Snes Shooter Spectacular - Part 1
by Rhete

Last year, when I reviewed every single shoot em up for the Genesis, it already felt inevitable that I would end up doing it again for the SNES. The ol SNES is the Yin to Genesis' Yang, it felt incomplete only reviewing one of them. When I started on my quest to review the Genesis side last time, I went in not even knowing if Genesis was a good system for shoot em ups. Turned out it was! This time though, I'm going in a little more informed. It seems most people consider that Genesis library of shoot em ups superior to the SNES, so I guess my goal this time is to see if that's true or not myself.

Just by looking at each systems list of games though, the SNES seems to have an advantage in big names. While the Genesis had its share too with entries from Thunder Force, Darius, and Aleste, but SNES has not only also has entries from those same series, but exclusive Konami support (Gradius, Parodius, Twinbee) and 2 R-Type games. However names can be deceiving, the best games may be the ones you've never heard of.

Same rules apply as last time, the list is sorted by earliest release date in any territory, which is almost always Japan. Scores are on an out of 4 sock scale just for the hell of it. Now, onto the games!

Gradius III

Released: December 21st 1990
Developer: Konami
Difficulty: High

For the year Super Famicom first came out in Japan, there is only one shooter. It's probably one you've heard of though, as it was also a launch title for the SNES.

Gradius III is a game with a lot of good points, but also several bad ones, so let's cover the good stuff first. Most people are aware of its power-up system, you collect powerup icons to purchase the various upgrades, the better ones like options and shields costing 5 or 6 icons each. What is unique here is that the game not only allows you to pick from a few preset layouts, but you can also individually pick what each of the six powerups will be, so you have several different styles of missiles, options, shields, etc, available to you, so there should be something for everyone's playing style.

The stages in the game are short, sweet, and fairly diverse. None of them outstay their welcome, they get in, show off their gimmick, then get out after a boss fight. For a game that scrolls along at a very slow pace compared to some other shooters, the stages don't get boring at all.

The music in the stages is damn great as well. The soundtrack is full of high energy tunes that are quite catchy and memorable. If there is one area where you have to admit the SNES completely creams the Genesis, it's the sound department, and this game shows that off right away.

The graphics, for a first generation SNES game are quite good, though a few of the boss movements are a bit jerky and don't have many frames of animation, like the 4 legged walker guys towards the end of the game.

My real issue with the graphics though, is the huge amount of slowdown in the game. I've heard it was intentional, but that's kind of a cheap excuse when the game clearly goes slower when I shoot than when I don't. The slowdown does make the game easier, but it's annoying how near constant it is.

Making the game easier is kind of nice though, because this game is damn hard. The flaw with the power-up system is that when you die, you lose everything. And you die in 1 hit without a shield. And then you go back to a checkpoint. And then since you have to buy even movement speed upgrades, getting back into the flow of the game can range from difficult to impossible.

One of my biggest annoyances in the game is how the small trash enemies have a lovely habit of flying across the screen quite quickly, but only shooting until they're almost all the way over to the left. This means trying to dodge them is often pointless, because they'll shoot nearly point blank at you just before exiting the screen. It's one of the things that makes the game really unfair when restarting with no powerups. Thankfully the game does seem to ease up a bit in certain areas when you're low on firepower, making certain bosses possible to beat, but at times in stages it doesn't seem like the game adjusts enough.

In the end though, I can't completely roast the game for its brutal difficulty, because it has one thing almost none of the hardest Genesis shoot em ups did: Difficulty levels. The game includes an easy, and god forbid, hard mode that I'm too scared to try. Easy actually makes the game almost too easy, but at least it's there for the not quite so hardcore shooter fans that don't want to 1 life the entire game.

Darius Twin

Released: March 29th 1991
Developer: Taito Corporation
Difficulty: Medium

In comparison with the great Darius II on Genesis that came out a few months earlier, this game was a pretty big letdown. The graphics are about on par, if not slightly worse than the Genesis one, which is surprising. The music is downright painful at times, it relies far too much on blaring high pitched trumpet-like sounds. To be fair, the shooting sound effects are pretty good, but I'd rather have pleasant music.

Probably the biggest screw up here though, is the butchering of the classic Darius map. Seriously, what is this thing? 12 stages? That's already half of Darius IIs 26. But even worse is that the up/down pairs of stages are almost exactly the same as each other anyways, same visuals, same boss, slightly different color scheme. The only real choice you have in the entire game is if to go to stage H or not, every other case of picking up or down doesn't change anything.

The game is also extremely easy, but there is a catch to this. The game defaults to almost its hardest settings, normal mode (the only other one is easy) and 3 starting lives. You can change the lives to up to 8, and you may want to since while most of the game is extremely easy, the final stage is composed of nothing but mini bosses from the previous ones, and having three on the screen at once can get you killed quite quickly, when you find out one nasty little secret: There are no continues. Have fun starting over!

Probably the only saving grace of this game is that you can do two players at once. Too bad I'm alone and didn't get to try this out. Swing and a miss guys, let's hope the next SNES Darius game is better than this one.

Super R-Type

Released: July 13th 1991
Developer: Irem
Difficulty: Repetitive

Super R-Type stands out as a game that could've been great, but a few flaws really cripple it. Many shoot em ups of this era kill you in one hit, then send you back to the last checkpoint. Super R-Type tops this by killing you in one hit, and sending you back to the start of the stage. Even boss fights that load in a separate area aren't safe, dying still sends you back to the very start of the previous stage. Luckily, in spite of this hardcore death penalty, the game is fairly easy, and restarting at the beginning of stages makes respawning with none of your powerups far easier than in say, Gradius.

The other big flaw is once again massive amounts of slowdown. Just like Gradius, the more power ups you have, the slower the game will chug when you attack. You get used to it eventually, but the more you have to repeat slowdown-ridden stages, the more it may bug you.

On the plus side the graphics are pretty good, featuring mostly dark and gritty environments, something not very often seen in shooters. The music is good too, not quite as catchy as Gradius IIIs, but it gets the job done.

The main gimmick here is that while you do die in 1 hit, you also control an invincible pod that can attach to the front or back of your ship, or be launched at enemies where it will fire by itself, and damage enemies by simply touching them. In general though, you'll want to keep it attached to yourself for the weapon upgrades, as well as frontal shielding capabilities.

In the end though, while the underlying game design is good, the slowdown and complete lack of checkpoints may make this one more of a headache that it's worth.

Area 88

US Title: UN Squadron
Released: July 26th 1991
Developer: Capcom
Difficulty: High

Area 88, known outside Japan as UN Squadron, is surprisingly refreshing for usually a military themed shooter, possibly because almost all of them tend to be overhead shooters, while UN is a side scroller. It's also unique for being a licensed game that doesn't suck. Area 88 was originally a manga and later adapted into two animated versions. Since the manga had been released in the US in the late 80s, licensing issues may be why the name got changed. Of course, they didn't bother changing any of the character names, looks, or any of the 88s that appear in the games intro or map screen.

One thing UN Squadron exceeds at is customization. You've got three playable characters here: Shin, who looks like a girl and has a main gun that powers up the fastest, Mickey, who sucks, and Greg, who recovers the fastest from damage, which is incredibly useful.

There are six planes available as well, though you have to purchase all but the starter plane. Each one has a specialty, like forward attacks, bombs, or upward attacks. The first three I tried seemed almost exactly the same except in which special weapons they could equip. The bomber however, moved slower than the others, but in addition to the standard gun, also fired diagonally down right at the same time for no cost, very useful for taking out enemies on the ground, which this game has a lot of.

Each ship can purchase and use different special weapons, ranging from 50 small bombs, to 1 shot megalasers that damage the whole screen. The cluster attack is probably the most useful early on, it damages everything near you, and is great for taking out enemies that appear behind you. Special weapons are definitely something you shouldn't shy away from using, they can help you out in dangerous pinches, and are cheap compared to the cost of new ships.

Enough customization yet? Well after the first stage, you open up the map screen to reveal six more stages that can be tackled in pretty much any order. There are three moving targets that approach your base, and three ground targets that must be destroyed to advance to the next tier of stages. Overall the game has 10 unique missions, as well as bonus stages to earn money.

One of the best parts of this game though is that the enemies feel very different than most other shooters, they actually behave like the various planes and tanks they're drawn as. Enemies swoop in, turn, and reverse directions, and all with a decent number of frames of animation to accompany their motions. One stage even features enemies that will attempt to get behind you, it really does feel like an aerial dogfight between two planes, only in 2-d.

The only real downside to this game is that it is very hard, and again if you die, there are no checkpoints mid stage, so you have to start the whole thing over. Luckily you don't die in one hit, but you can die in two. Every time you get hit you go critical for a few seconds before regaining much of your life back. It keeps things tense, but getting hit during the critical period can be annoying.

I could write a lot more about this game, but maybe it would be better for you to just go out and play it yourself.

Buy Area 88 on DVD!

Oh wait, this isn't an anime review. Whatever!

Super Earth Defense Force

Released: October 25th 1991
Developer: Jaleco Entertainment
Difficulty: High

Oh I'm sorry, I seem to have accidentally put a Genesis game on this list. Wait, this is a SNES game? Really? EDF manages to stand out from the crowd thus far for oddly enough, not trying to be anything special. Had this game been on Genesis it may have gotten lost in the crowd, but on SNES it stands out as being the first really fast paced high energy shooter. You blow shit up, and that's about it.

The game features 8 weapons to choose from, ranging from standard forward machineguns, to homing lasers that make things a bit too easy, and gimmick weapons that I don't know why they bothered to include. You also have a little bit of control over the two turrets that surround your ship, you can set them to preset positions like attached to your ship, spinning around you, and later on as you level up, you can have them chase enemies or follow your movements directly. It's not too over the top though, and a lot of these options end up feeling pretty much the same.

The biggest annoyance in this game is that for the third time in a row, there are no checkpoints in stages! You can take three hits before you die at least, but given how fast this game is, you can find yourself dead in no time.

There isn't a whole lot else to say about this one. It's fast, to the point, and full of explosive action. Like every other game so far, the difficulty may be a bit off putting. Do I suck at all these shooters, or are they all just bullshit hard? I can't even tell anymore!

Raiden Densetsu

US Title: Raiden Trad
Released: November 29th 1991
Developer: Micronics
Difficulty: Low

This is the first of a few shooters that appears on both the SNES and Genesis. When I reviewed the Genesis version, I was a bit less than kind to it, giving it only 1 sock. Luckily, the two versions are not the same. One gigantic change is that in the Genesis version, you die in 1 hit, and respawn back at the last checkpoint. In the SNES version, you still die in 1 hit, but right away another ship appears to continue the fight! No more endless repetition!

It feels like your weapons level up a lot faster in this version, the traditional red spread shot is almost too good, maxed out it covers the entire screen and kills all the small fry without much effort at all. Combined these changes bring the game from impossible, to almost too easy. Blast through the stages, then throw all your bombs at the boss.

Even with these changes though, the game still isn't that good. Stages are repetitive, enemies are repeated like crazy, and the bosses aren't very creative. Nothing really jumps out at all until stage 6 when you take off to outer space and then the stages begin to show a little more variety. It's a very simple game you can just pick up and play, but there are probably better games to play.

Dimension Force

US Title: D-Force
Released: December 20th 1991
Developer: Asmik
Difficulty: Shitty

Oh my god this game is shitty. A special kind of shitty that only comes around once in a while though. I've played a few games that were so shitty I couldn't even get past the first stage. They were essentially broken. D-Force though, is playable, just incredibly, mind-numbingly, shitty. The graphics are shitty, the water effects are shitty, and the game is often extremely pixelated when you zoom in closer to the landscape. The music is shitty, incredibly repetitive, bad, and out of place. The hit detection is shitty, sometimes you can go right through a boss, but most of the time, bullets kill you from miles away. The bosses are shitty, they range from hard as hell, to fucking jokes. The gimmick in the game is shitty, some areas let you change how high you fly, which is great until you start crashing into scenery you were just above, or crashing into enemies above you that you couldn't even see until you made the choice to move up. The final stage is shitty, just when I thought there couldn't be any more shit, the game throws a boss marathon at you. In summary: everything about this game is shit, but it remained so just barely playable that I managed to get through the entire thing, and for that it earns one sock, full of shit.

Thunder Spirits

Released: December 27th 1991
Developer: Toshiba EMI
Difficulty: Medium

First things first, who's fucking idea was it to make rapidfire an option you need to select from the hidden config menu in this. To turn it on, hold select, then press start at the title screen. The game is pretty much unplayable if you don't do this.

Ok now that that is out of the way, onto the game! You may have noticed that this game looks familiar. Well of course it does, it's a port Thunder Force III on Genesis. I'll be straight to the point with this one: This version isn't as good as the original. There is a little bit of slowdown when using rapidfire, but compared to most of the other SNES games so far, it's one of the smaller offenders on this issue. The game feels a bit easier this time, and bosses are still prone to dying in 5 seconds, but overall this is still a good and perfectly playable version. Back in the day if you were limited to only a Genesis or SNES, I'd say it wouldn't matter which you got, but today, obviously most people are going to go with Thunder Force III.

Some of the more interesting changes between the two versions of the game though, only show up later as you get further into the levels. The SNES version removed the map screen, which is a kind of odd removal, but the Thunder Force III had a fairly implied level progression anyways, which Thunder Spirits uses. The first three levels are pretty much exactly the same. After this though, things get weird, as level 4 looks completely different, changing from a cavern, to outer space. The two levels share the same up/down movement though.

Stage 5 however, the ice area in Thunder Force III, is completely removed. In a very strange move, what replaces it, is a stage from Thunder Force II. It seems kind of random, I'm wondering how many people would even notice such a move, given how hard Thunder Force II is. It's a very welcome throwback though. After that, Stage 6... is similar. Both stages involve an R-Type style assault on a huge ship, but if my memory is correct, they play out pretty differently. Stage 7 is the same between both games, and then stage 8, is completely different! The last change is one of the weirdest, as the new end game bosses just aren't as interesting as the originals.

So while Thunder Spirits is a good game, at the same time, only the hardcore Thunder Force fans may find it worthwhile to play.

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