1) It was always challenging, even in easy mode. Fire Shark has that perfect balance - it's never too easy, but never becomes overwhelming. You're guaranteed a lot of value for your money, and you'll never get bored. Too many arcade games are a cakewalk on the home consoles; their goal, after all, is only to take your quarters every couple of minutes. It's a different story when you can just hit Start whenever you wish. This game, thankfully, remains a challenge to me, no matter how many times I've beaten it.
2) The power-ups rock my world. You had only three different weapons, but they were a joy when fully armed. The spread shot covered the entire screen. The green lasers snaked and weaved. The flame thrower...well, that's the best of the lot. Wooww! Let's hear it for the flame thrower!
Oh, I should also mention the best part - rapid fire is an available option in the game. On home consoles, that was usually available only on expensive joysticks. Toaplan just saved my thumbs. Rock on!
3) The loud, booming explosions and sound effects. You should hear this game through stereo speakers. The Genesis was great at this sort of thing, especially with the bass. This is one of the best-sounding games on the Genesis.
4) The music soundtrack was fantastic. The music in Fire Shark sounds eerily like '70s guitar rock. I was always reminded of Blue Oyster Cult or Thin Lizzy. The buzzing guitar tones, the thundering riffs, the growling bass, and booming beats - it's all here, baby. There was a time when "video game music" was an art, a craft. The NES was great for music. So was Genesis when in the right hands, as Fire Shark demonstrates.
Where can I find guitar tabs for Fire Shark? I'm serious - there's some killer music and you should be jamming it with your local band.
5) Land, air, and sea targets. I loved the sea stages, with the navy ships rolling after you, and the giant battleships. The tanks were always a blast; first you shoot off the cannons, then the hull. And through it all, those endless waves of kamikaze planes. Those guys are just insane in the later rounds.
6) Variety, Variety, Variety. All ten levels were very different in style and tone. There's one stage with moving seas of sand. Another one set in the arctic. Another one sends you over caverns as you shoot down planes. There's also a city stage that was really fun. There was always something new on the next stage, never any cheap color swaps.
7) It wasn't impossible to claw yourself back. This is a crucial distinction with most shooters of the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the time, if you find yourself shot down in later levels, the games become impossibly difficult with only a basic weapon. In other words, you might as well start over, and that's no fun. Fire Shark avoids this trap. Even though the final stages are very tough, you can beat the game with your basic machine gun. It helps that you begin with a three-shot spread - a very smart move on Toaplan's part.
8) It's the little moments that are special. There are little soldiers marching around your airstrips, directing traffic, moving around. At the beginning, a group of soldiers line up in an arrow (that gag is seen in Porco Rosso and Finding Nemo). The best gag comes at the end of one stage, where a soldier breaks formation to watch you land. His Sergeant marches up and yells him back into line. Hah hah.
9) Endless Replays. Once you beat the game, it loops back to the beginning, ala NES Contra. You get to watch a great little ending sequence, then you begin at stage one, albeit with a harder difficulty. Why don't more games do this, especially the shooters? Pay attention, kids - this is why Contra was so great. We could play it forever.
10) Fire Shark has some of the best graphics on Sega Genesis. Just look at the screenshots. The art direction is just brilliant. The landscapes show a solid variety of textures and details, and the colors are strong, bold, confident. Explosions are colorful, fluid, never flat or dull. You need good explosions for arcade games. Your weapons looks great, especially that flame thrower...but check out the smart bomb! Wow! Now that is a real kick in the pants for 1990.
Notice how the tanks you destroy leave smoking craters? That is great detail. It's fun to see the carnage in your wake. Same thing for the boats. Planes will either incinerate or crash to the ground, another good moment of variety.
The large bosses that round out the stages, of course, steal the show. Immensely large, difficult to take down, great to watch. Here is where the allure of "16-bit" flexes its muscle against the older 8-bit generation. These designers are trying to get you to put down your NES, remember. Toaplan did a smashing job.