Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Batsugun - Sega Saturn

Time to start going through the ever-increasing stack of shmups. I still don't have any real idea how to write about all of these, since I feel that we're really getting the same game over and over. Fun for fans, redundant for everyone else. Fortunately, I'm a fan. Also, these aren't costing me any more quarters, so I'm a bit more forgiving.

Okay, here's one....Batsugun. It's a bit of a classic from the masters of arcade shooters, Toaplan. Good time is had by all.

Batsugun was the final shooter from Toaplan, a final capstone to nearly a decade of pushing the genre forward from its humble beginnings. Even today, I find myself more partial to the likes of Twin Cobra and Fire Shark and Truxton than the flashier, newer ones. I think the gameplay was perfectly balanced back then; today, it's all about hammering you with a million bullets, either to punish you or to show off the power of the hardware.

Well, Toaplan is also responsible for that as well. Batsugun essentially gave birth to the bullet shooter, which is where the genre finally went to die. And yet I still think this is a masterful game, a speed metal shooter if there ever was one. It's the Slayer of shmups. How's that for a cornball catchphrase? Too bad we can't stick it on a box somewhere.

Anyway, Batsugun is a very short game, only five stages, but that almost seems a virtue. It appears, makes its statement, rearranges the rules for shoot-em-ups, then quickly exits. The beginning follows the same tempo as the standard Toaplan shmup, with the pacing of enemies and bosses and powerups. But then things start to quicken. The firepower of your ship becomes absurd, like it always does in these games. But then something interesting happens. The aliens start to keep pace. The whole game turns into an arms race.

By the start of the third stage, it's complete mayhem and chaos. Bullets and ships flaying everywhere. I'm reminded of those crazed kamikaze planes from Fire Shark; now, everything on the screen is like this. I have to remind myself that this was 1993, and Batsugun really did establish a new standard for intensity.

It's interesting to note how your weapons become powered up like role-playing games, by accumulating experience points. There are only three levels total, and thankfully these evolutionary steps are permanent. You won't go back to stage one when you get shot down in a hundred or so bullets. There are still the usual powerup icons, but by the game's halfway point it's pretty much symbolic. Once you're shooting out the entire screen, there's really not much left, is there?

The Saturn version of Batsugun is, as you'd expect, superb. Blistering visual detail and smooth animation and booming bass explosions. I like the way all the vertical shmups are handled on this console. It's practically standard. There is the usual Saturn mode, with the screen squashed to one side, like all the vertical shmups you've played on a console. Then there is the Arcade mode, which tilts the action to the side. This enables the playfield to be displayed in all its glory, without any graphical squashing or comprimising. Remember, kids, that most of these games used a tilted monitor at the arcades. And, as one nice gesture, you have the option of turning your controls so you can play as a horizontal shooter.

Otherwise, well, I guess you just lie down on your side and play that way. Were you supposed to turn your television on its side? Are these people aware that you can break your set that way? Whatever. Just get plastered on Mighty Hits and then lie down on the couch. You'll be fine.

So what distinguishes Batsugun from all the others? History, I guess. It was the first bullet shooter, which counts for something. And I'm a great Toaplan fan. I would have been happy to see all of their games on the Saturn. You'll never see their likes again. At least I have MAME and Genesis for that.

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