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.
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.
Developer: Toaplan, Gazelle (Saturn port)
Publisher: Toaplan (Arcade), Banpresto (Saturn)
Platforms: Saturn (Featured), Arcade
Release Dates: 1993 (Arcade), 1996 (Saturn)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Batsugun-related images