shmup

All posts tagged shmup

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.

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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

 

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?

Hellfire
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)

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 1

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

 

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.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 17

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.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 9

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.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 11

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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