Not that most of you really need to hear me say this, but the classic scrolling shoot-em-up (or “shmup”) has become something of a rarity in and of itself these days. With so few commercial releases on the horizon, the tiniest crumbs of emerging information are immediately seized upon by the most devoted remaining fans and obsessively documented; after all, nobody knows when, or if, the next one might appear. Such is the lot of gamers whose genre has fallen on lean times.
Not too terribly long ago, however, gaming’s parallax-scrolling skies were positively dominated by pixilated airplanes and spaceships, to the point that entire squadrons could pass overhead all but unnoticed. Even today’s incorrigible enthusiasts must struggle mightily to unearth their scant fallen remains, and many of these rusty relics, to be sure, are hardly worth digging up, but others very much deserve some overdue time in the spotlight, and to be discovered by a new generation of gamers, not to mention those among the “old guard” who missed them the first time around. This list is an attempt to, at long last, highlight a handful of these most interesting and appealing obscurities of shmupdom.
A few brief notes about the nature of this piece:
- As with all of the other “Hidden Gem” articles on Racketboy, “hidden” is a very subjective term, dependent on one’s innate familiarity with the subject in question…and that’s before the inevitable, vain attempts to hash out what exactly constitutes a “gem”. If anything I’ve erred a bit on the side of obscurity, including titles that even longtime shooter fans might not know about, though I have tried to include a handful of somewhat more recognizable ones too. Either way I’m sure that plenty of suggestions/demands will surface in the comments, so have at it!
- For the sake of both length and consistency, only “professionally-developed” games are covered here; the ever-growing slew of “homebrew” shooters out there will have to wait for their own separate chance to shine.
- As an addendum to the above, the selected entries stick pretty close to the conventions of “pure” shmups, and mostly steer clear of “borderliner” territory: the likes of run-n-guns, rail shooters, etc. would also assuredly need their own corresponding articles to do them justice.
- Since there are so many notable-yet-unknown shooters out there but only a limited amount of space to work with (at least up to the point at which readers’ eyeballs start to shrivel), I “cheated” a bit by including one or more marginally-related “Honorable Mentions” alongside each “main” writeup: these aren’t discussed in as much detail, but are definitely deserving of some attention in their own right.
Without further ado, then, please enjoy discovering, or re-discovering, these “Hidden Gem” Shmups!
Ask a well-traveled shmupper to name some examples of shooters that were “ahead of their time”: you’re certain to hear him rattle off a number of entries found on the “Defining Shmups” list, and rightly so. A handful of well-decorated veterans, however, might throw you a curveball in the form of this unsung pioneer from UPL, hardly the company’s only shooter but almost certainly the magnum opus of their largely-underground catalog. No major surprises await in the setup (blow up each part of a Big Ol’ Meanie-Face Spaceship before it rips Earth a new one), presentation (no better than par for the time), or weapons (a spread shot or straight laser), but Omega Fighter stands apart as one of the very first shmups to place a decided emphasis on exploiting a scoring system that ventures beyond the self-explanatory boundaries of “kill lots of things” and/or “pick up lots of things”: try to find a more recent release that hasn’t in some way followed in this shooter’s unsung footsteps!
Moreover, here you can observe perhaps the genre’s earliest significant foray into “proximity-based” scoring: basically, the closer you dare to get to an enemy when you shoot it down the more points you’re awarded for it, up to ten times its base value if you’re right up in its face when it pops off of this mortal coil. Once you’ve got the core concept down you’ll start to see how the rest of Omega Fighter ties so nicely into it. For example, as the “laser” weapon grows stronger its range shrinks, becoming more and more of a “lightsaber” as you hoard powerups: essentially, how far you go along this path factors into how much risk you’re willing to take on in pursuit of high multipliers, trading quicker kills for decreased personal safety. The occasional “bomb pods” you pick up, for their part, not only add one-hit shields to the side of your ship but can be spent for either a traditional screen-clearer or a temporary “slow down” effect that makes it easier to zip up close to baddies and pick them off for the biggest points. Good stuff, especially way back in 1989: sadly, neither Omega Fighter nor its tweaked follow-up, Omega Fighter Special, ever got the recognition they deserved and to this day remain confined to arcade boards and emulated files.
Another little-known shmup that ventured bravely into unknown territory long before others dared is Nichibutsu’s Choutoki Meikyuu Legion (eBay) : in most respects it plays similarly to other late-80s scrolling shooters, but eschews a “traditional” smart bomb for the ability to rewind time a couple of seconds to undo your mistakes (missed a crucial target or item? Go back and get it!), years before Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time put the ability on the map (though technically the original release of Pitman, more famously remade as Catrap for Game Boy, managed to beat it there). Namco’s Dangerous Seed (eBay / Amazon) is another product of that era which feels a bit more advanced than most would expect, thanks to a strong default fire rate and effective special weapons to help you overcome the odds; the title is also short but intense, a departure from the often marathon-length shmups of the day. “Legion” has yet to make it to a home format, but “Seed” did hit the Japanese Mega Drive.
Athena hasn’t ever occupied anything close to a “top-tier” position in the hierarchy of game developers, but shmuppers are at least somewhat likely to recognize them for their unique Dezaemon series of design-your-own-shooter workshops. You’d expect such an outfit to eventually put its money where its proverbial mouth is and release a handful of its own original shooters the “traditional” way: this they did, though none were destined to create much of a splash. A bit of shame, as one of these, Biometal, was actually a rather bold step forward for the genre at large; Athena, in fact, remained fond enough of it to include a mini-sequel, Biometal Gust, on Dezaemon 2 for the Saturn. Aside from a highly Giger-esque aesthetic for the titular alien baddies things look pretty pedestrian at first, but before long you might have to do a double take: a LOT more unfriendly bullets are sent your way than you’d ever expect from a 16-bit shooter, especially on the non-Blast-Processed SNES.
How could one expect to survive such an onslaught in the days before microscopic hitboxes became all the rage? With a handy-dandy shield of rotating spheres, which can be deployed at any time but must be regularly turned off to recharge the batteries. This indispensable device has offensive applications too: it can be hurled, boomerang style, to pierce right through larger targets, or expanded outwards to pick off pesky small ones. Biometal was lucky enough to be tapped for localization back in the day, though its publisher was none other than Activision, who even back then thought it’d be a swell idea to replace the game’s soundtrack with remixes of songs by 2Unlimited (yup, that cheesy electronic group that you always used to hear getting the crowd pumped at NBA matchups). Thankfully the rest of the game was left more or less untouched, so you can still save yourself a few bucks by picking up the domestic version if you’re willing to mute the TV and put on your own music (unless you’re in the mood for a good, hearty laugh, of course).
Honorable Mentions: Naturally, Biometal wasn’t the only shooter to overstimulate players years before “bullet hell” became a household shmupping term. Enemy attacks in Taito’s Grid Seeker: Project Storm Hammer (eBay) , for instance, aren’t quite so intense, but you are encouraged to frequently position your craft’s bullet-absorbing pods to not only add supplemental fire but build up energy for special attacks. Capcom’s Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (eBay) has also outfitted its humble light-orange airplane with nifty pod-based shields to keep matters semi-reasonable in the face of overwhelmingly-cranky enemies, though its use is strictly limited to defense (which you’ll definitely need, since constant back-and-forth movement is weirdly required to charge up your bomb stock). Both games remained arcade exclusives for a long time, but in recent years each has made an appearance on its respective PS2-era “Arcade Classics” compilation, and can be easily sampled.
Change Air Blade
A vast majority, if not the entirety, of play time spent on most shmups casts the computer as your sole opponent: if a second player does join in it’s almost certainly in the spirit of cooperation, to bring down this same constant, artificial adversary. If one happens to hunger for the more exciting and unpredictable challenge of testing his skills versus a flesh-and-blood human competitor, he’s largely out of luck, unless a copy of Twinkle Star Sprites is handy (and even there a bit of a “puzzle” mindset is required to perform effectively, in addition to twitch reflexes). Precious few competitive-minded shooter junkies have so far happened across this purer, laser-focused alternative, published to arcades by none other than Sammy, who also brought Arc Systems’ Guilty Gear to fighter fans: you can always take on the CPU here too, of course, but the heart and soul of Change Air Blade lies in matching your wits against those of a wily, cutthroat shmupper just like yourself.
Each player selects one of eight combat-ready planes and is assigned to either the top or bottom of the screen before mercilessly lighting each other up. The “bottom” player goes about things in fairly “traditional” shooter fashion, collecting powerups by hitting targets and stocking a couple of smart bombs to weasel out of trouble: the “top” player, on the other hand, is the big bad “enemy”, and gets to call upon cannon fodder helpers as well as “boss armor” that summons huge, multi-part attachments to make life difficult for the opposition. Some attacks only chip away at either player’s lifeline, but others are shmup-standard one-hit kills: you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for the “Change” item which instantly switches the combatants’ sides. Deplete all three of your rival’s lives and the match is yours: best of three matches wins, so get to it, as there are dear friends out there in sore need of hard-nosed digital comeuppance!
Honorable Mention: There’s no versus play to speak of here, but Oriental Soft’s G-Stream 2020 (eBay) might still be a worthwhile side trip for shmuppers seeking a fuller impression of the genre and its sometimes-murky historical timeline; any who have played Trizeal, the most famous production of tiny-but-determined developer Triangle Service, will instantly recognize the beginnings of the latter’s weapon and medaling systems, first laid out here. In some ways G-Stream is actually a bit more complex than its spiritual successor, since powering up one type of shot can weaken another, and your charge attack can be used not only to shield yourself from bullets but to spawn extra bonus medals; there’s even an unusual “proximity” mechanic which involves “dive-bombing” enemies as they expire to quickly collect their fading energy to power your own special attacks. Like Change Air Blade this one’s never made landfall outside of arcades, so you’ll have to look around a bit for a go at it.
As was noted some time back in the “Shmups 101″ Beginner’s Guide , considering how much inspiration the genre draws from various “giant mecha” anime it’s curious how frequently Japan’s signature fighting robots are upstaged onscreen by more “traditional” (as far as it goes) air- and spacecraft. Leave it to none other than Jaleco to strike a steel-knuckled blow for artificial hominid facsimiles everywhere, and depart a bit from long-standing shooter conventions in the process; thankfully, they also have the good taste to leave the genre’s storied mastery of aesthetically-pleasing wanton destruction very much intact. At the beginning of each level your combat-hungry mech is granted two main weapons, generally some type of gun plus a beam sword: the former usually requires a short break to recharge between volleys, encouraging players to spend lots of quality time snuggling right up to targets before cleaving them gingerly in half.
Though the background of each stage still scrolls from beginning to end, unlike most shooters you can freely face your ‘bot in any direction as you move around, though firing off your gun will lock your orientation and allow you to strafe: when you’re in “melee mode”, on the other hand, you’ll be slashing all over the place like a madman, all the better to counter the legion of adversaries constantly assaulting you from all sides. No need to worry about taking damage from brushing up against them, though; just bring them down or back off before they decide to point-blank you. It can get pretty hectic pretty quickly when a gargantuan battle cruiser is spitting out evil battle-droids at a mile a minute, but this is definitely another lost arcade-exclusive classic that you’ll wish had made it to some other format down the line.
Honorable Mentions: So Cybattler still isn’t quite vintage enough for some of you robo-fans out there? If so, seek solace in Konami’s Finalizer: Super Transformation (eBay) and Nichibutsu’s UFO Robo Dangar (eBay) , from 1985 and 1986 respectively: both are charmingly simple airplanes-transforming-into-robots venues that also manage to feel a fair deal less frustrating than most of their contemporaries. Guardian Force (eBay) is another recommended destination for those who most enjoyed Cybattler’s freedom to attack in (and be attacked from) any direction: here you occupy the driver’s seat of a tank with a rotatable turret (think Sunsoft’s SWIV) and some memorable secondary weapons, including a giant green glowing yo-yo of death. Unlike the previous sub-entries it actually got ported to the Japanese Saturn, so if you’re not into emulation this is probably the easiest of the bunch to get your mitts on.
You know, I think Cybattler really WAS on to something, in more ways than one. Sitting back and sending waves of projectile doom at one’s enemies from the relative safety of the far reaches of the screen is all well and good, but sometimes, dagnabbit, you’re just in the mood to get up close and personal with your adversary, making your point with a good old-fashioned sword or spear, showing no fear of glowing bullet nor shining laser beam: y’know, doing battle the straightforward, honorable(-ish) way! As it turns out, a number of famous samurai and other historical Japanese warriors felt the same, at least according to Visco; though they took to the field of conflict on hover bikes, they still kept their trusty melee weapons close by their sides, wielding them with valor as they dismantled their enemies’ armies of infernal death machines. Er, anyway, while Vasara’s take on the Sengoku era may not be the one covered in the textbooks, it is a refreshing and under-appreciated variation on the brand of 2-D action we all know and love.
In both of the Vasaras every selectable character can both fire off standard shots and charge up a powerful short-range physical strike, which can obviously damage targets (slicing lots of them open is always the key ingredient for high scores, though the two games implement it a bit differently) as well as deflect most common bullet types: as in Cybattler, if you accidentally touch an enemy you just bounce off, for only their attacks can actually hurt you. Even with these considerable advantages on your side neither game is anything close to a cake walk (the two-loop “Hard” mode in Vasara 2 will make you cry), especially if you want to further boost your score by bringing down all of the flag-bearing “prestige” targets (including a veritable truckload of mid-bosses) and collecting piles of gold precisely as they shimmer for bonus points. Sadly, Visco was bought out not long after the sequel hit arcades, and neither one has ever been ported to home systems or made available for (legal) download.
Honorable Mentions: If you’ve read the site’s PS2 Shmup Rundown you may remember seeing some praise for Skonec’s Homura (eBay / Amazon) , which places decidedly more emphasis on shooting than Vasara does but still demands a healthy amount of well-timed swordplay to both clear out the screen for a fat multiplier and to send unfriendly fire right back at the fools that launched it. Likewise, you’ve almost certainly happened across the name of departed developer Raizing somewhere on this site, but chances are you’ve never tried their very last shmup, Brave Blade (eBay) , which was never graced with a home port and only runs in emulators that support its native ZN1 hardware. While the polygonal graphics have tarnished with age and constantly “juggling” medals to increase their value may be a bit too much for some to keep up with, it’s still a fine choice for solving all your problems with a good, sharp edge.
Cyvern: The Dragon Weapons
I like to think that someone over at Kaneko, while brainstorming possible concepts for the company’s next project, casually asked his eight-year-old nephew what kind of game he’d like to play, and received an immediate, heartfelt answer: “Dragons! Laser-breathing CYBER-dragons, with GUNS on them!” However this one actually came into being, it’s a relatively recent arcade exclusive very much worth taking for a spin, as it draws inspiration not only from the fever dreams of a Masters of the Universe marketing executive but many of its more illustrious latter-day shooter contemporaries. Each of your three selectable dragons, for instance, possesses both a “normal” shot and a powerful “banish” attack, activated by holding down the attack button a la many Cave games, though the latter is fueled by a meter and must be replenished via either powerups or downed enemies.
Timely use of the “banish” is crucial, both for neutralizing major threats quickly (a central Psikyo strategy) and for scoring: not only do certain targets surrender different awards and items when banished, but destroying stuff on the ground with dragon breath reveals point-rich medals whose values increase as they’re collected, much akin to many Raizing releases. Combine all of this with a dollop of performance-based secrets, a solid presentation (you’ll wince whenever your poor dragon howls as it takes a hit) and a downright intense challenge level (there’s even a second loop for utter masochists, as well as a presumed fan hack called Cyvern Plus somewhere out there), and you’ve got a bona fide underground favorite for shooter fans sufficiently in the know. Just be prepared to put in a LOT of practice time if you want to see anything past the first couple of levels, let alone the end credits!
Honorable Mentions: Speaking of slightly-embarrassing childhood indulgences, if you still long to savor the sweet sensation of fictional destruction wrought large you ought to give Seta’s Twin Eagle II: The Rescue Mission (eBay) a go: the game is admittedly somewhat rough around the perimeter, but the sheer amount of stuff you can blow up with reckless abandon is hard to resist. Buildings, trees, passing cars, and most anything else in your path is handily reduced to flaming rubble by your borderline-psychotic helicopter, accented by flashing multiplier pop-ups (sorry, civilized society, but there are bonus point to be had!); creative types can even shell a space observatory and watch as the smoldering dome rolls over and flattens nearby targets like an oversized bowling ball. I’m not sure who it is you’re supposed to be rescuing (as if it matters), but chances are that by the end finding him or her will be easy, as nothing much else will be left standing!
It would appear that there’s room for more than one dragon-themed shooter on this list; our very next specimen comes to you courtesy of storied R-Type developer Irem, whom you’ll also be hearing from again in short order. Unlike Cyvern, it must be noted, you technically control a puny gun-toting human mounted atop said dragon; moreover, when you first see a screenshot or two, you’ll probably think to yourself “that’s got to be the most ridiculously huge hitbox in shmup history.” True, the snakelike drake that your character rides takes up more screen space than just about any other controllable entity the genre has seen, but play for a few minutes and you’ll be delighted to find that only your rider is vulnerable to any and all damage: that overgrown lizard of yours is totally invincible, and let me tell you that there’s no more satisfying feeling than watching those pesky little approach-from-behind enemies that killed you a hundred times in other shmups brush harmlessly off your dragon’s majestically-sweeping tail (and die from the impact, to boot!).
There is technically a little bit of run-n-gun in this game, as your character will occasionally have to dismount to pick up powerups and whatnot, but you’ll definitely want to stick close to your scaly pal most of the time, due to not only that handy-dandy bullet-blocking tail of his (which, when he’s got certain weapons equipped, can even be whipped around in a protective circle to clear the immediate area) but his powerful charge shot too. Some unconventional maneuvering is required to keep yourself safe from every angle, but if you’re down with that then you’ll definitely be down with this game: if you want to “legitimately” snag Dragon Breed but can’t handle a PCB or the handful of bygone computer ports from way back when, you can download “Irem Arcade Hits” from DotEmu, which includes (despite the “Hits” moniker) this and a bunch of other Irem obscurities, though some users have had trouble running them.
Honorable Mention: If you love segmented dragons but would prefer a somewhat more familiar shooting format Jaleco’s Saint Dragon (eBay) (aka “Tensei Ryuu”) ought to have you covered: you’re given control of another serpentine dragon whose tail can cancel out certain enemy shots, and the surreal, slightly creepy atmosphere can stand toe-to-toe with Irem’s equivalent, but your appendage is much shorter here, and can’t be relied upon as constantly, so be prepared to do a good deal more “traditional” dodging here. Like Dragon Breed this one got a couple of home ports in real time, specifically to the Amiga, Commodore 64 and PC Engine, so if you’re the olde-tyme collector type it just might warrant a spot someplace on your shelf.
If you’ve ever saddled up the trusty ol’ flying broom and shot down evil critters with magic spells, you presumably either live a much more interesting life than I do or were playing one of the Cotton series of “cute-emup” shooters. Even most of Hogwarts’ best video gaming students, however, probably haven’t heard of Mystic Riders (aka “Mahou Keibitai Gun Hohki”), another hidden gem from Irem: though you’re technically riding some sort of magic rod instead of the more iconic house-cleaning apparatus, you’ll soon learn to love it just the same, as it offers several additional methods of attack in addition to your standard-issue rapid fire and charge shots. For one thing, close-up enemies can be fended off with the flame coming out the back; even better, you can pull a spin move that grants a moment of near-invincibility, or go right ahead and toss the thing to conk enemies over the head from any direction!
There’s basically no limit to how frequently you can use any of these moves, which renders them ripe for abuse, but remember, this IS an Irem game, so you’re gonna need to do just that to survive: red gems dropped by enemies or hidden in chests and other places boost both your firepower and your score, so smack around everything you can with either spell or staff to uncover as many as possible, and bring along a pal to lend a hand if/when things get too hairy. As you probably feared, Mystic Riders was apparently either a bit too cute or not quite cute enough to manage a home port back when it first came out, though the recent Irem Arcade Hits PC compilation has it if you’re not afraid of the aforementioned issues it carries. Considering the sorts of straits Irem’s been in lately it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see it anywhere else, which makes you just want to, well, throw a magical staff at somebody (DISCLAIMER: The author strongly recommends that you vent all such frustrations in-game).
Honorable Mentions: As it happens, both HMs for this entry are not only cute-em-ups but rabbit-themed. First up is Keio Flying Squadron (eBay / Amazon) for the Sega CD, which immediately establishes itself as a Japanese game by not only starring a 14-year-old in a leotard and bunny ears (in the mid-1800’s, no less), but pitting her and her pet dragon against a super-intelligent raccoon bent on (eco-friendly) world domination. Prepare to do battle with giant Daruma dolls, the U.S. Navy, and more flying chicken heads than you can handle; letting up on the fire button spawns mini-dragons which can be expended as power shots, and you can also adjust the exact position of your hitbox in the options menu. Then you’ve got Rabio Lepus (aka “Rabbit Punch”) by Video System, many of whose members later went on to form Psikyo: your somewhat Twinbee-esque rabbit-shaped ship will claim hard-fought victory via a stock of homing carrot missiles and a risky-but-powerful short-range punch attack. “Keio” was, believe it or not, localized in all regions but is quite pricy nowadays; “Rabio” made a trip to the PC Engine and PS2 (as one of those somewhat-sketchy “Oretachi Geesen Zoku” entries), but never left its native land, though the rabbit ships also scored occasional cameo roles in the Aero Fighters (aka Sonic Wings) series.
Naxat Soft is best-remembered by most for its work on the PC Engine, some of which was quite technically impressive in its day, but even none of those iconic productions stand as the company main claim to fame when it comes to feats of pure programming: that honor almost certainly goes to Recca on the Famicom, which has nothing to do with the “Flame of Recca” anime but was rather the 1992 entry in the company’s “Summer Carnival” series of time-attack “Caravan” games. More sprites, faster scrolling and higher blood pressure than you ever thought that little system could induce (and occasionally decidedly more than it, or you, can comfortably handle) is hurled in the player’s face right from the get-go, leaving us mere mortals to make the absolute best of the power-ups and adjustable speed setting we’re granted in hopes of making it through with all of our digits intact: of course, if you’d prefer not having to worry about losing your lives so frequently the requisite Time Attack and Score Attack modes (plus a hidden variation or two) are available for perusal.
Perhaps this game’s most memorable single feature, however, is its unique “bomb” weapon: if you stop shooting for a moment a ball of energy begins to form on the nose of your ship, and can absorb frontal enemy fire as it does so. Hit the “bomb” button once it’s fully charged and it’ll explode into a fireworks display that does big damage to nearby targets, though of course you’ll have to carefully choose every fleeting opportunity to lay off the fire trigger to charge one of these bad boys up. If this state of affairs sounds familiar, you’ve probably played Cave’s (also-infamously-difficult) Pink Sweets, which drew direct inspiration from Recca nearly a decade and a half later; not coincidentally both games had a fellow on staff named Shinobu Yagawa, whose imprint can also be found on a number of Raizing’s famously merciless shooters. If you still think you’ve got a snowball’s chance or better of conquering Recca there’s one last thing you might have to do: develop a taste for instant ramen, as a secondhand copy will cost you dearly. (Update: Recca has since been announced for the 3DS eShop)
Honorable Mentions: As inferred earlier, while it’s not quite as much of a technical marvel as Recca, Nexzr (and its “Score/Time Attack Only” variation, Nexzr Special) on the Turbo CD is another quality Naxat production (in conjunction with Kaneko) worthy of praise, especially for its vivid visuals and soundtrack, though its mechanics are actually considerably simpler in nature than Recca’s. Back on the Famicom, tech heads can also check out Konami’s Crisis Force, a late vertical shooter that occasionally allows transformation into a crazy crystalline super-ship, as well as Hot-B’s Over Horizon (eBay) , an attractive side-scroller that enables you to freely switch up not only your speed, shooting direction and option formation, but specific weapons’ behaviors, via “Edit Mode”. Both are some of the most impressive 8-bit shooting trips you’re likely to take, but only the latter ever made it overseas, and only to Europe. Finally there’s long-lost DOS shooter Sideline (eBay) , which comprises a surprisingly robust overall package for such an unknown commodity, but little “official” information of any use is still out there by now, so feel free to search out a demo online and sample it for yourself.
Alpha Mission (series)
When one thinks of SNK it’s almost certain to call to mind one or more of the famous brawlers from King of Fighters, or perhaps the cartoony commandos and tanks from Metal Slug (for your sake I’ll assume that Doki Doki Majo Shinpan! never once entered your mind): while even most contemporary gamers are at least aware of the Neo-Geo’s existence, far fewer are cognizant of SNK’s surprisingly significant presence within the hallowed halls of shooter history. The most distinctive of its contributions are the pair of Alpha Mission (aka “Armored Scrum Object”, or “ASO”) releases, which implement a unique, and rather technical, weapons system: at first glance the constant slew of collectable letters scattered across the screen may make your head spin, but take a bit of time to learn what everything does and your path to victory (or at least a not-too-embarrassing credit) will become much clearer.
At a glance both games play largely like prettier Xevious sequels, as you progress vertically whilst attacking air and ground targets separately; you can enhance your basic weapons and speed in traditional fashion (just watch out for “power-down” items mixed in with the rest), but the most interesting things you’ll find along the way are pieces of various high-output “armor”, which, once you’ve completed a set, can be activated and equipped on demand to temporarily give you both a special weapon to lay waste with and the ever-so-welcome ability to screw up without dying instantly. While most of the main ingredients stay the same across both entries, certain details are tweaked between the two (most notably you can buy armor with the “G” you collect between stages in the sequel): outside of the arcade, the first Alpha Mission was ported to the NES, the sequel made it to the Neo-Geo CD and both are downloadable on the PSN, so give ‘em a whirl if you’re not too afraid of having to utilize a third button (madness!) to succeed in a shooter.
Honorable Mentions: Another worthwhile SNK-developed shmup you probably haven’t encountered is 1992’s Last Resort (eBay / Amazon) : sure, it’s one of many, many “tributes” to R-Type, but it’s a pretty darn good one, featuring enticingly gritty spritework and the ability to freely rotate and lock your bullet-blocking pod, not to mention charge it up and hurl it right into enemies’ faces. Also, for the Neo-Geo CD (but not developed directly by SNK), is Saurus’ Ironclad (eBay) (aka “Choutetsu Brikin’ger”), which is cut from similar cloth to Last Resort but also features a branching stage structure and a more “steampunk-ish” setting; your “pod”, in fact, is a transforming robot with a drill arm (and killing enemies with it means extra score medals!). Thankfully for those too financially strapped to get into Neo-Geo collecting, the pair have made late appearances on SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 and the Wii’s Virtual Console, respectively.
Chouzikuu Yousai Macross – Macross II
I don’t really need to get into the whole “ack, a licensed game!” thing now, do I? Everyone already knows how many half-baked cash-grab products the industry has endured and continues to endure: long-running anime Super Space Fortress Macross (aka “Robotech” to many Westerners) is certainly no exception to having had its name slapped onto some shoddy stuff over the years. Thankfully there’s also a bright side to its countless merchandising exploits, with its most distinctive glimmer coming, fortunately for us gamers, in the form of side-scroller Macross II, a 1993 Japanese arcade exclusive from Banpresto. Instead of focusing in on story or atmosphere as you might expect, this is one of a very small handful of “Caravan-style” releases for arcades, in which the sole object is to rack up as many points as you can within a brief span of time. Your lives are unlimited, but the real enemy to contend with is the ever-decreasing timer; if your score comes up below par after time runs out the game is over.
As fans might expect power-ups grant access to both Fighter (speedy air-to-air) and Gerwalk (slower air-to-ground) forms, while the Battroid (mecha) activates when a smart bomb is used; a few types of deadly missiles are also here, of course. With all of these at your disposal you pick one of three routes to take and set about blasting and collecting every shiny thing you see, plus some you don’t: decimating enemy formations and snapping up dropped coins before they vanish are a given, though you’ll also want to shoot around for hidden targets and pickups (including cute little Minmay dolls) and keep a careful eye out for bonuses awarded by destroying certain enemies at particular times…be sure to go about it all quickly, as you’re never given more than two measly minutes to rack up a number big enough to move on (if you’re having trouble, teaming up with a second player to combine your winnings might help). The harried play style might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly something you’d never expect from a licensed game, especially not as well-executed as it is here.
Honorable Mentions: Believe it or not, there are actually a couple of other good Macross-branded shooters out there for otaku indulgence: in arcades, for starters, there’s Super Space Fortress Macross (eBay) and Macross Plus (eBay / Amazon) , both solid if fairly standard vertical-scrollers (though the latter borrows the lock-on targeting mechanism from Rayforce). On the Japanese Super Famicom you’ve also got Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie (eBay / Amazon) , a well-presented horizontal shooter which allows forms to be switched freely and certain enemies to be converted to the player’s side via a short-range energy field. If you still haven’t had your fill of licensed animated robotics head on back to the not-so-local arcade and set your scanners for Mazinger Z (eBay) , which features bullet-canceling melee punches, a boss that whips a subway train at you, and lots and lots of emphatic yelling: what more could a true-blue old-school fan ask for?
Racketboy regulars might recognize this one from the PS1 Shmup Guide, but most others are likely scratching their heads; not surprising, seeing as Harmful Park is 1) A Japanese PS1 exclusive, 2) Developed by Sky Think System, a blink-and-you-missed-them company almost nobody has ever heard of, and 3) Stupidly expensive on the used market (though if you can make purchases on the Japanese PSN it’s available as a PS3 download for a lot cheaper). Either way this colorful and endearing side-scrolling cute-em-up is more than worthy of another mention around here, not only because it’s so far under the radar but because it’s lovingly-crafted and lots of fun: if you’ve ever dreamed of wielding an arsenal of exploding pies to save a crazy amusement park from takeover by a mad scientist, I’m happy to announce that you’re about to add a whole lot of long-deferred meaning and satisfaction to your life.
Once they’ve left the launch pad players can switch at any time between four different weapons, which are powered up individually and also affect how your stock of smart bombs manifest themselves. Timely use of the whole lot is essential to score attacking, as destroying formations of enemies in one shot multiplies their value (for example, use the ice cream laser to take down horizontal lines of baddies), though you’ll also want to catch all of the green gems they release, and send a few shots into out-of-the-way places to find invisible targets as well. As you leave a jelly bean-induced path of destruction in your wake you’ll get to take in all of the park’s colorful and lively attractions, from the haunted house to the waterslide to the rollercoaster to the hidden subterranean beer hall(!); if you feel like a break from the main game you can tackle the challenging stand-alone Score Attack level, or even a trio of multiplayer mini-games included on the disc. In short, don’t let the silly, light-hearted theme fool you: this is easily one of the PS1’s premier shooters.
Honorable Mentions: Remember the heyday of Great Greed, Zen: Intergalactic Ninja and Awesome Possum, when environmental themes seemed to pop up in video games almost at random, where you least expected them to? Capcom was there, of course, and threw its own biodegradable hat into the ring with Eco Fighters (eBay) (“Ultimate Ecology” in Japan): to their vast credit, this side-scroller sports an attractive cute-em-up veneer so as to avoid too heavy-handed a tone, and sports an unusual mechanic in the form of a rotatable arm on the player’s ship, which can be manipulated at will to aim one’s secondary weapon in any direction. Interestingly, the original concept was first submitted to Capcom by a fan for a design contest, and was handed over from there to the same in-house team which worked on the Mega Man-themed arcade fighters: nowadays you can easily take this eco-trip back to the occasionally-glorious 90’s on Capcom Classics Collection 2 for the PS2 and XBox, or the “Reloaded” variation on the PSP.
Mr. Heli no Daibouken
This entry makes for our third visit to Irem on this list…for all the success they found with R-Type it’s strange to think how few of their other shooters ever managed to leave much of an impression on the industry, even when by all accounts they ought to have done just that. One particularly unassuming candidate is Mr Heli (aka “Battle Chopper”), which, it should be stated, due to its departures from genre protocol, might not quite qualify as a “true” shmup in some readers’ eyes. To wit, while stage progression remains linear, in most areas your titular chubby ‘copter must be moved along manually (in similar fashion to Irem’s later submarine shooter, In the Hunt), can be freely faced forwards or backwards, and will begin to gradually lose altitude if left stationary in midair (not to mention “walk” on the ground if you land). No matter how you choose to classify it, though, the game is an enjoyable and charming diversion that more people ought to partake of.
As you go along your merry rotor-powered way you’ll notice a slew of conspicuous rock formations lying around: shoot them away to reveal crystals (grab the big ones quick, or they’ll split into less-profitable shards), which are used as currency in “mini-shops” also hidden under certain piles of rubble. These kiosks only carry one upgrade at a time, but there are lots of them scattered about, and all you need to do to make a purchase is fly into it; the necessary cash will be deducted automatically and your new weapon or ability (which, you’ll be happy to hear, is never ammo- or time-limited) will be equipped instantly. This translates into little need to slow down your progress for shopping purposes, which is a good thing, since there’s a timer constantly ticking down for each level; you do have an energy meter (refilled by buying fuel cans) in addition to multiple lives, but finishing Mr. Heli still isn’t easy, as enemies spawn relentlessly and make mining the necessary money even more difficult to do before time expires. If you’re up to the task another batch of old-time computers and the aforementioned Irem Arcade Hits compilation have this, though the most popular home port went to the PC Engine, whose edition was re-released to the Virtual Console later down the line.
Honorable Mentions: As first referenced in the Saturn Shmup Rundown, if you’ve played R-Type Final on the PS2 you might have encountered (alongside Mr. Heli himself) an unlockable ship called “Crossing the Rubicon”, whose “Force” device sprouts a pair of creepy mechanical tentacles: you might not be aware that it’s actually another cameo, this time from X-Multiply (eBay) , a lesser-known Irem shooter similar to R-Type but even more dark and unsettling in terms of atmosphere (and that’s saying something). Should you prefer something a bit more outside the company’s usual, um, “comfort” zone, you might want to fire up Fire Barrel (eBay) , which plays more akin to Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden games, with a touch of pre-Nazca sprite detailing in the graphics. The former game was ported, alongside the punishing Image Fight, to the PS1 and Saturn in Japan, but the latter has remained an arcade exclusive; thankfully some longtime emulation issues were recently ironed out, so curious players can get a fuller sense of what the game’s about.
Though very few people on this side of planet Earth are acquainted with developer Warashi, they were actually one of the more enduring shmup-centric developers in Japan, quietly churning out solid titles from Shienryu to Triggerheart Exelica before abruptly vanishing into the night but a short time ago as of this writing. None of their output ever amounted to much more than modest success, commercially speaking, but the arcade-exclusive Sengeki Striker is a name that causes even many shooter historians to scratch their heads, partially due to the fact that it didn’t run correctly in most emulators for quite a few years; more recently things have been patched up, and the time is thus ripe for a second look. At first blush you’ll quickly recognize a handful of assets that have been carried over from Shienryu, especially in the sound effects department (I’d know those crackly explosions anywhere), but it quickly becomes evident that you’re dealing with a different beast entirely.
For one thing, enemies are a fair deal more aggressive (especially if you’re playing the default “Asia” ROM; it’s recommended you stick with the somewhat less ridiculous “Japan” version), to the point that you’ll need to adhere to a whole different sort of bullet-dodging philosophy than in its Raiden-esque cousin. Moreover, while you only get a single “primary” weapon this time, you can also amass up to four gunpod assistants, in either (enemy-seeking) Vulcan or (straight-on stream) Laser varieties: after firing for a few moments they’ll stop shooting, which is your signal to lay off the trigger for a moment to activate their satisfyingly-destructive special attack, which you’ll need to exploit to the fullest extent you can. Gunpods can also block a handful of bullets before breaking up, and will likely save your bacon more than a few times amidst the enemy’s barrages. Little developer-published information on the game exists, and as such the scoring system remains something of a mystery (dropping air targets onto ground ones appears to have something to do with it), but even without knowing all the specifics Sengeki Striker is a less-traveled path that more shmuppers ought to take a walk down.
Honorable Mentions: It’s tough to make mention of Shienryu or any of its relatives without bringing up its VERY direct ancestor, Athena’s Daioh (eBay) . The former’s weapons system and overall gameplay style were brought to bear here before its staffers migrated en masse to Warashi; the U.S. version of the game gave you access to all three types of shots and bombs at once, requiring a full six-button cab setup to operate. As it did with Biometal, Athena later placed little mini-tributes to Daioh into several of its Dezaemon releases. Gratia: Second Earth (eBay) , on the other hand, is another arcade-exclusive Jaleco shmup that almost nobody has played, and features separate land/air planes of attack, though this time it’s implemented in a horizontal format, via an odd isometric background perspective. Thankfully you can forget the frequently-wimpy ground bombs of past titles, as this one’s exploding laser arrays can decimate the opposition once you get comfortable with them.
It can be tough for contemporary shmuppers to stand back and take stock of the long-standing and sometimes-baffling gaming entity known as Tecmo, wondering aloud why they never stuck to the shooter route for all that long, despite having made some early and rather important contributions to it. In the end one really can’t blame the company for where things have ended up, considering the trajectory that the industry at large has taken and the successful “guilty pleasure” niche they’ve built in response, but it’s tough not to discover something like Gemini Wing and continue to wistfully daydream about what might have been. The basic gist is obvious the first time you sidle up to the cab: by default your only weapon is a rather weak twin shot, hardly adequate considering how crowded with creepy-crawlies the screen frequently gets, so you’ll have to grab some better stuff from the bad guys. Mooching powerups from the opposition is fairly standard procedure, of course, but its soup-to-nuts application here takes things to a level seldom seen since.
As you fly along you may notice various colored orbs trailing behind you: these aren’t Gradius-esque multiples, but rather ammo for your all-important arsenal of single-use special weapons, most of which you’ll be nabbing directly from dragonfly-like enemies as they swoop and dangle them temptingly in front of your nose (the types they carry shift every few seconds, so time your grabs carefully). Hit the B button to spend whichever one you’ve had the longest (weapons are expended in the order you collect them), and don’t be shy about it either: you’ll need to be liberal with the use of just about every triple shot, flamethrower, or expanding laser ring the game gives you if you want to survive more than a couple of minutes, tops. Few shooters demands that you work with so much “limited ammo” outside of smart bombs, lending Gemini Wing a genuine sense of tension and a test of resource management for those up to the challenge: back in the day it was ported to over a half-dozen defunct computer systems, though most seekers today will probably end up emulating the arcade original.
Honorable Mentions: So you just can’t get enough of stealing weapons directly from enemies…and you already have Einhander? Allow me to first guide you towards Telenet Japan’s Gaiares (eBay / Amazon) for the Mega Drive, whose indestructible option helper initially seems reminiscent of roughly ten bazillion other R-Type pretenders but is actually intended to be launched into baddies to steal away their weapons: doing so repeatedly will increase its power. There are lots of armaments to try out, but you’d best figure them out quickly, as this is one of the system’s more challenging offerings; you don’t fool around with a villainess named “Z.Z. Badnusty”. Then there’s AI’s Blazeon (eBay) , published by Atlus and given a silly “Bio-Cyborg Challenge” subtitle in the USA: fire special missiles into certain enemies to stun them, then touch them to full-on transform into them and gain their abilities. Finding an arcade cab running it is unlikely in this day and age, but the SNES port should be pretty cheap.
Exhibit A: The MSX, a computer system from the 1980s which saw its greatest popularity by far within its native Japan. Also, as it happens, one of those platforms not considered particularly shmup-friendly by nature, due to the hard-and-fast limitations of the hardware, especially when it comes to the system’s rather choppy scrolling. Exhibit B: Konami, yet another developer in need of no introduction when it comes to its numerous and important contributions to the scrolling shooter. That said, look around their catalog a bit you’ll likely be surprised, as with Irem, at how many releases bearing its name have faded into obscurity even as Gradius has become a long-standing icon. Put the two together and you get, naturally, Exhibit C: one of the least-likely one-off successes in all of gamedom, namely Space Manbow on the slightly upgraded MSX2 hardware.
As the name alludes, you pilot a ship shaped like a mambo fish (officially the sharptail mola, for the biology enthusiasts out there); not that you’ll notice this much, as you’ll be too busy wondering how the heck Konami made the MSX’s shortcomings all but vanish into a smooth, effortless void. Weaponry is simple but effective, consisting primarily of top- and bottom-mounted options that can fire forwards, backwards, or up-and-down, crucial for picking off those unassuming little enemies that Konami loves to pack into inconvenient spots and torment players with: just be careful where and when you shoot, as movable obstacles can screw you out of an escape route in certain sections (oh, and always keep collecting those red power-up items, as your power level decreases automatically over time). By focusing most of its energy on the parts that matter, the game’s creators manage to craft not just a great shmup on the MSX but a worthy shooter on any platform: despite its obscurity Manbow has managed to chalk up both a WiiWare release and a “tribute” character (Mambo the “actual” flying fish, in the Parodius series) for itself. Not bad at all for a “handicapped” title, wouldn’t you say?
Honorable Mentions: As it happens, those wascawwy pwogwammers at Konami managed to squeeze a couple more worthwhile shooters out of the humble MSX: Knightmare (eBay / Amazon) (aka “Majou Densetsu”) is perhaps foremost among them, making up for its own stilted scrolling with smooth character movement and plentiful powerups and targets of interest. The game later received ports to the PS1 and Saturn on a collection disc, plus a non-shmup sequel, Maze of Galious; its lead character, Popolon, even made an appearance in the very first Parodius, also on the MSX. Konami developed a similar game for the system with additional exploration and puzzle elements, Hi no Tori, which as the title suggests is based on Osamu Tezuka’s “Phoenix” manga. One last Konami MSX project of note is Pippols: though not a “pure” shmup (it plays more like a vertical variation on Capcom’s SonSon than anything else), the scrolling is again remarkably smooth, plus it’s tough not to smile at least a little when playing as such an infectiously happy little elfin dude.
If you have a fellow shmupper or two over for an afternoon and someone blurts out the phrase “parody shooter”, the subject will almost certainly shift to Konami’s above-mentioned Parodius, or perhaps Hudson’s Star Parodier…suddenly inject Jaleco into the conversation, however, and the ensuing awkward silence is sure to be broken by a throat-clearing “…they made enough shooters to parody in the first place?” Indeed they did, and their erstwhile stab at silliness took the form of Game Tengoku (aka “The Game Paradise”), which calls up characters from a half-dozen bygone Jaleco properties and pits the motley team against a creepy evil guy (you can tell by the creepy evil mustache) intent on taking over the local game center one circuit board at a time. As they valiantly soar towards their goal the crew will encounter not only a slew of in-house references (the “Tuff E Nuff” advertisement in the first level is but one prominent exhibition), but set pieces from all sectors of the arcade’s bygone heyday: from pinball machines to UFO catchers to racer cabs, if you ever put a quarter into it you’ll probably end up flying by it, if not engaging in a dogfight with it.
Gameplay-wise things are pretty straightforward on the ground floor, as everyone packs a standard shot, a slow charge attack, a smart bomb for sticky situations, occasional “helper option” pickups (which are cute mini-versions of the main cast), and that’s about all there is to tell. Playing for score gets substantially trickier, as many enemies surrender eggplant-shaped point items, which must be collected in rapid sequence to increase their value: this is a challenge in and of itself, since the timing is very tight and there’s no onscreen indicator to help you keep track, but it can become downright maddening with baddies and their shots darting in from every side. Still, it’s hard not to have some fun blasting away everything from blocky Space Invaders look-alikes to flashy super robots, and if you snag the well-done Saturn port (don’t bother with its PS1-exclusive polygonal sequel) you also get an exclusive mode with an extra character and levels (including, believe it or not, a karaoke-themed one): if you don’t mind the fact that you probably won’t get every single joke due to the less-than-mainstream source material, you ought to spend a few credits with Game Tengoku.
Honorable Mentions: One final under-the-radar Jaleco nugget that you might want to check out is the fairly traditional side-scroller Earth Defense Force (eBay / Amazon) (commonly known as EDF). The game grants you one of several weapon choices for each stage, as well as the ability to shift your gunpod helpers between a few different formations: as you get farther in your arms will level up and new option layouts will become available, giving rise to a number of additional combinations to try out. Originally an arcade title, a less-challenging Super NES variation, Super EDF, was also released and localized: both are worth a shot as long as you’re up for some experimentation as to which loadout works best for which area.
Aliens invading from another galaxy? Eh, no big deal. Mad dictator unleashing bloodthirsty armies across the globe? Old news. Inter-dimensional necro-virus warping the very fabric of reality? Yawn. Some random faceless wizard turning your bishoujo princess pal pre-pubescent? NOW it’s personal! So begins the epic tale of Coryoon for the PC Engine, another production by Naxat Soft, also widely revered on the system for the “Crush” digital pinball games. You play the part of the titular chibi-dragon as he metes cutesy justice out upon everything from chubby unicorns to grumpy hermit crabs – just try not to “d’aww” out loud when you see his adorable little cheeks puff up as he prepares a charge shot. Along with that, you’ve got access to the usual complement of three main weapon power-ups and four “card suit” sub-abilities, which can add a shield, shrink your hitbox or one of a handful of other enhancements.
Oh, and there’s fruit. LOTS of fruit. Displaying due reverence to the nonsensical arcade stylings that inspired it, just about everything you shoot in Coryoon drops some manner of point-boosting fructose, presenting players with plenty of incentive to keep moving and collecting at all times, though when enemies and shots are all over the place it can be a bit hard to tell what’s what at a glance. That said, Coryoon still isn’t too challenging to conquer: if you’re at least partially powered up a hit will only reduce your weapon level instead of killing you, and the 1-ups (thanks in part to all that fruit) pile up quickly. So yeah, this one isn’t exactly a “serious” shooting excursion, but hopefully you already knew that going in, and if you need a slightly more “focused” diversion the game includes two “Caravan” variations for you to tune your time-attacking skills in. Unfortunately our fire-breathing moppet friend has yet to see release outside of Japan or on any “legit” digital download service, which renders his game more of an elite acquisition than such a friendly outing ought to be.
Honorable Mentions: So, your sweet tooth still isn’t satisfied? No need to even switch off the PC Engine if you’re hankering for more off-the-beaten-path cute-em-ups, though you will want to attach the CD add-on while you’re up. Air Zonk (eBay / Amazon) (or “PC Denjin: Punkic Cyborgs”), a spinoff of the system’s marquee PC Genjin (“Bonk” or “BC Kid” in the West) platformers, is one desirable acquisition (ever use milk bottle missiles to dispatch a football mascot boss? Without being arrested, I mean?), as is its CD-only sequel Super Air Zonk (eBay) and the somewhat more Gradius-flavored L-Dis (eBay / Amazon) , both developed by a Japan-centric outfit called Dual. Then there’s Magical Chase (eBay / Amazon), by Quest (the Ogre Battle guys): it combines features from a number of other shooters (positionable options, money/shop powerups, gem-dropping pink hedgehogs on beach balls…well, maybe not that last one) into a fun if somewhat breezy journey. The two Zonks and L-Dis all earned trips to the Virtual Console (though the latter in Japan only); Magical Chase never did, but was both localized and ported to the Game Boy Color, though neither product is anything close to an impulse buy if you can find ‘em.
Battle Mania (series)
In the world of shmups (and video games at large, to a degree) it can sometimes feel like there are only two polar-opposite thematic design philosophies to follow, with little room to breathe in between: if you’re developing a shooter, it seems, you either have to take yourself 100 percent seriously (even when nothing about your game makes any earthly sense) or go all-in on silliness and cuteness (at the expense of potential customers less secure in their masculinity). The elusive middle ground can be a bit tough to find sometimes, but thankfully an unassuming pair of teenage girls with jetpacks (whose first game was localized in the USA as “Trouble Shooter”) fly to the Genesis/Mega Drive to save the day…well, if you can consider such a seemingly minor dilemma worth calling in heavily-armed mercenaries for, I suppose. Though the games were developed by Vic Tokai, Sega apparently thought enough of them to award the heroines, Mania and Maria (Madison and Crystal in the West), cameos in its self-referential SeGaGaGa on the Dreamcast many years later.
Stirring in ample helpings of both self-aware wackiness and blissfully-oblivious “anime cool”, players will take up the fight against everything from standard-issue cyborgs to giant Monty Python-esque crushing feet to their own mirror reflections, summoned out of a skyscraper window by an evil robed being…brought swiftly to justice by your partner, who somehow drives a car straight through the side of said skyscraper before joining up with you (wonder how many points on her license that’ll be). Once you actually start analyzing how these games play you’ll discover that there’s a degree of finesse involved in keeping both of your characters’ shots focused on targets approaching from all sides (thankfully, only one of you can take damage), though having a rechargeable special weapon at your disposal certainly helps. Above all, while it’s hardly the deepest or most impeccably-polished series out there, it’s hard not to just let go and enjoy yourself when playing Battle Mania, and that alone ought to make the games worth a try.
Honorable Mentions: Another Genesis shooter you may have missed is Hot-B’s Steel Empire (eBay / Amazon) (aka “Empire of Steel” or “Koutetsu Teikoku”), which places a similar emphasis on splitting your attention (and firepower) between both the left and right sides of the screen, though it ditches Battle Mania’s anime-inspired world for an attractively retro-chic, “Jules Verne” aesthetic (it was also remade for the Game Boy Advance, though most prefer to play the original format). East Technology’s Gigandes (eBay) is another highly obscure curio, and has never transcended its original arcade format, to boot: unlike most shooters (except maybe Taito’s Mega Blast) you can collect and attach special weapons to all four sides of your tiny craft and thus take on threats from multiple directions at once, but don’t you dare get complacent, as escaping death is still deceptively tough!
I doubt that very many out there have ever so much as name-dropped developer Face, who finally petered out around the return of the century; moreover, even if you did happen to glimpse their name someplace (Money Idol Exchanger, maybe?), it almost certainly wasn’t while playing this long-lost 1993 shooter. Released the same year as Toaplan’s genre-shifting masterpiece Batsugun, Nostradamus embodies many similar qualities, dipping a tentative toe into “bullet hell” territory whilst remaining true to an older, slightly more “restrained” development philosophy…if you consider screaming, screen-clearing phoenix wings “restrained”. Story-wise, it would appear that everyone’s favorite clairvoyant kook, Michel Nostradamus, was actually right on the money when he foretold that “the great king of terror” would arrive in the distant future of 1999: thankfully, by that time humanity has developed fighter craft with ludicrous firepower and unlimited ammo, though we still haven’t figured out the whole “explodes when one unfriendly shot so much as grazes it” thing (or how to turn around, or adjust altitude, or apply brakes…).
Thankfully, said firepower more than lives up to its description, with your craft’s impressively-wide standard shot complemented by one of two “E.B.A.” (Energy Boost Accelerator) attachments, which provide supporting fire but are much more impressive accoutrements when charged up: their “wings” form an energy column that can be dragged behind you to absorb bullets, and when you release the button an enormous blast which pierces through targets, does massive damage and cancels most unfriendly fire is unleashed. You can use it as much as you want so long as you have a few moments to bottle it up, but this is a stricter limitation than it might appear: you’ve got a lengthy nine-stage ordeal ahead of you, chock full of less-then-hospitable opponents, without any sort of instant-activation smart bomb to save your hide from imminent oblivion. On the bright side Nostradamus boasts some very strong spritework for a no-name shooter, so you’ll definitely enjoy the sights as you crawl ever closer to your destination: it’s also the poster child for a hard-to-track title, as it’s never set foot outside of Japanese arcades, so if you’re not emulating you’re probably not playing it.
Honorable Mention: If the likes of Nostradamus is still somehow too narratively coherent for you to enjoy it, I recommend that you 1) Seek help, and 2) Play Ryu Jin, brought to you by Taito, who certainly have more than their fair share of nigh-indescribable games stashed deep within their proverbial closet. I have absolutely no idea what the setup is here, except that you apparently have to blow up several planets’ worth of malevolent machines, giant bugs, and odd Japanese statuary-inspired baddies. Or something. Anyway, all four selectable craft barely need power-ups, since their charge shots ready themselves so quickly and do so much damage, but you know what? You still get a stock of smart bombs too, plus the bizarre “Big” item, which turns you gigantic and totally invincible for a few seconds – thank goodness the artists saw fit to actually redraw the larger sprites instead of just scaling and pixelating them to kingdom come. Just in case I need to say it, this one’s just as elusive (and weird) an acquisition as Nostradamus.
If you fancy yourself a shooter enthusiast and haven’t heard of Tecno Soft’s Thunder Force series, well…for now just head over to the Defining Games of the Shmups Genre article, and I’ll see you in my office later. Hyper Duel, on the other hand, I’d be more inclined to forgive you for overlooking, not only because it never managed to spawn a years-long series spanning multiple systems, but due to the fact that it started as a Japanese arcade exclusive before being ported to the Saturn in its home territory…and said port is now even more prohibitively expensive than the infamously-inflated Radiant Silvergun. Anyway, now that you know it’s out there, Tecno Soft devotees and lovers of fast-paced, instinct-driven shmupping in general ought to saddle up if they have the opportunity, since it retains much of what made Thunder Force so popular, and in some ways might just improve on it.
You pilot one of three “Buster Gears”, which can freely transform between “fighter” (spaceship) and “armor” (robot) modes: press Button A to fire shots as the former, and Button B to instantly shift over to the latter, guns still blazing. The ship is your go-to choice when you need to be speedy and nimble, while the mech’s exchange of decreased mobility for higher attack power and range is ideal for taking on bigger threats. Holding down both buttons at once activates a special attack, which recharges when not in use and varies depending on the form you’re currently in, though you should keep an eye out for two types of AI helpers to pick off stragglers and take a bullet or two for you: there are always plenty of threats to keep you busy, but powering back up after dying is usually quick. The “scoring system”, which increases your point total as you sit still, is rather goofy to say the least, but is easy enough to ignore in favor of some good old blast-em-up action: if you do decide to take a chainsaw to your wallet in favor of the aforementioned Saturn port you can also access a special “Saturn Mode” with improved graphics plus a few gameplay tweaks and enhancements.
Honorable Mentions: Hyper Duel’s closest immediate relative is likely Blast Wind (eBay) , another little-known Tecno Soft property that wound up as a (stupidly expensive) Japanese Saturn exclusive: though it scrolls vertically as opposed to horizontally, you’ll still be regularly switching between a pair of complementary weapons and making things explode to synth rock, not to mention choosing one of two branching paths in the middle of each level. Elemental Master (eBay / Amazon) , on the other hand, harks back to the company’s work on the Genesis, and carries over several of Thunder Force’s conventions in the guise of a less-conventional Tolkien-esque fantasy setting; while your character’s constant “jogging in place” animation looks a bit silly, being able to shoot up or down to clear the way sprinkles in some additional bits of flavor. Human Entertainment’s Bari-Arm (eBay / Amazon) (aka “Android Assault”) on the Sega CD is quite similar thematically to Hyper Duel, though going into “robot mode” just means you’ve maxed out your shot power, and a special attack is charged by laying off the fire button for a few moments. Still lots of cheese rock to feast one’s ears on, though!
Namco. Pac-Man. Dig Dug. Galaga. Xevious. …Ordyne? Yes indeed, though you might not have ever so much as laid eyes on it, this one is definitely another jewel in Namco’s enviable crown, especially if you’re a fan of the Fantasy Zone series. Unlike Sega/Sunsoft’s classic, however, whose play style calls Defender to mind, Ordyne is laid out like a more typical side-scroller, with the left-to-right stage/boss progression you’ve come to expect; as you bring down enemies (who exit the stage with a sharp, balloon-like “pop”) with your trusty forward gun and ground bomb, many will leave behind floating “crystal” items, which you can accumulate and keep a stock of throughout. What’re they used for? That Fantasy Zone influence should quickly assert itself once you enter one of many mid-level shops, and the friendly girl behind the counter is paying off her college tuition loans by the time you’re done browsing.
Most of the available enhancements (such as a Pac-Man-shaped bullet-eater) are temporary in nature, and players normally only get to choose one at a time (which at least prevents them from blowing all their cash at once on bulking up): on the other hand, they can sometimes get lucky at a competing “Dream Co. Ltd.” establishment if they can stop its slot reel precisely for a big payday. Once you’re outfitted it’s just a matter of dispatching the baddies and dodging obstacles en route to the finish line: while Ordyne is neither as challenging nor as immediately distinctive as a Parodius title (no ballerina panda-ducks of doom here), it remains an endearing, cartoon-flavored romp, and its visuals have held up remarkably well from when it first hit arcades in 1988. Though Ordyne’s creators have mostly kept a lid on it since then, the original version did eventually make it onto Volume 4 of the “Namco Museum” series for the PS1, and its PC Engine port was also re-released onto the Wii’s Virtual Console.
Honorable Mentions: Data East’s Wonder Planet (eBay) , completed around the same time as Ordyne, is another nifty “cute-ish-em-up” inspired by a bigger name, in this case Konami’s Twinbee: here, as there, you’re picking off sky targets and dropping bombs on ground-based ones in a vertically-scrolling effort to win back all the planets from the bad guys, though instead of bells you’ve got another “shop” system at work, in which individual stores sell a particular type of product (bombs, shields, etc.). Unlike most other such games, however, many of the goodies you purchase aren’t time- or ammo-limited, so you can slowly build yourself up closer to your ideal output; in exchange the screen quickly gets a lot more frantic than it ever does in Ordyne, so those in search of a stiffer challenge have found their alternative. Unfortunately, collectors can forget about ever seeing it played natively on anything other than an arcade machine.
Aldynes: The Mission Code for Rage Crisis
One of the surest ways to guarantee that your game languishes in obscurity for years on end is to release it on a system that almost no one buys: developer Produce (comprised largely of former Irem staffers) pretty much hit the jackpot in this department, by sending 1991’s Aldynes (its very first game, no less) to NEC’s ill-fated SuperGrafx, an upgraded PC Engine whose library never even reached the double digits before the competition devoured it alive. It’s too bad, as this rather awkwardly-titled shooter combines some of the best features of both R-Type and Gradius while maintaining a faster-paced feel all its own; obtaining and playing an original copy is obviously a considerable ordeal, but it’s also available for download on the Japanese Playstation Store if you’re willing to jump through a couple of hoops on that end instead.
In most respects Aldynes is an instantly-graspable side-scroller, with 3 weapons to pick up and power up, along with a small army of helper drones to further boost your firepower: with the push of a button they can be instructed to focus on frontal assault, rotate in close for defense, or seek out targets on their own. If you need just a little bit more to get you through a tough stretch you can also stop shooting for a moment and charge up a small shield on your ship’s nose that can both block bullets and “tickle damage” adversaries that get too friendly. Pour on one of the system’s few genuinely impressive audiovisual presentations (parallax-philes, rejoice!) and satisfying doses of firepower, garnish with a good challenge; stir and let sit on collector’s shelves for any number of agonizing years to cool. Voila – a picture-perfect “hidden gem” shooter, just like Mother used to make! Bon appetit!
Honorable Mentions: While the PC Engine obviously performed much better at retail than its short-lived successor, the system, despite an enviable library, never truly got its due against its competition, especially in the Western hemisphere. This goes double for the console’s “Super CD” add-on and its own well-realized set of shmups, including Rayxanber III , generally considered the pinnacle of a long-defunct line of dark, detailed shmups by Data West (no relation to Data East…I think). Then there’s CAProduction’s visually-stunning Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, which has built up more than a little eBay infamy due to not only its sky-high secondhand asking price but the presence of pirated copies to muddy the waters (thankfully there’s a much cheaper Japanese PSP collection that includes it, too). If you’re more in the mood for a visit to the arcade scene be sure to give Tecmo’s surprisingly solid Raiga Strato Fighter, which only ever made it onto a rather lackluster XBox compilation, a try; again, there’s no bikini volleyball or exploding ninja heads, but one still wishes the company had given its fans more shooter love, tough post-death recovery notwithstanding.
If you’re a shmupper it’s hard not to have at least a little place in your heart for Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis, regardless of which console your folks bought you as a kid: not only did it boast a deep roster of good-quality shooters and the processing speed to run them smoothly, but the system was commercially successful enough to render much of its best stuff readily available to a wide audience, oftentimes worldwide. Of course, some worthwhile games still never managed to reach too much of their potential fan base, unfortunate victims of market forces, cultural factors and profit projections…the slightly-Engrishy Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer is among the foremost of these, and original carts remain elusive on the used circuit, though digital customers now have access to the game on the Wii’s Virtual Console for a much more reasonable price. By hook or by crook, it must be said, 16-bit fans need to try this one out if they ever get a chance to do so.
Developed by NCS/Masaya (also responsible for the infamous Cho Aniki series), Gleylancer trades oily, rippling man-flesh for a more standard “determined girl in a starfighter” setting, but also contains a nice array of options for the shmupping faithful to tinker around with. Speed can be toggled between four setting at any time, which is handy, but more intriguingly players must choose one of seven (count ‘em) configurations for their gunpods when they start up the game. Most of these allow their firing direction to be altered and/or locked by a combination of player movement and pressing/holding the C button, though there are somewhat simpler Gradius-esque and “fire and forget” homing settings too. Combine all of this with an array of secondary weapon pickups and it’s your call whether to go with reverse-firing mines, tracking lasers, or trailing beam swords, among many others: equip your favorites and set off to save your dead old dad, getting an eyeful of nicely-done cutscene artwork to tell him about when you get there.
Honorable Mentions: Aprinet’s Eliminate Down (eBay / Amazon) , the only game the company ever made apart from an F-1 racer, is frequently spoken of in the same breath as Gleylancer due to its own system-exclusive rarity; fundamentally it plays most like Toaplan’s Hellfire, with three weapons that can be switched freely, but unlike Gleylancer it’s never been ported elsewhere or reissued digitally so be ready to fork out if you want to own it. Halfway between the aforementioned Cho Aniki and the rest of Masaya’s shooters, on the other hand, lies Gynoug (aka “Wings of Wor”), a fellow Genesis side-scroller: you command a winged angel-ish character who confronts a lineup of odd humanoid enemies, though the tone is a good deal more macabre here than in Adon and Samson’s decidedly tongue-in-cheek home territory. Sega’s own Bio-Hazard Battle (eBay / Amazon) (aka “Crying: Aseimei Sensou”) is yet another Genesis exclusive (though it technically appeared in arcades on “Mega Play” cabinets) worth looking into, especially if you like “organic”-themed shooters, and it eventually got Virtual Console and Steam releases too.
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS
If you’ll recall another axiom from our Shmups 101 guide, portable systems have never been a very popular destination for shmuppers: when it comes to games that frequently require pixel-perfect accuracy for survival, let alone further success, the small screen just isn’t the hippest place to be. There are exceptions, of course, including a few, like M-Kai’s Judgment Silversword on the Wonderswan, that have managed to build themselves a considerable cult following (and in its particular case a spiritual sequel or two): on the other end of the spectrum there’s this pint-sized Japan-only 1992 release, whose title roughly translates to “Earth Liberation Army”, from T&E Soft (anyone remember Hydlide?), which manages to do a lot of pretty darn impressive stuff on, of all places, the original black-and-white Game Boy, one of the least shmup-friendly systems ever produced.
For starters, check out those visuals: yes, Virginia, there ARE multi-layered backgrounds happening on that tiny grayscale display, thanks to a Christmas mirac..I mean, a bit of programming voodoo on the part of the developers. Your weapon of choice for conquering this little monochromatic marvel is simple, but handy: a pair of gunpods that can be either condensed into a stronger, more precise stream or spread out to cover a wider area with a press of the B button, and you thankfully don’t lose them after dying either (interestingly, Toaplan’s V-V, to be covered here later on, was messing around with a similar setup the following year). Most stages throw in interesting obstacles for players to find their way around, and a stage select in the Options menu allows everyone to practice their favorites at will: if you still love that dear old gray brick of yours and want to show it just how much you care, look no further than this little plastic wonder, but be prepared to drop a wad of cash for a genuine copy.
Shop for Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS on eBay
Honorable Mentions: If you’d like to add another worthy shooter to your Game Boy library Solar Striker (eBay / Amazon) (developed in part by Nintendo’s “R&D1” team, one of whom was Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game Boy) is a solid choice: it’s several degrees simpler in design than ZAS but still plays quite capably, especially considering the format, and is loads easier to find. In terms of doing a lot with limited hardware, however, head on over to the NES (or, more accurately, the Famicom) and cozy up to Capcom’s Titan Warriors (eBay) , a sequel to their first shmup, Vulgus, and a fine example of a well-tooled 8-bit shooter…or, rather, it would have been had it not been abruptly cancelled shortly before release (thankfully, contemporary shmuppers have access to the ROM online). It actually did ZAS one better by allowing players to manually spread or condense their options nearly all the way across the screen, a feature replicated by Konami’s Thunder Cross (eBay) , released to arcades in 1988, the same year Titan Force was supposed to hit shelves: while it did well enough with audiences to spawn a sequel it’s still a largely-unknown commodity to many modern gamers.
Thunder Dragon 2
A considerable number of genre fans have yet to cross paths with the likes of NMK, despite their onetime partnership with Tecmo, but if you ask those few familiar with the bygone company to describe it, they’re apt to sit back, stare into space, exhale deeply, and soul-search for quite some time before coming up with…let’s just call them the right words. This is a team that, in one moment, would hand its customers something relatively pedestrian, like GunNail or the “P-47” side-scrollers, but the next everyone would be trying to make sense of something like Hacha Mecha Fighter (“…did I just use giant turnips to juggle a fez-wearing monkey?”) or the nutso single-screen puzzle-platformer Saboten Bombers; overall quality, as you might suspect, was spread all over the map, and many shmuppers eventually threw up their hands in favor of perusing catalogs less likely to refuse a breathalyzer test. If there’s one piece of the company’s colorful heritage that’s made more believers out of even grizzled old joystick jockeys than you’d ever expect, however, it’s Thunder Dragon 2 (aka “Big Bang: Power Shooting”): while it hasn’t escaped its creators’ penchant for out-of-nowhere nonsense, there are more than enough good intentions built in to make a playthrough worth more than just a rainy-day chuckle.
At a glance you’d never know that this one was anything special: you’ve got two standard-issue planes for the 1P and 2P sides, power-ups, missiles, point items, smart bombs…am I missing something here? Grab the controls for a minute and you’ll see what I mean: right at the get-go, the usual “Stage 1 Start, Good Luck” message appears, but if you tool around a bit in the meantime you’ll find that you can shoot and destroy the onscreen letters for bonus points, and if you can blow up the whole thing quickly enough you get an extra item. Why? Well, why the heck not? Moreover, once you’re into the action proper, a hilarious unseen announcer presides over your flight: bring down a sizable target or drop a bomb and you might hear a muffled “Get outta my sight!” or “Buuuurrrn!” suddenly ring out, among many other priceless quips. It’s totally silly, but as you dodge bullets and search between barrages for hidden pickups you won’t mind having this bizarre wingman along for the ride; such dashes of goofiness spice up the otherwise-solid, if hardly revolutionary, parts of the game, and lend it an offbeat ambience you just can’t find anywhere else. Don’t expect to see this one in the Gamestop bargain bin, though, as like the rest of NMK’s arcade output it’s never scored a home port.
Honorable Mentions: Did the above make you giddy to take more chances on less-than-reputable developers, in search of the most hidden of hidden gems? Allow me to assist you in your harrowing search, starting with Baryon: Future Assault (eBay), from fly-by-night Korean developer Semicom. Seemingly envisioned as a means to siphon off a bit of disposable income from the DonPachi series and Cave’s style in general, the game includes a familiar “tap to shoot, hold for laser” mechanic, though the overall feel is less manic: there’s no chaining here either, though enemies drop lots of shiny things to pick up. It’s nowhere near as polished as its inspiration, obviously, but if you’re okay with that then this might be one of the best (non-Psyvariar) Korean shooters you’ll encounter. Allumer’s Zing Zing Zip (eBay) should be your next stop, despite coming from a company best known for shameless R-Type ripoff Rezon: this one adopts a visual style similar to Capcom’s “1940” series, albeit with some really silly-looking character artwork tacked on. It’s pretty standard gameplay-wise, except that by maneuvering in certain ways you can temporarily power yourself up, punctuated by a loud “Woo!” or “Oh yeeeah!” As you’re probably expecting at this point, none of this affable cheesiness ever left the arcades.
You know Compile, right? The guys who did M.U.S.H.A. on the Genesis and Blazing Lazers on the Turbografx-16, among many others? Sure you do: they were shooting game mainstays for over a decade back during the genre’s golden age, though they ended up more and more dependent on puzzle hit Puyo-Puyo as the end approached. Anyway, just about everyone is likely to have missed this particular vert-scroller, seeing as it only ever took up residence on NEC’s PC-98 computer system, whose most famous non-doujin shmup, tragically, is the notorious hentai shooter Steam Hearts: while the title of this game almost makes it sound like another release whose screenshots we’d have to censor, Rude Breaker is actually a non-objectionable and rather interesting entry into Compile’s pantheon, as it bears many of its developer’s hallmarks even as it abandons others, in an apparent effort to appeal to shmuppers who might not have jelled with the company’s other work.
For one thing, while Compile shooters are (in)famous for their lengthiness, Rude Breaker is quite short by comparison, consisting of five levels which can be completed in around twenty minutes total: for another, at the beginning players are asked to choose one of three side arms to equip (Vulcan, Laser or Missile), and whichever one is selected is the only power-up variety to appear for the rest of the playthrough. Longtime fans may be struck by the dearth of both the longevity and the weapon variety that they’ve come to expect, but others who prefer quicker, more straightforward shooting sessions (which did indeed become something of a genre standard in the years to come) will be happy to see a nod in their direction: that said, the default difficulty level remains modest, the extend rate remains generous and the usual “two-hit kill” system remains in place, so Rude Breaker remains plenty accessible to all comers. Seekers devoted enough to sniff this one out should also enjoy the plentiful graphical details (note the copious shrapnel flying off of your targets as you attack) and another search for hidden medals to uncover…not to mention mercilessly riding the power-up carriers for extra points.
Honorable Mentions: Hey, do you hear those plaintive cries, from way over there? It’s a couple of other Compile shooters you probably haven’t played, imploring you to give them a chance, too…you wouldn’t refuse such a handsome bunch, would you? The pricey Sylphia (eBay / Amazon) and Seirei Senshi Spriggan (eBay / Amazon) can both be found on the Turbo CD; each takes place in its own distinctive fantasy world, though the former stars a fairy with elemental powers somewhat akin to those found in Lords of Thunder, while the latter puts you at the helm of a magical mech, with a semi-freeform weapons system that allows you to mix and match colored power-ups as you see fit (its side-scrolling sequel isn’t as good though). Compile fans on the NES have Gun-Nac (eBay / Amazon) , a rather kooky offshoot of Zanac and a bit better-known than the previous two thanks to having been localized way back when, but still somewhat underappreciated: if nothing else it’s one of the few games out there to properly warn us that not only are there indeed rabbits on the moon, but they’re all out to kill us!
Deep in the grimiest recesses of a diner foyer, movie theater lobby, or bowling alley, we’ve all seen it: that incredibly generic-looking no-name shooter cabinet that you still end up putting a bit of spare change into, when nobody’s looking…and, against all odds, enjoy playing a lot more than you thought you would (not that you’d ever admit it, of course). If you ever happen to glimpse Rapid Hero peering out at you from a distant corner in one of these places it’s impossible not to know exactly what you’re in for (I mean, come on, it’s made by a company named “Media Trading”): heck, all the title screen shows is the game’s logo flashing back and forth with a jet fighter blasting off. Should you choose to satisfy your shameful desire for some utterly-indistinguishable blasting action, don’t be shy about it: pop in that quarter, quickly progress past the amateurish character artwork, and knock yourself out.
Mechanics-wise this is as meat-and-potatoes as it gets: you can upgrade your regular ol’ forward shot a few times, grab a laser or missile augmentation to apply some extra damage, and that’s really about it apart from the usual complement of smart bombs and some star-shaped score boosters. You know what, though? That’s all right: sure, the game’s uber-basic style, like many of its kin, borrows elements from Psikyo’s shooters, but there’s always an engaging amount of action onscreen to keep you busy, a few neat set pieces to keep an eye out for (first and foremost the recurring samurai robot boss, who’s introduced in level one as he cleaves a skyscraper in half), and a challenge level that feels just about right. So go ahead, you naughty thing…you’ll never find Rapid Hero anywhere outside of an arcade cab, so indulge, nobody’s judging you…unless, of course, you want to be really bad and emulate. Ooh, that sent shivers down my spine…I could get used to this.
Honorable Mentions: …ahem Okay, all you closet F-14 fetishists, gather ‘round, because it’s time to come to terms with your generic-shooter-loving selves once and for all. Let’s begin our journey with Air Gallet (eBay) , the only shooter (albeit a visually-impressive one) completed by the short-lived Gazelle, one of several Toaplan offshoots which ended up succumbing to the industry’s merciless shifts much sooner than its siblings; Gallet is best-remembered as perhaps the only video game whose title screen promises that it’ll “blow your socks off!” Still not feeling the healing? Alright, we’ll move on to Visco’s Storm Blade (eBay) , which presents four selectable characters for your perusal, but don’t worry, as the whole lot of them pilot scandalously standard aircraft, and embark on a mission to match. If you think you’re ready to dive really deep into your shmupping id, Semicom’s Wyvern Wings, a Korean chimera which lifts assets from Psikyo even more shamelessly than the rest, awaits with open ailerons. All are faceless, all are rather fun, and all are arcade-exclusive: so gather in a circle and repeat, “I like generic shooters, and that’s okay!” …oh, and remember, the safe word is “Bydo.”
V-V (aka V-Five / Grind Stormer)
Speaking of which, whenever developers take it upon themselves to “borrow” each others’ ideas, it’s always a tense moment for their fans, as the odds always seem to be straight-up 50-50 that we’ll end up with either a welcome refinement or a soul-shattering abomination. Famed developer Toaplan, cheeky buggers that they were, decided to tempt fate not once but twice during their existence, grafting Gradius’ unmistakable “power-up bar” weapon system onto both 1986’s Slap Fight (aka “Alcon”) and 1993’s V-V (sometimes rendered “V-Five”): fortunately the gaming gods were with them and both efforts had positive outcomes, though the latter better represents the developer near its peak and thus edges out its predecessor for the final spot on the list. Toaplan also put out an alternate version, Grind Stormer, which is exactly the same game except that it uses more traditional power-ups; most players prefer the way V-V does things, so in this case it appears that mimicry was indeed the correct path to take.
That’s not to say that this game should just be dismissed as “Gradius, but vertical”: for one thing Toaplan’s bold spritework here is some of its best, and for another players are always guaranteed to have at least a basic set of “option” helpers even when they respawn after dying, making recovery a fair bit easier. Moreover, when equipped with the “default” shot weapon one can easily widen or focus their shots with a bit of upward or downward movement, a touch of instant flexibility that would be further refined in Batsugun and eventually in Cave’s DonPachi after some of Toaplan’s staffers relocated there. In the end V-V (whose plot, if you’re interested, involves an evil video game that drives its challengers insane…play if you dare!) doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it does mix a lot of quality ingredients together and, against all odds, actually constructs something worthwhile out of them, making its relative obscurity all the more puzzling. The arcade original was ported to the Genesis/MD (technically it was a “dual pack”, with both V-V and Grind Stormer on the cart), but it’s been noticeably scaled down to fit the hardware.
Honorable Mentions: Another oft-overlooked late Toaplan classic is Dogyuun (eBay) , which (surprise, surprise) never left Japan or its original arcade format: it’s just as much of a looker as V-V, and it’s also got a one-of-a-kind “weapons system”. Playing alone your pickups are pretty limited, but if a second player joins in you’re free to scoop up the 2P ship with the C button to combine your crafts and massively boost your firepower: heck, feel free to toss in two tokens, quickly join forces with your “partner”, and go through the whole game with a super-ship. Weird to be sure, but still surprisingly addictive! On a different note entirely there’s Abadox (eBay / Amazon) for the NES, developed by Natsume and published stateside by none other than board game company Milton Bradley: like V-V the game takes a page from Konami’s book, but instead of Gradius chooses to follow in the slimier footsteps of its organic offshoot, Salamander. Prepare yourself for lots of creepy pulsating walls, horizontally- and vertically-scrolling stages, and a stiff challenge that would do the original designers (if not their lawyers) proud.
Thanks yet again to the denizens of the shmups.com forums for their help in compiling this incredibly daunting list…and to Racketboy for his patience while we hammered it all out!