Sega

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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

Bio-Hazard Battle Crying Genesis Mega Drive 3

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.

Bio-Hazard Battle Crying Genesis Mega Drive 5

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.

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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