The Sega Saturn’s Explosive Shmups Library

Sega Saturn 2D Shooters / Shmups Collection

Two-dimensional shooters are some of the most intense old-school games out there due to the precision, reflexes, and memorization needed to survive these adrenaline rushes.  For fans of the shmup genre, the Sega Saturn is a must-own console due to its excellent exclusives, a healthy dose of high-quality cross-platform ports, and plenty of 2D processing power.  Racketboy’s newest contributor, BulletMagnet, walks us through the Saturn’s impressive shooter lineup from the excellent all the way to the mediocre.

Radiant Silvergun

radiant-silvergun-3One of the few Japan-only shooters that even non-shmuppers might have heard of, Radiant Silvergun is best known for the high sale prices it attracts on eBay, but the relative few who have actually experienced it can tell you that there are many other reasons why shooter fans ought to make it their mission to try this title at some point in their lives. Not only was it the first scrolling shooter to come forth from cult developer Treasure (better-known in the West for Silvergun’s pseudo-sequel, Ikaruga), but down to this day there’s simply no other shmup quite like it.

More than perhaps any other game of its ilk, Radiant Silvergun embodies an “epic” spirit – from its relatively lengthy structure (an hour or more per complete run-through) to its grandiose and pretentious story (accompanied by a symphonic classical soundtrack, to boot) to its seven-simultaneous-weapons setup to its bevies of bosses, and their impeccable ability to make you exclaim “you want me to steer my ship WHERE, and do WHAT?”, this game does its darndest to make you feel like you’re doing something more important than just pressing buttons in front of a screen. This tone extends past its trimmings right into the core gameplay – Silvergun is challenging (though mostly fair, thanks to precise control and a small hitbox) even when played with a “just try not to die” mindset, but if you want to really get anywhere in it you’ll have to devote yourself to mastering its scoring system, which primarily involves only shooting enemies of a certain color, and a lot of memorization. Since your weapons power up based on how well you score, you’ll need to learn the game inside and out – playing it “casually” is NOT an option if you’re looking for “legitimate” one-credit clear.

The Saturn port, aside from being pretty much arcade-perfect (the unusual graphical blend of sprites and polygons, by the way, still impresses), adds a handful of nice extras, most notably a “Saturn Mode,” which not only further(!) lengthens the game and includes additional dialogue and opening/ending anime sequences, but allows you to save your powered-up weapon levels between runs if you’d rather just blast through everything without worrying too much about chaining enemies. Be that as it may, however, some shooter fans will still be turned off by the undeniably overbearing nature of Silvergun’s scope, ambition, and challenge – this is understandable, as it’s definitely not intended to appeal to everyone to begin with. That said, if you’re a shooter fan you still need to track down Radiant Silvergun, just to see what it’s all about – after all, the only way to know for sure whether it’s for you is to play it yourself.
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Batsugun

batsugunIf the ability to wield fictional weapons of mass destruction (hopefully without being preemptively invaded) is your primary motivation for playing a shooter, then boy is Batsugun the game for you. The final shmup release of iconic developer Toaplan, Batsugun set a new bar for just how much havoc players were allowed to wreak onscreen, and it’s still quite the display of pixilated pyrotechnics 15 years after its initial arcade release. In a historical context, many shmuppers credit it as the title which bridges the gap between “oldschool” and “modern” shooters.

The copious weapon fire isn’t the only thing that looks great – the detailed, colorful spritework here is some of the company’s best, though along with your uber-powered weaponry it can sometimes make it tricky to spot enemy bullets (and their arsenal is almost as ‘roided up as yours). Otherwise, the game is pretty well-balanced – along with utilizing regular old power-up items your weapons will “level up” after you’ve destroyed enough stuff, and henceforth never dip below that level if you die, which helps to prevent you from being left with inadequate weaponry at an inopportune time. The game is also relatively generous with bombs, though stingy with extends – be advised, though, that the scoring system is one of the most arcane you’ll see, requiring, among other things, certain command motions to be entered at certain times to reveal certain bonuses. Believe me, you’ll never figure out most of this game’s hidden tricks on your own, so don’t be ashamed of looking them up in an FAQ.

The Saturn port is superb, and includes both the “regular” and “Special” versions of the game from the arcades – the latter, among other things, gives you a smaller hitbox, stronger bombs,  and several truncated (and tricky) “loops” to fight through after finishing the initial five stages. It also has an optional arranged soundtrack (good) as well as the complete elimination of the arcade game’s slowdown, which can make the loops in Special even tougher (bad), although it also adds in a very fast autofire button to help you deal damage more quickly. All in all, one of the Saturn’s essential shooters, especially considering that it was never ported to anything else.
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Battle Garegga

batte-gareggaWhile shmups aren’t usually considered a particularly “controversial” gaming genre, Battle Garegga, Raizing’s most famous creation, fits that bill not due to its thematic content but because of how brazenly it challenges players to forget everything they know about how to play a shooter. Garegga is the game that made the word “rank” a household term for shmuppers – of course, from the genre’s beginnings many such titles have been built around some sort of “rank” system, which adjusts the game’s difficulty based on the player’s performance (i.e. Gradius gets harder as you power up more), but Garegga’s take on this setup is one of the most extreme and unconventional in the entire genre. Whether it’s regarded as an abomination or a revelation depends upon whom you ask.

On the surface Garegga looks like a pseudo-WWII shooter, albeit a remarkably well-crafted one – the detailed sprites are superbly evocative of the game’s gritty world (note to today’s developers – this is how to use a muted color palette effectively), and the pulsing, apprehensive soundtrack adds tensity to the atmosphere with just as much aplomb. Once you start playing you’ll love adjusting your options on the fly and blasting away everything in your path, but after awhile you’ll likely notice that the game seems to be angry with you. This is because Garegga’s rank system will penalize you with steadily increasing difficulty for almost ANY action you take, and will only lighten up if you lose a life. While the detailed workings of its system are far too complicated to go into here, the basic gist of playing Garegga “properly” is to get by as long as possible on as little as possible – hoarding powerups, bombs and lives will only make the game impossible later on. To make it all the way through, you’ve got to, among other things, spend your bombs on blowing away background scenery for points, to take advantage of the generous extend rate – so as to have more spare lives to sacrifice to keep the rank down (in other words, not playing “for score” isn’t an option). Very few games force such conditions on a player (most of those that do, incidentally, are also by Raizing), but if you take the time to get used to it, Garegga is a tough-yet-satisfying experience like no other.

This title was only ever ported to the Saturn, which makes it all the more fortunate that said port is so excellent. Arcade-perfect in terms of presentation and gameplay (though having to unlock the original’s slowdown is a bit annoying), it also includes some great extras – code-free hidden character selection, various rapid fire settings, and even a pair of unlockable superplays are but the most notable of them (unfortunately, the “red ball” option for the hard-to-see bullets isn’t worth much). Unfortunately the game is a bit tough to find, and expensive when found – regardless, anyone who considers himself brave enough to take this game on, and is willing to play by its unique and demanding rules, absolutely must pick this up. Just make sure you’re prepared.
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DoDonPachi

dodonpachiRegarded by many as the definitive “manic” shmup (and by some as the definitive shmup, period), DoDonPachi remains arguably Cave’s most iconic and popular release. On the surface it might look like a prettier version of DonPachi, with the same core component of planes, chains and lasers, but play it for a bit and it’s clear that you’ve got a whole other class of shooter on your hands.

First off, you can now choose to add an extra jolt of power to either your shot or your laser at the start, giving you an opportunity to “tweak” each plane a bit to your personal play style (as well as soften the blow of a power down a bit, as your “juiced-up” amenity isn’t sent back to square one after dying) – additionally, the frustration level has been reduced, as most of DonPachi’s “sneaky kills” have been eliminated, and the opportunities to chain enemies have been expanded. In this way, heavy memorization is needed to score well, but not to survive, which gives both “hardcore” and “not-so-hardcore” shmuppers an opportunity to play and enjoy the game in their own way. A handful of other scoring techniques (most notably keeping a surplus of bombs) gives you even more to mess around with at your discretion, and the butt-rock soundtrack fits perfectly with the onscreen chaos (though unfortunately there are too few tracks).

The Saturn port turned out pretty well – though the graphics and sound are not quite arcade-perfect (most noticeable in the pixellated explosions), otherwise it’s just as enjoyable. The main “bonus” on offer is the Saturn mode – though its exclusive extra level (a sort of “stage zero”) and slightly reduced difficulty are nothing to write home about, the fact that it lets you face off against hidden boss Hibachi at the end of each run is a nice treat for players who would have had trouble meeting the requirements to get to him otherwise. This version is also cheaper and easier to find than the PS1 port (especially considering it got a “SataKore” re-release), so even though it’s not as refined in terms of presentation, it’s still well worth playing.
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Layer Section

layersectionAlso known as Rayforce, Galactic Attack, or Gunlock depending upon which region/console you’re playing it on, Layer Section is considered one of Taito’s marquee shooters by fans of the genre, not to mention the recipient of one of Acclaim’s precious few acts of benevolence toward the gaming community (namely publishing this in the West and leaving it intact). This shmup was the first to utilize a “lock-on” subweapon  mechanic – a small cross-hairs floats a fixed distance in front of your ship, and any enemies that can be seen approaching from below you, in the background, that make contact with it will be “locked on.” From here, hit the B button and all targeted enemies will have homing lasers hot on their heels, saving you the trouble of having to deal with them at your level – additionally, the more baddies you can latch onto before vaporizing them all at once, the more points they’re worth.

Sound cool? Good, as you’ll need to learn to make good use of this feature, since aside from your basic blaster it’s all you’ve got – no smart bombs or other “get out of jail free” cards here. Your ship is also a fairly bulky target, and since many enemy attacks come from the background beneath you, it can be tough to judge exactly when it’s safe to pass over them versus when they’ve arrived on your plane and pose a threat. Additionally, while powerups are relatively common and dying doesn’t set you back TOO far, items will scroll off the screen in no time if you don’t get to them quickly, which can be hard to do with said unwieldy ship during a firefight. Obviously, scoring well (and survival, to an extent) is a matter of rote memorization, since you’ve got to know where to maneuver the lock-on to catch groups of speedy enemies, as well as get to spots where your chunky craft is (hopefully) safe from enemy assaults.

The Saturn version is a pretty bare-bones straight port of the arcade release, but all three localizations do offer the essentials, including tate mode. The nicely-done sprites are always at least solid to look at (especially considering the game’s original release date), and Zuntata’s soundtrack is fast-paced and energetic while also projecting ominous and creepy undertones, a unique and effective blend. Adding to the overall atmosphere is the game’s stage structure – there are no “breaks” between levels, as you move straight from one phase of your mission to the next, and are given a recap of how far you got at the “game over” screen – it’s a small thing, but it’s quite effective at pulling you into the game’s world, making you feel more a part of the ongoing action, as opposed to just shooting random things in random places. Finally, whichever version you pick up this game is pretty inexpensive, so by all means track it down and try it out.
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Soukyugurentai

soukyuugurentaiOne of Raizing’s few products to utilize 3D graphics, Soukyugurentai takes the “lock-on” mechanic pioneered in Rayforce and gives it a shot in the arm – now, instead of a stationary “spot” floating out in front, your ship casts a wide, laser-lined “net” (two variations per ship, actually, which can be switched between at any time) to latch onto bunches of enemies at once. Additionally, you can lock on to enemies up on your level as well as those down below you – careful though, since unlike in Rayforce, to activate the “net” you have to stop shooting and hold the fire button down, which can leave you vulnerable. As a tradeoff, though, you do have a supply of bombs to bail you out if need be.

As you’d expect, locking on to multiple enemies before letting loose on them multiplies the points they’re worth, but you also need to do your best not to use the lock-on blindly without thinking, since nailing fewer than four enemies at a time with it will get you either no point bonus at all or an outright reduction in each enemy’s value (be especially careful at bosses if you want to score well – the lack of a visible life meter makes it tough to time their deaths towards obtaining maximum rewards). Also, like its cousin Battle Garegga, Soukyugurentai more or less forces a certain play style on you via its rank system – most notably, since powering up your “regular” shot makes enemies meaner, you’ll want to try to get by almost exclusively via your lock-on. It’s not as extreme a poke in the ribs as Garegga, but still worth noting.

All that said, the graphics hold up remarkably well for a 32-bit 3D title, and the score, done by Hitoshi Sakamoto of Radiant Silvergun fame, has his usual symphonic flair, but is balanced out via some electronic injections this time around – it perfectly suits the “dramatic, but not epic” ambiance of the game as a whole. Playing for high scores can be tough, since each ship’s lock-on has varying maximum scoring potential, not to mention that you need to hoard bombs (which, to make them appear more often, also requires you to keep the rank as low as possible) to take advantage of a very high “surplus collection” bonus. The Saturn version, ported straight from the ST-V cart, is pretty much spot on – it also includes a stage attack mode, a nice selection of options (some in need of unlocking), and a one-stage demo of Battle Garegga if you buy the “Otokuyo” re-release. Inarguably superior to the PS1 version, and not overly expensive, most any Saturn shmupper ought to have this one in their collection.
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Twinkle Star Sprites

twinklestarspritesA wacky cross-breed of the shooting genre with another type of game – in this case, the “puzzle” set, a la Puyo-Puyo – Twinkle Star Sprites is also notable for being one of the most two-player-friendly releases in all of shmup-dom. After all, causing mass onscreen chaos via a cutesy anime avatar is all well and good, but even more satisfying when a pal (preferably one who gets snarky when it comes to “those weird Japanese games you play”) is on the receiving end.

Twinkle is set up, ostensibly, like most “versus” puzzle games, with each player (or the computer) having a vertical “well” on either side of the screen – however, instead of dropping blocks or blobs, each side controls a character which can move, shoot, and bomb freely inside their area. As formations of enemies fly in from the top and sides, the goal is to figure out how to destroy the whole mess in one shot by setting off a chain reaction, i.e. “I need to weaken this guy before setting that one off,” or “I need to wait until this group is stretched out to that side, to nail that other group over there along with them.” Large enemy chains send over fireballs that your opponent must either dodge or shoot to send back at you – especially long volleys, massive chains, or built-up charge shots can also send indestructible character-specific attacks over, or even a huge “boss” enemy to give your opponent grief. Also, as was mentioned, all the characters are cute as can be, so being handed bitter defeat by a pig-riding moppet or a sentient hairball gives the game an even nuttier ambiance – make sure not to go TOO hard on any friends you have over to play this (until they get the hang of it, anyway).

Otherwise, the graphics and sound are nothing too special, but set the stage well – the Saturn package, considered by many to be the best version released, not only includes (alongside the straight NeoGeo arcade port) a Saturn mode with an extra character, less slowdown and additional voicework, but a second disc crammed with art galleries and other fan-friendly content. The only real complaints I can mention are a) Sometimes the chaos onscreen can make it hard to keep track of things, b) You pretty much need someone to play against to get full enjoyment from this title, and c) No language option, so we can’t immerse ourselves in the glorious Engrish dialogue from the arcades. Aside from that stuff (and the somewhat steep price), Twinkle Star Sprites comes highly recommended.
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Strikers 1945

strikers1945Psikyo’s most prolific series started here, and it gets a nice conversion to the Saturn – the presentation is slightly downgraded from the arcade version, but nowhere near enough to make any real difference, especially seeing as it plays so faithfully. That said, the only real “extra” here is a “fighter index” where you can listen to a guy talk (in Japanese, of course) about the airplanes featured in the game – nice for history buffs who can speak the language, I suppose, but the rest of us will just get right to the game.

Otherwise, Strikers sticks to the standards of the series, and Psikyo’s output as a whole – you blast your way through a combination of random- and set-order stages, all brimming with unfriendly orange bullets. The setting is, ostensibly, World War II, but you’re able to select several aircraft (including prototypes that were never actually produced) from both the Axis and Allied sides, who have apparently united to face a greater threat – I don’t recall my school’s history books ever mentioning giant mecha rampaging around in the 40’s, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention that day.

As with most Psikyo shooters, memorization is as important to success as your dodging skills are – the bullets are pretty fast and your hit area is pretty big, so you’re best off knowing in advance which patterns are navigable and which you’d best avoid altogether or bomb through. Scoring is straightforward except for the gold bars some enemies leave behind – watch them closely and you’ll see them sparkle and glint, and the shinier they are when you snag them the more points they’re worth. Unlike its sequel, the Saturn port of Strikers is considered the superior version over the PS1’s, and is not prohibitively costly to buy, so it’s a no-brainer for Psikyo fans and a pretty sure bet for most others.
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Gunbird

gunbirdDon’t worry about your repressed memories of the botched PS1 localization, Mobile Light Force, suddenly resurfacing to haunt you – the Saturn port of Gunbird is far more competent. Unfortunately it never saw daylight outside of Japan, but it’s not super-expensive to import, so if you’re looking for perhaps the best home version of the game don’t be afraid to keep an eye out for it.

While Western gamers are likely more familiar with the sequel, which was ported and localized on the Dreamcast, the original Gunbird is one of Psikyo’s earliest titles, and lacks many of the accouterments of its successor – no charge meter, no hidden characters, no coin chaining, just shooting, bombing, and surviving, without much else on top of it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this if you don’t mind the memory-reliant style of Psikyo’s games, and the attractive graphics and charming, slightly goofy anime ambience are nice touches as well. Just be aware that some outdated amenities also make an appearance here, such as an “auto power-down” at max shot level, and notable bomb delays for some characters.

Aside from not being totally butchered on the gameplay front (and yes, tate mode is here too), the Saturn iteration of Gunbird has a nice set of extras for the fans, if not “serious” players – the character index, where the VA’s for the cast talk at you, is ample fodder for the geeks, though the real highlight is the art gallery, which includes an extensive collection of both official and fan-made artwork. The only usual Psikyo feature I miss is separate score tables for each difficulty level, but otherwise if you’re looking to play Gunbird this edition is probably the one you should check out first.
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Sengoku Blade

sengokubladeAside from having the latter half of its name mangled in various ways by translators (“Blaede,” “Braid,” etc.), this game is notable as one of the few Psikyo ports to make it to the Saturn but not the PS1 (though it eventually reached the PS2 bundled with its predecessor, Sengoku Ace). Aside from that, it’s semi-unique as a rare Psikyo side-scroller – their first one, in fact. Most importantly, though, the Saturn served it well.

Blade plays like most other Psikyo shooters, except turned on its side – disregarding the change in perspective, the main thing to set this game apart from its cousins is its feudal Japanese setting, and the great artwork and music used to set the mood (obviously historical accuracy is not the aim, though, unless the prominence of robotic samurai and the dress code for Shinto shrine maidens have been drastically altered in the historical record). There are two final stage routes to choose, both individual and team endings (almost all of them incredibly silly, especially if you can read the dialogue), and the ability to increase score items’ value by catching them at the right moment, but the setup is otherwise pretty tried-and-true in nature.

The one problem inherent to this game that’s not already an issue for most Psikyo offerings is the fact that you’re controlling a vertically-oriented character in a horizontal shooter, which can make dodging a bit more difficult than usual. Otherwise, the Saturn port is a solid if slightly expensive acquisition, containing an exclusive playable character (Marion, from Gunbird) and a second fan disc filled to the brim with artwork and other such content. Not to mention that this is the only shooter I can ever recall playing to feature a chain-smoking ring-tailed lemur – if that’s not enough to at least make you curious, well, I give up.
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Cotton 2

cotton2While her first two games (Cotton and Cotton 100%) were nothing special all around, the pint-sized witch with a deadly sweet tooth made a fine showing during the 32-bit generation, starting with this title. Another exclusive ST-V port to the Saturn, it perfectly preserves the rich graphics and unique gameplay of the arcade original – it’s also compatible with the 1M or 4M RAM cart, which adds a few minor bells and whistles, though it’s by no means vital to the experience.

While it appears at first glance to be just another side-scrolling cute-em-up, no other shooter plays quite like this one does – for one thing, aside from the usual shot and bomb you have a “grab” button, which allows you to, indeed, grab and chuck enemies (and some other things) if you get in close. However, the way this was really intended to be used is in conjunction with the “seal” system, the game’s real bread and butter – you see, Cotton (or Appli, if you’re playing simultaneous two-player) has a set of “special” shots, in the same manner that fighting game characters have special moves. With a quick quarter-circle or double-tap, your witch of choice will send out various spreads or condensed blasts – moreover, if one of these finishes off an enemy, it won’t vanish but will remain onscreen for a few moments “sealed” inside a ball of magic. This is your opportunity to either a) grab and chuck it at another enemy, which will itself be sealed, and start a chain for points, or b) further abuse the poor critter by blasting it some more, causing it to eventually release a health item (yeah, you’ve only got one life and a health meter in this one). You’ll also want to be conscious of which “element” your shot is powered-up into, as it affects how your sealed enemies behave when you interact with them.

In the end, Cotton 2’s uniqueness, its main appeal, will also be its downfall for some – the special shots, which must be input from a neutral pad position and are tough to pull off on the run, are NOT optional to use, as your “regular” shots aren’t powerful enough to carry you through on their own (mapping the various special attacks to individual buttons IS available…once you beat Hard mode to unlock it). The “sealing” system, while not as memory-intensive as some other scoring gimmicks, is still oddball enough to put off many, since there’s little actual shooting involved – of course, if that’s not enough to chase you off, the “cute anime witch (and scantily clad fairy companion)” subject matter might do it. Regardless, Saturn shmuppers in the mood for something off the beaten path ought to look for this one – as a bonus, it includes a Saturn Mode with some rearranged enemy patterns and graphics, and a few options (some requiring unlocking) not found in the arcade version. Collectors will want to try to find a copy which includes a 1998 mini-calendar.
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Cotton Boomerang

cottonboomerangI was tempted to combine this and Cotton 2 into the same few paragraphs, but in the end I just couldn’t quite manage it – despite their similarities, the games are too different to lump together while doing both justice. While you’re still unleashing the wrath of a cutesy character to seal enemies and chain ‘em for pointage, Boomerang is a marked improvement on Cotton 2 in many areas, and likely a better buy for many players, despite being a ways more expensive and hard to find.

Most notably, Cotton 2’s life meter has been replaced with a “team” system – at the start you choose 3 characters (out of 3 variations each of Cotton and Appli, plus fan-service fairy Silk and goofy talking hat Needle), and each of them serves as one of your “lives,” with the next taking over after the previous bites it. Also importantly, you can now map most of your special shots to the extra buttons on the controller from the start, eliminating the frustration of not being able to pull off a command motion under pressure. Your “regular” firepower has also been juiced up a great deal – if you’d rather not deal with the sealing and chaining at all, you’re free to blast your way through most tough spots the old-fashioned way. Your “grab” move can now instantly seal enemies, as well as cancel bullets – the latter can also be accomplished by a powerful new charge shot. You’ll certainly need these new tools, as enemies are more aggressive than before, sometimes filling the screen with junk to dodge. In the interest of space, let me assure you that there’s a bunch more stuff that’s been altered and tweaked for Boomerang that I haven’t ample room to list – to summarize the big picture, you’re doing a lot of the same basic stuff you did in Cotton 2, but almost all of it feels much more user-friendly and enjoyable.

Of course, Boomerang also has its share of annoyances. First and foremost, the only way to switch characters (other than dying) is to use a bomb – this seems like a silly oversight, as bombing to get out of a jam might leave you with a character you don’t want for that area, while switching to one you DO want will cost you a bomb you’d rather have saved for later. This inconvenient setup is highlighted by the fact that each character has a fixed “element” now, so if you want to take advantage of certain scoring opportunities you’ll have no choice but to grin and bear it. Don’t think of killing characters intentionally either – the only way to earn a vanquished teammate back is to catch a seldom-seen flashing teacup in the end-of-stage bonus round, which takes as much luck as skill. Pinpointing the hitbox on the relatively large sprites can also be tricky, though playing as the pint-sized Silk or Needle obviously makes it a bit easier. Finally, a lot of the graphics from Cotton 2 are recycled here, so if you’re expecting a visual overhaul, forget it. In spite of all this stuff, I still recommend Boomerang highly – despite the inevitable blow that comes to your manhood if anyone else sees you play it (“dude, is that a fairy shooting at pumpkins?”), you just might not care.
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Game Tengoku

gametengokuWhile Jaleco is generally not noted for its shooters (come to think of it, what ARE they noted for?), that didn’t stop them from putting out Game Tengoku (aka The Game Paradise) in the arcades during the Saturn era, and bringing it to the console soon after. Moreover, this isn’t just any old “serious” shooter, but a “spoof-em-up” in the tradition of Parodius – moreover, while it includes several characters and references to Jaleco’s product library, it’s also a parody of arcade culture and video gaming as a whole, in which you blast (and are blasted by) everything from flying arcade machines to UFO catcher toys to karaoke song lyrics.

Putting the nutty presentation aside, the game itself is fairly standard vertically-scrolling fare – the main feature of note is the scoring system, which requires you to collect score items (which just so happen to resemble eggplants) in rapid succession to increase their point value. Unfortunately, the design beyond this point feels rather haphazard, as enemies come flying (and shooting) from all directions without warning, and frequently frustrate as you dart around in an attempt to snap up the eggplants before their value is reset. Character balance is also off, as one or two stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of usefulness. It’s certainly not a completely broken game, but doesn’t reach far above average when judged on gameplay merits alone.

Whatever the game’s weaknesses, however, you can’t say Jaleco didn’t put their all into the Saturn port – not only does it include the original arcade version (intended for vertical-screen “tate” mode, also included), but a Saturn mode optimized for horizontal “yoko” screens, crammed to capacity with a new playable character, several additional stages, cutscenes between levels, and LOADS of voice acting (with a cast including several notable VA’s, especially if you’re an anime fan – if you’re into that you might want to track down the Special Edition of the game, which comes with an original anime VHS). Both game modes also include a time attack option for those looking for a quick play. Everything looks and sounds good, and the kookiness and humor shine through even if you’re not overly familiar with the references (or the language). In short, if you’re going to buy this game you’re going to do it more for its personality than how it plays – however, that’s really not as bad of a deal as it sounds, as there’s loads of said personality here.
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Parodius Series

parodiusIn similar fashion to the venerable Gradius, the 32-bit ports of the Parodius games aren’t quite as indispensable these days thanks to the release of Parodius Portable on the PSP, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Saturn has the entire series available and is a gracious host to boot. The first and oldest entry is on the Konami Antiques MSX Collection, the second and third are on the Gokujo Parodius Da! Deluxe Pack, and the final two (Jikkyo Oshaberi Parodius and Sexy Parodius) got their own individual releases.

For the most part, each of the games plays pretty similarly to Gradius, their inspiration/lampooning target – the powerup bar (careful though, it now includes a “booby prize” slot which will remove all your enhancements if you activate it), annoying gunpods and stupidly easy final bosses are all present and accounted for, though a handful of changes and extra stuff (most notably the shootable powerup bells from Twinbee) also make an appearance. What gives these games most of their appeal, however, is the presentation – while all of the games were at least graphically solid on technical merits alone when they were released, when you’re piloting a missile-riding, carrot-shooting bunnygirl while battling hordes of multi-colored penguins and airships with pirate-hat-wearing kitty-cat faces, that likely won’t be the first thing on your mind. From the segments which outright parody Gradius and other Konami shooters (i.e. Moai heads with sunglasses and other accessories, an invincible “walker” that resembles a Vegas showgirl) to the utterly random stuff that makes you wonder what the programmers were smoking (just make it to the first boss of Gokujo and you’ll see what I mean), you’ll rarely, if ever, find yourself with nothing onscreen to keep your attention. The soundtracks, which feature goofied-up “remixes” of everything from classic Konami tunes to the William Tell overture, only serve to add to the madhouse atmosphere.

The gameplay differences between each are relatively minor – Parodius, Da, and Gokujo, for their part, all play more or less like “classic” Gradius games, with most of their good and bad points intact. Sexy mixes things up a bit by including a “mission” structure with branching paths – each stage has an additional task for you to complete aside from just finishing it, and whether you succeed or fail determines which stage you go to next (and how much intermittent cartoon cheesecake you see). Jikkyo, the only Parodius other than the original which wasn’t an arcade release, has a more traditional stage structure, but also several additional scoring tricks (such as finding invisible fairies) and extra features (including a minigame or two) not seen in any other release. All said, if you like Gradius and silliness, you’ll be in heaven here – even if you don’t, trust me when I say that you still need to play these games at least once, to see what happens when the shmup genre puts a proverbial lampshade over its head. Believe me, it’s quite a sight to see.
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Gradius Deluxe Pack

gradius-deluxeWell, one certainly can’t accuse this compilation of false advertising – it’s got arcade-perfect ports of the first two Gradius games, and aside from a new CG intro, not much else. Of course, if you’re a Gradius fan that shouldn’t be an issue, not to mention that, if you can find a copy that still has it, the Saturn version comes with an exclusive Vic Viper paper cutout model for the collectors. While this compilation isn’t considered as essential as it once was thanks to the release of the PSP’s Gradius Portable, purists note some presentational imperfections in the latter, so some might still prefer this edition.

In case you need a quick synopsis, the original Gradius (aka Nemesis)introduces the classic weapons set and the standard power-up bar, and while the presentation has obviously aged some and the stages are shorter than later entries in the series, it’s still got plenty of earnest, no-frills appeal left in it, and not just due to pure nostalgia either. Gradius II: Gofer No Yabou (gotta love Engrish) offers a new coat of paint for both the graphics and sound (including the now-famous announcer – “Speed Up!” “Shoot the Core!” “You Need Some Practice!”) as well as several selectable varieties of power-up bar (and the force field…yep, you can ditch the near-useless forward shield). Most shooter fans will agree that everyone ought to play these classic games at some point, to see where one of shooting’s most legendary series began.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that, being arcade games, these titles were definitely designed as quarter-munchers – if you lose a life (and your power-ups) at certain spots, it can be incredibly difficult to recover. While neither’s difficulty is as blistering as that of the arcade version of Gradius III, the “ice chunks” stage of Gradius II will still frustrate many, and it’s hardly alone. If you don’t mind the checkpoint structure and emphasis on precise, predetermined actions over spontaneity, you’ll be right at home with the good old Vic Viper here, and likely for most of the rest of the series on other systems.
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Detana Twinbee Yahho! Deluxe Pack

detana-twinbeeOne of the most famous “cute-em-up” series ever released (and perhaps the very first one, depending on how strict your definition is), Twinbee banishes pretty much anything remotely dramatic from its ranks, replacing asteroids and aliens with puffy clouds, flying vegetables, and bright colors. This set, also released for the PS1, takes the series’ last two arcade entries, Detana Twinbee and Twinbee Yahho! (and yes, they do pronounce it “yah-hoe” in the game) and sends them to home consoles together. Both share many of the same central mechanics, inherited from the earliest of their forebears, most notably the “bell” powerups, which must be “juggled” with the player’s shots until they change color and turn into the pickups the player wants – many have disparaged this recurring feature, as it’s tough to avoid shooting (and unintentionally changing) a bell you want when you’re being assaulted by malevolent silverware from all sides, though others welcome the challenge in “really earning” your prizes.

Detana (aka Bells and Whistles) plays very similarly to the original Twinbee (aka Stinger), containing many of the same powerups (the trailing options, the shield, etc.) and “bell chaining” scoring system, though it does give you a piercing charge shot in addition to your usual weapons. The main thing it adds, however, is a jolt of personality – not only have the graphics and sound drastically improved, but the Bees’ pilots and other characters are given a place in the spotlight via brief inter-stage cutscenes and other interludes – in otherwords, the game’s bright and colorful world finally truly shines through, and as a result this entry still stands as the most popular Twinbee title released to date. Yahho! further pumps up the presentation (if you ask me, it’s one of the best-looking and -sounding “cartoony” games out there), and tosses a few more features into the mix, such as the choice of four charge shots at the start, and additional collectible weapons that can be held in your Bee’s arms (if you still have them, that is).

Both games are pretty much arcade-perfect in terms of overall presentation and playability, though Detana, curiously enough, does not have its original vertical-screen orientation available, one of the few Japanese-released Saturn/PS1 shooters to be neglected in that area (Yahho! was originally played on a horizontal screen, so there’s no such issue with it). Don’t be completely taken in by the cute looks, though – while the games aren’t as frustratingly challenging as some others, they’ll still steal a life or two (or three) from you very quickly at certain spots if you’re not prepared. Despite their imperfections, these games are still a good choice for anyone who doesn’t mind a well-presented cute-em-up.
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Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus

salamander-deluxePerhaps the most sought-after of Konami’s 32-bit arcade shooter compilations, Salamander, the slightly more obscure sibling of company flagship Gradius, gets its due here, together with its variant, Life Force, and its sequel, Salamander 2. This series, while similar to Gradius in several ways, departs from the former’s conventions most notably by a) Featuring both side-scrolling and vertical-scrolling stages, b) Making more frequent use of “organic” settings, c) Granting you an instant respawn rather than sending you to a checkpoint after dying, and d) With the exception of Life Force, employing a more “traditional” power-up system.

While you’re still piloting the iconic Vic Viper craft here (or the Lord British on the 2P side, during simultaneous multiplayer), as well as using many of the same weapons, in Salamander there’s no power-up bar or “cashing in” generic collectibles for the upgrade you want – instead of needing 5 glowing trinkets to get an option helper, for instance, you just collect an “option” item, and boom, it’s yours. This setup has both advantages and disadvantages – while you can power up more quickly now, there’s also more potential for getting stranded if you die and the upgrades you need for the area simply aren’t around. This is compounded by the instant respawn system – instead of going back to a checkpoint and (hopefully) an opportunity designed to get you back on your feet after biting the dust, you’ll just have to pray that the specific items you need come along PDQ – technically you’re able to re-collect your options, but in many cases they’ll scroll off the screen before you can reach them at your now-lowest speed. Life Force has almost the exact same layout as Salamander, except with a slightly reworked presentation and a return to the old Gradius power-up system, with all its good and bad points intact.

Salamander 2, the most coveted part of the collection for many, retains its predecessor’s basic gameplay and powerup systems, with a few additions – for one, if you collect two powerups for the same weapon it will temporarily become more powerful. Also, you can now use the B button to sacrifice one of your options and unleash a homing laser to (hopefully) clear the screen out for you a bit – additionally, you’ve been tossed a bone in that your options won’t go offscreen when you die, but will “bounce” back in from the edge and allow you to actually get to them this time. As you’d expect, the graphics have gotten a nice shot in the arm, as has the overall ambiance – wait till you see what’s in store for the old “brain” boss at the end of the first stage. As with most of Konami’s other 32-bit ports, the games are all perfect or close to it – be aware, though, that this collection tends to be pricier than the others. Of course, this is somewhat softened by the fact that the PS1 version tends to go for even more. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice screen size for portability (and the inclusion of Xexex) via the PSP compilation, Gradius fans might want to diversify their collection here.
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Kingdom Grand Prix

kingdom-grandprixAlso known as Shippu Mahou Daisakusen, this is actually the middle entry in Raizing’s “Mahou” series (sandwiched between Sorcerer Striker and Dimahoo), and the only one to get a port to a “mainstream” system. This is especially odd considering that Kingdom is far and away the most unusual game of the bunch – in brief, it’s an unlikely hybrid between the shooting and racing genres. Yes, you read right.

The game stars the four original Mahou characters, plus four others who haven’t been seen since, all competing in a flying race for a prize from the king – of course, this race is a bit different from the usual fare in that you’ve got a bunch of enemies shooting at you the whole way through (thankfully, of course, you can shoot back with one of two collectible weapons per character, or even ram them for damage). Of course, you’ve also got the other racers to deal with, and while you can’t shoot them you can spend a bomb to trip them up or try to ram them into a stray enemy bullet. As unique as this play style is, it’s still something of a tough sell – watching rivals pass right on by as you fight off an unavoidable boss is frustrating, and trying to strike a balance between combating enemies and keeping your speed up (which is done either by moving to the top of the screen or holding down the fire button for a boost – both are risky when done too frequently) is tough to do when your fellow racers can beat you just by cruising. You can technically finish the game without winning the races, but you’ll get a bad ending and lower scores for it.

Still, the gorgeous sprite graphics, fun characters (including some of the enemies – the vampire boss’s antics are particularly fun to watch), and nice variety of stages are worth experiencing, and while the Saturn port doesn’t offer any major extras, it does have a code to enable “shooting mode,” in which you just play through the stages as you would in a “normal” shooter, with the racing elements removed. Despite my criticisms of said racing, the stages are obviously built around it, and feel somewhat empty without it, especially with no real scoring system to speak of. All told, Kingdom is certainly noteworthy for its attempt to rock the boat in a somewhat cookie-cutter genre, though players will have to be willing to crunch down on some tough nuts baked in to fully enjoy it.
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Thunder Force V

thunderforcevTechno Soft’s most successful series (sorry, Herzog fans) slathers on a 3D coat of graphical paint this time around, but hangs on tight to its traditional 2D gameplay. As per usual, you’ve got your standard cannon and tailgun for starters, with upgrades for each and 3 additional weapons to collect, which can be cycled between at any time – pair them with up to three “CRAW” options (they’re collected individually this time around) and it’s up to you to use the appropriate armament at the appropriate time, and of course avoid being shot down while you’re at it.

In addition to the standard features listed above, there are also two noteworthy gameplay additions in place – for one, you can now hold down the B button to activate your “Over Weapon,” which powers up the weapon you’re currently firing, at the cost of weakening your CRAWs, to the point where a single enemy bullet can destroy them if you use it too often. Second, there’s a simple scoring system in place, namely “kill big enemies faster, get more points.” This is actually a mixed blessing thanks to the uncharacteristically unbalanced weapon selection – the “Free Range” weapon can not only be steered to fire in any direction, but it’s by far the most powerful enemy-killer you’ve got, to the point where many bosses go down in seconds if you get in close enough. Nothing else in your arsenal can begin to compare, so if you lose the Free Range and can’t get it back, you’re in for a tougher haul and much lower scores.

That being what it is, the Saturn port of TF5, with its extra scrolling layers and other graphical gimmicks, actually holds up better than the PS1 edition in terms of presentation, which is especially unusual considering the latter system’s typical dominance when it comes to 3D graphics. Of course, the fast-paced electric guitar synth is here too, and gets you in the mood for some blastin’. The game also got a SataKore reissue and usually isn’t overly pricey…unless you set your sights on the “Special Edition,” which includes a music CD featuring a selection of remixed tunes from previous games in the series. While few players name this TF entry as their favorite, most still consider it worth a go, especially for fans of the 16-bit entries.
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Hyper Duel

hyperduelA somewhat obscure Techno Soft arcade offering, Hyper Duel’s main draw is your ability to transform each of the 3 selectable ships into a humanoid mech at any time – hold the A button and you fire shots as your “ship” form, hold B and you’ll instantly transform and start blasting as a robot, generally with a more condensed, powerful stream of bullets that can be aimed as you move. While pressing either button, hold down the other at the same time and you’ll execute one of two special attacks (depending on which form you’re in), draining a refillable meter as you do so. Other than the ability to collect two types of (often quickly-destroyed) option helpers, that’s pretty much the game in a nutshell.

As always, Techno Soft’s penchant for cheesy “pump you up” music and lots of explosions carries the day – the first boss, for instance, continues to swing its tentacles at you for a bit after it’s begun to succumb to the inevitable, and you’ve got to wreck it a bit more before it’s finally vaporized for good. Similar over-the top laser barrages and such serenade you throughout the journey – then again, what would you expect from a game with a title like “Hyper Duel”? Equally shallow, unfortunately, is the “scoring system,” if you can call it that – if you sit completely still at any given time, your score starts climbing on its own. Exciting! For fans of Thunder Force and other games like it, though, this one still comes recommended…

…if you can find it. And, moreover, afford it. The title apparently received a very small print run, and seldom-seen copies of Hyper Duel can fetch prices to rival (and sometimes exceed!) Radiant Silvergun, the poster child for “sell your firstborn and left arm to play” games on the Saturn. If you decide to take the plunge, the port of the arcade original is thankfully faithful, and is accompanied by a Saturn mode which plays pretty much the same (though you now have the handy ability to lock your shot’s direction in “robot mode”) but improves the graphics and sound – while the 3D render on the cover might make you fearful of a sub-par polygon treatment, rejoice, as it sticks to sprites rather than forcing the extra dimension, as was in vogue at the time. Hardcore Techno Soft fans, if you want to express your love for your favorite shmup developer and have some cash to burn, here’s about the best opportunity you’re likely to get on that front.
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Blast Wind

blastwindSpeculation abounds as to exactly what the origins of this title might be – while there’s evidence that Blast Wind was intended to be one of Techno Soft’s relatively few arcade (and vertically-scrolling) releases, there’s no indication that said release ever came to pass. In any event, the game eventually wended its way onto the Saturn, and in the process became one of the system’s few shmup exclusives that isn’t an arcade port. It’s a tough one to track down, too, and pricey (while not as costly as Hyper Duel, you’re still likely talking triple digits for a complete copy), so if you want to play it you’ll probably have to be both patient and willing to pay up.

As for the game itself, each of your two available planes (automatically assigned, depending on whether you use the first or second controller) has two weapons (a “stronger straighter” one and a “weaker wider” one), each assigned to its own button, so you can switch between them at will depending on the situation. Powering up is more of a formality than anything else, as there are loads of items and it only takes a couple to get to full blast, so you’re unlikely to be caught with a pea-shooter often – if that weren’t enough, grabbing a powerup gives you a few moments of invincibility and stretches out columns of energy to each side of your craft, giving you a brief opportunity to sweep the screen clean (though there are also plenty of bombs provided). Otherwise there’s not much to it, aside from some fixed-value point items (which still provide enough to net you several extends) or an occasional defensive option orb to distract you from blasting the heck out of everything that moves, and a bunch of stuff that doesn’t while you’re at it.

If the aforementioned paragraph makes the game sound simple and easy, that’s because it is – most shmuppers should have little trouble one-crediting it with a little practice, though upping the difficulty’s always an option. The game is also rather short even for a shooter, though the ability to take an alternate path through each stage adds a bit of variety. The graphics, for their part, aren’t a huge step above the 16-bit level, but aren’t a distraction either, and while the soundtrack is vintage Techno Soft electronica, the voice samples are so muffled that they’re largely unintelligible. All in all this isn’t a bad game, certainly, but the limited scoring system and challenge, coupled with the high price, drag it short of a must-have.
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Shienryu

shienryuWhile under-the-radar shooter developer Warashi has gone the anime girl route (and how) recently with Trigger Heart Exelica, back in the day, like so many of its fellow shmup makers, it stuck to relatively innocuous settings for its shooter offerings – yeah, there were characters and a plot in there someplace, but whatever. There are planes, there are tanks, there are shiny things to collect – you need more? Some might fault Shienryu for doing TOO little to stand apart from the pack (especially the Raiden games, themselves frequently cited as the definition of “standard shooters”) in this regard, but anyone hungry for some solid old-fashioned blasting will likely be right at home here.

As was mentioned, this game plays similarly to Raiden, though it also borrows some features, most notably its weapons, from its pseudo-prequel, Daioh – you’ve got three collectible armaments, fixed-value point items, relatively quick enemy bullets, checkpoints during stages (but instant respawn at bosses), plus you start on Earth and end up in outer space. A few key elements have been adjusted, however, and arguably improved – for one thing, your hitbox is a bit smaller here, and bombs grant instant invincibility, giving players a bit more leeway on the defensive front – enemy bullets are also a bright blue color, and generally easier to see (well, except on blue backgrounds, anyway). The graphics, while not quite as detailed as those of Raiden II, are still nice-looking, with lots of shrapnel, and a bit of fantasy influence for good measure (the main enemy, as the title suggests, is a dragon-mech). Music is nothing special, but explosions are satisfying.

The main complaint one might have about the game, incidentally one also inherent to Raiden, is that the appearance of some of its features, especially its rarest power-ups (most notably the seldom-seen shield item), is annoyingly arcane – it’s largely a mystery why they do or don’t appear at given points. Other than that it’s pretty solid for what it is – the Saturn port, for its part, lacks the extra mini-modes from the Geki-Oh PS1 port, and obviously doesn’t include the pseudo-sequel from Double Shienryu on the PS2, but it’s the only version to both retain tate mode and save high scores, making it the preferred pickup for purists.
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Sonic Wings Special

sonicwingsspecialNot to be confused with the arcade release Sonic Wings Limited, this game is something of a console-only “greatest hits” compilation of stages, characters, and enemies from previous Sonic Wings games. Created by Video System, many of whose employees moved on to Psikyo later on, this game has a feel similar to the latter company’s works, but also a charm all its own.

Sonic Wings (aka Aero Fighters in the West) always had a relatively simple setup, and Special is no different – all told, it’s a relatively “textbook” vertical shooter. About the only notable things here from a gameplay standpoint are the occasional point items (which are worth more when collected near the top of the screen – careful not to be kamikaze’d though) and the branching paths you can take through the last few stages. What the game lacks in innovation, however, it makes up for in variety and personality – you’ve got a healthy selection of planes (and wacky pilots, ranging from a ninja to a dolphin) at the start, and can unlock a bunch more. While the balance is a bit off, it’s still fun to try everyone out, as well as read what they say (if you can understand Japanese text) in between stages. There are a handful of other quirky occurrences in-game, from the altered appearance of the point items (play as the ninja and it’s a “yen” symbol, while it’s a “dollar” sign for the American ace) to being attacked by a giant monkey in space – in spite of this, the game still feels low-key and unpretentious, content to be the simple shooter it is. If you yearn for the days when the phrase “what’s my motivation” was attributed to actors instead of gamers, this might provide a breath of fresh air for you.

On the Saturn the package is solid, if unspectacular – it does include a “time attack” mode where you try to defeat several bosses in order as quickly as possible, which is a nice diversion if you want a break from the main game. It also comes with a mini-CD which includes a couple of songs supposedly performed by one of the game’s characters (an idol singer) – in case you need to hear it from me, it’s nothing worthwhile unless you’re a collector. In short, if you want a shooter that will grab your attention in ways you’ve never seen before, you’d best save your money for another title. However, if you want to balance out your shooter collection with something a little more old-fashioned you could do a lot worse (and a lot more cost-prohibitive) than this title.
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Image Fight and X-Multiply

xmultiplyWhile Irem is obviously far and away best-known for the R-Type series, it also released a small collection of mostly-unrelated shooting titles that, while not as popular, still frequently developed cult followings of their own. Most of these offerings, despite their various unique qualities, didn’t stray all that far from the latter’s old-school memory-based core structure, and the pair featured in this collection are no exception. As a bit of trivia, both of the player ships from these two games (plus several others) were given cameos in R-Type Final, namely the “Daedalus” (Image Fight) and the “Crossing the Rubicon” (X-Multiply).

That said, interestingly enough, Image Fight (which was supposedly an inspiration for Radiant Silvergun) is actually one of Irem’s few vertical shooting productions, though it’s still certainly no more merciful than any of its more famous cousins. You can collect either blue (fixed-direction) or red (aim-able) options as well as a handful of other power-ups, which, while they attach to the front of your ship like R-Type’s force pod, can only defend against one hit before being destroyed (which might be a good thing, as you can’t collect anything to replace your current weapon until it’s been shot off of you). Your options, though, are indestructible and can even be “boomeranged” at enemies, and your speed can be adjusted between four levels at any time. Despite these various amenities, however, you’ll almost certainly find yourself dying quite frequently (and being sent back to checkpoints) until you learn the layout of the stages.

X-Multiply is more akin to R-Type in terms of its side-scrolling structure and emphasis on using an invincible bullet-blocking attachment to help you through, but if you thought that the latter’s occasional organic backdrops and quite-possibly-phallic enemies were creepy, X-Multiply ventures even further into the dark, Giger-esque sub-realm of science fiction, with plenty of floating eyeballs and grotesque humanoid faces to keep you wondering what disturbing scenario you might encounter next (the plot, if you’d care to know, actually places you inside a human body, a la “The Fantastic Voyage,” except this body has been infected by an alien). Heck, the game’s not even normal enough to give you a regular ol’ force pod anymore – now, when you snag an item, a pair of tentacles spring out of your ship, and can be “steered” depending on which direction you’re moving in (and no, they can’t be detached). While this one isn’t quite as merciless as Image Fight, you’re still in for a challenge – both this port and the PS1 version are considered close to perfect, so if you’re a glutton for punishment they’re waiting with open arms.
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Guardian Force

guardianforceThe Saturn’s only entry in the rather uncommon “tank shooter” subgenre, Guardian Force puts you in control of (obviously) a tank, which can rotate its turret to fire in eight directions – when you get right down to it, that’s this game’s most notable single feature. Of course, you’ll need to make near-constant use of it, as the screen scrolls in several different directions and enemies sally forth from every which way, keeping you on your toes.

You’ve constantly got a standard cannon firing in whatever direction happens to be “forward” at the moment, but as it’s pretty weak you’ll be depending on the five collectible weapons (each of which can be powered up to ten levels, and has its own unique bomb) and two types of missiles to see you through. The main scoring system is similar to the “medaling” found in Battle Garegga, where you’ll want to reveal score items one by one to continually increase their value until it’s at its maximum – of course, speed-killing midbosses for extra points is also fun. The visual presentation is solid if a bit generic (including the menus, which don’t include anything notable in terms of extras, as this is more or less a straight arcade port), and the music’s only notable for its rather frequent use of bells and gongs, which give it a slightly surreal feel.

Guardian Force is something of a minor pariah even among the shmupping crowd, not only because of its lack of personality but also because playing it feels a bit disjointed. Movement is pretty fast, which is good for getting out of the way of patterns you’ve memorized but bad for weaving through those you haven’t, making learning the game a matter of trial and (lots of) error. Granted, it’s nice to know that touching most enemies (as opposed to their shots) won’t damage you, and that certain “instant” attacks are explicitly telegraphed, but even at that the game can be quite frustrating if you don’t know what’s coming – and sometimes even when you do. One could certainly do worse than Guardian Force, especially when searching for a curiosity to fill out one’s library, but it’s not something to pawn one’s soul for.
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Bokan to Ippatsu! Doronbo Kanpekiban

Bokan-to-IppatsuWhile many “serious” shooter players will likely stay away from this one just because of its subject matter, Bokan stands a cut above the usual licensed game fare. Based on the Tatsunoko anime “Yatterman” (while also including references to other “Time Bokan” spinoffs), you play, not as yet another faceless ace pilot, but a trio of bumbling costumed villains, out to pit their silly animal-based mecha against the heroes’ silly animal-based mecha in a battle for old-school anime supremacy. Even those unfamiliar with the subject matter should enjoy the vivid graphics and goofy humor, as long as they don’t take the title too seriously.

You’ve got a selection of six vehicles at the start and receive three more to choose from later on – while the balance is a bit off, all are still fun to mess around with (and somewhat necessary, since you can’t use the same one two stages in a row), especially since collecting enough “skull” icons during a stage enables you to turn into a giant, invincible harbinger of destruction for a limited time. You’ve also got an unlimited supply of bombs (it’s good to be the bad guy), but it comes with a catch – not only do they not give you invincibility (or cover the whole screen), and take a few moments to load before launch, but if you’re hit while getting one ready, instead of just losing a bit of life meter your vehicle will be blown to bits, leaving your team with nothing but a bicycle to ride and one hit away from a game over.

There’s plenty of scenery to blow up, and you receive either skulls or point items depending on whether you bomb or shoot them, so you do have some ability to play for either score or survival, though the game is rather slow-paced and non-intense to begin with. This fact, along with the silly thematic trappings, will likely make this one a non-option for the more “hardcore” set (the theme song alone will likely be enough on its own to scare many off), but if you’re just looking for a bit of fun this is a solid pickup. Aside from some minor presentational tweaks this version and the PS1 port are identical, so snag whichever you can find cheaper.
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DonPachi

donpachiRising from Toaplan’s freshly-smoldering ashes, Cave’s groundwork-laying first shooter appears here, complete with all of its trademark wanton laser-y destruction, but while the Saturn port looks good, it unfortunately suffers from downgraded sound (an especially tragic shortcoming, considering the game’s infamous announcer…“Keep your finger on the trigger, rookie!”) and excessive slowdown.

Also, while there’s plenty of off-the-cuff bullet dodging to be done, the game still relies on “memorize or die” moments a lot more than most any other Cave title, so it might hark back a bit too far for some players’ liking.

If you’re going to get this port it’s definitely not a total waste, especially if you like tinkering with display options (the game gives you plenty of those), but you’d still probably be best off looking for the better-handled PS1 port, unless the Saturn’s your only option.
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Gun Frontier

gunfrontierOne of three shmups released on the Saturn under Xing’s “Arcade Gears” label, Gun Frontier is technically the direct predecessor of Metal Black, though the two games share nearly nothing in common. While this game’s unusual ship design (most of the “ships” are shaped like old revolvers or other guns of some sort) wouldn’t suggest it, the title is also considered the main inspiration for Raizing’s Battle Garegga – the detailed backgrounds, elongated bullets, bomb fragments, and napalm spread super weapon certainly appear to foreshadow that later title.

While this remains the best port of the game (and was the only one for a long time, until the recent Taito Memories collections on PS2), the painfully slow ship movement and stiff-as-a-board stage layout (i.e., the power-up carriers move way too fast for you to get most of them unless you know they’re coming…bombs are too slow to save you in a pinch…certain enemies will give you endless grief unless you kill them before they launch, etc.) do a lot to date it. With the port you do, however, get a friendlier rapid fire rate (a bit too friendly for some hardcore players, actually) as well as a sound test, and it comes with a “Gamest Gears” booklet for the collectors if you can find one with all the original packaging.
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Metal Black

metalblackRumored to have been cobbled together using the leftovers of a scrapped Darius game, this largely unknown Taito offering ended up serving as inspiration for both G Darius and Border Down, most notably via your ability to mash buttons for fun and profit during super-powered “beam battles” with bosses (yep, this is the first game to feature it). Otherwise, it’s a pretty basic side-scroller – your only weapon, aside from the super beam referred to earlier, is a straight-ahead double-shot, and your only power-ups are molecules of “Newalone” that float around periodically – you’d better know where they tend to show up, as using the super beam (once activated, you can’t cancel it until you’re completely drained) also brings your main shot back to square one.

The trippy visual and sound design is among Taito’s most striking and creative (how about a boss that hatches out of the moon like an egg?), and trying to grab all the drifting Newalone before the boss can get it (it’ll use it to power its own weapons up) is fun, but your limited available defense against truckloads of cheap deaths from all directions ratchets up the frustration quickly. It’s not too hard to find thanks to a SataKore reissue, so it might still be worth picking up for some, especially if you’re picky about the visual specifics (or bugs, in the US release) that turn some off to the Taito Memories PS2 port.
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3 Wonders

3wondersAs the title suggests, this is actually 3 games in 1 – a platformer, a puzzler, and the reason this thing is listed here, a side-scrolling shooter titled “Chariot” (off to the side, if you’ve ever wondered where Marvel vs. Capcom’s elfish assist character Lou comes from, this is the place). The stylish fantasy-themed graphics are a nice change of pace from most typical shmup settings, and the ability to use your regenerating Gradius-esque trailing options to block bullets, damage enemies, or fuel power shots is cool, but even with those abilities you’ll still have a heck of a time maneuvering your rather bulky character out of the way of many of the game’s patterns.

All told, despite its strong points, the game just doesn’t feel fleshed-out enough to quite stand on its own – thus, it’s more or less where it belongs, as one third of a pre-packaged compilation. Additionally, the Saturn version is hard to track down and on the pricey side, so you might just want to try it (along with a bunch of additional games too) on the easier-to-find and cheaper Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2…although, as with the other “Arcade Gears” releases, there’s a collectible booklet here if you’re of the packrat mentality.
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Darius 2

darius2The original arcade release of Darius, one of Taito’s more famous forays into the shooter realm, offered little to set it apart from its side-scrolling competitors at the time, save for three notable features – one, the ability to choose from several branching stage paths to progress along; two, the unusual enemy designs, most of which are giant mechanical versions of various fish and other water-dwelling critters; and finally a “widescreen” cabinet featuring three horizontal monitors displaying the game at once. The game never really received an “arcade-perfect” port, largely due to the complications that the multi-screen setup brought to the table, but its sequel, which plays similarly albeit with a few minor tweaks, eventually got one on the Saturn, about seven years after its original release.

The “solution” to the display dilemma featured in this version, which was brought overseas to Europe but not the U.S., is to give players the power to zoom their viewpoint in (which limits how far ahead you can see) and out (which makes spotting bullets difficult) at will – obviously this is hardly an ideal implementation, but in retrospect it’s probably about the best option available for a “direct” arcade port. Beyond that, while the zooming mechanic, if nothing else, is fun to toy around with, the game underneath really isn’t helped by it, and remains quite simple and outdated by today’s standards, leaving Darius II as more of a curio than an essential for Saturn shmuppers. Sort of like one of those novelty singing fish you hang on your wall, but robotic and packing heat.
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Darius Gaiden

dariusgaidenWidely touted as the first Darius game to “rock the boat” its predecessors sailed in to any significant extent, Gaiden (brought intact to the West by Acclaim, along with Rayforce) sticks to a more traditional single-screen display (which, obviously, made the porting process from the arcades a good deal smoother) and offers an improved (and increasingly surreal) presentation over its forebears. Players are also treated to a stock of (pretty cool-looking) smart bombs for emergencies, as well as the ability to temporarily “capture” midbosses for some help in their continued battle against those naughty space fish. On the surface, Darius finally appears to be on its long-overdue way into the “modern” shooter era.

Unfortunately, in spite of its improvements, it’s also as shameless a quarter muncher as you’re likely to encounter, with a rank system that’s frustratingly eager to leave you high and dry (it never lightens up once raised, no matter how many times you die/power down), certain bullet patterns that are nearly impossible to get through without a bomb or shield, and boss fights that take an eternity to end, even when tackled with a pumped-up autofire cheat (which most “serious” shmuppers refuse to go without when playing this). There are plenty of stages to see, wacky enemies to fight, and thrills to be had here, but even though the game itself isn’t hard to find or afford (especially compared to the PS1 version), they still come at a price.
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Fantasy Zone

fantasyzoneWhile Sega and Sunsoft’s contribution to the “cute-em-up” niche has gotten somewhat lost over the years when compared to the likes of Parodius and Twinbee, the game has still been popular enough to spawn several sequels, remakes, and compilations – this Saturn offering, though, is simply a perfect port (an unusual feat, back in the early days of the “Sega Ages” collections) of the game that started it all. This title plays most similarly to Defender, taking place from a side-scrolling perspective – while your ship is always moving forward, it can actually be turned around (something dozens upon dozens of pilots in other shmups apparently never figured out how to do), and the screen will then start moving in the other direction (the stage will loop if you go far enough). Your craft, named Opa Opa, is apparently similar to the Bees from Twinbee insofar as he’s apparently “alive” – not only can he sprout legs and walk around, but he can even buy stuff from the shops he encounters as he searches (with the help of a handy radar display) for enemy bases and bosses to take down with either a standard shot or a ground-based bomb.

The relatively simple but colorful graphics are perfect for the theme (and have held up surprisingly well for a game this old) and even with the auto-movement everything plays a good deal better than, say, the top-scrolling Thunder Force II segments, but there are still some irritating aspects to deal with – for one thing, most power-ups you purchase only last a short time (and everything is instantly kaput when you die), meaning that you’ll spend a lot of your time with the default weaponry (especially since the price of every item goes up the next time you want to buy it). Your ship is a pretty small target and not too hard to maneuver, but when the screen gets loaded up and you’re not holding a speed up, you’re likely in trouble. This port, aside from faithfully reproducing the arcade original, includes a few extras, most notably a Replay Mode – unless you’d prefer to snag the recently-released series compilation on PS2, this one’s a no-brainer for cute-em-up fans.
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Gekirindan

GekirindanOne of many little-known Taito shooters with a small but devoted fan following, this a fairly standard vertical setup, though the plot (which involves chasing your cybernetic adversary through different eras across time) is at least somewhat different. As with most Taito products the game looks nice, though the soundtrack, while not bad, is mostly remix after remix of a single theme (to be fair, Radiant Silvergun does much the same thing and is rarely criticized for it). You’ve got three planes to choose from, and a small selection of collectible weapons for each, but you’d better hold onto them, as re-powering up after dying is often an ordeal – faintly-colored bullets also have an annoying tendency to get lost in the background at times.

Oddly enough, playing on the 2P side actually loosens up the rank, so remember that if you want to maximize your chances of clearing it. Supposedly some Toaplan staffers had a hand in this, and there are a few references to their products here if you look, but you’ll have to suffer through a chuggy port (ready for pre-boss loading?) to do it. However, to date, despite its problems, this is the only port of Gekirindan to include tate mode, which might influence some in its direction.
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Thunder Force Gold Pack 1

thunderforce-gold-1The first of two 16-bit-era Thunder Force compilations released on the Saturn, this volume offers Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III for your blasting pleasure. In case you haven’t played them on the Genesis/Mega Drive, TFII is a combination of the overhead-view “arena” levels of the first Thunder Force (which never made it beyond a set of Japan-only computer systems, and remains quite the obscurity to this day) and the then-new side-scrolling sections that became the series’ standard. The graphics are obviously a bit dated twenty years on, and while a nice selection of collectible weapons are available (including a single CLAW option, which became two and three in later entries), if you lose a life you lose everything else long with it. This can be especially frustrating in the overhead levels, since you’re always moving forward automatically and can only steer and shoot – most of your weapons require you to be heading towards your targets to hit them, leading to frequent point-blank deaths. The side-view sections are, if nothing else, a bit more comfortable, but are still outdated by today’s standards.

TFIII is, for many players, the game that truly began to define the series, and certainly to popularize it. As referenced earlier, it deep-sixed the overhead portions of its predecessors completely, as well as allowed the player to choose one of several stages to start on. You can also adjust your speed on the fly, shields last until you’re hit a few times rather than running out on their own, and you only lose the weapon you’re using when you die (all these features were to be carried on through the rest of the series). As expected the graphics have been spruced up some, and the “high-octane” ambience, complete with fast-paced electronic music and lots of explosions that TF is known for, is demonstrably in effect. Both ports on the Saturn are nearly perfect (the only complaint is the inaccurate sound), and actually reduce the slowdown present in the originals as well – if you don’t have them on the Genesis and don’t mind the semi-occasional laser-to-the-face from nowhere, this is a solid package.
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Thunder Force Gold Pack 2

thunderforce-gold-2The remainder of the 16-bit Thunder Force games make the trip to Sega’s next system here, featuring Thunder Force AC (an arcade-released retooling of Thunder Force III, later ported to the SNES as Thunder Spirits) and Thunder Force IV (brought to the US as Lightening Force). The former plays nearly identically to TFIII, and includes the same weapon set, though two of the stages are different and the level progression is always in a set order. The sound has also been rearranged a bit, but otherwise most everything that was in TFIII is here, just shifted around some.

TFIV, on the other hand, is considered the pinnacle of the series by a sizeable percentage of fans – the graphics are some of the most impressive ever to appear on the Genesis, and this time you can actually choose the order of all four initial stages, rather than just where you begin. The weapon selection has been shuffled a little, but is balanced well – also, partway through the game you gain a powerful charge shot, though you need CLAWs to use it. Stages are now larger vertically, which gives you more space to move around, though it can occasionally allow enemies to sneak up on you (or powerups to sneak by) from above or below, offscreen. As with the first Gold Pack the slowdown’s been cut – this time, though, the sound has been brought back up to par, and everything else has remained faithful to the originals. An interesting bonus feature is also on offer – you can unlock the ability to play TFIV using the ship (and weapons) from TFIII/AC. Since there are none of TFII’s overhead levels to deal with here, this is probably the preferred pickup for “modern” Thunder Force fans, though it’s also pricier than the first volume.
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Strikers 1945 II

strikers1945-iiYou may have been a bit thrown off by the original Strikers 1945 being up so much higher on the list, but it’s strange how unpredictable any given port’s quality can be.  While the first two Strikers games (which are largely identical in terms of how they play, except that this one adds a power meter which must be at least partially filled for you to use a charge shot) were each sent home on both the Saturn and PS1, their ports turned out quite differently on the two systems.

As you’ve probably read above, the first Strikers got perhaps its best treatment on the Saturn – for who knows what reason, however, the sequel is plagued by slowdown on Sega’s console, and performs better on the PS1, making that conversion the preferred pickup if you have the choice. Granted, this version is hardly unplayable, but the odd downgrade in quality from the first game’s appearance on the system certainly doesn’t do it any favors.
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Layer Section II

layersection-iiReleased to Westerners on the PS1 as Raystorm, this follow-up to the well-received original is considered at least slightly inferior on its own merits by many, and a less-than-welcome guest on the Saturn by most. While Taito originally planned to give the game 2D graphics like its predecessor, the industry’s shift to 3D eventually proved unavoidable, and while the polygons don’t look bad at all considering the game’s age, the new “uphill” perspective and cluttered masses of rough shapes make some bullets and enemies hard to spot and avoid. An additional annoyance is the fact that, when you stop moving, your ship “drifts” slightly towards the center of the screen, which can make precise dodging more of a chore than it should be.

There are, however, some nicer additions here as well – you now have multiple ships to choose from, the ability to lock on to enemies on your level as well as below you (theoretically, you could possibly clear the game, and score well, without actually shooting much), and the means to deliver extra-heavy damage to bosses and other large enemies if you can sink your entire stock of lock-on shots into them at once. You also get a limited-use screen-clearing bomb, as well as a semi-worthless (uber-worthless if playing for score) “auto” option for your lock-on, which maps it and your “main” blaster to the same button. The Japan-exclusive Saturn version has an extra selectable craft and a stage attack mode as well as a few exclusive CG clips, but the presentation and overall execution are generally considered inferior to the Playstation port – pick up that one instead, if you can.
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In the Hunt

inthehuntLooking for something a little less Defender and a little more “Das Boot?” This unique Irem side-scroller (Japanese title Kaitei Daisensou, or “Torpedoes Armed and Ready”) stakes its claim on two interesting features to set it apart: first, it puts you in control of a submarine instead of an aircraft, which means that sometimes you’ll have limited space to move around in, thanks to shallow water and such. Second, the screen doesn’t scroll automatically, but rather gives you “GO!” signals, similar to many beat-em-ups, once you’ve blasted enough enemies to move forward on your own (stages have a time limit, so you can’t sit idle for too long). The graphics are reminiscent of Metal Slug, and very detailed (makes sense, as many of those who contributed to this title eventually worked on Slug at Nazca), and watching everything slowly crumble to bits as you blow it all up just makes the settings that much more attractive.

Your sub can fire a few collectible torpedo variations in front, as well as mines (if you’re underwater) or missiles (if you’re surfaced) to the sides, which gives you some decent destructive potential, but any enemy that manages to get a shot off will still give you headaches, as your sub is relatively large and slow – this is gratingly compounded if the area you’re in further limits your movement. Further, while the Saturn port keeps the look of the arcade original, it’s also got more slowdown than either it or the PS1 edition – both of them made it to the West, so it’s hard to justify buying this one over its counterpart.
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Skull Fang

skull-fangOne of Data East’s few shmup offerings, as its subtitle suggests this vertscroller is actually a sequel to Kuuga (known to Westerners as Vapor Trail), which was granted a port to the Genesis back in the day. The key feature on display here is the ability to adjust how fast the screen scrolls via your plane’s throttle – while making your way through the stages it’s more of a curiosity than anything else, but once you get to the bosses things get interesting, since they can speed up and slow down just like you can. There’s a time limit in effect, so to bring your adversary down before it’s up you’ve got to make near-constant use of the throttle to stay on his tail and keep him within range of your weapons.

This is also one of the few shooters to give you a handful of Street Fighter-esque “command motions” – you can use them to flip your plane around to shoot at a boss from a different angle. If all of this sounds a little too offbeat for your tastes you do have the option to make the speed adjustment automatic, as well as trade in the command motions for a traditional bomb, but the game feels awfully sparse without them, and the ugly presentation doesn’t help matters. This one will probably be a bit too offbeat and uninviting for most, but a handful of enterprising shmuppers might enjoy the departure from the norm that this title brings to the table.
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Kyukyoku Tiger II Plus

KYUKYOKU-tiger-2This sequel to the Taito original was actually developed by Takumi, perhaps best known for Giga Wing. Unfortunately, while many fondly remember the first Kyukyoku Tiger (aka Twin Cobra) as a classic helicopter shooter, fewer speak of this title with much fondness, thanks to its outdated presentation, unbalanced weapons (there’s never much reason to use anything except the “green” one – especially since you have to mash the buttons like mad to get any worthwhile performance from the other two) and seemingly oversized hitbox (considering the amount of bullets you’ll have to deal with), which serve to bring it down several notches.

Also, the 3 “modes” highlighted on the packaging are misleading, as only the original “Arcade” mode, which keeps the original vertical screen, is worth bothering with (unless you like playing in wobble mode). If you’re still interested, make an effort to somehow try before you buy.
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Capcom Generation 1

capcom-gen-1Even many non-shmuppers have at least heard of Capcom’s most successful classic shooter, 1942 – this collection plants it and its two earliest sequels (1943: The Battle of Midway and 1943 Kai) onto one disc, along with a selection of bonus content. The original 1942 is about as basic of a shmup as you could hope to find – you can move, shoot, grab a handful of simple power-ups, and use a limited amount of loop-de-loops to get out of tough spots. Enemies and backgrounds frequently repeat (though considering the game’s age, it’s not too out of the ordinary for that era), and those tiny bullets seem a lot bigger when you’ve got a full-sprite hitbox.

1943 not only improves the presentation, but dramatically changes the basic workings of the game – you’ve still got your loops for a quick escape, but instead of multiple lives you’ve got a single “fuel” meter, which will slowly and constantly decrease on its own, and drop a big chunk when you take an enemy hit. While you’ve got several nice new powerups to play with (which will themselves run out of ammo after a short time), you’ll frequently be forced to forego them to collect fuel refills instead – most of the power-ups you encounter here can be “juggled” a la Twinbee when shot, which can make getting the item you want (or need) tough when you’re being peppered by small fry. 1943 Kai keeps the basic mechanics of its predecessor, but “remixes” the presentation, weapon selection, and stage layouts. The Saturn and PS1 ports found on this collection are generally considered the most faithful available, especially since few (if any) others contain tate mode – if you want the ideal olde-tyme shooting experience, this is the one to go for.
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Capcom Generation 3

capcom-gen-2How much you might be persuaded to pick up this collection is directly proportional to how fond you are of Capcom’s very early work – along with action-puzzler Pirate Ship Higemaru and hybrid oddity SonSon, the package features two shooters, Vulgus (Capcom’s very first game) and Exed Exes. The former, as you might expect, is shooting simplicity incarnate – you’ve got a pea-shooter and a limited supply of missiles that can pierce through enemies, and that’s it, as there are no powerups to speak of except missile refills. There are only a few enemy varieties (which will frequently swarm you like nobody’s business, thanks to your meager armaments) and background graphics sets, and the only scoring technique to concern oneself with is nailing vertical columns of baddies with a missile for bonus points. As a bit of trivia, the “Yashichi” (pinwheel-ish) icon, which shows up in several other Capcom games as a bonus item, first appeared here, as an enemy.

Exed Exes is slightly more advanced than Vulgus, most notably for its early use of parallax layers in its graphics as well as simultaneous 2-player action, but it’s still pretty basic. Your only weapon is still a basic frontal shot, though this time you can collect items to give it a little bit more oomph – you also have a bomb supply, but it only eliminates bullets, and doesn’t damage enemies. There are a few “bonus” sections where you can turn enemies into point icons as well as a few simple Zanac-esque bosses, but as in Vulgus you’ll frequently find yourself swarmed. In the same manner as the other Capcom Generations shooters, these are probably the best ports of the games available, but again, be aware that you should be a fan of older, simpler titles before plunking down for them.
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Capcom Generation 4

gunsmokeWhile some might be hesitant to consider the three games in this compilation (Commando, Mercs and Gun.Smoke) as “pure” scrolling shooters, they might as well be listed here for the sake of completeness. Each of these top-view games involves controlling a gun-wielding human character, as opposed to an airplane or spaceship – also, with the exception of Gun.Smoke, the screen does not automatically scroll but must be advanced by the player. Commando, the earliest of the titles, gives you a machine gun and a limited amount of grenades to pick off hiding or covered enemies – while the gun can be fired in eight directions, there’s no way to lock your shooting direction, making focusing your fire on a target difficult. Also, your grenades can only be thrown straight ahead at a fixed distance, limiting their usefulness. While the game’s influence on future titles, such as Ikari Warriors, certainly can’t be denied, for most it will likely seem dated – its sequel, Mercs, while keeping the same basic structure, has a bit more of a modern feel, with several collectible weapons, vehicles, and a screen-clearing smart bomb to replace the grenades, as well as much-improved graphics and slightly more player-friendly mechanics overall.

Gun.Smoke, while more of a “traditional” shooter in that it scrolls by itself, is probably the most unusual of the three – as your cowboy strolls through the stages you actually have three shot buttons, used to fire at either an angle to the left or right or straight ahead; hitting two of the buttons at once will aim your shots at a halfway point in between their “normal” directions. You’ll be juggling between them constantly as you try to pick off all the guys shooting and hurling dynamite from every which way, relying on a few powerups (including some that increase the speed and range of your initially quite-limited guns) to see you through – prepare to blast every item-containing barrel you come across, as the game is plenty challenging. Once again, the Capcom Generations ports of these games, on either the Saturn or PS1, are considered the most faithful if you want the definitive experience, next to playing them on an actual arcade machine.
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Dezaemon 2

dezaemon2This curiosity is actually part of a rather long-running series of “create it yourself” shooter builders released on several systems, sort of the shmup equivalent of the RPG Maker or Fighter Maker games. Obviously you’ll need to understand Japanese (or be willing to undergo lots of trial and error) to get the most out of the tools it gives you, as well as an enormous load of memory card space to save your creations, so the probable audience for the title outside of Japan is automatically somewhat limited.

The other possible draw for shmuppers here is that the disc includes a handful of “sample” games that you can play from the get-go, including a pair based off of Athena obscurities BioMetal and Daioh, but there’s only so much gameplay depth that the core engine can offer, though the possibilities in terms of presentation are nearly limitless. If you’re the creative type and are able to sort through the menus this one might be worth your while to track down.   Recently, there has also been a homebrew effort to compile a number of fan-made games that you can download at play via the Dezaemon 2 Save Game Manager.
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Sol Divide

soldividePsikyo bucks two of its usual trends here, not only opting for the side-scrolling route once more but also exchanging its traditional sprite-based look for digitized-style graphics. While many complain about the latter I honestly don’t think they look too bad, considering how some other similar efforts have turned out – once you get into the actual game, you’ve got three characters to choose from, and each can shoot, slash, and use a limited stock of magic spells to slay dragons, wizards, and a whole bunch of other fairy-tale nasties.

Sadly, the basic execution of the formula is, simply put, off – your characters are even bulkier here than they were in Sengoku Blade, and dodging attacks is a huge pain, especially considering that your main shot is pretty weak – moving in close for melee combat is often a necessity. To make matters worse, you’ve got a life meter instead of stocked lives, and almost no invincibility time after taking a hit, which makes it easy to get overwhelmed, flattened, and frustrated in short order, even with health pickups available. Speaking of short, the game is quite brief even by Psikyo standards – it is worth noting, though, that the Saturn port, like the PS1 release (which made it stateside, though without the ability to save any data), includes an “Original” mode alongside the arcade version, which tosses some additional RPG elements to the mix. That said, unless you want the most full-featured version, it’s hard to recommend searching for the Saturn port when you could instead import Psikyo Shooting Collection Volume 3 for the PS2, which includes this game (sans Original mode) along with one of Psikyo’s more celebrated shooters, Dragon Blaze.
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Konami Antiques MSX Collection

konami-antiquesFirst things first – if you’re set on acquiring this compilation, the Saturn version is the one to go for if you can, since its PS1 equivalent was split up into three volumes and is thus tougher and pricier to track down in full. That said, while there’s certainly a sizable bunch of Konami’s hard-to-find older products (30 in total, a full third of which are shooters) from the Japan-only MSX computer system on offer, including some system exclusives, the limitations of the original hardware are likely to tax even declared fans of “old-school” gaming.

The selection includes a half-dozen side-scrollers (Gradius, two variations of Gradius II, Salamander, Parodius, and Super Cobra), three vert-scrollers (Knightmare, Twinbee, and Sky Jaguar) and one free-scroller (Time Pilot). There’s not enough space to review them all individually, but then again many of them share the same problems, most notably choppy scrolling and sketchy hit detection – obviously at least some of these issues stem solely from what the programmers had to work with, but it doesn’t make most of the titles any more enjoyable, especially in comparison to more sophisticated offerings. Everything is technically playable (some titles moreso than others), but it seems a stretch to assume that many players would bother with most of these stripped-down conversions when there are so many other, better-executed shooters they could be playing, especially on the Saturn. This is a worthy pickup if you’re a gaming history buff or have fond memories of the MSX from back in the day, but just be aware that when the title says “antiques” it means it.
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Space Invaders

spaceinvaders-saturnI’ve always wondered, over the course of video game history, which single title has received the most remakes, re-releases, and rehashes in all – if it’s not number one, Space Invaders must be darn close to the top of that list. Anyway, this Japan-only release features the old-school blasting we’ve come to (repeatedly) know and love, along with a few display options and an exclusive Versus mode, which features a Twinkle Star Sprites-esque split screen and improved graphics, as well as the ability to send your opponents’ invaders down faster (or eliminate a bunch of your own at once) by picking off aliens of a certain color.

In the end, though, the bare-bones and decades-old core of the game remains intact, and unless you’ve never owned any other port of Invaders before (or are a huge series fan) there’s little reason to spend much effort finding it, especially if you’ve moved on to more “modern” iterations, a la Akkanvader or Space Invaders Extreme. If you can’t get enough of classic Taito, though, there was also a release of this that was paired with Puzzle Bobble 2X, in case you’re looking for both games (or greater collectability).
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Cho Aniki

cho-aniki-saturnThe full title of this one is WAY too long, so I won’t bother typing it all – anyway, if you’ve ever heard of the Cho Aniki (“Super Big Brother”) games, you know what to expect – a highly…unique blend of utter randomness and goofy pseudo-homoeroticism. For people who will buy a game solely for how weird it is, this one is a definite must-have; looking past the trimmings to the gameplay front, unfortunately, you end up spending most of your time phasing between yawn-inducing, repetitive stage segments and “why won’t it die” bosses, frequently wondering how in the world you’re expected to maneuver your huge character around the screen safely.

The sparsely-animated digitized graphics are far from pretty, but they certainly serve to add to the bonkers atmosphere of flying bodybuilders and other nonsense – the music, though, believe it or not, is actually rather catchy, for its part. This Cho Aniki entry also made it to the PS1 in nearly-identical form, so if you’ve got an inexplicable hankering for some airborne beefcake, there it is – don’t expect anything even remotely noteworthy beyond the inherent oddness, however.
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Steam Heart’s

steamhearts-satrunFirst of all, no, that apostrophe is not a typo (at least not on my part, anyway). Second, this vertscroller is most famous for being one of the few commercially released “hentai” (literally “pervert,” the term denotes a game or other product with sexual content) shooters, and the only one on the Saturn (unless you care to count the likes of Cho Aniki). Originally released on the PC-98, the graphics (and, more importantly, the scrolling) have been upgraded in this port, and the hentai anime scenes between stages have been toned down – in fact, there’s even an “arcade” mode included, which you can play through with the “story” cut out completely.

While you do get some rather impressive firepower (including a few weapons exclusive to this port) to keep yourself occupied during the “interactive portion”, as well as the handy ability to quickly boost out of the way of oncoming threats, it’s still obvious, as with most such games, that the shooting wasn’t the developers’ main focus in this title, as the attack patterns and scenarios you encounter are largely unsatisfying, especially juxtaposed with the many superior shooters available on the system. Perhaps the game’s most amusing feature, however, is a two-player mode – I can only wonder…how many people who bought this game ever intended to acknowledge their purchase, let alone play it, with another person present? Truth be told, I’m afraid to ask.
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Macross: Do You Remember Love?

macross-dyrlOne of the longest-running and most popular anime ever produced, Macross (aka Robotech) has spawned a wide variety of video game offerings over the years, with predictably mixed results. This 2-disc Saturn side-scroller (and no, that second disc isn’t extra fan content – you have to switch discs halfway through, a la the PS1 Final Fantasy games) corresponds to the movie “Do You Remember Love?”, which is more or less a condensed retelling of the first part of the TV series. The overall presentation is somewhat forgettable, but the between-stage movie cutscenes look quite good for the most part, especially considering how the Saturn usually condensed such interludes to heck and back – since the game is pretty short, even spread across 2 CDs, that’s likely where most of the available space went.

The game itself is pretty pedestrian – you’ve got the usual trio of transformations with some differing characteristics (plane, mech, and half-and-half) that can be toggled between, though in several instances you’ll be limited to one or two of them. Other than that you’ve always got a spitball gun, a supply of short-ranged bombs, and an unlimited stock of homing missiles at your disposal. You can tweak the specifics on each a bit in between stages, but when you get right down to it the game largely consists of holding and releasing the missile button every time something enters the screen – also, since your onscreen avatar is so huge (especially in “Battroid” mode), some enemy spreads are pretty much undodgeable. The only power-ups are occasional life meter refills, and there are no points or scoring here either. When all is said and done I think it’s safe to say that, as is frequently the case with products like these, only card-carrying fans of the anime need apply here.
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Terra Cresta 3D

terra-cresta-3dThe main draw of the original Terra Cresta was the ability of the player to control not just a single craft but several, collected one at a time, merged together into a super-ship – of course, the means to temporarily separate them and spread their waves of death across most of the screen or unleash an invincible phoenix when grouped didn’t hurt either. That same base component is here in slightly modified form, but sadly that’s really all that the game has to offer, and a lone gimmick of that nature just doesn’t “make” a game as well as it did back in 1985.

The 3D graphical update doesn’t look too bad overall, though the Star Fox-esque perspective that you’re forced into for boss fights is unnecessarily awkward. Also, the game does not have a point – I mean that literally, as the game not only lacks a defined scoring system, but ANY score or points at all. Especially considering that even its predecessor (and ITS predecessor, Moon Cresta) contained this basic shooter element over a decade before, this is a pretty baffling exclusion, and it takes a big bite out of the desire to replay and improve one’s performance. As a result, the product as a whole feels tragically incomplete.
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Tukai! Slot Shooting

tukai-slot-shootingAn unknown entity even among most shooter fans, this Japan-exclusive odd duck mixes Space Invaders, a slot machine, an “ochi” puzzler, and a truckload of multicolored sea creatures into one stumper of a chimera. While the screen doesn’t scroll, you are free to move your dumpling-like character anywhere on it – the thing is, the playfield starts half-full of pastel-colored crabs and other critters, and more continue to fall with time, as in Puyo Puyo or any number of puzzle games. As you might guess, if they touch the top, the game’s over – the trick is to shoot 3 falling crustaceans of the same color in a row, which will cause the slot reel on the top of the screen to randomly award you a cycling-color bonus piece, which, when shot, will eliminate everything of that color off the screen, and possibly set off a chain reaction among the remaining pieces. There are a few more variables present, but that’s the basic idea.

As unique of an amalgamation as this title is, the parts don’t come together very well – for one thing, the game really doesn’t reward luck and skill equally, as once you shoot one set of 3 your best strategy is to stop shooting as long as possible, wait for the slots to line up, and hope for a bunch of bonus icons to appear in rapid succession – shooting anything else in the meantime, even another set of 3, will only delay any potential rewards, so odds are you’ll end up doing as much waiting (and hoping) as actual shooting. Movement is also on the clunky side – getting underneath nearly-landed pieces to pick them off is difficult and dangerous, as getting squished immediately ends your game. When all is said and done, I can only recommend this thing to hardcore fans of all that is both weird and Japanese.
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Planet Joker

planet-jokerThis title (which appears to have no connection to Visco’s subpar shmup Earth Joker) is a rather rare find, but considering that it’s frequently derided as the worst shooter on the Saturn, demand for it is hardly overwhelming. In a nutshell, you’re cast as the pilot of a selection of crudely-realized 3D mechs, floating over Silpheed-esque “tilted”-perspective backgrounds, battling other poorly-rendered machines of death with a handful of weapons, bombs, and an invincible shield meter.

The bulky onscreen character and the fact that you can’t hit enemies too near the edges of the screen give it a clunky, unrefined feel, and the near-complete lack of challenge or excitement only compounds the boredom. Oh, and don’t even ask what the game forces you to do while fighting the final boss. Seek this one only if you’re a collection completist.
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Tempest 2000 (a non-2D bonus)

tempest2000I had to throw in one more game into this Saturn old-school shooting fest even though it isn’t a 2D game like the rest.  This update of the classic vector shooter keeps most everything faithful to the original, but also adds in a bunch of uber-cheesy techno beats and a handful of modes to choose from – “Traditional” (Tempest pretty much as you remember it), “Plus” (which allows 2-player mode and a few other additions), and the main event, “2000”, which slightly retools the graphics and includes a sizable amount of new stuff. Some of the extra features of the latter mode include a selection of power-ups (including a “jump” ability and an AI helper), new enemy types to deal with, a limited save feature, and a new set of challenges, dubbed “Beastly Mode,” that you can try your hand at after finishing the normal game.

There’s also a unique “Duel” mode which allows you to play against a friend – I can only imagine how many arcade gamers from the olden days might have used this to determine supremacy amongst their ranks. Plus, in any mode you can use the X, Y, and Z buttons to switch between 3 zoom levels at any time – too bad the viewing angle isn’t adjustable, though, as some hills and valleys can make enemies and bullets hard to spot until they’re on top of you. Also, a warning to those used to the delicate tap dodging of contemporary shooters – here you’ve got to hit the directional buttons pretty hard to make your ship register movement, though a decent joystick might be of some help if you’ve got one. Whatever the annoyances, though, this is still pretty much a sure pickup for fans of the original Tempest.
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Additional Credits: Thank to shmups.com, satakore.com, Segagaga Domain, and Hardcore Gaming 101 for helping me to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the Saturn’s shmup collection in addition to providing some of the screenshots.

53 Comments

  1. Patrick says:

    Well this must be the longest list on the site.
    (unless you’ve done PS1 RPG’s)

    Might see if I can aquire some of these, which is a hard task in NZ (with us being a sega then sony nation.

    15 games and 2 consoles on trademe at the moment, not bad.

  2. racketboy says:

    I’m almost sure it’s the longest — I had to have my host tweak some database setting on the server for it to publish correctly because of its length 🙂

  3. Jack says:

    Wow! Excellent article.

    I’ve heard of only a small percent of the listed titles. I wonder how many made it to PAL regions?

  4. denpanosekai says:

    Are you KIDDING me? This is the best/longest article on racketboy.

    Congratulations!!!

  5. denpanosekai says:

    But wait, as expansive and complete this article is, I’m still surprised it doesn’t even give a nod to the Panzer Dragoon series. They certainly play a bit like SHMUPs, no?

    And I wouldn’t mind trying Steam Heart’s… my girl likes this stuff 😉

  6. Doctor Fugue says:

    Absolutely must-read material for everyone on earth. Fantastic job.

    I might mention Panzer Dragoon as well but that’s just an opinion. I am also one of those people that believes the Capcom 4 games do not fit in this list, but I suppose there are reasons for it.

    For others that might just fit the list (depending on how you feel), how about:

    Keio 2
    Assault Suit Leynos 2
    Prikura Daisakusen
    Steamgear Mash
    Mass Destruction (well, that’s pushing it a bit)
    Space Harrier

  7. racketboy says:

    Well, we were aiming for mostly 2D scrolling shooters — we kinda threw Tempest 2000 in as a bonus. I guess we’ll have to do a rail shooter piece sometime.

    Keio 2 is more platformer than shooter (unlike the first game)
    Assault Suit Leynos 2 is awesome, but it’s more like a Run-N-Gun. And if you’re gonna include those, you’ve got Metal Slug and others…

    Steamgear Mash is quite different as well…

    But I will have to investigate Prikura Daisakusen

  8. Doctor Fugue says:

    That’s cool, I was just thown off by the Commando/MERCS collection being included, since I would call them vertical run’n’gun games. It’s hard to draw the line somewhere, especially when games have “some” shooting or combination of run’n’gun with shooter characteristics.

    Anyway, I also wanted to say that Battle Garegga is supreme, but Radiant Silvergun is perfect.

  9. Tancred says:

    Fantastic article! Gee, I only played around 4 of them! Haven’t even heard of most of them.

  10. Patrick says:

    I seriously hope you aren’t familiar with all these titles.

  11. racketboy says:

    Me? No. BulletMagnet wrote this stuff up, and he’s familiar with most of them.

    I was aware of most of them and had played about 8 of them I think.

  12. geozeldadude says:

    wow. this post was epic. great job.

  13. daCuk says:

    I do not see Wolf Fang on your list…

  14. D says:

    racket rulez

  15. racketboy says:

    daCuk, Wolf Fang is another unique one that fits more in with run-n-guns.

    I wish we could include all the here, but this thing was long enough as it was 🙂

  16. BulletMagnet says:

    Hey everyone, glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂 Heh, I put poor RB through the wringer with this…I can only imagine the look on his face when he realized that he’d need to tweak the site to fit it intact.

    To address some of the inquiries that haven’t already been discussed, yeah, the line between “shmup” and “borderliner” is often a think one, so deciding what to include was more or less a coin toss for me, heh heh. And yes, I do have Prikura Daisakusen, but its lack of auto-scrolling, isometric perspective, and emphasis on melee attacks and such ruled it out for me. It’s in the ballpark though, as are Panzer Dragoon and the run-n-guns, but general sentiment, in my experience, tends to place them on the outskirts, at least technically. I’m not one to demand that everyone stick to the same hard-and-fast definition of “shmup,” however. 🙂

    As for jack’s question, if my memory is correct Layer Section and the Parodius Deluxe Pack made it to Europe (only the former ever got to the USA). One or two of the other titles listed here were brought Westward on the PS1 though.

    Thanks to all for reading and commenting!

  17. BulletMagnet says:

    Actually, I goofed – I believe that In the Hunt and Darius Gaiden also made it to both the US and Europe.

    Either way, you’re missing the vast majority if you don’t import, heh heh.

  18. ott0bot says:

    Nice list! Good selection of games and nice comentary. I agree with you about the run ‘n guns and rail shooters. Not true shmups IMO.

    A side note:
    Why did you choose the order? Personal preference? Personally a listing by year, alphabetical, or a hori-vertical would be more helpful.

    Otherwise, superb.

  19. racketboy says:

    I wanted it to be in order of importance/personal preference. And some games like Strikers 1945 II were ranked lower as their Saturn port wasn’t very good in comparison to the PS1 version.

    That’s typically been the way I order all of my lists. It really depends on the purpose of the list, I guess.

  20. ott0bot says:

    I hear ya racket, my lists are ususally the same way. But this list is much longer than your typical list. It just ends up seeming a bit random.

  21. heavymetalme says:

    Brilliant list. This was very much needed. Thank you BulletMagnet and Racket.

  22. Father K says:

    A fabulously impressive post Racket. I’m rather ashamed to say that I don’t own one of them… I must put that right using this list as a guide…

  23. John845 says:

    God damn epic list. Once I get my Saturn modded these are all going to be downloaded.

  24. AC says:

    Nice article, but please refrain from using the term “shmups” and use “shooters” instead.

  25. Jared Barrus says:

    Because he said so, obviously.

    What AC wants, AC gets. GRAH!!!

    😉

  26. James Miller says:

    This is a fantastic article for a Saturn nut like me :)Thanks to Racketboy and BulletMagnet for putting this up, it’s the kind of article I’ve long wanted a mag like Retro Gamer, Games TM or Edge to publish. They have dabbled but this is much more informative and extensive than anything they have done, so is much better in my opinion 🙂 I liked the SNES RPG article a lot too, in fact I think the articles on this site would be good enough to form the basis of a good Retro gaming book.

    I’ve been a Saturn collector for some years now and own 500+ Jap Saturn games including almost all of the systems rarities. I’m very happy to read through this as I own all of the Saturn shooters mentioned here, bar one Kyukyoku Tiger II Plus. Thats only a mid range priced game though, so I hope to put that right in the near future. I have some pics somewhere if there is anywhere to post them?

    Somebody mentioned downloading them and that might be a decent way of trying them out. However, the artwork on these Japanese Saturn shooters is very special as well so I’d certainly recommend buying them if you can. As well as being fantastic games, they are very collectable and having a collection like this will look very nice on your shelves from an aesthetic point of view. Some can be bought reasonably cheaply these days and even the pricier games are well worth it – these are games you will literally treasure and be proud to own.
    Thanks again guys.

  27. racketboy says:

    Thanks for the great comment, James!
    I’ve been wanting to have a post like this for years now, but there was no way I was going to pull it off myself. Same goes with the SNES RPG one. I’m glad you found it to be up to those high standards 🙂

  28. the7k says:

    Prikura Daisasuken is like an isometric Metal Slug meets the “bullet hell” craziness of Perfect Cherry Blossom and the ultra-cute graphics of Twinkle Star Sprites.

    I don’t know if it belongs on the list, but it’s definitely in the running for best $45 I’ve spent in a long time.

  29. Logan says:

    I own both Layer Section and Darius Gaiden, and enjoy them immensely! I’m surprised Darius Gaiden’s so low on the list; is it really so bad? Anyway, I’m at a weird place with shmups in that I love playing them, yet I am absolutely TERRIBLE at them. It’s very odd. It’s a safe bet to say that the Saturn is the best shmup system, although the good ol’ Dreamcast doesn’t trail far behind.

  30. megadan says:

    God bless you sir, I read like the first half, but I will probably come back at some point and read the rest. I have a way to many of these games. Twinkle star sprites is probably the best two player game I can think of. I have the dreamcast version which is in English, and the Playstation 2 version which has better graphics and some minor tweaks.

  31. BulletMagnet says:

    @Logan – Yeah, a fair amount of people tend to disagree with me on Darius Gaiden, and if others enjoy the game more than me that’s fine – just in terms of looking at the fundamentals, however, I found it a bit lacking, despite the good points. As for the best shmupping system, my personal toss-up would be between the Saturn and PS2.

    @megadan – The PS2 TSS is actually technically a sequel, though it plays almost identically – you probably already know you can unlock the Neo-Geo original on there, though it’s not very well-emulated.

  32. the7k says:

    I just got into Steam Heart’s today (came in the mail yesterday but was too busy to play it) and I gotta say I’m kinda surprised it gets so much flak. Sure, it isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s at least as good as most shooters. The lightning sword reminded me of Trigger Heart Exelica, the sprites have a refreshingly different look to them, and unlimited continues make it easy to play with an inexperienced player by your side. (If you really are that afraid to play an adult game with someone else, the cut scenes can be skipped.)

    Plus, if you wanna see naked cat-girls, what are you going to choose? A strip mahjong game, a dating sim, or a shoot ’em up? I’d hope the answer is obvious.

  33. racketboy says:

    That’s what’s great — even the games on the lower end of the spectrum aren’t that bad. 🙂

  34. peace4myheart says:

    Thought I knew a lot about Saturn shmups. Thanx for proving my ignorance Racketboy and BulletMagnet. 😛

  35. JF says:

    Racketboy and BulletMagnet: Thank you for this excellent article.

  36. Krooze L-Roy says:

    Fantastic. I thought I was pretty well-versed on the Saturn’s shmup library, but there are several of these I’d never even heard of. Hopefully this list will generate more interest in the genre.

    Shooters can be intimidating for newcomers to “get into,” so I’m glad you wrote this so clearly and didn’t overload it with esoteric terms and references. My hat goes off to you both.

  37. racketboy says:

    That was the goal and I’m glad you liked it 🙂

  38. BlackDS says:

    Oh god, I never realized how much I was missing on the Saturn.

  39. trap15 says:

    Actually Steam Heart’s was for the PC-98, not the PC-88. I wonder why so many people confuse the two… :/

    Anyways, thanks for the list, I’ll have to go get the ones I don’t already have 😀

  40. racketboy says:

    Thanks for the info — I’ve made the correction 😉

  41. harlequ1n says:

    This list has become my obsession and holy grail. Thanks for giving a purpose to my collecting habits.

  42. BAZFAN says:

    Wheres Space harrier and After burner?. Are they not shooty games!. They were the last time i played them. Those two games feature on Sega ages volume 1 along with Outrun.

  43. Valgalder says:

    awesome article! really got me getting back into collecting Saturn imports. I love it!

  44. Soldier Blue says:

    Fantastic article guys. I’m hoping you will make one for the SNES and PC Engine too.

  45. gabriele squaratti says:

    i’ve bought radiant silvergun,dodopachi,battle garegga,TFV,gunbird,strikers 1945,soukyugurentai,batsugun,layer section,darius gaiden,sonic wings special and they are all AMAZING (some more than other but that’s normal :D)
    my white saturn is my fav console ever

  46. andy p says:

    Does anyone have any suggestions to physically switch to tate mode without literally flipping the tv set? I don’t suppose there is a tv frame that will rotate 90˚? If so, those would only be for modern hd tvs, which aren’t the best for older systems, graphically.

  47. BrianC says:

    Border Down is my favorite shmup of all time (well, tied with Trizeal) so I was really excited to try some Taito shmups on my Saturn once I got it out of storage (where it will never return). I really didn’t care for the Darius games but Layer Section is incredible and dirt cheap. I also love, even in the Darius games, seeing what lead to the creation of Border Down. Metal Black is next on my list if I can find it at a good price. Great article by the way!

  48. BrianC says:

    Blahh, in case anyone was in my shoes and though Metal Black would be a great piece of Border Down history I would strongly advise avoiding the title. It actually made the Darius games look good. And I fucking hate Darius.

  49. Achoo says:

    OMG, how could you not comment on Batsugun’s extreme difficulty? A warning would have been nice!!
    If you have got to the end yourself without using the extra credits cheat, I would be most impressed.

  50. gabriele squaratti says:

    my fav shmup console.

    i’ve just picked hyper duel,blast wind,image fight/x multiply

  51. gabriele squaratti says:

    achoo,shmup goal is to 1cc games not to extra credit feed 😀

  52. gabriele squaratti says:

    i’ve got so far : radiant silvergun,batsugun,battle garegga,strikers 1945 1 & 2,gunbird,sonic wing,image fight/x multiply,sonic wing special,metal black,gun frontier,layer section,blast wind,hyperduel,donpachi,dodonpachi,salamander pack,sol divide,gradius pack,detana twinbee pack,darius gaiden,soukyugurentai,thunder force V.