The Summer Of SHOOTERS Part 1 (1989-1990)
When Polly first told me about Genesis week, somehow I came up with the crazy idea to review every single shoot em up on the entire system. Later, upon coming to my senses, I started to wonder if this was actually a good idea or not. Was the Genesis actually even known for having shoot em ups? Thinking back to my childhood, I could only remember playing one shooter on the Genesis itself, and a two more on Sega CD. Now as someone who loves shoot em ups, and can remember playing many of them on pretty much every console I've ever owned, the Genesis was actually looking like a system that didn't have shooters! It's competitor TurboGraphix certainly did, it was pretty much known for being THE system to get if you liked shoot em ups. So did all of them go to that system and not the Genesis, or were shooters just a really popular genre at the time?
Well, after doing some research, I found out that HELL YES did the Genesis have shooters. Or at least the Megadrive did, as a good portion of the over 50 shooters I found never came out in America, which I find extremely bizarre, as shoot em ups are probably the least text heavy genre in all of video gaming, and most of the Jananese only games are completely in English already! There doesn't even seem to be a quality issue, where only the best came to America, there are lots of great games that for some reason, were only released in Japan. I decided I wanted to find and play all of them. In order to find the hidden gems, the games no one has ever heard of, and let the world know that they missed out on some awesome games. And I think thats what the spirit of Genesis week is all about!
One last thing before I get to the games, I am being very strict on my definitions of a shoot em up, with over 50 games to cover ahead of me, I don't want to be adding any more. The main rule is that the game MUST be automatically scrolling. This is a pretty big rule, and unfortunately caused some good games to get cut, like Super Fantasy Zone, which almost everyone would consider a shooter, when to me its really a hunt and destroy game. The other rules are pretty simple as well, no excessive oddities, such as an platforming (which was my reason for cutting out Wonder Boy III) and no 3d, so don't look for Space Harrier or the like here.
Scores are based on a 4 sock system, which I know is unusual for this site. 2 socks represents an average game, so don't think I'm hating everything. My primary concern is if the game is fun or not, other factors like graphics, sound, storyline, and overall presentation are secondary. If there is a game that is technically good, but I don't find fun for being either insanely boring, or unfairly hard, it will get a low score, so don't take it personally if I happen to slam your favorite game. Actually, do take it personally and e-mail me, because I'll be sure to get a kick out of it.
Now, onto the main event!
Thunder Force II
Developed by: Technosoft
Released: June 15th 1989
While the Megadrive was released in 1988 in Japan, it wasn't until after the Genesis came out a year later that any shooters came out for the system. At first I wasn't going to include this game, as half the stages are free directional overhead stages, which would remove it under the "not really a shoot em up" rules. However, since the other half of the stages are side scrolling, and the fact that it's a Thunder Force game, I decided to include it. I felt it needed a mention since of the five Thunder Force games, three of them were on Genesis, so it's the system most often associated with the series.
Pretty much everyone who has ever played this game agrees on one thing though, the overhead stages really suck. They're large open ended arenas that loop infinitely, and you're thrown in with the mission of destroying four enemy bases. The problems here are many, most notably that you have no map of any kind, and the areas repeating themselves when you go too far in one direction just adds to the total disorientation. You also move very fast, and easily crash into obstacles that come up.
One plus with this game is that you have a ton of different weapons to use, and finding them is pretty easy. But a lot of the stronger beam weapons have no bomb, so you cant even destroy ground targets with them. You also lose all your powerups on death, so keeping the better weapons for very long isn't going to be easy.
The sidescrolling stages fare much better than the overhead ones, but they're still not fantastic. The graphics are decent, nothing amazing but they get the job done. The stages are full of evil tricks like gates that close on you, lasers waiting for you get near to fire, and dead ends that force you to die. A lot of enemies, and nearly all the bosses have straight foward laser attacks that move incredibly fast, get in front of anything in this game and you're risking your life.
The music here is pretty good, some catchy tunes, but the sound effects are a real mixed bag. The sound of enemies taking damage is a weird low pitched crackle, and a lot of other sound effects are strangely similar to those in The Guardian Legend (NES). There's nothing outright horrible here , but the shooting sound can get annoying.
Overall this game would've been a lot better without the overhead stages, even if it meant having a very short game left over. The sidescrolling stages can be fun, but the fun is all too brief, and then another crap stage shows up again.
Developed by: Capcom
Released: November 18th 1989
Forgotten Worlds is another bit of a grey area game, its main gimmick is that you can spin your character to fire in any direction, and most enemy bullets can be shot to be destroyed, both of these very un-shooter like qualities. However, for its automatic scrolling and non stop action, I decided to let this one slide and include it.
Forgotten Worlds is a port of an extremely prolific arcade game, and has been ported to Amiga, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Sega Master System, Turbo CD, Playstation 2, X-Box, Playstation Portable, and of course, the Genesis, whose version is also available on the Wii's Virtual Console. God damn is there any system this thing isn't on? But forget all of those, I'm just focusing on the Genesis version.
In this game you play as the two guys from Contra (ok not really but come on, just look at them), who for some reason can now fly, despite having nothing that would indicate they could do so, like a jetpack. The first three stages take place in a sort of post-apocalyptic city as you fight against flying lizard men, then the next two suddenly shift to an egyptian theme, then after that its off to the mountains to battle monks. The odd settings of kind of take away from the mood, especially when they clash against each other so much. Also worth noting is that the Genesis version is missing two stages from the original arcade game.
The graphics in this game are pretty good, especially given that it is a first generation title. Since its a port of an arcade game, the graphics are scaled down from better looking ones, meaning they are more ambitious in design than say, a port of a NES game with more colors added to it. Only a few parts look noticably bad, stages 4 and 5 use tiled backgrounds that are very small and repetitive. One thing that bugged me though is that bosses do not have any visible signs that you are damaging them, like a slight flash. The worst case is the stage 2 boss who has a hidden weak point, but you have no clue if you're shooting it until he's about half dead and the covering finally breaks off to reveal his heart.
The sound didn't fare as well as the graphics though. The music is pretty bad, sounding like a cheap midi synth. There isn't much happening here at all, and theres no oomph to it either. However its hard to notice the music over the sound of your gun firing, which is loud, prominent, and never freaking stops the entire game. There is even an option to permanently turn your gun on so that you dont have to hold the B button the entire game. The gun sound effect was annoying at first, but after upgrading to a lazer, it became pretty much the only thing I heard the rest of the game.
The game's weakest point though, is its extreme difficulty. You start with one life, and no continues. Since arcade games are pretty much designed to suck away your quarters as fast as possible, having no continues in this game is rather baffling. You can buy items like armor, health refills, and resurrection units, but the game also wants you to buy upgrades to your gun, balancing the two is tricky and I found myself stuck with the laser almost the entire game because I couldnt afford anything else in the final stages.
The difficulty really ramps up in the final stage though, which is a near constant barrage of homing missiles that will not leave you alone unless you shoot them down. If the cheap hits from those weren't enough, the final boss has a laser attack that comes out so fast it is pretty much impossible to manually dodge, you just have to pray it doesnt hit you, but it will 90% of the time. Its like you get to the end of the game, and it tells you to fuck off. After fighting the last boss for ages and not even being sure I was damaging him, I was forced to give up.
Overall Forgotten Worlds is a pretty good game but with some glaring flaws. Still the first 3 stages are good fun, just forget about actually beating it though, for your own sanity. Purist shoot em up fans should look elsewhere though, as this game is more like Contra in the air than a true shooter.
American Name: Truxton
Developed by: Toaplan
Released: December 9th 1989
Ahh, this is more like it. No more gimmicks, this game is just pure shooting action. This game reminds me a lot of the Raiden series, the stages are very long but the bosses aren't too impressive. You have your choice of three main guns, a red wide spread shot, a green focused laser, and a blue shot that will lock onto stronger enemies. While the blue shot seems overpoweringly good at first, the red shot has a huge advantage when at maximum power, a laser will circle around you and destroy any enemies that get close. This is essential later on as enemies will frequently come up from behind you with no warning. Besides this makeshift shield though, everything in the game will kill you in one hit, and you are sent back to the last checkpoint with your power greatly reduced (not to nothing though, unless you die twice) and your speed powerups gone, so getting momentum going again is hard, but the three bombs you get each life help. In addition, you can CONTINUE if you lose all your lives, amazing!
The graphics are decent, nothing amazing, but nothing outright ugly. The first four stages are kind of samey feeling, until the last one which goes with a mountain/lava theme. The only big annoyance here is that enemy bullets are hard to see at times, especially if you're using a fully powered blue lazer which makes the entire screen flicker.
The music is decent, but still rather forgetable. The boss music itself seems very inappropriate, the stage music are much better. Sound effects are good, the shots can still get annoying, but nowhere near Forgotten Worlds levels.
Overal Truxton is a decent game with no huge glaring flaws, but the the cheap deaths and hard to see enemy bullets are a bit annoying. Good luck on the last boss too, you'll need it.
Developed by: Micronet
Released: December 23rd 1989
And now it's time for the first Japanese only game. This game... well I'll be honest, it's not very good. The first thing I noticed is that it feels choppy, the game is probably running at only 30fps when the others so far have ran at 60. And for a game named Curse, I was surprised that I was again playing as a spaceship, and for the most part fighting against other ships as well. Power-ups are aplenty here, with missiles, options and shields being available for upgrades, and several different primary beam shots available as well.
The graphics in this game however, are pretty bad. The first and last stages ok, but the middle three just feel sloppy. The stage two background is like 90% clouds, while stage 3 has a layer of lava towards the bottom that just seems pasted on, and it doesnt scroll the same speed as other layers. Stage 4 is the worst, a nearly empty starfield while seemingly completely random enemies fly as you in huge numbers. The game looks good again for the final stage at least, a mechanical base that feels straight out of Gradius.
The music is good, the sound effects are good, except for the sound that plays when you shoot something undamageable. It's loud, its annoying, and it plays a lot, even on bosses. It definitely gets a 5/5 on the Forgotten Worlds annoying sound effects scale. At least it doesnt play the entire game. Just most of it.
Difficulty wise, this game isnt that hard. Instead of going back to a checkpoint when you die, you appear again with a brief invincibility. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes its bad as the default gun is all kinds of crappy, but using your one bomb can usually hold off enemies long enough to get a powerup as they are fairly common in this game. You also have a shield in this game that can take around 3 hits, but certain laser attacks, and touching the ground will result in a one hit kill.
Once you reach the final stage however, all the rules go out the window. In this stage, when you die, you restart it all the way from the beginning. Even the last boss sends you back. And despite having a lifebar, nearly everything in this stage is a one hit kill as its full of tight terrain, and mounted cannons ready to blast you with instant kill lasers the moment they appear on screen. Getting through this stage requires near perfection, then pure luck to beat the last boss who showers you with rocks from every angle.
In the end, I'm trying and I can't think of any reason to play this in such a crowded market. It's just utterly unremarkable in almost every way.
America / Europe Only
Developed by: Innerprise
Next up, a counterpart to Curse in a way, a game that was released everywhere BUT Japan. Playing this right after really seemed to highlight the difference in Japanese and American design styles. While Curse was full of "Oh my god what the fuck is going on" moments, this game is precise almost to a fault. Everything is very clear cut, defined, and sort of by the book standard with no deviations. It's hard to put your finger on exactly why it feels so different than the Japanese games, but it is something you'll notice right away. This game feels like the shooter than came with your brand new windows 98 pc that you played for 30 seconds to go and play the pinball game instead, then after 5 minutes you close that and never open the games folder again.
The graphics are good, but very plain. Everything is very sharp and clean, and enemy bullets are a bright orange that never mixes with the background. It feels like they put functionality over style first, making sure the player can always clearly see every enemy or bullet heading their way. Extra points for having the best bomb so far though, rings of fire shoot out from your ship and destroy everything on screen with a nice satisfying crunch.
Sound effects are good, probably the least annoying ones so far. The music however, is downright horrible for one reason: There are are only two tracks, the title screen, and the game. So get ready to despise the music as it plays through the entire game regardless of what area you're in. Even having one extra track for the underground stages would've helped a lot.
Battle Squadron has an interesting approach to game balance, called "let the player figure it out". The options screen starts off with the standard lives and continues option, better crank these up because for some reason the default setting is 3 lives and no continues. But the next two options are more interesting, you can change the speed of enemy shots, and the maximum number allowed on screen. This seems great at first, but in practice is doesn't really work. There are only two types of enemy attacks in the game, aimed orange shots, which 99% of enemies use, and homing missiles, which are used by two bosses. So in the stages themselves, EVERY shot is aimed directly as you. So it doesnt really matter if there are 8 or 16 shots being fired at you, because you're going to have to move or die pretty much the entire game. The shot speed option goes a bit farther to make things easier, the fastest shots are so fast you cannot stop for a second before getting shot, but slow shots tend to clutter the screen.
The real problem with the game is that everything shoots at you constantly. I'm not talking some "flies onto the screen, shoots ones, then flies off" type enemies, these guys will fire as long as they are alive, sometimes 3 or 4 times. Even objects on the ground will shoot at you constantly, and the game likes to put more turrets than bullets are allowed on the screen, so as soon as you destroy one, another takes its place and starts shooting.
I ranked the difficulty unbalanced in this because of the first underground area in particular, which was brutally difficult. Its full of view obscuring foreground, giant red ships that leisurely glide towards you while cluttering the screen, and stealth ships that are nearly invisible who try to crash in to you. Since every shot is aimed right as you, the game quickly forces you into the corner, where you usually have to bomb, or die. I'm not sure how they expected people to get past this with only 3 lives.
The next two areas however, were a lot easier, with many of the annoying enemies gone, and powerups in better supply. Just when I was actually starting to like the game though, it froze after I beat the second boss, and I didnt like it quite enough to start all over.
Developed by: Data East / Sega
Released: April 7th 1990
Darwin? Like, the guy who came up with evolution? As strage as it sounds, yes that is the idea behind this game. Darwin 4081 is a game where you go around collecting powerups that can evolve your spaceship into various forms. Its an interesting take on the powerup formula, as you never quite know what form you'll take on next.
Graphically, this is probably the worst looking game yet. Seriously, it barely looks better than an NES game. The designs are dull there isnt much color in anything at all. enemies are pretty ugly and look almost like graphical glitches at times While there are 10 stages in this game, about halfway they start to reuse the artwork, so the stages all start to look the same which is quite bad.
Music and sound are bland, but acceptable. Again this game is noticable for having one super annoying sound effect, the sound when you get hit is a very loud ping. At least that one won't come up as often as something like shooting or damaging an enemy.
The gameplay here is a bit more unique than the other games, thanks to the powerups constantly evolving your ship into new forms. For the most part though it seems to be a linear progression from crappy to awesome, but there definitely some special evolutions that grant unique moves for a limited time. Like a lot of older overhead shooters, enemies can be air-based or on the ground, and in this game the real threat is the ground enemies. Your downward bomb move never changes in any evolution, and has absolutely terrible range. The ground enemies shoot far more than any air ones, and it can be tricky getting close to them to attack, then dart off before you get shot.
Unlike most other shooters, you don't die in one hit, but getting hit does remove ALL of your evolutions and plop you right back to level 1. Oddly, when you do die you seem to start in a random evolution, I've found myself suddenly in superpowered mode after dying. One major problem though is that the damage the top evolutions do is insane, killing bosses in a few shots as opposed to a long drawn out battle if you get stuck with the default ship.
Overall this is probably the most balanced game yet, theres no total bullshit moments that seem intent on killing the player no matter what, anything that seems poorly balanced (weapon damage) tends swing in the players favor. But while there is nothing particularly wrong with this game, there isn't a whole lot overly positive about it either.
Developed by: Vic Tokai
Released: May 26th 1990
Just when I was starting to think maybe I'm being too harsh on these games, along came a game that totally surprised and blew me away. I had low expectations for this game. Just the title, Whip Rush? It sounds like an NES platformer. Despite the title, there are no whips in this. And there isnt a whole lot of rushing either, this is much more a casual pace scroller like r-type or gradius, but that doesn't mean its not jammed packed with action.
The first stage in this game isn't that great, which also led to low overall expectations. I did notice though that this was the first game so far that allowed you to change your ship's speed with a button, rather than relying on powerups. This was quite welcome as usually with the powerup method, you never actually want to max out your speed, and the only way to go slow down is to die. Whip Rush lets you easily change your own speed, but I found it best to just stay in the middle speeds for most of the game. Another thing that did catch my interest is that the stage had a mini boss, which had his own music and everything, something unique thus far. But after that the stage shifted into a long downward section, which while unique, was a bit bland as the only danger came from huge missiles moving straight up from the bottom of the screen.
The second stage is when I noticed this game was a bit more than your average shooter though, starting off as a jungle area, you dive into the water at one point, which forces a reduction in your ship's speed. "What is this?" I gasped, "I'm actually interacting with the environment in a shooter?" The underwater section was very unexpected, and the enemies were quick to take advantage of your now sluggish craft. After that you navigate through a series of pipes, which again brought the landscape itself into the forefront as a threat to your craft.
What I really like overall about this game is that the levels themselves are an enemy, but not overpowering like in some games where you feel half your deaths are because you accidentally touched the ground blew up. The enemies work with the landscape, walking around on it, sometimes hiding in crevices, and forcing you through tight, but not too tight passageways. Both the enemies and the stage itself must be watched carefully, but neither feels like the primary threat the whole game with the other being just decoration.
Enemies tend to come from all directions in this game, so you'll need to know what weapons are available in order to deal with the threat. Your default weapon is a small blue shot, but you have three upgraded beams available, as well as being able to get up to two options to further assist your firepower. The options in this game are special because they can be rotated around your craft, and when paired with the default weapon, the option will shoot in whatever direction you place it, very useful for enemies coming from all directions. The first beam upgrade is a straight forward laser thats very powerful, however, this beam will always fire straight to the right, even from an option, meaning you lose your up/down and rear shot capabilities. Its good for the first few stages, but loses usefulness after that. The next shot in a gun that fires in the opposite direction you press. While it can be useful, its very difficult to use, especially for diagonal shots. Its an advanced weapon that could be good if you slow your own movement down to a crawl, but then you're left as a sitting duck to enemy attacks.
The final attack are the missiles, my personal favorite. While they start out as a straight forward attack like the laser, the missiles can be fired behind you from an option like the default gun. While all 3 of the attacks can be upgraded by collecting the same weapon twice in a row, missiles get the best upgrade, going from a single missile to three that spread out in different directions. Getting hit with any upgraded gun will reduce you back to the default gun, so you'll want to balance your upgrades between one of the guns and options so that you dont lose your ability to shoot in any direction when you might need it.
The bosses in this game are interesting as they really exploit your ship's potential ability to fire in all directions. This can be a pain if you get stuck with no upgrades going into a boss fight, as bosses will frequently encourage you to shoot them from behind or below, but none of them will be unkillable without the right gun, it just takes a lot longer.
Overall for having the most interesting stage design, clever weapon systems, and solid graphics and sound, I can pretty safely say this is the best shooter released on the Genesis up until this point. Let's see how long until a game can top this one.
Thunder Force III
Developed by: Technosoft
Released: June 8th 1990
Time for another dose of Thunder Force! Thankfully, this one ditches the overhead stages of its predecessor to focus strictly on side scrolling action. Also returning is the large arsenal of different weapons, you've got foward, rear, up and down, wave, and homing shots. You can quickly switch between each gun with a single button, which does make managing enemies coming from all sides much easier than Whip Rush. Another neat thing is that unlike pretty much every other shooter, you don't lose all of your weapons when dying, just the one you're currently using. This helps the game break out of "gradius syndrome" where one death totally screws you up for the rest of the game.
At the start of the game you can pick one of five planets to start on, and after that the game picks the rest in order for you. While this could have led to a lot of replay value, the order you play the stages seems to have no difference on their difficulty, but at least this lets you practice most of the game any time.
One very odd thing though, Whip Rush and Thunder Force III have nearly the same boss, both in their final area. Now I'm not one to start screaming plaugerism, but this did strike me as very odd. Both have large arms swinging around to block your shots, while the head shoots double helix style bullets. But since these games came out only two weeks apart, it does seem doubtful one stole from the other.
The only major fault in this game is that the bosses die extremely quickly, a lot of the boss clips in my video above, are actually showing the entire fight! Even the final boss goes down in a just few seconds with just the default gun. It's actually a bit disappointing, as the bosses are very large and detailed graphically, but before you get into the fight they're already dead.
Overall this is a very solid game all around, good graphics, catchy music, and a lot of perks like weapon storage, speed select, and stage selection thrown in for good measure.
European Name: Twin Hawk
No American Release
Developed by: Toaplan
Released: June 23rd 1990
This is the second shooter on the Genesis by Toaplan, a very prolific shoot em up developer during the Genesis days. Their first game was Truxton, but unfortunately, this game isn't quite as good. Taking a break from flying around as a space ship, this game has you flying a WWII era plane and taking on a legion of enemy tanks. One thing notable about this game is that there are no airborne enemies at all, everything is either a tank, truck, ship, or some variation. The other unique thing about it is that your "bomb" move actually summons a slew of helper planes, who greatly add to your own firepower. It's actually a bomb better used during slow periods, as your friends get shot down easily, but their firepower can cover the entire screen and kill a good number of enemies before they even shoot.
But this game also has a lot of flaws. The game only has four stages, and only one real boss enemy. The first 3 stages just continue scrolling on and the music changes to indicate you've reached the next area. After the fourth stage though, you get a message telling you to fight the "real enemy" and the game scrolls you right back to the start of stage one, but calls it stage 5 this time. The game is harder in this second loop but uhh, isn't that what difficulty levels are for? If I wanted to play the same exact stages with harder difficuly I would, give me more stages instead!
Another problem is that despite being a pretty short game, there isn't even much variety. The enemies are almost all small tanks, and larger enemies that would pass for a miniboss, get reused multiple times to the point where they arent special anymore. The graphics are decent and backgrounds varied, but the stages don't seem to have themes to themselves to make them stand out, the game is really just one extremely long stage as you fly over multiple urban landscapes, and a lot of water. The music while certainly different, it's just plain odd and doesn't seem to match the war theme of the game whatsoever. To cap it all off, the powerups to your gun just make it a bit wider, almost no difference whatsoever.
While the game has a decent first playthrough, I just couldn't be bothered to try and finish the second loop. Its slow and leisurely pace is a bit of a throwback to older games, but to me it just felt boring.
Developed by: Namco
Released: July 20th 1990
Another shoot em up without spaceships, Phellos tackles Greek mythology. You play as Apollo, as you try to rescue Artemis from famous villians such as Medusa, and... uhh... actually Medusa is probably going to be only one you'll recognize, the other bosses are just pretty generic looking monsters and demons.
Unlike all the previous games which relied on shooting enemies millions of times with rapid fire, Phelios lets you hold down attack to charge up your sword, and unleash a much stronger beam. It charges quickly and does very good damage compared to just attacking as fast as possible. But almost as if to make up for this, there are almost no upgraded beams in the entire game. There are a few, but they only show up maybe once or twice ever at predetermined spots, so you'll be using the old charge shot nearly the entire game.
Each stage only has about three or four unique enemies, which while keeping things fresh in the long run by not reusing too much, each individual stage seems to consist of killing monsters A and B over and over, until halfway a new enemy shows up to replace one. Some more variety was still needed here, especially in the later stages.
The strangest part of the game though is the blatent fanservice with the girl you're trying to save. After every stage there is a short cinema, and most of the time, these are just to show you that she's wearing less and less as you progress through the game. I was actually expecting her to be naked by the end at the rate it was going. And I was almost right, as the games ending simply has her standing infront of the screen showing off her massive cleavage, for nearly two minutes. It's utterly bizarre, were the designers just trying to say to the player, "Alright, you win, whip it out and enjoy your prize!"