilla War and Crystalis but until then we had to endure crap like Ikari Warriors, Athena, and this. Like 1942 I can respect a game that was probably exceptional at release but find little reason to revisit it today.

The standard cannon isn’t very powerful but is more or less functional with your slower missiles reserved for ground targets. These aren’t simply enemies; there are a ton of background objects that can be bombed to reveal any number of power-ups. The most important would be E for energy which is what powers your secondary weapons. There’s a plethora of shooter staples present, from the Sheeld (SNK Engrish dating all the way back to the 80s holy crap), homing shot, thunder, and octo. The more powerful the armament the more energy it uses. There’s a bit of an oddity when selecting a weapon in that the game resets back to a few seconds ago, even in boss battles.

The game has a nasty side in the form of power downs that will affect you in different ways, all denoted by backwards letters. The reverse energy will sap your energy reserves while the reverse K will take all of it away. There’s even one that will set you back a third of the way through a level. For the most part these items are easy to spot but in the heat of the moment it’s easy to make a mistake and have to retread prior ground. The worst item will completely strip you down to the equivalent of a newborn baby at which point you’re going to die in seconds.

Even with these negative items the game is fairly easy. Most levels last a little over a minute and most enemy waves are so sedate that you can see them coming a mile away. The warp item appears on a regular basis meaning you’ll bypass a good portion of the already short levels. The bosses put up a little more fight but considering the game’s 1987 release you’ve more than likely faced tougher. Once you’ve completed the sixth level the game loops and might be slightly harder; I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t paying attention nor cared.

In 1987 there was some choice in NES shooters with the likes of Zanac, Stinger, and of course Gradius; all superior alternatives to Alpha Mission’s relative mediocrity.

5-out-of-101

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Detana!! Twinbee

I love Detana!! Twinbee. Even I can’t believe I just typed those words. For the longest time I abhorred the Twinbee series but that was based solely on my dislike of the NES/Famicom games. Their hearts were in the right place but it was obvious the tech was holding the games back from truly being great. But with the release of the second arcade game that became a thing of the past as the visual evolution of the series gave it a new lease on life that would continue on down to the numerous games that would follow, from the beyond awesome Pop’n Twinbee to the weird RPGs. This PC engine port is another in a long line of exclusives that should have come to the US but with the advent of digital download services it is easier for fans of the genre to get ahold of this excellent classic

Twinbee and Winbee are on vacation when they receive a distress signal from the planet Meru. It seems the evil alien Iva has invaded and the Queen Melora needs their help. Detana!! Marks the debut of the actual pilots of both bee suits, Pastel and Light as well as the cast of characters that would eventually come to populate this universe. With the addition of artist Shuzilow Ha (a pseudonym) the series would finally adapt a visual identity of its own that would elevate it above the typical shooters of its day.

Detana!! Twinbee is commonly credited as the game that truly made the series explode and it’s easy to see why. With its distinctly anime inspired style the twin bee series would eventually go on to spawn a multimedia empire, spanning everything from a cartoon series, radio drama, and a boatload of merchandise. But all of that probably would not have happened if Detana Twinbee were a terrible game.

From a gameplay standpoint there are only a few slight additions. The multiple bell colors return and provide the same power-ups such as options, extra speed, a shield, and a wide shot. Two new bells have been added which will decrease your speed and provide new tail shield which will follow your ship. As in R-Type and Dragon Saber a powerful charged shot is available that is seriously overpowered. It takes less than two seconds to fully charge and is incredibly destructive, able to wreck bosses in as little as five hits. If you can find him Gwinbee will merge with your ship to provide even more firepower although you will really have to search to find him. Bombs also return and will auto target the closest enemy.

Playing Detana is more like going on a fantastical adventure than a random collection of levels. The cheery visual style is really unlike anything else out there as you fly over alien cities, mountains, and fortresses. There are far more moving parts in every level, be it mechanical devices or enemies that emerge from the ground. The game manages to almost perfectly balance its action between aerial enemies and ground based targets that can’t be ignored without dire consequences. Bombing enemies plays a much bigger role here as the fruit they drop awards extra points or you can even find extra lives or hidden weapons.

The difficulty is about perfect with a gradually climbing curve as you progress. The early Stages are flush with bells to juggle for power-ups. Enemies are less aggressive so that you can actually fully power up and pose little threat. At about the midpoint there is a noticeable shift as clouds become scarce and the screen becomes so chaotic juggling bells becomes an afterthought. While difficult the generous respawn system allows you to brute force your way through the game. Although only seven levels long you’ll enjoy every spent with the game.

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While it isn’t perfect the PC engine conversion does an admirable job of duplicating the arcades visuals. Aside from the difference in resolution you would need both games side by side to notice the difference. 16-bit technology allows the artists vision to come to life as the game’s pastel visuals are a feast for the eyes. There is far more detail in the background and multiple layers of scrolling creating depth. The cast of bosses are all screen filling contraptions that often feature multiple phases before death. If you pay close attention there are many small details and animations that bring the world to life.

The soundtrack is fantastic, featuring a full range of happy tunes to match the cute visuals. This would mark the debut of future Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane and even here her range is apparent. It seems only fair that top class visuals should also be accompanied by an ace score and Konami delivered.

Detana!! Twinbee has been rereleased for a variety of platforms and for the small price you’ll pay an excellent shooter awaits. Even if you are tired of the genre Twinbee is unique enough to ensure that does not matter.

8-out-of-101

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Galactic Attack

For as much as I might have made fun of the deluge of shmups during the 16-bit era (and rightfully so I might add) I genuinely missed the genre when it all but disappeared when the PlayStation and Saturn released. The concept of one lone ship fighting off an alien armada might have been done to death but god damn it if it wasn’t fun. It also sucked because that was right when console hardware was strong enough to properly port all of the truly great arcade shmups in Japan, games we would not see over here. Galactic Attack was one such game that was rescued by Akklaim and despite its 1995 release was still one of the better shooters released in that period.

In the distant future mankind entrusts its future to the Supercomputer Con-Human. Things go horribly wrong when a cloned human links with Con-Human and causes it to become sentient and insane. Its first course of action is to nearly wipe out humanity, leaving the remnants to settle in space colonies. The remaining humans plan to stage one last assault against Con-Human who has now transformed the entire planet into one global attack fortress.

Rayforce/Layer Section/Galactic Attack or whatever the hell it was called in your country of origin was among many shmups such as Dodonpachi, ESP Ra.De, and Radiant Silvergun that really brought new ideas to the genre thanks to high powered hardware. Galactic Attack was the first in a trilogy and while its sequels were good games neither managed to recapture what made this game so great. The Saturn port is more or less arcade perfect outside some small details and while a bit light on content is still a fascinatingly good time.

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Like many prior shooters such as Legendary Wings Galactic Attack works on two planes. Your primary fire deals with enemies directly in front of you while your homing lasers handles ground based enemies targeted by your reticle. Although you can fire these indiscriminately they won’t hit anything unless you’ve locked on to a target. The only power-ups come in the form of yellow and red crystals that increase the power of your main cannon and “L’s” that increase the maximum number of lock-on targets to eight.

It’s a simple system but one that is given tremendous depth through gameplay. There are always multiple layers of crap to deal with in the backgrounds as enemies’ stream in and rise up to your level. Since you cannot manually move the cursor you’ll have to continually wade into a stream of fire to deal with enemies on a lower plane before things become too chaotic. By the game’s midpoint it isn’t out of the question to see 6 armored mechs all closing in on your position with a further 7 or 8 ready to launch from a bunker on the ground. The bosses are multi-stage monstrosities that need to be taken apart piece by piece with some fights almost as long as the stages themselves. In spite of all this once you adjust to the fact that positioning the cursor (which sits two feet in front of you) comes first before your own ship’s positioning the game’s simple mechanics become second nature.

One thing is for sure, you won’t complete this on your first, second, or even third sitting. Although the game only has six stages by the midpoint you will need to memorize precise enemy placements and be quick about destroying targets with your lock-on laser lest you become overrun. At times there is little margin for error and while it is incredibly difficult the game is always fair and still enticing to go back and give it one more try; when you die you know it is your own fault. The difficulty curve is perfect in my opinion; the four continues are generous and you respawn instantly at death. You couldn’t ask for anything more in a shmup.

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Galactic Attack was released in the arcade right around the time 3d was in its infancy and as such still uses sprites to simulate 3d and depth. While it is a bit crude at times the art and overall graphic design is still pretty impressive. The layers of scrolling are often five level deep which goes hand in hand with the theme of flying back to Earth and descending deeper and deeper into the core of the planet to destroy the Con-Human supercomputer. Scaling and rotational effects are used sporadically, mostly for enemies ascending from the ground and to give buildings and structures depth. These elements show their age as they are highly pixelated but at the time of the game’s release this was state of the art.

The number of shooters released during the 32-bit era slowed considerably and so every game localized was heavily scrutinized. Although Galactic Attack was one of the first Saturn releases it holds up wonderfully and is still generally excellent today.

8-out-of-101

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Super Smash TV

Man I really love Smash TV. The twin stick shooter has exploded in popularity in the last decade or so thanks to digital download services and while I’ve enjoyed many of them I’ll admit before the advent of dual analog sticks I sucked at them. Which makes my love of Smash TV all the more bewildering. The tight gameplay and Running Man inspired theme was awesome and I poured tons (…all right maybe about $20) of quarters into it. Yet it was the SNES port that truly won me over, not just because its controls worked so damn perfectly but because it was the best port money could buy at the time. And even taking into account its early release it is still one of the best top down shooters for the system.

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More than anything else Smash TV absolutely nails the Running Man inspired game show setup it was going for. The sets, the death traps, the smarmy host, and risking life and death to collect just one more VCR, it’s all there. Yes, no one needs 500 VCRs but you know what? You’re still going to die a few dozen times trying to collect them all. Hell I wonder if the kids of today even know what the hell a VCR is. This is essentially Robotron with a more violent edge and I love it for that reason even though I sucked balls at the game.

Smash TV was ported to a variety of home consoles but the SNES version is the absolute best by virtue of the controller’s face buttons serving as a perfect substitute for the dual joystick controls of the arcade. Each button allows you to shoot in the four cardinal directions with diagonal firing also available. In the heat of the moment you might forget every so often but after a few minutes it becomes highly intuitive and most of all effectively replicating the arcade game’s controls which are incredibly important. It’s funny, for as much as I liked the game I was terrible at manipulating two joysticks at the same time. Yet mapping the same function to four buttons is all it took for me to wrap my brain around the concept. Who would have thought games like Smash TV were basically training us for where the industry would be headed in 10 years or so?

Greed is the name of the game as you rush to collect cash, prizes and power-ups in each arena as various enemies stream in to end your life. Survival is a lot harder than you would expect as there seem to be no shortage of enemies that constantly let your gluttony get the best of you and die trying to pick up that one last pile of cash. The game moves at a fairly brisk pace with each stage lasting around a minute or two. The few power-ups last a short while but are absolutely essential for survival.

Beyond just the pacing of the stages what impressed me the most is the variety from one level to the next. It would have been easy to simply ramp up the amount of enemies on every stage until the end of the game and call it a day however the game does a fabulous job of introducing new elements frequently. Some arenas are themed and will force you to deal with one enemy type while others might throw in certain conditions. Considering there are four stages with plenty of sub levels each that the game manages to keep this up until its closing moments is incredible. This SNES version even has a few exclusive hidden levels as a bonus.

If there is one area I wish the home ports would have deviated from the arcade it would be the game’s difficulty. This is not an easy game and that goes well beyond just the twin stick controls. At times it feels as though the game is permanently set on turbo speed making it incredibly difficult to keep up with the chaos. I’m of two minds when it comes to the weapons; on one hand they appear frequently enough that you won’t have to rely on the default machine gun too long. But at the same time I think they should have lasted it a bit longer, especially by the middle of the game when the machine gun simply can’t keep up with the stronger enemies; even just a few seconds more would make a tremendous difference.

The few boss battles should be a highlight of the game but they are where the game shows its quarter munching arcade roots in the worst way. Each boss is an excruciatingly long fight in which you have to dismantle the target piece by piece with the caveat being that only special weapons can damage them. Whittling down the Mutoid Man from his arms down to his torso, then a headless body, and finally a head on wheels is just cash grabbing at its finest and did not need to be replicated at home. Especially since you also only have four continues overall. It’s going to take a long time to complete this one but I wish it were for the right reasons.

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You wouldn’t know it just looking at the game but Super Smash TV is something of an anomaly in terms of early SNES games. Akklaim has done an excellent job of retaining every ounce of the arcade’s intensity with tons of sprites on screen and not one instance of slowdown. Compared to embarrassing efforts like Super R-Type and Gradius III in that regard it’s a damn miracle the game plays so flawlessly outside of some flicker, especially for an early SNES title. Despite each level taking place in closed arenas the designers have done a decent job of varying up the look of the stages but overall it does become repetitive. The SNES conversion only suffers minor detail loss but is an otherwise amazing conversion. The music is mostly forgettable but the sound effects and voice clips are spot on.

Super Smash TV is an excellent conversion of a fantastic game and probably the best home port until recently. Even in light of the explosion of the twin stick shooter genre in recent years Smash TV is still more than worth your time due to its theme and accomplished gameplay.

8-out-of-101

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Syd Mead’s Terraforming

Throughout the history of the video game industry there have been many games that have relied on their graphical prowess to carry their mediocre gameplay. Usually everyone is fooled at first but it isn’t long before the realization sets in that these games just aren’t very good. Syd Mead’s Terraforming almost falls into that category but is solid through and through. The disappointment comes from the fact that the outside of its visuals and sound it could pass for any other shooter on the system.

Mankind has made Earth an inhospitable wasteland and so has fled to the stars in search of a new home. The conditions do not matter; with terraforming technology it is only a matter of finding a suitable planet to transform and so the quest begins. Sadly you’ll only find the story in the instruction manual as the brief intro only shows your ship taking off.

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That premise could be the basis for almost any shooter and is fairly generic. What other shooters do not have is Terraforming’s phenomenal visual design. Terraforming is blessed with visionary sci-fi artist Syd Mead’s art direction and as such the graphics are simply fantastic. Even when compared to the system’s finest releases (Rondo of Blood, Lords of Thunder) the game stands out. The various planets you’ll visit certainly span some of gaming’s most well-worn tropes yet they look like nothing you’ve seen before. The enemies don’t seem like generic fodder but the indigenous life forms that would inhabit that environment, a touch that most games lack. As many as six layers of scrolling give each of the beautiful backgrounds a sense of depth rarely seen on the Turbo and the game rarely if ever slows down.

The soundtrack is similarly excellent and more than likely the reason the game is on a CD. The music ranges from hard rock to slower orchestrated melodies that are rousing and upbeat. The sound effects on the other hand are weak and lack punch. It sounds minor but in a shooter you expect loud explosions and not the muted pops here.

The game is surprisingly light on weapons but that is probably because what is there is overpowered. Like R-Type your ship will charge up a more powerful beam when not firing although this isn’t as useful in a pinch. The special weapons consist of the wide shot, homing Vulcan, and the laser, all of which can be powered up multiple times along with the standard cannon. At full power the wide shot can blanket a sizable chunk of the screen. The homing Vulcan aggressively seeks out enemies to the point you won’t even see them most of the time. Its only weakness is a lack of power. The laser is the most powerful but can only fire straight ahead. Like Gaiares and Sol Deace your rockets when switching speed can be used as a weapon but trust me that isn’t happening.

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Between its production values and solid weapon setup Terraforming has the makings of one of the finest shooters ever but is actually fairly bland. Each of the game’s eight levels is highly imaginative and even when covering familiar territory still feels original. The volcanoes of stage 2 cause the screen to flash when they erupt, with enemies, bullets and your own fire framed in black. The wavy backgrounds of stage six almost come across as one long acid trip. But these moments are few. The majority of your time is spent destroying the same enemy waves that repeat multiple times in succession. The levels tend to run longer than they should and by the halfway point you’ll simply want it to end.

In stark contrast to most shooters Terraforming is exceedingly easy. At full power you can take six hits before death. It takes very little time to achieve max power as power-ups make an appearance regularly. Once you die the game is even generous enough to provide one random weapon so you aren’t totally helpless as well. Both the wide shot and homing Vulcan cover so much space there is very little need to ever switch weapons, leaving the forward facing laser the odd man out. Most players will breeze through the game up until its final chapter at which point it seems everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in your path. The few continues I used to complete the game all came from here and if they had spread a little bit of that challenge to the rest of the game this would be a lot better.

Bumping the difficulty up to hard offers a glimpse of what could have been. Here the enemies become more aggressive, firing more shots and attacking in more varied patterns. With the increase in the number of bullets covering the screen it becomes more imperative to kill enemies as soon as possible and switch weapons when necessary. The lasers power and ability to pierce walls becomes invaluable on certain levels as the homing beam’s weakness means it can’t kill enemies fast enough and will actually get confused chasing them around. In my opinion hard mode should have been the game’s default difficulty as it results in a more complete experience.

It’s too bad the stellar production values aren’t backed up with superb gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad game but it is slightly generic. Go into it expecting a solid game and not the mind blowing experience the graphics and sound would have you expect and you will be entertained.

7-out-of-10-1

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Battle Mania Daiginjou

In the rush leading up to the Saturn’s surprise US launch Sega of Japan effectively killed support for the Genesis worldwide. It made sense for Japan as the system tanked there but it was still thriving in every other market. With little support from Sega third parties also followed suit with some of the most brilliant games for the platform being left in Japan. One such gem that has become highly sought after due to its price and low profile is Battle Mania Daiginjou, the sequel to what we know as Trouble Shooter. This low profile classic is one of the single best games for the system regardless of genre and one that I recommend to any Sega Genesis fan.

After the defeat of Don Morgstein Maria forces Prince Eden to hold a parade in her honor and gets drunk in the process. A few days later however Morgstein has been brought back to life and issues a challenge to the pair. However only Mania (surprisingly) is sober enough to answer the call at first and find out who is behind Don Morgstein’s resurrection.

In terms of gameplay not much has changed because there was very little wrong with Trouble Shooter’s mechanics. You still control Mania and can reposition Maria when needed. Your designated special weapon now follows close behind and functions like an satellite, with a few options governing its own movement. Speaking of movement there are three targeting choices this time: the default in which Mania will always face right, two-way which allows you to shoot left or right and the best option in my opinion, 8-way. Holding down the fire button will lock your firing direction in place. Otherwise you can freely move around as needed. It’s confusing at first but becomes intuitive in seconds and is the all-around best choice.

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The Kikokukyou cult responsible for the game’s troubles are just as insane as Anagran and will toss everything possible in your direction to deter you. How many other games see you fighting flying fish and meteors while scaling a massive tower? The Demon Train rockets down the streets of Tokyo, tossing aside the police with our heroines in hot pursuit in a car. The kikokukyou temple is probably my favorite, both aesthetically and mechanically. Here the environment is constantly changing and will box you in or even cut off your fire as you are being assaulted from all sides, even from above by a giant Godzilla sized foot.

Behind the craziness of the game’s story and action lies a game with some of the strongest pacing and level design among 16-bit shooters. There is rarely a dull moment as there are always enemies waiting to accost you at a moment’s notice yet it never feels overwhelming. Each individual stage is wholly unique, offering its own set of enemies and traps to contend with. Although this is primarily a horizontal shooter the game scrolls in every direction for a nice change of pace such as stage four’s descent into the Kikokukyou base or exploring the inside of the demon train. It is in situations like these that you’ll appreciate the expanded targeting options, especially the 8-way option. The game’s basic concept hasn’t changed much but it didn’t need to, as evidenced by just how much fun the game is while retaining nearly the exact same mechanics.

Most important of all the game is challenging yet always fair. Because Mania and Maria are so large dodging bullets is much tougher. Plus it is easy to lose track of both characters and forget that only Mania can take hits. The game does a good job of forcing you to reposition Maria to survive and for maximum effectiveness. It is also generous with life restoring hearts but not as much as its prequel. Considering how overpowered your special weapons are it’s a wonder that the game isn’t a breeze but that is evidence of its strong design. Plus with nine levels rather than six this time you more than get your money’s worth.

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Trouble Shooter was already an exceptionally pretty game and yet Daiginjou surpasses it in every way. I dare say this is one of the best looking titles ever produces for the system. Battle Mania doesn’t rely on special effects of any kind but rather brilliant art direction. The game’s anime style plot allows it to produce an array of wacky yet clever scenarios that lead to some of the prettiest backdrops in a shooter. There is up to six layers of scrolling in the backgrounds with an insane attention to detail. The sprites are large and animate wonderfully with nary a hint of slowdown to be found. It’s funny, the fodder enemies are the size of the bosses in lesser shooters, with the game’s actual mayors becoming screen filling bad asses who change forms multiple times.

The music has seen a similar upgrade and is simply fantastic. The FM synthesizer is given a thorough work out as the selection of music is much richer with better use of guitars and drums. There’s a greater variety to the songs as well and it shows just how rich the Genesis’s sound chip could be in the right hands.

There is no question in my mind that Battle Mania Daiginjou is one of the best games released for the system it is just too bad that most will never have a chance to experience it. The game had an extremely low print run and is exorbitantly expensive. For those that want to play it in English a translation patch has been released but it’s not as if you’ll miss much if you play it in Japanese. It’s a god damn crime that more than likely this will never be re-released digitally.

9-out-of-10

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Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%

Like platformers starring Cavemen shooters starring witches at one point had their time in the spotlight, at least in Japan. A few would trickle over to the US like Magical Quest yet the granddaddy of them all, the Cotton series, has only seen one lone installment reach the US. Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton had a limited release on the Turbo CD and is one of the rarest games of all time, which sucks as I’m sure its failure here kept the series exclusively in Japan. That meant we were denied brilliant games such as Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%. This remake of the arcade and Turbo CD game is fantastic and one of the best shooters for the SNES. Plus it requires no Japanese knowledge to enjoy.

The witch Cotton is a bit of a moron. The fairies of the forest have come seeking her help to save the country. Somehow Cotton mistakes their plea for help as a mission to gather as much of her favorite candy Willow possible. Yeah.

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The story is silly and the game’s art design was changed to match. The overly dark art direction of the original Cotton has given way to a fantastic visual makeover that is simply put phenomenal. The game is a literal explosion of color as the SNES color palette is given a workout giving life to the vivid backdrops of each stage. You would think the at times pastel art would clash with the darker themed enemies however the two blend together brilliantly to create something even better. This is still technically a remake so all of the familiar sights and sounds of the PC Engine and arcade game are here but overhauled with many layers of gorgeous parallax scrolling. The level of detail is nearly unmatched on the SNES and the game only slows down during its most hectic moments. This is a first class production all around.

While there are some surface similarities to Gradius Cotton is its own beast. Cotton differs from other shooters in the sense that you aren’t collecting any special weapons but instead upgrading your current one. Crystals dropped by enemies grant experience that will power up your primary shot and bombs for ground targets and thankfully they only come in two colors here. Your powers can be leveled up to three times with death setting you back one level. That sounds minor at first but can quickly spiral into an unwinnable scenario during protracted boss battles.

At the start you have a choice of 4 groupings of 3 magic spells which also affects the movement of your fairies. These spells range in effectiveness from the focused fire dragon, thunder, barrier, to the situationally useful twinkle stars. The magic spells in the game are grossly overpowered, able to bring any boss close to death in a single hit. I suppose the designer’s way of managing this was to make spell power-ups incredibly rare until late in the game but it’s easy to hold on to at least one charge to make the end level bosses simple. Up to three fairies can fight by your side with their orientation at your command although they blend into the backgrounds so much that it is easy to get lost in the chaos.

Aside from the graphical makeover the biggest change to the game comes in its controls. Thanks to the SNES controller’s six buttons everything has been mapped separately adding extra options and making the game far more intuitive. You can now freely select which of your spells to use as well as reposition your fairies. Autofire and bombing also have their own buttons this time as well. It sounds minor but for anyone who has had to fidget with games like Forgotten Worlds on both the Turbo CD and Genesis it is a huge boon.

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The game’s pace is laid back and slow, akin to an amusement park ride with highs and lows in terms of moments of tension. The first few levels are admittedly a bit too laid back, asking very little of the player other than occasionally moving up and down to avoid enemy fire. Even the mid and end level bosses pose little threat. At about the halfway point it is like the game has received a shot of adrenaline as a seemingly endless line of enemies close in for the attack. While normally ground targets and their weapons can be easily avoided later in the game they actually pose the largest threat. The environment also becomes a factor as gusts of water threaten to push you into stray bullets or you accidently fly into spewing molten rocks. If the early stages of the game were even slightly as intense as its back half this would have been phenomenal as the mechanics are incredibly fun to play around with.

Overall in spite of the more densely packed second half the challenge is fairly moderate. Although you die from a single hit you instantly respawn and the game is generous with extra lives. The game’s slower pace allows you to see danger coming ahead of time and aside from the times you might get greedy and rush after coins you probably won’t die often. Even the bosses aren’t as big a threat as they should be considering their size. Their attacks are telegraphed well in advance and provided you’ve kept magic in stock you can almost defeat them with a single spell. I’m certainly not complaining despite how this sounds; I’m used to shooters kicking my ass thoroughly so the more laid back pacing here is a welcome change and is more inviting to novices of the genre.

This is one of the strongest shooters for the SNES and one well worth your time if you have an even a passing interest in the genre. With fantastic art direction, good music and an even challenge there’s plenty to love about Cotton 100%.

8-out-of-101

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Turrican

Turrican is a series that garnered a massive following in the UK on the various computer formats it debuted on. As Britain’s sort of answer to Contra it isn’t really fair to compare the two series since they are different games gameplay wise. Honestly I’ve always wondered what was the big deal? This became even more pronounced once I got my hands on the Genesis port. There are some good ideas buried in the game that are let down by terrible execution. Turrican is far too frustrating for me to ever recommend to anyone.

Turrican plays more like a fusion between the action of Contra and the open ended level design of Metroid. The game’s five worlds are broken down into two or three levels each and comprise one long journey from the opening futuristic city to a trip underground as you tackle the Machine’s tower from the bottom up. Each level is a sprawling world unto itself, full of hidden secrets and often times more than one path to the exit. There are invisible weapon blocks littered around the environment that practically rain items which you’ll need survive the brutal trek to the Machine’s tower.

There aren’t too many weapons in the game and unfortunately most of them lack the necessary punch to feel effective. The default machine gun can be upgraded to a spread shot or laser. The spread shot covers a wide range but is incredibly weak; the laser can only fire straight ahead. You have access to a Metroid style spiked morph ball that can mow through enemies but can be uncontrollable and lead to a cheap death. It’s also limited in use. The most powerful weapon at your disposal is the lightning whip, a beam that can be swung in a circle with the caveat that you can’t move. Incredibly useful for finding hidden items and with the right positioning you can decimate bosses without taking a single hit. There are also a few special weapons that are more troublesome to use than they should be.

Using the game’s sub weapons is a pain in the ass due to the stupid control setup. Up is used to jump but is also mapped to a button on the controller. You use A to select a sub weapon and B to use it which is really unintuitive in the middle of combat. Had they relegated the C button to special items it would have much more natural.

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This is one of the most difficult games for the Genesis let alone of the 16-bit era. There is rarely a moment where some enemy or foreign object is not attacking you. Christ even the environments themselves have it in for you with an endless array of retractable spikes, dripping blood, bottomless pits, and even raining meteors. The urge to explore has to be tempered by the ticking clock and since the exit is never in a straight line it can be very easy to run out of time. If you somehow reach the bosses at the end of each world good luck. Outside of one or two that have conveniently placed safe zones I can guarantee you’ll blow through your stock of lives in defeating each one and if you continue its back to the beginning of that stage. And that’s not even the worst aspect of the game.

The main frustration with Turrican and the one that completely ruins the game is how damage is handled. There is no moment of invulnerability when hit, meaning even the lowliest enemy can drain your life bar in seconds an event that will happen frequently. Words cannot express how aggravating it is to see your health deplete in seconds and not even realize how. The fact that it can happen at any moment makes this game infinitely harder than it should be and not fun at all.  Seriously if they had fixed this one flaw the game would at least be playable.

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Turrican was a technical showcase for the Commodore 64 as it really pushed the aging technology further than anyone thought possible and received numerous ports to the different computer formats in the UK.  However what was once technically brilliant comes across as lackluster on the Genesis.  Backgrounds are mostly flat with only a single layer of rare parallax.  The animation of the main character is still pretty impressive as well as the large bosses but those are the only good points when it comes to the visuals.  The brilliant soundtrack from the Amiga version is almost completely gone with renditions that simply don’t match up.

On the Commodore 64 and Amiga Turrican stood out.  But as a Genesis game it simply can’t compete against the better designed action games available.  There is simply no reason to bother with this when games like Contra: Hard Corps or even its direct sequel Mega Turrican are available.

5-out-of-101

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1943 – the Battle of Midway

What a difference a year makes! At least not literally. While I could appreciate 1942 for its unique setting (for the time) in a shooter the reality is the game was a bit too spartan too be enjoyable and was definitely a product of its time. 1943: the Battle for Midway was released around 2 years later in the arcade and saw a number of improvements but followed along the same lines as its predecessor. While it was ported to many different formats the NES version is the most interesting.

Still set in the Pacific Theater of World War II this time the game follows the battle in Midway Atoll, an important refueling station during the war. The object of the game is to ultimately destroy the Japanese Battleship Yamato and any other ships in your path along the way.

Player death is handled differently this time around. Technically you have an energy counter that is constantly ticking down as you progress, much like Gauntlet. So long as you have some amount of time left collisions with bullets and enemies will only knock off a percentage of time rather than outright kill you. The power-ups dropped by designated ships can be cycled through for various weapons and items but health refills tend to be the most important. Technically you only have one life; if you’ll have to continue or use a password to pick up where you left off.

The NES version is a faithful adaptation of 1943 and features a number of improvements that create a deeper gameplay experience. This version allows you to customize your ship in five categories: Offensive power, Defensive power, Energy Level, Special Weapons, and Special Weapon Time limit. At the onset you only have 3 points to allocate but if you scour every inch of the levels you can find a hidden item that will give you point to spend.

Customizing the ship opens the game up to numerous different play styles, all of them viable depending on your preference. If you’re the type of gamer who can’t dodge bullets worth shit you can increase your defense and maximum energy for better survival. On its own the default cannon is fairly useful as it has rapid fire but putting points in offense will make it a literal ship destroying beast.

Special weapons are handled differently as well. Initially you’ll only have access to a spread shot but with more points you can unlock extra weapons. Special weapons aren’t permanent and will disappear once the weapon meter reaches zero, necessitating extra points for more time. Or if you prefer, collecting the same weapon again will not only boost its power but add thirty extra seconds. The most important take away is that these options are all viable. Every point you spend has a noticeable and immediate impact, giving you extra incentive to blast every inch of the screen to find the hidden “shops”.

Unlike the arcade game this version has been bumped up to 24 levels rather than 16. Most levels are split into two distinct parts: one above the clouds and the eventual decent to the sea to destroy numerous battle ships and an eventual boss. The levels are more compact than in 1942 but just as hectic. This is still one of the more frantic shooters on the NES, one that can easily kill you if you are preoccupied with collecting items than survival.

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The initial levels ease you into the game as most enemies don’t actively fire and merely swoop in and fly away. It’s around the 6 or 7 level mark that the game bares its teeth. If you haven’t kept up with modifying the ship chances are you won’t make it to the end of the game as it becomes so chaotic that ugly slowdown rears its head. At least there are passwords to save progress, I doubt anyone sane human being enjoyed slugging through all 32 levels of 1942 in one sitting.

Despite all of its new features 1943 does become repetitive. You are essentially fighting the same 5 enemies the majority of the time until you reach the latter portion of the game. The boss fights, one of the game’s highlights, also suffer from this same repetition. There are only 5 unique bosses in the game yet each encounter somehow feels unique. Chalk it up to good game design.

Capcom handled the port this time around rather than Micronics and the results are immediately evident. The terrain is more varied this time around and despite flying over the sea for the majority of the game they’ve manage to change up the color and variety of the waves for some visual distinction. Most importantly the single looping music track of 1942 has been replaced by a few ditties that, while they aren’t great, are unobtrusive at the very least.

This is the game 1942 should have been and in my opinion is superior to the arcade game outside of the graphics. A few years makes all the difference as 1943 is one of the top shooters on the NES despite its age.

8-out-of-101

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Silhouette Mirage

It was a sad day when Treasure’s Silhouette Mirage was passed over for US release. As the Saturn floundered in America at the very least Sega still provided a consistent calendar of releases to appease fans. Outside of one or two outliers all of some Treasure’s output came over but it just wasn’t meant to be. In the case of Silhouette Mirage was even worse; this is what the system was born to do yet it seemed destined to stay in Japan. Little did we know that this brilliant game would see international shores but not on its original platform. Enter Working Designs, who would publish the PlayStation port in 1999. While it has its flaws the brilliant gameplay still shines, leaving the game one of the system’s biggest undiscovered gems.

In the year 2000 a group of scientists create a computer called Edo which conducts experiments that eventually result in the population of the world obtaining one of two attributes, silhouette and mirage. Eventually war breaks out between the two factions with the world on the brink of chaos. Shyna Nera Shyna, the messenger of justice, awakens from hyper sleep in order to bring order to this chaos and repair the Edo system. Unfortunately the years have left her with memory loss and so she must find Edo with a little assistance from her helper Bug.

I still remember Gamefan’s October 1997 import coverage of the Saturn version of Silhouette Mirage. It was vintage Treasure, a genre breaking game that was completely unique from everything else in the category. The game certainly lived up to the hype and I anticipated its US release but the changes Working Designs instituted made the game far more frustrating rather than slightly more challenging as intended. Luckily it isn’t game breaking and the nuanced gameplay is still there to be enjoyed by all.

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The game works on the concept of duality. Shine is equipped with both select and mirage attributes with the direction she is facing determining which you use. Attacking enemies with that of the same attribute will still spirit power at her while at home; using the opposite damage them. Spirit determines the power of your attacks with your weapons getting weaker and spirit is drained. The same applies to enemies as well and it is an excellent tactic to completely drain and the spirit causing them to deal zero damage.

Like Gunstar Heroes Shyna is agile and comes equipped with a bunch of hand to hand techniques. Aside from a slide and dash Shyna can triple jump, not that precise platforming is a major focus of the game. There are a variety of melee moves  with the most prominent being a throw and the cash bash. Throwing enemies allows you to attack without switching polarities; you can manually switch polarity at any time but it is slow and unwieldy. Tossing an enemy behind you is far more effective. The cash bash allows you to shake down enemies for their money, including bosses. Money that you will need to buy better weapons and restore health.

There are a variety of secondary weapons that can be purchased at the numerous shops throughout each stage. The weapons, called parasites run the gamut from a boomerang powerful piercing laser, a home and shot and even a remote bomb. Each weapon increases in level on each stage of that increase comes an increase in becomes an increase in price as well, with Shyna only able to carry three. Parasites drain spirit at different increments and unfortunately in this regard working designs nearly broke the game.

As one of the many changes made to the game weapons drain spirit; in both the Saturn and Japanese PlayStation versions weapons had unlimited use. To be fair the weapons were drastically overpowered and made the game ridiculously easy. To make up for this so long as you attack with the same attribute you also drain spirit from enemies as well however most weapons use more than they drain, effectively making them useless in long spurts. The default weapon uses very little spirit and easily remains effective for the length of the game but it defeats the purpose of offering more powerful armaments if you can barely use them.

Another unpopular change that slows down the game considerably is the increased cost of everything in the shops. Unless you stop in cash bash nearly every single enemy you’ll barely have any money to afford even one weapon upgrade let alone refill your health. There are no health power ups and gain and unfortunately they don’t replenish your help after each stage either. Being forced to choose and a precious upgrade that you desperately need is dumb no matter how you slice it.

Yet in spite of these frustrations the game is still excellent. Up until the recent Outland there was nothing else like it. While the attribute system makes the game slower paced that was intentional; you have so many tools at your disposal that it gives you time to consider how you want to approach each encounter. The level design is similar to Alien Soldier in the sense that there are brief encounters with fodder enemies before the next boss encounter.

The boss encounters as in all Treasure games are the true star of the game. One of my personal favorites is samurai lizard Nardo. He appears to deliver punishment for causing a ruckus in the city at night but is so loud he wakes up the residents who throw various items at both of you, items that can (and probably will) take him out. Any encounter with your rival Zohar is memorable as he has the same dual powers as you and constantly switches up his attack pattern. The Attribute Gun is reminiscent of Seven Force in that it changes frequently and you have to pay attention and react accordingly. These are the most challenging parts of the game and force you to really utilize the game’s mechanics in ways you never thought possible to survive.

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Silhouette Mirage is one of the better looking 2d games for the PlayStation thanks to Treasure’s strong art direction and sprite work. The art in the game is superb and full of detail with vivid color and plenty of multi-jointed sprites as Treasure is wont to do. As good as the game looks it does come up short when compared to the Saturn original. There are entire background layers and objects missing from this release, leaving some levels feeling a bit empty. There are 2 exclusive bosses to make up for it but the lesser graphical polish can’t be denied.

The changes made are a love/hate affair (although with context I can sort of see why they were made) but in my opinion they don’t ruin this truly innovative game. Silhouette Mirage can be found dirt cheap and I’m sure those who try it will love it.

8-out-of-101

 

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Dragon Saber

I loved Dragon Spirit in the arcade and at home in both of its ports. So when Dragon Saber hit the arcade I was ecstatic but also anticipated a home port like before. Sadly it never came, at least not in the US. Dragon Saber’s PC Engine port would remain a Japanese exclusive and while there were no shortage of shooters for the system in America I’m sure they could have made room for one more, especially a quality title like this. While it lacks the arcade game’s visual splendor this is still a solid title worth checking out for fans of the genre.

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At first glance Dragon Saber doesn’t seem or look all too different from its predecessor. In fact the first stage of both games is eerily similar thematically and to serve as an introductory to the game’s mechanics. However many small tweaks have been added make the sum greater than the whole. You can now sustain three hits before death rather than two which is huge boost to your survival. The standard fiery breath is joined by a power shot which charges automatically when you aren’t firing. It’s a huge risk to take but always worth it in my opinion. The largest gain comes with two-player coop which not only doubles the fun but improves your chances of survival.

Dragon Spirit had a host of power-ups that altered your dragon’s form with most going underutilized for the length of the game. Not so here. There are a slew of new dragon power-ups with nearly every one making at least one appearance in each of the game’s nine levels. So many in fact that it becomes hard to remember which does what as the icons aren’t the most telling in some cases. As an added bonus each has their own special charged shot with some being particularly devastating. The Thunder dragon’s charged attack is essentially a smart bomb meanwhile the blue trident will unleash a massive blue dragon that covers nearly the entire screen. You’ll end up choosing a given weapon more for its special properties than its immediate effects and thankfully the game gives you plenty of opportunities to switch and play around.

Dragon Saber is slower and more deliberately paced than most shooters but that doesn’t have any effect on the intensity of its action. In the arcade each stage was actually pretty short but for the home port they have been extended, some to a grueling extent. The game does a much better job of forcing you to prioritize either ground or air targets and the environment is just as deadly as the enemies you’ll face. I will say some stages tend to drag on far too long such as stage 3 and the ice caverns of stage 6. It is in these instances that the game’s punishing difficulty becomes more apparent.

 

Dragon Spirit was especially hard and in this area Dragon saber isn’t all too different. This is still a pretty brutal game but to some extent it isn’t as bad as the first one. That’s not saying much however. The charge shot helps a bit and power-ups are far more frequent yet you’ll still end up seeing the game over screen pretty frequently. Decreasing your life bar from the arcade’s five hits certainly didn’t help either. The last three or four levels in particular are a nightmare; if you can finish the game on one credit I tip my hat to you because you are a god among men. The game is actually a lot easier in coop not just because two heads are better than one (heh) but because so long as one of you is still alive you aren’t sent back to a checkpoint on death.

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Visually Namco has done a good job of converting the arcade’s pretty spectacular visuals home but the loss in detail is very noticeable. The gorgeous parallax backdrops are completely gone; this is a huge blow as what is left is completely flat and lifeless. While the change in resolution is to be expected the smaller sprites and loss of detail in the game’s amazing boss designs can’t be ignored. Some of the more impressive visual effects had to be removed due to the system’s lack of scaling such as stage five’s canyon dive. It isn’t all negative however. The game’s varied art direction still shines through as the more subdued beginning levels quickly give way to more fantastical environments such as the inside of a demon and an oddly out of place futuristic castle filled with mechanical contraptions and automatons. The sound track is similarly excellent with a rousing and heroic score that completely fits the action.

While Dragon Saber doesn’t seem to add much to the series formula there are enough little additions here and there that alter the game’s “feel” and avoid seeming like a rehash. It also helps that it is a solid game as well. Although it is far from one of the best shooters for the system it also well above average tripe like Ordyne and Dead Moon. This is a journey well worth your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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Skeleton Krew

Long before Core Design became synonymous with Lara Croft they were one of Sega’s strongest supporters, releasing a string of quality titles on both the Genesis and Sega CD. While Tomb Raider came out of nowhere and shocked the industry those who had followed the company knew at one point they constantly pushed technical boundaries. In 1995 they ported their Amiga hit Skeleton Krew to the Genesis with not much lost in the translation surprisingly. With its gritty art style and dark color palette it was a perfect match for the system but suffers a bit in the design department.

In the year 2062 a former mortician named Moribund Kadaver (seriously?) has taken over a cryogenics plant and used its resources to unleash a never ending supply of mutants on Monstro City. The Military Ascertainment Department calls upon the mercenary Skeleton Krew to track down Kadaver and end his plans for domination.

Skeleton Krew wears its death theme proudly and places it front and center. There are more skulls and chains than at a death metal concert. This is a hardcore action game and don’t you forget it! The game’s premise and story are only touched on briefly in the intro and vaguely at that. It’s never brought up again and doesn’t really provide any context to the locations you’re visiting. The entire game feels directionless and combined with its quirky controls will make you wonder why it sells for so much on Ebay aside from its slight rarity.

You have your pick of any of the game’s three protagonists and as you can expect they all fit into established tropes. Team leader Spine is your everyman, good at all things but excels in none. Joint is the token strong man who packs a punch but moves slower than a turtle. And the lone female Rib, get this, is incredibly fast but weak. I know, shocking. Each comes with a different standard weapon with grenades as secondary. Honestly they look slightly different but the weapons all seem to function the same. The grenades are near useless since there’s a few second delay before they explode and considering the amount of crap tossed your way you can’t afford to wait. Get used to these weapons as there are no power-ups at all which is intensely disappointing.

The controls take some getting used to. You can strafe but can’t move and shoot independently. You can sort of use the A and C buttons to control your rotation but that requires some insane finger gymnastics and the game’s pace won’t allow it. There are a number of control setups in the options with some making use of the six button controller but the button arrangements make little sense. If you could map them yourself this would be golden. The default setup certainly isn’t intuitive but can be manageable in time. This is the type of game dual analog controllers were made for too bad we were still a few years off from that.

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My primary gripe with the game is that outside of one or two levels most are aimless. You aren’t given any explanation as to what your goal on each stage is and so wander around and eventually stumble into it. The levels are pretty spacious and hunting down random terminals or abstract parts of the background that need to be destroyed becomes tedious. All the while the enemies respawn infinitely. The objectives once it gets down to it are repetitive; most of the time you are simply destroying generators before advancing to the next planet. Boss battles are few in number but memorable; if they occurred at the end of every stage it would have broken up the monotony considerably.

Despite covering only six levels Skeleton Krew is blistering hard. You only get 3 lives and 3 continues although these are renewed if you use a password. There are no power-ups whatsoever; weapons or life refills included. There’s a lot of shit thrown at you at once as early as the second level, to the point where it’s hard to even see your character amidst the chaos and easily lose a life or two in the process. Combined with the lack of any direction given and you’ll end up wasting continues just trying to figure out what the hell you need to do or where to go. Even so there are ways to game the system so I can see most completing the game in an afternoon.

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While the controls and gameplay have their issues visually Skeleton Krew is spectacular. The game is full of superb artwork with a level of detail few games of the era can match. There’s a heavy comic book inspired vibe to the game’s look that is certainly unique and gives it a cohesive feel. The few bosses in the game are large monstrosities that are insanely detailed and a nice change of pace. The frame rate is rock solid and only chugs at the worst moments in coop play. As was mentioned before its heavy on the skull and death imagery and it can grow tiresome but the environments are varied enough that it won’t matter. The technical prowess that Core exhibited with the Sega CD was brought to bear here, producing one of the top visual extravaganzas for the system. The music is disappointing; you would expect banging death metal to accompany the darker tone but instead you are treated to generic synth rock that lays in the background and dies.

Skeleton Krew has its good and bad points and it is up to you to decide if the game is for you. Despite its faults I still managed to enjoy it, especially since it is so short. But the game is exceedingly expensive and for a fraction of the price you could by both Smash TV and Soldiers of Fortune, both similar and superior games.

6-out-of-10-1

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Super Turrican

After the nightmare of playing the original Turrican on both the Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 I thought for sure the rest of the world was nuts in their love for this series. I realize to some extent you had to be there at the game’s original release on the Commodore 64 and other UK computer formats to appreciate the game’s mechanics but even taking that into account there are glaring flaws I found hard to ignore. So imagine my surprise when the following console sequels would go on to become some of my favorite action games of that era. As one of Factor 5’s earliest console efforts Super Turrican is one of the best action games for the SNES and one that seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Despite the title this is not simply an enhanced port of the first game but a weird amalgamation of elements from both Turrican and Mega Turrican. Fitting as both games were in development around the same time. The game doesn’t completely go the action focused route of MT and still keeps a lot of what made Turrican unique such as the wide open levels full of secrets. Although it isn’t as polished as that game due to the mélange of ideas from two separate games it is still an all-around excellent title and one of the better games in the series.

Nearly all of the flaws inherit in the original Turrican have been fixed creating a much more pleasant experience. Your life bar is separated into individual digits rather than one continuous bar. To go along with that getting hit gives you a moment of invulnerability making it almost impossible to have your life drained in 2 seconds. This was my main gripe with Turrican and the game is infinitely more playable thanks to the change. Depending on the strength of the attack your health is depleted in different increments to balance it out but on average you can sustain four or five hits before death.

The primary weapons have been slightly redesigned and are both still familiar yet packing more of a punch. The spread shot is still the same as ever, covering a wide range but lacking in power. The reflecting shot is both bigger and fires rapidly, making it more effective in certain tight situations. The laser beam has been changed to bursts of energy fired in rapid succession that is incredibly powerful rather than a straight beam of light. The lightning whip is instead a freeze beam that immobilizes enemies but doesn’t inflict damage. This change doesn’t quite work out as it is rarely ever useful and I more or less forgot about it completely after the first ten minutes. The “morph” ball can now drop bombs similar to Samus (oh boy) and is governed by a special meter rather than a strict number of uses. It makes it a far more integral part of your tool kit rather than a last resort.

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The level design is a best of both worlds approach in terms of action game design. The majority of the worlds keep the wide open approach that made the series famous.   Though not as spacious there are still plenty of item boxes to use as stepping stones to find gems and alternate paths through each of the levels. Most of the levels are redesigned versions of Turrican’s more popular levels with the finale taken directly from Mega Turrican. It’s….. A direct Aliens rip-off, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise but is still pretty cool regardless. There are a smattering of straightforward action stages more akin to Contra throughout that are a taste of the direction the series would eventually go in. Some might poo poo their inclusion but I feel they are a nice change of pace.

The few original worlds made specifically for this game aren’t a direct fit and feel more like they were included as part of a checklist. The volcano world is the obligatory fire level every game seems to have while the ice world is full of requisite slippery slopes. However there is a cool stage where you must use the changing direction of the wind to assist in platforming. I actually would not have minded seeing more inspired mechanics like that to break up the monotony but I can see how Turrican purists would have felt otherwise.

Super Turrican is only let down by its brevity. With five main worlds with multiple sub levels each that seems like plenty for an action game but the truth is most will be able to finish the game in about 2 hours. That isn’t to say you won’t enjoy every moment of it but the game’s conclusion comes abruptly; not only is there no final confrontation with the Machine but there isn’t an ending either. This unfortunately comes from cuts made late in development; the 6-meg game had to be chopped down to 4, leaving an entire world and a few weapons on the cutting room floor. If only we received the full game that was originally planned, then Super Turrican would have truly been special.

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Visually the game is spectacular, full of vibrant colors and detail the series had not traditionally seen before. The backgrounds are incredibly well designed and the bosses are screen filling monstrosities that are just as entertaining to fight as see in action. Surprisingly special effects such as Mode 7 are kept to a minimum and used sparingly; the popular giant fist at the end of the first world is comically small before zooming in to occupy the majority of the screen. Most impressive of all however is the lack of any slowdown no matter how intense the action. The excellent soundtrack is presented in Dolby Surround Sound and while it lacks the punch of Mega Turrican’s bass is still far above most music produced during that era.

Regardless of how much content had to be cut this is still one of the better action games for the Super NES. If given a choice between this and Mega Turrican that game wins out but ST is a close second and more than worth your time.

8-out-of-101

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Pocky & Rocky 2

One of the greatest joys of being a gamer is coming across a hidden gem every now and then that is an absolute blast to play. It isn’t as easy for most games to fly under the radar these days due to social media but back in the 80s and 90s we still relied on magazines for coverage and they only had so much space, meaning many lost classics never received the exposure they deserved. Pocky and Rocky was one such title, an enjoyable top down shooter and awesome sequel to a bad arcade game. But apparently it sold well enough to warrant a sequel that brings more of the same action but also incorporates a number of features to make it an even better experience.

The harvest festival is held every year, with this year in particular being special as Princess Luna has come down from the Moon to join in the festivities. Unfortunately a group of demons use this as an opportunity to kidnap her. Pocky sets out with a new set of allies in tow to rescue the princess and defeat this mysterious new threat.

Featuring the same top down action as the first title Pocky and Rocky 2 features a few sterling changes that will alter your approach to the game. There is no longer a life bar and instead damage is based on how much armor you have. At the most basic level you can sustain two hits before death but can purchase armor to absorb three blows and bunny ears (!) for one extra. It’s a change that means you’ll have to focus on using your wand to deflect attacks more frequently as well as always be on the move, especially since you can no longer slide. Lastly the two divergent paths your Hanafuda cards could take has been simplified but for the better, with the cards at first gaining rapid fire and then doubling in size and strength.

The game is still two-player coop however in single player you will always have a partner character with you at all times who can be switched out at the start of each level or by collecting an item. Rocky returns and is unchanged and is joined by Bomber Bob, whose name is self-explanatory, and Little ninja. The initial trio will eventually be joined by four more characters who will join you in each level such as Tengy, Scarecrow, Digger, and Ottobot. Each has their own specialty and you’ll have the option of changing multiple times during each level for the maximum benefit.

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For the most part your partner will follow your movements and also attack enemies in the vicinity but their real worth comes in their abilities. They’re also technically invincible; they can take a few hits before “dying” but will come back after a brief period. You can completely abuse the hell out of this to survive hairy situations, especially boss fights although the time they are gone in those situations can be pretty dire. By using magic Pocky will inhabit their bodies and use their powers; Rocky can find hidden items, little ninja can open locked chests without a key, and Bomber Bob can chuck boulders to open secret passages.

In the absence of a smart bomb Pocky can toss her partner at enemies. If you miss you’ll have to wait about 10-15 seconds for them to come back. When used on bosses it becomes a Panic Bomber attack with different effects depending on the character. These attacks can be devastating, especially if you can catch them in a corner. The boss fights are long since the bastards are basically bullet sponges so these attacks are crucial to shortening these drawn out affairs.

At nine levels it would seem the game is longer but in actuality it is about the same length as the first game as the levels are shorter overall. The first level is a practice stage to teach you the game’s mechanics (which is worth it in my opinion) and can also be skipped. The inclusion of light RPG elements such as currency, shops, armor upgrades, and townspeople to speak with in each level gives the game a Legend of the Mystical Ninja vibe that I dig. Removing the life bar has made it tougher but at the same time the additional game mechanics make up for it wonderfully and more importantly are fully explored within the game’s framework. Add in passwords to save progress and you have a game that successfully updates the series mechanics while also fixing its prequel’s few faults.

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Graphically there haven’t been great strides made technically as the general look is still the game but what has improved is the game’s art.   The locations you’ll visit are more diverse and rich in color as well as the demons you’ll face. The special effects that accompany the panic bomber attacks are pretty cool to witness with giant plumes of fire, geysers of water and other effects that up the visual pizzazz. There are more enemies that crowd the screen at once, inducing slowdown but these instances are few in number. The soundtrack has expanded in number but I would place it on the same level as the first game; adequate but nothing spectacular.

Pocky & Rocky is both familiar and different at the same time with sweeping changes that creates a distinctive experience compared to the first game. It’s also one of the best top down shooters from that era. The game was released in limited quantities so its pricey but if you find it at a normal price I would say jump in immediately.

8-out-of-101

 

 

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Eliminate Down

I’ve always been amazed by video game developers who only create a single title and then disappear overnight. It’s tempting to call them a one hit wonder but in most cases the games weren’t hits regardless of their quality. Clockwork Tortoise created the Sega version of the Adventures of Batman & Robin, a game so technically incredible I still can’t believe it’s a Genesis game. While there were many shooters for the system created by some of the best in the business you’ll never hear the name Aprinet. That’s because their only title, Eliminate Down only saw release in Japan and South Korea. However in one fell swoop they made one of the top 10 games in the genre for a platform buckling under its sheer numbers. Not bad for a company no one has ever heard of.

Eliminate Down only has a few weapons unlike most shooters. You are always equipped with the game’s three weapons: the forward firing blaster, the rear firing laser, and the four way bombs. The forward blaster covers a wider area when upgraded. The rear laser actually isn’t a laser but instead spits out Zs (I know, it’s weird) at a 45 degree angle. The four way bombs travel along the surface of whatever they touch until they hit a target. All three weapons can be upgraded three times by collecting five power chips each. Leveling your weapons is a painless process as the items drop frequently and as a bonus they all increase in power simultaneously. The only other power-ups are a barrier that protects you from damage and an upgrade for your standard shot.

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Three weapons isn’t much however the game was designed around this. The level design is generally excellent, encouraging frequent weapon swapping at every turn. The levels scroll in every direction and trying to rely on one given weapon simply does not work. By the end of the game each will have had its moment to shine regardless of how weak they seem. The mid boss of Round 5 will force you to use the rear laser exclusively while the four way bombs are essential to completing its latter half. I will admit though that as much as I like the way the designers made each weapon essential I would have appreciated at least one option that was more powerful and had a more focused shot. None of the three options available have the necessary punch to them, leading to drawn out boss fights.

Unlike the vast majority of shooters on the market Eliminate Down is fairly median in terms of difficulty, at least its first half. Death doesn’t carry as big a penalty here as your weapons are only downgraded one level and you respawn instantly, avoiding the frustration of being thrown back to a checkpoint. This leaves you with a fighting chance although if you were in the zone it’s hard to get back to that state. The mid-level bosses are actually more terrifying than some of the end level mayors at this point in an odd twist but I feel the difficulty is near perfect, to the point where it is fun to experiment and see which weapon is the best suited for your current situation.

The second half of the game picks up significantly with more enemies than before and showers of bullets with barrier power-ups becoming increasingly rare. While I welcome a challenge I found it starts to veer into unfair territory. The beginning of Round 6 features a debris field that has rocks that are near impossible to distinguish from the ones that can actually hit you. Round 7 is one long series of traps and sudden shifts that seem to exist to kill you abruptly with prior warning. The learning curve is pretty steep and you’ll have to replay the last levels numerous times to memorize every element in order to survive.

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Eliminate Down is utterly fantastic in the art department, able to match some of the system’s best with ease. While a lot of the creature designs (especially the bosses) are reminiscent of similar titles such as Mega Turrican and R-Type the game has a level of detail that few can match. A good chunk of space was reserved for sprite animation and in this regard the game is fantastic. There are many larger enemies and bosses composed of multiple sprites that all animate in a way that is exquisite. There are even rotational effects along the lines of Gunstar Heroes and other Treasure games, all from an unknown developer. Pretty incredible isn’t it? The backgrounds themselves can be underwhelming at times; there are some static backdrops that just scream for some scrolling but on the whole it nearly reaches the level of Lightening Force. The one negative would be the heavy amounts of flicker which I’m surprised isn’t worse all things considered.

There’s no question Eliminate Down is one of the best shooters of the 16-bit era but unfortunately it will cost you. The original Japanese release was printed in low quantities however the game is readily available in Korean and much cheaper. All of the game’s text is already in English so there is no reason not to experience one of the genre’s best representatives. It rarely got better than this.

9-out-of-10

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In the Hunt

Launch window games are usually shallow affairs designed to dazzle you with new technology to hide their lack of inspired gameplay. There are exceptions of course; many of the early PlayStation games such as Twisted Metal and Wipeout were incredible. But in that rush to make everything in 3d plenty of 2d games were lost in the shuffle. In the Hunt was a port of a little known arcade game from 1993 that came years after the heyday of the shooter. Don’t let that stop you however as it is one of the more innovative games in the genre and is still excellent today.

Despite being a shooter In the Hunt has more in common with side scrolling action games like Contra, often being referred to as Metal Sub. The screen doesn’t auto scroll and instead advances when you move. It’s different but works since you control the pace. Overall this is a slower paced game than most shooters but the pacing is deliberate; despite the timer there really is no rush and in fact that is an easy way to a quick death.

Your sub is equipped with torpedoes, slower depth charges to deal with enemies below (like Gradius) and missiles when you come up to the surface. A nice addition to the home ports is a button to launch all three simultaneously. There are few power-ups with the two carriers cycling through two weapons that alter your torpedoes and missiles. The varying missiles behave differently depending on where they are launched; on the surface the floating mines become a machine gun. Underwater the tracking missiles are simply regular projectiles. Torpedoes are more varied as you have a choice between crackers that explode on impact, a piercing hypersonic bullet, or the faster supersonic torpedoes.
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Unlike most shooters you are attacked on three fronts, above, below and in front. The more wide open levels offer plenty of opportunities to pick a lane and stick to it although that isn’t always advise; sticking to the ocean bottom means airplanes and ships and their bombs are left unchecked and can route you. It is almost impossible to cover all three directions, and those who can prioritize stand the best chance of actually seeing the end of the game. The level design is incredibly varied as most of the game’s six stages present a plenty of creative scenarios that limit your abilities in interesting ways. Stage 3 is an upward climb out of a tunnel as a rocky sea monster follows in pursuit. This same creature is the end level boss in which you must strategically drop stone slabs to destroy his body while also avoiding being crushed as well. The Channel takes place entirely in shallow water, cutting off an underwater escape to avoid enemy fire.

Like most Irem shooters In the Hunt is ridiculously difficult. Regardless of the difficulty level it is only a matter of time before you are overwhelmed by the sheer chaos on screen. The sub moves far slower than in most shooters and there are no power-ups to increase your speed so you have to make do. Dodging projectiles or explosions comes down to moving ahead of time which isn’t always an option. The three weapons don’t increase your firepower as much as you would like so survival still mostly comes down to your piloting skills. But amazingly no matter how unfair it may seem once you’ve been through a stage more than likely you’ll be able to clear it on subsequent runs without dying.

The game was ported to both the PlayStation and Saturn and the differences between the two are minor. The Saturn version has a terrible CG intro and more slowdown than the arcade but only in the most extreme cases. The PS One game is the most balanced gameplay wise.   There is less slowdown than both other versions of the game and if you play in the exclusive PlayStation mode you have access to a new power-up that gives you a shield. It might seem like a minor addition but it is actually huge. The level order is different but that is a minor complaint. Only the biggest purists will complain and honestly I doubt most have even played this in the arcade anyway.

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In the Hunt is a ridiculously beautiful game, animated to a degree most modern 2d games still have yet to match. Every individual depth charge and explosion is rendered in exquisite detail, to the point where you’ll probably destroy stuff just to see it explode in a shower of debris. Background elements and enemy subs erode and decay over time into a jumble of individual pieces; the level of detail here is meticulous to a fault with so much going on at once that it is almost overwhelming. The underwater theme would seem to limit the variety of environments but that isn’t the case; the amount of variety on display from one stage to the next is insane, from the first stage’s icy South Pole to the submerged city of stage four. The game’s bosses are a collection of gargantuan ships and undersea creatures that nearly fill the screen and are at times more visually impressive than the stages themselves. The game’s beautiful artwork was created by many of the same artists who would go on to form Nazca and create Metal Slug which explains the similar look between the two games.

This is still one of the most unique shooters created and regardless of which version you buy you’ll have a blast. Though incredibly difficult the beyond beautiful artwork will surely keep you coming back.

8-out-of-101

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Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius

I really love examining the later games released during any console generation. Once the technology has matured and tool chains have been mastered its nothing short of miraculous what is pulled from aging hardware. Look at Vectorman and the Adventures of Batman & Robin for Genesis. Or Seiken Densetsu 3 and Donkey Kong Country 2 for SNES. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius can count itself among that crowd. As the last Parodius title developed for the Super Famicom it pushes the system pretty hard in numerous ways, especially in terms of speech.

The name of the game loosely translates to Live Chatting Parodius, a name in which it lives up to. A large portion of the game’s memory is dedicated to sampled speech to enable running commentary throughout the entire game. It gives the game the feel of a talk show such as Game Center CX and the like. Sadly this feature is lost on those of us that can’t speak Japanese. The commentary, while pretty cool in concept isn’t exactly crucial to the proceedings. The few phrases and such that I picked up on usually amounted to commenting on how dangerous the current situation is, warnings about the upcoming boss, and common stuff like “Watch Out”, “It’s Dangerous” or even berating you on your bad performance.

Luckily the game is still excellent regardless of whether you can understand the strange old man talking over your progress. The number of playable characters has tripled in size from its last installment to a record breaking (at the time) 16 pulled from nearly every Konami series you can think of. The majority of the new faces are Parodius originals for those that want something different. While there is some obvious doubling up of characters, such as the similarities between the Vic Viper and Lord British there are some slight differences that make a large impact such as forgoing options for a chargeable laser.

Rather than original themed stages Jikkyou Parodius instead parodies other Konami properties. Some of these are surprising and will be foreign to most; stage 2 is themed after Tokimeki Memorial, an inhumanly popular dating sim from the mid-90s. It’s certainly strange subject matter for a shooter yet somehow they make it work. The concept of fighting a pair of school girls stacked on top of each other as an end level boss fits right in with the series’ ridiculous tone.

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The fun continues as even Lethal Enforcers is ripe for parody. Yes the deadly serious light gun (emphasis on gun) shooter serves as the basis for a level that combines moving targets and obstacles with the fast pace of the speed zone from Gradius II and III. While you might expect an end level boss in some way related to the series (I don’t know, a giant pistol or something?) instead you’ll face a Kabuki actor in one of the game’s more difficult encounters.

Other levels draw from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Twinbee, disco and cooking. At only eight levels this is shorter than prior games in the series but you won’t finish it one, two, or even three sittings. There’s a battery back-up option which seems strange to include in a shooter but is literally a god send here. The only caveat is your score is reset to zero, not that most will even care. Aside from playing through the game with different characters there are 70 fairies strewn throughout the game. They are hidden pretty damn thoroughly and will take dedication to acquire them all but sadly your only reward is a stage select option.

While the main focus of the game may have changed slightly one thing that hasn’t is the difficulty. Jikkyou Parodius is absolutely brutal and unrelenting to an insane degree. This is slightly faster paced than the previous games and with that comes more aggressive enemies to match. Even the relatively brief space intermissions before each new level starts are pretty deadly. It’s definitely unexpected and with the increase in bullets and just junk littering the screen comes slowdown. Prior games were pretty good about restraining their chaos to reduce it as much as possible but here slowdown is a regular occurrence. Honestly I’m pretty sure they had the SNES ready to tap out at any moment and it sucks that the system can’t keep up. It isn’t game breaking but is notable enough to warrant mentioning.

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This installment of Parodius was released in late 1995 and so benefits from years of dedicated work on the hardware. The game simply looks fantastic, with large sprites, excellent animation, and beautiful backgrounds at every turn. The series wacky sense of humor has been taken to the extreme and if you thought some of the enemies and bosses in prior games were ridiculous before its nothing compared to what Konami has cooked up here.  The SA-1 chip was included, which enables some polygonal effects here and there but is mainly used to speed up the system’s slow processor and data compression.

That compression is what allowed the game to have so many voice samples and music. There are very few games from that era that come anywhere close to this game in that regard; maybe some of the later sports games. Aside from the commentary the soundtrack is otherwise excellent, combining original compositions with funky remixes of public domain songs and other Konami hits. The sound is of a higher quality than most SNES games and doesn’t suffer from the typical muffling associated with many of its best efforts.

As one final outing for the series before it moved to the 32-bit consoles Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius is an all-around excellent game. While its signature feature is lost to non-Japanese speakers it has little impact on the rest of this phenomenal package.

9-out-of-10

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Android Assault

Next to the Saturn and Turbo Duo I wish the Sega CD had found some measure of success in the US. By 1995 the system had managed to build up a respectable amount of titles that made the cost (at that point anywhere between $50-100) worth it. In Japan it was a different story as the CD drive enjoyed more wide spread support. Good support too, with many incredible RPGs and such. Meanwhile Sega of America saw fit to unleash a barrage of assy FMV games on us that we did not deserve. For this reason games like Android Assault stood out more. While it isn’t the best use of the added CD space ultimately that doesn’t matter as it is a good game first and foremost.

Like a sizable chunk of the Sega CD’s library in the US there isn’t much in Android Assault that couldn’t be done on a Genesis cartridge. Aside from the fully voiced intro and soundtrack it has nothing over the likes of Lightening Force. However a game doesn’t have to be innovative to be good and in that regard AA succeeds. There weren’t too many shooters for the Sega CD and so Android Assault has little competition and despite being a little derivative it’s a solid game. More of this and less crap like Ground Zero Texas would have gone a long way toward painting the Sega CD in a more positive light.

The list of weapons is kept relatively light however the four available cover most of the popular tropes. The Thunder Cracker is the standard which upgrades to a wide spread shot at full power. The Chase Cannon fires a volley of homing missiles straight out of Macross; incredibly useful but weak. The Burning Wave is the stereotypical laser which will produce five asymmetric lasers when fully upgraded. The Satellite bombs are flat out terrible. These missiles fire in a straight line and is too slow to be effective. Once a weapon is powered up a third time your ship will transform into a flying mech which serves no purpose other than to look cool and increase the size of your hit box. That’s not true, it allows you to sustain one hit before death.

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All of these weapons are supplemented by an R-Type style charge shot. When you aren’t firing it charges up to three levels pretty quickly and unleashes a modified burst of power depending on your current weapon. The changes are pretty dramatic in some cases; while the satellite bomb is terrible on its own a fully charged shot will unleash a cluster of smaller bombs that explode in a wide radius. The chase cannon actually becomes a fiery snake that lasts until the bar is depleted and particularly devastating when timed right. The fact that you have to sit defenseless for it to charge is a nice compromise for the power it offers although most will use every opportunity to spam it when possible.

This is not a fast paced game which is in stark contrast to a good portion of the shooter genre in which twitch action is its reason for being. The slower pace doesn’t mean the game is not full on tense moments however as massive humanoid robots are your most frequent opponents and they don’t go down in a single hit. The game uses the same elevated playing field as later Thunder Force and Darius games so you can easily choose a more aggressive lane if that is what you seek. But even then outside the occasional boss battle and trying to crawl back after dying you won’t find much of a challenge here.

Unlike the majority of shooters I found Android Assault to be far easier than is usual in the genre. For the most part the weapons are overpowered with the exception of the stupid satellite bomb. The charge attack reaches full power pretty quickly so you can spam it if you want with little consequence. Extra lives are awarded regularly and if you have even some modicum of flying skill you’ll have little to worry about. It does pick up a bit at the halfway mark but is nothing too drastic. As someone who is used to getting his ass kicked in these games this came as a welcome change of pace.

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The game’s artwork gives it a unique visual style with its awesome mech designs. The mechs resemble something out of a mid-90s anime OVA like Tekkaman Blade or Escaflowne. Large and imposing these robots comprise the majority of the enemies you’ll face. The backgrounds are a parallax fan’s wet dream, often going as deep as six layers and makes excellent use of the system’s limited color palette. Although its environments are reminiscent of other games in the genre they are still creative and not many match this level of detail. The CD soundtrack is comprised of generally excellent rock music; hell even the little bits of voice acting are well done. The entire presentational package is a first class effort which is surprising for what was a low profile release.

While Android Assault does not break any new ground within the genre it is a well done shooter on a console that could use every quality title it can get. Copies of the game might be hard to find but generally it is inexpensive and worth a play through.

7-out-of-10-1

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Summer Carnival ’92 Recca

Wow, that’s all I can say. Prepare to see your NES do things you never thought possible. Recca is the fastest shooter available for the NES and moves with the speed of a Genesis title but has almost no slowdown whatsoever. I don’t know what feat of technical programming Naxat Soft used to accomplish this but it is simply incredible to see in action. And it was done without the help of extra processors or specialized mappers. When you compare it to many of those early SNES shooters such as Super R-Type and Gradius III it’s embarrassing. Summer Carnival ’92 Recca is the greatest NES shooter released, one that stretches the system’s practical boundaries and backs it up with fantastic gameplay.

The Summer Carnival in the title refers to the shooting competition Naxat held in 1992 with Recca as its entrant. Much like Hudson Soft and their Star Soldier series these competitions were based all around scoring and the game comes equipped with two and five minute scoring challenges. Score attack challenges you to earn as many points as possible in two minutes but it is Time Attack that is more interesting. Here the challenge is to score one million points as soon as possible; there’s a five minute limit that adds to the pressure. I don’t normally bother with these modes but they are incredibly fun to play around with, especially due to the game’s mechanics.

There are a wealth of weapons available; five primary and five secondary that can be powered up multiple times. These run the shmup gamut, from a five-way shot, homing shot, and laser to the standard forward Vulcan cannon. Weapon drops are frequent with every 16th enemy destroyed dropping a new one. The secondary items are pods that either circle the ship or orbit it at various angles and repeat your fire. They provide minimal protection considering the biggest concern are head on collisions rather than random fire.

The most crucial defensive move you have is actually your smart bomb. When not firing your ship will begin to charge, indicated by a growing sphere. Even at its smallest size it can absorb bullets and many larger projectiles before release. Its equal parts risk and reward as it takes 5-6 seconds to fully charge but is absolutely crucial to surviving every boss battle. The bomb itself isn’t all that powerful but will provide the time needed to charge up another, making some of the most difficult fights trivial.

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It goes without saying that Recca is one of the most difficult games for the NES, let alone shooters and is up there with Battletoads and Castlevania III. It isn’t just the speed of the game that makes it so tough as it is the near relentless assault of enemies in between each boss battle. You really have to question whether it’s worth trying to snag that power-up as another wave of enemies can appear at any given moment. While the bosses might seem near impossible at times it only takes a minute of casual observation to identify their pattern. That being said it will still take quite some time before even the most seasoned gamers will see the end, especially as there are no continues which is a gigantic slap in the face.

If you somehow manage to finish the main game there is still plenty of content to be mined. Though the main “quest” is only four levels long Recca has plenty of extra modes that double the length of the game and are extremely fun in their own regard. By resetting the system you’ll gain access to essentially a Zelda style second quest which is seven levels long and is a remix of the first four areas. However these are done so well you can barely tell. Not only are the graphics suitably altered but bosses are switched around and there are even some new ones thrown in the mix.

This is the game’s hard mode, which, considering the difficulty on normal, is an understatement. If you thought normal mode was fast the pace is kicked up another notch, to the point where taking your finger off the trigger button will almost always equal instant death. The sheer number of enemies that are thrown at you is so ridiculous that on more than one occasion I could only say “are you serious?” I feel no shame in admitting that I had to tap out and cheat my way to the end. A man has to know his limits and Recca showed me mine.

But there’s more! If for some god forsaken reason you crave an even bigger challenge there’s Zanki mode. It’s the same as normal with two exceptions. You are given fifty lives, which sounds like a lot but will shrink in record time due to the enemies’ new suicide function. Every enemy destroyed will erupt in a shower of bullets, blanketing the screen in a manner befitting a bullet hell shooter except 8-bit style. This is one of the few areas slowdown will rear its head which is a bit of a reprieve all things considered. I’m not hardcore enough to soldier through this mode but anyone who likes their shooters on this side of impossible will be in heaven.

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Next to Kirby’s Adventure and Gimmick Summer Carnival Recca is the most technically accomplished game for the system. There really is no comparison as it puts many 16-bit games to shame and I’m not exaggerating. No matter how manic the action gets there is no flicker and only the briefest moments of slowdown. There’s a strict sprite limit in the NES hardware yet somehow Naxat managed to get around it, creating a visual spectacle I never thought possible on this aging hardware. Artistically the game is sound and even features plenty of parallax scrolling and screen filling bosses. Aside from the limited color palette you won’t find a better looking 8-bit title. The techno soundtrack is well done despite the lacking sound channels and was actually so popular that a separate OST was released.

For the longest time Recca was exorbitantly expensive as it was released in limited quantities in Japan. Last year however it finally saw a domestic release on the 3DS virtual console for a mere $5. At that price you’d be a fool to pass up one of the greatest shooters of all time.

9-out-of-10

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Psychosis

For a shooter to enter the crowded Turbo Grafx-16 market and stand out it has to do something different. Between the Turbo and the Genesis the market was flooded with nearly every incarnation of the genre possible. We remember the likes of R-Type, Super Star Soldier, and Thunder Force but for every one of those we received twice as much generic pap. Psychosis does not fall into that category on the strength of its interesting premise but in the end has nothing aside from it that would garner any interest. This is merely an above average game on a system inundated with far better games in the genre.

I’ll give the game points for coming up with something different story wise. The devil Ugar has invaded the player’s mind and plans to make it his own. Not wanting to give up without a fight you (the player) use your imagination to create a ship to battle the hordes of demons Ugar has conjured up within your subconscious.

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Since the game takes place completely in your mind it allows it to avoid the standard video game tropes and introduce a set of levels, or causes as they are called, that are wholly separate from one another. The first level’s beach (which is odd in and of itself) is the most traditional but is soon followed up by a trip through a weird forest filled with overgrown plant life and inhabited by Noh masks. The boss of the level is cool ghost fox. The third cause is a bit lame as it revisits the beach except at night with blocks that cover up pieces of the environment. The Indian temple of the fourth cause is probably my favorite as it draws upon monsters from Hinduism and is the most visually inspired. Unfortunately because the game is only five levels long you don’t get to see as much of this variety as it is the lone standout of the game as the rest of it is highly derivative of similar titles.

The weapons system takes a page from R-Type as you are gifted with two options you collect any of the lettered power-ups. These options can be repositioned on all four sides of the ship to fire in all four cardinal directions. This is their most important use as the level design will often call for you to set them up for maximum efficiency. They can also function as a shield of sorts by converging on your spot and absorbing enemy fire and some collisions. The actual weapons themselves are typical fare and are remarkably unimpressive. The short range thunder is incredibly powerful against bosses but not for the fodder enemies. The wave beam is the closest you’ll get to focused fire but is lacking in power. The laser fires at an angle and is the most useless in my opinion.

In combination with the lackluster weapons available Psychosis is more challenging than the typical shooter. This isn’t the type of game where the screen is flooded with bullets however due to the construction of each stage it is very easy to end up with little room to maneuver, most prominently featured in the mini boss battles of the 2nd dream. Death kicks you back to a checkpoint and like Gradius trying to crawl back with no weapons is near impossible. The game makes use of all the cheap shooter tricks such as walls impenetrable walls that block your path suddenly and encounters with stronger enemies in enclosed spaces. In stark contrast I found most of the boss battles incredibly simple aside from the previously mentioned ghost fox.

Despite its scant five stages chances are you won’t finish this in one sitting, especially with limited continues. To see the true ending you’ll have to go through it twice which is supposed to make up for its short length I imagine but this is a shooter so you already know that it isn’t worth it.

While Psychosis is fairly unremarkable it is still solid. I struggle to recommend it however due to its short length. If it were 2 or 3 stages longer the game would be more than worth a purchase. As it is however only the most dedicated shooter fans need apply.

6-out-of-10-1

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Harmful Park

 

I don’t know when the American videogame industry decided that the shmup genres time had passed but I mourned its loss. I guess most of the games being 2d arcade ports of some truly brilliant games wasn’t good for the new 32-bit platforms. True, every so often a gem or two would escape Japan such as Thunder Force 5 or R-Type Delta but compared to Japan we only received scraps. We missed out on some truly exceptional games; the likes of Radiant Silvergun, Soukyugurentai, and Dodonpachi are an importer’s wet dream. One such game you’ll rarely hear about is Harmful Park, not only one of the best PlayStation shooters but possibly my favorite game in the genre. That’s no small praise either. I’ve probably played a few hundred of these games in my 34 years and so for a game like Harmful Park to leave such a strong impression speaks to its quality. The only negative I can think of is that the game isn’t more widely available.

The game’s premise is hilarious. Heartful Park was a simple amusement park until Dr. Tequila took it over to use for his nefarious ends. One of his associates wants to stop him but is too old so instead sends her two daughters to save the now Harmful Park.

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While it isn’t as overt Harmful Park shares many similarities with Parodius. Both games are on the wacky side of the spectrum and nothing is sacred. Where Parodius made fun of Gradius and later other Konami games Harmful Park manages to somehow lambast anything the designers felt could be mocked; everything is fair game. Even if shooters had stayed popular in the late 90s chances are it wouldn’t have been released domestically as most publishers didn’t know what to do with these games. Its small print run makes it all the more special and whatever amount you end up paying will be rewarded.

The game equips you with its four weapons right from the start. The potato gun is your standard machine gun, rapid fire equipped and versatile. The ice cream cannon is the game’s laser equivalent, slow and piercing. The pie tosser is slower but the most powerful as the pies explode on impact. Meanwhile the jelly weapon fires homing jelly beans that are weak. Each weapon can be leveled up four times with some changing more than others. Getting up to full power is a bit of a task as power-ups are scarce.

In addition each has a secondary smart bomb function that is incredibly useful in a pinch. The ice cream cannon produces a sundae that emits a massive beam of destruction. The homing jelly beans produce a protective mold of jello for a close to 10 second bout of invincibility. Surprisingly the potato gun’s is the least useful; it creates a giant potato that explodes but has a narrow radius. Oddly enough you’ll probably find more special weapon power-ups than the normal ones.

This is a slower paced shooter despite the seeming chaos every second yet despite that it is still engaging. This would have made a perfect entry level shooter for anyone new to the genre thanks to its balanced difficulty. Regardless of whatever difficulty selected the game is highly accessible; you respawn upon death up until the final two stages, weapons are only downgraded one level if you die, and taking advantage of the simple scoring system (killing multiple enemies in one shot yields higher score multipliers) will earn extra lives at a decent clip. Completing the game on hard is a task in itself with a few changes thrown in here and there to make it worthwhile.

At six levels the game isn’t too long, luckily there are a variety of minigames to partake in. Punch ball is a combination of air hockey and Pong, a strange combination but one that works. Sky Circuit is a horizontal racing game with six levels, pretty impressive. Tank battle seems out of place comparatively, as it is an overhead tank battle (duh) that used exclusive graphics but I didn’t find it very entertaining.

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2d games were not all too common on the PlayStation and so every game was scrutinized. Even when compared to titles on the Saturn, the reigning 2d champion of that generation, Harmful Park looks exceptional. The game is full of gorgeous artwork that will have you pausing the game just to take it all in. The menagerie of enemies you face come in shapes and are downright bizarre, such as a doggie helicopter, flying squirrels, and even beer guzzling, fire breathing…..I don’t know what the hell they are. The bosses are even more off the wall. The first boss you face is an inflatable fire breathing dinosaur, which sets the nutty tone. There’s a Frankenstein with finger lasers being controlled by a cat inside his brain (I can’t believe I just typed that). Stage four pits you against a teenager at a drive-in theater who is only viewed from the neck down. For a reason. My personal favorite would be the heart shaped demon who entices a bride to wed another man in the wedding procession, prompting the would be groom to cry tears of death.

More impressive than the sprite work are the game’s intricate backgrounds. The amusement park setting allows the game to cover a range of locations, from a haunted house, drive-in theater, to the final level set inside a beer tavern, all immaculately drawn. Blink and you’ll miss a ton of small details such as a cow being abducted by aliens, a fairy princess being swallowed by a hippo, and the more ridiculous like pandas riding pandas, bats wielding baseball bats, and pretty funny gorilla riding a cow train. The game is also graced with some of the best hand drawn explosions I’ve ever seen.

What I wouldn’t give to see this rereleased so everyone can experience its great gameplay and some of the best 2d art I’ve ever seen. For shooting veterans and novices Harmful Park has something to offer everyone.

9-out-of-10

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Forgotten Worlds (Turbo Grafx-16)

Forgotten Worlds was one of the first Genesis games released and also one of the first I had the pleasure of playing. While clearly downgraded its pretty amazing what Sega managed to pull off in a mere 4-meg cart. The Turbo CD game would come a few years later and while it isn’t the absolute slam dunk it should have been it gave us all a tantalizing glimpse at what a near perfect arcade port could be.

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Right away the visual difference between this CD rendition and its Sega counterpart are apparent. The game runs at a higher resolution which allows for more detail and larger sprites. The size difference in the sprites is readily apparent when you face off against the bosses; their huge! The dust dragon occupies nearly 75% of the screen and you can see his entire torso rather than just his belly. The massive War God that might as well be the game’s signature figure has seen a similar size increase with his entire upper body visible for you to destroy piece by piece.

There were large segments of the game’s backgrounds that were simply excised or simplified that have now been restored making for one spectacular journey. The vibrant color palette is in stark contrast to its Genesis equivalent and really brings out the beauty of this ruined world. You could make an argument that the darker palette of that version showed how ravaged the world had become but it simply wasn’t accurate to the arcade. The one element that didn’t make the transition is the parallax scrolling. The flat backgrounds are literally crying for some form of scrolling and it is a big loss however the rest of the game’s visual prowess makes up for it.

Sound is another area that has seen a considerable upgrade thanks to CD technology. Most probably weren’t able to appreciate the game’s music due to the noise prevalent in most arcades so they were unaware that Forgotten Worlds has a fantastic soundtrack. All of the sampled speech (such as it is, play the game and you’ll know what I’m talking about) has been carried over as well and while it isn’t as clear as it should be the developers deserve kudos for going the extra mile including it.

While the visuals are more accurate the game’s controls are not. Unfortunately this version has the same control issue but is even more awkward. Dual analog sticks were still nearly a decade away and so you rotate the satellite clockwise/counter clockwise with the face buttons except in this case you have to use Button I and the Run button which is just plain silly. Since you have the option to turn on auto fire it would have made sense to allow you to remap the controls since one button is free but no such luck. It’s manageable but aflat out unintuitive. Too bad the special three button controller (or even six button) never saw a US release.

From a gameplay perspective the CD version is much closer to the arcade. It retains all of the arcade game’s levels with no cut sections making for a much longer experience. Longer is relative; even with all of the coin ops levels this is still a short game at only five levels but the game is so fun that you’ll probably replay it more than a few times.  This version is noticeably harder than the Sega game as Zenny isn’t as abundant and the enemies are more aggressive. There were all sorts of objects in the environment that when destroyed dropped massive coins that are no longer present meaning you’ll have to be more frugal with your item purchases in the shop.

Part of what also makes the game more difficult is the omission of coop. This is a huge blow to the game’s longevity as it is a great multiplayer game. With two players dealing with the hordes of enemies was easier and for those that needed a challenge you could bump up the difficulty. It’s kind of funny to see both characters in all of the game’s cutscenes and promotional material but you’ll only ever see one of them in game. I blame this on the system’s lack of two controller ports; for those unfamiliar with the Turbo Grafx-16 you needed to buy the Turbo Tap for any kind of multiplayer which is one of the most boneheaded design decisions of all time.

This CD edition is clearly superior to its cartridge counterpart however it still manages to be deficient in a few categories. It’s the obvious choice if you have to pick a side but at this point arcade perfect ports are available in the Capcom Classics Collections for numerous consoles with dual analog controls to boot.

7-out-of-10-1

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Wai Wai World 2

Konami’s Wai Wai World was one of the most interesting imports that never made it to the US. As a crossover starring their most famous intellectual properties it had many good ideas buried under some slight missteps. Though flawed it was still a solid game with fantastic graphics. Wai Wai World 2 came three years later and completely tossed aside everything that made its prequel unique. But in its place is a more focused quest that is truly excellent and, thanks to the work of fan translators can be enjoyed by everyone (not that it was necessary).

Wai Wai land is finally at peace after the brave Konami heroes saved the world. One day however the evil sorcerer Warumon steals the Parsley Castle along with the Princess Herb. Dr. Cinnamon escapes and does his best Dr. Light impression and creates an android named Rikkuru, who can transform into several Konami characters, to save the day.

With Rikkuru as the protagonist the Konami twins are relegated to a cameo role. Rikkuru is a far more capable protagonist since his default attack is a mid-range sonic boom. Along with his double jump there is very little that he isn’t equipped to handle. There are very few power-ups to pick up, one for invincibility, extra power bombs, and health kits. The most important are the C icons that will allow you to transform into one of your chosen heroes.

Unlike the first game the selection of heroes has been cut down to just five: Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon, Bill Raizer from Contra, Fuma from Getsu Fūma Den, and newcomer Upa from Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa. The returning heroes are mostly unchanged with the exception of Goemon, whose pipe now functions as a boomerang. Upa is a baby whose rattle transforms enemies into clouds that can be ridden but suffers from short range. Bill is possibly the all around best character as he can shoot in four directions which breaks the game.

You have a choice of 4 groupings of three characters that you’re stuck with until the end. Curiously Upa is featured in three of them which sucks as he is the worst character. He has the shortest range and riding clouds isn’t as useful as you would think. Personally my go to team would have been Goemon, Simon, and Bill but alas, I have to work with what I’m given. You can’t freely change whenever you want; whenever you collect the C power-up it cycles between your chosen trio until you hit Up + A . The transformation lasts sixty seconds and you are functionally invincible, with any hits taken subtracting five seconds from the clock. It comes around often enough that if you choose you can stay changed indefinitely. It’s different but the restrictions imposed make sense and are so trivial that they don’t even matter.

The Metroid style adventure element of the original is gone and in its place is a straightforward platformer. While I do miss the freedom to futz around in the levels as I please the move to a dedicated action game has certainly done wonders for the game’s action. You won’t get that impression from the game’s first level though as it is an overly long forward scrolling stage that will at least introduce you to the game’s mechanics. After this initial stage however it picks up considerably and at various points you are given a choice between two stages with wildly different gameplay styles. As far as variety this might even have the original beat despite featuring less characters.

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Each subsequent level after the first is a trip down memory lane as they revisit popular levels from each protagonist’s respective series. The familiar jungle from Contra makes an appearance as well as Dracula’s castle, an Edo era village, a land made of candy (from Bio Miracle Upa) and Hell itself. Some of these references are lost on US gamers as those games never made it to our shores but they can be enjoyed just as easily as the rest. What makes these tributes/mashups work so well is that they’re still just as fun regardless of the hero you’ve currently chosen. Can you imagine trying to play Super Mario Brothers using Simon Belmont as he is in Castlevania? Yeah.

Stages 3 and 6 are both different from the rest in that you have a choice at both points. Both levels are homages to Twinbee and while I’m not too fond of most of the games in that series it’s actually a pretty nice recreation of that game’s action. Stage six offers you a choice between a weird ass sliding puzzle and a terrible bump n jump clone. It’s the only weak level in the game and unfortunately you can waste a good number of lives on either one. Stage 8 is a send up of Parodius except you control the Vic Viper, not that it’s too far-fetched.

The original Wai Wai World was unfairly difficult due to some bad design decisions and it is apparent Konami set out to rectify that. This is a far more balanced game but I think they leaned a bit too far left as it is very easy to cheese your way through the entire game outside of its shooter segments. Since you are technically invincible when transformed you can keep another roulette going to change once again as soon as your current one ends. Certain heroes are literally game breaking; Bill Raizer and his ability to shoot in four directions makes most boss encounters trivial. Watch as the final boss goes down in less than 15 seconds without needing to move around.

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As much as I liked the graphics in the original Wai Wai World I think the sequel is even better. All of the sprites are larger and have been stylized for a more uniform look and the consistency elevates the game tremendously. The backgrounds are insanely detailed and extremely colorful and yet somehow maintain a serious tone. The music is also better with cleverly remixed tunes from each game it draws from alongside nicely composed original selections.

Any way you slice it Wai Wai World 2 is a much better and more focused game than its prequel. Aside from its ease it is easily one of the best action games for the platform and very easy to muddle through without knowledge of Japanese.

9-out-of-10

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Silver Surfer

Of all the superheroes to star in a videogame I can honestly say I never would have expected the Silver Surfer to be one of them. Don’t get me wrong I love the character (the Ron Marz/Ron Lim team made some of the best stories with the character) but he is the definition of obscure, especially in the 80s. I imagine the likes of Akklaim and such took all the most important licenses and left everyone else to pick up the scraps. Speaking of Akklaim, developer Software Creations has done their best LJN impression and created one of the most difficult video games of all time.

Galactus alerts the Silver Surfer to an incursion from the Magik Domain and the imminent destruction of the universe. Five components are needed to create a cosmic device that will stop the threat but they are held by some of the Surfer’s biggest adversaries. Fans of the comic book will recognize Mephisto and Firelord but the other three? Even I had to struggle to remember them. Reptyl has only appeared in a few issues of the comic and wouldn’t have been my first choice for the game. The Skrull Emperor? I could see it. But who the fuck is the Possessor? The disappointing rogue’s gallery is the least of the game’s problems however. Where do I even begin?

You have a choice of any of the first five levels before the finale in the Magik Domain. Each level is broken up into three shorter sections and alternates between horizontal and vertical shooting, much like Life Force. That’s about as far as I’ll go with that comparison since the two games couldn’t be further apart in quality.

It’s pretty god damn hilarious that the Silver Surfer is one of the most overpowered characters in the comic realm and yet here he is reduced to a feeble leper. Your offense consists of a single bullet no more effective than the standard gun in Contra with the only power-ups coming in the form of orbs that function like options and icons that increase the power of your shots. In the horizontal levels these can be repositioned to fire beneath you or behind. There’s also smart bombs for all the good they do.

There’s nothing wrong with sub-par or lacking power-ups in a shooter; Starship Hector remained relatively decent all things considered. In this case however it just doesn’t work. You are woefully underpowered compared to the opposition you’ll face but that isn’t the reason why this is one of the hardest games to occupy a cartridge.

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Get used to this screen.

Everything can you kill you in the game which follows shooter typical shmup conventions but it is taken to the extreme here. You aren’t allowed to so much as graze a wall or ceiling without the Surfer keeling over like a little bitch. It’s the same in nearly every other shooter however it seems extra touchy here. Prepare to see that death many, many times as the level of touchiness is off the charts here. The levels were consciously designed with this in mind as there innumerable tight corridors and passages to navigate through. All while enemies never, ever stop spawning. If you don’t have a turbo controller don’t bother.

And to make matters even worse, death throws you back to a checkpoint without your precious few power-ups and like Gradius you might as well reset because you sure as hell aren’t going to come back from that. And to pour salt on the wound there are no continues or even passwords. Not that this is a long game but you fight for every square inch of progress and to expect someone to finish the game in one sitting and to start over from the beginning every time is borderline insane. I honestly don’t know what possible reasoning there could have been for no continues other than to hide how bad the overall game is. Or the disappointing ending, which is the final kick in the nuts for those who persevere.

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Do you want to know what is the most shocking fact in light of all the game’s issues? There were the makings of a decent shooter buried underneath all the frustration. Once you are decently powered and can survive for longer than a few seconds the game is actually thrilling once you can focus on dodging bullets and maneuvering through tight spaces. And the soundtrack is actually pretty amazing. But it all means nothing when these moments are so fleeting.

There’s nothing wrong with a game that is difficult; gamers around the world have absolutely fallen head over heels for Dark Souls. But that is because the game remains fair above all else. The Silver Surfer falls far short of that and is cheap by design and in the end a game that is not worth your time.

5-out-of-101

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TaleSpin (Genesis)

TaleSpin really can’t catch a break when it comes to video games it seems. The NES game was heavily flawed but had the kernel of a good game buried underneath shoddy execution. The Turbo Grafx game…..the less said the better. There was reason to hope the Sega Genesis game would turn out okay as Sega consistently did right by the Disney license but that simply isn’t the case here. Whereas the red carpet was rolled out for Donald and Mickey Mouse Baloo received no such treatment as this game is just as bad as the others.

At the very least the game’s plot wouldn’t seem out of place in a random episode of the TV series. The mayor of Cape Suzette is holding a flying contest with the winner receiving a lifetime contract with the city. Unfortunately Higher for Hire has a stiff challenge ahead of them as they must beat Shere Khan’s time in under 7 days to win.

I don’t know if Sega should be commended for creating a platformer rather than the obvious shooter that the show’s premise would suggest. There’s nothing wrong with going against the grain so to speak but only if the game has the proper execution, which in this case TaleSpin doesn’t. Aside from the terrible hit detection and repetitiveness lies a game that is too hard for the younger set and too frustrating for the average gamer to deal with.

The controls are pretty simple with Baloo using a paddle ball as his offensive weapon and Kit is equipped with a slingshot. Random unmarked crates can be picked up and later stacked to climb unreachable areas. The differences between Baloo and Kit are slight; the slingshot has a longer range however in the game’s few shooting stages Baloo pilots the Sea Duck. If you chose Kit the computer controls the plane while you are tethered by a cable and I’ll tell you right now that the AI is borderline retarded and will actively fly you into enemy ships.

The object of each level is to collect crates of cargo to open up the exit and move on to the next country. Each individual stage is pretty massive in size and is littered with cargo, more than enough that you don’t have to track down every single box before progressing. The cargo crates can be anywhere; behind walls, underwater, etc. so if you’re having trouble reaching a particular area chances are you can skip it and find an easier catch. Technically there is a time limit as you have 7 days overall to make it to the end of the game however the clock is so slow that I made it close to half way through the game before it ticked down to day 6.

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The list of flaws are pretty significant and weigh the game down almost from the start. The main one is the terrible, terrible hit detection. Most enemies can only be damaged during very specific frames of animation; the fodder enemies don’t pose much of a threat as they go down in a single hit. It’s the game’s bosses that are the most frustrating when it comes to this. Smacking Don Karnage’s henchmen in the face 10 times only for one hit to register is flat out bad game design. Having to wait until they attack in order to damage them when you should be trying to run away to avoid trading blows is not fun at all.

When you aren’t dreading each boss encounter you’re going to get sick of the overabundance of snakes and crabs at every turn. Seriously its overkill. Nearly every time you take a dip in even ankle deep water chances are a tiny crab will attach itself and drain your health. Granted there’s usually a burger nearby to restore your health but god damn, show some restraint.

As much as I like how wide open the levels are it does get repetitive after a while. Aside from dealing with the same snakes and crabs time and time again there are only three bosses that are recycled until the end of the game with their means of attack being the only difference. They even take place in the exact same room each time (well sometimes there’s a crack in the floor for no good reason). The shooting levels are all exactly the same with the only change being the number of enemies you face and their level of aggression. The controls are loose in these segments but somehow still workable but you would think they could at least get the shooting portion of the game right (as that was the main focus of the show).

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Graphically TaleSpin is decent but could have been better. There’s a high level of detail in the game’s backgrounds but they are a bit generic. This is a shame as the show took place in the 30s and had an art deco influenced style. There’s none of that here and it could have been used to really distinguish the game from everything else on the shelf, let alone Sega’s other licensed titles. As it is the grainy color scheme places it below the Castle of Illusion series.

TaleSpin isn’t completely terrible but its flaws are frustrating enough that I imagine most won’t put up with it for long, leaving the game without an audience. TaleSpin deserved better than this.

6-out-of-101

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Over Horizon

In the pantheon of great NES shooters you’ll generally see names like Gradius, Life Force, and maybe Zanac thrown around. For the import savvy Crisis Force and Recca: Summer Carnival 92 will undoubtedly make the cut. But you’ll rarely hear about Over Horizon. This Japanese and European exclusive has maintained a low profile throughout the years but is easily one of the greatest shooters for the system. Once scheduled for a US release it was unfortunately cancelled; I guess Hot-B figured fishing games were a hotter commodity. Publishing screw ups aside Over Horizon is another in a long line of games that should have been released here. The US market missed out on a truly great game that is only let down by its brevity.

At first glance Over Horizon doesn’t seem to be any different than the majority of shooters on the market. The weapons are fairly standard for the genre, a homing shot, bombs that explode on impact and powerful but thin lasers. These can all be upgraded to increase their power though nothing too dramatic. Options are available and can be slightly repositioned by pressing both buttons at once. The control scheme enables you to fire both in front and behind which is needed as enemies stream in from both sides frequently.

While the weapons are fairly unimpressive on their own the game puts the tools in your hand to tailor them how you want. The Edit mode is one of the most innovative features in the genre and gives you the power to tweak each weapon as you see fit using a simple interface. You are given five points to allocate per weapon and imbue them with characteristics of the other two. The more points put into a choice the more it will favor it. For example when editing the laser if you put four points into homing and one into bombs the new laser will aggressively track enemies with a small explosion on impact. Putting points into the laser can increase the power of the weaker homing shots, shoring up its weaknesses. There’s a large amount of choices and the game even provides a brief test level so you can see how your edits will play out in practice.

Options can also be changed up, allowing you to place them literally anywhere on the screen. You can even place them on the extreme edges on the screen but you would have to be pretty damn stupid to try that. Depending on their placement it does have a profound effect on your immediate firepower and in certain positions they are useless; since they fire in whatever direction you are placing one immediately behind you is ill advised. You can even customize the direction your options will rotate when both buttons are pressed although managing this one is trickier in the heat of the moment.

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The level design is Over Horizon’s second best trait. Each of the six world’s you’ll visit is wildly different and presents new obstacles to deal with on top of the fodder enemies. It makes flying through each stage far more enjoyable then normal as a result and adds to the challenge. Stage 5 has multiple waterfalls that slow your movements and constantly push you down. The ice fields in stage 2 have to be manually pushed in order to build pathways to survive, oftentimes leading to nail biting last minute saves. Throughout all of this your weapons are never overpowered to the point the game feels trivial; up until the game’s closing moments it is easily possible to be shot down.

The one area that Over Horizon comes up short in is its length. The game is only six levels long which is absolutely criminal when the mechanics are this accomplished. Thanks to the game’s generous respawn system it’s possible to blitz through its tougher moments, especially when extra lives are awarded at a decent clip. One or two more levels to allow you to fully experiment with its weapon editing mode would have given it a shot at being the best overall shooter for the system. It’s that good.

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The production values of Over Horizon are no slouch but aren’t in the same league as technical beasts such as Recca. The game’s graphics are carried by its phenomenal artwork. Most ship and enemy sprites are small, leaving plenty of room for the game’s exotic worlds to be fully realized. There’s a high degree of detail in each level, from the giant vines and plants of stage 1 to the massive ice flows of stage 3. Speaking of massive the bosses are often screen filling monstrosities that often try to use their size to box you in. You can tell the majority of the game’s budget was lavished on them and it pays off. There is some slowdown in the late stages of the game but surprisingly it has been kept to a minimum.

Even with its short length Over Horizon is one of the NES’s best shooters. The edit mode is a feature that I wish more games would have explored, not only just shooters. It is thanks to this element that you’ll more than likely play through the game a few times just to see how creative you can be. With one or two more stages this would have been a classic.

8-out-of-101

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Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie

It really is shame that due to licensing issues Macross hasn’t been able to develop a presence in America despite being one of the major series that introduced anime to the US.  The series has seen many installments over the years, from Macross 7 to the semi recent Macross Frontier with none of it reaching our shores.  And yet in spite of that the fandom is still tremendous.  Too bad we aren’t given the opportunity to show just how much we love it.

That said we really aren’t missing anything on the video game front.  There have been a long line of Macross video games spanning multiple console generations and almost all of them have been terrible.  Which makes Macross Scrambled Valkyrie such an anomaly.  I don’t know who the developers are but they work wonders with the hardware with Scrambled Valkyrie being not just an excellent technical showpiece but one of the best shooters available for the SNES.  And since it’s a shooter no knowledge of Japanese is necessary to enjoy all it has to offer.

The VF-1 has three different modes that can be switched at any time, each with their own form of attack.  The weapons for each form can be powered up three times individually, with any hits setting it back one level.  Your choice of the three heroes at the start will affect your approach to the game as their weapons are also individually tailored.  Hikaru Ichijou (Rick Hunter to us) is well rounded with his weapons skewing close to a typical Gradius style.  The Gerwalk form is near useless for him.  Maximilian Jenius is faster than Rick but suffers from a low life bar and only displaying his true worth when his weapons are maxed out. If you can adjust to his speed he is easily the best choice.  Millia Fallyna has the strongest weapons but they come with the caveat that they are hard to use due to only firing straight forward.

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Probably the coolest “weapon” in the game is the Minmay cannon.  If you avoid firing any shots your Veritech fighter will glow.  Nearly any of the fodder enemies you touch will immediately join your side as an invincible drone.  The extra firepower is more than welcome and although you don’t directly control their actions you can still position them to abuse their invulnerability.  The completely random gunship I converted on stage 2 valiantly fought by my side until I ultimately died two levels later.  The game is frustratingly selective in terms of the enemies that you can alter but the fact that this feature is even in the game is awesome to begin with.

The controls are kept simple at just two buttons, one for shooting and another to change forms.  Switching fighter modes plays heavily into the gameplay as each has their own individual quirks beside their weapon.  Fighter mode is the smallest and fastest, GERWALK kind of occupies the middle ground while Battroid offers the heaviest firepower but makes you a larger target.  The game is designed such that you can’t simply stay in one form and call it a day.  There are many situations where a given form is more suited such as the black holes in stage one; the fighter is fast enough to escape their gravitational pull while the Battroid would get sucked in.  That’s not to say that it is mandatory.  With some skill I’m sure the best pilots can manage but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that it’s possible to beat the stage four boss in Battroid form.

The game covers a lot of ground despite only having seven levels.  This is a slower paced shooter outside of stage four, not that it diminishes the game’s intensity one bit.  The initial asteroid field filled with space debris, black holes and corpses is fairly impressive and the game continues to ramp up from there.  You’ll eventually invade an enemy base, fly around the rings of Saturn and even navigate the insides of the UN Spacey.  As each stage is pretty long the game does a pretty good job of varying up the layouts right up until each boss.  Another cool touch, with a few exceptions each level has completely unique enemies.

Even in light of the fact that you have a life bar and frequent power-ups this is still one tough beast.  One life and seven continues isn’t all that much to work with, especially since you are kicked back to the beginning of the level when continuing.  The levels are a bit long so having to retrace your steps, especially on some of the more brutal arenas might kill your motivation to continue.  But the game is so accomplished in every other facet that you will, if only to see the next set piece.

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Visually Scrambled Valkyrie has few peers within the shooter genre on SNES or even during the 16-bit generation.  There is a ridiculous attention to detail spent on nearly every sprite and background, so much so that you’ll probably pause the game just to marvel at your surroundings.  The debris filled space graveyard of the first level sets the tone for the rest of the adventure with some levels such as stage six’s cloud filled moon featuring layers of scrolling as far as the eye can see.  The show’s various mecha provide ample material for the various enemies you’ll face in the game with some of the larger ships and bosses bearing an almost pre-rendered look.

The game is heavy on the special effects, transparencies in particular.  The numerous black holes and teleporting ships never cease to amaze as they make a smooth transition from a complete void.  There is some slowdown in some of the more hectic parts of the game but these moments are very few.  The soundtrack features remixes of some of the show’s more popular songs and while they are good they are still cheesy in that 80s anime way.

Too bad this never saw an official release in America.  But that doesn’t matter in the slightest as no knowledge of Japanese is required and what little text is in the game is already in English (very bad English).  This is one of the finest shooters of the era regardless of platform and one fans of the genre should track down.

9-out-of-10

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Gleylancer

On its face Gleylancer shouldn’t be so great.  It has many features in common with the vast majority of shooters such as its weapons and even the look of its stages.  But through its clever gameplay additions and actual plot it manages to become greater than the sum of its parts.  Released in 1992 it is one of the few shooters that didn’t see an American release until recently and is one of the best shmups for the console based solely on its gameplay.

Gleylancer unlike most shmups is a shooter with a plot.  In the year 2025 an unknown alien race declares war on the human race.  Ken, a high ranking officer in the Federation Navy is teleported to a far corner of the galaxy by an enemy weapon.  This prompts his daughter Lucia to hijack a prototype fighter to mount a rescue.

The story is told through frequent cut scenes reminiscent of Phantasy Star IV (although Gleylancer came first) and while it isn’t going to win any awards the added presentation is certainly welcome.  It has that late 80s anime aesthetic that I miss so much.  Of course the story is lost on those who can’t speak Japanese unless you play the fan translated rom, which will provide the context for your actions.  There are two possible endings depending on your actions, not that they are all that different but the effort is at least appreciated.

From a gameplay standpoint Gleylancer takes many of the standard weapons present in nearly all shooters and skews a little too closely to Thunder Force at first glance.  But what truly sets it apart is the amount of control you have over your gunners.  Much like options the gunners add to your firepower when you collect any of the special weapons and can attack independent of your target.  Plus you can lock them in place when necessary.

This control is further enhanced by the numerous formations you can choose from at the start.  The option to stick with standard gunners is there but the game becomes far more interesting when you begin to play around with the other six.  Some are the basics that you would expect such as the reverse formation.  Shadow essentially turns them into Gradius style options with the caveat that they can only fire forward.  Roll turns them into a rotating shield.  It gets more interesting with the Multi formations.  These restrict their movements within a 180 arc along the top and bottom of the ship but essentially creates three-way fire.

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The most useful and game breaking is the search option.  Although the game tries to warn you that it isn’t very accurate in reality it is the most versatile and aggressive.  Not only do they actively target every enemy that appears on the screen they can also be set up to seek out their own individual targets.  It’s like a combination of almost every other option combined in one.  When combined with a strong weapon like the laser you won’t even see most enemies until the second half of the game.

The level design tends to run hot and cold.  When the game is at its best it will challenge you to make the most of your gunners, switching between focused fire and setting them at fixed angles for maximum impact.  But in its lazier moments you can sit in the middle of the screen and barely move if you have a particularly strong form.  Normally this would be disastrous but because the game is so long it evens out.  You learn to appreciate the game’s quieter moments and test out different positioning without fear of heavy consequences.

I found the game’s challenge to be at the perfect level.   The first few levels are simple enough and present enough situations that you’ll want to experiment with the different formations and their behavior for maximum effect.  The second half picks up considerably, with larger capital ships attacking in groups as well as more elaborate stage designs that will box you into a corner.  Once you’ve mastered the intricacies of controlling the gunners it becomes easier to escape the most dangerous situations unscathed.  Despite working off a checkpoint system weapon drops are frequent enough that you won’t be powerless for long and can get back up to speed in less than a minute, a far cry from most shooters where death means you might as well reset.

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Graphically because the game resembles Thunder Force so closely comparisons can’t help but be made and in this regard it comes up short.  Lightening Force was released the same year and looks almost a generation ahead of this despite the similarities in stage themes and such.  That isn’t to say Gleylancer doesn’t have its moments but the presentation is definitely uneven.  Some of the outdoor backdrops such as the fiery planet and the battle among the clouds are truly impressive, with layer upon layer of scrolling creating the illusion of depth in its backdrops.  But for every level such as this there are many that are flat, drab, and bring out the worst in the game’s low color palette.

The sound production also suffers from this same rough design.  The music is nice and catchy but the sound effects are weak and lack sufficient punch.  Plus there only seem to be four or five sound effects that are repeated too much.  There’s some sampled speech thrown in here and there with the announcer offering little bits of commentary on what’s coming ahead and giving quick advice to survive.

Gleylancer is a triumph of gameplay over graphics, with plenty of options to entice any shooter fan to play through it three or four times.  With eleven levels you won’t finish it in an hour and will get plenty of bang for your buck.  If the graphics and sound were of a higher standard this could have been the best all around shooter for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Gokujō Parodius

By 1994 the American arcade was dominated by countless fighting games, light gun shooters and some truly awesome 3d racing games.  This left the once popular shooter clearly on the outs, which sucked as that was about the point when some of the most unique games in the genre would hit the market.  Fans were left hoping for home ports as these games stayed in Japan, with Gokujo Parodius being one of them.  Take everything that made Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy great and add 2-player coop (at least in the arcade) and you have this excellent port that America would be denied.

While it never saw an official arcade release in the US Gokujō Parodius! Was released on console in Europe under the name Fantastic Journey.  Well that’s one way to put it.  I don’t know how or why the name was changed to that as the official title loosely translates to Fantastic Parodius – Pursue the Glory of the Past but the fact that once again Europe got a cool exclusive over America still remains.  The Parodius games are the best Gradius games that never were, and at least on the SNES turned out even better than Gradius III.

Since the last Parodius title the roster has nearly tripled in size with new characters debuting from a few more series.  Actually to a certain extent you could say it’s tripled; in coop player two has access to a further eleven characters that are palette swaps/counterparts to player one.  With an increase in roster comes new weapon options and Konami really went to town in giving everyone some interesting weapon combinations.  While the returning cast members are still using gear from their respective series the newcomers draw from some really obscure Konami arcade games such as Thunder Cross and Xexex.  You’ve to respect that respects their lineage while at the same time lampooning it.

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Gameplay is near identical to Non-Sense Fantasy although you do have a few more options like turning off the annoying weapon roulette.  The focus instead is on the zany hijinks at every turn and in this respect the game is literally insane.  The first level sets the tone as it takes place inside one of those crane machines that ate your money rather than doled out prizes.  Stage two is one long battle against a cat faced submarine; it’s an R-Type style assault against one huge battleship except this one makes cute noises and adorable faces.  The Speed up level takes its theme to heart as it takes place on a rural street with signs and hazard warnings all over the place.  Silly, but when you think about it it makes sense.

Other levels are cartoony takes on popular Gradius staples but the biggest source of the game’s weirdness comes from its bosses.  How do you fancy a battle against a panda ballerina, complete with tutu?  Or a mermaid with a pirate ship on her head?  The big core from Gradius makes an appearance but not in the way you expect.  Possibly my favorite boss is the capsule monster of stage five.  Shaped like an overgrown power-up it feels less like a battle for survival and more like a loot piñata as it shoots tons of power-ups in random patterns.  The only real danger of death comes from the occasional spike ball mixed in and its pathetic attempts to ram you.  If you take too long he simply flies away in disgust; how’s that?

Unlike the other games in the series the difficulty here is a bit more lenient and totally dependent on the character chosen.  The Vic Viper is well rounded and adaptable to any situation.  Hikaru/Akane’s weapons are very powerful, especially their boomerang shot which will rebound off destroyed enemies and take out others.  However their options are static and their shield only protects your face; shots from other directions can easily take you out.  I found I died a lot less to stray bullets than in the other games and that the game doesn’t reach the insane heights of its brethren.  It makes for a much more relaxing experience in that regard.

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As a late 1994 release Gojkujou Parodius is a pretty damn good looking game.  In the arcade it ran on proprietary hardware and the SNES does a near perfect replicating its look, only suffering in terms of slowdown and the missing coop.  The levels are teeming with activity with many moving parts in its backgrounds.  There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next and it overall has a more vibrant look compared to its predecessor.  They do recycle certain enemies and bosses such as the galactic dancer and the American eagle but that can be excused as plenty of other games do the same.

Once again the soundtrack borrows from classical music in the public domain.  The likes of Strauss, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky present and accounted.  The songs themselves are done justice through the SNES sound chip but I like the way that the game isn’t afraid to slow down or speed up the pitch to match the on screen action.  There are just as many original themes as well as clever remixes of music from Gradius to round out the aural package.

The only area that Gokujou Parodius comes up short compared to its predecessor is length: 8 levels versus ten.  But when you are having so much fun it won’t make a difference.  This is a bigger and better game than Non-Sense Fantasy in almost every way and one of the best SNES shooters of all time.  You don’t need to be a fan of parodies or Gradius to enjoy the fine shooting action on display here as it is simply a great game overall.

9-out-of-10

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Dragon Spirit (TG-16)

Looking back Dragon Spirit was one of the first arcade games I can remember playing and it isn’t a stretch to say that it left an indelible impression on me.  The NES was a significant step up from the bare Atari 2600 and games like Dragon Spirit and Double Dragon made me aware that the arcade was a step above that.  The NES port/sequel was well done considering the technical gap but it was the TurboGrafx-16 version that really caught my eye.  This near identical conversion was one of the system’s early highlights and an excellent game altogether.

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When comparing the two I have to say Namco did a stellar job.  The resolution is naturally lower and some of the sprites have seen a slight reduction in size but other than that you could easily mistake this version for the arcade.  The color palette is a bit brighter but that makes little difference.  For its time Dragon Spirit was visually impressive in light of the fact that it doesn’t use any special effects, instead relying on good art.  That element has been preserved perfectly here and like R-Type made this the best port money could buy until recently.  The one dubious omission here is the game’s intro; come on!  Even the NES game managed to replicate it somewhat!

As the knight Amul (who transforms into a dragon) you utilize your fiery breath and bombs for ground targets to annihilate everything in your path to save the Princess Alicia.    It never occurred to me before now that Namco essentially took Xevious and put it in a fantasy setting.  Maybe it’s because I was never fond of Xevious and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Phelios is also the same with a Greek setting.  Wow I think I’m dumb.

As a big ass dragon you’ll have to approach this game a little differently than your average shooter.  Your size makes you a large target and the game’s unforgiving hit box means even the tip of a wing grazing an enemy or bullet counts as a hit.  Any dreams you may have had of darting around bullets and running sorties like Maverick in Top Gun will have to be saved for another game as it’s even more imperative that you take care in what you fly over.  That three hit life bar barely makes any difference as it gets drained fairly quickly with no way to restore health; the bastards don’t even do you the courtesy of topping you off after a boss battle!  The tough challenge is the one element of the arcade game I wish wasn’t carried over.

There aren’t many power-ups in the game but the few that exist significantly upgrade your firepower.  Blue orbs cause you to sprout another head, up to a maximum of three for triple the fiery breath.  Red orbs will increase your attack power when collected in groups of three.  These are the main power-ups you’ll see the majority of the time so luckily they are effective but do come with an added risk. Three heads make you an even easier target to hit but it’s a problem you’ll have to deal with as the added firepower is necessary.  It’s all part of the fun I say.

There are a few other weapons that only last a short period and grant new Dragon forms, one of which you’ll wish was the default.  There’s a golden dragon with a homing flame, a silver dragon with a three way wide shot, and a mini dragon form that makes it easier to dodge bullets.  That last one is potentially game breaking so I can see why it’s rare.  It would have done the game a world of good to have these weapons show up more frequently as it would have helped with the brutal difficulty.

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At nine levels long this is a pretty massive undertaking by shooter standards.  When combined with the brutal difficulty you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.  The levels cover most of the standard video game tropes such as ice, fire, and jungle yet somehow they still feel fresh.  Possibly due to Hucard limitations the seventh and eighth levels have been replaced by 2 stages that reuse the castle assets for the game’s climax to save memory.  There’s a new boss to fight at least to make up for it but a new theme for these levels would have been appreciated.  One element that I feel doesn’t get enough attention is the soundtrack.  Dragon Spirit has a rising score that can change from upbeat and adventurous to dark and foreboding without missing a beat.

While I do praise Namco for producing such a faithful port I will admit that Dragon Spirit in its NES incarnation is a much more playable game.  Technically it’s a sequel but the majority of its levels are based off the arcade but that is beside the point.  The hit box was made more forgiving since the sprites are smaller and that right there makes it less frustrating.  There are additional weapons such as mini dragons that function like options and all of its weapons appear more frequently.  Regardless of its near arcade perfection it does feel a bit…dry in comparison.

Frustration with the punishing difficulty aside Dragon Spirit is an excellent conversion of a pretty good game from 1987 that still holds up today.  It’s not in the same class as the Star Soldier series but it’s certainly better than generic tripe such as Ordyne and Dead Moon.

7-out-of-10-1

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Twinkle Tale

Much like platformers starring cavemen (RIP Chuck Rock, Bonk, Bignose the Caveman, Dino Riki, etc.) shooters starring witches seemed to undergo their own renaissance in the 16-bit era and would last up until the PlayStation 2’s release.  Gamers in America were completely oblivious to this as 90% of these games never came over with the rare exception such as Magical Chase and Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams.  It’s too bad as many of these games were simply fantastic such as Twinkle Tale, a Genesis shooter that was oddly never picked up for release.  It’s an amazing game in an underserved genre and one that definitely would have stood out had someone released it here.

Though it bears a strong resemblance to Phelios and Elemental Master Twinkle Tale has more in common with Mercs as an overhead shooter.  Think of it as the Sega equivalent of Pocky & Rocky.  This is not an auto scrolling shooter however and in fact you move at your own pace although there is no backwards movement.  While the general gameplay is different the fantasy theme is the same as the aforementioned games, which was not typical of this genre.  It definitely helps the game stand out from the likes of Red Zone and Skeleton Krew (whew, that’s a lot of name dropping).

Saria is armed with 3 interchangeable spells that all have their uses throughout the game.  The Diamond Arrow is your wide beam; the Shooting Star is the most powerful but only fires straight forward, and the Silver Comet is the weakest but homes in on enemies.  Aside from the three spells are 2 bombs, a weaker homing projectile and a more powerful fire dragon that has gaps in its offense, ensuring that they aren’t too overpowered.  Even using a full stock of all three the bosses were still able to smile in my face (figuratively) and keep coming back for more.

Each spell can be leveled up three times and as an added bonus any potions collected while using a max level spell will go toward another one.  Maxing out your spells can be done within minutes of starting any level but keeping them that way is the challenge.  Any hits will knock them back a level which is terrifying in the most hectic moments.  It’s never a good idea to try and rely on just one particular spell as they all have their drawbacks.  In fact I would even say the game is near impossible if you try to play it that way.

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There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next as you explore a fantastical array of settings.  You’ll visit an icy temple, the inside of a living tree, ancient ruins and even the underworld, all while being accosted by magical beasts.  The level design is never straightforward and makes the game feel like an adventure title as you’ll explore the numerous rooms in a castle or stop to converse with the few locals.  Later in the game there are a few shooting segments that are a nice change of pace and are well executed.

Speaking of, the pacing is perfect; for every large group of enemies you’ll encounter there is usually a brief period of rest before the next set, allowing you time to pick up a few items if necessary to press on.  Nearly every level has branching paths that ultimately lead to the same end goal but do provide a nice degree of choice as you plod along.

Twinkle Tale can be tough at times but above all else it is fair.  Early on when you are limited by your three hit life bar any mistakes can be devastating.  There are frequent life restoring potions at every turn early on to balance this out.  But after the second level your hit points will increase by one after each stage up to an eventual max of 9.  It is at this point that the difficulty curve gradually increases and the game holds your hand less.  Still, one life and only three continues is a bit of a steep mountain to climb with extra credits through scoring being crucial.  The game is so fun thought that it actually works.

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Although it was released in 1992 Twinkle Tale still compares favorably to many late era Genesis titles based purely on its strong art direction.  The entire world takes place on a floating island and the frequent outdoor areas give a beautiful glimpse at the world below.  The darker color palette places a heavy emphasis on lighting and shadows and produces some pretty striking areas, most notably exploring the insides of the World Tree of stage four.  It’s a fantasy thrill ride that looks progressively better with every level right up until the game’s final moments.  The massive bosses are insanely detailed and are a joy to watch in motion as they are to fight.  The music doesn’t reach the same heights unfortunately but I found it unobtrusive in the grand scheme; that’s about the only compliment I can give.

Unfortunately Twinkle Tale only had a small print run leaving it incredibly rare.  It was never ported to any other system or re-released digitally so chances are you’re going to pay out the nose for it.  There is a little bit of story and the game has received a fan translation which is sadly the only way to play it in English.  Despite its likely high price the game is truly fantastic and arguably the best overhead action game for the system.

9-out-of-10

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Parodius

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese games that were released in Europe and not the US.  Cultural differences are usually the culprit most of the time however there are many cases that are baffling upon closer inspection.  The Parodius series is one of these; a good number of the games were released by Konami in the UK however the series completely skipped the US.  To be fair there is some questionable content in some of the games yet in the case of Parodius Da! Most of it was edited out.  I’d hate to assume Stinger didn’t light the sales charts on fire and was the reason we missed out, especially as this NES port, released as simply Parodius in Europe is one of the best NES shooters America missed out on.

Parodiusu Da! Shinwa kara Owarai e was ported to a number of platforms, from the Famicom, SNES, PC Engine and even the PlayStation and Saturn.  All of these ports were fantastic, with some, especially the Super Famicom version being almost perfect.  Obviously both 32-bit editions are arcade perfect but that is to be expected.

The NES edition is the most interesting.  Clearly any fool would know that a perfect match to the arcade machine isn’t possible but despite the technological gap it turned out much better than should have been expected.  And as a bonus it has a number of exclusive and hidden levels that make it worthwhile for fans of the game to seek out.  There are definitely flaws but those only slightly hamper what is otherwise an excellent shmup.

Though Parodius is primarily a parody of Gradius and its ilk it also serves as a celebration of the various spin offs Konami has created over the years.  Of the four available weapon sets each is representative of a Konami IP.  The Vic Viper is from Gradius and uses the basic weapon set from that series and probably the go to for those unfamiliar with the rest.  The Octopus represents Salamander, with its incredibly useful two-way missiles and expanding Ripple laser.  This is my personal favorite but you’ll have to adjust to playing as an octopi.  Pentarou’s weapons come from Gradius III with a different laser.  The photon torpedoes are powerful but only travel below you.  Its lasers are actually spread shots that expand on impact but are slower to fire.  Twin Bee is from Twin Bee minus the bell juggling non-sense.

Speaking of the bells they are here but easier to manage due to the side scrolling viewpoint.  The number of effects has been reduced somewhat but the few that made the jump are potentially game breaking.  The red bell’s laser wall can be a quick last minute life saver however the flashing bell’s enlarging invincibility can make any boss encounter trivial provided you can juggle a bell long enough to reach that point.  It’s easier said than done due to the shifting environment but worth it as it lasts longer than it reasonably should.

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Parodius is a slower paced game than most shooters but its lackadaisical pace shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Its tight hallways and corridors are densely packed making it easy to get lost in the ensuing chaos.  It’s amusing that a game that tries so hard to be lighthearted is in actuality pretty vicious but I prefer it that way.  While the game’s slow pace works for the most part there are a few annoying areas where it slows to a crawl, mostly involving invincible bosses that are more about surviving for a few minutes rather than getting into a heated exchange.  The game does pick up towards the end where I’m sure many will probably fling the controller in rage at the number of deaths they’ll experience as the challenge ramps up significantly.

At seven levels this is shorter than the arcade game but makes up for it in a few ways.  There’s an all new level that takes place in a circus during the main quest; it fits in with the game’s overall wacky vibe perfectly and is probably the best looking in the entire game with unique art and bosses.  For the more astute gamers there are two hidden levels, one of which actually takes place inside a Moai head’s mouth!  This can be a pretty difficult game so the seven main levels will probably last most gamers quite a while before they see the end.  The hidden levels add some incentive to go through it all over again on top of it just being a fun game overall.

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Konami did an excellent job squeezing the majority of the arcade game’s fantastic art into the NES’s confines and I daresay this is easily one of the best looking shooters for the platform.  The absurd art design and wacky enemies made the jump nearly fully intact.  The background detail is pretty amazing all things considered; I can probably count on one hand the number of shooters that looked better on the platform.  There is some light censorship, with the Vegas dancer being replaced by a fully clothed galactic dancer and the female Moai head that shot out questionable smaller Moai in a manner resembling a blowjob blowing hearts instead.  Thematically I think they did a good job replacing those elements in a sensible manner.

As much as I like the graphics it is immediately apparent that the game is pushing the system especially hard with the rampant slowdown.  Much like Gradius II once you have a full complement of options and unleash a spread of weapons fire the game slows to a crawl.  Unlike that game Parodius is full of tight corridors with plenty of turrets and bullets which makes this even worse.  It’s egregiously bad in the fourth level, which might as well be a slide show at times.  Honestly this is the only flaw in the game and one that I feel can be adjusted to considering how much fun you’ll have overall.

I have nothing more to say other than why the hell did this not come out in America?  Parodius in any form is a rocking good time and the NES version is just as amazing as its more advanced cousins and worth a purchase.

9-out-of-10

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Undeadline

As varied as the Sega Genesis shooter library is the vertical shooter is strangely underrepresented.  There were a few stand out titles such as M.U.S.H.A, Zenon 2, and the infamous Zero Wing but nothing on the level of Lightening Force or Gaiares.  Oddly enough the vast majority of its vertical catalog never left Japan.  Undeadline is one such endeavor, a game that would have immediately stood out from its shmup contemporaries thanks to its undead theme.  It’s also one of the most difficult games for the platform.

Before the dawn of man the world was inhabited by gods and giants who vied for complete rule over the planet.  The giants created four living weapons too powerful to control that in the end wiped them out and were lost.  Now a new war is brewing between demons, led by Count Brahzen and humans under the rule of King Fahrenheit.  With rumors of Brahzen attempting to revive one of the weapons it falls to a fighter named Leon to awaken an equal power and stop him.

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Originally created for the MSX2 and then remade for the X68000 PC before finally landing on the Megadrive something was lost and gained in each incarnation.  The cool intro of the original is missing from both ports but they also have an extra level as compensation.  The biggest blow to the Genesis version is the loss of the wizard and ninja, leaving only the fighter as the playable character.  Each class specialized in a specific category and also were better with certain weapons.  By raising your stats the effectiveness of those weapons increased; it was good strategy to use a particular character on a given level and the game suffers because of it.  At least the fighter is somewhat well rounded to make up for it.

There are a host of weapons and items in the game with treasure chests at every turn that allow you to cycle through each one.  Each weapon can be powered up to three times with some changing dramatically at their peak.  I’m not even going to bullshit, of the seven weapons the spread shot is the absolute best choice.  Once fully powered it covers a wide spread in front and even covers your backside.  The others have their situational uses such as the fire but come with far too many drawbacks to be effective.  The axe only increases in speed and power, the sickle’s arcing attack is too unpredictable and the bombs just plain suck.  In any other game having options is mandatory; here they default you back to the dagger.  Three extra drones throwing daggers is still a bunch of crummy daggers.

There are a few defensive measures at your disposal to mitigate damage and brother you’ll need em.  At any time you can put up your shield to block most projectiles in the game.  You’ll be amazed at some of the attacks your shield can deflect and on certain bosses (such as the cemeteries’ Grim Reaper) it is an absolute must.  You have a rotating shield that will protect you from most forms of damage, the only caveat being you can only use it three times.  Other optional items exist such as a force field and invincibility but these only last a short duration.  If you truly want to make any progress in the game you need to use everything at your disposal.

You have the option to complete the six initial stages in any order before the finale but it doesn’t matter where you start; you are going to die frequently.  I’ve played many a hard game and Undeadline ranks near the top.  New enemies pop in at a never ending pace from all corners from the opening moments right up to the end level boss.  It’s so bad that you’ll rarely have a chance to cycle through the weapons and items in each chest at your leisure before taking a hit.  The right weapon (spread shot) can alleviate this somewhat but the attacks are still relentless.  Until you’ve played each level a few times (and you will) and memorize enemy placement and where chests are located it will seem impossible but the chaos can be managed.  They just could have been more reasonable about it.  I mean Christ there are even items that take away health and default you back to the stupid dagger.

Part of what makes the difficulty so extreme were the changes made from the MSX original.  In that game you had a lengthy life bar and could take many hits.  Here you can only sustain three hits which is woefully inadequate.  You could also hold three items at any given time which would have been a god send.  That game was much slower paced so I can see how the developers might have wanted to create some tension but I feel they went a bit too far.  2 continues and no checkpoints during each level (meaning you start from the beginning every time) is a tough pill to swallow.

My feelings concerning Undeadline vary wildly.  During its best moments Undead Line is as enjoyable as Pocky & Rocky, a game that it shares a few gameplay similarities with.  But those are all too brief as the game seemingly tries to suck all the fun out of the proceedings in an effort to send you to the game over screen.  If you can stomach some of the most vicious shooting action from that era than there is a solid game underneath its flaws.

6-out-of-101

 

 

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Gradius II (TG-16)

Of all the publisher’s that supported the PC Engine CD in Japan Konami was the most surprising.  Even though their output was sparse their PC Engine efforts were simply incredible but sadly stayed in Japan, which sucks as they were one of the few developers that really made that hardware sing.  Dracula X – Rondo of Blood is quite possibly the best overall game in the series and you could make a strong case for best overall PC Engine game.  Snatcher was the first enhanced port of the PC-88 original and served as the basis for the Sega CD port.  Which brings us to the phenomenal port of Gradius II we never received.  Had the Turbo CD performed better in the US (or maybe just in general) there’s no doubt in my mind someone would have brought it over as the system was a haven for shooters.  As is it’s easily one of the best on a platform that isn’t suffering from a shortage.

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It has to be said that the graphics in this port are truly outstanding and compare favorably to the coin op.  The gratuitous opening launch sequence sets the tone as this is nearly identical to the arcade outside of the difference in resolution.  Gradius II was visually spectacular for its time and to see all of its graphical splendor recreated at home is still amazing even today.  The opening level with its massive flaming suns that spawn fiery dragons is still creatively incredible to this day.  The numerous bosses that made their debut here would go on to make repeat appearances in nearly every iteration of the series from this point onward.  Even the soundtrack has made it over intact but now in redbook audio thanks to the magic of CDs.

There are many flourishes that the Famicom simply couldn’t handle but the one aspect both versions share is slowdown.  Though it isn’t anywhere near as bad it does pop up here and there, primarily when you have four options and are in a zone with many destructible elements such as the Crystal World.  On a few bosses that produce heavy weapons fire it does start to crawl however it’s a far cry from the perpetual slow motion of the Famicom version.

Though this is the sequel to Gradius it borrows liberally from the Salamander series and MSX Nemesis in terms of weapons.  Of the four available weapon configurations two taken are straight from that game.  The popular Ripple laser and two-way missiles make the fourth option the all-around best choice but I’ll admit sometimes I go with number three because I like the Photon Torpedoes.  The standard Gradius laser and missiles just seem so plain in comparison.  The beyond awesome Force Shield makes an appearance and anyone without a hole in their head would do well to pick it immediately.

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The arcade’s levels and stage progression have been recreated perfectly which is a bonus for the lucky fans that played the coin op.  I will say that although the Famicom game moved the levels around and even ditched a few in favor of new ones it flowed pretty well and the new levels were actually well done.  You only get one new stage here, a trip through a decaying temple partially submerged in the desert.  It kind of resembles a mix of the sand desert of Gradius III crossed with the Egyptian themed level of Lifeforce.  It is perhaps the one level where the stupid double shot actually shines due to the sheer number of enemies on the ceiling.

The difficulty has been toned down from the brutal coin op but the game still puts up a worthy challenge.  It’s tempting to grab four options for maximum firepower as soon as possible however between the four options trailing your ship and their own fire it’s very easy to lose track and fly into a wall or bullets.  Speaking of bullets although it doesn’t approach the insanity of its arcade brethren the screen can still become pretty cluttered at times. It’s possibly one of the few times where the excessive slowdown of the Famicom game was a help and not a hindrance, especially since you could actually initiate it on your own.

One change that was actually a benefit to gamers was continuing.  Plunking another quarter in the machine would start you off at the closest checkpoint which sounds convenient but also meant you were dropped into a warzone with no power-ups.  Here you start at the beginning of the level which is much better.  Weird I know.

Gradius II is one of my favorite shooters for the Turbo CD, ahead of the Star Soldier series and on the same level as Blazing Lazers.  It’s a damn shame that it was never officially released here until its Virtual Console release a few years ago but it doesn’t matter.  It’s a shooter, what little text is in English anyway meaning you can import if it’s cheaper with no setbacks.

9-out-of-10

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Final Zone II

It really is a shame that the Turbo Grafx-16 and its CD add-on never achieved the level of success it deserved.  Now I’m not saying that the US library was in anyway comparable to the Genesis or SNES but it deserved better, especially from its parent company.  If even a fraction of the games released in japan came to the US the system wouldn’t be so obscure.

As is there are large gaps in its library, most prominently the side scrolling action genre.  While shmups were in ready supply gamers in the US were left with tripe such as Shockman and this travesty, Final Zone II.  This average title would normally be forgotten in history however it lives on in infamy due to its legendary English dub, one of the worst atrocities known to man.

Captain Bowie and his squadron of commandos are preparing to quell a rebellion on a remote island from space but are attacked first, leaving a hole in the hull of their ship.  Nearly everyone dies aside from a few who were lucky enough to be in their NAPS suits.  Picking up the pieces it’s up to Bowie and his comrades to piece together who is orchestrating events to try and kill him.

The story is a confusing mess that isn’t told very well despite the abundance of cut scenes.  Since the first game never saw release in America the ties between the two games are lost on us.  Even in spite of all this you can’t say they didn’t try.  There are an extensive number of cinemas in the game that, while badly animated (if at all) and lacking any context can at least be considered a reward, although not the way the developers intended.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Final Zone II has one of the top ten worst English dubs ever recorded, up there with Resident Evil and Deep Fear.  It’s apparent the cast were given no direction as there is absolutely no emotion in any of the line readings; it seems more concern was given to enunciating the words rather than emoting.  The game’s script doesn’t help of course but that is only a small part of the problem.  In addition to the lack of care in any of the performances the mouth flaps don’t match the dialogue and is worse than in any Kung Fu movie I’ve ever seen.  It isn’t all bad on the sound front however as the soundtrack is actually pretty nice but it doesn’t save the game aurally.

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The game itself abandons the ill-conceived squad tactics of its predecessor for straightforward top down shooting action.  Regardless of the character chosen each moves pretty fast and can fire in eight directions.  Unlike most action games your weapons are actually fired from each arm with your main gun coming from the left side.  It’s weird and takes some getting used to as your bullets come from off center.  The few power-ups will extend your life bar, refill health or replenish your secondary ammo.  The game is fairly balanced in that these will usually appear at just the right time.

Although their general mechanics are the same what separates each member are their selection of weapons.  Everyone has a primary armament that has unlimited ammo and a secondary that is more powerful but limited.  There are pretty major differences between characters with Hansen’s spread gun working well at clearing groups but lacking range, Hannah’s’ unlimited range laser, and Velder’s short range light saber.

For the first half you are stuck controlling a given character in each stage but the second half allows you to choose from at two.  There is some strategy to choosing the right hero for a given mission but to be honest with a little bit of skill you can use anyone.  Enemies tend to attack in groups for the most part although certain stages do vary it up somewhat.  While it is typical of the genre the lack of enemy variety really becomes grating within short order.  It isn’t until the games latter half that new enemies are introduced at which point these are repeated for a few more stages.  The final level takes a weird turn into sci-fi territory which does vary it up a bit although it comes out of left field.

From all accounts issuing commands and trying to coordinate your team members in the first game was a nightmare so excising those elements makes for a more solid product.  However if they could have corrected the flaws in the system it would have really helped the game stand out because as is it is a typical run of the mill shooter.  Competent, but not very exciting.  The only detour in gameplay comes in stage three which is a forward scrolling helicopter chase.

With a little more variety in its gameplay this could have risen above its average status.  What’s here is serviceable but not something you’ll go out of your way to track down unless you want to experience its bad voice acting firsthand.  And we have youtube for that.

5-out-of-101

 

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Starship Hector

Star Soldier was one of the first big shooters for the NES after Gradius and Xevious and would go on to become a staple in Japan with yearly installments.  Starship Hector was the 1987 entry and is somewhat of a bastard child as it completely throws out everything established previously.  Which isn’t bad necessarily but I can see how it might not be everyone’s’ cup of tea despite being a better game than its prequels.

Known as Hector ’87 in Japan this has more in common with Xevious and Lifeforce than the prior games in the series.  Going completely against shooter tropes there is a life bar otherwise the game would be almost impossible.  Your ship is equipped with a Vulcan cannon for airborne targets and bombs for ground based foes.  And that’s it.

There are no additional power-ups and honestly I don’t like it.  What the hell is a shooter without cool weapons?  Surprisingly still a decent game in spite of the fact the odds are heavily stacked in the enemies’ favor.  The game wastes no time tossing the player to the wolves as even the first level (each level is referred to as History for some reason) is a manic hailstorm of enemy fire that doesn’t let up until the credits roll.  Or you hit the game over screen.  Without overpowered weapons to fall back on survival relies on your piloting skills.

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It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the most difficult shmups available for the NES as bullets fly freely and the enemies even try to suicide bomb you.  With the screen so heavily cluttered it’s actually better to avoid adding to the chaos, especially as most ships explode in a further spray of bullets.  In spite of your life bar it’s still possible to die in one shot through head on collisions with walls or other objects.  Boss battles are especially guilty of this and it forces you to play as though one shot equals death at all times.

Like Life Force and Stinger the levels alternate between horizontal and vertical shooting action though Hector doesn’t manage its balance as well.  The vertical levels are the most difficult as it is very hard to discern which targets can be only be destroyed using bombs or airborne fire.  Titles like Legendary Wings have done a better job distinguishing the two.  To Hector’s credit you can throw both at once but its’ still frustrating to deal with.  The horizontal stages are far simpler and bear a heavy resemblance to Stinger in their graphics.  Hell if you added some bells this would be outright plagiarism.  Much simpler in scope it’s easier to keep track of on screen elements though stray bullets are harder to avoid due to less screen real estate.

At a mere six stages this is a pretty brief engagement but in my estimation only the most dedicated shooter fans will see the end, especially as there are no checkpoints.  This would be the first in the series to introduce the two and five minute modes, perfect for those that like competing for points but due to the jarring gameplay it isn’t as compelling as the later Turbo Grafx titles.

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Considering it was released in 1987 Starship Hector looks considerably better than similar titles in the genre released in the same timeframe.  To say nothing of its superiority over its sparse predecessors.  Since the game isn’t confined to space you’ll visit more varied terrain which seems heavily Incan influenced.  Some of the bosses are pretty impressive if you can actually make it that far but you’ll see them for only brief periods since you’re more than likely going to die in seconds.  I wish I could say the same for the music but it’s largely forgettable.

Despite the extreme difficulty Starship Hector is a decent title that could have turned out worse considering it breaks from most shooter conventions.  It’s definitely the best of the three titles in the Star Soldier series for NES but that isn’t saying much considering their age and the competition available.

6-out-of-101

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Final Zone

You have to give Wolfteam/Telenet credit, they certainly tried their hand at every genre during the 16-bit era.  While they weren’t all success stories (Earnest Evans, yikes!) most of their output was at least solid.  The Final Zone series certainly had a rough start, with an absolutely terrible first entry for Japanese PCs.  Its sequel for the Turbo CD turned out better but is also saddled with some of the worst voice acting committed to a disc.  Though titled simply Final Zone this is not the first in the series and in fact goes for a different tact gameplay wise, one that isn’t entirely successful.

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Rather than a traditional top down shooter the view has shifted to an isometric perspective.  The NAP is incredibly for a game of this type and reduces your field of view but it isn’t as obtrusive as it seems.  Along with the shift in view comes a new gameplay focus.  Each mission tasks you with destroying a set number of targets within a confined area before moving on to the end level boss. Locating these targets is easier said than done however.  They spawn randomly and roam the environments.  Despite what might appear to be large zones to explore are actually smaller levels about four screens in length that loop around.  It’s similar in a way to Thunder Force 2 minus the borders.  It’s uneven as sometimes they’ll appear in groups and attack all once while other times you might have to wait minutes in between.  They aren’t the only opposition you’ll as there are smaller drones that will also chip away at your life bar.

Boss fights occur in closed off arenas, limiting your range of movement.  Whereas the rest of the game suffers from repetitious enemies most of these encounters are unique.  The first stage pits you against a military train in a fast paced scrolling segment.  Other levels see you face other NAPS suits that are even more mobile than your own.  There are a few disappointing encounters in the bunch with the Spider Web and final boss coming across as retreads.

While I can appreciate their attempt at making the game more unique compared to its staid predecessors the isometric angle brings with it a number of problems.  Like Landstalker and Arcus Odyssey before it the trying to turn and face the exact angle you want is a pain in the ass.  It worked for those games since they were slower paced action RPGs.  For a twitch action game however it’s heavily flawed and not as responsive as it should be.  If you happen to be moving while shooting you’ll strafe rather than turn around; you need to stop before turning, almost like a 2d representation of tank controls although not as bad.  The camera is also zoomed in pretty tightly and combined with your large suit makes the already confined levels seem even more claustrophobic.

The larger mech allows you to store a host a number of weapons, close to twenty in total.  It sounds like a lot but in reality the majority are simply variations of each other which is lame.  What is cool is that you can equip each as primary or as a secondary option which both have their benefits and drawbacks.  Primary fire is unlimited but weaker while options are more destructive but limited in ammo.  It might seem like a bit of overkill to have so many armaments at your disposal however as you take hits your weapons are destroyed until you are left essentially defenseless.

At seven levels this isn’t a long journey but it will take some time before you see the end.  Continues are limited depending on difficulty level, with five on easy, three for normal and a single one on hard.  With the myriad control issues you are guaranteed to suffer a few cheap deaths here and there and there are no lives.  They don’t even refill your life bar after a brutal boss battle either.  I’ll warn you now that the game’s conclusion is not satisfying at all.

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The game’s presentation is a mixed bag.  The sprites are larger and sharper with far more detail befitting its grittier art style.  The animation is lacking however.  The frame rate is wildly inconsistent with enemies that seem to literally teleport around the map rather than move at a normal pace.  The jittery frame rate also affects your movement where sometimes you’ll move two times faster than you want with no enemies present, leading to cheap collisions.  The backgrounds pack a fair amount of detail considering their size and the game does have its moments.  The lack of animated cutscenes is to be expected going from CD to cartridge however the game completely does away with any story which is a shame as the prior games despite their faults could at least claim that much.  The music is pretty nice as once again Wolfteam standby Motoi Sakuraba scored the soundtrack.  I simply wish there were more unique pieces as a few tracks are recycled throughout.

While Final Zone is certainly a better game than the other games in the series that isn’t saying much.  For an early Genesis title it is decent but doesn’t hold a candle to the system’s finest.  Better action games were released shortly after this hit shelves rendering it obsolete.

6-out-of-101

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Lightening Force

No one will probably ever know why Sega of America renamed the last 16-bit installment of the Thunder Force series but make no mistake: Lightening Force is Thunder Force IV.  As the final game in the venerable series for Sega’s console LF set the bar high and is quite possibly the greatest shooter for the platform, no small feat considering the heavy competition.  But this is no ordinary game.  Lightening Force refines the series mechanics and pushes the system harder than most and breaks it but the game never suffers too heavily in the process.  All this and the game was released in 1992!

Honestly there wasn’t much that needed to change when it came to the series’ core mechanics.  You can adjust your speed in increments of 25% or slowly a percent at a time which actually comes in handy when you find a sweet spot.   You still begin the game with the standard and rear firing back shot so at the very least if you completely suck at the game you aren’t completely unarmed. Though fairly weak they can be upgraded to the blade and rail gun, two of the most useful armaments in the game.

The rest of the weapons are all new or slightly tweaked versions of prior favorites.  The Hunter is larger and more aggressive but sacrifices power for its search function.  The Snake is the equivalent of Gradius III’s photon torpedoes and crawls along the ceiling and floor.  The Three-way shot is my least favorite due to its implementation.  It fires in the last direction you’ve moved and aiming it in the heat of the moment is more trouble than its worth.  Once again you only lose the current weapon selected upon death which is more than fair.

The CRAW (God damn it I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be CLAW but whatever) returns as a rotating option/shield and also sees an upgrade.  At the game’s midpoint it becomes enhanced and allows you to use the Thunder Sword, a massive lightning attack that needs to be charged first.  Its powerful but has a few drawbacks; to charge you need to avoid firing and in a game this hectic it’s near suicide.  Once unleashed the force of the blast also sends you backward slightly which can cause cheap deaths.

Unlike Thunder Force 3 you don’t choose what order you’ll tackle each stage; instead you pick the order of the first four and play them out.  This is then followed up by another six levels making this one of the longest shooters of the time.  The standard ice, water, and desert levels are present but you’ve never seen them like this.  Even derivative levels like the Air Raid put similar fare in other games to shame.

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The levels are set up a bit differently this time and will take some getting used to.  Nearly every stage makes use of an elevated playing field that is two or three screens high.  It offers more room to maneuver and pick your own route through each level, a pretty cool side benefit.  With a field so large it’s easier to pick a lane and stick to it, avoiding particularly dangerous enemies in the process but you might also miss out on crucial power-ups.  You aren’t completely taking the high ground as the more aggressive and larger enemies will follow you to attack.  Overall it is fairly balanced in that you don’t have to worry about stray bullets hitting you from off screen.

The fast pace that the series is known for returns and the game seems to move at an even more blistering pace at times.  It’s very rare to have a moment to yourself as the enemies attack non-stop.  Even completing a level offers a few brief seconds as the game tallies your points before thrusting you back into battle.  It sounds pretty irritating however the game is fairly balanced in that extra lives can be found at regular intervals and a decent number of continues.

Which isn’t to say that the game is lacking in challenge.  Although you can select your difficulty (only the truly insane will ever complete this on Maniac) it still puts up a fight even on the easy setting.  The most significant challenge comes from the brutal bosses, massive bullet sponges that take a beating only to come back in damaged form to seek revenge.  It picks up in the game’s back half and the final two stages are so over the top I don’t blame anyone for using a cheat code just to see the ending.

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There were many fantastic shooters released throughout the Genesis’ lifespan that pushed technical boundaries and they all pale in comparison to Lightening Force.  Simply put this is one of the most beautiful games ever released for the system from both an artistic and technical standpoint.  We’re talking parallax scrolling nearly ten layers deep as you visit a wide variety of alien worlds, all distinct from one to the next.  Some of the world’s you’ll visit will seem slightly familiar in concept to other games except the presentation here blows them out of the water.  The Air raid level in particular is mind boggling and wouldn’t look out of place in a Neo Geo game as massive space ships attack from both the foreground and background.  Even the mechanical boss designs increase in both size and complexity as the game progresses until you’re fighting screen filling monstrosities so large you barely have room to maneuver.

All of this technical splendor does come with a heavy cost however.  The game has an insane amount of slowdown and flicker uncharacteristic of a Sega title.  The mighty 68000 struggles to keep up with the onscreen chaos as the game chugs worse than SNES Super R-Type and Gradius III.  Normally this is only reserved for the bosses where it actually helps keep you alive.  In the early levels that are slow it isn’t much of a problem but after those initial four stages the pace picks up and sadly the game struggles to keep up.  If not for the slowdown Lightening Force would be perfect.

In 1992 Technosoft threw down the gauntlet and released a shooter so seminal other developers struggled to catch up even years later.  Even the mighty Gleylancer and Eliminate Down can’t match Lightening Force’s excellence.  It is the definitive Genesis shooter and one that every fan of the genre should track down.

9-out-of-10

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1942

For some games I guess you just had to be there to experience it when it was new.  Capcom’s 19XX series of shooters were some of their first shooters and their longest running.  Originally released in the arcade in 1984 it saw ports to nearly every format imaginable, signifying its success.  To me however I was always left with the impression what’s the big deal?  I suppose it was an enjoyable romp back at its original release but in the wake of better games such as Gradius and Darius 1942 simply doesn’t cut it.

The story is pretty simple: as the pilot of the Super Ace your mission is to fly from the US to Japan, destroying as many fighter jets as possible along the way.  Set during the Pacific Theater of World War 2 it should be noted that Capcom is a Japanese company producing a game in which they are the enemy.  A weird dichotomy if ever there was one.

As a port the NES version is pretty accurate, not surprising as this wasn’t a graphically taxing coin op. Disregarding its status as an arcade port 1942 simply doesn’t hold up as gameplay wise.  Its 32 levels are long and repetitive to an insane degree with little variation to break up the monotony.  In 1985 Gradius might as well have come from another planet considering how much more “advanced” it was compared to 1942. With few redeeming qualities 1942 is simply a relic from another time best left forgotten.

The power-ups are few in number but aren’t really necessary to survival.  A POW icon will multiply your regular shots significantly while further collection will award you two smaller planes that function like options.  Unlike Gradius these options can be destroyed by bullets or collisions.  The most important maneuver available is the loop, which grants temporary invulnerability while you perform a barrel roll.  Although limited the timing of this move can mean the difference between life and death.

Generally speaking nearly every level plays out the same: groups of smaller planes arriving in varying formations while others try to use hit and run tactics.  Occasionally a larger air ship will show up to divert your attention, requiring more shots to down.  It’s in these moments that you can easily succumb to enemy fire as you focus on the big fish.  The occasional boss fight does break up the monotony but at most they’re only a brief respite from fighting countless smaller ships.

At 32 levels there is very little variation in enemies or scenery meaning every 5-6 levels will feel near identical.  The game’s lethargic pace also doesn’t help either.  Whether it’s your ship or the enemies everything seems to move at a snail’s pace.  Things can get pretty hectic at which point the game suffers from severe slowdown and flicker, a Micronics trademark.  Not that it makes much of a difference in the long run whether you die because of slow movement or bullet hell the game has infinite continues meaning you’ll have it licked eventually provided you can tolerate the game that long.

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This is the extent of the game’s visual variety.  All 32 levels of it.

Graphically the game is old and it shows.  Developer Micronics did a relatively decent job with the port, a far cry from the butchery they were known for with the likes of Ghosts n’ Goblins and Athena.  Get used to seeing that same ugly blue sea as it won’t change until midway through the game and even then you’re going to see the same green grass and blue rivers rearranged over and over.  It isn’t until the last 5 stages that you’ll fight new enemies over a sort of new city backdrop.  Overall the game has pretty poor graphics.

There is no music in the game aside from the end level jingle.  The one looping “song” if you can call it that is just a series of drum beats repeated throughout the length of the entire game and it never changes.  It will drive you insane like it did my family members.

All developers have to start somewhere and Capcom would soon move on and create the superior 1943.  In the meantime 1942 can be appreciated in a historical context (wow that can be taken figuratively and literally) but has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and should be avoided at all costs.

5-out-of-101

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Trouble Shooter

As oversaturated as the shooter genre would eventually become during the 16-bit era original ideas would still pop up from time to time.   Vik Tokai were one of the first NES supporters to dip their toes in the Sega waters in 1991 and produced a shooter that was definitely different from the rest of its contemporaries as their first project.  Trouble Shooter didn’t reinvent the wheel but used its interesting gameplay hook to become a solid shmup and certainly better than generic trash such as Arrow Flash and Whip Rush.

Trouble Shooter’s anime style theme is what initially drew me to the game.  Although it was released in 1991 I didn’t get around to it until the mid-90s; by that point I had become an anime fan and the similarities between this and series such as Dirty Pair and Gunsmith Cats sparked my interest.  With its typical 80s big hairstyles and wacky plot about a pair of hired guns trying to save a captured prince from a military dictator it could easily have become an OVA during the boom years of the anime industry.

Of course, no one in the US would actually know about any of this due to the god awful box art.  Holy shit, this is Mobile Light Force levels of missing the plot but at least in this case the protagonist’s outfits  somewhat resemble the game.  I would put the game’s lack of popularity partially on its cover but that’s not much of an excuse; Mega Man was far worse and that somehow became an international hit.

Prior to the start of each level you can select one of four special weapons that produce devastating results but has a brief recharging period after each use.  The Blizzard produces a large circular shield, the Lightning Storm rains down thunder from heaven, the Tidal Wave produces a large beam of light that scrolls horizontally and the Avalanche releases a series of missiles straight forward.  Honestly while they are powerful the standard cannon is more than enough once powered up and it’s not as if the special weapons guaranteed to clear the screen.

You take control of both Madison and her sidekick Crystal as they don jetpacks in horizontal shooting action along the lines of Forgotten Worlds but this is much more than copy of Capcom’s game with breasts in tow.  While you have direct control of Madison Crystal is always behind her and can be positioned so that she covers your back or will focus her fire along with yours.  It’s a unique idea and one that works extremely well.

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The levels scroll both vertically and horizontally and so positioning plays a role in dealing with the chaos.  In most cases you can simply leave Crystal targeting your back side but there are definite points where the extra firepower is necessary.  Crystal is invincible so you won’t have to worry about taking cheap hits due to controlling dual heroes.  You can use this to your advantage somewhat but chances are if she’s getting hit you aren’t far behind.  Unlike most shooters the pair are both fairly large so dodging bullets can be harder than normal; thank god you have a life bar which can be extended considerably with points.

At six stages Trouble Shooter is shorter than the likes of Thunder Force but you’ll still get your money’s worth as each level is fairly long and just plain weird.  Most of the opposition is composed of mecha of varying sizes, especially the bosses.  The boss of the first stage is a Mazinger style robot who spends the first half of the fight laughing at you and soaking up your hits before taking you seriously.  Stage three takes a page out of R-Type as you fly around a massive battleship and take it apart piece by piece.  The game’s final level is its greatest as it ups the ante; after saving the Prince he fights alongside you.  That’s right, you control all three at the same time for some of the game’s best moments.

In spite of that bit of insanity Trouble Shooter can feel boring at times due to its leisurely pace.  Despite the premise of a battle hungry mercenary and her level headed side kick who attempts to keeps her out of trouble the game can be devoid of any real challenge due to its generous amount of power-ups at every turn.  It almost feels like the developers were aware that the size of the sprites made them large targets since life restoring hearts can be found everywhere.  Even with limited continues I posit that most will be able to complete the game in an hour.

But what an hour it is.  Regardless of the ease of completion Trouble Shooter is still an entertaining title that can be found cheaply.  It laid a solid foundation for it’s much improved sequel but unless you’re have large sums of disposable income you can’t afford it.

7-out-of-10-1

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Contra (Japan)

In the early days of the video game industry when most games came from Japan it wasn’t uncommon for them to see massive changes before release.  It’s only natural; what might fly over there certainly doesn’t always apply in the good old USA.  Nintendo of America were notoriously bad with the edits and to an extent deservedly so; the market had just come back and they were cautious about ruffling any feathers.

Sometimes the changes made were for technical reasons, others due to a license.  Contra falls into the first category.  At its heart the NES is simple platform that was enhanced by Memory mapper chips embedded in the cartridges.  Since Nintendo allowed publishers in Japan to print their own cartridges (only Acclaim and Konami had that privilege in the US) nearly all publishers created their own specialized mappers.  One of the most notable would be Castlevania III; its Japanese counterpart (Akumajou Densetsu) had a special mapper called the VRC6 that added 3 sound channels to the NES for better music.

On that side of the world it was all gravy but for America everyone was forced to use Nintendo of America’s own MMC chips (MMC 1-5, fun fact, PunchOut! is the only game to use the MMC2).  As you can imagine this presented problems when bringing games overseas since the Japanese side would have to reprogram them, resulting in the months long delays between the Japanese and US debut of many games.

Which brings us to Contra, which is one of the many unfortunate victims of said policy.  Konami’s VRC2 mapper allowed more animation to be displayed during the game that had to be cut.   In the grand scheme of things it’s fairly minor but a curiosity that I felt was worth pointing out.  No one should feel as though we were gipped as Contra is an excellent game, graphical enhancements or not.

From a gameplay perspective both versions of the game are near identical.  All of the levels and weapons are present, the placement of enemies are the same and if it worked in the US version then it applies here.  There’s a reason Contra is one of the most beloved classics of the NES era.  The mix of awesome weapons and excellent level design enthralled gamers in single or coop multiplayer.  Hell it made me a fan of coop gaming even though I was the scrubby little brother that kept dying due to my lack of skills.  Now that I think about it it might have scared me away from multiplayer too.

If there is a discernible difference in gameplay it would be the challenge.  This version feels easier than its US counterpart overall which to anyone that was there for its original release will remember.  It could just be that my skills as a gamer have improved over the course of the last 20 some odd years but there are minor differences that are easy to spot.  Enemies seem less apt to attack; by stage six they would frequently take pot shots but here it’s rare to see them ever use their guns.  The bosses are also less aggressive.  The god damn swinging arms of the Waterfall boss cost many gamers a few lives but here they hardly move.  The stage six boss follows a set pattern in this version while in the US game he followed you around aggressively.  For those who needed the Konami code to finish the game I imagine this all sounds like a godsend.

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If the gameplay is the same the graphics aren’t.  It becomes apparent almost immediately after pressing start that this is in another league.  There’s a brief intro followed by a map that charts your progress.  Upon entering the first level you’ll notice the animated trees swaying in the wind.  There are more environmental details like this such as the snowstorm in area 5; details like these really make the world feel alive.  Once you’ve completed a level there are animated stills of your soldier notifying command of his progress.  And the ending is certainly better than what we got.  On their own these details are small but added up it makes the game seem like more of a complete package.

Not that I’m saying you should rush out and buy the Japanese Contra because we were robbed.  We’ve enjoyed the game just fine as is, I simply thought it would be interesting to take note of the differences between the two as there are dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of examples out there.  US, Japanese,……..maybe even Probotector, Contra is an awesome game all around.

9-out-of-10

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Operation: Logic Bomb

Jaleco is one of the few publishers that I don’t really have a strong opinion of.  Throughout the 8 & 16-bit era they released many titles however outside of the Bases Loaded and Rushing Beat series never managed to achieve a breakout hit.  It always seemed as though the majority of their output were right on the cusp of greatness but held back by one or two flaws.  The few that overcame this stigma were truly excellent but sadly overlooked such as Astyanax and Shatterhand.

Operation Logic Bomb is one such title, an enjoyable overhead shooter that combines many different elements to become greater than the sum of its parts.  Why it flew so far under the radar is a bit of a mystery but I’ll guess the box art played a part.  The comic book style cover art isn’t exactly the greatest and while it certainly helped it stand out judging by the game’s obscurity it wasn’t enough.  This wouldn’t be the first time Jaleco tried this; their fighting game Tuff Enuff has even worse box art and makes me want to punch its cover monkey rather than give the game a spin.  Nothing wrong with a little outside the box thinking but when you go too far you end up with this:

At a hidden laboratory an experiment using interdimensional technology goes awry and all contact is lost.  Because of the lab’s failure the barrier between worlds has been broken with mysterious creatures streaming through.  An unknown organization sends in a cyborg soldier to survey the damage and clean up the mess.

This is actually the third in a trilogy of overhead action titles named Ikari no Yousai in Japan.  In the US we only saw two such releases with all connections removed.  Fortified Zone was the first in the series and an early Gameboy release and pretty unique for its time as it was an original IP and not a port.  For reasons unknown its sequel remained a Japanese exclusive with OLB picking up the slack.

As the lone soldier called in to wreck shop and save the scientist you start the game with little more than the shirt on your back.  During the course of the game however eventually you’ll come across three extra weapons that can be switched on the fly and a few special items that will aid in your progress.  Each weapon has its strengths and weaknesses but most importantly they never become obsolete.  Some enemies and bosses are immune to specific armaments so you would do well to become familiar with your armaments.

The Straight arrow is a rapid fire machine gun and the default weapon that doesn’t excel in any one category but does have the longest range.  The spread eagle offers a wider range but suffers from the shortest range.  The R-laser is the weakest but can bounce off walls like its name suggests.  The Firebug is the most powerful and versatile as its flames will wrap around corners and objects to an extent.  2 additional items make an appearance toward the end of the game; the Decoy unit creates a transparent clone to fool enemies in your stead and the claymore is….a claymore mine.  Search hard enough and you might find one more weapon although it isn’t better than the flamethrower.

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Operation Logic Bomb is a top down shooter first and foremost but that label is only part of the overall picture.  It has many commonalities with games like Zelda and Metroid, albeit in a condensed form.  As you explore the many sectors of the lab you’ll come across data terminals that need to be destroyed to restore the area to its original form.  Sometimes access to these terminals is barred until you’ve cleared a given room of enemies. Other times you’ll need a particular weapon to destroy them such as bouncing the R-laser off the walls of a small crevice, prompting you to leave it for later like in Metroid.

Each “level” isn’t all that large but you will have to navigate warp tiles to get around.  It’s pretty straightforward with very few opportunities to branch off and explore side areas until you’ve restored a given location completely before moving on.  Overall the difficulty rests on the easy side despite only one life and three continues.  Your life bar is pretty long and there are terminals scattered about that will refill it after every boss fight.  Even the few boss battles don’t offer up much of a challenge as they’ll go down in seconds with the right weapon.

The game’s lack of challenge exposes its one critical flaw, its brevity.  The game is criminally short and can be completed in as little as an hour once you’ve memorized the maps of each area.  Because the game is so short it never truly allows you to exploit your arsenal of weapon creatively.  The few times you use the R-laser to destroy distant memory banks or the decoy unit to trick an energy shield into exposing its prize are awesome but these moments are few in number.  If the game were longer it would have given its features room to grow and truly been excellent.

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Most top down shooters from the 16-bit era weren’t anything to write home about however Operation Logic Bomb has its moments.  The cold metal sci-fi hallways and corridors exhibit a great deal of variety all things considered and the encroaching virtual elements laid on top of the environments are used to pretty good effect.  The few outdoor areas are a bit lacking but they at least provide a reprieve from the strict indoor setting.  The atmospheric music is pretty catchy and has a similar vibe to the OST of the Rushing Beat series; probably the same composer.

If only there were more content.  Operation Logic Bomb is one of the better top down shooters for the SNES alongside Super Smash TV and Pocky & Rocky.  The genre wasn’t so stacked in that era so it’s always nice to see that the offerings are of a high quality.

7-out-of-10-1

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Midnight Resistance

Looking back on the Genesis library there were shooters of all sorts from the overhead, vertical and horizontal kind.  One lacking omission is the side scrolling shooter a la Contra.  Contra would eventually grace the system in 1994 but there was very little else aside from the legendary Gunstar Heroes and Ranger-X in those early years.  Data East is certainly not the first name that I think of when it came to style action games but apparently Sega thought they were good enough when they released a port of their arcade hit Midnight Resistance.  It aimed to fill that void but was strictly average and merely reminded gamers of the title they really wanted.

Though it isn’t expressly stated Midnight Resistance is essentially a sequel to Heavy Barrel.  Except now the action has been flipped on its axis.  The Crimson King is the mad dictator who rules the world in the distant future with his Crimson Corps.  The only ones who oppose him are the resistance which you are a part of.  King Crimson has kidnapped your relatives and it’s up to you and a friend to rescue them.

Midnight Resistance wants to be Contra so bad it hurts and I don’t just mean the viewpoint and the similarities between their protagonists.  The weapon selection has been lifted wholesale with the machine gun, 3-Way gun, Fire, and Shotgun making an appearance (they get a pass on that last one).  They do get a point for including the super charger which boosts the power of your current weapon.  In addition there are optional smart bombs such as the nitro, shower and homing missiles, and an optional shield.

Despite these surface parallels there are differences that have an impact on gameplay.  Weapons have ammo and once depleted you default back to the machine gun.  You won’t find new armaments lying about but instead are “bought” in between levels using keys.  These keys are one of the few elements carried over from Heavy Barrel and like that game are dropped by red soldiers.  The selection available changes from level to level and once you choose a given weapon and leave you are stuck with it until the next stage. 

Aside from its weapon system the game’s controls are definitely a departure from the norm and at least in my opinion felt awkward all the way to the end.  The arcade unit used a rotary joystick to enable firing in 8 directions.  The console version has four control schemes that attempt to emulate this in different ways, some more successful than others.  The default setup allows you to lock your fire in one direction and keep moving and is the closest you’ll get to a Contra style setup.  The other three use the B button to rotate the gun clockwise and counterclockwise or alternate between the two; in a game of this type that relies on twitch reflexes these options are too slow to be effective.

If you manage to adapt there are still a few more quirks you’ll have to deal with.  Regardless of the setup chosen you’ll have to get used to toggling auto fire on and off; there is no option to fire manually.  Not everyone will be a fan of it and it causes further problems with wasting of resources.  You’ll waste plenty of ammo by forgetting to turn it off although admittedly you have so much that it’s not much of an issue.  To use a smart bomb you press up and fire but since you attack whenever you aim upward to hit flying enemies you’ll always use a grenade.  It’s really stupid and could and should have been redesigned.

The nine levels in the game are less full length stages and more like brief action set pieces leaving the game a pretty short affair.  Each stage lasts a scant few minutes with a few minor enemies before facing off against one or two bosses.  Technically this is a side-scroller but oddly most levels simply slide out background elements for you to face or move on.  There’s a sci-fi bent to the game that gets stronger the deeper you progress and by the late stages of the game it gets downright weird.  Granted this is supposed to be the future but fighting giant clocks, floating heads that spit out brains, and mannequins is not what I imagined after watching Total Recall.

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Midnight Resistance was ported to a variety of formats with the Genesis version being the closest to the arcade outside of the missing coop.  Overall it retains about 80% of the arcade game’s detail but the reduced color palette causing the few omissions to stand out.  The cool multiscrolling backgrounds of the first level are missing as well as level two’s forest.  The music is actually pretty damn good which is surprising as the rest of the game is only slightly above average.

While MR is an excellent port it’s also irrelevant as the game wasn’t anything special in the arcade.  It filled a niche in the system’s library early on however higher quality titles would soon follow making a purchase suspect.

5-out-of-101

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Silpheed

Star Fox offered a tantalizing glimpse of the future of gaming back in 1993 with its polygonal graphics enabled by the Super FX chip.  In a rare bit of aggressive marketing from Nintendo they even mocked Sega’s then slogan of “welcome to the next level.”  All eyes turned to Sega to see what their reaction would be and if they would try to counter Star Fox with a game of their won.  Silpheed garnered a lot of attention based on early press from Japanese magazines such as Famitsu, leading to a number of unfair comparisons to Star Fox.  While it doesn’t ultimately live up to that game’s quality it was a pretty good shooter in its own right. Really it’s only failing was being unable to live up to the unrealistic expectations the US press had built up surrounding its arrival.

A space terrorist named Zakalite has hacked into the mother computer of Earth, commandeering all of the planet’s weaponry.  Earth’s only hope of salvation lies in the hands of a small fleet of SA-77 Silpheed ships that happened to be outside of the computer’s sphere of influence as they make their way back to defeat Zakalite once and for all.

To say there was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Silpheed is an understatement.  Many magazines of the day dedicated multi-page spreads to the game which was uncommon for Sega CD games at the time.  All of the hype stemmed from the game’s graphics which looked far beyond anything available for a home console, most importantly Star Fox.  No game could ever live up to the level of anticipation but at the end of the day Silpheed is one of the strongest shooters available for the Sega CD outside of its cool graphical tricks.

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First the visuals.  While you might be fooled into thinking the Sega CD is shifting more polygons than some of the most advanced arcade units of the time it really isn’t.  The only 3d being rendered in real time are the occasional asteroids and the player and enemy ships. The backgrounds in the game are actually pre-rendered FMV footage with collision detection added giving off the illusion of interactivity.  Technically you could label it an FMV game but this is far from the typical tripe of the genre like Tomcat Alley or Sewer Shark.  The visuals have held up better than Star Fox as a result; since it isn’t rendering the visuals in real time the frame rate is higher and more stable.

This technique of mixing prerecorded footage with real time gameplay allows the game to show off some truly impressive sights.  Entire fleets of massive polygonal ships, planets and debris shift in and out of view without a hint of slowdown.  There are a ton of varying camera angles that frame the action giving way to some truly breathtaking sights.  Every level is unique and epic in scale; some levels feature battleships so large they wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Robotech.  The only lacking element of the visuals would be the actual enemies you’ll face.  The enemy ships are tiny and simple in design and the bosses are simply larger versions of these enemies.

At the start of every level you are presented with a choice of weapons for the left and right wing of your ship as well as four different optional bombs.  New weapons are unlocked based on your score allowing you to mix and match weaponry on both sides of the ship.  The spread shot mixed with the homing laser is an odd combination but depending on the level can be highly effective.  It sucks that you aren’t given any intel on what you might face so if you choose an ill-fitting set you’re basically screwed.

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Silpheed uses an odd oblique viewpoint that very few games have experimented with.  Off the top of my head I can only think of the Rayforce series.  This means that the camera is tilted at an angle with enemies streaming in from the top down to your level.  It takes some getting used to and brings its share of issues.  Dodging enemy fire isn’t as straightforward as you would think since the beams might typically come from an angle you can’t accurately judge.  While the streaming backgrounds are nice it can be hard to separate the debris you’ll have to dodge from the harmless video running in the background.  I will say that Game Arts did a fairly good job of reducing the color of these objects so that they stand out but in the middle of the chaos you’ll only have a few split seconds to judge.

This is a fairly challenging game, one that might take a few days to complete.  The twelve levels are of decent length and you’re only given a few lives plus a few continues to make it to the end.  Combine that with the issues stemming from the viewpoint and you’ll end up with a lot of cheap deaths.  I don’t want to make it sound as though you don’t have a fighting chance; the shields are highly resilient and replenishing items come at regular intervals.  Once your shield is gone further hits will disable your weapons, your engine and then finally lead to death so at least on that front the game is trying to give you a second wind.

Aside from the visuals the game has an excellent score matching the epic tone of the conflict perfectly.  There’s a ton of radio chatter as you play through each stage lending to the feel of a battalion of ships making their way through these environments.  Outside of the intro and ending there are only a few other cutscenes however all of it is fully voiced and competently at that.

In my opinion Silpheed is too different a shooter to compare to Star Fox although if you were to ask me which of the two is better I’d go with that game.  That doesn’t detract from Silpheed’s status as a excellent shooter that can be found dirt cheap.

8-out-of-101

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Tiger Heli

Micronics we meet again.  I’ll freely admit that I never liked Tiger Heli; I think it just comes down to finding helicopters lamer than sleek sci-fi jets.  I think my disdain for helicopters stems from Airwolf, an insipid show from the 80s that I could not stand.  Toaplan were the creators of many a classic arcade shooter such as Truxton and Zero Wing (classic for all the wrong reasons!) but Tiger Heli is not one of them.  In the arcade it was an average game but the home port is terrible, another Micronics hack job.  What little charm the game may have had is ruined by serious technical flaws.

The Tiger Heli in the title is the name of the chopper you pilot, supposedly the end result of billion dollar initiative.  The country of Cantun has been overrun by terrorists and so it’s decided to send in one lone helicopter to deal with the situation.  Which doesn’t sound as bad when you consider the entire country has almost zero air cavalry; pretty much every enemy you’ll encounter are in the form of tanks, ships, and turrets with the odd jet flying by once or twice.  You can see how one ship is all that is needed to end this supposed revolution now.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the game is that it’s slow.  Tiger Heli seems to be running at a near single digit frame rate making your entire movement feel sluggish.  The game is also host to some of the worst flickering I’ve ever experienced in gaming; even when paused the sprites continue to flick.  Most of this stems from the constant explosions left in the wake of defeated enemies.  If you happen to drop a bomb and it takes out a few tanks gaze in astonishment as everything on screen literally disappears for a second or two.  This isn’t completely the hardware’s fault either, Zanac and the Guardian Legend have far more going on and the system keeps up just fine.  The one odd bit amongst the tapestry of bad programming is the near absence of slowdown.  This helps in dealing with the game’s slow pace since there are no speed power-ups to collect so the ship’s slow movement isn’t impaired.

Speaking of power-ups there are only a few in the game.  Bombs are in ready supply but aren’t the screen clearing variety.  They spray in a cluster of smaller explosions that are useless unless they are dropped within proximity of your intended target which defeats the purpose of having them.  In addition to the bombs you have two tanks attached to the side of the chopper which will explode and eliminate anyone in close range when hit.  It’s a nice bit of added protection.  You have a choice of two drone ships; a white one that fires straight ahead and a red that will cover your left or right side.  It’s possible to mix and match these depending on the situation although you won’t get much chance to experiment as they aren’t frequently available.

The drones should make you feel more powerful but actually do the exact opposite.  Unlike options in Gradius they are not invincible and can be destroyed.  You’ll spend inordinate amounts of time making sure they aren’t in the line of fire rather than raining down death from above leading to some cheap deaths.  They also constrict your movement range.  There seems to be an invisible box that limits your movements and once you have two drones it feels even smaller.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster but in all honesty aside from dealing with the constant flicker and slow pace the game is exceptionally easy and only lasts 15 minutes.  There are only four levels and the game awards extra lives quite often.  Once you’ve completed the fourth stage the game simply loops so you don’t even get the satisfaction of an ending.  Looping is intended for attaining high scores but I can’t imagine anyone would be interested in repeating the same boring 15 minute sequence over and over again let alone even once.

There are many shooters available for the NES that are worth your time and Tiger Heli is not one of them.  This wasn’t a good game back then and time has only made that more evident.

5-out-of-101

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Sagaia

Anyone remember the deluxe arcade setups from back in the day?  There were numerous cabinets such as Konami’s G.I. Joe and X-Men that used a series of multiple monitors linked together to create massively multiplayer games.  In an age before HD existed this was probably as close as it got.  Darius made extensive use of this to present a massive playing field, at first to cover up the average gameplay but its sequel introduced a few new features that would go on to become staples of the series.  For all of its improvements however Sagaia (i.e. Darius II) still feels like just another shooter on a console buckling under the weight of them.

Obviously the home version is unable to replicate the wide screen format of the arcade however the Genesis game does an admirable job of aping its graphics.  There is a noticeable loss of color and detail and the enemies have shrunk in size but otherwise it’s all here.  That said Darius II was not an exceptionally pretty game as the overall color palette was a bit dark with many of the backdrops sharing similar elements and design.   While the levels in the branching paths might have completely new surroundings the same enemies and mid-level bosses are recycled heavily throughout the game.

Sagaia’s biggest innovation came in the form of its world map.  After the initial level you are presented with a map of 26 levels lettered A-Z arranged in seven rows.  At each row you are presented with branching paths until you reach the end.  Depending on the path you take certain branches are unavailable and best of all each and every level is completely different and not a simple palette swap.  In total each run through the game will take you through seven levels.  There are multiple endings and different final bosses for huge replay value, something the genre has always lacked.

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From a weapons standpoint the game is disappointing.  The standard red, blue, and green shield crests that power up the standard shot, shield, and bombs make their return and are joined by two new additions.  The gold crest grants thin lasers that alter its firing course the more it is powered up and a rare rainbow crest that enhances everything.

And that’s it.  You are going to rely on the standard cannon for the most part as the lasers are more or less useless.  The angles the lasers cover are of little use in most cases and does not actually benefit you until it is closer to its highest level of power.  Increasing the size and power of the standard cannon is more pragmatic as it is the most reliable.  The lack of any other offensive weapons is a glaring flaw since the shooter genre almost lives and dies by its power-up system and what is available feels inadequate.

The pacing of the game is a bit uneven at times.  There are long pauses in the action where very few enemies spawn and at times it seems like all hell has broken loose.  It’s never as bad as something like Blaze On, where close to two minutes can pass without anything happening.  Part of this also depends on the route you’ve chosen as certain levels are far more chaotic than others.  I found the levels set in space to be more relaxed than some of the more technologically advanced planets.

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Despite that the game’s challenge is medium.  Enemies spawn in groups and recognizable patterns; killing all of them grants score bonuses that will bring you a step closer to an extra life.  As I previously mentioned your choice of route will determine the level of opposition but even at its craziest the game is still manageable.  Like the Gradius series dying while fully powered-up is near soul crushing, especially considering how weak the standard shot is.  On the other hand power-ups appear on a regular basis and you respawn instantly rather than at a checkpoint.  The mid bosses and some of the larger ships you encounter seem almost indifferent to your presence and will actually fly off if you take too long destroying them.  This is in stark contrast to the end level bosses that are as vicious as they come.

This is a hard one to score.  On one hand I definitely have my grievances with the game but at the same time it’s still a solid game at its core.  There is a ton of replay value but the question is whether you will find the game interesting enough to want to see all of its content.

7-out-of-10

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Pocky & Rocky

Natsume does it again!  We were still a few years away from losing them to the Harvest Moon bug in 1993 and so it should come as no surprise that Pocky and Rocky rocks like no other.  Cute em ups were all the rage at the time with the likes of Cotton, Magical Chase, and Twin Bee gaining popularity and spawning sequels.  Pocky and Rocky goes down a different road and combines shooting with adventure elements to create one unique package that should not be missed.

Pocky is a young miko tasked with watching over her shrine when her duties are interrupted by Rocky, one of the Nopino goblins.  His fellow Nopino goblins have been driven insane by a mysterious figure in black and Rocky wants her help to save his fellow goblins.

A little bit of history behind this series: in the mid-80s Taito released Kiki Kaikai in the arcade, which saw a limited release here as Knight Boy.  Natsume later licensed the series and created the SNES sequel Pocky and Rocky.  Not much has changed in terms of gameplay but the series has been given a major 16-bit makeover, becoming one of the best overhead shooters available during that period in the process.

As either Pocky or Rocky you have six long stages of overhead shooting action.  There are slight gameplay differences between the pair that in my opinion favor Pocky.  Her slide technique activates faster but covers less distance; if you are using the slide maneuver chances are you need to avoid something fast.  Rocky’s bombs are larger in scope but less powerful and in addition he moves slower.  In his favor Rocky can change into a Tanuki statue (like SMB3) and become invincible for a few seconds.

Every shooter needs a good selection weapons to make you feel powerful and P&R provides that in spades.  Red and Blue orbs dropped by enemies or found in baskets will evolve your primary weapon along two paths.  Red orbs change your weapon into more powerful single shot fireballs while blue orbs will increase the spread radius of your attack.  Unfortunately you can’t mix and match orbs to create unique weapons since the opposing orbs will set you back to the default.  Both are equipped with a melee attack that doubles as a defensive measure since it can swat most projectiles.  As an added bonus charging the melee button will produce a more powerful attack.  And what shooter would be complete without smart bombs?  Although limited in supply initially you can increase your stock throughout the course of the game.

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The game’s controls are both responsive and make excellent use of the SNES controller’s buttons with nearly every function mapped to its key.  Unlike most overhead shooters Pocky & Rocky has the pace of a traditional shmup like Gradius at times so the perfect response is appreciated.  I do find it odd that there are two separate buttons for firing; one a rapid fire option and the other that produces a single shot and you must keep tapping.  I don’t know what kind of nutter would prefer option number 2 but I’m sure they exist.

The cute monsters and bright color palette might give lull into a false sense of security but P&R means business.  This is not an easy game and despite covering only six stages you won’t see the ending in one sitting.  Each level is pretty long with a mid and end boss usually dividing them into two distinct halves.  The addition of a life bar over the original arcade game’s single hit deaths mean little in the face of a constant onslaught of enemies.  Life replenishing food is in ready supply but I think the degradation of your weapon with each hit might have been a bit much.  The unlimited continues do alleviate this somewhat.

I get the sense the game was intended for coop play rather than single player which I will admit doubles the fun.  There are team up attacks both players can execute at some personal cost and the added firepower makes the chaos and bullet sponge bosses easier to deal with.  Like Contra dead players can borrow (or steal!) lives from their buddy to get back in the action and prevent a visit to the game over screen.  Cooperative mode does bring unwanted slowdown but that can be a benefit if you take advantage of it.

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