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.
One thing I appreciate about Dodonpachi is how it discards the worn out cliche of collecting power-up icons, trying to chase down wandering goodies without being blown to pieces. Most shmups use the same weapons, anyway, so what's the point? Better to give you all the weapons you need at the onset, and build up from that. The weapons are luminous, brightly colored, and explode enemy tanks and spaceships with a highly satisfying crash. It's akin to the sound of breaking glass, and there's that destructive glee of smashing for smashing's sake, as though you were set loose in a glassware shop and allowed to wreak havoc. Of course, in this case, the glassware can fire back in equal number. This is a fair fight, my friends.
On the Sega Saturn, the shoot-em-up kings are Radiant Silvergun and Soukyugurentai. That's the near-universal consensus. Just after that, I would rank Batsugun, Battle Garegga, and Dodonpachi. I think Batsugun is the pioneer, the revolutionary, and it has the best music. And I think Garegga is the most technically accomplished title, and the best Saturn conversion. But DDP is the most fun. Pick this up for your Saturn, play in Tate mode, and just lie down on the couch and have a blast.
I see that Apple's iPod is now getting support from Cave, including the latest Dodanpachi sequel. If that isn't proof of a sea change in the video game world, kids, you aren't paying attention. Interesting times.
Donpachi - Cave for Saturn - 4/10
Dodonpachi on the Saturn is spectacular. Its predecessor, Donpatchi, on the other hand....royally sucks.
Cave's first arcade title was a solid arcade shooter that sat at a moment of transition from Batsugun to DDP. It's a very solid game, definitely a lot of fun in the arcades and on MAME. But the design team was definitely recoiling from the death of Toaplan and still deciding which new direction to follow. Think of Led Zeppelin III - a very solid album, but sandwiched between two rock masterpieces. It's pretty much the same thing here.
Anyway, that's not my problem with the Saturn conversion of Donpachi. My problem is that it's a shoddy piece of programming. Remember all those crummy first-generation 3D Saturn games? Yeah...kind of like that. The game is plagued by terrible slowdown, is hampered with needless and excessive loading times, and...I honestly cannot explain this one...the voice samples as scratchy. "Sega Genesis" scratchy. Wha--?! And have I mentioned the painfully slow loading times?
I tried a few rounds, but soon quit in frustration. I'm not going to tolerate incompetence when there are so many great shmups on this system. I really can't explain why this Donpachi port is so shoddy. Heck, even Dodonpachi wasn't perfect (the explosions are strangely pixelated), which tells me that somebody was asleep at the switch. There was no excuse for this. Don't worry about it, don't waste your time. You have dozens of quality shooters available on Saturn. And I've already sung the praises of DDP. So let's move on.
In the Hunt - SIMS (and Irem) for Saturn - 4/10
In the Hunt is another shoddy conversion of a solid arcade game. In this case, it's a side-scrolling submarine shooter that is, essentially, a test run for Metal Slug - both games created by the same development team. The graphics are nearly identical, that same tightly woven graphics, heavy on the details and animations, and massive explosions everywhere. Only the humor is missing. Overall, a very good arcade game.
The Saturn version, as I've said, is shoddy. Duties were handed off to SIMS, who clearly didn't have the chops to program for Sega's famously complicated beast. Graphics are perfect, but the slowdown...ugh, did I say "slowdown?" I meant "sssslooooooowwwwww doooooooowwwwwwwwwnnnnn." The entire game just chugs and gasps and drags for air. It's like watching a chain smoker try to run. Maybe you can somehow get through this and slog on through, and if so, good for you. I tried my best and I couldn't. Life is too short to be stuck on the couch playing broken video games.
So, yeah, I'm starting to remember why the Playstation kicked Saturn's can. The PSX version of In the Hunt is far superior, too. Good Jorb, losers!
Kyukyoku Tiger 2 Plus - Takumi for Saturn - 4/10
I'm going to get all the bad reviews out of the way. And this leads me to Kyukyoku Tiger 2 Plus, which is a real disappointment. I really wanted to like this one. This is, in fact, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite arcade games, Twin Cobra. Twin Cobra, to my eyes, has always been the definitive Toaplan shoot-em-up. It's a military-themed combat game from the days when every video game wanted to be Rambo, and live out that 1980s American fantasy of re-fighting (and winning) the Vietnam War. So, yeah, this was basically unresolved national trauma repackaged as pop entertainment. With lots of cool guns and tanks and explosions.
There have been countless arcade shooters where you fly through jungles and shoot tanks and copters, but no one did it better than Twin Cobra. It's the game that turned me into a diehard Toaplan fan, and that devotion was cemented on later shmup classics like Truxton, Fire Shark, and Batsugun. When Toaplan went bankrupt, it lived on through its children - Cave, Raizing, Takumi, and Gazelle. Kyukyoku Tiger 2 was actually in production at Toaplan when the company went under, and Takumi was allowed to finish the game and release it in the arcades under their own label.
I'm actually glad Toaplan never released this game; they went out on top with Batsugun, and KT2 would have been a terrible final bow, like The Beatles' Let It Be following after Abbey Road. Actually, yeah, that's the perfect analogy. This is Toaplan's Let It Be. It's a clunky, unattractive, poorly designed video game, it fails on all fronts, and I'm left wondering how the masters of a genre could be sooo clumsy. KT2 plays out like a list of all my shmup peeves - your aircraft is too bulky, too slow, the weapons are too weak, power-ups are too ineffective, level design is flat and uninspired.
KT2 plays nothing like Twin Cobra. Even the graphics are weaker than the original, aside from some nifty scaling effects. Of all the Toaplan-related games on the Saturn (and I include the Children of Toaplan), this is by far the weakest.
Guardian Force - Success for Saturn - 8/10
Now we'll turn around and look at another hidden gem in the Saturn library. Guardian Force comes to us courtesy of Success, the folks responsible for the Cotton series (including two excellent Saturn entries). This game gets overlooked in favor of the big name shooters, but I think it's a unique spin on the well-worn genre and a terrific video game. This is one of my favorite Saturn shmups.
Guardian Force begins as yet another vertical-scrolling shooter, but the rules soon bend and morph, and you find yourself in what can only be described as "omni-directional." Your vehicle is a tank with a rotating turret, and the game designers take this idea and run wild with it. Instead of squaring off against a boss vehicle in a typical standoff, you are often expected to move, rotate, dodge and escape all around the screen. As levels progress, obstacles and enemies arise from all directions, and the screen will suddenly begin scrolling horizontally or even diagonally. I can't even remember a single shooter that scrolled at angles.
For some reason, I'm reminded of Namco's arcade classic, Assault, one of the greatest tank games ever made. Obviously, I'm also reminded of SNK's many military-themed action games like Iron Tank and Ikari Warriors and Guerilla War. Oh, and let's not forget Atari Games' Vindicators, especially on the graphics. The cool neon colors scheme is impressive, helps to stand out, evokes a cool, futuristic landscape that stands apart from the crowded pack of Saturn shooters.
Guardian Force is fast and fluid, is always challenging, full of surprises, and looks terrific on your television screen. I'm really having a lot of fun with this one, and I think you'll have a lot of fun, too.