Progear
by sunburstbasser



Progear is a horizontally scrolling shmup which may have a story involving blowing stuff up. There is no narrative to indicate this.

Starting around 1998 and continuing for several years, Capcom pushed their CPS-2 arcade board very aggressively both in Japan and the United States. While Capcom were more than able to handle fighters and puzzle games, for shmups they enlisted some of Japan's best including Raizing, Takumi, and Cave. The popularity of the CPS-2 allowed games like Giga Wing, 1944, and Progear to appear in American arcades, at a time when shmups were becoming more rare in the United States.

Because the CPS-2 was cartridge based like the Neo Geo, the monitor had to be oriented horizontally. While Takumi simply made vertical shooters with wide play fields, Cave made their first horizontal shooter with Progear.

Normally, horizontal shmups have fairly simple scoring systems and terrain that needs to be navigated to survive. Progear doesn't really follow this mold, and instead Cave effectively took their vertical shmup style and rotated it. The beautifully drawn backgrounds have lots of enemies coming out of caves and rolling on runways, but at no point is any part of the background an obstacle.

At the selection screen, you will be given the choice of both a pilot and a gunner. Each one has their own specific shot style. Tapping the A button favors the pilot's weapon. Holding the A button slows the airplane down and reduces the effectiveness of the pilot's shot, while giving a boost to the gunner. Tapping B drops a bomb. The bomb's burn time is directly tied to the counter in the bottom left. The higher the counter, the longer the burn. Crates on parachutes with a P power up the shot, those with a B add another bomb.

For Progear, Cave gives us two pilots with their own airplanes and three gunners. You'll be allowed one of each. Conveniently, the hitbox for the airplane is visible in the selection screen.

RING PILOT


The Ring pilot uses a blue seaplane. The shot spreads out up to five ways when tapping A. The spread narrows down to a straight shot when the button is held.


BOLT PILOT


The Bolt pilot uses a green monoplane. The shot style is two straight streams. When the button is held down, the shot changes to a single narrower stream.


CHAIN GUNNER


Despite the name, the gunners all have hardware motifs and the Chain gunner doesn't actually use a chain gun. Chain fires bombs, a bit like those from Dangun Feveron but not as powerful. When the button is held, the number of bombs on screen at once increases vastly and the turret will rotate to follow enemies.


NAIL GUNNER


In another missed opportunity, you don't get to shatter tanks with a nail gun. The Nail gunner fires a rotating wide shot that seems to do more damage than the other two. The density of shots increases when the button is held.


RIVET GUNNER


The Rivet gunner fires homing missiles. Only the Rivet gunner can attack enemies from all directions without concentrating power, allowing the airplane to remain nimble. They don't do as much damage as the other gunners.


Personally, I recommend the Ring pilot and the Nail gunner. This combination seems to work for every level in the game. Each combination has different speed and damage characteristics, making it more like 6 selections rather than 2. Play around a bit and you'll find one you like.

Progear has a scoring system that is a bit complex. The system is a form of item collection, but nothing like the Raizing system of medal collection. When a bullet overlaps the explosion of a destroyed enemy, it will change into an item. If the enemy was destroyed while tapping A, it will change into a ring. If it was destroyed while holding A, it will change into a gem.

In order to get diamonds, the gems with the highest value, you will need to collect a large number of rings. The counter in the bottom left will display the current ring, and holding A will display the current gem. The first step to building up the value is collecting a large number of rings. When rings are on screen, simply hold the A button and they will be vacuumed up. Once the value reaches the diamond, hold A and bullets caught in explosions will become diamonds. Release A, and the gems will be vacuumed up. Once you release A, the gem value is reset to the lowest. In practice, this isn't actually very hard to do and is more a matter of tapping and holding A at the right time. By the end of the first level, you should be getting the idea.

The counter that builds up is both a combo and a bomb fuse. When a bomb is dropped, the counter will count to down as the bomb burns. Breaking the chain in a score-based game isn't a good idea, but it's better than dying. Grabbing a bomb when you still have three in stock is the fastest way to build up the counter, it will add 10,000.

The background graphics in Progear are some of the best Cave had done to this point, looking like fine paintings in some levels. In traditional horizontal shooters the level is drawn straight on. For Progear, Cave slanted the entire game so that ground enemies can line up side by side as well as in a line. Enemies are able to pop out of caves in the background or hide behind mountains as well. The enemy graphics are a combination of drab military and fantasy, with bat wings on airships and submarines with whale fins. The most notable aspect of the enemies are the pepper shaker turrets. Many of the enemies share these turrets. They get the name because they all have a large number of huge holes instead of a gun barrel or two. Cave's artists apparently really liked these turrets, as so many frames of animation were drawn that the turrets can follow your plane all over the screen. The first boss is a good place to see this in action. All of the enemy bullets are a bright blue and easy to see.

Unlike Cave's vertical shooters, the playing field does not scroll at all, even up and down. This can sometimes make the game feel a little cramped. In the vertical shooters the screen would scroll left and right to reveal a larger play field.

Sonically Progear reminds me a little of traditional Konami music. The theme for the first level has a driving bass line combined with a sparse melody. The actual sounds used are quite different, but the composition has some similarities to music from Gradius and maybe Castlevania. Explosions have a nice crunch, and some of the turrets have a pretty vicious pop when they fire at you.



After selecting your pilot and gunner, you'll be treated to a very nicely done takeoff scene while your fellow school children cheer you on. Cave seems to really like sending kids into battle. Personally I'd give up and join the bad guys if the hope of the world rested on a couple pre-pubescent school girls.



The opening stage is a flight across some green hills. Not only is the grass green, the tanks covering the grass are green too. In the background right at the beginning is a large airship. He'll be back. Aerial enemies consist of the expected airplanes, as well as tanks with parachutes. The second half of the stage is marked with a stone bridge that leads to a castle with enormous windmills on the towers. The windmills appear to be very important as the castle has two enormous tanks to guard them.

The airship from the beginning reappears above a forest to mark the first boss fight. This is the first time in the game that Cave's bullet patterns start to look like art themselves. At one point the boss will fire an arc of bullets. It travels a short distance, stops, then the bullets spread out centered on your current position. The effect looks a little like ocean waves. The primary concern in this fight is to first knock out that turret on the back. It has a couple fins and a smaller turret guarding it, try to destroy them when they overlap with bullets to get some extra points. Once the turret, top fins and bottom wings are all taken out the boss begins fire big bullet arcs. Bullet hitboxes seem to be smaller than the actual sprite, as I've waded through clouds of bullets that nearly covered my entire plane without being hit. When destroyed, any bullets on screen will be converted to items. Killing the boss with in Gunner mode with tons of bullets on screen is a nice way to pad your score.

After each stage is a tally screen that includes meters labeled Active, Safe and Lovely. Safe goes up as you survive and drops sharply on each death. Active I believe is related to rank, with a higher gauge meaning more bullets. Lovely is the affection between the characters and when can provide stronger shot formations, but not all combinations have feelings for each other.



Stage 2 is a military harbor. At the bottom of the screen is a body of water, behind the complex hills. Most of the level actually resembles a parking lot to me, with lots of wide open gray pavement to park your tank. Early on, a train rolls out of a cave and crosses in front of your plane. In modern games made using polygons this wouldn't be anything special, but the skewed perspective of Progear gives the illusion of altitude in a game that exists on a flat plane. After the tank, the next major obstacle is the huge airplane that descends. It actually needs to be destroyed twice, as the first explosion merely blows holes all over the airplane and shatters the wings.



The boss is a submarine that looks like a whale. A little Darius influence, maybe? The back of the sub has numerous missile bays that launch all kinds of bullet patterns, including bullets that rise, stop, and fall in simple ballistic arcs. Getting into even more Darius territory, after the boss takes enough damage the front portion raises up on a mechanical neck. It now looks like a plesiosaur, used in Darius Force as Zandick II. This is where Cave pulls out the stops and fills the screen with projectiles. Bullets fire in all directions and the only way through is careful navigation. If the only safe area is under the boss, go ahead and fly under him. There is no terrain to collide with so you'll be fine.



Stage 3 takes place at dusk judging by the red sky. This level appears to be a train depot of some kind. Large railroads run across the level, and trains full of guns pepper the screen with bullet spam. At this point, the number of bullets will become much greater than previous levels. Try to direct the bullets of large enemies towards smaller ones, then destroy the small ones to cancel the bullets and get items. When done right, it is possible to cut huge swaths through bullet clouds that are much easier to navigate. This level has a particularly durable mid boss to practice with.

The Stage 3 boss is a giant rolling death machine of some kind. This boss doesn't have a lot of vulnerable spots, striking anywhere does the same damage. As it takes damage it will activate new forms. The final form has a nasty bullet pattern. It fires an aimed arc of bullets that alter their course in flight in such a way that they thin out, then spread back out. The pattern makes getting between the arcs a bit challenging. I've had one arc touching another and have been enveloped between arcs. The boss is technically underneath you, so if the bullets chase you to the right side of the screen you'll be safe flying across him assuming he doesn't just point blank you.



For the fourth stage, Cave turned Progear into a vertical shooter. Except they forgot to turn the plane around. The stage now scrolls vertically while you are still pointed to the right. Taking a cue from traditional horizontal shooters, enemies will come in from all angles of the screen and they are pissed. Bullet counts start to get exceptionally high here, with several hundred at a time. When enemies show up from the left side, do your best to clear the right side to make some breathing room then hold A to concentrate your gunner's shots behind you.

The fourth boss is a floating platform with what looks like an onion bulb on bottom. The scrolling reverts to horizontal. This is boss has some milking potential for skilled players. After taking enough damage, it will start spitting out small destructible turrets. These can be killed to get items. If you attempt to milk this boss, learn the patterns first or you'll get a blue bullet in the face. When the boss flashes white, it'll fire a barrage of fast bullets. If you aren't ready, you won't have time to get out of the way. The white flash is all the warning you get, no charging sound effect or audio cue.



The fifth and final stage takes elements from each previous stage and turns it all up a notch. Remember that huge airplane from the second stage? You'll now face a couple at once. The stage starts scrolling vertically, then switches to horizontal across a plain. A huge mech pops out of a cave and while it's supposed to be a mid boss, he seems to pepper the screen with more projectiles than the first two bosses! Eventually the screen will begin scrolling vertically again, except it scrolls down as you fly into a volcano. Video game evil overlords can't get enough lava. In the background are cables, and no cable would be complete without a cable car. The cable cars will follow the cables so you'll be able to predict where bullets come from. Watch out as some cars fire aimed bullets and others fire bullet patterns.



The final boss is an orb with various appendages. It'll take a lot of punishment to put him down, so be ready for a long fight. His different forms all have unique attack patterns. For one, he fires a slew of bullets all over the screen that remain stationary while he moves from corner to corner. He will crash into you, so get out of the way. As he moves he continues to fire and after a set amount of time the static bullets will move on. When the various pieces are gone and just the orb itself is left, the orbiting turrets around him will begin attacking. They move in a circular path and fire bullets at set intervals. Destroy them quickly as possible to make some breathing room. You can tell he is getting close to death as he starts shooting out yellow bullets that explode into an expanding circle of bullets. Try to get far away from the origin point of the circles so they spread out more. He sends out several bullets at a time, and if you always sit right in front of him you will have tight-knit bullet walls from multiple directions on top of whatever else he spams you with.

The end credits depict your chosen characters surviving the fight and shows what they ended up doing after saving the world in still shots. Not a bad ending at all, better than the usual "CONGRATULATIONS" of many games.

Progear was an interesting experiment for Cave. They managed to make a horizontal shooter that works well without following the conventions of that sub-genre. Since then, Cave has only done two more horizontal shooters, the Death Smiles games. Progear does have a few flaws, such as the somewhat hard to discern hit box and the scoring system that will take a few credits to really understand. Overall, I don't think these flaws fatally detract from the game. One of Cave's greatest strengths is that they make every game winnable, and even at the highest bullet density there are always clear spots to weave into in Progear. While hard, it never feels unfair.

Overall:







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