Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sega Saturn Shooter Roundtable Vol I

Instead of writing single posts for every Sega Saturn title that grabs my attention, I've decided that I should group several short reviews together in a single post, so that we can speed through the system's extensive video game library more quickly.  For this installment, we'll look at five titles from Saturn's most popular genre - arcade shoot-em-ups!

Dodonpachi - Cave for Saturn - 10/10

Oh, Yeehhhh!  Dodonpachi, Cave's manic, bullet-hell masterpiece.  The heaviest, loudest, fastest, most intense shoot-em-up ever created.  It's such a wild ride, so gloriously and insanely over-the-top, so wildly colorful and luminous.  This is the video game equivalent of Red Bull and Jolt Cola.  And it's just about the most exciting game ever made for the Sega Saturn.

I don't even think you conquer or master Dodonpachi so much as survive.  The very act of cheating death is a massive rush.  How the heck did I escape that?!  Literally every pixel on the screen is moving, flashing, firing, or exploding.  And you're always caught in smack in the middle.  This feels like a video game that begins where all the other shmups ended, and instead of retreading the same ancient cliches of the genre, cranks all the dials to maximum, gleefully reveling in the beauty of pure chaos.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bulk Slash - Sega Saturn

Bulk Slash is a 3D robot arcade shoot-em-up for Sega Saturn that feels like the classic 2D shooters of the 16-bit era, fused with the 3D platforming paradigm of Super Mario 64.  It's fast and smooth, sharp and clear, brightly colored, packed with futuristic cities and tanks and robots and massive explosions.  Here is a game that embraces the magic of "replayability," almost like NiGHTS with guns.  Here lies a textbook example of what makes the Saturn so great.

Oh, and Bulk Slash was also created by Technosoft.  Sort of.  Hudson formed CA Productions, the software studio, by stealing away members of Technosoft's staff for the twin PCE/Turbo-CD shooter classics, Gate and Lords of Thunder.  I learned this recently, and it felt like a light clicked in my head.  I had a nagging suspicion that Bulk Slash shared some secret connection to Herzog Zwei, in the robot that transforms into a jet, in the way enemy targets are protected by armored units.  Turns out my hunch was right.  I strongly suspect some members of the Herzog Zwei team were, in fact, involved in this game.

I love the variety of environments, missions, goals, and surprises in Bulk Slash.  Early levels involve flying through cities, smashing everything in sight.  Later levels involve escort missions, bombing runs, and run-and-gun missions through fortresses.  Power-up weapons are hidden around and require you to march around carefully, instead of flying and blasting everything in sight.  There's even a bit of a dating sim (a video game genre strangely popular in Japan), where you choose a young woman as your navigator, and proceed to impress her with your flying and shooting skills.  Oh, and you have to actually find these women, too.  I get a laugh whenever my navigator starts nagging me every time I get shot.  I'm trying to fight a war over here!

It's interesting how the PCE and Saturn were the two great "lost" video game consoles, condemned to failure in the West, while thriving successfully in native Japan with mountains of great games.  Thank goodness for the internet, I say.  How many of these "lost" classics would remain lost without Youtube, message boards, online retailers and downloads?  There are so many good Saturn games that you'll probably lose count, and if you're a collector, you'll likely never own all the titles.  Make sure Bulk Slash is near the top of your list.  It's a terrific video game and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Dezaemon 2 Video Showcase

Twin Dog's Heroes [Saturn Deza2] by RayonDePixel

I promised to show some examples of the many user-created shoot-em-ups created on Athena's 1997 Sega Saturn title, Dezaemon 2.  This is a magnificent construction program, very detailed and thorough, yet easy to comprehend.  If you can read Japanese, the 60-page instruction book will be immensely helpful.  You may also want to track down Athena's official guide book, which became a valuable tool for the devoted Deza2 scene in Japan.

What about English-speakers?  There is a guide on GameFAQs which is very helpful (though incomplete), and all the controls and features can be understood fairly easy.  In fact, I'm openly wondering why Athena (if they're even still in business today) hasn't released a deluxe Deza package for PC and Mac, allowing you to import graphics and audio.  Imagine that you could create your own arcade shmup, and then sell it on iTunes.  Deza2 is that sophisticated!

If you want to get into Deza2, you'll need a backup memory cartridge for the save data (games take up a whopping 1500-2500 blocks).  This presents a challenge for Saturn owners who rely on Action Replay's 4M Plus.  You may want to shop on eBay for a Japanese Saturn.  Fortunately, they're just as cheap and readily available as the American Saturns, in the $40-$60 range.  Let's face it, if you're playing Sega Saturn in the year 2011, you're already in an exclusive club of old-school videogamers.  Spring for the white box!

Anyway, as promised, here is a selection of actual shmups created on Deza2.  More videos after the jump!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Photos - Hyper Duel (Saturn)

I felt that Hyper Duel deserved a second post, so here's a collection of screenshots to enjoy.  All of these hail from the game's Saturn mode, which boasts refurbished graphics and gameplay additions like a lock-on for your Mech.  This is a great-looking video game.  And thanks to the internet, you can download this game, burn it to disc, and play it on your Saturn tonight.  I wouldn't even consider buying a retail copy until the prices come down to reality.

It's really a pity Technosoft didn't similarly revamp the graphics to their other arcade shooter, Blast Wind.  Even better yet, Saturn remakes of Herzog Zwei and Thunder Force II through IV.  Heck, why not do that today?

Technosoft's Hyper Duel on Saturn

My current go-to game on Sega Saturn is Technosoft's excellent 1996 shooter, Hyper Duel.  I played the arcade version on MAME a few years ago, but was slightly disappointed by the experience.  The Sega Saturn version, however, is a completely different story.  Of the three spaceship shooters on the system - Hyper Duel, Blast Wind, Thunder Force 5 - I think Hyper Duel is my favorite, which, of course, makes it my favorite side-scrolling arcade shoot-em-up on the Saturn.

In the arcades, Hyper Duel looked flat and even a little sickly; far too many greys and greens in the color palette.  On the Saturn, Technosoft completely revamps the graphics, adding light and contrast, and bringing a vivid saturation to the colors.  Explosions are a fiery red, enemy ships have a metallic sheen, stars and galaxies in the background look stunning.  It's a testament to glorious pixel-art; Hyper Duel now looks like a proper Technosoft game.  If only Herzog Zwei and Thunder Force III were remade with these graphics!  Ah, I can only dream.

You can tell that Technosoft came from a console background, because their arcade games are relatively simple and straightforward by comparison.  Hyper Duel (and Blast Wind, their vertical-scrolling shooter) doesn't have the winding, unpredictable level design of Thunder Force III and IV, a design that owes its allegiance to 2D platformers.  Instead, it's much more direct and tightly focused, and the levels are fairly short before you have to battle the giant bosses.  It's also very challenging, which meant pumping in lots of quarters at the arcade.

Oh, and have I mentioned that you pilot a spaceship that turns into a robot?  You can also call upon extra fighters or mechs to attack the enemy.  Shades of Technosoft's masterpiece, Herzog Zwei, no doubt.  You can choose among three spacecraft, which move at different speeds and have slight variations in weapons (even though they're basically the same).  And two players can fight together, a terrific addition that should have been included in the Thunder Force games.

Like all of Technosoft's Saturn games, Hyper Duel never left Japan, and it's an extremely rare game that currently sells for a king's ransom - $200 has been the going price at eBay for some time.  I can't fathom why you'd pay that kind of money for a single videogame, especially when you can download and burn to disc for free.  Bragging rights, no doubt.  The Saturn has become a highly prized collector's item among old school and shooter fans; it's a badge of honor for the true hardcore gamer, and Hyper Duel is one of their most prized trophies.