Bullet hell. Danmaku. Manic shmups. Different words that describe the same thing-a shoot-em-up in which the number of bullets on screen is vast and rather than avoiding them, you actually navigate through bullet mazes. Raizing took their first stab at the manic shooter (they already had a few normal shooters) with Battle Garegga.
Like most other shmups made after about 1993, you get a variety of vehicles to kill shit with. In this case, four airplanes that wouldn't look out of place in either of the World Wars.
This one is loosely based on an actual WWII Japanese interceptor, the Shinden. That airplane has been used in pretty much every plane-based Japanese shmup, even though only about two were built. This is a standard fighter, and neither excels nor falters in most areas though it isn't great for scoring. Variants are the Cannon Ball, Masamune and Shatter Star.
Not really based directly on any real airplane that I can identify (and I know a TON), but maybe a bit like the XF5U Flying Pancake. This one has a piercing weapon when powered up, meaning you can shoot right through enemies. Makes bosses and turret-heavy sections a little easier though it runs your rank up quicker too. Variations are the Reinforcer, DGR-October, and Diving Fox.
A personal favorite. This little seaplane has a really cool bomb that scatters homing missiles everywhere, and the main weapon concentrates firepower forward. Variants are the Storm Omen, Red Impulse, and Black Zeppelin.
The Wild Snail has a piercing weapon at ALL power levels. Along with it's variants, the Wild Snail is generally the ship most used to beat Battle Garegga in Japan. Variants are the Iron Mackerel, Rust Champion and Golden Bat, with the Golden Bat being by far the most popular.
Raizing loved to put secrets in their games, so in Garegga you simply plug in the Konami code before hitting START and gain access to four characters from Mahou Daisakusen, the first Raizing shmup (no bullet-hell but DAMN fun!). You now have access to a guy with a monkey, a klutzy witch, a dragon, and a guy with a skeleton fetish.
Depending on what button you use to select your fighter, you get different colors and attributes. This is where those variants above come from. Pressing A gives you a normal fighter, B speeds you up, C shrinks your hitbox (important in these games), and pressing ABC at once speeds you up AND shrinks the hitbox!
The actual gameplay starts off with you flying over some stationary vehicles and blowing the snot out of them. When you destroy ground-based enemies like these, you'll almost always get little bomb fragments. No, not a full bomb, rather a 1/40 piece of a bomb. Collecting 40 gives you a whole bomb, but you don't need a full bomb to use them. In fact, you'll mostly be using half-bombs or even less, which we'll get to later.
The first real enemies are airplanes and a little turret with some guns. The airplanes will shoot a few bullets at you and you'll find the only real flaw with this game: INVISIBLE BULLETS! Many of the bullets are long, thin darts that use gray or brown colors and blend perfectly with the backgrounds. You'll get killed in a cloud of bullets often enough, but usually you won't even see the bullet that killed you and just explode for no apparent reason. Damn you, Raizing! Later revisions and the Saturn port change aimed bullets to red spheres, making it a little easier to see, but all the sprays and patterns are still needles.
Shooting a few more enemies gives you a small shot icon, which works like the bomb icons in that you simply need to collect more to power up your forward gun. Eventually, killing enemies will get you a medal. It isn't much of a medal, only worth 100 points, but medals are the key to score in this game. Every time you grab all the medals on screen, the game takes the last medal collected and ups the value of the next one up to 10,000 points. Obviously, grabbing a bunch of 10K medals will pad your score nicely. However, if you let the last medal on screen fall down, the values are reset to 100 points. This medal system would be carried over to Raizing's future games like Armed Police Batrider and Battle Bakraid, and to an extent Cave's Ibara which was made by the same people.
If you are doing well, by the time you encounter a mid-boss you'll get a green icon which gives you an option. Like Gradius, options are little helpers that shoot more bullets and help you kill things, and using them is key to being good at Garegga. Unlike Gradius, the options have multiple formations that you can rotate through with the press of the C button. You get a wide frontal shot, concentrated backwards and forwards, rotating, and trace where the options shoot in the opposite direction that you move.
The stages of Battle Garegga contain, in essence, four things: Backgrounds, scenery, ground enemies, and flying enemies. Backgrounds can't be interacted with, and anyone reading a review of a videogame knows what they are. In the case of Garegga, they are nicely detailed but very industrial. That means lots of browns and greys. There are a few layers of parallax scrolling in some areas, but for the most part the backgrounds are pretty static.
Scenery is the word I use to describe the parts of the background that you can interact with. In Garegga, interacting and destroying are the same thing. Drop your bomb, and it'll blow up houses, rails, water tanks, buildings , and tons of other property. There is no in-game indication of what is scenery and what isn't; your regular shot simply flies over scenery.
Ground enemies are pretty easy to figure out. Most of them are tanks or variations on tanks. Nearly all will leave bomb fragments when destroyed, and not all will try to attack you. The large tanks in stage 4 can give whole bombs if you destroy the treads before the rest of the tank.
Flying enemies are the popcorn of the game. Most of them exist to fire one or two bullets and bank out of the way. Every fifth flying enemy killed (including midbosses and larger flyers) drops an item, either a medal, small or large shot powerup, or an option. The order that items are dropped is set, with a large shot powerup being the end of the set before it repeats.
The music was supplied by Manabu Namiki, a long-time shmup soundman. He uses a lot of electronic and techno-esque sounds that fit the game nicely. The theme for air bosses, Stab and Stomp, is excellent, and the final boss music is some of the most intense in any shmup and fits the mood perfectly.
So Battle Garegga has cool stage design, good music, lots of bullets and selectable characters, and a hefty challenge. What else could it offer?
In Battle Garegga, the way you play the game early on can make later areas impossible for all but the best players. This system of a game adjusting difficulty on the fly is called rank, and Garegga has some of the most insane rank in any shmup. Gradius and Xevious had rank; in Gradius enemies get more aggressive when you have 4 options. In Xevious, if you get good at killing a certain type of enemy you'll face a different kind. In Battle Garegga, rank determines how many bullets enemies fire AND how durable the enemies are! The way it works is far deeper than older games.
The game's rank starts at a set number, a bit higher than 15 million. As soon as the game starts, the rank begins to decrease at a fixed rate of 20/frame. In addition, every bullet you fire reduces the number a fixed amount. Not every shot,each individual bullet. Picking up medals, especially small ones, reduces that number by a lot. Picking up powerups after you've reached max, say grabbing another option while having 4, really hurts. If your fighter of choice has a piercing shot, each one will take off 240 [italic]per bullet[/italic]. And if you jack up the firing rate and can't have anymore bullets on screen at a time, the game will still count those bullets that aren't there! As the rank number gets lower, the game gets harder. In the arcade, changing the difficulty changed how low it would go; not the actual difficulty.
In order to really play Battle Garegga, the rank must be controlled and the only way to control it is by death. Death adds a large number back on to the rank number, and having fewer lives in stock makes the number larger. Many of the best players will actively suicide at certain parts to reduce rank, get some bombs on respawn, and use those bombs to get points for an extend by blowing up scenery. While the game actually CAN be beaten no-miss, it effectively forces the player to ignore pretty much every enemy and fire almost no shots and never power up at all.
The rank is a pretty big part of Battle Garegga and Raizing in general (they started getting rank-happy with their previous game, Soukyugurentai), big enough that strategies and guides are written to take into account the way it affects levels and where to suicide to get optimum scoring while still beating the different areas.
Battle Garegga is widely hailed as one of the best shmups of all time. Cave, the guys behind the famous (and frantic) DoDonPachi took the idea of having both a distinct style and a lot of bullets from Battle Garegga to follow up on the original DonPachi. When 8ing decided to drop Raizing as an arcade developer, most of Raizing would end up at Cave including the mastermind of Garegga, Shinobu Yagawa. Rank would become a mainstay in shmup design more than ever, from the simple system in Takumi's Giga Wing to later Raizing games like Battle Bakraid where suiciding could extend score multipliers and allow a player to beat the game while losing as many as 50 extends while keeping rank low!
Possibly the best thing about Battle Garegga is that it doesn't need much hardware to run on. You could import the Saturn port, or find an actual board, but even old computers run it great under MAME. So if you've gotten this far, you need to go play it and see for yourself why Battle Garegga is so great.