A Young Person's Guide To Shmups On The DreamCast

Article By: CMoon 
Written [ 01/04/02 ]

   There are two very nice things about SHMUPS (Shoot-eM-UPS) on the Dreamcast: 1) It has some and 2) The list isn't clogged up with a bunch of crap - most of them are good. I am not sure why most people bought a Dreamcast, but when I look at my collection, it consists of mostly two kinds of games - 2-D fighters and 2-D shooters; with the occasional fishing simulator - eh, everyone needs a break now and then. I have no clue why 3-D games seem inherently more lacking in replay value (hmmm, perhaps if my life was more 2-D???), but most other games fall into the 'beat it and forget about it' category. I'd like to think that the SHMUPS have remained so popular because of the continuous challenge they offer to novice and experienced players alike. But for whatever reason, SHMUPS are here to stay, despite new powerhouse consoles that can process more polygons per second than a missile guiding system (or your mom!) There are seven solid shooter titles on the DC and that's what I'm here to tell you about.

[ Bangai-O ] = Treasure =

   I've been told to avoid a rating system, so let me just say this game is really damn good. Well, maybe better than that. Some people have called it the best game on the DC, but since I have yet to play 'lets be a derby owner', I'm just going to play it safe. Bangai-O is definitely in my top 10 though.

   Bangai-O gets all its points for being the most insane game ever made. OK, you are a teeny-tiny mech (you can fly but you will drift back toward the ground coz of gravity...duh!) and your goal is to destroy EVERYTHING!!! There is a plot of some kind, and like all things Treasure, it's utterly incomprehensible. I don't think I'd be giving things away by saying that some of your toughest battles are against your dad (no animosity here, fighting your dad in a mech that can chug out hundreds of missiles every second is just another way of showing affection!) Unlike most other SHMUPS, this one is free roaming, and you can shoot in all directions too, making it more of a hybrid. Still, traditionalists will be quite at home - there is tons of challenge here (in fact, you'll be hard pressed to beat the last few levels at all!)

   Treasure's games are often known for their unique control scheme, and Bangai-O is no exception. Basically you have homing missiles and ricocheting lasers, and unlike more mild-mannered games, there's no limit on your ammo. They come out fast and you can shoot them in every direction of the compass using either the analogue stick or the face buttons. In other words, you're playing free roaming robotron with complex levels and an insane number of things on the screen at once (most of whom want to kill you.) But this still is not the secret of Bangai-O. The true gimmick is the Bangai-O bomb - a device that responds directly to the number of things about to hit you. Normally, it is a pretty weak device, but once you begin to play more recklessly, you can LITERALLY fill the screen with hot white death. I mean over 500 missiles or lasers flying around on the screen at the same time. In fact, during some boss fights you must be ready to counter a similar attack, matching their wave of shots with your own (if one missile strikes another, they cancel out.)

   Bangai-O may not at first seem like a graphically impressive game, but there are things you can do here that can't be done anywhere else. The level of carnage simply can't be matched in any other game, and the 41 levels will keep you coming back for a while. The only downside is that there should be a module for developing your own levels. Although Treasure has really done a lot to make some intricate levels, letting players make their own would make game play nearly infinite. As it is, you'll surely get a good 30 hours or more out of it, and that's pretty impressive for a shooter.

[ Cannon Spike ] = Psikyo/Capcom =

   When I first played Cannon Spike I couldn't believe how much fun it was. Frantic and nutty at the same time, you just can't play it and not have fun. As the months have worn on, the game's sparkle has diminished and while it remains an outstanding hybrid, I don't think it holds the longevity of more traditional shooters. Also, this game seems more or less supplanted by Zero Gunner 2 (more about that below.)

   But just what is Cannon Spike and why should you own it? I did not intentionally start this summary with hybrid shooters, but going alphabetically it couldn't be helped to start with two of the most unusual shooters on the DC. Cannon Spike cannot help be compared to Smash TV. You play a character of Capcom fame (or one of the two new characters) and fight various bad dudes and giant robots. Wait! That sounds more like Final Fight, I thought you said this was a shooter! Well, that's where the word 'hybrid' comes into play. You have five kinds of attacks, two proximity attacks - basically a jab and a fierce, the stronger attack will have serious lag afterwards, though typically dealing some of the games biggest damage. Secondly comes your shot, light and heavy. While the light shot is the same for most characters, the heavy shot is extremely variable and ranges from pretty useless to one of the best moves in the game, depending on who you play. Fifth of course is your super, and as you might already suspect, with some characters this is extremely useful while with other characters the super is questionable.

   At first, that really may not seem like a shooter, but bosses use pretty typical shooter patterns, firing circular bursts of shells that looks not unlike many other Psycho games. The difference here is that you can not just shoot at your opponent, you can run up and combo them as well (Charlie does a very nice kick-kick-blade kick combo for HUGE damage.)

   The other real difference comes in the controls. I will be blunt from the start and say that I am not a huge fan of the controls of Cannon Spike (perhaps because I've been spoiled by Zero Gunner 2?) Because you are a person (not a helicopter), if you want to move in a particular direction, you yourself turn and run that direction - all fine and good but frustrating when your trying to target an enemy. To solve this problem, Psikyo has added a 'mark' button that allows you to keep your cross-hairs on an enemy (for a short time) allowing you to keep firing at them while retreating or evading. This is a neat trick similar to Zero Gunner 1 - but in that game, all you had to do was hit the enemy and hold the fire button down to stay targeted. Adding a trigger for a job the fire button could do just as well adds for some clumsy moments and an unneeded awkwardness for an otherwise very playable game. Fortunately, the Mark feature also doubles as a strafe function when not currently targeting anything. It all leaves one wondering why they didn't combine the mark function with normal shooting as in ZG1, and make the strife button cancel targeting. I realize this is mostly nit picking, but Psikyo is one of if not the best surviving company for shooters - so I expect more from them!

   The problems most people will complain about though is the length. Cannon Spike is probably no longer than 15-20 minutes. Now lets be honest- games like Smash TV were too damn long...and there are plenty of games that milked a mediocre idea for hours upon end. Cannon Spike does quite the opposite, it is a great idea that in practice works very well. Why the game isn't 10 or 20 minutes longer is beyond me. I'd at least have enjoyed a game as long as Gunbird 2 or even Zero Gunner 2 which is short! In the end, Cannon Spike feels more like a prelude to ZG2 than an actual game in of itself. A fine piece in your collection, but only an appetizer I'm afraid.

[ Giga Wing ] = Takumi/Capcom =

   This is the first of three shooters by Takumi, something of an upstart in the shooter business, but by looking at their games one has the impression that the team must consist of people with considerable experience in making shooters. The first installment of the Giga Wing series was unjustifiably dumped on by fans and critics alike when it was released on the DC for its shoddy graphics - sure, it isn't pretty, but it's a nearly perfect port of a CPS2 game - and CPS2 games simply don't look hot on the DC. Never mind that they probably had to stretch and squash the game (as they must do with all shooters ported from the arcade) to make it fit on a normal TV screen. Well for whatever reason, GW isn't particularly pretty, but that doesn't change the gameplay or the lasting value of a quality shooter - and Giga Wing is a quality vertical scrolling shooter.;

   Unlike Giga Wing 2, GW is more or less a conventional shooter that only occasionally forces you to use its novelty (and now days, all shooters are centered around novelties), the reflect barrier - a glowing ball that encompasses you, reflecting all shots back to their origin! Of course, using your reflect barrier will momentarily leave you vulnerable to attacks as the unit must recharge, but you also have a stock of screen clearing bombs, so even in a pinch there are many options open. But it is the fact that GW does not rely so heavily on the reflect shot alone (at least not until the later levels) that keeps me coming back. There are 5 planes (one is secret) with differing abilities, and the levels are very challenging but still fair. Sometimes bullets are a bit hard to see because of the graphics, but in general, this isn't an issue. If it is a vertical scrolling SHMUP you are looking for with a bit of inventiveness and some real challenge, GW is a good purchase, though not remarkable.

[ Giga Wing 2 ] = Takumi/Capcom =

   GW2 is in many ways a superior game to its predecessor - it's four players, its graphics are rendered beautifully in 3D, and in general everything is more responsive. You now can play as 8 planes (4 are secret) and you can choose between the Reflect Barrier (discussed above) and a new Reflect Laser that absorbs incoming shots to charge a laser that targets all enemies on the screen! The reflect unit now does not seem to take so long to engage (in GW it was downright sluggish), and overall everything simply seems to have been tightened down, smoothed out and given a loving new coat of paint. Well, almost everything.

   Unfortunately, GW2 is lacking in one of the most critical areas - namely, gameplay. For starters, the game is extremely short (~20 minutes), but this isn't the entire problem. Unlike GW, now you must rely very heavily on the reflect unit - and the game quickly turns into learning the spots you need to use it instead of relying mostly on your wits and being able to fall back on it when other strategies fail. I'm not saying that GW2 is bad - quite the contrary, this is a game I've played considerably and deeply enjoy it - but it does leave you wanting something in a more traditional shooter. All in all, this is not a mistake Psikyo would have made. While GW2 is excellent in almost every way (including an incredible soundtrack!), it's missing in the department where most shooters excel. In the end, while GW2 is still very playable and enjoyable, it keeps it from being what it should have been - the best shooter on the DC.

[ Gunbird 2 ] = PsiKyo/Capcom =

   And here we get to the very roots of shooters - a vertical scrolling hand-drawn shooter that really belongs more on the Saturn than the DC. In many ways, this is one of my favorite shooters on the DC. Why? Because it is what every shooter should be. Forget the gimmicks and get right to the meat and potatoes of shooters. That's just what Gunbird 2 is, and it does it remarkably well. That doesn't mean that GB2 doesn't have its own novelties, but you can very easily play through the game without using them. Hence, GB2 wins high points from me for being both innovative and conservative simultaneously. How can that possibly be? Hmmm...shooters do not have time for questions like that.

   With seven levels and seemingly a little longer than ZG2, Gunbird 2 seems exactly the right length. Also, one must quickly recognize they are essentially playing one of the Strikers 1945 titles, but instead of playing fighter planes, you're playing as a little witch girl, a flying vampire, a guy on a flying carpet, or even Morrigan if you so chose. Sure, that might seem weird, but unlike Cannon Spike, it plays just like a conventional shooter, trust me.

   Where GB2 is different than the 'standard' shooter (I'm not sure which shooter that would be, but somewhere in my mind is the idea of a default shooter), GB2 uses a power bar from which you can charge both a close range proximity attack (not unlike Cannon Spike) or a Super (think Street Fighter.) Incidentally, your power bar goes up to three levels so you can charge a Level 3 super! It makes one wonder why they didn't just go nuts and make a Street Fighter shooter where everyone could fly (if you must include a reason, they could all be given jetpacks like Forgotten Worlds!) In any event, while the proximity attacks and supers are somewhat innovative, they don't turn GB2 into a totally different sort of animal. GB2 remains utterly faithful to its roots.

   Like Giga Wing though, Gunbird 2 was attacked for poor graphics (ironically the graphics are very nice, but just not in 3-D), and subsequently moved into the bargain bins and is probably well out of print by now. I think I might have paid $10 for it, which is pretty unfair given how many hours I've spent on the game. Another nice feature by the way is an ability to switch between a custom mode where the game is resized (clipped) to fit your screen, or a zany 'free scrolling' mode where you can force the screen up and down with the position of your ship. The latter is good for more mobility and more room in which do dodge bullets, but it might give some people headaches.

   Anyway, GB2 is in gameplay terms just about as good as it gets, but there are no extra bells and whistles, making this one for the hardcore shooter fans.

[ Mars Matrix ] = Takumi/Capcom =

   MM is above anything else, a controversial shooter, and for some pretty simple reasons. Those who praise it do so justifiably and it is hard to deny their points. Detractors (of whom I qualify) list one singular qualm that is also nearly impossible to deny. Mars Matrix is simply too damn hard for all but true veteran shooters and twitch masters! OK, I am not a pro at shooters, I'm merely OK. A somewhat skilled amateur. But even the few I know who should be pros find MM challenging well beyond belief. Thus, I find myself in agreement with both sides - MM is a fantastic shooter that is probably way too difficult for all but the best of shooter pros.

   The game is a damn solid one, using an experience base system that is fueled by getting 'combos.' Many enemies when killed release gold experience cubes, but the trick is that if you pick up more cubes before your combo meter has run out, you'll get the points from the newly picked up cube plus the value of any other cubes you have picked up during the combo. That might sound like a neat trick, but it is utterly essential to leveling up your ship (which you'll need to survive later levels.)

   But the secret of collecting lots of cubes in a timely manner has everything to do with the 'reflect barrier' that you should remember from the Giga Wing games. This time however, bullets are not immediately reflected back but rather stay in orbit while the barrier is in use, and through careful maneuvering can be flung back at your opponent. Now here is the real secret of MM: every reflected bullet that hits an opponent turns into an experience cube, so to get those high scoring combos, you'll need to milk larger ships of the waves of bullets they hurl at you, and turn them into points. No one will deny how intriguing this system is - and once you get the hang of how to aim your enemies shots back at them, you will be understand how deep this sort of gameplay can go.

   Your ship can do quite a bit more than just shoot and reflect bullets, though. It can fire a heavy close range shot, a normal shot (which gets upgraded with experience) and that reflect barrier mentioned above can be turned into a 'gravity hole bomb' - a screen clearing shockwave that while potentially getting you out of a pinch will leave you vulnerable for some time to come. And here I begin to hint at some of the problems I see with the game, all of which return to the idea of difficulty. Both the reflect barrier and the bomb are powered by the same meter, using the barrier will continue to drain the meter until its either released (releasing the shots you have captured) or the entire meter is exhausted and the gravity hole bomb is released. The first problem is that the GHB is not very powerful and it completely wipes out your meter - a meter that takes a LONG time to refill. Indeed, practice at this game will teach you to avoid using the GHB at all costs (especially since it will not reward you with experience cubes). Secondly, because of the original 'one button' configuration of the arcade, the barrier takes far too long to power-on; longer than it takes some bullets to move from the top of the screen to the bottom. The end result being that as you progress into the later levels, the only thing serving you will be memory, because only a preemptive response will be fast enough.

   These problems listed above, while frustrating, do not really get to me as much as the inherent difficulty the game meets out as you get to level four and beyond. Takumi simply needs to take a lesson from the good folks at PsiKyo and include difficulty levels like 'Child' and 'Monkey'. I don't mean that levels 2 and 3 are easy - by no means, but they aren't impossible. By level four we find sections where the screen is literally filled with bullets and when this isn't going on, waves of shots are being hurled out at an incredible rate that will decimate all but the most incredibly experienced shooter veterans. And even they will not find themselves in familiar territory. Certainly games like R-Type were always difficult, but you had some time to respond, where death in MM may be nearly instantaneous.

   I don't mean to slam the good folks who love this game - and I do understand that it is humanly possible, but only by a very small percentage of the human population. For me, I tend to stick around level 2 and 3 on PsiKyo's scale of difficulty (making me a pussy I suppose), but MM doesn't offer that. It offers levels 6-8, where 6 is fucking hard and 8 is too difficult for minor gods. Or maybe the difficulty setting doesn't even work? I'm not sure, but if easy is 'you don't stand a chance', what's the point of even having a difficulty setting?

   Fortunately, after you've put countless hours into the game, you can unlock things to make the game easier (namely, making the GHB meter charge faster and make the combo meter run out slower) - both of which turns the difficulty down another notch or two, but still doesn't make level 4 and beyond any more likable. I don't think many like to be slapped down continuously, but unfortunately, MM doesn't seem to know any better - and that's what really cripples the game for me. It is in almost every other way a marvelous shooter, but simply too damn hard for casual shooter fans.

[ Zero Gunner 2 ] = PsiKyo =

   If you were to take all the best things from Zero Gunner and Cannon Spike and thus created an entirely new game with some of the best graphics on the DC, you'd probably end up with something resembling Zero Gunner 2. I've said before that all modern shooters are based around a 'novelty' (hell, R-Type was centered around the indestructible force unit), ZG2 is of course no exception. While ZG allowed you to lock on to enemies by holding down the shot button, ZG2 allows for even greater freedom by allowing you to freely rotate your helicopter, even circling enemies.

   This simple innovation allows for a whole new feel for the 2D shooter, without coming off as a hybrid the way Cannon Spike does. Classic PsiKyo patterns are still apparent, as craft swoop across the screen, but now they can come from all sides without seeming unfair since you can simply swing around and attack from any angle. It also allows for the fixed vertical scroller to be scrapped for an all-way scroller (its still on rails, but it needn't move from bottom to top, left to right, but can and will switch directions several times in the course of a level. In the penultimate level, you first scroll down at a leftward angle destroying the first line of defense of a giant ship before beginning scrolling upward and to the right for your final assault up the center of the craft! While olden shooters played with the idea of switching between vertical and horizontal scrolling levels, here it actually makes sense.

   What's more, the game is not presented in a strictly top-down sense, but at slight angles, giving you, the enemy and the incredible backgrounds an added sense of reality and weight. The incredible detail you see as you fly over cities, fighting between skyscrapers or following trains is just amazing. While Giga Wing 2 showed us the backgrounds, this is the first shooter you are really immersed in them! This is really the Shenmue of shooters.

   There are three helicopters to chose form (I'd have liked a couple more choices, but what do you want?) Power is balanced very nicely between full forward shot and spread, also the variation between low and high cost supers. And that is the other aspect of ZG2 that is interesting. Don't expect any screen clearing bombs (it isn't the sort of game where you really need them.) Instead, you charge a super bar which when released executes a move not unlike the supers in Gunbird2 (that is, heavy damage but doesn't protect you.) Two of the choppers have modest supers, while the third does a huge hunk of damage but takes forever to build. You can also store several in reserve should you need to get out of an ugly bit.

   The super bar is charged by picking up energy crystals (?) - green polygons that vary in size. The interesting aspect of ZG2 is that you can attract the crystals instead of hunting them down by letting off the fire trigger. Thus, even though you have unlimited ammo, you'll find yourself pulsing your shots so as to keep those power-ups coming in.

   The control scheme isn't perfect but superior to Cannon Spike - with practice you can circle enemies, hammering them while eluding their own deadly shots. The game truly allows some elegant maneuvering that just isn't possible in most shooters, on the other hand, ZW2 isn't really a deep shooter, and it also isn't terribly long. Unlimited continues will be unlocked in all too short a time, and the only other real extra is a save file showing someone who is WAY too good at ZG2 playing it through the first and second wave (the game repeats itself if you beat it at one of the more difficulty settings for an even harder challenge) without losing one life. Still, ZG2 is probably one of the most entertaining two player SHMUPS on the DC and represents the cutting-edge of shooters without feeling too far from its roots. Its graphics are some of the best you're likely to see in a shooter, and the levels are well designed and always enjoyable. Ultimately, ZG2 is well worth your time importing.

   While the DC is certainly wanting in a few extra titles (why no Thunderforce pack?), it is also lacking in the garbage that many other systems have been laden with. Surprisingly, the PSX also has some quality titles (though a good chunk of these exist only because of Working Designs.) As we enter a new era of console gaming, it is hard to say if shooters will persist outside of Japan. The PS2's Gradius pack seems to have received little attention, and I wouldn't be surprised if the X-Box will continue to be utterly barren of shooters. All in all, the DC at least managed to support a small number of quality shooters for the short time it was around. Sure, there are no R-Type Deltas or Radiant Silverguns, but these are some quality titles nonetheless that I don't expect to see on any of the newer consoles.