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All posts for the month May, 2013

Although it might be the nation’s capital, Ottawa isn’t especially well-known for its big attractions. Compared to the neighboring cities of Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa’s does a fairly good job of living up to its reputation of being a sleepy government town. That being said, one thing I love about Ottawa is that when we do get a big event, everyone gets really excited about it. In Montreal, giant festivals are a dime a dozen, so for the most part, it always seems like the average person has no idea what’s going on in their city. This was the Ottawa Comiccon‘s second year running, which is pretty surprising when you consider that there were over 30 000 attendees. There are so few major festivals in Ottawa, that people who wouldn’t usually be interested in cons go because it’s one of the few major events available. For a con, the crowd is fairly casual, but that’s fine by me. Personally I just like to meet guests and buy merch, so I couldn’t care less about the “nerdiness level” of the average attendee.

Ottawa Comiccon 2013
Dates: May 10 – 12
Location: Ernst & Young Centre

One of the few cosplayer photos I took. My hands were way too full to take photos.

One of the few cosplayer photos I took. My hands were way too full to take photos.

Being that this is a sci-fi blog, I’m going to focus on the science fiction that was on offer. In terms of major guests, there were some pretty huge names from the world of sci-fi movies and television. Nathan Filion (Firefly), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: NG), Gillian Anderson (X-Files), Michael Shanks (Stargate), James Marsters (Torchwood), Levar Burton (Star Trek: NG), Billy Dee Williams (Star Wars), Jewel Staite (Firefly), and David Prowse (Star Wars) all made appearances. Actually, now that I see all the names together, that was a pretty damn killer lineup!Unfortunately, unless your name is Sigourney Weaver, I’m probably not going to pay $6o for an autograph… My friends and I were able to see the actors from nearby, but none of us paid to get up close and personal. That being said, at one point Billy Dee Williams left his booth and walked past us towards a cluster of vendors. According to one of my friends, Billy was pretty interested in a Bruce Lee t-shirt that was on display!

Dave Ross and a really nice woman who I assumed was his wife/girlfriend.

Dave Ross and a really nice woman who I assumed was his wife/girlfriend.

If there’s one bit of advice I would give to anyone who’s relatively new to conventions, try to avoid buying heavy stuff early in the day. I should’ve known better, but I ended up spending the majority of my cash in the first 10 minutes… There’s a vendor I’ve seen at several east coast cons that specializes in art books, most of which are Japanese. I almost stepped on the owner’s kid the moment I entered the booth. He had made a little home underneath one of the tables, and I nearly crushed the little guy. Personally, I love seeing kids at conventions. Thanks to my comic-collecting uncle, I used to be one of those con kids, so it’s always nice to see a healthy injection of new fans. Anyways, I ended up purchasing Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Watercolor Impressions, and an Arzach art book. Cumulatively the books must’ve weighed 60 pounds, which was way too much for my horribly out-of-shape body. To make matters worse, I didn’t bring a backpack or satchel, so I had to deal with plastic bags digging into my hands for several hours. Lesson number 2: if you plan to buy things, bring your own bag!

Billy Dee Williams Ottawa Comiccon 2013

The man in the trench coat with the cane is none other than Billy Dee Williams.

Continuing onwards, I got into a discussion with a guy who plans to start an Aliens USCM outfit in Ottawa, kind of like the Star Wars’ 501st Legion. I overheard him mentioning the new Neca series of Aliens figures, which is how the conversation started. He works at a local comic shop, so I’ve actually bumped into him once since then. If his endeavor ever happens, I’d love to be a part of it!

Dave Ross posing for a photo with me. Take note of the Xenomorphosis t-shirt!

Dave Ross posing for a photo with me. Take note of the Xenomorphosis t-shirt!

For once, I actually prepared a list of the guests that I wanted to meet. First on my list was Dave Ross, who penciled the Aliens: Xenogenesis comic, as well as many Star Wars comics. On the plus side, the lineup to meet artists are almost always nonexistent, on the downside, the number of people interested in meeting talented comic artists is mostly nonexistent… It’s a real shame, but there was essentially no one waiting to meet Dave Ross… He was a really nice guy and was happy to oblige me wanting to talk on and on about his work on Aliens. At one point, he mentioned that he had done a Darth Vader vs. Aliens commission for a fan, and told me that he’d love to work on a full version of this crossover. I’d hazard a guess that there’s a fairly large audience of people who’d love to see this happen. After talking to Dave for a while, I decided to ask him for an Aliens commission. His memory of the xenomorph’s details was pretty foggy (I don’t blame him), so I actually managed to find him a cheap set of Aliens figures to use as a reference. He ended up spending at least an hour and half on my piece, which I though was well worth the $60 price. Personally, I love how it turned it out! To me, it looks pretty similar to the cover of the Alien: The Illustrated Story from 1979. Obviously he had no idea what I was talking about.

 

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The xenomorph commission that Dave Ross did for me. I think it looks great!

Arthur Suydam Ottawa Comiccon 2013

Arthur Suydam in what was definitely the most attractive artist booth.

Next on my list was Arthur Suydam, the well-known cover artist responsible for the Aliens: Genocide covers. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that his Aliens covers are easily some of the nicest renderings of the xen0morphs I’ve ever seen. I actually told Suydam that I thought his xenomorph depictions were second only to Giger’s. This was his exact response: “yes, I would agree with that”. I guess when you’re as talented as Suydam, there’s no point in being overly modest. It turns out he’s personal friends with Giger — there’s something ridiculously cool about being two degrees of separation from the legend. I asked Suydam if he could tell me anything about Giger that isn’t commonly known. The best response I got was: “well, he likes to get baked and make art.” No surprises there. I managed to get Suydam to autograph my copies of Aliens: Genocide, but not without having to purchase one of his (thankfully inexpensive) sketchbooks. Of everyone I met, he definitely seemed to revel the most in his fame, and although the lineup to meet him was basically 4 people, that was more than for any other artist.

Aliens Genocide 1 Arthur Suydam Signed

Aliens Genocide Issue 1, signed by Arthur Suydam.

Ben Templesmith showing me his sexy face.

Ben Templesmith showing me his sexy face.

The last artist on my list was Ben Templesmith, who some people might remember for the first Dead Space comic’s art. Templesmith was actually really fun to talk to, and definitely knows his sci-fi horror. In fact, he told me that he’d love to work on another sci-fi horror comic. He’s also got a great sense of humor, and wasn’t afraid to tell me what he thought of comic artists that charge for signatures *cough Suydam*. Apparently he got really well paid for his Dead Space work. As he explained to me, video game publishers like EA are able to flaunt a lot of money, and pay what he called “video game money”, which is much more than your average comic publisher. Pro tip from Ben Templesmith: if you want to make money in the world of comics, try to work on media tie-ins. Along with Dave Ross, he liked my Xenomorphosis t-shirt design, so he was an instant winner in my books! Also, free of charge, he drew the most adorable necromorph on my Dead Space trade!

Dead Space Comic Ben Templesmith Convention Sketch Autograph

The necromorph sketch that Ben Templesmith drew for me. I LOVE it.

Elephantmen TP 00 Starkings Moritat Cover

Expect to see some Elephantmen coverage sometime in the future.

Having met everyone on my list, and feeling pretty happy with myself, I nearly called it quits, that is until I saw Richard Starkings’ booth. Richard is respected for his innovative comic lettering, and recently made it big for writing the series Elephantment. I’ve never read the series, but I’ve always been really impressed by its incredible artwork, which often features some of the nicest coloring I’ve seen. Although I’m not usually interested in anthropomorphic animal characters, Elelphantment handles them tastefully, and has a really interesting sci-fi setting. Anyways, I ended up buying the first two trade paperbacks, which happen to have the nicest packaging and presentation I’ve ever seen in a trade. There are no less than 30-something pages of concept art at the back, and the pages are thick and glossy. It was money well spent, and Richard did some quick sketch signatures for me. Later that day, I read the forward in the first trade, which was written by none other than Dan Abnett. I personally consider Dan to be the best living military sci-fi writer. Apparently Dan used to work for Richard in the 80’s, which I wish I’d known when I was talking to Richard.

Overall, I had a great time at Ottawa Comiccon. Diehards might consider it a small appetizer to larger cons like Fan Expo, but I still had just as much fun as at any larger con. It’s really impressive to see what a huge show they put on, especially considering it’s only their second year in existence. No less than five years ago, I went to a comic convention in Ottawa that had maybe 1000 attendees, nearly all of which were purist comic collectors. To see such a massive con five years later, in Ottawa of all places, was pretty surreal. Even compared to last year, the quality has jumped noticeably. Anyways, I can’t wait to see the guest lineup for next year, and I might even apply for a press badge!

Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that I didn’t expect to review on this site. Although I was brought up by a trekkie mother, and I’ve always enjoyed watching the shows, I didn’t think the tone and appearance of Star Trek were a good fit for the site. Xenomorphosis’ origins are rooted in the darker side of sci-fi, and frankly, Star Trek presents nearly the polar opposite of that aesthetic. Again, I’ve always enjoyed the shows, but they’re just not my preferred brand of sci-fi. Everything from the costumes to the feel good humor and drama are just slightly too clean-cut for my liking. Furthermore, Star Trek essentially ruined sci-fi television for someone with my tastes. For forty years now, most sci-fi shows have mimicked my least favorite aspects of Star Trek: silly looking humanoid characters, daytime television-level drama, and cheesy humor. Now that I’ve essentially alienated all my fans, lets get back to Into Darkness. Suffice to say, I’m really glad I chose to see it in theatres, despite being fairly turned off by the first couple trailers. Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. Does it accurately reflect the feel of the shows? No, but to be honest, I almost prefer J.J. Abrams’ take on the franchise. Into Darkness has a lot going for it, regardless of its place in the franchise, so I’m going to look at it on its own merits.

Star Trek Into Darkness Poster

Fantastic poster.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Michelle Rejwan, Ben Rosenblatt, Paul Schwake
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch
Studios: Skydance Productions, Bad Robot
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 16, 2013

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The Enterprise has never looked better.

Following the events of 2009’s Star Trek, Into Darkness opens with the crew of the Enterprise being sent to the planet Nibiru to monitor a primitive humanoid species. In an effort to save the species, Spock puts his life at risk. Kirk manages to save him, but violates the prime directive by exposing the Enterprise to the alien race. Despite Kirk having saved Spock’s life, Spock feels obligated to report the incident. Kirk is demoted to first officer, and Admiral Christoper Pike resumes command of the Enterprise. Meanwhile, a top-secret Starfleet weapons facility is destroyed by a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison. Harrison then attacks the Starfleet’s top brass, and flees to a Klingon home world. For reasons that risk exposing spoilers, Kirk is given permission to kill Harrison, and sets course for Klingon space. Although the basic premise sounds relatively straightforward, Into Darkness has a really interesting plot that takes a number of unexpected turns. Every time I though I had cleverly guessed a surprise outcome, I found myself having guessed totally wrong.

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I actually managed to choose some of the few images I captured that aren’t drowning in lens flare.

For anyone who saw the 2009 Star Trek, you’ve probably already made up your mind about the quality and accuracy of the Enterprise’s new cast. Personally, I think they do a great job of mimicking the characters on which they’re based. Chris Pine feels like a younger version of the old Kirk. He’s slightly more brash and cocky, which makes sense considering he hasn’t fully matured. Zachary Quinto plays a great Spock, although I couldn’t help but feel that his blank stare made him look as if he was utterly confused at all times. Zoe Saldana does an amazing job as Uhura, and provides some of the most emotionally stirring performances in the film. Simon Pegg, one of my favorite comedic actors, provides some really funny comic relief as Scotty. Karl Urban plays a great Bones, and has a never-ending repertoire of strange anecdotes. The cast fit really well together, and the writing is actually pretty hilarious at times. The most critical new role is played by Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison. I was mixed on his performance. On the one hand, he’s clearly an amazing actor, and is downright chilling at times. On the other hand, I just couldn’t buy him as an uber-villain; he just looks so… Dweebish. There’s a showdown between him and Spock, and I couldn’t help but think I was watching a fight between two really nerdy looking dudes (no offense to us nerds).

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The movie’s environments, whether they be sets, or in this case CG, look fantastic.

As I mentioned earlier, Into Darkness definitely doesn’t feel much like the shows. I’m sure a more qualified fan could tell you exactly why in precise detail, but I think the major difference can be chalked up to Into Darkness‘ pacing. J.J. Abrams is a director who likes to keep things moving. Everything from the plot points to the camera shots are quick. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a strong contrast when compared with the relatively slow pacing of the shows. In the same time that it would take Picard to ponder the political correctness of an encounter with an alien species, the Into Darkness crew has wined and dined the race, and then warped off to another star system without paying the bill. Although Abrams handles the fast pacing as expertly as possible, I can’t help but think the movie would’ve benefited from a less frantic story, especially in the later half. After the movie’s midway point, it veers into a steep rollercoaster descent, and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. In fact, the movie almost felt like it had 5 acts (rather than your typical 3), each more tense than the last.

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I’m sold on Zoe Saldana. She’s a really strong actress.

In my intro I boldly stated that Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned in my review of Oblivion, in terms of visuals, sci-fi media has really matured in the last decade. As evidenced by last year’s movie Lockout, even recent B-grade sci-fi films have had great design. In the A-grade realm, we’ve been graced with Prometheus and Oblivion, both of which were fantastic looking. In Into Darkness, this style of design has been sent into overdrive. From casual clothing to space suits, the costumes are incredibly slick, and evoke the aesthetic that was perfected in Mass Effect. In addition to the costumes, the sets are even more impressive. In particular, the interior ship environments are beautiful. Imagine taking the best of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and upgrading it with dozens of intricate UIs and HUDs. Without sounding overly dramatic, I couldn’t stop gawking at how great everything looked. There are ships and buildings that only get a millisecond of screen time, but rank among the best we’ve seen from the genre. Into Darkness supposedly had a budget of $180 million, and it shows.

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The one thing I didn’t address in the review, due to space, was the soundtrack. It’s really good, and provided some great background listening while I worked on this review.

Complimenting the design are the equally impressive special effects. There are a number of really technical action scenes involving CG, and they all look fantastic. One scene, in which we see ship-to-ship combat at warp speed, is ridiculously cool. The CG cityscapes are also of the highest caliber; imagine Blade Runner tall skyscrapers, but with more vegetation.

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I’m not sure I understand the intense adoration of Cumberbatch. Sure, he’s a good actor, but to me he comes across as a creepy dork. And now everyone will hate me.

In Into Darkness, Abrams has mastered the bombardment every frame with lens flare. Although the  lens flare is probably way overdone, I totally loved it. The environments look so great that the lens flare is like an extra later of candy coating. Also, it doesn’t hurt that every scene is excellently lit. Expect plenty of predominantly white spaceship interiors lit with pinks, blues, and purples. Abrams is truly a master of style. As you can tell from my gushing, the visuals alone sold me on the movie.

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The dreadnought class starship is an amazing sight to behold.

Star Trek isn’t a franchise that I’d typically associate with strong action scenes, but Abrams has clearly done his best to change that assumption. I’m sure that plenty of fans are pissed at the abundance of action, but to the movies credit, it’s handled really well. There are no dinky phasers to be found here. Battles in Into Darkness are fought with fully automatic laser weapons. There are also a number of hand-to-hand combat scenes, as well as some excellent spaceship battles. The choreography is strong, but as with most modern action movies, Into Darkness suffers from overly quick camera cuts. Hollywood directors are finally starting to get the memo that everyone hates blurry incomprehensible action scenes, but we still have a long way to go.

Star Trek Into Darkness will likely be a divisive movie. If you’re willing to accept that this isn’t the Star Trek you remember, there’s plenty of value on offer. If this didn’t have the Star Trek name attached, it would be remembered as a really solid sci-fi action thriller. Hardcore trekkies may hate it, but everyone else will probably have a great moviegoing experience. I will admit that it’s sad that in today’s movie climate, we can’t have a more introspective Star Trek movie that’s heavier on ethical concepts, but this is still a really good substitute. I would recommend this to every sci-fi fan; this might be the best movie we get this year. If there’s one thing I can say for certain, I am really, really excited to see how Abrams handles Star Wars. Into Darkness sets the bar really high.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Star Trek Into Darkness-related images

As anyone who’s aware of my taste in gaming can attest, I’m a huge shooter/STG/shmup fan. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, shmups (shoot-em-ups) or STGs (shooting games) are the “space shooters” you remember seeing in arcades. Back in the 80’s, shmups were all the rage, so nearly everyone, regardless of how hardcore they are, has at least some experience with them. For the last decade and a half, shooters have become fairly niche, but live on in a fairly strong way thanks to companies like Cave and G.Rev that continue to churn out shmups of the highest caliber. Companies like Cave have wisely embraced iOS, so shmups have gained a certain amount of popularity recently thanks to their accesibility on smart phones and tablets. Meanwhile, shmups, like fighting games, are one of those genres that all video game collectors eventually stumble on. The beauty of them is that they age really well, so they provide many of the best old school gaming experiences. Furthermore, shooter fans are willing to pay top dollar for a really quality game, so shooters often place near the top of the most valuable games on any system. Thus, the increased popularity in video game collecting as of late has led to many new shmup fans.

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Witness Batsugun’s legendary firepower.

Since this is my first shooter review on this site, I should probably let any any shmup fans know what kind of shooter player I am. I’ve spent the last 6 years lurking the shmups.com forum, so I know just how important it is for me to show off my penis size before we get down to business. Like many more recent shooter fans, I played the odd shooter as a kid, but I got sucked into the genre in a big way after playing the GameCube release of Icaruga. Since then, I’ve gone on to purchase maybe 100 or so shooters. As far as genres go, they definitely dominate my collection. That being said, I don’t typically go for 1CCs. Other than the odd easier game, I’m just not patient or skilled enough to 1CC most games. Instead, I’ve developed my personal “3-credit rule”. My feeling is that if you limit yourself to 3 credits, you still have to memorize a game, and will definitely get your money’s worth, but you won’t be constantly pulling your teeth out over an end boss that just won’t quit. Also, if I was trying to 1CC each game, I’d have a lot less time for this site! Essentially, I’m fairly knowledgeable about shooters; my Saturn and Xbox 360 are Japanese, but don’t expect me to impress you with any amazing strategies or high scores. Also, my favorite part of shooters are the incredibly detailed, usually pixellated visuals, which don’t require any particular skill to enjoy.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan Cover Saturn

Gotta love that logo.

Batsugun
Developer: Toaplan, Gazelle (Saturn port)
Publisher: Toaplan (Arcade), Banpresto (Saturn)
Platforms: Saturn (Featured), Arcade
Release Dates: 1993 (Arcade), 1996 (Saturn)

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One of the game’s challenging boss fights.

Released in arcades in 1993, Batsugun was the final shooter developed by the now defunct Toaplan. For anyone in the know, Toaplan used to create some of the best shooters around. Of particular note to sci-fi fans were Truxton (Tatsujin in Japan), Hellfire, Grindstormer (V・V in Japan), Vimana, and the infamous Zero Wing, which was responsible for the “all your base are belong to us” meme. Along with Konami, Irem, and Technosoft, Toaplan‘s shooters rank near my favorites from the 16/32-bit era. Batsugun could be considered the final swansong to Toaplan‘s line of shooters. It exemplifies everything that was so excellent about their games: fast gameplay, a balanced difficulty progression, badass powerups, a reasonable but fair challenge, really smooth programming, and solid visuals.

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As all good shooters should be, Batsugun is plenty colorful.

Batsugun is remembered for two reasons: it was arguably the definitive game that inspired the bullet hell/danmaku sub-genre, and it has some of the most gratuitous firepower of any shmup. To address the first point: in my opinion, the regular version of Batsugun doesn’t feel like a bullet hell shooter. Your hitbox is way too big, there aren’t enough bullets onscreen, and almost all the enemy bullets shoot really quickly, and are aimed directly at you (kind of like in a Raiden game). That being said, you can definitely see the framework being established. Compared to other early 90’s shooters, there are hell of lot more bullets being fired by bosses, and your giant firepower means you spend an equal amount of time dodging as firing.

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This is the only shooter I can think of where you start underwater and then make your way above land.

Speaking of your firepower, Batsugun has a really innovative powerup system. As you collect powerups, an experience bar at the bottom of the screen slowly charges up until you gain a level. There a maximum of 3 levels, each of which increase the spread and power of your weapons. When you die or use a credit, you still maintain your level, which is refreshingly forgiving. Any experience that you’ve accrued within your current level improves your firepower to a small degree. When you die, you lose this experience, so there is a small penalty for death. Each of Batsugun’s three ships fire a completely different, but equally impressive, wall of bullets or lasers at the highest powerup level.

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The excellent Beltiana. Notice the characters on the right side of the column? Those can only be selected  by player 2.

Being that Batsugun‘s console version was never released in North America, its plot is difficult to discern for non-Japanese speakers. Forgive me if this isn’t accurate; I’ve had to rely on translations from various internet sources. In the distant reaches of the universe, a man named Renoselva Gradebaran has plans for a project that will transport humans away from their motherworld, which he’s certain will soon face environmental catastrophe due to overpopulation. The government rejects his plans, so Renoselva retaliates by revolting. His revolutionary army, dubbed the “Epsilon Project”, slaughters 10 million civilians, and overthrows the government in 9 days. Unbeknowst to the Gladebarans, an  undersea hanger of state-of-the-art jet fighters has gone unnoticed. Six courageous pilots take to the skies to overthrow the oppresive Gladebaran regime. The six pilots are: Jeeno and Schneider, who pilot the Type-A ship, Beltiana and Alteeno, who pilot the Type-B ship, and Iceman and Olisis, who pilot the Type-C ship. Schneider, Alteeno, and Olisis can only be chosen by player 2, meaning that to select them on the Saturn version, you need to plug a controller into port 2. The Type-A and Type-C ships have a massive spread fire, whereas Type-B has a powerful but narrow beam. Personally, I play as Type-B (Beltiana), because I find I’m able to take down enemies much faster than with the other ships. The disadvantage is that because your bullets cover less surface area, you need to have enemy patterns better memorized so that you know where you need to be at any one time. From looking at high scores lists, it seems that the overwhelming majority of players also choose Beltiana.

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This starting area exhibits the most detail you’ll see in the game.

Scoring in Batsugun is typical of the relatively simple systems of the early 90’s. There’s no chaining, bullet grazing, or whatever other conventions are now commonplace. Instead, you need to manually collect medals that appear when you shoot down enemies and buildings. If you complete a level with a bunch of collected medals, you get a nice bonus. That being said, you lose all your medals every time you die, so getting a good score in Batsugun requires that you survive each boss without dying. If you plan to beat the game without using many credits, you’ll want to get the medal bonus on each level so that you reach the first extend. Extends are fairly rare in Batsugun; even without dying once, you’ll likely only get the first extend in the second last level. As far as I can tell, the only other scoring mechanic involves milking bosses and larger enemies for points. As in any shooter, watching a video of someone actually accomplishing these milking tactics is really impressive, because it requires you to expose yourself to danger for an inordinately long time.

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These screens are all from the arcade version, which looks essentially identical to the Saturn game.

As far as difficulty is concerned, Batsugun‘s arcade mode sits somewhere near the middle of the shooter spectrum. It’s not as easy as some of Toaplan’s earlier games, like Fire Shark, but it’s not nearly as hard as the games it inspired, like Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga. Essentially, the number of bullets on screen is fairly reasonable, but a lot of them are lighting fast, and tend to be aimed directly at you. Like in later shooters, there are waves of popcorn enemies that fire directly at you, but you’ll never feel as overwhelmed as in the previously mentioned games. The bosses are challenging, but their patterns are relatively easy to memorize. Overall, I find Batsugun‘s difficulty to be perfectly suited to my skill-level. Within a week, I was able to beat the game on two credits, which is unheard of for me when it comes to newer bullethell shooters. Another thing worth noting is that although Batsugun has several difficulty settings to choose from, I couldn’t figure out the difference between Normal and Easy, they seemed almost identical.

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One of my favorite tropes in shooters: the gigantic flying fortress.

In addition to the original arcade game, the Saturn release also includes the Special Version edition, which Toaplan developed at the end of their life cycle, but was never released in arcades. We’re able to play this version thanks to the Toaplan-offshoot company Gazelle, who coded the Saturn ports of both versions. Immediately, the Special Version looks different than the original because all the colors have been swapped. In addition, the gameplay feels fairly different because your hitbox is quite a bit smaller, your bombs are more powerful, and you get a one-time shield every time you die or level-up. If you’ve mastered the arcade version, the Special Version will feel quite a bit easier; that is, until you get to the second loop. I wasn’t expecting the game to continue after finishing the final boss, so the second loop truly threw me for a loop (*lame*). On the second loop, the enemies fire bullets more quickly, and release suicide bullets when killed. The suicide bullets make the game almost twice as difficult, and are downright ridiculous at times. Even inanimate objects fire suicide bullets when killed. After the finishing the second loop, you’re thrown into the third loop, which has even faster and more plentiful suicide bullets. Finish that, and you’ll face the final loop. Each loop contains one less stage than the previous one, so you don’t have to beat each stage four times to fully complete the Special Version. My hat goes off to anyone who accomplishes this feat. With the default 8 credits, I was able to make it to the third loop, but it was all too insane for me to try again. For anyone who calls Batsugun a bullet hell shooter, you’re totally right, but only if you’re referring to the additional loops of the Special Version.

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Apparently the arcade version has more slowdown, meaning the Saturn game is slightly harder.

I’ve saved the video game element that I typically value the most for last: the visuals. Batsugun looks… Pretty good. The backgrounds and enemies are fairly detailed, and there’s plenty of attractive color onscreen in the form of your massive firepower. Perhaps my biggest gripe is that the environments are somewhat dull. The opening underwater level is interesting, but the next two levels feature boring washed out beach backgrounds. The fourth stage is one of your typical cloud levels, and has some really impressive scrolling, but visually it’s essentially the same repeating sequence. The bosses are mainly giant airships, and look really big and impressive. Also, their weapons are all nicely detailed and animated. The overall design of Batsugun is about as traditional as sci-fi themed shooters get, which isn’t really a bad thing. Don’t expect anything really creative like the underwater theme from Darius, the bio-metallics of R-Type, or the Moai head wastelands of Gradius. Even as far as traditional themes are concerned, other Saturn shooters (which in all fairness were released later) like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, and Soukyugurentai have more detailed art assets. Overall, Batsugun is still a great looking game, and definitely ranks among the medium to upper tier of Saturn shooters in terms of visuals.

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Most enemies can be dispensed with quickly by using bombs, which are found abundantly. However, as with any shooter, finishing the game with a good score means conserving bombs.

I still haven’t mentioned Batsugun‘s music, mostly because it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s not bad, but compared to other shooters, it’s all fairly bland and not particularly memorable. One nice feature of the Saturn game is that you can choose to play with the arranged soundtrack, which is a nice improvement over the original.

In summary, Batsugun is a really important game in the history of shooting games, both because it was Toaplan‘s last shooter, and because it was a huge inspiration to the next evolution of the genre. Some of Toaplan‘s staff apparently still lives on at Cave (although I don’t know if this is still the case), which is really great, because the small teams that made these games had an insane amount of talent. If you have a Saturn that’s capable of playing Japanese games, you really need to own this in your collection. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy the pretty sci-fi sprites that I’ve included with this post.

 

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Looking back, Panzer Dragoon was one of the integral series that solidified my identity as a “hardcore” gamer. Unlike many fans of Panzer Dragoon, I caught the bug at the end of its life span. Unfortunately, I never owned a Saturn back when it was current, so my early (and brief) memories of the series were from playing it at a friend’s house. Several years later, I got an Xbox, and a subscription to the Official Xbox Magazine. In one particular issue, there was a game that blew the writers away; that game was Panzer Dragoon Orta. The screens in the magazine looked incredible, and being in the midst of an obsession with all-things Japanese (which didn’t go away for a very long time), I knew the game was a must-have. Suffice to say, it was a religious experience. Although it was a mere on-rails shooter, I was in awe of the rich science fantasy universe. I say that Panzer Dragoon solidified my hardcore gamer status (I hate that term), because it was one of the first games I can remember where I actively sought out as much concept art as possible. Included as a bonus feature in Orta was the entire original Panzer Dragoon (albeit the PC version). Although the regression from Orta’s beautiful graphics to the original game was fairly jarring, the gameplay was similar, and as the years have passed, I’ve really come to really enjoy it in its own right.

panzer dragoon

If you have a choice, I recommend picking up the Japanese version of the game. It features artwork by the legendary Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Panzer Dragoon
Developer: Team Andromeda
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Saturn (Japanese version featured), PC, Xbox (unlockable in Panzer Dragoon Orta), PS2 (Sega Ages enhanced port)
Release Date: 1995

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 6

This might look a lazy summer day, but in fact this is the most difficult stage in the game.

I have a real fondness for sci-fi that sets in the incredibly distant future. The reason for this is because it gives the creators carte blanche to throw any present-day taboos and moral norms out the window. Furthermore, creators are free to eschew modern design sensibilities; as far as the visuals are concerned, the sky’s the limit. Panzer Dragoon takes place thousands of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been devastated by human-made bioweapons. Post-apocalyptic settings are fairly common in Japanese entertainment, and thankfully, they are rarely a mere copy of Mad Max, as is often the case in modern, North American post-apocalyptic settings.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 1

This beautiful sunken city provides a great intro to the game’s mechanics.

In Panzer Dragoon, humans have started to form factions to rebuild society, but are constantly at the mercy of dangerous creatures that roam the Earth. One of these factions, the Empire, have found an ancient weapons stockpile in a large black tower. Harnessing the weapons, they create a militant regime that enslaves their populace. Meanwhile, in an FMV that appears at the outset of the game, a lone hunter named Keil Fluge gets separated from his hunting party, and witnesses a rider on a large blue dragon get killed by a black dragon. The blue dragon approaches Keil, telepathically telling him that the black dragon can’t be allowed to reach the black tower. Keil mounts the blue dragon, thus taking on the quest of the deceased rider. The Empire seeks to kill the blue dragon, meaning that as Keil, you spend the game’s seven episodes hunting the black dragon, while thwarting the Empire’s countless gunships.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 4

Sega proving that it’s games are still the fastest in town. This corridor level is lighting quick.

Panzer Dragoon‘s graphics might be archaic by today’s standard, but in 1995, a console shooter that took place in a fully 3D environment was cutting edge. Those of us who were gaming when consoles made the leap from 2D to 3D remember how exciting the experience was. That being said, even at the time, the Saturn wasn’t known for having particularly impressive 3D visuals, especially compared to later games that were released for the PSX and N64. In 1996, Panzer’s graphics may have been impressive, but now, many of the game’s smaller enemies look like polygonal smudges. The large airships and other bosses look decent, as do the environments, which are fairly basic, but make nice use of the available color palette.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 10

The Dune influence is pretty obvious here.

If you’re willing to look past the dated graphics, Dragoon’s visual design and mood are one of a kind, at least in the world of video games. Borrowing from classics like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Moebius’ Arzach, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Dragoon’s style wasn’t totally unique, but it was, and still is, quite different from most video game sci-fi design. The game presents a mix of primitive technology with super advanced tech. The bedouin-inspired clothing and turn-of-century airships juxtapose with the high-tech remnants of the pre-apocalypse civilization. Speaking of the airships, instead of looking like cylindrical zeppelins, they come in strange conical shapes. Takashi Iwade, the lead character designer, said in an interview that instead of drawing inspiration from typical sci-fi anime, he looked at things like industrial revolution-era mechanics, myriapods, marine mollusks, and ammonite for inspiration. This creative approach to design has always been my favorite aspect of the series. Every stage has its own unique environment, ranging from a sunken city, to an underground labyrinth.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 12

The boss fights are really strong, and almost always  transform through multiple forms.

In terms of gameplay, PD introduced an on-rails attack system that has been emulated by several games since (Sin & Punishment and Rez come to mind). Essentially, you can hold the shoot button down to lock onto several targets and fire homing lasers, or you can repeatedly tap the shoot button to fire rapid volleys of weak projectiles. The system sounds simple, but allows for a deep level of mastery. Although it’s tempting to mostly use the lock-on attack, the rapid fire is required should you need to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. Also, as any PD fan knows, you’ll deal significantly more damage to bosses if you alternate to rapid fire during the few seconds while your homing attack cools down. In addition to the duel firing options, Keil can be rotated to face any one of four directions (front, sides, and rear). This adds significantly to the challenge, because if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself being attacked from multiple directions at the same time. Luckily, an onscreen radar shows you where to expecting incoming enemies, and the game is programmed such that if you time the location of your attacks, you’ll never be fired on from two directions at once.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 11

The lock-on homing shot getting some play.

As with any shooter, the best defense is a solid offence. Surviving in PD means shooting down enemies before they can fire at you. Your character has a relatively small health bar, so you really need to stay on your toes to see the game’s ending. My biggest complaint with PD’s gameplay is something that was fixed in later entries. Basically, there are times when you’ll be facing the proper direction of incoming projectiles, but your aiming reticule is just out-of-reach. You can’t target the entire view screen, which is something I’ve found to be pretty annoying. You know a projectile is incoming, and you have plenty of time to react, but you just can’t seem to hit the stupid thing! Other than that, the game has a reasonable difficulty progression. Other than Stage 5, which is really difficult, the game is challenging, without being too punishing.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 8

Expect plenty of cutscenes that flesh out the story.

Panzer Dragoon’s visuals might seem primitive to modern gamers, but if there’s one element of the game that hasn’t aged since 1996, it’s the incredible soundtrack. When I say incredible, I mean: “one of the best video game soundtracks of all time” incredible. Seriously, it’s that good. Composed by Yoshitaka Azuma, it was his first video game soundtrack. The title track sounds like an Ennio Morricone song, and is comparable in tone to the title track of a Miyazaki film. Meanwhile, the rest of the songs have a more electronic, proggy sound. I’ve heard that Azuma was influenced by Tangerine Dream, so if you like their brand of ambient electronic music, you’re in for a huge treat. I’m not someone who owns many OST’s, but I’d place this near the top of my list of must-haves. In a game where you’ll inevitably die several times on the later stages, it’s nice to have a good musical accompaniment to your failure.

Panzer Dragoon might not be the prettiest game in the series, but considering it was the first entry, it established a truly unique setting and gameplay system. If you like on-rails shooters, PD is a classic example of the genre. This is a game that’s long overdue for an enhanced remake, and would probably find a receptive audience as a digital download, or as a physical release on a system like the 3DS.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Panzer Dragoon