All posts for the month June, 2013

For whatever reason, manga has been strangely absent from Xenomorphosis. This wasn’t a conscious decision, because I love (certain) manga. Unfortunately, my particular taste in manga accounts for maybe 5% of everything produced in the medium. Most of my favorite series originated in the late 80s and 90s, at a time when Japanese entertainment was considerably more infatuated with Western media than it is now. Franchises like Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator, Mad Max, and Rambo inspired a generation of Japanese characters, settings, and stylistic conventions. Now, anime and manga seem to be largely inspired by other anime, manga, and video games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it has led to the intensification of anime-centric tropes. Which tropes am I referring to? Well, to name a few: clueless, spineless male protagonists (and the girls who compete for them), angsty teenage heroes, plenty of fanservice (upskirts, bath scenes, perky boobs, etc.), lolis, otaku culture, pointless long-winded pseudo-philosophical speeches (sometimes in the middle of battle), etc. For the most part, I can’t stand these tropes, so I tend to choose series that have as little of them as possible. Of course, doing so is nearly impossible, so I’m usually forced to comprise. On the other hand, I love the creativity and incredibly skilled artwork found in manga and anime, so I’m happy to sort through the mountains of titles that don’t pique my interest for those one or two monumental gems.

As far as sci-fi comics are concerned, I think I can safely say that Japan has offered us more classic examples of the genre than the States has. One of the masters of sci-fi manga is a man named Tsutomu Nihei. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he loves Western media more than Japanese media, so the tropes I mentioned are mostly absent from his works. I don’t mean to imply that the only good manga creators are those that are influenced by the West; instead, I’m just suggesting that these days this is no longer the norm, so you’re guaranteed a different feel from the average series.

Knights of Sidonia Covers

The series is much grittier than the covers imply.

Knights of Sidonia
Writer: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
Publishers: Kodansha (Japan), Vertical (USA)
Magazine Serialization: Afternoon (2009-Present)
Featured Chapters: 1-15
US Release Dates: February 5, 2013 (Volume 1), April 16, 2013 (Volume 2), June 4, 2013 (Volume 3)

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Opening the first issue with tentacle body-horror is always a plus in my books.

Tsutomu Nihei is best remembered for the cyberpunk series Blame!, and Biomega, which were serialized in 1998 and 2004, respectively. Both of these series have a dark look, super violent content, and in the case of Blame!, sparse text and storylines that can be difficult to follow. Luckily, the art is so awesome in both series that you can pretty much enjoy them as standalone art books. Fast forward several years to 2009, which saw the introduction of Nihei’s latest, currently ongoing series, Knights of Sydonia. You’re probably thinking the same thing I did when first introduced to that name, “wait, isn’t that a Muse song”? The answer is yes; the Japanese sure do love to reference their favorite music.

Knights of Sydonia is definitely Nihei’s most accessible work to date. Compared to his earlier comics, the story is easier to follow, the characters are younger, the action is less violent, the art looks more streamlined, there’s more humor, and there’s a decent amount of fanservice. These choices might be enough to turn off hardcore Nihei fans, but let me assure you, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from KoS. Despite this being more streamlined than his previous series, KoS has gorgeous artwork, a compelling story that’s much deeper than it appears at first glance, likeable characters, mechs, and best of all, gigantic body horror.

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Sadly, there are only a few full color renderings.

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Nihei’s sci-fi designs, including this pressure suit, are always a joy to look at.

In the year 2109, while exploring outside the solar system, humanity encounters alien life. They dub the aliens “gaunas”. Gaunas are composed of a core that creates organic tissue refered to as placenta. Gaunas can take on any form they absorb, which means they often have a grotesque human appearance. They can form energy weapons with the placenta, but mostly attack with tentacle appendages that subdue their enemies. Gaunas can only be killed by first exposing their core, and then piercing it with a spear weapon known as a Kabizashi (the origins of which are explained later in the series). This is much more difficult than it sounds, because the placenta can regrow faster than you chip away at it. Gaunas form together to create “cluster ships”, which are the vessels they use to traverse through space. Cluster ships are often thousands of kilometers in length, and are composed of thousands of gaunas. Over 200 years after the first encounter with the gauna, they myseriously reappear and destroy the Earth. Humanity survives by fleeing in massive seed ships that escape in separate directions. KoS’s story take place on the Sidonia, one of the massive seedships, over a thousand years after the destruction of the Earth.

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As far as I know the Gardes are Nihei’s first attempt at mech design.

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The protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze, in a simulated mission.

At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to a teenager called Nagate Tanikaze, who lives alone in a hidden underground section of the Sidonia. His grandfather was his only companion, but has been dead for 3 years. Tanikaze decides to venture into the outside world, which is populated by hundreds of thousands of humans. He is immediately an outsider, but is mysteriously granted a spot in their pilot academy by the captain of the Sidonia. Humanity’s weapon against the gauna are mechs called “gardes”. Tanikaze spent most of his time underground in garde simulation chambers, so he is already an expert pilot. The story takes place through his eyes as he tries to integrate into society, and is tasked with aiding in the fight against the gauna, who have recently reappeared.

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Apparently Nihei studied architecture, which makes sense given his impressive environments that often contain challenging perspectives.

As you can tell from the previous paragraph, KoS’s story is fairly atypical for sci-fi manga, which usually take place on Earth in either a cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic setting. The concept reminds me more of a 70s sci-fi novel than of any manga I’ve read previously. That being said, fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will note some striking resemblances. Both series feature mech battles against an enemy whose true nature is very much uncertain. In both cases, a mysterious shadow organization calls the shots, and we’re led to believe that they know more about the situation and the nature of the aliens than they let on. Also, in both cases, the aliens continue to adapt to human tactics, meaning that no two battles are ever the same. One of my criticisms with KoS is that like in Evangelion, the battles against the aliens follow a pattern that is predictable to a tee. Essentially, the pacing of the story goes something like this: “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “rinse, and repeat”. Also, despite Nihei’s best efforts, I found the alien fights were almost always fairly dull. I’ve always wondered why mechs are predominantly found in anime and not manga. I think the answer is that mech action just lends itself better to film. When dealing with static images, the intensity of a mech battle is lost, and furthermore, it can be difficult to discern what’s happening on each panel. I don’t consider this a fault of Nihei, because I think he does the best job possible; it seems to be a shortcoming of the medium. Luckily, the series is scheduled for an anime adaptation, which I think will give the mech battles a better fighting chance.

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Had I drawn this, I probably would have been tempted to just copy and paste the mechs in the upper panel. Nihei, on the other hand, drew each one individually.

Back to KoS’s story; other than the tedium of the battles, I love the way Nihei handles the pacing. Each scene is relatively short, but never fails to add a valuable tidbit to the overall plot. To Nihei’s credit, there’s very little filler. The nuances are subtle, meaning that nothing is overly explained. There are no monologues, and almost no captions. Instead, you’re expected to glean story elements from visual cues, or from small interchanges between characters. For example, the other students initially don’t like Tanikaze. How do we know that? Is it because Tanikaze complains about how nobody likes him? Instead, we glean it from a scene in which he opens his locker to reveal that someone has put an “odor neutralizer” inside. Turning around, he sees some students covering their nose, implying that they think he smells. Again, Tanikaze never openly asks “why does nobody like me”? We discover this ourselves by paying attention to the visual cues in each panel. I found this approach really refreshing, especially compared to some manga/anime series, in which nobody ever shuts up… As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer when a comic writer imparts information from visuals rather than text whenever possible. KoS’s story takes some time to get into, and you’ll undoubtedly be slightly confused at first, but give it time and you’ll start to feel really involved. After reading the first three volumes, I went back and reread them. Not only were they a breezy joy to read the second time, everything made perfect sense and “felt right”.

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This looks much more like a page from Blame! than most of the art.

As with any story, especially in the realm of manga, the degree to which you get absorbed into the work is largely dependent on your emotional investment to the characters. KoS’s characters are fairly one dimensional, and to be honest, we learn very little about each one, but I still really like the cast. It could be said that Tanakaze is somewhat bland, but he’s a huge breath of fresh air compared to most anime protagonists. He’s strong and capable, but not cocky. He’s friendly and innocent, but not overly shy. And, best of all, he actually seems happy most of the time, rather than angsty! Essentially he’s the exact opposite of a character like Shinji from the similarly themed Neon Genesis Evangelion. His classmates conform to typical anime character tropes, but I still enjoyed them. There’s the cute reserved girl, the loyal friend, the super outgoing girl, the wise superiors, and the shady rival. Slight spoiler warning: people die in KoS, and when they do, it feels pretty crappy. As expected, there are several girls who are romantically interested in Tanikaze, and of course, he’s mostly oblivious. Back to the loyal friend: this individual, who goes by the name Izana, is a really progressive character. Essentially, Izana is a hermaphrodite, and seems to lean towards different gender norms based on the situation at hand. Mostly, he/she seems to lean towards the feminine side, and is romantically interested in Tanikaze. I’m actually really rooting for the relationship between the two; the LGBT community would be proud of his/her character. On the other hand, KoS contains quite a bit of fanservice that might annoy progressive communities. I’m not going to lie, I like the occasional T&A in my manga, but even I find it slightly sketchy that there are a couple of instances where when women get killed, their clothes get ripped off in the process…

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Tanikaze and love interest Hoshijiro.

As I mentioned earlier, KoS’s art is cleaner than Tsutomu Nihei’s previous works. There’s less use of crosshatching and ink splotches, which overall results in a look that’s less dark and muddy. Shading is accomplished with solid black ink rather than hatching. In the end, KoS has a more calculated, less chaotic look than Blame! or Biomega, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your outlook. After spending some time comparing KoS to his earlier work, I think Nihei’s artwork has matured, contrary to my initial reaction. In particular, I love the way he’s able to impart scope using the occasional zoomed out shot. Nihei’s understanding of composition is excellent, which leads to plenty of beautiful panels that feature mechs as small specks compared to the enormity of the Sidonia. A quote on the back of Volume 2 praises Nihei for his ability to render the beauty of empty space; I couldn’t agree more. In addition, Nihei does body horror like no other. It was actually his depiction of the flood in Halo Graphic Novel that rekindled my interest in Blame!. The gauna are giant hulking monstrosities that gush tentacles and embody human characteristics. Nihei’s depiction of body horror is second to none.

Knights of Sidonia is a series that I would recommend to any fans of sci-fi manga. The content, which might seem off-putting to longtime Nihei fans, is very much a step in the “Japanese entertainment will only sell if it has a teenage school setting”, but the end result is much better than you might expect. Despite the initial school setting (which actually goes away pretty quickly), the story is hard sci-fi, and contains numerous interesting sci-fi concepts in additions to the ones I mentioned. The writing, art and characters are all great, so I definitely plan to continue reading the series. Japan is already up to Volume 10 (Chapter 42), so we still have a long way to go to catch up. Luckily, the American publisher, Vertical, has committed to translating a new volume every couple of months.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Knights of Sidonia


If I haven’t already stated this clearly enough, I’d like to remind everyone that I love Genesis/Mega Drive shooters. They harken back to a time when environments and atmosphere were an integral part of the shmup experience. As much as I enjoy bullet hell shooters, it’s hard to enjoy their backgrounds when 90% of the screen is filled with bullets, and breaking concentration for a millisecond means imminent death. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that I prefer vertical to horizontal shooters. Now, I find myself leaning towards the latter. Because horizontal shooters force you to interact with their environments, I find they often create a more compelling atmosphere. The downside to this extra layer of complexity is that the ever-present danger of smashing into walls can get really frustrating. For me, the sweet spot is when a horizontal shooter has non-lethal walls; this gives me the best of both worlds. The Sega-developed Genesis/Mega Drive game Bio-Hazard Battle (called Crying in Japan) is a happy example of this compromise.

Bio-Hazard Battle Cover

Not the best illustration, but it reflects the in-game content nicely.

Bio-Hazard Battle / Crying
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Virtual Console, Steam
Original Release Date: 1992

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A short opening cinematic shows your ship being dropped from outside the planet’s atmosphere.

Developed in 1992, Bio-Hazard Battle is the only Sega-developed horizontal shooter I can think of other than Fantasy Zone. As for why the game is called Crying in its native country, your guess is as good as mine. Typically, Western changes to a game’s branding feel odd and inappropriate, and yet in this case I think the Bio-Hazard Battle name and image make more sense than Crying. Looking at the box art and menu screen for Crying, it looks like a tech-based cyberpunk game, not a post-apocalyptic adventure set in deep space. BHB is often remembered for its visual style, which presents a planet where the natural world is overgrown and menacing. Instead of traversing gigeresque hivescapes (I just made that up), you explore areas that abound in organic life that looks larger and more dangerous than what we have on Earth. To make things even more interesting, the selectable characters are bioships that look similar to the enemies that you battle. BHB’s design and atmosphere exist in their own interesting vacuum, in the sense that I’ve never seen another shooter that looks similar.

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No 16-bit shooter is complete without plenty of flying sperm.

In BHB, humans living on a planet called Avaron were attacked by a hostile alien force during an event called G-Biowar I. The aliens unleashed a retrovirus that exposed humanity to a plethora of hostile lifeforms. The humans were all eradicated, save for a small group that fled to O.P. Odysseus, an orbiting space station. After hundreds of years in stasis, the station’s computer woke the human crew. Probes indicate that certain areas of Avaron can potentially be reclaimed. Piloting a bioship, it’s your job to scout out these locations to see if they’re fit for recolonization. As a nice bonus, BHB’s English manual explains the conditions that the probes have anticipated for each area (level).

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This lush forest from Stage 3 shows off the strange fauna and flora found on Avaron.

I respect that BHB’s story is a departure from the typical: “you’re the last jet fighter left, go get ’em cowboy!” Instead of single-handedly saving the human race, you’re essentially involved in scouting missions. As you’ll soon find out, I love almost everything about BHB, and I think the story does a great job of explaining the environments you encounter. Because the planet has been overrun, you’ll sometimes find relics of civilization. As I explained in my Panzer Dragoon and After Earth reviews, my absolute favorite post-apocalyptic settings are those in which a planet has been so overtaken by vegetation or geological changes that it’s barely recognizable. In this sense, BHB actually shares a lot in common with Panzer Dragoon, at least visually. Given the nature of the virus that transformed BHB’s planet, the freakish organisms that constantly swarm your ship actually make sense. As you can probably guess, the bosses are a real treat to see, and feature oversized, distorted anomalies of nature. The Stage 6 boss is a giant airship that is part organism and part machine; its underside is dominated by a giant set of gills that are easily some of the best looking sprites I’ve seen in a Genesis game. Overall, the spritework is top-notch, as evidenced by the range of locales you explore. The game starts in the upper atmosphere of Avaron, and then proceeds to a ruined city, a forest, a cave, an ocean, an airship, a junkyard, and finally an industrial facility.

Bio-Hazard Battle Crying Genesis Mega Drive 10

Luckily, walls don’t hurt your ship. Otherwise, this stage would be near impossible.

Accompanying the unique visuals is one of my favorite soundtracks on the Genesis. Anytime I’ve seen the music mentioned, everyone always emphasizes how much bass there is in the mix. There’s this constant tribal droning that accompanies you throughout your journey. It’s really unlike anything I’ve heard in a game, and it both embraces and transcends the limitations of the Genesis’ sound chip. The melodies match the pace of the levels, and are at times uplifting, mystical, and terrifying. I can think of few games whose soundtrack fits their mood so perfectly. In a game that I love on nearly every level, the soundtrack might be the strongest point.

Bio-Hazard Battle Crying Genesis Mega Drive 12

Frying up some massive kalamari.

BHB gives you a choice between 4 bioships to commandeer: Orestes, Electra, Hecuba, and Polyxena. Aside from their visual differences, each ship has a different set of available shot types that are made available by collecting Energy Seeds. Energy seeds come in 4 colors, and are scattered liberally throughout the stages. By collecting an energy seed, you gain its shot type. Collect three of the same energy seed in a row and that shot type will become fully powered up. Because each of the four ships react differently to the various energy seeds, collecting the red seed as one ship will give you a different shot type than as a different ship. Although your ship always fires a forward-facing rapid shot, the special shots given by the energy seeds fire from an option that orbits your ship. As in many horizontal shooters, the direction of the option can be controlled by moving your ship from side-to-side. As you can imagine, it can be difficult to both dodge attacks and aim your option at the same time. Luckily, two of the energy seeds give you shots that don’t need to be manually aimed. My favorite of the shot types, the red homing laser, is a joy to use and can make certain sections much easier. I typically choose Polyxena for playthroughs because it is one of two ships able to use this attack. In addition to the homing shot are a green rapid fire, a powerful yellow double-helix laser, slow blue homing orbs, and a blue multidirection laser. This powerup system is really well implemented, and as you learn the levels you’ll know which shot type to choose for each situation. Originally, I used to play almost exclusively with the red homing laser, until I realized that other weapons were better suited to certain areas. Another strategy in BHB is that options will defend you from incoming fire, and the blue homing orb shot will absorb enemy bullets. That being said, in practice its easier to rely on your dodging skills than on these difficult manoeuvres. Finally, your ship has a charge shot that can be utilized at all times. This shot passes through enemies, making it essential when you need to clear an area of many enemies at once. Although its easy to assume that the charge shot is the most powerful weapon against bosses, the yellow double-helix laser is actually more deadly and less cumbersome.

I love the detail on this infected airship.

I love the detail on this infected airship.

In terms of difficulty, BHB is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I was able to finish it on Easy with starting lives turned to max after a few hours, but of course the game becomes much trickier on Normal with default lives. After about a week of play, I can almost 1CC the game, but it’s definitely not an easy accomplishment. From the menu screen, you can choose between Easy, Normal, and Hard, and anywhere from 3 to 5 starting lives (3 being the default). The game becomes noticeably harder on higher difficulties, primarily because enemy bullets move faster, and certain bosses have slightly more challenging patterns.  Thankfully, the game starts you off with 10 credits, which is pretty generous. Dying and losing your maxed out shots doesn’t hurt your groove too badly, so its easy to just keep spending credits on each new level until you master the enemy patterns. Additionally, extends are doled out at every 20 000 points, which amounts to about twice per level. If that wasn’t generous enough already, Levels 2 through 8 each have a secret 1UP location that require you to shoot an invisible location to render them visible. They’re relatively easy to find, so you’ll probably know most of their locations after a few plays.

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One of BHB’s stranger bosses. I think it just burst from its cocoon.

BHB’s pacing starts out really easy, and then ramps up in difficulty with each level. The first level is essentially a short tutorial, because you can practically beat it without moving your ship. Personally, I find stages 5 and 8 the most difficult, mostly because they launch battalions of enemies into your ship. There are actually quite a few bullets to dodge in BHB, but the real challenge usually comes from avoiding collisions with enemies that swoop in waves. Most of BHB’s memorization involves knowing when to avoid these incoming enemies, which hassle you even during boss fights. As a result, boss fights can be milked, but I can’t imagine you’d last long without inadvertently killing the boss. Because I doubt you can milk bosses for very long, BHB’s scoring consists of shooting down as many enemies as possible throughout the stages. Energy seeds don’t give you points, and there are no bonus tokens or multipliers.

If there’s one point I’d like to stress about BHB, it’s that it’s really fun to play. I’ve tried (and failed) to 1CC it countless times, but I never get bored. Furthermore, the combination of unique visuals, incredible music, and unique powerup system mean that BHB is well-rounded in every way possible. My only gripe is that enemy bullets sometimes blend in too conveniently with the backgrounds. Regardless, Bio-Hazard Battle might just be my new favorite Genesis shooter. I would kill to see a sequel!

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images


At risk of betraying my age, the Genesis was the first system I ever owned. Sure, I have early memories of playing the NES at other people’s houses (or my accurately, watching others play), but the genny was all mine. Many of my best gaming memories were from the system’s punishing games and deep bass. Unsurprisingly, when I was older, and started to purchase older games, the Genesis was the first system that I chose to relive. At first glance, the genny was home to countless licensed games, as well as about a billion bargain bin sports games, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an endless treasure trove of excellent Japanese titles, most of which were brought to the West thanks to a company called Renovation. Among these niche games, the dominant genre was undoubtedly shooters. When I started collecting games for the system, many of the “top games for the system” lists included plenty of shmups. Thus, I stumbled upon classics like Gaiares, Lightening Force (Thunderforce III in Japan), Fire Shark, and others that I can’t seem to recall at the moment.

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Boss fights in Hellfire range from relatively easy to brutally hard.

Needless to say, my endeavour to relive my Genesis-playing youth played a big part in crystallizing my then-emerging love for shmups. At this point, I now own most of the Western-released shooters for the system. They might not be as pretty as other 16-bit shooters, and there are some people who avoid 16-bit arcade ports altogether, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. This was an era of immense creativity and experimentation, especially as far as visuals were concerned. The environments, enemies, and (especially) bosses in 16-bit shooters are all over the map, and feature the sort of visual risk-taking that you don’t see as often these days. Trains with giant deformed heads attached? Spaceships in the shape of fish? Flying pharaoh head ships? Sure, why not? Many of the Genesis’ shooters came out in the first few years of its life-cycle, and today’s game is no exception. Released in 1990 in Japan, and 1991 in North America, Hellfire was one of several arcade ports for the system from legendary shooter developer Toaplan (who you might remember from my Batsugun review).

Hellfire Cover

Now this is some kickass cover art! Who wouldn’t buy this?

Developer: Toaplan
Publishers: Taito (Arcade), Seismic Software Inc. (Mega Drive), NEC Avenue (PC Engine CD-ROM)
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Arcade, PC Engine CD-ROM
Release Dates: 1989 (Arcade), 1991 (Japanese Mega Drive), 1991 (Genesis, European Mega Drive, PC Engine CD-ROM)

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That transport ship looks quite a bit like Halo’s Pelican dropship.

In the year 2998, humanity has reached a period of prosperity, and has successfully colonized numerous planets. Suddenly, an entity known as Black Nebula appears and starts devouring stars until it eventually reaches one of man’s colonies. The Black Nebula is revealed to be a robotic dictator named Super Mech, who intends to eradicate all of humanity with his vast space armada. In the arcade and Genesis versions, the main character is a Space Federation member named Lance, who pilots the only space fighter craft, the CNCS1, against Super Mech’s forces. In the PC Engine version, Lance is replaced with a female protagonist named Kaoru. Generally I love the simplistic, far future settings of space shooters, but Hellfire story is about as far-fetched as they come. Only one space fighter craft left in existence? Seriously!? I get it, the society of the future is past the need for warfare, but keep at least… 3 space ships around for defense! Jeez.

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The various directions of laser fire are color coded, which is really handy in tight situations.

Originally released in arcades in 1989, Hellfire was unique in that it was one of only two horizontal shooters ever developed by Toaplan (the other being the infamous Zero Wing). Toaplan are remembered for blazing new ground with their giant output of vertically scrolling shooters, but horis? Not so much. Most shooter usually have a gimmick, and Hellfire is no exception. In this case, the gimmick is the ability to change between one of 4 shooting directions on the fly. I say the word “gimmick” lovingly, because in the case of Hellfire, it’s implemented extremely well. At any time, you can switch between shooting forward-facing, diagonal, backwards, or vertical lasers. For the most part, this adds a nice layer of depth to the game. My only criticism is that you have to cycle through the shot modes one at a time, meaning that if you need to switch to a diagonal laser in a pinch, you may have to hit the “switch shot mode” button up to to three times. As I’ll explain soon, Hellfire has a brutal level of difficulty, so you’re often forced to know when to switch to a certain shot, even before a certain wave of enemies appears onscreen. Conversely, the various shot modes open up more possiblities than in your average shooter. When watching videos of other people playing the game, their way of clearing a certain area is often different from mine, and involves the use of a different sequence of shot modes. Either way, by the time you master Hellfire, you’ll look like a pro, because you’ll be switching to appropriate directions of fire even before enemies appear onscreen. To the game’s credit, the gimmick is pushed to its limits, meaning that you will be forced to not only embrace it, but master it as well. In my opinion, the sign of a poorly implemented gimmick in a shooter is when you can clear the game without ever needing to rely on it.

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I love the Egyptian motif.

As I alluded to earlier, Hellfire is brutal as f**k. Your character sprite is fairly large, and has an equally large hitbox. Hitting walls will kill you, and as you collect speedups, you’ll be moving so fast that walls present a serious lethality. In the later levels, bosses spew out incredibly fast bullets, which wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to dodge if you didn’t move so freaking far every time you tap the direction pad, and if your hitbox wasn’t so ridiculously huge. Needless to say, one of my important survival strategies is to avoid as many speedups as possible. Two or three is the sweet-spot; any more and you’ll be smashing into all manner of enemies and walls. By far Hellfire‘s most punishing aspect is its continue system, which might be one of the most crushing I’ve ever seen. Dying at anytime in Hellfire means being sent back to a checkpoint, often fairly far back in the level (think R-Type). This will cause you to lose all your powerups, and won’t even replenish your smart bombs, should you have run out. Even worse, dying near the beginning of a checkpoint will send you back to a previous checkpoint! This is the video game equivalent of multiple choice tests where you lose points for getting the wrong answer. Being sent to a checkpoint with zero powerups means you’re pretty much screwed, that is unless you’ve memorized the game to a tee, which is imperative should you wish to finish it. In fact, I would almost recommend practicing levels without powerups, because doing so will ensure that when you do have powerups, the game will feel considerably easier. Luckily, powerups are relatively easy to come by, so starting a level without any doesn’t mean that you’re entirely screwed. Fully powered up, you’ll shoot 3 horizontal lasers, and 2 diagonal lasers. Don’t expect any screen clearing weapons of mass destruction. In terms of other upgrades, you can collect an option that flies around randomly and sometimes damages other ships, as well as a giant laser bomb that passes through every enemy, and clears the screen of enemy bullets.

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Some of the machinery designs, like the one seen in this picture, are really well done.

By the time you’ve mastered Hellfire‘s levels, you’ll be able to (mostly) play through the entire experience without dying, which as you can imagine, feels really rewarding. The one saving grace in Hellfire‘s difficulty is that on the default “Easy mode”, you’re given 20 continues, which is more than you’ll realistically use. Most times, you’ll find yourself putting the game down in frustration well before you’ve blown through all 20 continues. The other available difficulties in Hellfire are Hard (which I really can’t comment on because there’s no way I was going to try it), and “Yea Right”, which is the difficulty setting you unlock when you loop the game. As hard as Hellfire is, it rarely feels overly cheap; most deaths usually feel warranted, with the exception of the ones where you run into walls as a result of the ridiculous speedups. Overall, Hellfire’s challenge is what kept me returning to the game, and you will feel like a pro if you can make it to the last couple stages. One last tip if you plan to stay alive past the first level: in the options menu, turn the fire mode to “rapid”. This is absolutely essentially considering the pathetic pea shooter you start with. Your wrist (and sanity) will thank you.

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Tight corridors are a hassle when every time you click the direction pad you move a full ship length.

Scoring in Hellfire is relatively straightforward. Basically, you get points for shooting down enemies (duh), and collecting bonus points in the form of floating “B” tokens. Once your ship is fully maxed out, powerups will stop dropping, and will be replaced instead by B tokens. As you collect the B tokens, they will progressively give you more points, Eventually, if you collect around 10 without dying, their point value will max out at a huge bonus of 10 000 points per token. As you master the game, and are able to survive long periods of time without dying, you’ll collect enough of these tokens to continue getting extends. In the American Genesis version, the first extend is received at 70 000 points, and progressive extends are given at every 200 000 points. Should you play the game flawlessly, you can finish with around 12 or more lives. Although this sounds generous, remember that dying starts you back at zero, in more ways than one. Therefore, playing for score in Hellfire means not dying, ideally not even once, which is much harder said than done. I’ve played the hell out of Hellfire, and I still can’t beat the game, period. I can get to the last stage on a credit, but past that point it’s just too ridiculously brutal. Should you reach the final boss, his attacks are so fierce that I had a hard time surviving his final attack even with save states…

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Hellfire’s soundtrack is mostly pretty bland and unmemorable.

Hellfire‘s visuals are competent, but far from the best you’ll see on the system. It holds its own compared to other early Genesis titles, but it looks pretty weak compared to later shooters like Thunderforce III and IV, M.U.S.H.A., and Bio Hazard Battle. The colors look too dark, the backgrounds are fairly bland, and there’s a general lack of detail. On the plus side, the graphics are really smooth, and are pretty much entirely devoid of flicker or slowdown. Although the environments are bland, I respect that they’re pretty varied. In particular, the second level’s Egyptian motif is really fun and original. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll explore a space station, an Egyptian-style temple, a pink organic planet, a swamp, another space station, and open space. The enemies are also fairly varied, other than a green mecha type that appears in waves in nearly every level. There are several larger enemy ships, which are nicely designed, and have weapons that animate independently.

Overall, I’d recommend Hellfire to any shooter fans that aren’t afraid of imperfect arcade ports, and any Genesis gamers that are looking for a challenge. The game is tough as nails, but it’s also really fun. If you step up to the challenge, you’ll find yourself spending countless hours on “one last try”. Everything runs really smoothly, and the 4-way firing mechanic is actually really well implemented. If there’s one thing I’d love to accomplish with this blog, its to convince sci-fi fans to give sci-fi themed shooters a chance. For newcomers, this might not be a great introduction to the genre, but considering that you can acquire it on the cheap, you can’t go too far wrong. So far I’ve been really impressed with Toaplan‘s Genesis output, and this is no exception.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images


For people who read this blog, M. Night Shyamalan is a director who needs no introduction. Originally revered for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he later met mixed reviews for The Village, and was then totally lambasted for Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. My feelings on Shyamalan are mixed; on the one hand, those last two movies deserve all the scorn they receive, on the other hand, I still think his first few movies, even including The Village, are pretty great. For many people, a new Shyamalan movie is going to be bad, whether they’ve seen it or not. I’m not trying to forgive him for The Happening or The Last Airbender, but I think his early track record indicates that he’s still capable of making decent movies. If anything, I think his directing is actually fairly solid, it’s his writing that’s really hit or miss. When it was announced that Shyamalan would be directing a sci-fi movie, I was cautiously optimism. If there’s one thing I felt fairly certain about, it’s that Shyamalan was under way too much scrutiny to try anything too risky with a new movie. For the most part, that assumption was correct.

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Contrary to this flyer, the movie has almost no old Earth ruins, which I thought was a huge shame.

After Earth
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (concept)
Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo
Studios: Overbrook Entertainment, Blinding Edge Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 31, 2013

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The natural environments in After Earth are beautiful.

The original concept for After Earth was conceived by Will Smith, and was originally planned to take place in the present day in a remote mountainous region. At its core, After Earth is a wilderness survival movie, which makes sense given Smith’s original vision. After changing the setting to the future, Will Smith proposed the movie to writer Gary Whitta, who some people might remember for writing the sceenplay for Book of Eli. Whitta liked the concept, and fleshed it out to a full script. The two then approached Shyamalan to direct the movie, and he happily obliged. The final script was co-written by Shyamalan and Whitta, but I’m not sure to what degree Shyamalan altered the original script.

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Cypher buckles his son in before the crash, but doesn’t think to recommend that the rest of the crew do the same….

In 2025, humans leave the Earth due to environmental catastrophe. They then colonize a habitable planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime. At some point, humanity is attacked by an alien species. This species creates a bioengineered organism called the ursa, which can’t see, but can sense the pheromones that humans release when they’re scared. Humanity is set to be wiped out, that is until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) develops a technique that turns the tide of battle. This technique is dubbed “ghosting”, and involves a human eliminating their fear, thus becoming blind to the ursa. Cypher leads humanity’s military force, referred to as the ranger corps. His son, a teenager named Kitai, seeks to become a ranger. Cypher is always away, and barely knows his son Kitai. At his wife’s urging, he takes Kitai with him on a trip to a human settled planet. On route, they encounter a meteor shower, and are forced to land at a destination that the ship’s computer selected. This location ends up being Earth, which is deemed totally hostile to humans. The ship ends up crashing, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors. To make matters worse, an Ursa was being held in a cage onboard the ship, and has gone missing. Cypher is injured, so it’s up to Kitai to make a long trek to the other half of the crashed ship, which contains a device that can emit a distress beacon.

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The action in After Earth is sparse, but it’s always nicely choreographed. Most of it features Jaden wielding a weapon that looks like the combi-stick from Predator.

The story has a nice oldschool vibe to it. If you like Planet of the Apes’ theme of humans exploring a far future Earth, After Earth‘s premise will likely interest you. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings is that there are a number of plot elements that are too convenient, or just defy science. First of all, when the ship crashes, Kitai seems to be the only person buckled into a seat, even though there is plenty of warning. The rest of the crew is jettisoned, other than Cypher, who miraculously survives. The fact that only father and son survive, for no decent reason, seems incredibly improbable. Another strange element is that apparently there’s isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breathe without respiration aid, and yet there are numerous thriving mammals, many of which are larger in the size than today’s species. Additionally, the flora is more vibrant than ever, but everything freezes over at night. Also, life has somehow evolved to be harmful to humans, and yet humanity has been absent for 1000 years. Anyone with a basic understanding of evolution knows that a species won’t evolve mechanisms specifically to counter another species if the two aren’t in contact. Anyways, expect to suspend your disbelief when it comes to these plot devices. Shyamalan also has a way of being way to blatant with his foreshadowing. Not only does this not have his typical plot twists, you can see most events coming a mile off.

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After Earth has a really cool prehistoric vibe, and what would a “land that time forgot” be without a volcano?

At risk of sounding too negative about After Earth, I’ll intersperese the negative with some positive. If you like sci-fi with planet exploration and survival, there’s a lot of fun to be had with After Earth. The environments are lush and interesting, evoking some of what people loved so much about Avatar. The vegetation and wildlife are really beautiful, and you get to see a range of locales. I love the concept of surviving alone in the wilderness, and to the movie’s credit, After Earth doesn’t skimp in this area; it pushes the survival theme to brutal lengths. Kitai deals with all manner of carnivorous wildlife, toxin inducing parasites, extreme weather conditions, and harsh topography. Central to the theme of the movie is Kitai’s journey to adulthood, and his desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. Instead of giving us the archetypal “tough kid”, Kitai is very fallible, and very much afraid of his harsh surroundings. On the flip side, he also doesn’t veer too far in the wimpy, overly incapable direction.

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This is the most serious we’ll ever see Will Smith, and I totally bought it.

The human technology and clothing designs in After Earth are interesting, but far from mind-blowing. Movies like Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness have way more flashy visuals, and better designed sci-fi human environments. After Earth at least tries to be different, going for a slight retrograde theme, but ultimately it’s at a lower standard. Retro design elements in AE include spaceship interiors that have straw-looking doors and almost wooden support beams, civilians that wear loose robes, a sail motif in the city, and rangers that wear a 60’s/70’s style of spandex jumpsuit. Heck, even the term “ranger” sounds like it’s from a 60’s sci-fi book (Star Rangers by Andre Norton, to be exact). To the designers’ credit, I actually really like the look of the jumpsuit. It has interesting round edged patterns, and it changes color based on the environment.

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I really like the design of the suit.

For most people, the make or break factor in After Earth will be the acting. In a risky move, Will and Jaden speak in made-up accents of the far future. Unfortunately, the accents ultimately come off sounding forced and awkward, and although they’re a noble effort, they’re likely to be really offputting for some people. Will Smith plays a hardline general with literally no emotion, which is really strange considering his typical roles. Some people might find his tone too stiff, but I personally felt there was a hidden depth to his performance. If anything it shows a range that I didn’t think he was capable of, and there’s plenty of subtle emotion hidden behind his rigid exterior. Conversely, my opinion of Jaden’s acting skills has lessened. I seem to remember really liking him in 2010’s The Karate Kid, but now I’m starting to doubt that memory. His performance in After Earth isn’t terrible, but he’s way too emotive. At any moment, he looks like he’s seconds away from breaking into tears. For some people, this facet of the movie might be enough to totally turn them off. In the pantheon of young actors, this is far from the bottle of the barrel; rather it hangs around the mid-ground. After Earth has several flashback sequences that serve to provide a bit more human drama to the film. They’re pretty unobtrusive, and do a nice job of adding depth to the relationship between Kitai and his father.

Overall, I had a pretty good time with After Earth. It has its flaws, but if you’re not too critical, and you like the theme of sci-fi exploration, I would still recommend giving this a chance. Shyamalan is one of those directors who has a mile long line of critics just waiting to say: “see, I told you so, this guy sucks”. Therefore, I don’t doubt that you will see plenty of reviews that are excessively harsh. Hating on Shyamalan is the hip thing to do, and After Earth is an obvious target. These reviews will not be written by sci-fi fans, which is why I hope I can still convince people who are interested in the premise to give it a shot. For sci-fi fans, this is at least worth a rental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets something of a cult following. It’s not nearly as bad as the first flurry of reviews would have you believe.