The third (or fourth, if you count the outside-developed Bee Storm) entry in Cave’s marquee “DonPachi” series, Dai-Ou-Jou (roughly “peaceful death”) abandons the relatively accessible style of its forebears; this sucker is among the company’s most challenging offerings, if not one of the toughest shmups ever, period. The traditional trio of selectable craft is replaced by a Progear-esque lineup of two planes and three stat-altering cyber-loli “co-pilots”, but shooting, lasering, bombing, and chaining are much as you remember them, with one major addition: the “Hyper”. As you rack up sequential kills and collect hidden bee medals (which now must be snatched mid-chain for worthwhile rewards), a “hyper meter” fills up, and once topped out a “Hyper” item will appear; up to five can be stocked. The next time you push the “bomb” button, all stored “Hypers” will be spent at once to boost your weapon power (and the resulting hit count) to ridiculous levels; careful though, as frequent hyper use makes enemies even angrier at you.
There are only five stages to traverse (if you don’t count the super-difficult second loop), but they’re more than nasty enough to keep even the best players busy: the onslaught of big flashy baddie bullets is unrelenting, and you’ll be amazed at the effort it takes to weave your pint-sized hitbox out of so much trouble. And that’s just when playing to survive: if you thought putting together high scores in the first two DonPachis was difficult, be prepared to train like a Shaolin monk before so much as glimpsing a respectable point total here. Thanks to Hypers it’s now possible to extend chains much longer than before, but success on this front still demands split-second timing and incredibly precise movements; if you DO somehow manage to tame this monster, the blazing flames engulfing your formerly-fierce adversaries seem to shine brighter than ever.
It’s a perilous journey no matter how you play, but at least you don’t have to worry about the technical end giving you any problems. While Arika, the company behind this port, is probably best-known for the less-than-stellar Street Fighter EX series, they definitely hit a home run here. The gloomy, post-apocalyptic atmosphere (which, to be fair, might not appeal to those who like a bit more color), slowdown level, and almost everything else are very faithful to the arcade original; they’re accompanied by some nifty extras too, most notably a cracked-out boss rush mode aptly titled “Death Label” (not to be confused with the game’s “Black Label” arcade revision, later ported to the 360). You also get a wide array of display options, an image gallery, optional arranged music, a full-featured “simulation” mode (including a “no-bullet” mode ideal for chaining practice), replay saving, and a viewable superplay on the game disc; more is available on the second “Special DVD” that comes packed in. If the admittedly harrowing challenge doesn’t put you off, consider this one of the PS2’s essential shmup imports.
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On the other hand, if you like Cave’s style but Dai-Ou-Jou sounds like too tall an order, ESPGaluda ought to be right up your alley: though its name is reminiscent of 1998 arcade exclusive ESP Ra.de, it has little in common with that game, save the fact that you still control a flying person instead of an aircraft. You’ve also got the expected shot/laser/bomb setup going, but now all killed enemies leave behind green gems: these shiny stones aren’t worth much in terms of points, so what’s their purpose? Glad you asked: they fuel the game’s primary gimmick, “kakusei (awakening) mode”, which is basically Matrix-style “bullet time”. Hit the “B” button to switch into kakusei, and everything onscreen except your character slows down drastically, making your life a lot easier: the catch is that you need gems to use it, and being in this state constantly drains your supply. Watch out if your reserves run completely dry before you swap back into “normal” mode – enemy bullets become faster, and tougher to dodge.
“Kakusei”, as it turns out, is also the key to scoring – whenever you dispatch a slowed-down adversary, all of its onscreen bullets are transformed into shiny gold pieces, your main source of points. Moreover, the greater the amount of gold you can pile up in one “shift” before switching back to “normal” mode, the more each piece is worth, so to hit the jackpot you’ll want to look for spots where you can either stay in Kakusei awhile or cancel a big pattern all at once (or both) to rake in maximum profits. The beauty of ESPGaluda’s system lies in the fact that almost any player type can tailor it to his own needs: less-experienced shmuppers can save up gems for rough spots where the reduced bullet speed can help them pull through, while seasoned shooter fans can blow it all on mining that sparkly gold. On that note, Galuda’s inherent difficulty level lies on the lower end of the scale (for Cave, anyway), but the presence of even more advanced scoring techniques (check an FAQ for further details) gives just about every shmupper something to love.
Arika handled this port as well, and did at least as good a job as on Dai-Ou-Jou: the standard Arcade mode is again just about perfect, and accompanied by the same gallery, practice, and replay options as their previous effort (plus another supplementary DVD). The biggest bonus here, though, is a full-fledged “Arrange” mode, featuring meaner baddies and two exclusive playable characters. The level layouts haven’t changed, but these new recruits have access to both kakusei mode and the secondary “piercing shot” from Ra.de, which multiplies the value of enemy kills when used correctly; combine the two and some truly insane scoring possibilities open up (if you can juggle all the required buttons with enough skill). It’s unfortunate that neither this nor Dai-Ou-Jou ever saw release outside of Japan, but trust me: if you’re a shmup fan you definitely have to try them.
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It took the combined efforts of Konami, Treasure and G. Rev to make it happen, but lo and behold, the fifth “numbered” Gradius game: like its immediate series predecessor the graphics are polygonal, but the action remains classically two-dimensional. Players again have four (slightly-)varying weapon setups to choose from, but thanks to the new “Option Type” affixed to each one this decision is more important than ever – depending on the “type” you choose, your “option” helpers will do different things when you hold down the R button, such as freezing in place, spreading out/clustering together, or rotating around your ship. These handy abilities drastically alter how the game is played: each comes with distinct advantages and disadvantages, but no matter which you pick you’ll need to make good use of it to survive. This, however, is not the biggest change in store for longtime fans: Treasure’s influence on the formula is strongly felt, and not just in the big, beautiful explosions. Gradius V plays more like a “bullet hell” shmup than any of its forebears: enemy shots and other obstacles frequently clog up most of the screen, forcing players to rely on precise maneuvering and a newly-tiny hit area to stay in one piece.
Once you’ve adjusted to these anomalies, things start to look more familiar: the standard power-up bar, “core” bosses, and lack of any real scoring system are all accounted for, not to mention that you’ll still occasionally get swatted by a hard-to-see gray bullet or an unannounced enemy approaching from the rear, so this is definitely still a Gradius game. It is fair to state, though, that it’s a different breed of Gradius than any other, and while many fans won’t mind the shakeup others might prefer to stick to the classics (if only for the ambience; the scenery here is decidedly less varied than its predecessors’). If you do decide to take the plunge into this flashy new brand of Bacterion extermination the game isn’t hard to find, but it IS hard to beat (and as if finishing one run isn’t tough enough, infinite loops await those stubborn enough to get to them). Hanging in there will eventually unlock some extra “custom” weapon configurations, a la Gradius III, while similar doggedness on the secondhand market might net you the “History of Vic Viper” booklet or “Options” DVD included with first-print Japanese (and Asian) editions. If you really want to round out the collection you can also seek the Konamistyle-exclusive “Perfect” superplay DVD or the USA preorder “Breakdown” DVD…the “Director’s Cut” edition or other super-rare prizes awarded to winners of the official Western scoring competition, however, are likely beyond your grasp, so for your sanity’s sake you might just want to enjoy the game instead.
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Shikigami no Shiro (Series)
Alfa System, a small developer comprised largely of ex-Taito employees, has been an esoteric industry presence for a number of years, but shmuppers know them best for their Shikigami no Shiro shooters (a “shikigami” is a sort of helper spirit, while “shiro” means, among other things, “castle”), two of which made appearances on the PS2. The first game lays out the basic premise: you take control of one of several super-powered human characters in an effort to exorcize the creepy monsters appearing all over Tokyo. Tapping the fire button activates your “normal” weapon, but holding it down unleashes a more specialized “shikigami” attack, and focuses your movement speed: defeated enemies drop coins, which boost both your offensive abilities and your score. Finishing baddies off with your shikigami auto-collects the resulting loot, so you’ll want to utilize the former as much as possible.
Things get far more interesting, though, once you factor in the series’ main claim to fame, the “Tension” system: the closer you are to enemies or their projectiles at any given time, 1) the stronger your “normal” shot gets, 2) The more coins enemies leave behind, and 3) The more points you earn for both kills and coinage (up to 8 times base value). For optimal results you’ll want to bring down as many targets as possible with your secondary weapon, deliberately cheating death while doing so: of course, this is much easier said than done, and you’ll likely need to unload a bomb or two to get out of tight spots (use them sparingly, though, as these do NOT restock after dying). On the periphery players can access a practice mode, boss rush, image gallery and story recap, as well as a healthy selection of gameplay options: thankfully, all of these extras were carried over into the sequel.
The first Shikigami no Shiro is built around an intriguing concept (and features a cameo character from gun shooter Elemental Gearbolt), but its mixture of 2-D sprites and 3-D backgrounds is somewhat unsightly, and being powered down upon death serves to compound players’ frustrations, since this makes it increasingly difficult to earn coins and power back up. Moreover, while the game received both a limited edition (which included a figure of one of the characters) and a reprint in Japan, US and PAL gamers had to make do with the dreadful localization “Mobile Light Force 2”, which saw fit to ditch all of the story segments and many of the options, replacing them with abysmally bad redubbed voices and utterly nonsensical cover art: it’s cheap to buy, but still not recommended.
Thankfully, Shikigami no Shiro II improves things on almost every front: the graphical style is more unified (though still nothing too impressive overall), new “Easy” and “Extreme” modes and an arranged OST have been added, the playable cast is larger, everyone’s attack options have been expanded, and you no longer need to worry about being gimped offensively after messing up. Again, Japanese shmuppers got an LE (with a different model figure) and a reprint, but the rest of us didn’t make out too badly this time either: the localized edition, simply dubbed “Castle Shikigami 2” (the PAL version tacks on a weird “War of the Worlds” subtitle), leaves all of the most important original features intact, though the text translations and dubbed voices are still laughable. It’s a bit more slowdown-laden (if you don’t turn “wait” off) than ports to other systems and lacks a few of their extras, but is also much less pricey: if the risk/reward contrast of the “tension” system sounds appealing to you, by all means spend a few measly bucks to pick this up.
As a final note, there is a third Shikigami no Shiro game on the PS2, subtitled “Nanayozuki Gensoukyoku” (“Fantasy of the Seven-Moon Night”), but it is an offshoot, not a “true” Shikigami title: most of its content is in the “visual novel” style, with only a handful of pared-down shmup segments sprinkled throughout.
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The Psyvariar series, which comes to you courtesy of Korean developer Skonec, centers around the so-called “buzz” mechanic, which is similar in spirit to Shikigami no Shiro’s “tension”. As you both shoot down baddies and closely “graze” them and their bullets, not only does your score increase, but a “level” bar at the top of the screen gradually builds – upon reaching maximum capacity you’ll “level up” and get a moment or two of invincibility, during which you can bullet-scratch with impunity and ram baddies for damage. Level up enough times and your craft will change form, gaining extra firepower as well as access to tougher (and more lucrative) branching stage paths in the process – you can also make the ship “roll” by rapidly moving the joystick back and forth, which alters its movement speed, focuses its shot, and widens its “buzzing” range. Individual areas are short in length, but boss battles are the real highlight: you can shoot (or smart bomb) them into submission if you want, but to fully exploit these harrowing encounters you’ll want to let them live (and “buzz” as many of their bullet-rich patterns as you can) until they self-destruct instead.
The first Psyvariar, subtitled “Medium Unit”, pioneered the features detailed above, but a closely-following update, “Psyvariar Revision”, puts a slightly different spin on the action: not only have the visuals and overall layout been remixed, but while Medium Unit only allowed you to “buzz” each onscreen bullet once, in Revision you can linger around and leech off of shots infinitely as long as they’re visible, fueling your “level-up” meter to the point where you can (and should) “chain” invincibility bursts together at length in quite a few places. Players can also opt to use “small” bombs instead of screen-filling ones if they want to slip out of a jam without eliminating enemies or their buzz-able attacks. “Medium Unit” and “Revision” were originally ported to the PS2 together, as “Psyvariar Complete Edition” – while somewhat spartan, each includes a handy “roll” button, which allows you to spin your ship without killing your controller or your thumbs (though some purists refuse to utilize it). Japan scored not one but two limited editions, a “Sound Box” which packs in a soundtrack CD, and a “Capture Box” with a superplay DVD – later on the two games got individual reprints under the “SuperLite” budget label. Europe was lucky enough to rate a well-handled localization of the “regular” Complete edition, but the other side of the Atlantic was shafted completely.
A few years later, along comes a bona fide Psyvariar sequel: not only have the graphics been dramatically improved, but you now choose between either a “shooter-type” or “buzz-type” mech at the beginning to correspond with your play style (though you’ll still need skill in both areas to succeed, regardless of your preference). In most other respects this followup is similar to Revision, though now the difficulty level of each stage is automatically chosen based on your performance in the previous one; moreover, your craft will no longer “evolve” mid-stage, but will wait until the current mission is finished to do so. The PS2 version, subtitled “Ultimate Final”, is widely considered the best port available: though load times are a bit longer and some of the graphical effects aren’t as flashy as in the Naomi or Dreamcast originals, the exclusive extra content more than makes up for it . Along with the return of the “roll” button, you get a stage select, a “mission” mode, a gallery, a “visible hitbox” option, and a pack-in replay DVD – sadly, unlike its predecessors this one never left Japan, and is a ways trickier to track down.
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While the Psyvariars have managed to garner themselves a bit of a cult following, only a handful of shmuppers are familiar with Skonec’s “other” shooter, Homura (“flame” or “blaze”): a shame, as it’s rather good too. You play as some sort of fallen angel/samurai, who not only fires off shots but slashes with a close-range sword: in similar fashion to Giga Wing the latter attack can knock shots back at enemies, but you’ll need to “recharge” for a few seconds between strikes. Your blade has another, more impressive function as well: if you take a swing directly at a (non-boss) enemy instead of a bullet, your character will go nuts and zoom invincibly all over the place, insta-killing all adversaries present. This technique is not only a handy “screen wipe”, but your key to high scores: the number of enemies you bring down in one berserker rush becomes your point multiplier (i.e., kill 20 enemies and everything’s now worth x20). This value slowly decreases over time, so once you come across another big group of drones you’ll want to slice them up to keep the value high: don’t just decimate everything you see, though, because the multiplier is reduced every time you slash, and not every screenful of enemies will be crowded enough to make up for the difference.
Otherwise, Homura is pretty straightforward: defeated enemies leave behind fixed-value tokens which both add to your score tally and power up your bullets, while pressing both “shot” and “sword” at the same time will set off a smart bomb (you can map this function to a separate “bomb” button, but need to refrain from pressing any other keys at the same time for it to work, which feels awkward). There are only a handful of stages (with one hidden final level if you can 1CC the first few), but you do have the choice of an “easy” or “hard” route halfway through each, which injects a bit of variety. Apart from an image gallery there’s not much to see in terms of add-ons, but the game is a solid bet just as it is: moreover, thanks to a capably-handled PAL localization and a “Best” edition in Japan, it’s not a prohibitively elusive acquisition either.
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Twinkle Star Sprites (Series)
ADK’s unique mid-90’s “versus puzzle shmup” enjoys a devoted fan base to this day, but surprisingly few are aware that it eventually received a PS2-exclusive sequel: publisher SNK’s disappointing decision against localization (despite early hints to the contrary) certainly didn’t help matters. Anyway, apart from new 3-D graphics and a reshuffled cast, “La Petite Princesse” follows closely in the footsteps of its elder sibling: players get a half-screen to fly around in, and one’s main goal is to take out patterned enemy formations in one shot by setting up chain reactions. This, in turn, sends fireballs (which can be volleyed back and forth) and other nuisances over to the opponent’s territory, while simultaneously building up a “charge” meter which can be expended for additional attacks: of course, you’ve still got a supply of smart bombs, occasional floating items, and the “Fever” mode power-up to keep things interesting. The play modes (Story, Character, and Versus) are also the same as before, though the presence of a gallery and lots of voice acting spruce the place up a bit – online play is technically supported, though it’s largely a moot point by now, especially for non-Japanese gamers.
Based on what’s been written so far you might be inclined to think that La Petite Princesse is a straight-up reskin, but spend some time with it and you’ll start to notice a handful of changes. In a nutshell, you might say that LPP is a bit more “mellow” than its ancestor: the overall pace is a tad slower, fireballs can’t be “juggled” as many times as before, and the CPU difficulty has been toned down. This is nowhere near enough to totally kill the experience, but TSS veterans should still be advised that this sugar rush is a bit less of a buzz than they’re probably used to: don’t let that discourage you too much, since anyone remotely interested in this sort of thing (basically, any gamer who can stomach the art style, which is somehow even more sickeningly cute than the first’s) still ought to pick this up, and thanks to a budget reprint that shouldn’t be very hard to do. But dangit SNK, I’m still a bit miffed at that judgment call back there…and your undying determination to bring us Samurai Showdown Sen does not improve my mood.
By the way, readers might have noticed that the above subheading mentions the Twinkle Star Sprites “series” – the reason for this is that the original Neo-Geo version is also available (twice over, actually) on the PS2, though sadly it hasn’t survived the transition unscathed. First and foremost it’s packed in as an unlockable extra on La Petite Princesse, but you’ll probably end up ignoring it, since the graphics have been garbled up somewhat and slowdown levels are ridiculously high (and non-adjustable, unlike on the superior Saturn and Dreamcast ports). Your second retro option is “ADK Tamashii”, a Japan-only set of five ADK arcade titles, TSS included: the gameplay is more faithful here, but the visuals are still a bit of a mess. If you crave the sprite-based Twinkle Star Sprites experience (and who doesn’t?) you’re probably best-served seeking it on a different system.
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Shmuppers familiar with the anime/manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind might recognize some of the superficial concepts at work in Cave’s Mushihime-sama (roughly “insect princess”), which stars a young lady astride a gigantic beetle: her job? To shoot down even BIGGER insects, of course (one thing not borrowed from Miyazaki is any hint of nuance). “Mushi” does little you haven’t seen before as far as the core experience is concerned: collect power-ups to earn better weaponry (plus switch your shot/speed “mode” if you let them float around long enough), drop the odd bomb to get out of trouble, and deploy up to four laser-equipped “option” helpers for a bit of supporting fire. One admittedly handy new feature, a standard in later Cave games, is your hit area’s becoming openly visible while the “shot” button is held down: this helps to take a lot of the guesswork out of tap-dodging.
That said, the real draw here, apart from the attractive graphical and aural styling, is the disparate trio of play modes to choose between: the first, “Original”, emits something of an “old-school” vibe, what with its bare-bones scoring system (just shoot stuff and collect what’s left behind), fast enemy bullets, and a slightly larger hit area to protect. “Maniac”, on the other hand, plays more like your “standard” Cave title, with lots of slow enemy patterns to weave through and a modified DonPachi-esque chaining system (which can be exploited in a rather unusual fashion; check an FAQ for more info). “Ultra” has the same basic rules as Maniac, but enemies are much, MUCH nastier – the game even displays an ominous warning if you try to select it. Want to prove your worth as an elite shmupper? Mastering Ultra mode ought to do the trick…best of luck with that, by the way.
Instead of outsourcing the project, as they did with Dai-Ou-Jou and Galuda, Cave ported this game themselves, with Taito handling the publishing end: while the conversion is passable, it’s definitely not in the same league as Arika’s work. For starters, those exquisite visuals have been converted lazily from the original hardware, leaving them looking particularly blurry on some screen setups; more importantly, slowdown levels don’t match those of the arcade version, and certain areas feel jerky to navigate as a result. The options menu provides the bare essentials (and a gallery), but the practice and replay options are pretty limited – the rapid-fire adjust, which replicates the “full auto” hack on some cabinets, is a boon to score attackers though.
There is an Arrange mode too, though it’s also something of a disappointment – it plays closest to Maniac, with some of Ultra’s shenanigans thrown in (including the stupidly hard “true” final boss), but you start off with extra options, can swap your weapon’s “type” at any time, and automatically “bomb” when you’re hit. In most respects it’s basically a “beginner” mode, but at least it offers (non-credit-feeding) lower-tier players an opportunity to see more of the game than they might have otherwise. Warts and all, Mushi’s PS2 port got a “Taito Best” reprint which makes it a bit easier to find, though collectors will be most interested in the pricey first-print Limited Edition, which came in a cardboard outer box and included a figurine of Reco (the heroine) as a young child, plus a phone card: a separate “grown-up” statuette was available as an accompaniment to the game’s soundtrack, if you want to complete the set.
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Fans of cult developer Raizing could only lament the end of an era in the year 2000, when the team was folded into sister company 8ing and ceased producing its own games. Some time down the line, though, former rival Cave decided to bring Raizing bigwig Shinobu Yagawa on board for a new shooter, and Ibara (“rose”, “thorn”, or “briar”) was the result of this once-unlikely partnership. As might be expected, in many ways this isn’t really a “Cave game”; it’s best-described as a spiritual sequel to Raizing’s iconic Battle Garegga. Once again the main keys to scoring (and, by extension, survival) are expending your bombs (which you must “build” by collecting shards) on specific score-rich targets, dismantling (and greatly angering) the bosses, and weaving through enemy fire to snatch falling medals. The game’s “rank” level, which bumps up the challenge, tends to increase quickly, and the only way to knock it back down a peg is to die, so you’d better keep racking up those points (and resulting extra lives) if you want to last very long.
Even when you’ve got a good “rank-control” rhythm down this game is no easy clear, but it does offer players some concessions that its unofficial predecessor didn’t: while you can’t manually shift the formation of your helper gunpods anymore, you can collect different ammo types for each, and thus have a variety of attacks at your simultaneous disposal. For another, if you’re having trouble with one of the game’s impractically-dressed lady bosses/mascots (trust me, you will) you can “charge up” a bomb before release to launch a “hadou burst”, and inflict big damage to your target. Finally, while bullet visibility is still less than ideal, it’s been improved a ways over Garegga’s layered neutral tones, so you’re less likely to wonder what the heck just killed you – you’ll still be dying a lot, mind, but at least you’ll (probably) know why. If you somehow still find the regular game too easy, “Harder” and “Extended” modes are also available – how nice of them. Ibara’s reboot of one of gaming’s most unusual and counter-intuitive design mentalities didn’t result in a major commercial hit, but the villainous “Rose sisters” became popular enough to later star in their own game.
As for the PS2 version, it was handled by the same coalition that ported Mushihime-sama, and the overall quality is about the same: not awful, but hardly great. The lovingly-detailed graphics have again been muddied up some (though not quite so much as in Mushi), slowdown is still off-kilter, and the option settings aren’t as robust or user-friendly as they could be. On a brighter note, there’s another Arrange mode here, and it’s substantially more interesting than Mushi’s – it plays a little like Ibara’s later “Black Label” arcade version. The player hitbox is smaller, bullets can be made brighter, the soundtrack has been remixed, the main shot can be “focused”, and both option formations and secondary weapons (once collected) can be cycled through at will. Most importantly, the current “rank” level is (finally) openly displayed, and works differently than before: the difficulty now goes up only as you collect items, and can be lowered by bombing away large masses of bullets. This process also awards lots of points, so Arrange players can either limit their pickups for a relatively “safe” journey, or get greedy and tempt fate for last-second screen clears and massive score boosts. Ibara received a relatively low PS2 print run (certain pre-order copies came with a collectable hint booklet) and plans for a “Best” re-release were eventually scrapped, so expect to fork out handsomely for this payload of digital masochism; more importantly, make sure you’re up for it before you do. Of course, the separately-released official figurines of all six Rose sisters will bankrupt you even more quickly, should you covet them…
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If you’ve looked through the Saturn or PS1 shooter lists on this site, you might remember coverage of Shienryu (“purple flame dragon”), a vertical shmup most directly comparable to the Raiden series; rumors once circulated that developer Warashi was working on a sequel, but nothing concrete ever came of it. Then one day, out of the blue, the company re-releases Shienryu for the PS2 as Volume 37 of the “Simple 2000” budget series, and bundles a completely new “vertizontal” shmup with 3-D graphics, “Shienryu Explosion”, onto the disc with it. Whether this latter title was ever intended as a true sequel is unclear, especially considering how differently the two games play.
Let’s start with Explosion, which has more in common with modern “bullet hell” shooters than anything else, though it’s a much less challenging entry than most, thanks in part to a generous extend rate. After choosing one of three ships at the beginning (plus a pilot, which only has cosmetic effects), you have constant access to “light”, “medium”, or “heavy” weapon fire, each of which affects your speed and spread as well as your strength – these can all be set to a single button, which will vary shot output based on how hard you press it, or to separate “fixed” keys. This gimmick is tied nicely into the scoring system, which awards you more handsomely for killing enemies with “stronger” shots, but will reduce the points gained if you collect the “star” items they leave behind while continuing to fire heavily: this means you’ll be juggling your shot status back and forth a lot to maximize your score as you zoom around the screen. Two “hidden” stages are your reward for a bit of extra effort, but otherwise the game is solid if unexceptional: definitely not a bad acquisition for the asking price though.
Its companion port of the “original” Shienryu, for that matter, is pretty nice too, complete with tate mode and low-res screen options: the one thing it’s missing (besides a way to get back to the main title screen without resetting the PS2) is a high-score save, which is especially odd considering that both these features (and a practice mode to boot) are accessible in Explosion. Later on the two were again packaged together in Volume 5 of the Simple series’ “2-in-1” collections (simply retitled “The Shooting”) and paired with some sort of 3-D “Helicopter” game – the suggested retail price remains the same, so just pick up whichever one you can get cheaper and disregard the bits you don’t care for. European gamers did receive a localization dubbed “Steel Dragon EX”, but it’s plagued by borders, slowdown, and a (further-) reduced challenge level, so spring for the import if you can.
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Strikers 1945 I & II / Gunbird 1 & 2
Prolific shmup developer Psikyo put together no fewer than four “double packs” of its arcade shooters on the PS2, most of them under the “Psikyo Shooting Collection” label – Strikers 1945 I & II came first, featuring (obviously) the first two entries in the alternate-WWII series (sorry, Strikers III fans – your wait continues). The games play very much alike in most areas: fast orange bullets, slightly-delayed bomb activation, randomly-ordered stage progression, transforming mecha bosses, and snagging shiny gold bars with good timing for extra points are the order of the day in each. The only major difference between them, apart from the stage layouts and selection of playable aircraft, lies in how the “charge shot” is implemented – in the first game it’s a standardized “strong” attack affected only by your plane’s weapon level, but in Strikers II it’s reliant on a separate “power meter” which fills up as your kill count rises and is expended for more potent charged blasts. Both games are serviceable, but the porting job is less than optimal: load times are lengthy, high scores aren’t saved, and neither the graphics nor the sound (especially on II) are arcade-accurate. Collectors will want a first-print copy of the Japanese version, especially one containing a replay DVD; more economically-minded sorts can seek out the “Taito Best” reprint instead. The PAL release (“1945 I & II: The Arcade Games”) retains tate mode, but lacks a 60-Hz option.
For some odd reason the company’s Gunbird compilation (dubbed “Gunbird Premium Package” in Korea and “Gunbird Special Edition” in Europe) isn’t technically part of the “Psikyo Shooting Collection” series, so don’t look for it under that name. In any event, the first Gunbird plays very much like the original Strikers 1945, minus the variable score items and plus a somewhat annoying “automatic power-down” mechanic; its true defining characteristics are the “semi-cute” fantasy setting and brief, silly story sequences that give it some personality. Sequel Gunbird 2 pumps up the challenge level and expands outward in several areas: the charge meter from Strikers II has been adopted, and moreover can be spent either on the usual charge shot or a powerful close-range melee hit. “Timed item collection” scoring has arrived too, and doles out additional rewards for “chaining” together two or more “perfect” coin grabs in a row; also keep an eye out for special spots where you can uncover a bonus-loaded “gem head” with a well-placed attack. By the way, just so you know, hidden samurai character Ayin is available, but guest star Morrigan from Darkstalkers isn’t – she’s a Dreamcast exclusive. While this collection never got a reprint, Psikyo put more effort into the port this time: high score saving and a handy Practice mode have both been implemented, and while the first game lacks the “gallery” extras of the 32-bit versions, otherwise it looks and plays pretty nicely. Gunbird 2 doesn’t fare quite so well: some stage elements have been shifted around and there’s a bit of mid-stage loading too. PAL gamers, meanwhile, finally got a 60-Hz option, along with all the other new features…EXCEPT a score save, dangit!
One last thing: Korea also scored an exclusive 2-in-1 (or should that be 4-in-1?) release which stuffs both the Strikers and Gunbird comps into a single package: both of them are pretty much exactly the same as the Japanese releases (minus the replay DVD), so if you want to pick up the whole kit ‘n caboodle in one shot this might be your most cost-efficient way to do so.
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Sengoku Ace & Sengoku Blade / Sol Divide & Dragon Blaze
Psikyo’s later PS2 collections tend to be the most sought-after, since each of them boasts a game which has yet to see a home port on any other system. Sengoku Ace, Psikyo’s very first release, fills that role on Psikyo Shooting Collection Volume 2, a.k.a. the “Sengoku” pack – obviously it’s a very basic vertical shooter in the company’s signature style, and also contains the unpopular “auto-power down” mechanic which wasn’t scrapped until several releases later. What does help to set the game apart, aside from the goofy story scenes (which set the template for Gunbird), is its evocative atmosphere, heavily steeped in Japanese mythology – this ambience remains strong in the sequel, which shifts to a side-scrolling perspective. The auto-power down is gone by now, and catching coins at the right moment leads to extra points, but otherwise it’s basically the first game turned on its side, with a few minor tweaks: one notable new feature is the ability to pick one of two final stage routes, each of which leads to a different ending for your chosen character(s). The programming job here is solid, if unremarkable: single-stage practice modes and a sound test are present, random stage order can be turned off, and everything runs pretty smoothly, though Sengoku Blade is missing the bonus contents from the Saturn version (including Marion’s playable cameo, though Ayin’s still hanging around). As with the Strikers collection, Japanese first-print reserves came with a replay DVD, and later on a budget edition hit the shelves; Europe received both games too, though each was localized separately, under their Western arcade names, “Samurai Aces” and “Tengai”. Thankfully, both have high score saving (finally!) and a 60-Hz option too. Appropriately enough it’s again overshadowed here, this time by Dragon Blaze, Psikyo’s last and best-looking vertical shmup – you play as a dragon rider with the ability to “shoot” his or her mount straight forward for a powerful up-close attack (and some bonus coins).
Sol Divide, another Psikyo side-scroller, headlines Volume 3; its main hallmarks are digitized graphics, a medieval/fantasy setting, and a focus on close-range melee attacks (it also spawned home versions on the Saturn and PS1, and was written up in those corresponding articles). This is instead a faithful reproduction of the arcade original, but that means it lacks the marquee RPG-flavored “Original Mode” of its previous conversions, which was the only thing preventing many players from abandoning the game due to its rather imprecise, clunky mechanics.
. This technique can also be used to position your dragon (who is invincible) in prime offensive position while you keep your character out of dangerous spots: careful, though, as splitting up decreases your overall offensive power, and changes your charge attack too. The hidden “gem heads” from Gunbird 2 return for your score-attacking pleasure, and you can even go for tricky one-hit kills during certain boss phases for additional bonus points – these modest tweaks to the Psikyo formula make Dragon Blaze a near-unanimous favorite among the company’s fans. Volume 3’s ports are comparable to those on Volume 2 in terms of both quality and features, though there was only a single print run for this set, making it more desirable on the collector’s market despite the lack of a DVD pack-in – PAL gamers again got separate releases of both games, localized in mostly pain-free fashion.
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Gradius III and IV
Another of the PS2’s very earliest releases, mainstream gamers and reviewers alike scoffed at this humble arcade mini-compilation in real time: where, after all, was the newfangled 128-bit razzle-dazzle? Anyone possessing a bit more respect for their digital elders, though, should know that the ports offered here are just about perfect and include a couple of notable extras, from a new CG opening sequence to a slowdown adjust, sound test, and stage select. That said, these two games are among the less-popular Gradiuses (Gradii?) overall, and certainly won’t have every last shmupper singing their praises aloud.
First things first: if you’ve only played the SNES release of Gradius III and are eager to dive into the arcade original, be forewarned, this is NOT the same game. Konami’s primeval iteration (subtitled “From Myth to Legend”), is an infamously tough journey throughout (even the 3-stage “easy” mode is no cake walk); other than this largely unnecessary difficulty spike (Gradius II, after all, was hardly a bowl of cherries), the only true gameplay “innovation” here over its better-received ancestor is a single, oddly-inserted “behind-the-ship” level. In its favor, III does expand on its big brother’s “power-up select”, offering additional tweaks and even a full-fledged individual “weapon edit” should you so desire; just bear in mind that you’re gonna die a lot no matter what you’re equipped with. At least the PS2’s ability to save checkpoints between sessions makes practicing a bit easier.
In like manner Gradius IV (subtitled “Fukkatsu”, or “Ressurection”), despite its impressive-for-the-time smattering of 3-D graphical effects, still feels like a step back for the series at large, particularly in the aftermath of Gradius Gaiden’s excellent debut on the PS1. Weapon selection isn’t as robust as in III, and the sometimes-redundant level themes and enemies begin to wear particularly thin without anything truly new (apart from the eye candy) to accompany them. Granted, both it and III are soundly-constructed games, but with this collection you’re getting what it says on the box, no more, no less – whether this is satisfactory is reliant on just how reverential you are of Vic Viper and company. On a brighter note, III and IV saw daylight in all three regions (and got several reprints in Japan) so even if these aren’t your absolute favorite shooters they’re still easy and cheap to add to your collection…if you don’t already have them on the PSP Gradius collection, anyway, though that one lacks a few of the extra trinkets found here.
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Well, I suppose that Irem sort of meant it – though a pair of strategy spin-offs and another port or two of the original game have snuck onto the scene since this “final” R-Type entry hit shelves over seven years ago, it does still remain (technically, at least) the last “official” chapter of the series. Formula-wise it picks up right where Delta on the PS1 left off: bludgeoning enemies with your Force fills up a “dose” meter, which when topped out gives the device extra ramming power, bonus score rewards, and a single-use screen-clearing “smart bomb”. Oh, and by the way, a couple more ships have been added to the playable roster…y’know, just a HUNDRED of ‘em or so, from throughout the series’ lengthy run and beyond. Sure, a fair portion are simply “upgrades” of other models, and not every variation is equally useful to say the least, but there’s still an impressive amount of variety in this hangar, almost unprecedented amidst its genre brethren: even the player crafts from Image Fight and X-Multiply make appearances, not to mention that you can tweak and customize the bits, missiles, charge cannon, color scheme, and other details for each and every fighter.
This might sound like a wet dream for R-Type fans, and in some ways it unquestionably is: each ship you unlock reveals a bit more back story tied into the surprisingly intricate saga of mankind’s war versus the Bydo, and every enemy type you defeat gets its own viewable profile as well (note: all of this is separate from the “main” Gallery and History sections). If you can appreciate R-Type as one of the few shmups out there in possession of a genuinely non-throwaway plot, you simply must own Final: in terms of pure playability, though, longtime gamers’ receptions to it have been decidedly lukewarm. R-Type has always been characterized by a comparatively slow pace and heavy emphasis on memorization, but in Final the stage designs tend to drag on even more than usual – a handful of branching paths diversify things a little, but the unlock requirements for certain craft are ridiculous, and can make the process feel like a grinding slog (the bizarre “AI vs. Mode”, for its part, is probably best ignored altogether). R-Type Final was granted a worldwide release (plus a reprint in Japan) and isn’t overly hard to find (though tracking down its 30 different promotional dog tag necklaces is another matter), so despite its shortcomings you won’t be risking much by picking up a copy – just be prepared to categorize it as a slightly-too-reverential tribute to the series more than a “full-fledged” shooter.
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While Seibu Kaihatsu, creators of the Raiden series, do not “officially” develop games anymore, their legacy lives on within offshoot company MOSS, whose first project was this third “numbered” Raiden game. While the 3-D graphical upgrade is somewhat bland compared to the detailed spritework of Raiden II and Raiden Fighters, many should be pleased to know that the game is a bit more “user-friendly” than the older ones: your plane’s hitbox has been downsized (though not to “bullet hell”-level tiny), your firepower now gains a level even when you pick up a different weapon than you currently have, and bombs activate immediately to cover the whole screen. Speaking of weapons, the classic spread shot and straight laser are pretty much as you remember them, but the infamous purple “toothpaste” weapon is now “minty green” and no longer locks onto enemies: the “straight” and “homing” missile sub-weapons are still at the ready, accompanied by a new mid-power, semi-homing “radar” rocket.
In terms of scoring, you’ve got fixed-value medals and Fairies to find (no “Miclus” dragons, though), but the centerpiece is the “flash shot” system, similar to the “quick shot” from Raiden Fighters: simply put, the faster you kill stuff the more points you get, up to double base value. This makes high-score runs an exercise in sequential memorization, especially since your ship still moves so slowly, but you’ll probably be doing a good deal of that anyway, since enemy bullets move a lot faster than you do (and their dull yellow color blends in frustratingly easily with onscreen explosions). While a lot of the basic materials and set pieces have been recycled from previous Raidens, MOSS includes a nice set of extras to sweeten the deal: a score attack, boss rush, gallery and replays are all accounted for, but the coolest feature is “double play” mode, which allows you to control two ships with one controller. All in all, while Raiden III certainly isn’t bad (and a temptingly cheap pickup), most fans don’t consider it one of the series’ high points: its immediate sequel, Raiden IV (which received a port on the 360), possesses a similar “feel” but has been tweaked and polished in several areas, so some players might want to just skip ahead to that one.
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XII Stag and Shooting Love: Trizeal
These two shmups come to you courtesy of Triangle Service, a small developer which most recently put out the “Shooting Love 200X” package on the 360: XII Stag, as it happens, was their very first product (by the way, the titular “XII” is the Roman numeral “twelve”, not some wacky acronym). Your little blue ship is equipped with a standard upgradeable forward shot and a limited-range bomb, but neither is the linchpin of your arsenal – if you move the d-pad rapidly back and forth from left to right (similar to “rolling” in Psyvariar) your ship will fire short-range, powerful “burst” shots from both sides, and the faster you mash the stronger the attack gets. Enemies are also damaged, interestingly enough, if they touch the jet exhaust coming out of your rear – as you kill adversaries with either the “burst” or “exhaust” weapons a multiplier value builds, reaching its maximum at x12 (or should I say xXII). This makes score-attacking another memory-heavy affair, as you need to be in very specific positions at specific times to best utilize these techniques – as in Raiden III, though, enemies tend to suddenly kill you in sneaky ways to begin with, so you’ll be experiencing a lot of trial and error no matter what. This is pretty much a no-frills arcade port, but there is a welcome option to map “bursting” to a separate button, and PAL gamers got a thoroughly un-ruined localization; neither the key feature nor the execution are anything too exciting, really, but there are certainly worse ways to kill a bit of free time.
Triangle Service’s second shmup is probably best-known for prompting an infamous online plea from company president Toshiaki Fujino, who begged fans to buy its original Dreamcast port to keep the business afloat – it appears enough people acquiesced, as the team took a shot at the PS2 a year later. As the “shooting love” portion of the title suggests, Trizeal is something of a mash note to the genre’s roots, and contains a number of visual references and other nods to the classics. In terms of weaponry you have constant access to three options (a spread vulcan, a piercing laser, and homing missiles) which are powered up individually but fired all at once: only one can be your “primary” shot at a time, though, so the others will provide weaker “supporting” blasts when switched out. Apart from run-of-the-mill blasting and boss dismantling (plus a few secrets), your primary scoring method is a “medaling” system inspired by Raizing: the more you can catch without missing any, the higher their point values get. Unlike in Raizing’s games, though, almost EVERY enemy killed drops a medal, and these prizes drop off the screen quite fast to boot, which makes snapping them all up a rather sloppy affair.
While one can definitely feel the designers’ genuine “love” for the old days in Trizeal, at the same time all the sappy nostalgia can’t help but register as a conceptual crutch – much of the challenge present here is the fault of sudden, out-of-nowhere deaths (and the resulting power-down), devices many shmuppers wish had been left to a bygone era, and the rather antiquated graphics don’t do the game any favors either. The PS2 port, for its part, is pretty similar to the Dreamcast and Xbox 360 versions, with a few changes: slowdown levels are a bit different, a couple of handy autofire options have been added, and the DC’s “omake” level has been replaced by a rapid-fire “skill test” which gauges your shooting and dodging abilities via several different mini-games. There’s also a “score attack” mode you can use to practice individual stages, or even level 2’s “lifting” segment by itself, to master the art of keeping that blasted rock in the air (oh, and a code allows use of the ship from XII Stag). Those accustomed to “modern” shmup conventions will probably find themselves a bit shell-shocked by Trizeal, but long-time players might not mind the return to a simpler, more straightforward era – the only real reasons to possibly dissuade anyone from this particular edition are the Dreamcast’s pre-order bonuses and the 360’s additional bundled content.
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Giga Wing Generations
Generations, the third and presumably final Giga Wing entry, is, appropriately enough, a sort of “greatest hits” amalgamation of features and designs implemented across Takumi’s all-too-brief shmupping history. As in Giga Wing 2 you can fly right over enemies without taking damage, but the “reflect laser” option is gone, as are any screen-filling “volcanon” medal splits; in the style of the first Giga Wing, players again need to one-credit the game to reach its final level, as well as strike a balance between both reflecting and blasting for optimal results. Unlike either of the earlier games, just about any semblance of plot has been unceremoniously expunged: no characters, no dialogue, you just pick a plane and start blowing stuff up (nothin’ wrong with that, mind you).
In terms of technical advancements enemy bullet visibility has been significantly improved, all those lovely medals are smaller and less obstructive, and two all-new quirks prop up the scoring system: first, shooting enemies in a certain way now spawns “shot medals”, which boost your overall counter but not the stage multiplier, and two, destroying stuff up close awards an additional “proximity” bonus. The series’ ever-present “score attack” mode is back for an encore, handy for both practicing individual stages and inflating your numbers to insane(-er) levels thanks to yet another multiplier: a sound test is about the only other “bonus” you get, but not a heckuva lot else was needed, really.
At its heart the game is quite fun, in some ways the best of its breed: it’s a crying shame, then, that its PS2 port (Generations’ only non-arcade iteration) is so inexcusably slipshod. While the Type-X version hardly pushed the envelope in terms of visuals, the onscreen action was at least able to run smoothly without taxing the hardware: why, then, does the port only run at 30 FPS or less, rendering every movement jerkier and less precise (an especially egregious disadvantage in crowded later levels) than most any commercial shmup release in memory? It’s not like the standard 60 frames was unattainable: the brief “How to Play” tutorial segment has it, even as all of the playable content suffers! Are we being openly mocked, or what?
In case you needed an additional slap in the face, there’s no full-screen tate option either, another nearly-uninterrupted genre standard since the PS1 era – you’ll have to settle for either a letterboxed view or a slightly-rearranged “Original” layout that’s closer to the yoko orientation of the first two Giga Wings. Even under such circumstances, however, Generations’ inner beauty manages to (partially) shine through, and patient players can learn to overcome the port’s technical deficiencies: enough Japanese gamers apparently did so to merit a “Best” re-release, and Europe got a localization too (sans any improvements, unfortunately). Needless to say, before picking this one up make sure you’re ready for the rather sizeable baggage it’s saddled with.
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Silpheed: The Lost Planet
One of the earliest PS2 releases, and one of the last brought Westward by publisher Working Designs, this rather unexpected followup to the original Silpheed (whose most recent appearance was on the Sega CD in 1993) was developed in part by Treasure, though hindsight has not seen fit to place it among their premier efforts. Two central “gimmicks” are its claim to *ahem* fame: the first is the player’s ability to equip two different weapons to the ship’s separately-controllable pair of frontal guns, with expanding available choices as things progress. The second is yet another proximity-based scoring system, a la Omega Fighter, so the closer you are to enemies when you kill them the more points they’re worth. Graphically, the signature isometric “tilt” of the original is much less pronounced here, but the game still looks quite nice, especially considering its age: the detailed backgrounds, well-rendered CGI scenes, abundant particle effects and impressive pyrotechnics impress even today. The radio chatter is still here too, in abundance, though a lot of it is too muffled to hear very clearly.
While all of the game’s disparate parts sound solid on paper, they really never gel into a cohesive whole: for one thing, none of your ballyhooed firepower is nearly as impressive or exciting as the surroundings, especially compared to some of the flashy stuff that the game’s bevy of bosses aim your way. The weapons system also throws a wrench into high-score play, since you can only change guns at certain mid-stage “refuel” points (which will also partially refill your life meter…yup, there’s still a touch of “Euroshmup” in this game’s DNA) – if you want to score well, you must remember which armaments are best-suited to picking off the particular enemy formations found in each segment and equip yourself appropriately, thus eliminating most any potential flexibility on offer for score-based play (the fact that you can’t “preview” new weapons upon obtaining them only adds to the trial-and-error factor). While these shortcomings don’t completely kill The Lost Planet, they do hold it back from becoming the minor classic it could have been: on the bright side it is available in all three regions and shouldn’t tax the wallet much to obtain, so warts and all it’s still not a terrible addition to one’s shmup roster.
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According to legend, developer Hudson, at one time, was actually associated with classic series like Bonk and Adventure Island, as opposed to casual licensed party fare – most scholars dismiss these tales as mere wishful thinking, but speculation continues to thrive. Anyway, back in the early 2000’s the company sought to reinvigorate its true believers, and hence the “Hudson Selection” series of “2 ½-D” remakes for the Gamecube and PS2 was born. Volume 2 of this mini-run is an update of none other than famed “caravan” shooter Star Soldier, which first hit the NES in the mid-80s; while the revamp’s low-end polygonal visuals hardly dazzle, any gamer dealing with the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome should feel right at home. You can’t fly under certain background scenery anymore, but the power-up structure, culminating with the titular five-way “star” shot, is pretty much unchanged, as is the lack of practical autofire: yup, you’ll still have to bust your fingers (and controller buttons) to get anywhere unless you “cheat” with a turbo pad (remember those?). At least there’s still plenty of stuff to shoot: slews of point-rich ground targets and bonus tiles supplement the endless, zig-zagging enemy waves, which only spawn faster if you manage to pick them all off.
While bosses and a few other elements have been given a once-over, most of the little scoring “tricks” you remember are intact (for instance, bringing down two or more “giant eyes” at the same time still works) – of course, you’ve also got two-minute and five-minute “caravan” modes when you’d like a break from the standard game’s stage progression. The only truly “new” gameplay addition, setting aside one’s ability to adjust movement speed on the fly, is a short-range secondary “burst” weapon, which can be used to mete out extra damage, cancel bullets, and crack open certain special item canisters, though it needs a moment or two to recharge between uses. As with Trizeal, shmup fans who prefer a contemporary setting won’t find a heckuva lot to love in a game solely devoted to resurrecting the past, but anyone who doesn’t mind a brief retro kick once in awhile ought to have some fun here – just don’t expect the moon, as this was a budget release to begin with (though there are a couple of unlockables, including an old TV commercial or two). I’m not aware of any major differences between this version and its Gamecube equivalent, so feel free to pick up either, as both should run pretty cheap – there was also a PSP port if you prefer to blast your aliens on the go.
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Thunder Force VI
So you thought a little thing like the seeming demise of series developer Tecnosoft (or Techno Soft, if you will) could keep the once-mighty Thunder Force series down, did you? O ye of little faith! Over a decade after the 32-bit Thunder Force V, to all appearances, played the role of “slightly-disappointing endcap” thanks to the cancellation of an unfinished Dreamcast followup, Sega themselves swoop in out of nowhere, bearing an officially-licensed (and PS2-exclusive) sequel. Fans hoping for a return to the brand’s 16-bit glory days, however, are in for some disappointment: TFVI, as it turns out, is very much an outgrowth of V, and retains many of its defining and divisive design choices. The same five selectable weapons (along with several “classic” bosses) return in slightly modified form, as does the “quick kill” scoring system, so the familiar process of pwning n00bz via Free Range hasn’t changed much (though thankfully things aren’t quite as unbalanced as before).
Despite VI’s similarity to its immediate predecessor, a handful of adjustments round out its arsenal: for one thing, while the “Over Weapon” mechanic returns, it’s now fueled by a separate energy stock (built up by defeating enemies) and lasts a set span of time when activated, so you no longer need to weaken your CRAW options or hold down the activation button to keep it going. Speaking of CRAWs, when you use the default player ship you’re constantly equipped with a set, even upon respawning: your full set of weapons sticks with you too, so being shot down doesn’t really reduce your potency at all. This adjustment handily dispels that deflating sense of post-death wimpiness, but also renders the game markedly less challenging: to compensate, extra lives are uncharacteristically hard to come by. As another concession to “old-school” fans, finishing the game unlocks a second craft with a different weapons set and vulnerability to power-down, which reinstates some tension to the proceedings.
While the Thunder Force games have historically drawn praise for their presentations, in VI things are somewhat “meh” all around – it’s an improvement over V, obviously, but definitely not among the prettiest or best-designed shooters on the system, and the synth-rock soundtrack, a near-constant strength, is more anonymous than it ought to be. Some cool, nostalgia-heavy moments are scattered about, like a SeGaGaGa-esque “boss alley” fight sequence against the older Thunder Force ships, but these hardly quell the unmistakable feeling that this game’s creators spent too much time looking over their shoulders and not enough peering ahead. Apart from the unlockable ships there are also a few hidden modes to unveil, so there’s a decent amount of content to tackle if you’re willing to accept VI for what it is (and isn’t) – the mini-soundtrack and “data book” that came with certain pre-orders ought to elicit some additional interest from memorabilia hunters.
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Triggerheart Exelica Enhanced
After many quiet years of sorta-success in the shmup market thanks to Daioh, Shienryu and a few others, Warashi finally decided to abandon any appearance of restraint, infusing their next shooter with doe-eyed anime girls in mecha-leotards. Lo and behold, following humble beginnings on the post-mortem Dreamcast, Triggerheart Exelica was eventually picked up for wider release on XBLA, and then once again for this “enhanced” PS2 edition. If you’ve ever played this game on any format you already know how it works: select a character and use a combination of shots, bombs, and a unique “grappling hook” to make stuff go boom. The latter is easily the game’s most engrossing doodad, able not only to “lock on” to bosses but outright “capture” small-to-midsized enemies, which can then be spun and hammer-thrown at others or held onto as temporary bullet shields. Flinging baddies accurately can be tricky to learn, but has its rewards for the persistent: groups of bowled-over opponents leave behind bigger bunches of score medals, just begging to be vacuumed up in one fell swoop.
In terms of “enhanced” stuff for this particular port (which was handled by visual novel developer Alchemist), it’s a pretty light selection, honestly: a third character, Faintear (the “extra boss” from previous versions), is now playable from the start, the scoring system has been slightly tweaked, the music has been remixed and expanded, and some new Story Mode sequences (including an anime intro) have been inserted, but otherwise this is pretty much the same game it’s always been. Moreover, while progressive scan is supported, in other technical respects Enhanced is off-puttingly sloppy: tate mode is only included for Arcade mode (Story is yoko only), slowdown is more prevalent than ever, and “Arrange” mode is kaput entirely. “Enhanced”, then, is most likely an object of desire for Exelica die-hards only: case in point, the stupidly expensive Limited Edition of the game, which includes an (admittedly cute) Exelica Nendoroid figurine, as well as a little inflatable balloon with certain pre-orders.
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Chaos Field: New Order
As the very first creation of Compile offshoot Milestone, Chaos Field looks and feels a bit amateurish at first blush: the dated polygonal graphics, not to mention the fistful of elements “borrowed” wholesale from better-known shmups, move some observers to mistake it for a doujin product. That’s not to say it’s a terrible game, but its unusual “boss rush” structure (i.e. few to no “minor” baddies) certainly doesn’t agree with everyone either. Should you decide to give CF a chance, pick one of three playable ships and the assault begins: your main weapons are a standard shot and a short-range bullet-canceling sword; the real kicker, though, is the ability to shift back and forth between two modes, or “fields”, namely “Order” and “Chaos”. In Order, enemy attacks are less aggressive, and defeated foes leave behind more “energy” items, which power your special attacks (a lock-on and a shield) – in Chaos not only is the opposition nastier, but nearly all of your own abilities are enhanced too. This is especially important to exploit in terms of scoring, which relies on rapid-fire kills and cancelled bullets; the basic route to prosperity involves stocking up on energy in “Order” field, then switching over to “Chaos” to skyrocket the multiplier before switching back for a timely recharge (or finishing things off).
A “straight” arcade port of this odd mishmash of a game first arrived on the Dreamcast; not long afterwards an “Expanded” edition came to the Gamecube, including a new mode which, among other things, throws a few “popcorn” enemies in between bosses to break things up a little. “New Order” for the PS2 retains this addition, but also squeezes in a “Challenge” mode (basically a Time Attack variation): as such, this is technically the most feature-heavy Chaos Field, but it also has some issues. The graphics (for whatever they’re worth to begin with) aren’t as crisp here, and some extra slowdown is present; thankfully the high score saving actually works as advertised (unlike in the DC original) and the dark electronica soundtrack will still have your toes tapping. If you’re a big fan of the game then you might want to track this “sorta-definitive” version down, but less-devoted players will probably be satisfied with the cheaper and more readily-available Gamecube port, or the Milestone Collection (aka “Ultimate Shooting Collection”) on the Wii.
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As the debate among fans concerning how this game’s title is actually spelled and/or pronounced continued (all inquiries remain inconclusive), Radio Allergy quietly left its native arcade and Dreamcast to visit both the PS2 (hence the “PreciouS” subtitle) and the Gamecube (surnamed “GeneriC”), in similar fashion to big brother Chaos Field. The silly extra words denote more than just the featured system, though: each version boasts an exclusive bonus mode (more on that in a minute). If you haven’t played Radirgy before, here are the basics: three speed settings and “main” weapons are available for your craft, though you’ll always have access to a short-range sword and a frontal shield which automatically deploys when you’re not attacking. Punishing enemies with the shot or sword (feel free to charge in, as only bullets damage you) gradually fills an “Absnet” meter, which can be spent to activate a temporary invincibility barrier when full: on the other hand, doing damage with the shield or said barrier builds a score multiplier, so you’ll need to juggle your various offensive and defensive options to keep everything in balance. Speaking of juggling, you can also use your sword to bat falling items around and alter their characteristics: if you sprinkle in a bit of extra bonus-collecting and boss-dismantling (aim for the antenna!) you’ve got most of this game’s essentials down.
So, how does “PreciouS” measure up? Seeing as it’s afflicted with many of the same shortcomings as Chaos Field: New Order, not all that well. Radirgy’s cel-shaded graphics, while unique for a shmup, were never anything groundbreaking, but again don’t display as sharply here as on the Dreamcast; extra slowdown also remains a problem, not to mention another annoying score-entry glitch. What about the much-hyped “Okawari” (literally “second helping”) mode, which appears alongside an individual-stage “score attack”? It’s decidedly more challenging than the “normal” game (and doesn’t allow continues), but that’s about all there is to it: unlike GeneriC’s “Manpuku” (“full stomach”) mode there are no new scoring techniques or other elements to denote a genuinely worthwhile addendum to the original. PreciouS is commonly cited as the least-desirable Radirgy iteration by fans, especially since the original game is so easily obtainable nowadays, courtesy of the aforementioned “Ultimate Shooting Collection”. For swag seekers, certain pre-order copies (for both this and the Gamecube port) came with a black wristband bearing the name “UMBRA” (the evil terrorist organization you fight against), so happy hunting for that.
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Cho Aniki: Sei Naru Protein Densetsu
Run for the hills, everyone: the bikini-briefed muscle men are back, and gyrating more fiercely than ever! Yes, the infamous Cho Aniki series leaves its unmistakable calling card on the PS2, with the “Legend of the Holy Protein” – believe it or not (and if you know anything about these games, you don’t put much past them), this time around you actually control a flying “protein” glob, while marquee bodybuilders Adon and Samson serve as your ever-present “option” escorts. The three of you power up separately, so to “Build Up!” everyone’s shot strength you’ll need to steer the appropriate recipient into floating item capsules: your creepily-smiling twin beefcakes can also block enemy bullets, but power down after taking too many hits.
Other than that, you’ve got a pretty formulaic shooter on your hands (Psikyo played a part in its development, so you can expect this game to have some of the company’s “feel” to it, gameplay-wise), except for the infamous “Men’s Beam” ability, which requires you to stop shooting and start rotating the right stick, which causes your manly assistants to shake their hips furiously as they charge it up (yes, I’m serious, and yes, it’s incredibly uncomfortable in pretty much every manner imaginable). The graphics, to put it bluntly, are pretty awful, but the soundtrack remains bizarrely catchy, as per usual. All told, while this Cho Aniki is a definite improvement on its dismal 32-bit predecessor, it’s still a game you’ll pick up purely for its unabashed weirdness, if at all.
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Sega Ages (Series)
Starting in 2003, the ever-fluctuating Sega saw fit to remake and/or bundle a whole bunch of its classic console and arcade games for budget-priced consumption on the PS2: over 30 entries in the resulting “Ages” series were eventually bestowed upon Japanese fans. While the quality of each release varies widely (not surprising, since several different developers got involved over the years), shmuppers got a worthy pair of Fantasy Zone variations out of the deal. The earlier arrival, Volume 3, is a remake of the original Fantasy Zone with cel-shaded graphics: you can choose between a classically-styled “Arcade” mode or “Original” mode, which plays much the same but adds some extra levels and 3-D bonus sections. Then there’s Volume 33, “Fantasy Zone Complete”, the final Ages release, and a doozy at that – not only does it cram in arcade, SMS, and re-arranged versions of the first two Fantasy Zones (the highlight being a long-awaited System 16 revamp of II, with lots of new features), but also tosses in Super Fantasy Zone and Fantasy Zone Gear for the Genesis and Game Gear respectively (heck, even non-shmup spinoffs Fantasy Zone III and Galactic Protector are on here; about all that’s missing is the unreleased Space Fantasy Zone). Everything plays swimmingly throughout, and each included game has a ton of options and extras to tool around with: super-fans should begin their search for the limited edition bonus items, specifically a four-CD soundtrack collection and a wind-up music box. If you’re a fan of Opa-Opa and company, these two “Ages” (especially Complete) definitely deserve a spot on your shelf.
Two other shooter-centric volumes might also be of interest: Volume 21, the “System 16 Collection”, contains faithful reproductions of the arcade and SMS releases of Quartet (aka Double Target, a pseudo-run-n-gun with a jetpack) and SDI (aka Global Defense, a combination of side-scrolling and “missile defense” levels, both of which require you to utilize an aiming reticle). The latter game supports mouse control, and if you sprung for this volume’s “Super DX Pack” you got a mini USB mouse (along with the standard pin and OST that came with most other such packs). Volume 23, the “Memorial Selection”, bundles a disparate selection of five very old titles together, plus updated remakes of each – two are shooters, namely Tranquilizer Gun (an odd maze hybrid with a poaching theme, of all things) and Borderline (a “jeep shooter” combining scrolling and non-scrolling stages, though the remake has been molded into a “twin stick” blaster instead). Most everything on both of these collections is faithful, at least in spirit, to the originals, though they’ll likely register as too dated for many players as a result.
If you’re in the mood for other types of shooters, the Ages collection definitely has you covered, via Volumes 4 (Space Harrier), 9 (Gain Ground), 10 (After Burner II), 14 (Alien Syndrome), 20 (Space Harrier 2 Complete, which comes with 3D glasses), 25 (Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box), 27 (Panzer Dragoon, which spawned another music box for eBayers to fight over), 30 (Galaxy Force II, which supports the Hori Flight Stick 2 peripheral), and 31 (Virtual On). Again, some of these products turned out much better than others, but either way most of the Ages series never made it out of Japan – all the West ever got was a nine-game “economy pack” redubbed the “Sega Classics Collection”, and the only shmup on it is the Volume 3 Fantasy Zone remake (the US release includes Volume 14’s Alien Syndrome too, but for some reason it was cut from the PAL edition). One bit of consolation lies in the fact that, unlike the individual Ages releases, the Classics Collection is printed on a DVD, so at least your PS2 won’t make so much noise while it’s running; moreover, it’s quite cheap to pick up nowadays if you can find it, so it might not be a bad impulse buy if you can’t or won’t go the import route.
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Taito Memories/Legends (Series)
While Sega’s individually-released “Ages” never made much use of it, the then-new DVD medium’s increased storage capacity meant not only that developers could expand the horizons of “current-gen” titles, but that even more older stuff could be simultaneously (re-)packed onto the next generation of “classic compilations” – fans of shmups and retro arcade-style games in general quickly unsheathed their wallets, spurring just about any company with a semi-notable back catalogue straight to work. Once the dust finally cleared, Taito had put out perhaps the most noteworthy sets of the bunch; one problem for potential players, though, is that each volume’s contents vary by region, so keeping track of what’s what can be a chore. Hopefully the following breakdown will help anyone trying to keep things in order. Since there are so many games included I can’t go into much individual detail, but the Saturn and PS1 shmup rundown articles on this site contain more in-depth info on several of them.
In Japan, these releases were known as the “Taito Memories” series, and contain 25 arcade games apiece – the run began with two concurrent (but separate) releases, both of which include a number of shmups. The technically-first Taito Memories Joukan (“first volume”) offers Darius Gaiden, Grid Seeker, Lunar Rescue, Metal Black, Space Invaders (color), Space Invaders DX, and Space Invaders ’91 (aka Majestic Twelve), as well as borderliners Bonze Adventure (aka Jigoku Meguri), Elevator Action 2 (aka Elevator Action Returns), Kiki Kaikai, and Syvalion. Its companion, Taito Memories Gekan (“last volume”) features Akkanvader (aka Space Invaders ’95: Attack of the Lunar Loonies), Balloon Bomber, Front Line, G Darius, Gekirindan, Gun Frontier, Insector X, Raystorm (aka Layer Section II), Space Invaders (black-and-white), and Space Invaders Part 2, with Elevator Action, Liquid Kids (aka Mizubaku Adventure), New Zealand Story, and Wild Western off to the sides. There’s obviously some overlap in there (do we really need ALL of those Space Invaders revisions?), but you still get plenty of variety for your dollar, especially considering that both volumes were reprinted twice and shouldn’t be tough or expensive to snag. Everything plays faithfully (despite some videophiles’ wishes for more low-res display options), but there are two sizeable caveats: first, several games on each package need to be unlocked (though the requirements are pretty easy to meet), and second, there’s no vertical-screen display option for any of the vertically-oriented titles, so you’ll have to play them in “yoko” mode.
A year or two later Taito cobbled together two more “Memories” collections for Japan, creatively titled “Taito Memories II Joukan” and “Taito Memories II Gekan”. Their basic structure is the same as the first pair’s, with a couple of enhancements: nothing needs to be unlocked this time, and “tate” mode can now be accessed for vertical-screen games. In terms of selection, though, many of the games on here are older and/or more obscure than those on the original volumes, which might dissuade some: shmup-wise, II Joukan contains Asuka and Asuka, Chuuka Taisen, Darius II, Exzisus, Fighting Hawk, Rayforce (aka Layer Section/Gunlock/Galactic Attack), Return of the Invaders, and Scramble Formation, plus additional shooters Operation Thunderbolt, Space Gun, and SCI: Special Criminal Investigation. II Gekan sports Gyrodine, Halley’s Comet, Master of Weapon, Mega Blast, Metal Soldier Isaac II, Phoenix, and Polaris, with extra shooters Battle Shark, LSA Squad (aka Rikukaikuu/Storming Party), Night Striker, Operation Wolf, Sea Fighter Poseidon, and Volfied. As with the first two Taito Memories, both of these received budget re-releases and ought to be readily available to most seekers: collectors ought to note, however, that first-print Japanese and Asian copies of all four “Memories” volumes came with extra accompanying booklets.
Just in case the situation wasn’t complicated enough already, Taito gave American and European fans some love too, but their arrangement is totally different: there were only two volumes released in the West, as “Taito Legends” and “Taito Legends 2”, but both pack in more games apiece than the “Memories” collections, including a few not found on any of the Japanese sets. Here’s how they break down: Legends 1, in terms of shmups, has Exzisus, Phoenix, Space Invaders (color), Space Invaders Part 2, Return of the Invaders, and Tokio, with Battle Shark, Colony 7, Elevator Action, Operation Thunderbolt, Operation Wolf, Space Gun, New Zealand Story, and Volfied out by the border. Legends 2 (the beefiest of all the sets, boasting 39 games total) gives shmuppers Balloon Bomber, Darius Gaiden, Front Line, G Darius, Gekirindan, Grid Seeker, Gun Frontier, Insector X, Kiki Kaikai, Lunar Rescue, Space Invaders ’91, Metal Black, Raystorm, Space Invaders DX, and Akkanvader, with Bonze Adventure, Liquid Kids, Syvalion, and Wild Western along for the ride. A redone menu interface and some bonus materials (like cabinet models and interviews) make for more attractive digs, but be advised: Legends 1 does not include any controller-remapping options, neither Legends supports “tate” mode, and a few of the games suffer from glitches (most notably Metal Black, whose super laser doesn’t work correctly).
Phew…okay, I think that covers just about everything. From here, it’s up to you to decide which among these releases might make a good fit for your collection (one certainly isn’t wanting for options): no matter your preferences, you’ll probably want at least one hunk-o-Taito in there someplace.
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Capcom Classics Collection 1 and 2
Not to be (too badly) outdone, Capcom decided to reach back into its own storied arcade era and henceforth offer PS2 owners a sizable sampling: two volumes ended up seeing daylight, each containing around 20 games. Everything on both plays pretty well, and the most essential option tweaks and a handful of extras (like arranged/remixed soundtracks and artwork) are on call, but as with the Taito compilations there’s no way to play at the original arcade resolution (though Volume 2 supports progressive scan), and no tate mode either. Volume 1 (which saw release in all three regions) is essentially all five of the “Capcom Generation” PS1 discs crammed onto a single DVD, plus a few more games for good measure: in terms of shmups, 1942, 1943, 1943 Kai, Commando, Mercs, Gun.Smoke, Vulgus and Exed Exes have all been carried over from there. Borderliners Bionic Commando, SonSon, and the original “Ghosts n Goblins” trio are present too, along with three newly-added shooters, namely “jet pack” blast-em-up Section Z, winged-dude hybrid Legendary Wings, and “twin-stick” side-scroller Forgotten Worlds, which features some can’t-miss Engrish comedy gold during its inter-stage scenes.
For Volume 2, Capcom took a more interesting route: having already exhausted its previous-generation collections, this time the company whipped up a more eclectic mix of games, including several which had never been granted home ports. For some reason there was never a Japanese release of Volume 2, also making this one of the rare occasions on which Western gamers got something of their own to gloat about. In any event, the shmups included are 1941: Counter Attack (the next in that series, obviously), racing-shmup hybrids Last Duel and The Speed Rumbler (aka Rush & Crash), bi-directional side-scroller Side Arms, pod-centric Varth, fan-designed twin-stick shooter Eco Fighters, and finally the triple pack 3 Wonders (aka Wonder 3), which features a shmup (“Chariot”) alongside a run-n-gun (“Midnight Wanderers”, aka “Roosters”) and a box puzzler (“Don’t Pull”). Other games with shooting elements, if you’re interested, include Black Tiger, Magic Sword, and Mega Twins. Neither of these collections are too tough to find (or pricey when found), so if any of the stuff on them brings back pleasant memories of yesteryear (or just invokes some curiosity) there’s no reason not to treat yourself to a spur-of-the-moment purchase or two…y’know, just this once.
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Activision Anthology and Atari Anthology
While fancier graphics and deeper mechanics certainly have their advantages, there’s something to be said for keeping things simple…and taking up a minimal amount of data space in the process. Case in point: in terms of sheer volume, nothing could touch the Atari 2600 when it came to PS2-generation re-releases, thanks to nostalgia grabs from both Atari themselves (Infogrames, for the sticklers) and Activision. The latter company’s package was the first to hit the market, and definitely doesn’t skimp on period ambience, modeling the navigation screen after a stereotypical game room of the era (80’s rock blasting in the background, of course) – in terms of games there are just under 50 in all, and most everything plays as old-timers remember, though the PS2 controller obviously wasn’t built for certain titles and can make for some occasional hassle. The “purest” shmups on offer are Chopper Command, Commando, Cosmic Commuter, Demon Attack, HERO, Megamania, Moonsweeper, Plaque Attack, River Raid, River Raid 2, Seaquest, and Spider Fighter; other titles embodying “shmup-ish” elements are Atlantis, Barnstorming, Beamrider, Crackpots, Dolphin, Laser Blast, Robot Tank, Sky Jinks, Space Shuttle, Stampede, Starmaster, and Tomcat. If you’re a fan of the lineup, the unlockable art assets, TV advertisements, send-away patches and other memorabilia only serve as icing on the cake.
A few years later came the “Atari Anthology”, an even more expansive trip back in time, stuffing nearly 70 2600 games and 18 arcade titles (with a few overlapping entries between the two) onto that shiny new DVD – in exchange, however, there are far fewer trimmings and extras here than on Activision’s pack (a majority of them being somewhat redundant play mode variations for each game). Anyway, here are the shooters you get: on the 2600 there’s Air-Sea Battle, Asteroids, Centipede, Combat, Demons to Diamonds, Desert Falcon, Gravitar, Millipede, Missile Command, Outlaw, Space War, and Yars’ Revenge (plus Battlezone, Canyon Bomber, Missile Command, Quadrun, Radar Lock, Star Raiders, and Star Ship about the edges). Arcade blasters include Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Black Widow, Centipede, Gravitar, Millipede, and Space Duel (with Battlezone, Liberator, Lunar Lander, Major Havoc, Missile Command, Red Baron, and Tempest to filling things out). This comp is usually a notch or three below Activision’s in terms of numerical ratings, but there’s still a pretty good (and inexpensive) amount of stuff on offer to keep classic gamers busy.
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Midway Arcade Treasures (Series)
Crossing into the lower end of the PS2’s “compilations” pile we arrive at the trio of “Midway Arcade Treasures”. The first among them is comprised mostly of material previously bundled on last generation’s “Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits”, “Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits”, and “Arcade Party Pak”, and incidentally also contains the most shooters: Blaster, Defender, Defender II, Gauntlet, Road Blasters, Robotron, Satan’s Hollow, Sinistar, Smash TV, Spy Hunter, and Vindicators are all on the menu. Midway Arcade Treasures 2, the next in line, adds Kozmik Krooz’r, Spy Hunter II, Total Carnage, and Wacko, alongside Gauntlet II, NARC, Wizard of Wor, Xenophobe, and Xybots. Treasures 3, by far the lightest on content, contains only racing games, though Badlands and S.T.U.N. Runner contain some shooting elements.
In a regional reversal of what occurred with the Taito Memories series, Japan only got a single “Midway Treasures” release (under the rather cumbersome title “The Game Center of USA”), but it’s got a higher totally tally of games than any of the Western versions: shmuppers who go for the import get Kozmik Krooz’r, Satan’s Hollow, Spy Hunter, Spy Hunter II, Total Carnage, Vindicators, and Wacko, plus Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, Road Blasters, Xenophobe and Xybots all on one disc. For each of these releases the overall selection is solid (if rather limited compared to the competition), but the implementation’s on the sloppy side: some games contain slowdown and other issues not found in the original arcade versions (not counting requisite loading times), and the extras are similarly sparse and “low-budget” in nature (if you hadn’t already guessed, you can forget about tate mode). While this trilogy might still prove worth a look for longtime fans of the originals, they’re not as attractive a package for any other potential customers.
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SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1
A late arrival to the PS2’s “milk the old-timer scene for all it’s worth” feeding frenzy, SNK’s cut-and-paste of its arcade heyday is a rather disappointing zombification ritual of mostly-early (to the point of being severely outdated) titles, a majority of which are already available on other collections to boot. Only one honest-to-goodness shmup made the team, but thankfully it’s a decent one: meet Last Resort, a semi-obscure side-scroller “inspired by” R-Type. Collecting powerups, which cycle between “red” and “blue” colorings, equips your ship with a bullet-absorbing gunpod, which can also be charged up and “boomeranged” at enemies: the aforementioned coloration determines whether the launched pod travels along walls or bounces off of them. When firing “normally” your pod will drift and shoot in the direction opposite your current movement, but its position can be handily locked into place (and subsequently released) with a tap of the “B” button – you can also pick up one of two missile types, a laser upgrade, and speed-up (and –down) items to assist you in wreaking maximum havoc. Gritty, detailed graphics (note the little flailing pilots blown out of destroyed enemy crafts) help Last Resort to catch the eye, but reliance on a post-death “checkpoint” system will be enough on its own to put some off – for anyone interested, though, this is the only home port it’s received so far, unless you count the Neo-Geo CD.
Elsewhere on the DVD you can find Metal Slug, Magician Lord, and Shock Troopers to satiate your non-shmup shooting needs, but there’s not a heckuva lot else to recommend the total package: each game is basically a straight-up emulation with minimal options and, at times, extra slowdown or other problems. Artwork, music, and videos are present, but must be unlocked by completing certain in-game tasks to earn “medals” (basically Achievements you can’t show off online) – weirdly, though, the rewards and requirements frequently don’t line up with each other, meaning that to activate a feature for a particular game you’ll need to excel at a completely different title on the disc, quite likely one you’d rather have ignored altogether. Again, there’s a home exclusive or two on this comp and it’s pretty cheap to find, so you might still want to plunk down a few bills and hope that an improved Volume 2 someday comes to pass. As an odd final note, the PS2 edition of SNK Classics was released in all three regions, but Japan never “officially” got it: somehow the NTSC-J version only hit shelves in Korea.
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Namco Museum and Namco Museum 50th Anniversary
You weren’t seriously expecting Namco, which birthed a half-dozen-strong set of reissued classics on the PS1, to pass up a similar opportunity on the system’s successor – ever eager to saturate the market, two more arcade collections from Pac-Man and Company came to fruition during the PS2’s lifetime. The first of these was simply titled “Namco Museum”, and only saw release in the US – of its twelve included games, three are (proto-)shmups, namely Space Invaders clone Galaxian, its much better-received sequel Galaga, and eventual update Galaga Arrangement. A few years later a follow-up, Namco Museum 50th Anniversary, was unleashed upon all three regions, and its sixteen-game roster is much more shooter-centric: Galaxian, Galaga, re-revision Galaga ‘88, early vert-scroller Xevious, its fantasy counterpart Dragon Spirit, and reverse-scroller Sky Kid are all on board, along with proto-run-n-gun Rolling Thunder.
If most of those names look familiar, they should: every shooter present on these comps, save the Galaga revisions, can be found somewhere in the previous generation’s “Namco Museum” series (which also feature Bosconian, Gaplus, Ordyne and Dragon Saber as added shmup incentives). Some fans might still be persuaded to pick at least one of these up to have more games in one place, but I still wouldn’t recommend it: not only are the in-game options very bare-bones on both, but the galleries and other extra content which helped to round out the PS1 editions are pretty much completely gone (sorry, but the “virtual cabinets” and handful of old radio songs on “50th” don’t cut the mustard). If you’re enough of a fan to re-purchase these games in the first place you might as well spring for those older “Museums”, or perhaps the “Virtual Arcade” edition on the 360: somehow, though, both 128-bit packages were successful enough to earn “Greatest Hits” versions in the USA, so if you don’t mind a quick-and-dirty alternative after all they shouldn’t require much effort to bring home.
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Tecmo Hit Parade
In recent years its brand has been most closely associated with ultra-violence and state-of-the-art boob physics (and next up: Dynasty Warriors!), so it’s easy to forget that Tecmo’s roots do, in fact, reach way back into the early arcade years (anyone remember “Tehkan”?) – the company, for its part, managed to recall the old days in time to publish its own emulated arcade volume, though it’s not one of the better efforts out there. Only seven games total are included, two of which are shmups: Star Force (aka Mega Force), which also received an NES port, is the one players are more likely to recognize. The title plays like an unofficial Star Soldier prototype, with speedy enemy patterns, destructible background elements, and some wacky scoring secrets: the sole obtainable powerup increases both your destructive capabilities and your hit area, making it risky to use.
Pleiads (sometimes spelled Pleiades), on the other hand, is a sort of spiritual sequel to Phoenix: its basic mechanics are akin to Galaga’s, giving you the helm of a ship which can only move left to right as you try to pick off fluttering swarms of Those Darn Aliens. There’s no exploitable tractor beam here, but instead the ground is littered with satellite dishes and other stuff, which can absorb some enemy shots a la the barriers in Space Invaders. Upon clearing a wave of hostiles you rocket upwards to battle a second formation before encountering a big ol’ UFO boss: vaporize him and you weave back into docking formation before starting the sequence over again. For something a bit more unusual you can also try the oddball “turret shooter” Senjyo: in any case, while the games are solid enough considering their age, many will still find their mechanics somewhat outdated, and there are few on-disc alternatives to play instead. The presence of an image gallery and all original arcade DIP switch options are appreciated, but especially considering that all three regions were granted an upgraded XBox version titled “Tecmo Classic Arcade”, which adds in four more games (including another shmup, Strato Fighter), even devotees of the included material should probably only go the PS2 route if no other options exist.
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Oretachi Geesen Zoku (Series)
Western gamers always have plenty of things to gripe about (sometimes the complaints are even legitimate!), but when our companies decide to re-release old games they at least tend to smoosh a batch of them together and give us a little bit of value for our money. Japan is not always so lucky, as evidenced by budget publisher Hamster’s “Oretachi Geesen Zoku” (roughly “Our Local Game Center”) series, sometimes incorrectly spelled “Geasen”. Each of these twenty-odd releases contains a single arcade classic…and that’s it. One un-altered game per disc – no enhancements, no bonus modes, no nothin’. Yes, the retail price is lower than that of a “normal” game and some nice extras were packed in, from media mini-DVDs and soundtrack mini-CDs (some of which featured remixes) to collectable cards and strategy booklets, but juxtaposed with the amount of “core” content available on competitors’ offerings these still come up short in the “bang for your buck” department unless you’re an enthusiast.
Tate mode is included in all applicable titles (including Time Pilot and Scramble), but controller mapping is MIA and having to manually save/load high scores is a pain. You might even say that these games are akin to what you’d get upon booting up an emulated ROM on your computer…and you’d be more correct than you thought… It was eventually discovered that several of the “Oretachi” discs contained unauthorized MAME code (plus some extra bugs), and all planned future releases (including a rumored Xexex conversion) were cancelled soon afterwards. If you’re still interested, some of the shmups featured here have rarely (if ever) appeared on home consoles elsewhere, so here’s the full list of them: Moon Cresta, Rabio Lepus (aka Rabbit Punch), Scramble, Sonic Wings (aka Aero Fighters), Terra Cresta, Thunder Cross, and Time Pilot are the “pure” shooters, with Konami borderliners Contra, Pooyan, and Quarth (aka Block Hole) rounding things out. Knowing what you know about them and their origins, it’s your call whether any of them might be worth your time and cash.
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Space Invaders Anniversary and Space Invaders: Invasion Day
Just in case you thought that Taito might be satisfied with the avalanche of Space Invaders entries it forced into the “Memories/Legends” releases, here’s a reminder of just what kind of company you’re dealing with here: behold Space Invaders Anniversary, a totally separate and series-focused nine-game pack. Well, technically there are nine games here, anyway: six of them are simply tabletop and upright variations of the original black-and-white Invaders, its color upgrade, and Invaders Part II. The remaining trio are (again, technically) all-new, if reminiscent of “bonus” content found on similar last-gen compilations: a cooperative two-player “Doubles” mode, its competitive “Versus” equivalent, and “Space Invaders 3D”, which adds an extra graphical dimension plus a few power-ups and a range of (mostly useless) camera angles. While the frontend is stylish and the memorabilia on display is impressive, the lack of scope on the playable front seriously hurts: you’ll sorely miss Majestic Twelve, Akkanvader, Invaders X, and a slew of other, more varied takes on the formula. Anniversary, then, is a fan collectable above all else, a fact driven home by the Japanese limited-edition bundle, centered around a mini cocktail cabinet mockup which you can insert the DualShock into for a truly “authentic” control interface. You have fun with that.
Whoa there bucko, don’t get up yet! We (and Taito) are STILL not done: no history of this landmark series is complete, unfortunately, without the ill-conceived marketing department casualty “Invasion Day”, also known as “Space Raiders”. The idea seems to have been to infuse the brand with a dollop of “Western appeal” (contemporary Japanese game designers, let this serve as a cautionary tale for the next time some chortling “analyst” opens his big yap within earshot), which naturally means replacing the classic player ship with gun-toting action movie rejects, and the even-more-iconic enemy aliens with an anonymous grab bag of slimy, squawking overgrown insectoids…oh, and zombies, gotta have zombies! Don’t forget the utterly vestigial story cutscenes and cheese-tastic voice acting, either.
The basic “move (sideways) and shoot (upwards)” framework is still intact, despite the perspective’s shift to an “uphill” orientation, but most everything else has been reworked in some manner or other: for starters, you now choose between three playable characters with varying strengths (and a life meter), though all have access to a dodge-roll move and limited-use special weapons (in addition to their primary firearms, which are pretty impotent until you power them up). On-field cover (like barrels and cars) can’t be shot through anymore, but destroying certain objects will cause an alien-damaging explosion. A scoring system reminiscent of Akkanvader has been carried over, and rewards you for shooting down baddies consecutively without missing: unfortunately, most of your targets take multiple hits to dispatch and don’t move in predictable patterns, making such accurate kills a pain to pull off reliably. In its favor, the game is pretty cheap to acquire (especially having somehow rated a reprint in Japan) and not a TOTAL loss in terms of how it plays, but to say the very least most of the series’ trademark charm is nowhere to be found.
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Ocean Commander and Heavy Weapon (PopCap Hits Vol 2)
(PAL, CD/ US, DVD)The budget-priced PC gaming scene is a realm altogether spurned by most “dedicated” shmuppers, and said developers’ occasional exploits into the console realm have seldom served to endear genre fans any further: case in point, Cyber Planet’s Ocean Commander (aka Underwater Attack). The title’s central feature set sounds promising at first: as a side-scrolling “twin-stick” shooter with an unusual underwater theme, you’re allowed to aim your submarine’s guns in any direction as you move around. What’s more, you can buy and upgrade twelve different unlimited-ammo weapons between stages, and all of them can be deployed simultaneously once equipped.
This array of uber-armaments make for a nice power trip at first, but quickly kills pretty much any semblance of challenge in the process: even in later levels, when your portly hitbox and swarms of enemies threaten to cheese you to death, a lengthy life meter and frequent “get out of jail free” power-ups quickly banish any ensuing pressure. This droning cycle of pseudo-activity, coupled with often-repetitive backdrops and opposition patterns, serves to detach the player in a way that no shmup ever should, and the lack of any real scoring system leaves the game with nothing else to fall back on save a throwaway “survival” mode. To its credit Ocean Commander isn’t outright broken, and might have even made a serviceable, cheap impulse buy with some additional design know-how applied, but as it stands this one is difficult to recommend, especially on a system with so many superior alternatives.
The news on this front isn’t ALL bad, however: casual super-developer PopCap (of Bejeweled, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies fame) implements a number of Ocean Commander’s basic design concepts in its own Heavy Weapon, but handles most of them with a finer touch, making for a much more playable product. While the setup here, despite some background scrolling, is more akin to Space Invaders (since you control a ground-based tank which can only move back and forth), the “twin-stick” controls and purchasable upgrades remain: thankfully, while the firepower is still fun (the mega-laser and nukes especially), it never gets to the point where you can utterly (and boringly) overpower everything. The defensive front is also much more intense, thanks in large part to the wise exchange of a life bar for more traditional “one-hit kill” deaths, though “shield” power-ups grant some needed breathing room. Some increased background diversity is appreciated too, though the enemies still repeat a lot and mode variations are again lacking; the PS2 “PopCap Hits” collection (which bundles Heavy Weapon with PuzzLoop clone Zuma) contains a “making of” feature and some “tips from the masters”, but misses out on the HD resolution and other additions it’s since received elsewhere. Seeing as the game is widely available on better-suited formats, this non-optimized edition comes across as rather redundant.
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This one might not really “count” in the eyes of some readers since it wasn’t a commercial release, but for completeness’ sake I’ll give it a quick mention. If you haven’t played Fren-zE it’s a simple “homebrew” vert-scroller with a graphical style somewhat reminiscent of Kenta Cho’s work – play-wise you destroy enemies to earn point items, defeat bosses to power up your lone weapon, and that’s honestly about it. One certainly can’t complain about the cost of admission, though – the full game debuted on the freebie demo disc packaged with issue 54 of Official Playstation 2 Magazine in the UK, accessible via a menu code (issue 55’s pack-in features Fren-zE as well, though this time it’s selectable right from the main menu). Since then the title has received an (also free) downloadable PC release, which adds an extra level, improves the presentation, and implements a limited-use “shield” mechanic, thus rendering its PS2 sibling somewhat obsolete, but the original discs aren’t bad collectibles if you can get your mitts on them.
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