Monday, January 11, 2016

My Top Ten Saturn Shoot'em Ups


The Sega Saturn has long been heralded as one of THE systems for shoot 'em ups (the PC-Engine and Genesis are also in the discussion).  The monster 2D architecture lends itself well to the frenetic action and pace typical of the genre.  There is a prolific amount of shooters to choose from on the system (almost all of which were Japan-only releases), so this was an arduous task; I had to lump in a couple of honorable mentions.  As with all top-10 lists, this is an opinion and subject to personal biases.  I picked the games the I find most enjoyable to play, look fantastic, have great music, and retain my interest.  My list will differ from yours, and I'd actually like to see your opinions in the comments section.  If you haven't heard of any of these on the list, I fully recommend each and every one.  O.k., here goes.

Who doesn't love the Hunter weapon?
Free Range sounds like a menu item...so order up some destruction!

10 - Thunder Force V
Tecnosoft's earlier entries in the series had set the bar high as the premier shooters on the Genesis/Mega Drive.  TF 3 and TF4 (known in North America as Lightening Force) pushed the limits of the system graphically, aurally, and kinetically.  TF V uses 3D polygons, and is one of the few shooters on the system to do so.  Honestly, I would have preferred the game without them, but the action more than makes up for it.  The claws, or craws, or whatever they're called are the key to surviving as usual for the boost in firepower they provide.  They can also fuel the overweapon, which is your currently selected weapon on steroids!  After being discharged, the craw needs some time to regenerate before the overweapon can be used again.  The "free range" weapon makes it debut here, and is remarkably more powerful than any other weapon in the series.  It acts as a radar field that is controllable (albeit a bit wonky at first) and can be focused on a certain area of the screen, and when discharged, unleashes a brutal beat down on whatever is in its path.  I don't mean to give the impression that this game is easy, because it is far from it.  Maybe its me, but I get slapped around by this game repeatedly, but I keep coming back because its fun.




9 - Dodonpachi
The sequel to Donpachi is one of the finest examples of bullet-hell shooters on a 32-bit system.  Did I mention that these shooters are frantic?  There is so much going on at one time, you start to develop a Zen-like mindfulness while playing (after several hours of playtime).  The emphasis on scoring is definitely prominent here, with the hit counters and score multipliers.  There is lots of strategy for a seemingly straight forward concept of shooting everything and not getting hit.  From the choice between three very different ships, to selecting strength of bombs or lasers, to when to bomb and how to bomb, there are layers that take time to appreciate, and skill to realize.



The main character's option is a flying cat.  What?

Bosses can be intricate and huge.
8 - Sengoku Blade
One of the most notable characteristics of this game is... its soundtrack (what did you think I was going to say?).  With an ancient-Japan theme, the aesthetics of this game are unique and interesting. The background scenery lush with parallax scrolling, the sprite design, the bosses and music are all stylistically dialed in to deliver a refreshing and enjoyable horizontal shooter.  Instead of piloting a ship, you control a human player that flies, somehow.  Since your character is upright, and the game scrolls horizontally, you become a larger target compared to most shooters.  Being a Psiyko game, there are lots of difficulty settings and options to toggle.  The choice of playable characters, all with their own attack style, options, and bombs give this game a boost in replay value.



The real boss eats the first boss.

Salamander 2 alternates between horizontal and vertical, just like the first game.

7 - Salamander 2 (Salamander Deluxe Pack)
Americans who play this will immediate sense something familiar about the Salamander games as the first game was retitled as Life Force.  A spin off from the Gradius series, Salamander forgoes the red capsule power up system in favor of direct power up drops.  The weapon array is similar to the Gradius series, however.  This game is a horizontal scroller, and the environments you pilot through are organic in nature, a departure from the space or technical themes that pervade the genre. The graphics are gorgeous, as this is from what I understand a nearly perfect arcade port.  Being able to respawn instantaneously instead of a checkpoint lowers the relative difficulty, as well as power up pick ups, making for a more tolerable experience after death.  Hands down the best of the Konami Deluxe packs on the Saturn.

One of the coolest bosses in the game
Taking control of mini-bosses is extremely satisfying.
6 - Darius Gaiden
This is one of the few shooters that was released in the west, perhaps because the series already had some releases on the Genesis and and SNES.  The first word I think of when I think of this game is funky.  The space-rock operatic singing throughout the game is oddly intriguing and most definitely unique.  It is catchy and bizarre at the same time.  The graphics are detailed and the boss sprites are the highlight.  From the first (and best looking) boss, Golden Ogre, you can tell this is not just another Darius game.  The typical power ups are present: shot, bombs, and shield.  A cool addition is the black-hole bomb, which sucks all bullets and weak enemies into oblivion, and heavily damages bosses.  Another tactic is to shoot the orbs on the heads of mini-bosses.  The orbs will be released and if you capture them, the mini-bosses align with you and can output some serious firepower.  The branching stage selection is still present, of course, and I have a terrible memory and forget which path I took perviously.  This adds replay value, and if you can finish the game I salute you.




5 - Batsugun
What is considered Toaplan's swan song, before they went under, Batsugun is credited with bridging the gap between old-school shooters and modern, bullet-hell shooters.  Prior to this game, most shooters involved string patterns of popcorn enemies, set-back respawns, and environmental hazards that needed to be memorized.  This game started the trend of spamming the entire screen with hundreds of bullets, leaving you a few pixels of room to navigate the flood of enemy shots with micro movements.  The hitbox was reduced to a few pixels in the center of your ship, giving you some leeway.  This is very hard to get used to at first, for your mind takes a while to grasp that shots can graze through more than half of your ship without destroying you.  The amount of firepower on screen when fully powered up is insane.  Again, that doesn't mean the game is easy.  There is a level up mechanic, which scales up your firepower as you gain experience points.  The music just rocks, and is best hooked up through a stereo when you play this game.  It lives up to the hype.

The environments are as creative as the weaponry.
Color coded enemies make for interesting strategy during gameplay.

4- Radiant Silvergun
What can be said about this game that hasn't already been said?  Six different weapons to start, each with its own purpose (seven if you count the giant sword) make for a variety of gameplay strategies.  Color coded enemies allow for chaining and score multipliers, if you're able.  I personally focus on surviving, rather than racking up a high score.  The soundtrack imbues a sense of adventure, and that's what this game feels like, and epic, evolving adventure where each play through can be a new experience.  This is a polygon-based game, yet it is an example of expert programming on the Saturn.




Aligning your options basically doubles your firepower for a short time.
Each plane's bomber attack has its own advantages and disadvantages.
 
3 - Strikers 1945 II
The beauty of this game is that it is easy to learn, but difficult to master.  It may be misconstrued as a another descendant of Capcom's 194X series, but while this game may have some cosmetic similarities, the action and playability put it way past that series.  I'm not sure what the story is (does it ever matter in shoot 'em ups?), but each boss starts out as a typical 1945-era military machine, that after a few hits, morphs into a gigantic alien robot monstrosity.  The imaginative boss design is enjoyable to behold, as are the bomb and option effects.  There are several different planes to choose from, each with a specific type of bomb action.  Some are defensive, like a giant bomber craft that swoops between you and the enemies, absorbing hits for you.  Some are offensive, such as calling in an air strike, and some are in-between.  Every power icon you pick up grants you another option which will attack in varying patterns.  Hold down the shot button to align the options, and watch them take on a specific attack formation of their own.  Again, the ability to choose difficulty levels is a nice way to ease into the game while your skills develop.  One of my personal favorites, even if it does get overshadowed by the big names.



The top-down lighting effects are impressive.
The radar web can be offensive or defensive.

2 - Soukyugurentai
Even if you can't pronounce the name of this game, you'll never forget playing it.  It's main mechanic of locking onto enemies with a radar net, only then to unleash a salvo of lasers is addicting and effective.  This idea was observed first in Layer Section (Galactic Attack in North America), but it was improved greatly here. You can choose different configurations of the radar field, focusing on one area quickly, or casting a wider but slower net.  Your main shot can be powered up, but pales in comparison to the effectiveness of the lock on lasers.  There are some seriously gorgeous backgrounds to distract you from piloting; you sometimes want to pause just to take it in.  The original release of this game was a bit glitchy when played with an Action Replay cart on western systems.  There was a re-release, Soukygurentai-Otokuyo, which cleaned up some of those bugs.  The options menu is in Japanese, so look online for a FAQ that will walk you through how to tweak the game settings.  A pure beauty of a game, with challenge to match.



The depth of the visuals is unmatched in this generation.

You have to dodge a lot of bullets and debris.  Seriously, a lot.

1 - Battle Garegga
A shining example of the 2D sprite work that the Saturn was meant to produce, this game is as gorgeous as it is challenging.  There is so much detail, so much action on-screen that learning what is a threat and what isn't is the first skill you'll want to develop.  This game has so much challenge, it will take more than the average amount of play throughs to wrap your head around it.  The game adjusts the difficulty based on how powered up you are.  So it may seen counter-intuitive, but you have a better chance of making it through if you avoid power ups (not that I ever made it through).  There are four initial ships to choose from, with an additional four more if you select the right setting in the options.  As with many of the shooters on list, personal preference plays into which ship fits your style of play.  I can't say if the anyone of them makes the game any easier.  Maybe I'll know in a few more years.  Either way, it's a blast to try again and again.