The TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine Shmup Library: Pt 1 (Exclusives)

The Best TG16 PC Engine Shooters
Presented by Marurun, Racketboy, and BulletMagnet

While the TurboGrafx-16 struggled to find its place in the American video game market, its Japanese counterpart, the PC Engine, managed some solid success battling Nintendo and Sega. Despite a modest lineup of exclusive successes in other genres, the PC Engine / TG16 is one of the very best shooter systems of all time — especially for the era in which it was built. Before the Saturn and Playstation, you would be hard-pressed to get close to this superior lineup of shooters on any other platform. Even many of the hidden gems of the PC Engine’s lineup would be strong competition against the likes of the Sega Megadrive/Genesis and Super Famicom/SNES lineups.

The TG16 hardware managed to handle a vast array of shmups largely without slowdown while providing some fantastic visuals. The platform also had the financial backing of electronics giant NEC and massive software support from Hudson, the designers of the system’s core. NEC Avenue (NEC’s software division) was responsible for a large number of arcade ports and Hudson developed or published many of the best exclusives on this list, and both companies knew the hardware inside and out.

This guide will cover all the 2D shooters that can be found in all the variations of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx hardware family. We will make distinctions about which format each game utilizes. It’s also worth noting that if you see “PC Engine” in the format listing without a “Turbo” counterpart, the game was only released in Japan.

Because of the grand scale of the PC Engine shooter library and the detail of the discussion we shared, we decided to break this guide into two parts. This first part will cover console-exclusive shooters, most of which are exclusives to the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 platforms (and those modern platforms that sell TG16 game downloads).  Part 2 features the Arcade ports in the shmup library.  There are both some iconic classics and hidden gems to be found here — many of which are either superior ports or even the only console versions available for the given titles

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Blazing Lazers / Gunhed

1989
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Hudson/NEC
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

If you’re looking for a single title that stands out as the best introduction to shooters on the Turbografx–16, Blazing Lazers is arguably the front-runner. Much as Super Mario Bros. was an influential innovator for both the NES and the platforming genre, Blazing Lazers had similar influence over the TG16 landscape and the expansive shmup library that developed in its wake.

Hudson originally published this early title in Japan as Gunhed, serving as a tie-in with a movie of the same name, not to mention the first PC Engine title to be part of Hudson’s annual Caravan Shooting competition. It was also one of the launch titles for the TurboGrafx–16 in the US after being retitled Blazing Lazers for its Western release.

Legendary developer Compile developed this title for Hudson, and it shows. Despite being short on special effects like multi-scrolling and warping, the game is graphically attractive, and also features some great sound effects and catchy tunes to round out the AV experience. More importantly, it also manages to push a lot of enemies and weaponry around on the screen at once with no slowdown.

Blazing Lazers’s weapon system is a lot of fun to play with, featuring 4 main weapons and 4 secondary weapons that can be combined with various effects; some sub-weapons behave differently when paired with different main weapons, with unique if subtle results.

Unlike R-type or Gradius, Blazing Lazers was developed for the home console and not the arcades, allowing them to take certain liberties to make it a gateway drug into the genre (when you get hit, for instance, instead of instant death your power-ups get downgraded). Blazing Lazers seems a bit slow at first but gets hectic deceptively fast. At the same time, it empowers new players by giving you a seemingly overpowered craft to make you feel on top of the world before turning up the difficulty. Once the challenge arrives, it is fair and never gets so hard as to inspire hurled controllers.

In addition, players can adjust their movement speed with the select button and there are many continues at their disposal. When you die, normally you respawn at a checkpoint earlier in the level, but if you collect a glowing orb the next extra ship you have stocked will turn gold and you can respawn in place.

The game does have one notable weakness; the flow can be a bit inconsistent, bouncing erratically between rushes of excitement and more boring stretches. Notwithstanding, Blazing Lazers is still a great introduction to both the TurboGrafx–16 and the modern home shooter, and holds up quite well with the years.

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Gate of Thunder

1992
Developer: Red Company
Publisher: Hudson/TTi
PC Engine SuperCD/TurboGrafx-16 SuperCD

With the Sega Genesis/Megadrive coming onto the scene, the TG16 was starting to feel pressure from Sega’s arcade-heavy lineup. Gate of Thunder arrived in time to give the Turbografx a temporary shot in the arm and rivaled (but also showed many similarities to) Thunder Force IV on Sega’s 16-bit platform. Gate of Thunder was the title that demonstrated to the US gaming press what The Little TG That Could was capable of.

The CD soundtrack by Nick Wood is some of the best shooting rock/metal ever paired with a game (level 3 has an awesome disco/metal lead-in); the only disappointment is a problem common to Turbo CD games in that the soundtrack is rather muted compared to the sound effects.

The visuals are solid and the game features lots of parallax scrolling, some scaling effects, beautiful scenery (mmm… level 5… drool), a constant flood of ships and missiles, and some very large and imposing bosses. Level design is fairly standard for the most part, though some areas feature interactive stage hazards.

Gate of Thunder’s gameplay is strategic and resembles Thunder Force with a twist. You collect three weapons which you can power up and switch between at any time, along with missiles, a shield, and obligatory mini-ship “options” to augment your firepower, plus the ability to adjust your ship speed on the fly. Once a particular weapon or sub-weapon is fully powered, subsequent pick-ups will clear the screen with a wave of energy. Where the game diverges is by allowing you to turn your “options” around to face behind you; most of the game’s action is in front of your ship, but the game isn’t shy about bringing enemies in from the rear, and being quick to adjust not only your speed and active weapon but also your “options” is very important.

The game isn’t particularly difficult and thus pretty accessible for more casual shooter fans. That’s not to say it’s easy, though; it took me several plays to eventually get to the end of the game and put the final boss to rest.

Gate of Thunder also happened to be the first Super CD game released in the US. While the Japanese version was released as a standalone game, in the US it was put on a multi-game CD with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and Bomberman (via hidden code) bundled with the Turbo Duo and the Super System 3.0 Card. For shooter fans, this was a great incentive as the game is easily good enough to stand on its own.

Gate of Thunder is one of those games that’s hard to find fault with. It’s good all around and stands as not only one of the best shooters in the Turbo library, but also as one of the best-crafted shooters of all time.

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Lords of Thunder

1993
Developer: Red Company/Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson/TTi
PC Engine SuperCD/TurboGrafx-16 SuperCD

Lords of Thunder is the unofficial sequel to Gate of Thunder. I say unofficial because it really has nothing to do with the original except for Red, Hudson, and the Technosoft expats teaming up again, a similar name and a heaping dose of kick-ass goodness.

Unlike many shooters, in this game you are a single warrior in battle armor rather than a ship. When you get close to enemies, you swing your sword instead of shooting. Enemies have a fantastical theme rather than a technological one; enemy soldiers fire crossbows at you, and monsters breathe fire or hurl spines. You have 4 weapons in the form of elemental armors (Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth). The Wind Armor sends out lightning bolts that pierce through multiple enemies. The Earth Armor launches bombs toward the ground. The Fire Armor projects arcs of flame and the Water Armor washes enemies away with waves of flying surf. Each armor is suited to different styles of play, and players will likely find an armor that fits their personal preference.

You choose your armor at the beginning of each stage and visit a shop to buy power and health with crystals collected from defeated foes. The shop adds a fun and strategic element that really rounds out the experience. Getting hurt lowers your firepower, but there are a few life and shot power-ups available in levels for defeating key enemies.

The game is a graphical tour-de-force, displaying some of the best sprite and background graphics on the system. Lords of Thunder shows superior visual variety and better graphic design than its predecessor, Gate of Thunder.

The music is heavy metal and very raw, though it suffers from awkward dynamic compression, meaning louder sections of the music are toned down a bit (and quieter sections turned up) to keep volume normalized. The problem is that these transitions are rather pronounced and noticeable, and not at all subtle. However, the music does seem more balanced with the sound effects than the muted tunes in Gate of Thunder.

The game is also extremely difficult. Enemies, projectiles, and environmental hazards are used to put you in corners and force you to tap into intense focus and reflexes. One hit doesn’t knock you out, but instead drops your health and weapon meters and as a result can also power down your offensive abilities. Alternatively, if you fly a clean run and gather the floating power-ups left behind by fallen foes, you can make yourself more powerful and upgrade your Armor’s capabilities.

Lords of Thunder was also ported to the Sega CD, but the graphics and challenge took a hit and the music was re-recorded. The re-recording smooths some of the awkward volume normalization, but it sounds a lot less raw and virtuoso than the original. The Sega CD port served only to give the few remaining TurboDuo owners opportunity to brag.

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Super Star Soldier

1990
Developer: Interstate/Kaneko
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

Hudson had a good thing going when they released Star Soldier on the NES way back in 1986. Part of Star Soldier was modified and taken on the road for Hudson’s “Caravan Festival”, an event where Hudson demoed upcoming games and arranged competitions where eager gamers played through small snippets of Hudson’s latest shmup in in pursuit of the highest score. One of the more interesting aspects to Hudson’s TG16 shooters is thus the inclusion of a “Caravan Mode”, allowing gamers to bring the time attack to their home. The first title to do so? Super Star Soldier.

What set the Star Soldier series apart from other shmups of the era was the customizable weapon system. Powering up in Super Star Soldier revolves around collecting and stacking individual medals on top of each other to increase a weapon’s ability. Medals differ by color, and each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the type of weapon, they all cause massive destruction when fully powered. Your success depends on your ability to stay calm and your strategy in managing your weapon upgrades. Four varieties of blaster are available, including a basic rapid-fire gun, a flamethrower, a lightning shooter and a rippling spreader. Collecting colored orbs activates one of the four, and grabbing more of the same color increases its power.

Your powered-up weapons act a bit as health bar: each upgrade acts as a virtual health increase and then essential decreases in power and ship health after each hit. One hit at default strength and you lose a life.

Secondary weapons are also available in the shape of homing missiles or rotating shields option, each with three upgrade levels each. The options placement can be adjusted on the first level and then begin to rotate once upgraded. The options don’t add firepower, but they the can inflict damage to opponent in addition to offering protection to your ship.

In terms of presentation, SSS was fairly impressive in 1990: scalable sprites, solid music, and very fast gameplay made it worthy of its tournament roots. However, SSS is ridiculously difficult, and some areas don’t feel well-balanced. There are no checkpoints; dying will start you right at the beginning of the level. Thankfully, failure isn’t so dire in the game’s other modes, derived from Japan’s competitive festivals; under the umbrella of “Caravan mode”, they’re 2-minute or 5-minute races against the clock to see how high a score you can rack up before time runs out. You can die as many times as you want and said timer will still keep ticking, though you probably won’t be posting much of a lofty number if you’re wasting time with respawns.

If you can suck it up and power through the game’s challenges, you will find that Super Star Soldier ages fairly well for its 1990 vintage. But as we’ll see Hudson was just getting started with this series on the PC Engine.

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Final Soldier

1991
Developer: Hudson
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine

As its name suggests, Final Soldier was intended to be Hudson’s final addition to the Star Soldier franchise. Super Star Soldier’s weapon system is carried over, however, this time the player is given the option to choose how each weapon is fired before each level. For example, you configure your Laser to Short, which fires several lasers in a group, Spear, which fires one large laser blast, or Bubble which, predictably, causes your ship to toss out large blue bubbles that take down enemy ships. This approach is an interesting addition, and one that’s more similar to the weapon select screen seen at the beginning of Gradius III than it is to any of the other Star Soldier titles. Definitely a positive bonus to the game’s depth and replayability.

The weapons still can be upgraded up to three levels and those levels still act as a health bar, degrading as you take hits. Missiles and and shield options still are available as auxiliary weapons, but this time you have the ability to sacrifice one of your options into a devastating bomb that is great to clear out weapons or give a more destructive blow to bosses. These option bombs are one of the more significant artillery changes in this sequel.

Cosmetically, Final Soldier is almost on par with the earlier Super Star Soldier, but just doesn’t attempt the same huge graphical feats, and even loses the cool sprite scaling seen in its predecessor. There is still lot of detail in the backdrops and the PC Engine’s large color palette is put to good use, but the bosses, while nicely detailed, aren’t as large as some other PC Engine shooters.

However, unlike the previous title, Final Soldier is nowhere near as difficult and allows gamers to respawn where they die instead of at the beginning of the level. The control in Final Soldier is extremely responsive and you can even adjust the movement speed of your ship to tailor it to your personal preference. But as with any game in the Star Soldier series, don’t expect to breeze through the game, because it’s still tough in places, especially in the later levels.

Sadly, Final Soldier was never released in the United States despite not only its precursor but the unexpected sequel seeing release on the Turbografx–16.

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Soldier Blade

1992
Developer: Hudson
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

The third Star Soldier game for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx showed a great deal of refinement and lessons learned from Hudson and makes for a grand flagship title for the platform. The graphics have been ramped up, and the difficulty, while not excessive, was a good mix between Super Star Soldier and Final Soldier. Star Soldier’s trademark weapon system is again expounded upon in Soldier Blade, this time allowing stacked powerups to be used as smart bombs. Also, when the first power-up is collected, a neighboring ship (similar to the “option” in Gradius) swoops in and adds to your firepower while also blocking incoming fire.

One especially cool addition to Soldier Blade’s weapon system is the way it handles your power-ups and using them for special attacks. The the bottom right corner of the screen, you can see the last three power-up colors/types you collected. You can sacrifice your current power-up to unleash a special attack that is specific to that power-up type. You also granted invincibility while the special attack is playing out and you resume with the next power-up in line once it is completed. This mechanic is quite interesting and adds a new area of strategy to build while playing.

If you’ve played any of the other Star Soldier games, then you will know what else to expect with this title. It retains the gameplay of the series while streamlining in a few places. It’s a definite upgrade graphically from the previous two titles with some seriously impressive visuals for 1992 and the frame rate never slows down. All sound channels are used to their maximum effect and there’s even a killer voice sample after you encounter your first boss.

From a gameplay perspective, there a handful of other ways that Soldier Blade stands out from previous shooters. There are no one-hit kills, little memorization, gratuitous power-ups, bountiful extra lives, and infinite continues. Levels show great refinement and spectacular design; there are no walls to crash into or places where bullets are hard to distinguish from a busy background. Everything is straightforward with no attempts to frustrate or otherwise cheaply end the player’s experience.

The mechanized enemies in Soldier Blade can also be dismantled piece by piece and their subsequent attacks and patterns are affected accordingly. Aside from the pleasure of literally ripping the boss apart and seeing its attack change, it gives major fights a cool sense of progression and replayability.

Levels show great refinement and spectacular design. There are no walls to crash into or places where bullets are hard to distinguish from a busy background. Everything is straightforward with no attempt to frustrate or otherwise cheaply end the player’s experience. Being a late Turbografx–16 game, its technical presentation is superb for its time.

Unlike Final Soldier, Soldier Blade did see a North American release. This isn’t surprising, however when you consider that Hudson and had fine-tuned their formula and produced a shmup that is not only a technical masterpiece of gameplay, visuals, and audio, but it is also a fine mid-point of difficulty that makes it accessible but challenging for those looking to dive deeper into the genre.

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Air Zonk / PC Denjin

1992
Developer: Red Company/Naxat Soft
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

In 1992, Hudson and the TG16 were struggling from a business standpoint. Nintendo and Sega had locked horns over the top spot in the market, the Super NES and Sonic the Hedgehog having both been released just the year before. Hudson needed to update their own mascot, Bonk, and fully bring him to the 1990s. Thus was born Zonk, and a new shooter title in the TurboGrafx’s library was created.

With transitioning a mascot franchise to a shmup, Hudson needed to make it something that had mainstream appeal and a “cool” take on the so-called “cute-em up” approach seemed to fit well. Air Zonk was built on the bones of another impressive cute-em-up: Coryoon (see below). Hudson took Naxat’s Coryoon engine (and some of the staffers responsible for it) and built Air Zonk with it. The humorous and cartoony angle from the Bonk series successfully makes the translation with the genre shift. Zonk (who is a futuristic descendant of Bonk) battles sentient piles of trash with a zany variety of weapons and collects floating smiley faces for extra points, and acquires one of ten different “Friends” to combine with for extra weaponry.

The creative variety of weapon pickups allows you to swap between machine guns, spread guns, and homing missiles that resemble the oversized lightning bolts, chomping mouths, and disembodied fists found in the Bonk platform games. You can charge weapons to unleash stronger attacks. These upgraded weapons also act like a shield of sorts. If you get hit while using one, you’ll lose the weapon but not a life.

The Friends system works similar to “options” from Gradius — they follow you around and fire their own weapons. They can only take so many hits, however, before going down in a trail of smoke, so you can’t use them as a shield and expect to keep them around. If you collect a large smiley face while already accompanied by a friend, Zonk and the friend will merge and form a hybrid with extra firepower and temporary indestructibility. Collecting a giant smiley with Bob the Baseball morphs Zonk into a Major League pitcher. Even more impressive is Moo Moo, a legless, giant-uddered cow which grants Zonk the ability to disperse enemies with explosive bottles of milk. The combination of the “Friends” system and the interesting weapons selection makes for an innovative shooting experience.

The graphics and sound are quite good with some nice use of parallax scrolling and special effects. The music is also quite catchy. The biggest drawback here is the challenge level. Like Red’s Gate of Thunder, the game is fairly easy as shooters go, making it more accessible for new players. It isn’t a total pushover, however, and you will need to learn how to use the various weapons and systems at your disposal. Thanks to accessible difficulty and a great audio-visual presentation, Air Zonk is one of the defining games for the TurboGrafx system, with Zonk himself becoming the mascot for the TurboDuo. It’s certainly not one to miss for TG16 fans or shmup players.

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Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise

1993
Developer: Dual
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine SuperCD/TurboGrafx SuperCD

A year after the “re-imagining” of Bonk into Zonk comes a sequel to Air Zonk, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. Not much has changed gameplay wise save for slightly cosmetic changes. Super Air Zonk features new weapons and new friends, but takes a step back in the graphics department. Even though Super Air Zonk requires the Super-CD BIOS, in many ways, the game is graphically inferior to Air Zonk. Overall, Super Air Zonk is slower and features less parallax scrolling — on the bright side, its easier to keep track of movements on the screen with these adjustments.

What Super Air Zonk lacked in overall polish and presentation it almost makes up for in it’s soundtrack. The soundtrack is still MIDI created music, but it’s all crystal clear Red Book Audio with some kicking Rockabilly tunes. Super Air Zonk definitely has one of the best soundtracks for a game released in the early 90’s.

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Seirei Senshi Spriggan

1991
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC-Engine CD

For those that are fans of Compile’s Aleste series, including MUSHA (Sega Genesis/Megadrive), Robo Aleste (Sega CD), and Super Aleste/Space Megaforce (SNES), Seirei Senshi Spriggan should bring a welcome familiarity. Spriggan is staged in a fantasy world that mingles traditional sci-fi elements with a feudal Japanese setting, bringing its unique take on the “giant robot” theme to life with spectacular art direction.

“Seirei Senshi” translates to “elemental warrior” and this theme comes into play with the weapons at the player’s disposal. Four types of colored orbs corresponding to fire, water, earth, and wind are dropped by enemies and grant you a unique power such as an extremely powerful spiraling ball of wind or a water shield. You can hold up to three orbs at once, and your weapon is determined by the combination of colors. Instead of the four or five weapons most 16-bit shooters provide, Spriggan offers a total arsenal of over twenty, acquired through an inventive “mix and match” system that not only surpasses Gunstar Heroes’ similar concept, but precedes it by two years.

You can also sacrifice orbs to use as bombs, adding quite a bit of strategy that lets you optimize your performance and score. There are also flashing orbs, which not only destroy everything on the screen when captured, but also grant you a shield.

The difficulty level in Seirei Senshi Spriggan isn’t quite as severe as most other Compile shooters. The game’s hit detection is extremely generous allowing you to brush up against the largest enemies without taking a hit. All of the game’s weapons are overpowered and while some enemies can soak up damage most will go down in a few hits. Weapon drops are so frequent you can even spam bombs continuously since another item will appear in less than 10 seconds to replace it. This setup makes it friendly for the less-experienced shmup fan.

Even though the game is welcoming to beginners, it was also part of Japan’s Summer Carnival competition and includes a two-minute score attack mode that tests your weapon selection and management skills against wave after wave of intense opposition. Due to its difficulty and depth of play, this may be one of the greatest scoring trials ever created.

Overall, Spriggan stands out as a gem in the PC Engine library due to its setting, pacing, and awesome weapons system. Even though experienced players will complete the game in short order it still remains fun and replayable since the challenge isn’t unsurmountable.

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Alzadick/Summer Carnival ’92: Alzadick

1992
Developer: Naxat Soft
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC-Engine CD

Since Alzadick was specially developed for NEC’s Summer Carnival competition series, it stands less as a full, standalone game than a short score-based shmup á la Caravan mode in Hudson’s “Soldier” shmup series.  However, Alzadick features the fairly standard system of having different weapon types using differently numbered powerups, and you powerup a certain weapon by collecting more of that type of powerup.

The biggest flaw Alzadick has is that there just isn’t a whole lot of content. There’s technically a story mode, but it’s essentially just the score attack with some barebones Japanese text to slap a skeletal story on top of it; it doesn’t really add anything.

To Alzadick’s credit, though, it is a fabulous looking and sounding game, though its gameplay and power-up system are pretty bread-and-butter. Graphics are fantastic for the system with some great parallax effects and smooth play absent of any major slowdown – something that not all shmups of the time could boast. While the sound certainly doesn’t stand up to some of the truly outstanding soundtracks that other PC-Engine CD releases featured, the music is clear and competent with satisfying pew-pew laser effects.

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Nexzr/Summer Carnival ’93: Nexzr Special

1992/1993
Developer: Interstate/Kaneko
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC Engine SuperCD

Nexzr is another of Kaneko’s contributions to Japan’s annual shooting competitions, now called Summer Carnival instead of Caravan Shooting. Whether this entry is a port of the mysterious, yet-unemulated arcade game of the same name remains unknown. What is known is this PC Engine game is good stuff. Continuing the trend of Shooting Caravan games, this title is colorful and graphically impressive, makes use of some nice visual effects, and has a great soundtrack to boot. The sound effects are also fantastic. Those that enjoy Blazing Lazers and Super Star Solider should feel at home with this gem.

Nexzr‘s weapon system is a bit more traditional but the weapons themselves are excellent tools of mass destruction. In fact, in Nexzr, you only use one button to shoot two weapons at once. There are no bombs, selectable weapons, or adjustable speeds to be found here. For your primary weapon you can choose a solid shot or a weaker 3-way spread shot. Secondary weapons include a homing laser, two spread lasers, and automated satellites that will patrol and attack incoming enemies. That single button shot will mostly handle your primary weapon and the secondaries fire occasionally. To a casual observer, the weapons system may seem a bit weak, but it forces you to think carefully about your actions and work the game like a simple, but powerful tool.

The pixel art throughout Nexzr is crisp and filled with subtle details and fluid animations. Enemy ships often arrive in waves and robots show off impressive morphing and zooming effects. Even relatively simple items like explosions and the homing missiles are meticulously animated.

Battle action within Nexzr is fast and diverse and the stage layout is exquisite. Even though the game relies on checkpoints instead of instant respawn, the game is not super-hard and is thus more accessible to casual shmuppers. With the fine design on your side, you’ll find yourself pushing to keep improving. If you want a real challenge, however, hard mode is pretty brutal and “Hidee ze” (translated from Japanese as “So Cruel”) mode is the next step for those seeking pain.

Nexzr’s overall gameplay and presentation is so finely polished, you can tell it was crafted with care by true enthusiasts of the genre and the game has a signature personality that stands out from its peers. It is one of the best and often overlooked love letters to the genre to be found in the PC Engine library.

The game was released again later as Summer Carnival ’93: Nexzr Special with the extra Carnival modes included so you can play against the clock for high scores.

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Magical Chase

1993
Developer: Quest
Publisher: PalSoft/NEC
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

Magical Chase was developed by Quest, the team of Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics fame. The game took two years to make it to the US but saw some graphical changes in the process. It was a limited release in the US, being one of the later games to come out for the Turbo, and thus it is a very expensive title to acquire. Even the Japanese version has shot up in value in response to demand. While the graphical changes are generally considered an improvement over the PC Engine original, it isn’t typically worth the cost difference to get a US copy just for the changes.

In Magical Chase, you play as Ripple, a witch on a broomstick (not to be confused with the multi-platform “Cotton” series’s heroine) and fight various enemies for crystals which can be spent at stores throughout the levels in a style not unlike Fantasy Zone, except that the upgrades you buy don’t expire.

Ripple has two stars, named Topsy and Turvy, that act as options and as shields. They orbit around you in response to your own movement, changing both position and firing direction on the fly. You can also lock them in place and fix their firing angle for additional versatility, adding a good amount of strategy as you get familiar with their functions.

Magical Chase has a great deal of variety in style and enemies within its six colorful levels. There is also a generous set of weapons that expand throughout the game. Each level usually has one or two new weapons that could possibly be useful for the dangers ahead. However, you don’t have to worry too much if you have a favorite weapon you like to stick with. In addition to standard power-ups, you can also buy spells, which perform special attacks or heal Ripple. You can store up to five spells for later use.

The incredibly vivid graphics are superb, the sound effects solid, and the music nothing to sneeze at (composer Hitoshi Sakimoto’s only PC Engine chiptunes). Furthermore, Quest used lots of great graphical tricks in the game to make it even more impressive in motion. The game isn’t particularly hard, due to an expanding life bar and heal spells, or long, so the experience is a bit on the short side, but the trip is a blast. Later levels can make you sweat but avoid being cheap.

The high price this title demands is troublesome, because this game is definitely a fun, technically impressive, and accessible bit of gaming design work. It deserves to be appreciated, but the price tag ensures an original Magical Chase cart is for collectors only.

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Coryoon: Child of Dragon

1991
Developer: Nexat
Publisher: Nexat
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

If you have a soft spot for cute-em-ups, this little gem should be high on your list to hunt down. Coryoon puts you in the role of a baby dragon out to free a princess from the clutches of evil; as you will quickly learn, this pipsqueak has some serious speed and skill, and will take you on a vibrant journey filled with chaos and excitement.

Gameplay is traditional with a horizontal scrolling setup, power-up weapons that include multi-way shot and ‘miniature’ mode and a sort of reverse R-Type charge beam which automatically charges up when you lay off the trigger. The variety of power-ups is quite interesting and gives you lots of stuff to learn and strategize. Coryoon contains 2-minute and 5-minute time attack modes, similar to those in Soldier Blade. There’s lots of visual variety and compelling bosses throughout the eight different stages and you can also replay a certain level by selecting in the menu once you’ve unlocked/completed it.

Since Coryoon came out near the end of HuCard production, it really shows off what the original PC Engine setup was capable of. Coryoon has some of the biggest, most colorful sprite work on the system and fits a lot of those sprites on the screen at once. It also features multiple planes of scrolling and it maintains a fast pace with no slowdown and minimal flicker. It’s a beauty and a joy to play thanks to its top-notch controls. It is also a favorite Shmup Hidden Gem — essentials in the genre to check out once you’ve played all the Defining Games of the genre.

Overall, Coryoon makes for a good shmup for beginners in the genre while still ramping up the challenge for experts. Some will find it easy after learning some strategy, but others could have a hard time filtering through its constantly-busy action. However, the game is forgiving and keeps throwing extra lives out to keep you plugging along.

TG16 fans may notice some familiar elements with the original Air Zonk game as the two titles shared some significant staff members. Both games featured Yashiharu Takaoka as the primary designer and programmer and have Hishashi Matsushita and Daisuke Morishima collaborating on the music.

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Download

1990
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: NEC Avenue
PC Engine

Download is a polished shooter with a cool cyberpunk style and detailed pixel artwork that features a stunning juxtaposition of vibrant and muted tones. The gameplay is fast and exciting, featuring a great balance of intense shooting, skilled maneuvering, and grabbing changing power-ups in order to top up your health and secondary weapons. The entire package is quite impressive for a HuCard release and is one of the best Japan-only PC Engine shmups there is.

Download has some of the very best art direction amongst PC Engine shmups and a solid soundtrack to complement it. The cutscenes have some phenomenal pixel-based illustrations that are reminiscent of Akira. The cutscenes also are better than many of the ones found on the system’s CD-based titles (again, how did they pull this all off on a HuCard?) While most of the dialogue is in Japanese (with some amusing English sprinkled in), Download also has one of the more interesting narratives of the shmup world. The premise also leads to some interesting situations and some innovative and unusual backdrops for the later levels. There is also some impressive parallax scrolling to add to the sense of speed.

Before you start each level, you have the opportunity to select two primary weapons and three sub-weapons, each of which have limited ammo. Your primaries are a Vulcan Beam (which can fire in five directions when fully upgraded) and a Laser Cannon. Secondary weapons each have limited ammo and include Chaser homing missiles, Crusher mega bomb, and a Barrier shield that can be moved around to protect different parts of your ship. Power-ups orbs that you collect will power up all of your weapons up to five levels.

Each of the six levels show fine craftsmanship represented by great layouts, visual variety, and strong art direction. As with some better-designed shmups, there are parts of the level design that you must take time and care to navigate successfully, but in in Download, you can also touch the walls and use them for blocking during battle. You have four different ship speeds to alternate between. The controls are top-notch, so with practice, you can really start mastering these levels.

The levels all showcase great variety of enemies that fit the cyberpunk aesthetic so well. Some enemies even morph and spin, creating a strong feeling of depth to the otherwise routine opponents. Many of the impressive bosses have some smaller sections to destroy before you take on the core.

Download only grants a player a single life, but they have a health bar to nurse along the way. There’s plenty of aspects to the game that will keep you on your toes, but refining your skill will create a rewarding experience. If the challenge gets you discouraged, Download does feature a password system to help you plug away on the adventure.

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Download 2

1991
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: NEC Avenue
PC Engine Super CD

If you enjoyed the first game in the Download series, you should feel at home with the sequel as well. While there are some significant changes here and there, it is still an intense shooter that builds off one of the best premises in the shmup genre.

The colors in Download 2 the sprite work lean more toward the vivid spectrum vs the more moody original. One could argue that Download’s often muted tones better suit the cyberpunk vibe, but Download 2’s more vibrant palette is still quite enjoyable. However, the level theme and designs are less abstract this time around, but still trippy at times. The efforts to make the levels a bit more visually palatable or less busy may have resulted in a bit less visual flash in the sequel.

You can no longer change your speed dynamically like you can in the original, but must rely on picking up speed icons instead. As a trade off, you now have all your weapons at the beginning and you can change them on the fly instead of before each level. There’s now four different weapons that you can go between: Vulcan-gun multi-directional shot, wide laser-beams, spread homing-lasers and a short-range lightning gun. These can each be powered up three times and a single power-up orb still powers up your full range of weapons. A red square power-up icon will also add two accompanying options that hover above below your ship to block bullets and add homing firepower. Grabbing extra red icons while you already have options will grant you a smart bomb. Picking up a blue square icon grants you a shield that can absorb a few hits and changes color depending on the shield’s current strength level.

There are infinite continues to use and you can pick up lots of extra lives along the way, so the challenge of completing the game is eased a bit.

Overall, Download 2 is a really solid title, but perhaps not as impressive as one might expect when jumping from a HuCard to a Super CD format. The gameplay changes give you some variety over the original game, but superiority between the two games comes down to personal preference.

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Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire

1995
Developer: CAProduction
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine Arcade CD

Given the PC Engine’s long history of great shooters, it was inevitable that Hudson would want one that made use of the impressive new Arcade Card, which expanded the PC Engine’s CD cache/general RAM to 18 megabits. Hudson partnered up with CAProductions, a new studio founded by some of the team at Red that had worked on Gate of Thunder and Lords of Thunder.

The gameplay setup is pretty typical for shooters of the 16-bit era. However, having been in released in 1995, Sapphire was up against Danmaku-style (bullet hell) shooters like Psikyo’s Strikers 1945 and Sapphire’s landscapes rarely becomes so cluttered with projectiles save for boss battles. From a core gameplay standpoint, Sapphire wasn’t particularly innovative, but it was a well-rounded game. Like many other Hudson-published shooters, the game is accessible but challenging, rewarding those who put in the effort without closing the door on more casual players. For those chasing high scores, learning when to use charged shots is key.

There are four characters/crafts to choose from with different weapon strength/style and movement speed. Sapphire also includes a two-player co-op mode that lets you team up with another player. There are five different levels representing different time periods to go along with the time-travel plot line. The first level is Blade Runner-inspired, but later levels evoke medieval Europe, ancient Japan, ancient Egypt, and then a more traditional space stage with some R-Type-like creatures.

Even though the graphics of many of Hudson’s shooters on the PC Engine were very impressive for the time, Sapphire goes above and beyond with a number of amazing rotation, scaling, and morphing effects. The extra RAM on the Arcade Card was put to use for insanely smooth sprite animation, including enemies and bosses made with pre-rendered 3D. Background and enemy sprites morph incredibly smoothly and those impressive rendered bosses blend in very well with the traditional pixel art. Simply put, it had an avalanche of effects without slowdown. Sapphire is a milestone in terms of graphics and visual effects on the PC Engine, and was an attempt to rival the graphical muscle of the new 32-bit consoles just emerging at the time.

Due to being a late card release with a small print run and its reputation for beauty, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is one of the most valuable and in-demand games on the PC Engine. With the reputation of value and style, some gamers feel a bit let down by the lack of innovation in the gameplay, but Sapphire is still a very well rounded shmup. If not for the high price, it should be a must-own for any PC Engine fan.

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Star Parodier / Star Parodia

1992
Developer: Hudson Interstate/Kaneko
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine SuperCD

Maybe Hudson themselves had realized that the Star Soldier formula was getting a little long in the tooth when they released Star Parodier. If the game sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of Parodius, a series of games released by Konami that featured a humorous and cartoonish take on the Gradius series. Hudson decided to do the same for its own flagship series, and thus Star Parodier was developed. Combining sugary sweet visuals, a stunning musical score, and some of the most responsive play control ever found in a shooter, Star Parodier proves that game spoofs can be every bit as good as their targets.

One of the cooler things about Star Parodier is its ship selection. You can choose between a chibi-styled version of Star Soldier’s Neo Caesar, Bomberman himself, or a rocket propelled white PC-Engine. Star Parodier doesn’t do much to distinguish itself over the other three PC-Engine Star Soldier titles, save for the cutesy graphics (not that its a bad thing). One huge highlight though is doing battle against a gigantic Bomberman in a Bomberman-themed arena. That alone is totally worth the price of admission.

Each of these ship options features three main weapon systems that can be switched by collecting different power-ups. Accumulating the power-ups increases their strength and range of destruction. Also, in the Star Soldier tradition, secondary weapons are also available, such as multiples, shields and missiles. Star Parodier features eight long and humorous stages, midpoint mini-bosses, and two score-attack modes.

In addition to the intensely vivid art direction, Star Parodier’s bosses are insanely colorful and further push the candy-coated image the game embodies. There are also some really gorgeous cut scenes in between stages to add a little more razzle-dazzle to what is already a graphically-impressive title.

Star Parodier’s soundtrack also happens to shine as much as the visuals. The upbeat musical tracks are extremely catchy and match the vibe of the game well. Sprinkling in interesting sound effects and Japanese speech rounds out a solid experience.

Sadly, this is one of the last titles released for the PC-Engine, and it never saw an international release.

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Rayxanber II

1991
Developer: Data West
Publisher: Data West
PC Engine SuperCD

The original Rayxanber, DataWest (no relation to Date East) began on the FM Towns  and Japanese PC as a bit of an R-Type clone before spawning two sequels on the Turbo CD. Rayxanber II functions very much like the original game, but has significantly faster pacing and, as a result, more challenge. The ship is smaller than in the original, but backgrounds are gorgeous and there’s plenty of parallax scrolling to round out the visuals, as well as a pretty solid soundtrack.

Rayxanber II is considered one of the harder original shmups on the PC Engine, and it definitely could have benefited from better balancing. Your ship is very slow and pathetically weak, and the screen gets flooded by enemies very fast. You do have a dash button that gives you a burst of speed, which you’ll need to use to evade many threats, but using it can commonly cause you to crash into enemies or scenery.

As far as weapons go, you have your standard shot and then collect power-ups from orbs for additional single-level weapons (they don’t stack, unfortunately). The quirk of picking up weapon orbs is that they have a dial which rotates clockwise as it floats in the playfield. The direction of the dial when you pick up the orb determines the firing direction of the weapon you add, and you’re stuck with that direction until you pick up a new one. This requires you to time your orb pickup carefully while also concentrating on not getting hit. The upgrades vary from explosive gun (Red), green flame laser (Green) and multi-way fire (Blue). The special weapons can be charged, but the charged shots are ultimately not very helpful (sometimes detrimental).

There are some pretty impressive and innovative level and boss designs and the game looks excellent; it’s a technical marvel, but just needed more refinement to be a more enjoyable gaming experience. Once you spend some time with it, you may get a better handle on the mechanics (memorization helps as well), but it can be quite frustrating along the way.

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Rayxanber III

1992
Developer: Data West
Publisher: Data West
PC Engine SuperCD

After a couple of installments of this series, one might hope that the team at Data West had been busy refining the formula, and fans of the series were happy to find a much more tolerable difficulty level, a tweaked dash functionality, and more useful charge weapons. Not everything is an improvement, however.

Despite having a wide color palette in Rayxanber II, part III feels very heavy on gray, brown, and red. Backgrounds seem to be completely lacking at times, with black voids everywhere and no additional parallax layers whatsoever. There is a lot of detail in the definition of caves and walls but that’s about it, and the abundance of caverns and rocks or outer space backgrounds gives the game a cramped feeling. The designs of the levels are innovative and interesting, but its disappointing that there is less eye candy. That said, their bosses are huge, imposing creatures that place you in tight spots and make you work hard to discover their weak points.

Weapon upgrades this time include a powerful but slow bubble shot (green), continuous laser shots (yellow), and a couple of thick flame bursts above and below the ship (red). It takes some practice to learn the best uses for these, especially during boss fights. Rapid fire is built in this time around, but unfortunately the weapons have some of the most annoying sound effects to be found on a PC Engine game. The soundtrack, for its part, isn’t terrible, but it definitely isn’t as solid as that of Rayxanber II. It’s more like lounge music than what you would expect from a shooter.

As mentioned briefly before, the charge shots received a major overhaul in Part III. The type of charge attack no longer is determined by the primary weapon, now works when you only have your basic shot, and automatically recharges. Once the gauge reaches yellow, you can let go of your rapid fire trigger to launch two large missiles in a straight horizontal line – if you hit the fire button again these break up into a series of homing missiles which obliterate most things on screen. Once you get used to it you’ll find yourself building a rhythm of sending out missiles and your attack strategy becomes much more dynamic.

The dash function was greatly refined as well. It’s easier to manage and the level structure and enemy attack patterns are better balanced to take use of the dash into account. You don’t have to worry as much about crashing while dashing, resulting in it feeling more like a valid strategy. Just keep an eye on the gauge to make sure you don’t overheat the function.

Depending on your impressions of Rayxanber II, part III could either be a welcome change or a bit of a disappointment. There is definite refinement in weapons, but they do require you to re-think things. Also, if you enjoyed the stark challenge in part II, Rayxanber III may not give you the same sense of accomplishment. However, if you like a lighter challenge, you will find Rayxanber III to have a smoother, more palatable learning curve.

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Metamor Jupiter

1993
Developer: Flight Plan
Publisher: NEC Interchannel
PC Engine SuperCD

Metamor Jupiter is a lesser known title from a lesser-known studio which, at first, may seem somewhat humdrum and humble. Once you get the hang of things, however, it’s quite an interesting shooter which is heavy on the special effects and focuses on creating an exciting narrative and intense atmosphere. If you’re looking for a high-score test here, you’ll be disappointed to find that Metamor Jupitor doesn’t even keep track of a score.

The design and music for the game was the first major game work of Masaya Matsuura, who later went on to create the Playstation classic, Parappa the Rapper. This shmup is an interesting look into his earlier career and experimenting with ways to create a more consuming game experience with audio as a major player.

The level design also is a significant factor in Metamor Jupitor’s appeal. The first stage starts our rather pedestrian, but as the game progresses, the levels get weirder and more intense. The mix of visual drama, ambient audio, character voiceovers, and a compelling variety of music helps shape the full experience. Another interesting thing about the levels is that, while they can be lengthy, the often branch in different directions. The bosses are also quite good and rather tactical as they sometimes require you to turn your ship around to attack a weak point at the back.

You have three main weapons you can switch between (there is a slight delay as your ship morphs) and power up independently. You can also hit a button to turn your ship around to face the other direction. The graphics are a bit of a mixed bag – excellent in some areas but ho-hum in others. With regards to special effects, some bosses scale and rotate (though this does cause some slowdown), and one level features a rotating tube section.

The enemies can get crazy, but you have to be careful about managing your weapons due to the risky delay when you switch between them. The game is challenging and takes some time to get the hang of, but it proves a worthwhile experience in the end.

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Sylphia

1993
Developer: Tonkinhouse / Compile
Publisher: Tonkinhouse
PC Engine SuperCD

Instead of their typical sci-fi shmup themes, the Compile team branched out into a setting based on Greek mythology for this rare shooter. Sylphia seems to make better use of the mythology theme than other shooters. The design and variety of levels and characters feel cohesive, appealing, and sets the game apart from its peers.

There’s a very diverse lineup of walking and flying enemies with new creatures increasingly showing up as your progress through the game. The bosses (two per level) are also beautifully-designed and interesting, however some of them are relatively simple to fight once you figure out their patterns and learn more of your weapon strategy.

The weapon arrangement feels very familiar to Compile shmup fans, but Sylphia still feels like a welcome change. The weapons upgrades are element-inspired: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth and have associated sub-weapons for each element as well (homing fireballs, reverse-direction fire, ring blades, and rotating rock protection barrier, respectively). Collecting green orbs increases the power level of the active weapon. There’s also a limited-quantity bomb that does some solid damage to all on-screen enemies and is handy for dire situations.

The controls are responsive and the gameplay solid in Sylphia. The difficulty levels isn’t nearly as intense as some of the shooters on the PC Engine. However, like the classic Blazing Lazers, Sylphia is a welcoming shooter to both novices and diehards. The pace can vary at time — giving you a chance to catch your breath between chaotic sessions. The different types of enemies and bosses also give you good reasons to utilize different types of weapons instead of relying on personal favorites. Sylphia also utilizes a life bar instead of one-hit deaths to keep your battles manageable. The health bar can be replenished by collecting gems (and extra lives given when gems collected while bar is full).

Sylphia also utilizes the hardware well, pumping crisp and very detailed graphics, fast scrolling and no slowdown. Some of the backgrounds are stunning, while others can appear a bit bland. The techno-inspired soundtrack is excellent and sets the right rhythm for the action.

Sylphia won’t amaze you as much as the top shmups in the library, but if you can get your hands on the game, it’s an enjoyable experience.

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Override (Last Battalion)

1990
Developer: Sting
Publisher: Data East
PC Engine

This hidden gem of a shooter seems to be influenced by the work of Compile and Hudson Soft with its frantic action and impressive weapon system. The game has a relatively spartan presentation, but is exquisitely programmed to thrill and run with absolutely no slowdown.

Despite not having cutting-edge graphics or especially innovative gameplay, Override (known as Last Battalion in its X68000 release) is good fun and has great pixel art. The game excels at presenting a steady, frantic pace that will excite shooter fans of different skill levels. The screen is frequently packed with bullets and enemies to the degree that you might find in a Playstation or Saturn shmup. The boss battles are also fairly impressive and there’s a healthy amount of parallax scrolling shown off.

Controls are pretty simple: you have a shot and the ability to adjust your speed between three different variations. However, by refraining from shooting you’ll notice a green flare at the tip of the ship — wait a bit longer and the ship will being to glow. Push the fire button and watch an outward blast devastate everything in front of the ship, enemy firepower included (which can be a defensive consideration). It’s an interesting departure from the typical holding-down charge shot. You can collect upgrades the power and range of your primary shot (P) or replenishment energy for your shield (E).

You can also collect some colored weapon gems to add some auxiliary weapons such as Homing Lasers (Red), Straight lasers (Blue), Rotating Wave Lasers (Green), Side Lasers (Purple) and Directional Lasers (Orange). These gems will flow slowly down the screen, but rotate colors as they travel. They always cycle through the same order, but start off with the color after your current color. Your auxiliary weapons can be upgraded up to three times by collecting gems of the same color. The cycling, pace and order of the gem color lets you some time to cherry pick your weapon preference and also help you avoid roaming into dangerous territory to collect your existing color. Overall, the weapon system is rather diverse, giving you an opportunity to experiment and find your ideal playing style.

The common complaint about Override is that the power-ups may be too frequent. The game isn’t a cake walk, however. Enemies routinely fire from different directions and later levels bring incoming homing missiles. Most of the ease comes from effectively using your highly-powered weapons and powered blast on large enemies and bosses.

Override provides a good amount of basic but satisfying shooter action. It is a classic example of the genre with solid execution of all the typical characteristics. It’s a good, solid, competent shooter that deserves to find a place, if not a lofty one in a well-rounded PC Engine library.

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Aldynes

1991
Developer: Produce
Publisher: Hudson
PC Engine SuperGrafx

Aldynes: The Mission Code for Rage Crisis, is a horizontal shmup developed for the SuperGrafx in Japan. Considering it was exclusive to the SuperGrafx, you might not be terribly impressed by a quick look at Aldynes, but once you spend some time with it, you will see that the less powerful PC Engine would have had a difficult time handling this game without noticeable flickering. The game features industrial-style levels with plentiful scaling or parallax scrolling effects, though at times the color palette doesn’t look that much better than what could have been accomplished on the Sega Genesis/Megadrive.

To make up for some of the other design deficiencies, some of the boss enemies are absolutely huge, and afford players little room to maneuver; the Level 1 boss has a particularly cool evolution/transformation that you don’t see often in shooters. It would have been nice to see even more of this type of thing in the game, but overall, you can tell the designers had a particularly good time with the major baddies.

Of course, there’s more to a shmup than presentation. Aldynes has a unique option-based combat that lets you deploy up to four large and versatile accompaniments that can be set up in three different formations; this system gives you more attack options even when you’re on the defensive. The enemy patterns are nicely done, and even a seasoned shoot-em-up fan will find a tough challenge here, since single-hit deaths and return-to-checkpoint scenarios are here haunt you.

There’s only three different weapons but they all have their uses throughout the game. The standard laser is most powerful but starts out thin, the rebounding laser travels along the floor and ceiling, making it perfect for enclosed spaces, and the spread gun fires in a wide arc but lacks power. In addition, if you hold the shot button you’ll charge a shield that will not only absorb bullets but can also destroy smaller enemies on contact.

For those that don’t have the hardware to play a SuperGrafx title, you can pick up Aldynes on the Japanese Playstation Network.

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Metal Stoker

1991
Developer: Sankindo
Publisher: Face
PC Engine

This gem is a top-down shooter which has you driving a land craft that can be powered up with multiple gun types, each of which can be upgraded independently by finding pods hidden throughout the levels, each of which offers different offensive or defensive abilities. Every weapon can also unleash a special attack (activated by pressing Select) at the cost of one weapon power level.

The controls take a little getting used to, as your ship fires in any of the eight directions that you face, and you can also lock the direction of fire for more accuracy.

The pacing within Metal Stoker is great, the levels have a lot of variation from one to the next, always throwing in new elements. The game’s overall length feels appropriate and the weapon upgrading works well. Each stage must be cleared by fulfilling a necessary condition, usually by defeating a group of enemies or a sub-boss. An arrow and a “Go!” sign activate when the condition is met and the player can proceed to the next stage.

The graphics are well-drawn, detailed, and nicely colored. It also rarely slows own despite a variety of enemies swarming you.

Overall, Metal Stoker is not quite as exciting as some of its fellow traditional shmups, but it is interesting in its own way and adds variety to the shooter library.

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Cho Aniki

1992
Developer: Masaya
Publisher: Nippon Computer Systems
PC Engine SuperCD

If you’ve ever heard of the Cho Aniki (“Super Big Brother”) games, you may know what to expect – a highly…unique blend of utter randomness and goofy pseudo-homoeroticism. For people who will buy a game solely for how weird it is, this one is a definite must-have; looking past the trimmings to the gameplay front, you should find a surprisingly well-balanced experience, but a somewhat weak weapon system.

You play as either the caped Idaten, who has a powerful laser and eight different speeds or Benten, a blue-haired maiden who has a spread shot attack and only 4 different speeds. Playing similarly to most shoot ’em ups, Cho Aniki features the usual power-up pods that increase your damage, charge shots, super weapons that devastate and R-Type style orbs in the form of muscle-bound brothers Adon and Samson. Your options can be configured to either stay at your side or they can perform kamikaze attacks. You toggle between these modes by pressing the bomb button while firing. Keep in mind, however, this switch will halt your fire for a bit and your muscle-bound options can also get killed off by taking too many hits.

Strong art direction builds a bonkers atmosphere of flying bodybuilders and other nonsense. Graphics are sharp and detailed and the levels have strong parallax effects. Your character sprites and many of the enemies have above-average animation and the bosses are graphically complex and bizarre. Levels are split into various stages with lots of sub-bosses thrown in for variety. It’s also worth mentioning that this original release also doesn’t come off as quite as creepy as some of the later sequels. The music is actually rather catchy and really helps bolster the game’s zany vibe.

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Ai Cho Aniki

1995
Developer: Masaya
Publisher: Nippon Computer Systems
PC Engine SuperCD

Three years later, Masaya felt that Adon and Samson, the brothers that served as the accompanying “orbs” in the first game would be great primary characters for a sequel. Ai Cho Aniki (“Super Big Brother of Love”) advanced not only the imaginative, cartoony graphics, but also the zaniness.

One of the most interesting gameplay changes is that the control scheme takes some inspiration from Street Fighter and the fighting game genre. Simple fire button presses send out a weak shot, but some controller + button combinations are required for more advanced attack deployments. It’s nothing complex or deep, but it’s interesting. Some players really struggle with this control scheme as it’s hard to pull off reliably, while others say you get used to it over time, which makes it more rewarding. Managing expectations going in should help you enjoy this quirky setup.

Some other fundamental changes to the game are the increased hitbox sizes due to your large, vertically-oriented characters and levels that vary from horizontal to vertical scrolling. The larger hitboxes definitely add to the challenge, but your characters also move nimbly to help compensate. As interesting as the motion combo attacks are, they can often be triggered accidentally and leave you vulnerable to hits that may feel cheap.

The visuals in Ai Cho Aniki are creative, colorful, and bizarre, breathing much more life into the series. The levels have a twisted vibe but contain a great deal of variety though the game. There’s also a healthy amount of parallax scrolling to add a bit of a wow factor. Bosses are very inventive and often have you laughing. The audio fits the bizarre theme well, ranging from grand to goofy, but never failing to impress.

While the first Cho Aniki may have rested more on pure camp value, the sequel definitely raises the stakes in many ways. The imaginative stages, hilarious boss encounters and finely-tuned action cement this quirky release as much more than a risque novelty in a shump library.

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Spriggan Mark 2

1992
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC Engine SuperCD

Mark 2 doesn’t actually have a lot in common with its predecessor, Seirei Senshi Spriggan, as Spriggan Mark 2 is one of the only side-scrolling shooter ever developed by Compile, is full of Gundam-inspired plot development, and jettisons the fantasy elements for a futuristic military theme.

Several weapons that you can cycle through with the Select button. Your primary straight-shot weapon has infinite ammunition, but your sub weapons have limited ammo. Once you start using the Mark 2 craft in Level 3, you can start to choose which sub-weapons to equip before each stage. As you progress through the game, you’ll have a larger variety of weapons to choose from. You can also shoot in multiple directions. Your mech-like craft is a bit larger than in most shooters, so it can be an added challenge to not get hit. However, you do have a shield that recharges when you’re not getting hit.

There are constant breaks in the action for the cinematics. The graphics for the cutscenes are nice, but for those that don’t know Japanese, these breaks can seem a bit long. It’s also worth mentioning that Mark 2 is not part of the Summer Carnival series and does not featured a score attack mode. With focus shifting to Japanese cinematics over innovating on fast paced gameplay, Mark 2 doesn’t come as highly recommended as its predecessor, but still has its fans.

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Hana Taaka Daka!?

1991
Developer: Taito
Publisher: Taito
PC Engine

Here’s another quality cute-em-up that was published by Taito and went under the radar of most PC Engine owners. You control a flying long-nosed goblin that traverses through an incredibly colorful and unique set of levels with multiple routes that are heavily steeped in Japanese folklore and culture.

Your main shot occupies Button I and your special bomb weapon resides at Button II. Hold down on your main shot to charge the on-screen gauge and release to deploy a variety of special attacks. Instead of relying on auto-firing, Hana Taaka Daka!? will push you to learn to use your charge shot more effectively.

There’s a handful of wrapped boxes you can collect to upgrade your goblin. There’s a bit of a trade-off with powering up your weapons as your character sprite and hit box grows substantially once you build up some solid fire power. Fortunately, the game has tight controls, so you won’t struggle to maneuver. When you do get hit, however, your powers and size are downgraded. Of course, once you get hit while at your default size, you lose a life. Other power-ups that can be obtained along the way include speed-up wings, shields or small goblin options that trail behind you.

Don’t let the cute-em-up facade fool you, Hana Taaka Daka!? contains some surprisingly intricate level designs that revolve around two picture pieces you need to collect to achieve the best ending. The first piece is obtained after defeating the level’s boss, while the second piece requires you to hunt for a warp portal to a parallel level that loops until you find the other missing piece. This setup creates an interesting amount of exploration and variety. Should you fail to find every warp portal with every second picture piece, however, you will fail to get the best ending.

In addition to the game’s vibrant colors, the sprite artwork is all nicely detailed and highly creative. Every enemy you kill results in a scorned tanooki dropping off-screen. There’s also some parallax showing up here and there to liven up the levels. The music is a fun throwback that plays well with the playful vibe. Between the strong visuals, the non-linear stages, memorable boss fights, and a fun weapon system, it’s impressive Natsume was able to fit all this goodness on a HuCard.

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Sinistron/Violent Soldier

1990
Developer: Alfa Systems
Publisher: IGS
PC Engine/TurboGrafx–16

If you’re looking for a shmup that has some heavy R-Type influence, a strong challenge, and some interesting gameplay mechanics, Sinistron (known as Violent Soldier in Japan) could be a solid addition to your library.

Sinistron’s most distinctive feature is the adjustable armored “jaws” at the front of your ship. There’s a unique attack and defense element here with a great balance of risk and reward. When close, the jaws act as an invincible shield in the front that can be used to ram and destroy enemies. Opening the jaws increases the spread of the your shots but exposes the vulnerable cockpit. Obtaining one weapon upgrade allows the ship’s jaws to be set half-way open (a 3-shot spread) or closed (single shot with increased damage), and a second upgrade allows them to be closed, half open, or fully open (a 5 shot spread).

The power-ups include a Vulcan flame cannon, crystal-pulse laser, and homing missiles. There are also speed upgrades and plasma droids. The plasma droids are invincible pods which will flank the top and bottom of the ship which will not only absorb enemy fire, but will also damage enemies they come into contact with. The ship’s charge-up attack releases a circular wave of force that will damage all enemies in a tight radius around the ship. Combined with the jaws, it can be fun to see if you can make it through the first level without firing.

Sinistron is also one of the most challenging shmups on the TG16/PC Engine — perhaps more challenging than Rayxanber II. However, the difficulty ramps up slowly as the first couple of levels aren’t too intense at all, but the third level starts throwing some tricky enemy movements at you to learn, while Level 4 and its impressive asteroid fields will start heavily testing your patience. The later levels start showing some intense challenges including missiles (some homing) threatening from both your front and back, quick projectiles, enemies that bounce and some crazy bosses. After the sixth level, you’ll be “treated” to a boss rush revisiting the first few bosses at a higher difficulty level. The whole package requires not only a bit of memorization, but some strong reflexes and strategy. While the game starts slow and transitions to insanity, hardcore players will find it satisfying to master.

Visually, Sinistron benefits from some strong art direction which helps both the colorful pixel art and the distinct level designs. There are also some nice exploding enemy animations that round out the experience. The backgrounds feature nice parallax effects and benefit from smooth scrolling. The music is well done, but can be bit repetitive.

There are some differences between Sinistron and its Japanese counterpart, Violent Soldier. Apart from a few subtle changes to graphics and audio, there are also a few tweaks to gameplay that can affect the challenge — especially when it comes to the fourth stage with the formations of asteroids. There are also some story changes between the two versions.

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L-Dis

1991
Developer: NCS
Publisher: Masaya
PC Engine SuperCD

This cute and comical horizontal shooter is one of the lesser-known shmup gems, but has a lot going for it, including its sense of humor and weird and wacky enemies. The visuals are colorful and well-drawn, but they are perhaps a bit more simple than some other cute-em-ups. However, when you avoid making direct comparisons, you can enjoy the L-Dis’s style a bit more. The levels are varied in design, show some subtle parallax effects, and the artwork has a warm and playful style to it.

A lot of cute-em-ups aren’t known for extreme difficulty, but L-Dis doesn’t let gamers off easy just because of its looks. There is an easy mode that is somewhat manageable and has easier-to-kill bosses, but you don’t get to play the last two levels or see the real ending in that mode.

The levels each have different sections and the bosses each have a few different forms. The sixth and final level also has an ultra-intense boss run. So even though there are “only” six levels, the game feels much longer. There are some awkward pauses before and after bosses, which breaks up the otherwise great flow.

In L-Dis, you can choose between three different weapon setups before starting and power-ups are obtained by shooting little yellow bags with wings. These power-ups will cycle through choices until grabbed and can either enhance the strength of the main weapon, add a secondary one, or grant the protagonist protective shields or bombs that can eliminate all the enemies on the screen. The power-ups are on these little rectangles with Japanese characters on them as opposed to icons, so English speakers will need a little time to learn which powers have which effect. However, to help narrow things down, you can remember that pink icons usually power up weapons, blue icons give multiples and yellow icons give shields or bombs. The bombs can also be saved for later, they follow the ship and can be dropped at any time by pressing the other action button.

If you’re up for an intense challenge, L-Dis is definitely a hidden gem worth looking into. If not, you might wants to spend more time with others in the library first. But it’s a shame that many people probably get scared off by this one as L-Dis has an imaginative personality and style to be enjoyed.

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Burning Angels

1990
Developer: Naxat Soft
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC Engine

As one the earlier PC Engine shmups from Naxat Soft, Burning Angels is a fairly well made shooter that has a playful and cool visual style, some frantic pacing, and very few substantial weaknesses, but it doesn’t quite have the refinement and excitement that we see in later shooters from Naxat and other companies like Compile.

Burning Angels features two ship options: the Dragon and the Phoenix (styled as “Phenix” in-game), each with their own pilot, weapon configuration, and distinct ultimate attack. Dragon is equipped with wide lasers, fixed pods and long-range missiles, and Phoenix comes with Bubble lasers, rotating pods and short-range exploding missiles. The game also features a two-player mode, however only one player has to be destroyed for co-op mode to come to an end.

Power-ups can be obtained by shooting down special red spaceships. The power-ups include power increases (P), auxiliary pods (B), missiles (M), and gradual health meter refills (L). Star coins can also be collected to to charge up the burning bar located at the bottom of the screen. When the burning bar is full, you can use up its energy for a powerful laser beam, turn your ship into an invincible flaming phoenix , or pull off a sweet combo ship attack. Much of your success in Burning Angels hinges on learning how to use your burning bar skills efficiently and effectively. Every time you get hit you lose a little health and some of your varied firepower is gradually reduced.

The levels are surprisingly long and the addition of middle bosses are a nice touch. However, the standard enemy attack patterns could use more variety. Also, once you get into the third level, the game starts punishing you for clinging to the bottom of the screen. Many enemies start coming from behind the player, which feels like a cheap shot until you adjust to the tactic. It can be a bit frustrating as you only have one energy bar and no continues, but practice enough and it becomes manageable.

The anime-inspired cutscenes are enjoyable without taking away from the action too much. For a shmup of 1990 vintage, the sci-fi art direction is pretty solid. Sprites are big, there is plenty going on, and some occasional layers of parallax round things out. Level detail could use some improvements, however, as some stages appear to be recycling the same tile sets and layouts.

This game also has a fake “TATE” mode to give you the opportunity to make it feel more arcade-like, but instead it ends up making things feel compressed. This mode, and others like it, bump up the horizontal resolution but use the same sprites and screen area as the lower resolution, meaning that the same amount of detail is displayed in a smaller area, leading to a more narrow play experience. It should be noted that Dragon Spirit and Dragon Saber also feature similar options hidden behind special code inputs, so at least Burning Angels makes the option available right up front.

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Choujikuuyousai Macross 2036

1992
Developer: NCS
Publisher: Masaya
PC Engine SuperCD

Macross 2036 is not only one of the first console games based on the anime series, but it also is a beautiful game that made some interesting attempts to mix up the typical shmup formula.

You begin with a standard Vulcan gun and bombs in the first level, but as you progress, you can buy additional weapons and upgrades with the EXP points you accumulate from orbs. Interestingly enough, the game prevents you from choosing the same weapon two levels a row. This is a unique way of not only forcing some strategy, but also pushing you to try different types of weapons. Your weapons have infinite ammo, but become less effective the more you use them. To help with your rationing, you can track your weapon’s efficacy with an on-screen gauge.

During the game’s compelling boss battles your ship transforms to its mech (Battleroid) formation and fires the weapon continuously, allowing you to use the buttons to change the angle of your shot for a full 360 degree field of fire. This creates a much different battling experience during boss fights. Your mileage will depend on whether you enjoy this setup as much as a standard shmup battle, but you have to give the developers some credit for trying something different.

Macross 2036 excels with its audio/visual experience. It features vibrant colors and interesting animations and the Macross aesthetic translates well to the shmup world. The parallax effects mixed with high-speed scrolling in incredibly engaging and complements the Macross vibe. There’s a good amount of attractive cutscenes, but they are skippable if you’re not in the mood. The CD-based music is masterfully reproduced from the anime series.

Hardcore shmup fans often complain that Macross 2036’s gameplay is a bit basic: your arsenal is relatively limited, the levels may be stretched out too much, and there aren’t enough memorable moments to make the game a true classic in the genre. However, Macross 2036 is a nicely-crafted shmup that showcases some of the better audio-visuals to be found on PC Engine, and the overall package is especially attractive for Macross fans. 2036 doesn’t have any glaring flaws and it tries some unconventional things, ultimately making it a nice addition to a shooter library.

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Psychosis / Paranoia

1990
Developer: Naxat Soft
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

With so many sci-fi shooters out there, Naxat looked to take their shmup-design skills to a different landscape with their first PC Engine shmup (arriving right before Burning Angels). Psychosis (released as Paranoia outside of North America) it set within the player’s own unconscious as it battles a demon that has taken over. You control a ship on a mission to regain control of your mind and soul. This setting gave Naxat some great liberties to come up with trippy and haunting settings and interactions. The theme, and it’s resulting implementation, is quite conceptually innovative for 1990. The US TG16 version is heavily censored in its content and oddly re-arranges the levels, breaking some of the story and difficulty flow, so if you want the full experience, you might want consider going the PC Engine route.

The game showcases a unique weapons system, where the player is granted two defensive orbs that not only have the ability to absorb enemy fire but can also be upgraded. Difficulty is rather unbalanced, power-ups are sparse, and you lose all your upgrades when you die. The reordering of stages also disrupts the challenge curve, contributing to the uneven difficulty.

While there are some interesting selling-points to Psychosis / Paranoia, the rough edges leave it feeling like an average shooter for the platform. Combine that with the changes made to the game in the US, you might wonder why it was brought to the US in the altered manner it was, especially given so many other Japanese alternatives that were ultimately overlooked.

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Cyber Core

1990
Developer: Alpha System
Publisher: IGS
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

The modern shooter Mushihimesama may be the most famous insect-inspired shmup, but it’s not the first. Taito’s Insector X and IGS’s Cyber Core came first, and Cyber Core set itself apart from its PC Engine and 16-bit peers with its unique presentation. In Cyber Core, you control an insect bio-jet called the Chimera piloted by a human who is out to rid the world of giant insects that have invaded the earth.

Similarly to the Namco classics Xevious and Dragon Spirit, the ship utilizes two kinds of weaponry: air-to-air weapons against air-based enemies and air-to-ground bombs used against ground-based units. You can adjust your ship’s speed with the select button.

To power up you must shoot certain slow-moving, large-abdomened insects as they fly across the screen. After taking a certain amount of fire they will drop a colored power-up orb. There are four weapons, each represented by a different color. If you collect a different color you change weapons, but if you collect the same color you power-up and acquire an additional level of shielding. Each weapon type changes the look of your ship, and as you evolve your ship grows bigger and more complex-looking. The downside to this evolution is that, like as in Dragon Spirit, getting more powerful makes your hitbox significantly larger. Getting hit consumes one shield cell, and when all shield cells are gone the ship starts losing its power-up levels with every hit until, fully de-powered, the last hit kills you.

Some of the enemy sprites can be rather large and the game handles lots of enemies at time with ease. Colors are interesting and the backgrounds can be ok, but often feel uninspired. In fact, some levels share the same background and rely on enemy changes for the main source of variety. Overall, the visuals seem to be one of the game’s biggest weaknesses.

Cyber Core seems pretty easy through most of the earlier levels, and then kicks up the difficulty near the end. Variable challenge, the large hitbox, and the bland (at times) graphics peg this shooter as lackluster, especially for the 1990 release date.

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Terra Cresta II: Mandler no Gyakushuu

1992
Developer: Nichibutsu
Publisher: Nichibutsu
PC Engine

The sequel to Nichibutsu’s earlier Terra Cresta, which in turn was a sequel to Moon Cresta. Unlike the original, Terra Cresta II skipped the Arcades and was released exclusively for the PC Engine.

The game uses an interesting power-up system involving adding modules to your spaceship. These modules can be configured in two ways: connected directly to the ship, increasing its firepower, or separate from the ship to increase their coverage. You can choose which direction the ship modules will fire in and the positions they take around the central ship when separated. This allows you to fine-tune the reach of your bullets and adds a bit of strategy.

The twelve levels are somewhat varied but start to feel a bit monotonous after a while; the limited enemy formations are particularly tiresome. Even though it was released in 1992, the game looks and feels very dated compared to competition from that year like Solider Blade and Gate of Thunder. The backgrounds are still rather detailed and there is some decent sprite work. The pacing is nice — not too frantic, but not slow. It’s a reasonably good shmup, but easy to overlook in this system’s grand library.

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Final Blaster

1990
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco
PC Engine

Final Blaster hosts a number of features that are distinct to the game: the first is a charge shot that resembles a phoenix and is the only form of projectile that can destroy certain larger enemies. The second is that the game configures its difficulty depending on how many power-ups the player has when finishing a level, or how often they’ve been destroyed.

In addition to the phoenix charge shot, there are plenty of options regarding the management of your companion pods (you can utilize them as stationary frontal shields, have them trail or rotate around you, or set them off as smart bombs), but otherwise the standard weapons are quite pedestrian with a choice of lasers, spread shot, or a combination of both.

Final Blaster is also known to have some very frustrating elements to it such as enemies that come from behind your ship, quick and unexpected attacks, and attacks from enemies that went offscreen. If you want an unforgiving shooter that will test your patience and sample some of Final Blaster’s innovations, the game could be worth picking up. But this one isn’t for the everyone.

Final Blaster looks pretty good for a 1990 shooter. Levels are varied, some of the bosses are memorable, there often is some parallax scrolling and you even have some partial control over the scrolling itself. In fact, you can slightly slow down or accelerate the scrolling depending on your needs.

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Somer Assault/Mesopotamia

1991
Developer: Altus
Publisher: Altus
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

This odd gem from Altus is not your typical shmup, but is a bit of a shooter/puzzle/platformer hybrid that features a pink slinky-type thing as the protagonist. The slinky is able to move along the floor, walls, and the ceiling by slinking along them; it can also make a short jump to move between walls and platforms to slink to a different section of each stage. The slinky is also equipped with a machine gun that fires to both sides of it to take out the myriad of enemies that swarm you on each stage. Getting a firm grasp of the controls takes a little bit of time, but it isn’t by any means a deterring factor.

While this setup is rather unique and interesting, it is not without its annoyances. While navigating the mazes, there is no navigation to help you track your progress or destination. To add to potential frustration, there are also teleports that have no indication of their destination. Some of these teleporters are even mean enough to send you back to the beginning which, needless to say could be infuriating after trying to figure out where to go for quite a while.

The player is allowed several hit points (which can be increased with powerups), several lives, and unlimited continues. Defeated enemies sometimes drop power-ups that range from extra continues, extra life, super speed to extra shots and bouncing shots.

A time limit is given for each of the thirteen maze-like levels, and the goal is to find the Zodiac boss of the stage and defeat it before time expires. There’s a boss run at the final stage before dueling with the final bosses.

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Barunba

1989
Developer: Namco/Zap
Publisher: Namco
PC Engine

This multi-directional scroller from Namco has a bit of a cute-em-up feel, but not quite as cute and colorful as Fantasy Zone or Twinbee that came before it. Barunba is essentially a flying ball with a weapon ring around it which can be rotated to fire in any direction. Button II rotates the ring clockwise and the Run button counter-clockwise. Much like Forgotten Worlds and its ilk, this control scheme can be a bit awkward with a d-pad controller, but practice helps.

The Barunba has 4 weapons: a vulcan gun (V), a laser (L), a Napalm Bomb (N) and a Shield beam (S) that can be charged up and used as a shield.Each weapon can be switched to on-the-fly by pressing Select, and they can be individually upgraded up to three times- curiously, they apparently lose their power overtime and need to be regularly upgraded.

There’s no scoring within Barunba, which can be a letdown to hardcore shmup players, however the challenge of finishing the game with a single energy bar that can withstand five hits can begin to make up for it. There is no replenishing of health between or within stages and there’s no continues (other than the secret combo of hitting UP + Start at the Game Over screen). Your success will depend much on memorization and effective use of your weaponry.

The five stages in the game are rather long and tend to feature some slow and boring parts despite being broken up by sub-bosses. The experience would be much more fulfilling if the levels were edited down to the best parts. The graphics and audio are also fairly bland, if colorful. This is a shame as the game mechanics are an interesting foundation that just needs more refinement and polish to make it a true classic.

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Kiaidan 00

1992
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan / Riot
PC Engine CD

If you’re into big robots, this shmup might be worth tracking down. Kiaidan 00 features lots of large and colorful sprite work that is reminiscent of classic Japanese animated series like Mazinger Z or Grandizer. The game puts you in command of a giant robot fighting an array of huge mechanical bosses. It also features some Japanese-heave cinematics, but they don’t get in the way too much.

Your robot has a variety of weapons at his disposal: forward gun, wave spread, rotating energy ball, fixed energy field and three-way lightning bolts. Button II shoots and button I cycles through the weapon types. There are not any weapon upgrades, but you can charge your primary weapon and trigger a more powerful variant of each of the weapon types.

The seven levels display colorful landscapes, but playing through them can feel awfully lengthy and repetitive, causing you to get impatient while waiting for the large bosses to arrive. At least you have mid-level bosses as well to keep things interesting. There is some solid challenge, especially as you dig deeper and its cool style and gameplay score it some major points.

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Bouken Danshaku Don: The Lost Sunheart

1992
Developer: I’max
Publisher: Manjyudo
PC Engine

If you enjoy the cartoon-like stylings of a cute-em-up, but want something little darker while retaining the weirdness, The Lost Sunheart is worth looking into. The game’s surreal sense of humor comes through with its bizarre bosses, in some way invoking the flamboyant Cho Aniki series. While The Lost Sunheart has a good deal of diversity in its levels and features vibrant colors, it doesn’t quite have the same visual appeal of some of its 1992 peers.

Interestingly, The Lost Sunheart actually has you pilot four different ships over the course of the game including a submarine and an ice jet. The ships don’t seem to change the game drastically, but it’s cool distinction. There’s even some levels that have vertical scrolling sections while still maintaining the typical horizontal shooting perspective. Powerups include Extra Life (F), Increase Firepower (C), High Beams (H). Other special weapons that can be activated with the Run button include Rotating Shields, Homing Missiles, Side Guns, and Wave Lasers.

The levels are long and can be quite challenging. Shooting does get rather intense and there’s lots of enemies with difficult-to-avoid homing shots. It can be incredibly frustrating when you get sent back to the beginning of a level after losing a life, but The Lost Sunheart does dull the sting a bit by allowing you to keep your power-ups after dying. But overall, The Lost Sunheart provides a good amount of solid fun and entertaining moments.

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Steam Heart’s

1996
Developer: GIGA
Publisher: TGL
Super CD-ROM

First of all, no, that apostrophe is not a typo (at least not on my part, anyway). Second, this vertscroller is most famous for being one of the few commercially released “hentai” (literally “pervert,” the term denotes a game or other product with sexual content) shooters, and the only one on the PC Engine (unless you care to count the likes of Cho Aniki). Originally released on the PC–98, the graphics (and, more importantly, the scrolling) have been upgraded in this port, and the hentai anime scenes between stages have been toned down a bit.

You can choose between two different characters, each of whom have different weapon configurations. There’s also some power-ups such as missiles, homing pods, or shields. While you do get some rather impressive firepower and inventive bosses to keep yourself occupied during the “interactive portion”, as well as the handy ability to quickly boost out of the way of oncoming threats, it’s still obvious, as with most such games, that the shooting wasn’t the developers’ main focus in this title, as the attack patterns and scenarios you encounter are largely unsatisfying, especially juxtaposed with the many superior shooters available on the system. Steam Heart’s does deliver a lot of bullets and action at once — quite a lot of PC Engine shmups (the 1996 release is pretty late in the console’s lifespan)

It is also worth noting that the PC Engine CD version isn’t the best version of this shmup from a gameplay perspective. While it does improve on some of the scrolling issues from the PC 98 version, the Sega Saturn port has the best scrolling performance, redrawn graphics, and brings in a two-player mode and exclusive weapons.

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TerraForming

1991
Developer: Right Stuff
Publisher: Right Stuff
PC Engine SuperCD/TurboGrafx-16 SuperCD

This title is best known for being the first significant video game design project from futurist Syd Mead. Prior to designing the ships, enemies and pre-rendered backgrounds for TerraForming, he was best known for designing city backgrounds and vehicles for Blade Runner and the spaceship design for Aliens.

As a shooter, TerraForming’s gameplay is simply average. Some of the actual level designs are quite repetitive and rely a bit too much on Mr. Mead’s design work and a aggressive parallax scrolling effects to entertain you. To the game’s credit, TerraForming does show some technical prowess with things like deformation effects and throwing many levels of parallax scrolling at once. At times, the visuals are a bit hypnotic, if not distracting.

Your weapon lineup consists of laser, spread gun, and homing shards and they can be upgraded up to three times via power-ups. The primary weapon can also be charged up for a more powerful blast. Due to the amount of enemies, you probably will save the charge shot mechanic for bosses. You can also change up your ship speed to your liking.

With all that went into the design of the visuals and the generous parallax scrolling, it would have made a significant difference if Terraforming included more barriers and obstacles in the level design. Instead, the game is filled with open areas.

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Avenger

1990
Developer: Telenet
Publisher: Laser Soft
PC Engine Super CD

Being the first shooter on the PC Engine CD, Avenger is a fairly straightforward helicopter shooter, but it does use a tilting mechanic for taking shots. As you sweep left or right, your shot “bends” in order to follow your movement and you can lock the shooting direction as you wish.

You can power up our weapons along the way, but our basic weapon configuration (from primary, secondary and special) must be designated before the level begins as opposed to the common instant exchanging in the middle of battle. You can collect power-ups along the way from pods that cycle through “M” (Primary), “S” (Secondary), and “R” (Shield) to increase your current configuration on the fly. New weapon offerings are also unlocked as you progress through the game. The weapon system is solid, a good change from the typical shmup offering, and offers you a bit of configuration strategy as you anticipate the next level.

As you may expect from an early PC Engine CD game, the level designs are visually repetitive and short. There are some parts of the action that are intense, but otherwise the pace is mild. After giving Avenger some dedicated play time, you’ll find that despite its limitations the game is a well-designed shooter, but it simply feels just a bit dated compared to the best of the PC Engine library.

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W-Ring / The Double Rings

1990
Developer: Naxat Soft
Publisher: Naxat Soft
PC Engine

This early little gem from Naxat Soft shows a lot of inspiration from Gradius, but also has some subtle innovation of its own to share, but there’s some pretty large swings between its difficult levels.

You start with a basic gun shoots a vulcan gun ahead and bombs angle down. Your second button changes the ship’s speed. There’s a pretty diverse selection of power-up weapons and each can be upgraded multiple times, but taking a hit sets them back to the default vulcan gun. Power-ups equips a narrow, spinning ring (hence the game’s title) that protects the ship from some hits from above or below and send those shots bouncing back toward enemies. The ring can also be moved at the front or behind the ship, customizing your protection. There are other miscellaneous power-ups hidden that can increase your bombs supply or further change weapon behavior.

Aside from the rather unoriginal level themes, there is a good amount of variety and the art direction and pixel art is quite detailed. Many of the spires are smaller than average, but they are also able to throw more of them on the screen at once for a nice change from the typical. The smaller “normal” sprites also make the heartier sprites look even larger. There is also some nice use of color cycling to add subtle background animation effects. The screen sometimes scrolls vertically to show you a larger landscape to traverse. It’s a minor, but interesting approach. The music is rather rich for a PC Engine Hu Card and has a bit of a Darius feel to it.

When it comes to the W-Ring’s challenge. After a bit of practice, Beginner and Normal mode can end up being a cake walk. Once you bump it up to Hard and Expert Normal, W-Ring will definitely start testing your reflexes and making you work for it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much middle ground here.
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Dead Moon

1991
Developer: Natsume, Zap, Studio Ducks
Publisher: Natsume
PC Engine / Turbografx-16

This shooter is one of the less-known among those that actually reached the States on the TG16. It’s actually a rather competent shooter, but gets neglected due to its modest surface presentation and a lack of a killer hook to create a memorable experience.

Eventually, you discover that Dead Moon has some impressive graphics here and there including up to six levels of parallax scrolling and have some level designs that actually make the TG16 hardware sweat a bit. The design of the moon surface in level three is a parlictually good example of using parallax scrolling to create a subtly engaging environment.

The weapons system is somewhat typical, but well rounded starting with a vulcan gun and letting you pick up additional weapons that can be upgraded up to four times each. When maxing out the upgrades, you get an extra smart bomb instead. The upgrades also work as a buffer shield and get degraded when hit. There’s also some secondary weapons to equip such as homing missiles and defense orbs. These secondary weapons can also be upgraded and stacked as well.

As alluded to earlier, Dead Moon’s weaknesses include rather basic-looking enemy design, stereotypical level themes, and there just isn’t a way for it to stand out in a crowded shmup library. However, the gameplay is solid and the challenge is balanced, so if you simply want another good shooter to play and round out your collection, you might find Dead Moon is a good selection to add to your rotation.

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Psychic Storm

1992
Developer: Laser Soft
Publisher: Telenet
PC-Engine SuperCD

Don’t go into this one expecting it to be a thrill ride. Instead, if you set your expectations for a more “relaxing” shmup adventure, you might find yourself enjoying the game more. Many shmupers feel that this game has solid presentation and design as a foundation, but is a disappointment due to its lack of challenge and scoring system. What you focus on and choose to enjoy will completely determine your opinion.

There are four different ships you may use, and you can switch to a new one in between stages. This can be helpful as some ships are equipped with weapons that better suit certain levels. When your charge bar fills, you can trigger a ship transformation into one of four invincible bio-insect creatures based on the ship you chose. Each one has a different powerful weapon, but the transformation only lasts about fifteen seconds. However, can pick up orbs to add time on to the bar, and if you get hit time is reduced. This is a fun element, but it’s also one that can make the game a bit easy. Of course, if you want to test your skill more, must avoid triggering these transformations! You also have an alternate option for your charged ship: If you hit both “I” and “II” buttons you can trigger a traditional bomb effect. It is also worth mentioning that Psychic Storm features a two-player co-op mode that also allows you to merge together for your charge attack. During this merge run, one person shooting forward and one shooting backwards via a crosshairs.

The other elements that reduce the difficulty level in Psychic Storm include the generous life bar, low quantity of enemies, and slower pace, but it can still be frustrating when you die and get sent back to the beginning of a lengthy level.

The visuals are definitely one of Psychic Storm’s strengths. The overall color presentation and background design is excellent — perhaps only exceeded by a few games on the PC Engine like Sapphire (mentioned above). The enemy sprites are super-detailed and varied, with a sort of mechanized insect vibe, and the bosses are big and come to life with interesting animations. The scrolling is silky smooth and wonderfully accompanies the pace of the action. To accompany the vivid visuals is an inspired soundtrack that has plenty of variety and supports the action well. To round things out, there’s some nice cutscenes with some fantastic Engrish to lighten your day.

It’s a relatively low-cost addition to the shmup library and can be quite enjoyable if you set your expectations in line. It’s also a good introductory shooter due to its difficulty level or a solid chill-out session after a busy day.

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God Panic

1992
Developer: Teichiku
Publisher: Teichiku
PC-Engine SuperCD

With it being a wacky cartoon-like vertical shooter, God Panic shares the most similarities with Star Parodier, but throws in a heavier dose of odd humor and a bit less gameplay and weapons refinement that you might expect from Hudson Soft and its Star Soldier series (which Star Parodier, well, parodied). However, you can tell that God Panic was developed with enthusiasm by a small, but creative team at Teichiku.

Your character is a flying cat wearing a ninja outfit out to destroy a diverse lineup of weird enemies. Weapons are pretty simple shot and bomb offerings that can be boosted with power-ups. When you get the shot power-ups, you get little sidekicks that add to your shot range. Additional shot power-ups will build toward a couple of very powerful homing shots.

For those that beat the final boss, you’ll see the game restart but with a gloomy sprite overhaul. All the background, enemies and bosses now have a revised color palette and convey destruction and decay instead of their original bright and shiny countenance. There’s even an alternative soundtrack to accompany this alternate world. Unfortunately, the difficulty isn’t bumped up in this round, but its a pretty cool offering.

Overall, God Panic is a enjoyable shooter with one of the more odd and creative presentations on the PC Engine. It looks and feels relatively simple and slow, but its strengths make it a worthwhile addition to those that enjoy the quirky shooters.

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Rock-On

1989
Developer: BigClub
Publisher: BigClub
PC Engine

This early PC Engine shooter is not one of the most impressive games in the library, but it has a rather simple, but charming presentation that is approachable for beginners (but more polished games like Blazing Lasers are hard to beat). It draws heavy inspiration from both R-Type and Gradius, but doesn’t have enough originality or polish to make it more than a cheap way to round out your collection.

It has a variety of weapon and speed upgrades, but there’s not enough refinement in the system to make it a real selling point. Your ship is capable of holding three types of weapons which you can cycle through by pressing the run button. The “I” button is a standard shot type and the “II” button is whatever special weapon is equipped. Both shot types can be fired simultaneously.

Rock-On is actually overly generous with power-ups. If you obtain a shield, an 8-way shot, and 3 Speed icons and you are nearly invincible in the first level. However, if you don’t have these stocked up, you’re going to have a tough time in later levels.

Your ship starts out very slow, but speed upgrades can help out there. However, if you get too many speed upgrades, your ship gets a little too ambitious and the controls aren’t solid enough to compensate.

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Power Gate

1991
Developer: Pack-In Video
Publisher: Pack-In Video
PC Engine

This rather generic shooter has a fighter jet theme that has simplistic graphics and even more simplistic weapons. You start with a pea shooter than you can upgrade a couple times, but not in a way that drastically changes the dynamic of the weapon. You can also pick up ground bombs and energy cells, and equip some secondary weapons like Homing missiles, Napalm Bomb, 8-way shot.

Some enemies can shoot homing shots and tanks shoot up at you from the ground. This is a pretty slow-paced shooter that emphasizes enemy patterns over environmental hazards, though later levels do become harder to navigate. Fortunately, it doesn’t have the worst game design of the library, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of factors to make it inviting.

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Hawk F–123

1991
Developer: Pack-In Video
Publisher: Pack-In Video
PC-Engine SuperCD

Instead as promoting this game as a Special/Improved version of Power Gate for the Super CD, Pack-In Video released it under a brand new title. It’s not quite the same game, but most of the same jet-based foundation is there including recycling a lot of the same sprites. It does, however rework the gameplay a bit to make it a more balanced experience. It still isn’t anywhere near an essential shmup purchase, but it brings the likes of Power Gate more toward something that feels a bit like its aspiring to be Aero Blasters.

Hawk F–123 contains eight levels instead of the six found in Power Gate. You also now have a laser and an impact blast to complement the standard pea shooter. You also have the ability to grab homing missiles, energy balls, and up to two options to accompany you on your mission. The options can absorb some hits, but will disappear after too much damage.

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Toy Shop Boys

1990
Developer: Mutech
Publisher: Victor Musical Industries
PC Engine

The premise for this vertical shooter has a lot of potential: you can play as one of three kids that our out to battle through toy-based enemies and defeat a villain that has stolen their toys. You can switch between the three kids spontaneously to utilize different weapons: straight shot (can be upgraded to a spread shot), homing boomerangs, and a light saber that catches projectiles and works well as a melee weapon. The gameplay is reasonably crafted with well-placed enemies and speed upgrades that can help the otherwise slow pace. It is colorful and has some nice ideas for art direction, but there are odd design decisions and some obvious missed potential.

In the end, however, Toy Shop Boys ends up being a mildly fun shmup and seems more geared towards younger kids. It does have three difficulty levels, so you can adjust it a bit to your liking (although the Hard level often leaves you underpowered after dying). I suppose you could keep this one in mind to introduce kids to shmups, but otherwise, its a bit of a novelty.

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Hani In The Sky

1988
Developer: Face / Sankindo
Publisher: Face
PC Engine

While this game is technically a vertical scrolling shooter, it is very far from typical. Instead of shooting primarily upward, Hani in the Sky gives your character the ability to fire in eight directions, covering essentially a 360 degree range. This is often required to defeat enemy waves emerging from all sides of the screen as well as the fast-moving bosses. This sounds pretty interesting (and perhaps similar to the likes of Forgotten Worlds), but you’ll quickly find that one of the primary annoyances with this setup is that you can only rotate your shot clockwise.

You can earn points after defeating enemies and trade them in to purchase weapons and items via store that can be summoned by pausing and hitting a button. You can also upgrade Hany’s weaponry, allowing him to fire in more directions simultaneously, as well as purchase health refills. The game also offers a warp function that lets you teleport back to the beginning of a level or back to completed levels. This is handy if you’re low on money or health. The game is full of original ideas and the art direction is interesting once you get past the third level. The game gets pretty intense in the last few levels, increasing your frustration with the cumbersome controls.

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Toilet Kids

1992
Developer: Bits Laboratory
Publisher: Media Rings
PC Engine

As you can imagine, this shooter plays heavily off of potty humor. You fly around as a kid sitting on a potty and shoot around on some rather generic-looking levels. Considering the title and the subject matter, its honestly a bit surprising they didn’t take the environments (or even the humor) to more of an extreme to fully commit to their premise. Instead, you’re left with a game that feels like a weird take on an off-brand Xevious with enemies that feel like hybrids of typical shooter enemies and poop emojis.

Much like Xevious, you can shoot standard shots, perform a charge shot, and drop bombs on the ground. You can also obtain extra weapons such as shields, rapid fire, and super-bombs. Surprisingly, Toilet Kids also offers a two-player co-op mode for those that can find a friend to play Toilet Kids with you. The game isn’t actually terrible, but you defiantly have to be in the mood to shoot at poop and there are better zany shooters out there with a superior sense of humor and style.

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Deep Blue

1989
Developer: Pack-In Video
Publisher: Pack-In Video
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16

This was actually one of the launch titles for the TurboGrafx–16 in North America, but it most definitely does not give a good first impression for the console or the shmup genre. Looking at screenshots, you might almost think that Deep Blue is a mix of Darius with something like Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin. However, after spending just a bit of time with the game, you’ll notice that the scenery is quite repetitious and the gameplay is pretty rough. Perhaps Pack-In Video was trying to make it feel like you were really underwater, but your ship is incredibly difficult to maneuver despite the fact that enemies can come darting at you relentlessly.

You start with a cannon that shoots small bursts of energy, but you can pick up some extra weapons. The Pulse Bullet shoots quickly but doesn’t have a lot of power. The Bubble Beam moves along with your ship, but is really slow and misses a lot of enemies. The Swirl Cutter shot is a compromise between the two.

If you get hit once, you not only lose your weapon upgrades, but your speed boosts disappear as well. The bosses are simply larger fish or sea creatures, but not as intricate in design or attack methods as you would expect from most shmup bosses.

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Legion

1990
Developer: Telenet Japan
Published: Reno
PC-Engine SuperCD

This is one of those shooters that seems to be assigned as a quick project to go after the success of Gradius and R-Type. The graphical presentation is actually one of the better elements of Legion, but it is still well below that of many of its peers.

Enemy flight patters are especially awkward and robotic. This both leaves the player little time to react and makes the animation look amateurish due to lack of any attempted physics. To survive, you’ll need to zap the enemies as soon as they enter the screen. This setup ends of making the game feel a bit like a long game of whack-a-mole. If that’s your ideas of a challenge, more power to you.

The levels are poorly designed with odd hazard flaws and lackluster arrangement. The developers do take the effort to implement a branching level scheme, but it adds more “variety” to flawed and mediocre path that unpredictably varies in difficulty. The bosses are poorly designed (although more interesting than the likes of Deep Blue), but they also have a strange attack dynamic that doesn’t feel like a proper challenge.

Each of the levels has a voiceover narration to help establish a story — similar to Film Noir but without the proper style. It’s clearly narrated by an English-speaking American (despite the game being a Japan-exclusive), but the tone feels very out of place. On a related note, the music isn’t especially interesting or match the vibe of the game. Judging from the credits, it seems that they sourced the soundtrack to something of a stock music company.

While there may be some shooting fans that could find enjoyment out of Legion, it can run neck-and-neck with Deep Blue in the race to be the worst shooter (if not worst game) on the PC Engine.

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Next: Part 2 / Arcade Ports!

I hope you enjoyed this epic guide of the consoles exclusive shmups for the TurboGrafx-16 and the PC Engine family of consoles. Check out Part 2 featuring all the arcade ports. There’s some really good stuff in there as well!  Also, let me know which shooters are your favorites or on top of your list to check out in the comments below.

Additional Credits: Thank to shmups.com, PC Engine Bible, VideoGameDen, 1CC Log, and Hardcore Gaming 101 for helping me to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the PC Engine’s shmup collection in addition to providing some of the screenshots.

Shmups 101 | Beginner Shmups | Defining Shmups | Hidden Gem Shmups

Shmup Libraries: TG16/PC EngineGenesis/Megadrive | PS1 | Saturn | Dreamcast | PS2 | Gamecube | GBA

Photo courtesy of @stg.bloke on Instagram

Photo courtesy of @owlnonymous on Instagram


5 Comments

Andy Park says:

Wow, that was quite the tome. I guess it never occurred to me that you hadn’t posted a TG-16 shmups article yet, at least not a dedicated one. Nice read. I did notice the similarities between Gate of Thunder and Thunder Force, and recently I discovered that some ex-Tecnosoft employees were at the helm, so it wasn’t just a coincidence.

racketboy says:

Ha thanks! Yeah, we have actually been sitting on a half-done draft for a few years now and Marurun and I have finally had the time to round this up and edit. It’s been a lot of work, but a fun and enlightening experience.

Edward says:

Awesome article!
But didn’t Steam Heart’s also come out for the Sega Saturn?

Edward says:

Ooops, console-exclusive, check, my bad.
🙂

racketboy says:

Haha, its ok 🙂 In cases like Steam Hearts, I also tried to cover some of the advantages and disadvantages of the different ports. Hope you found it useful!

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