R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, that game’s torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once-prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved-out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre-defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters that consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy that just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly-regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature that comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings that are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game that’s already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up again like before, repeating the same cycle over and over. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

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Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks are due to the staff of my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. It’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the 80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.

Pop’n TwinBee (Super Famicom)

Yowza! Somebody get Dr. Wily there to an orthodontist, stat!

Last August, I covered Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, the unique platforming spin-off from Konami’s fondly-remembered TwinBee series of shooters. Despite its sumptuous presentation and some genuinely fun ideas, I ultimately found Rainbow Bell Adventures to be a mediocre product dragged down by its uninspired level design. A real pity. I still enjoyed the art style and characters quite a bit, though, so I figured it was about time to give the series another chance. What better place to start than with Rainbow Bell’s “sister game” on the Super Famicom, 1993’s Pop’n TwinBee? Is it a better shooter than its counterpart is a platformer? I’m pleased to report that it most certainly is, as well as being the Super Nintendo enthusiast’s single best choice for a two-player shooter experience.

First, though, a brief refresher on TwinBee as a whole. Debuting in Japanese arcades in 1985, the series primarily consists of vertically-scrolling shooters that see the player facing off against a mixture of air and ground-based enemies. The core gameplay is clearly patterned on Namco’s iconic Xevious, with the primary differences being TwinBee’s lighthearted tone, soft pastel art style, focus on simultaneous two-player action, and bell juggling power-up system. Depending on who you ask, TwinBee may or may not have been the first of the so-called “cute-‘em-ups.” Some point to Namco’s King and Balloon from 1980 instead, for example. In any case, it was indisputably one of the early pioneers of the style and would prove to be a major success for Konami domestically over the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, branching out to include toys, manga, and even a radio drama before fizzling out (along with the shooter genre as a whole) around the turn of the century. Overseas markets were another story. Only one TwinBee game was ever officially released In North America. This was the second game, Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue! (“Burn TwinBee: To the Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon!”), which made an unimpressive showing on the NES under the new title Stinger in 1987. Europe fared slightly better with four additional releases for various systems. Still, TwinBee never exactly became a household name outside its homeland. Was it too cute? Too Japanese? Too poorly/weakly marketed? I’ll leave that debate for another day.

Pop’n TwinBee opens with a cut scene in which Light and Pastel (the interpid pilots of the blue TwinBee and pink WinBee ships, respectively) receive a distress call while patrolling the skies of Donburi Island. The caller, a girl named Madoka, tells the pair that her normally kind grandfather Dr. Mardock was driven insane by a bonk on the head (yes, really) and has since dedicated himself to conquering the world with his army of acorn robots. Pastel and Light swiftly blast off to repel the acorn invasion and knock some sense back into the mad doctor in the process. It’s a slight and silly justification for the mayhem to come, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish sensibilities of the franchise. No complaints here.

The adventure ahead consists of seven stages. This isn’t a ton by genre standards. Thankfully, most of them are fairly long, so an average playthrough should take you around 40-60 minutes (depending on how often you die), which is a near ideal length for the sort of simple “pick up and play” experience that shooters are known for. It’s a fairly smooth ride, too, with much less in the way of slowdown and other performance issues than most other SNES shooters.

As mentioned above, players are tasked with defeating both air and ground enemies on the way to each stage’s end boss. Airborne targets are dispatched with your standard shot, while grounded foes are only vulnerable to the short range bombs that your anthropomorphic ship hurls down at them with its noodley Mickey Mouse arms.

That’s not all, though. When things get desperate, you can also opt to unleash a chibi attack, which functions like the screen clearing bombs from other shooters. Dozens of miniature “chibi” versions of your ship flood the screen, destroying most standard enemies outright and dealing hefty damage to bosses while also rendering you invincible for a few seconds. The downside, of course, is that your chibi attacks have a limited number of uses.

Finally, your ship can punch with its gloved fists. This attack has a very short range (naturally) and requires you to charge it up for a couple seconds by holding down the bomb button. Although risky, the punch deals heavy damage and can actually destroy some incoming enemy bullets if timed properly.

Even with all these offensive options, your craft is still quite slow and weak by default, and that’s where the (in)famous bells come in. Shooting any of the smiling clouds you fly past will dislodge a golden bell that drops down toward the bottom of the screen. You can catch these right away and be rewarded with some bonus points, but it’s almost always a better idea to “juggle” the bells by shooting them repeatedly. This will cause them to bounce back up toward the top of the screen and, after several successive shots, start to cycle through six additional colors, each one of which grants you access to a different power-up. You have blue (speed boost), green (satellite helper ships that boost your firepower), silver (a bigger, stronger main shot), purple (a triple spread shot), pink (shield), and flashing (extra chibi ammo). Like in most games of this kind, the majority of these powers are lost if you die. The silver and purple bells remain in effect even then, however, which is uncommonly forgiving for a shooter.

In fact, if there’s one phrase that describes the Pop’n TwinBee experience generally, it’s “uncommonly forgiving.” This is no arcade port, but an original title created with the Super Famicom in mind. As such, the designers opted to move away from a lot of the quarter-munching (or yen-munching) qualities that define other entries in the series. Your ship can no longer have its arms destroyed and bomb attacks disabled, for example. More dramatically, one-hit deaths have given way to a health bar and enemies drop health refilling hearts with fair frequency. Couple this with ready access to the shields provided via pink bell pickups (each of which adds another four extra hits on top of your standard health bar) and your cute little robot bee is a real juggernaut that puts the fragile spaceships from most other shooters to shame. Even the bell juggling is more forgiving in this installment, since it takes multiple shots to change a bell’s color and this means you’re less likely to do so by mistake and lose out on the specific power-up you’ve been waiting for. Experienced shooter players will find that the combination of refillable health and shields on demand makes them feel just about invincible, at least on the standard difficulty setting. Higher difficulties render things a bit more hectic, but the action never approachs arcade shooter levels of brutality. Not even close. The only potential hurdle to overcome is the fact that you don’t have extra lives. Die and you’ll have to spend one of your limited continues to restart the level from the beginning. Still, dying ain’t exactly easy.

Whether this lack of difficulty is a pro or a con is going to vary by individual. If you’re the type that plays these games strictly for the teeth-grinding challenge and bragging rights, you’ll likely get bored quick. If you’re a shooter novice looking for an entry point to the genre, you’re just as likely to be enraptured. Personally, I found myself occupying the middle ground: I never struggled with the game at any point, but I had a pleasant time just kicking back with it for a bit and basking in its loopy atmosphere.

So far, we have what amounts to a cute, colorful, rather easy vertical shooter. Not bad by any means, but what’s the big deal? Well, the real reason I was so emphatic about this being the better of the two SNES TwinBee titles is its amazing multiplayer implementation. Shooters with two-player simultaneous options are already rare enough on the system. Offhand, Taito’s Darius Twin is the only other one that comes to mind. Pop’n TwinBee easily eclipses Darius in this department thanks to no less than three meaningful gameplay enhancements exclusive to its two-player mode. By maneuvering their ships close to each other, players can swap health back and forth, allowing a stronger player to “heal” a weakened one and keep them in the fight longer. Players can also grab and toss each other around the screen in order in order to dish out heavy damage to foes. Don’t worry, though: Players that get tossed around this way are invincible until they recover.

The final multiplayer-only option, “couple mode,” might just be the best of them. While couple mode is activated, enemies will focus the majority of their attacks on player one. This allows for a less skilled player to keep pace with a more adept partner. It’s such a simple, profound gameplay tweak that I’m amazed it never caught on.

On the graphics and sound front, it’s old school Konami glitz all the way. The armada of killer acorns, walking pineapples, pandas, and baby dolls you do battle with are all packed with personality, the backgrounds are intricately detailed and work in some lovely transparency and line scrolling effects, and there are even short animated cut scenes between stages that add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel by depicting the characters engaged in various wacky situations. The soundtrack (contributed by eight separate composers!) strikes just the right balance between whimsy and intensity.

If Pop’n TwinBee has any true flaw other than the debatably lacking difficulty, it would have to be the scoring. Simply put: The points don’t matter. Most shooters will award the player extra lives or other perks upon reaching certain scoring milestones. Here, the only reason to chase those high scores is to compete, either with yourself or rival players. It’s a missed opportunity, albeit far from a deal breaking one like Rainbow Bell Adventures’ meandering, repetitive stage layouts. If you’re partial to vertical shooters, aggressively cute pixilated romps, superb multiplayer experiences, or any combination of the above, Pop’n TwinBee is a no-brainer. As an added bonus, both the Japanese version I have and the European PAL format releases are quite inexpensive at the time of this writing.

Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…and a lucky friend on controller two.

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent M.U.S.H.A. last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know that it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same, while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time, and the power-up system that involved your dragon sprouting extra heads is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal “blue dragon” difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in “gold dragon” mode, where your dragon has better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is that you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons that will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens that you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems that the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out that another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (Super Famicom)

Nothing to see here, folks. Just your average, everyday flying baby.

There are easily dozens of Japanese video game franchises that have never seen an entry published in North America. Many are based on obscure anime and manga licenses with zero overseas recognition factor. Others might be packed with the sort of adult content that tends to get American moral watchdog groups up in arms or be deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. If there’s a single such series that the average retro gamer has probably at least heard of, it would have to be Konami’s Parodius line of surreal “cute-‘em’-ups.” Even as far back as the late 1990s, I can recall screenshots circulating online along with breathless descriptions of pitched battles against penguin armies, hostile corn on the cob, kitten-headed battleships, scantily clad dancing showgirls, and more. Frankly, I’m amazed it took me this long to dive into the series.

Parodius started its run on Japanese MSX home computers with Parodiusu: Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū (“Parodius: The Octopus Saves the Earth”) in 1988. As the name hints, Parodius is a parody of the legendary space shooter Gradius and its many sequels. This is neither the time nor the place to go into a ton of detail on the Gradius games. Suffice to say that the original Gradius from 1985 is probably the single most influential horizontally scrolling shooter ever made. Like Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Bros., or Doom, it wasn’t the first of its kind, but it had just the right combination of groundbreaking new features and fortuitous timing needed to become emblematic of an entire genre for decades to come.

A total of five proper Parodius titles were released before the series fizzled out in 1996. The one I’m looking at today is the fourth entry, 1995’s Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (“Chatting Parodius Live”) for the Super Famicom.

Parodius games aren’t known for their complex plots and this one is no exception. An introductory cut scene (presented in a super grave, melodramatic style right out of a Gundam anime) depicts a mob of angry chickens, moai heads, and other classic series baddies flying toward the earth while ominous music plays. In a nice touch, all the player characters from previous games that were omitted from the roster this time around have also joined up with the enemy fleet to get revenge for being snubbed by the developers. It’s up to your sixteen heroes to stop them.

You heard right: There are sixteen playable characters available here, each with their own unique suite of weapons and power-ups. In addition to series staples like the Vic Viper and Lord British ships from Gradius and the TwinBee and WinBee ships from TwinBee, you can also select from a motley crew of penguins, cats, fairies, babies, octopuses, and even dancing stick figures riding paper airplanes. Though the variety can be a tad bewildering at first, experimenting with all these different “ships” in order to suss out which best suit your personal playstyle is a big part of the fun. Genre savvy players will also notice that many of the characters have weapon loadouts intended to mimic those from other, non-Konami shooters. Mike the cat’s armaments are patterned on the ship from Taito’s Darius, for example, while infant Upa’s were inspired by Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden. It’s no wonder that the credits at the end of Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius enthusiastically declare “We love shooting games!”

A couple months back, I played through Konami Wai Wai World for the Famicom, a 1988 game that anticipated later crossover releases like Super Smash Bros. by combining a ton of different Konami characters and settings into a single fanservicey package. Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is essentially the same idea, except presented as a shooter instead of a platformer. This applies not just to the playable cast, but to the game’s eight stages as well. While the stage themes in other Parodius games tended to be based on whatever wacky concepts caught the developers’ fancies, the ones in this installment are different in that they’re mostly spoofs of other Konami games and franchises. You’ll find yourself blasting your way through levels based on Gonbare Goemon (aka Legend of the Mystical Ninja), TwinBee, Gradius III, Xexex, and even the light gun shooter Lethal Enforcers and the Tokimeki Memorial high school dating simulators. The sole level that doesn’t seem to be based on a specific Konami game is the first, which instead has a penguin disco theme, complete with a rousing remix of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” complimenting the action.

What’s the deal with the title, though? How does live chatting factor into all this? Well, the cartridge includes a special expansion chip, the SA1. Beyond boosting the console’s processing speed considerably, the SA1 also enables data compression. It’s this latter feature that allowed the developers to cram a massive amount of digitized speech samples into the game. These take the form of a running gameplay commentary by a very excited old Japanese man. In his opening speech at the start of the game, he identifies himself as Tako, the octopus hero of the first Parodius. I’ve heard that his dialog is mostly a mixture of gameplay hints, corny jokes, and mocking you whenever you lose a life. Personally, I can’t understand a word of it and generally turn the commentary track off in the options.

Gameplay is mostly textbook Gradius. You’ll fly from left to right, shooting down waves of enemies on the way to the stage boss and keeping your eyes peeled for the all-important power-up capsules. Collecting these cycles through the various upgrades listed on your power-up bar in turn. Once the upgrade you want is highlighted, you can cash in your capsules to equip it, which then starts the whole process over again. Getting hit and losing a life removes all your active power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint earlier in the stage. Also present are the gold bell items from the TwinBee series. Picking these up gives you bonus points. If you shoot the bells repeatedly first, however, they’ll change to a number of different colors that each grant you a temporary boon instead. These include invincibility or a single-use screen clearing bomb attack. One last thing to watch out for are the hidden fairies, which are revealed by shooting at seemingly empty parts of each stage. There are 70 of these in total and collecting them all will unlock a stage select feature. A two player option is available, although it’s sadly not simultaneous and involves the players alternating turns whenever one of them loses a life.

These are the basics, but Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius goes above and beyond by providing the player with some very extensive option menus. In addition to customizing the button layout, you can choose how many lives you start with, whether you’ll respawn instantly when you die or be sent back to a checkpoint, and even whether you want to manage your power-up bar yourself or have the computer purchase upgrades for you automatically. Best of all are the many difficulty options. Play ranges all the way from childishly simple on the lowest settings to a downright hellish ordeal on the highest. I started out using the default settings and found it to be a very happy medium. The action was just hectic enough that I had to pay attention and focus, yet not so crazy that I had undue trouble making progress once I did. Unusually for a game of this kind, the cartridge even includes a save battery so that it can keep track of your option settings, high scores, and fairies collected between sessions. The combination of so many distinct player characters and so many meaningful ways to tweak the gameplay itself results in an unprecedented degree of replay value for a shooter of its time.

Between its sheer depth and breadth, the sterling audiovisual polish you’d expect from Konami, and the pure weirdness factor, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is easily the best shooter I’ve played to date on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine. The only thing that comes close to holding it back is the slowdown. Even with that SA1 chip working overtime, there’s often more action taking place on screen than the hardware can easily juggle. While the framerate doesn’t chug as often or as badly as it does in, say, Gradius III and Super R-Type, it’s still a far cry from silky smooth much of the time. Apart from that annoyance, this is a remarkable game that every classic shooter fan should experience, either in this original incarnation or via one of the later enhanced ports to the PlayStation, Saturn, or PSP.

With everything it has to offer, I know I’ll be revisiting Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius regularly to try out new characters, new strategies, and higher difficulties. Plus, it’s the only game where I can nuke a skyscraper-sized anime schoolgirl with homing missiles. So far.

Zanac (NES)

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

And to think I didn’t even know I was playing a Christmas game this whole time. This Yuletide miracle is Zanac, the very first shooter designed by the legendary Compile. The original versions of Zanac were published by Pony Canyon for the MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System in 1986, with this NES edition from FCI hitting shelves the following year.

Like almost all of Compile’s shooters, Zanac’s gameplay is of the vertically scrolling (overhead) variety. If you’ve played any of their later efforts in the same vein, like The Guardian Legend or the Aleste series, you know exactly what to expect: Lengthy, super fast scrolling stages packed with a non-stop stream of enemy ships and a wide variety of upgradable weaponry to blow them all away with. It’s actually quite remarkable how much of the Compile shooter formula that would remain recognizable right up until the company’s dissolution in 2002 was in place here from the very beginning.

You play as the unnamed pilot of the AFX-6502 Zanac fighter on a mission to save Earth from a rampaging techno-organic supercomputer called the System. According to the terribly translated instruction manual, the human race apparent got itself into this mess by improperly operating a mysterious alien artifact, the Icon, which was designed to bestow wisdom to the worthy and “punishment of ruin” to the unworthy. Whoops.

Penetrating the System’s defenses to take out its core requires you to fight your way through twelve stages, each of which contains between one and four bosses to fight. These take the form of massive ground-based fortresses bristling with hatches and ports that open and close to disgorge a constant stream of bullets and missiles. These encounters are very similar to the first boss battle from The Guardian Legend, except here you’ll also be harassed by swarms of standard enemies swooping in to add to the already considerable chaos. Strangely, if you fail to destroy all the weapon ports comprising the enemy base before a timer at the top of the screen runs down, you’ll actually be allowed to continue on your way. You’ll forfeit a rather large point bonus in this case, but I can’t think of any other shooter where beating most of the bosses is technically optional.

Between boss fortresses, you’ll naturally have to reckon with waves of standard enemies. This is where Zanac really sets itself apart from other shooters with its trademark feature: Dynamic artificial intelligence programming that reacts to how you play and changes up enemy types, numbers, and placement on the fly. Called the ALC (Automatic Level of Difficulty Control) in the manual, this is supposed to represent the System’s machine intelligence analyzing your ship’s threat level and reacting accordingly. Factors that can affect difficulty include, but are not limited to: The frequency with which you fire your weapons, the particular special weapon you have equipped, how frequently you lose lives, and how many of the blue enemy reconnaissance drones you’re able to shoot down.

This organically shifting difficulty makes a Zanac session a very intense experience. Even as you’re getting better at the game, the game is getting better at you. The more successful you are, the more the System throws at you, until the screen is so awash with enemy ships and projectiles that safely maneuvering your craft feels like trying to thread a needle in a windstorm. It also foils the strategies based on pure rote level memorization that work in so many other games. Since it’s nearly impossible to be certain which enemies will appear at a given place and time, there’s no substitute for fast, accurate reactions.

Thankfully, you are given the tools needed to succeed. The controls are flawless. The Zanac fighter itself is zippy enough to weave between enemy bullets as needed, but not so fast that it ever feels twitchy. You’ll need all that maneuverability, since one hit will destroy your ship, stripping away all your special weapons and upgrades in the process.

Speaking of those, you also have a whole catalogue of offensive and defensive options to choose from. In addition to your standard shot, which can be enhanced up to six times by collecting “power chips” found in destructable boxes, there are also eight different special weapons to find and use, represented by icons numbered 0 through 7. Special weapons include lasers, a versatile eight-way shot, defensive shields, screen clearing bombs, and more. These can also be upgraded multiple times by collecting the same numbered icon repeatedly. It’s a staggering arsenal for a 1986 shooter, dwarfing even its contemporary Gradius, itself no slouch in this department. Some weapons are clearly more useful than others, but they’re all viable in the right hands. Even the standard shot is a beast once fully powered up.

One final factor that really works in the player’s favor is the nearly superhuman programming chops that Compile was so revered for. Even with ludicrously fast scrolling and dozens of enemies and bullets filling the screen, the smoothness of the action in Zanac never, ever falters. No matter how crazy the situation, I never noted any instances of lag, slowdown, dropped frames, or the like. Sprite flicker was also kept to an absolute minimum. It really is a tremendous technical accomplishment. If you ever want to experience what a difference programming proficiency can make, just put Zanac side-by-side with the atrocious port of Capcom’s 1942 that Micronics cranked out for the system the year prior.

It shouldn’t shock anyone at this point when I say that I found Zanac to be very impressive indeed. The action is smooth, frantic, and surprisingly deep due to the numerous weapon options and the unpredictability of the enemy A.I. This latter feature would go on to inspire many similar “rank” mechanics in later generations of shooters. The primary flaw to be found, if you can call it that, would be the graphics. While colorful, they’re very much on the plain side. Everything you encounter looks like a generic tiny spaceship or sci-fi building. Given that you’re fighting a computer, this makes sense, but don’t expect the sort of personality you get from The Guardian Legend’s freaky giant eyeball monsters or M.U.S.H.A.’s capital ships wearing creepy Noh masks. Zanac’s music, at least, is much more memorable, packed with heroic crescendos perfectly suited to the white-knuckle action.

A final potentially irksome thing to be aware of going in is that while you are given unlimited continues with which to finish the game, continuing in stages eleven or twelve will send you back to the start of stage ten. These final two stages are pretty manageable if you’ve built up a large stock of extra lives and power-ups over the course of the game. If you do find yourself having to start over in level ten with just three lives, however, it can be a bit of an uphill climb to make it all the way to the end. It’s possible, just a right pain in the ass.

These are really very minor gripes, though. In the end, Zanac is downright incredible for a 1986 vintage title and its unique take on an adaptive difficulty system makes it a must play for fans of the genre even today. If you like overhead shooters, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed other ones by Compile, it’s a must play.

Until next year, Merry Christmas to one and all! If you’re in a giving mood, this Messiah is currently accepting gifts of gold, frankincense, and fully upgraded High Speed blasters.