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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.