GameBoy Roundup: Shoot'em-ups

 

By ShellShock
Revised on 07/27/09
   

 

 

Contents:
Aerostar - Vic Tokai
Mercenary Force - Meldac
Page 2 SolarStriker - Nintendo
StarHawk - NMS Software
Page 3 Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - T&E Soft
Burai Fighter Deluxe - KID
Page 4
Crystal Quest - Novalogic
Dropzone - Eurocom Developments
Page 5
Taiyou No Yuusha: Fighbird GB - Irem
Xenon 2: Megablast - Teeny Weeny Games
Zoids: Densetsu - Tomy
Vattle Giuce - IGS Inc.
Battle Unit Zeoth - Jaleco
Final Reverse - Shouei
Volleyfire - Toei Animation
A-Force - Thin Chen / Sachen
Final Mission: Deep - Thin Chen / Sachen
Dan Laser - Thin Chen / Sachen
Sky Ace - Thin Chen / Sachen
 
 
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Most of us are guilty of dismissing the GameBoy as an underpowered, colorless NES at one point or another. Blame it on countless technically underwhelming puzzle titles surrounding the system's launch and feeding off of Tetris' fame, or the compulsion of cramming adaptations of popular console games into the portable's inferior cartridges that followed. These seem to be the two only kinds of games the system is known to have hosted, and the same that never allowed it to shine on its own due to the inevitable comparisons to superior NES versions.

What's not a misconception though, is the system's unexplicable shyness towards traditional horizontal and vertical shoot'em-ups. Probably due to the LCD's inability to adequately display continuously moving background details, only a handful popular developers chose to shrink their brand-name shooters to GameBoy size, and even less produced exclusive ones for it. This resulted in names like Gradius, R-Type, Solar Striker, and Choplifter to be pretty much all one could find on store shelves around the world; while Japan kept a version of Darius (Sagaia), and Europe was lucky enough to get Parodius and Twin Bee releases.

But are these all the GameBoy has to offer when it comes to the genre? Not quite. I assumed Japan had once again been averse (maybe even ashamed) to export some of them to the rest of the world, so I made that my starting point and combed my way through the ROM library back to the west, where I found some long-forgotten titles and others that slip through the cracks. The result is as comprehensive a list as my strained eyes could produce of the less known, horizontal, vertical, and single-screen traditional shoot'em-ups. Some, as might be expected, are better lost in time. Yet other unfairly neglected ones have a fair shot at standing up to the best of the best. Dig in.

 

Aerostar

Players: 1
About: Jumping shooter
Courtesy of: Vic Tokai
Back in: 1991
Originally on: GameBoy
Also on: N/A

You can dismiss it as a gimmick, or praise it as a unique game mechanic, but the "jump gauge" is what defines Vic Tokai's 1991 vertical shooter Aerostar and sets it apart from the rest. With it, the Aerostar can elevate itself off the ground to dodge bullets, overcome earthbound enemies, or simply cross chasms for as long as you hold down the corresponding button or the limited gauge allows. It can't shoot while airborne, but these hovering jumps are the main technique to conquer in a shoot'em-up where the player's craft moves over land instead of through the air. And although movement is restricted to the different roads, bridges, and even narrow catwalks of every stage; accidentally falling off of these is impossible.
Curiously (and because successfully navigating through these paths is actually harder than fighting back the alien army, including bosses), you'll notice a less frenetic, slower-than-usual pace to the entire game. Quick reflexes are rarely in demand, the slowly crawls along to give you time to calculate jumps and carefully measure landings (which are specially hard when you are new to the ship's picky hit detection with the ground), and both bullets and enemy sprites never really overwhelm the player as is often the case in the genre. It feels a lot like R-Type in this aspect, whose deliberate slow pace also promotes survival via strategic placement of the player's ship on screen rather than quick reaction to enemy shots.

Japanese cover

The Aerostar has no energy bar, and 3 lives each continue. It acquires weapons like spread shots, semi-homing lasers, and missiles from flying lettered icons that cycle through when shot; and can combine them with side blasters or small shield pods for devastating effects. The enemy, however, is capable of firing shots at two different heights. Low flying shots are depicted with small sprites and can be jumped over, while high flying ones have bigger sprites and demand that the Aerostar be grounded for it not to be it. Getting used to effectively maneuvering through these in such a primitive screen takes some time, as you can imagine. One has to quickly differentiate the two, execute the dodge, and probably land on safe terrain afterwards. A lot more involved than the usual quick joystick tap to get out of the way, yet one can still dodge bullets in this manner if the situation permits.

American cover

Stages' graphic design is not only varied and quite detailed for the time, but seems almost themed. Even though all 6 of them play the same way (except for particular obstacles like disappearing roads, spike traps, and destructible barriers that are stage-specific), they all have very distinct settings (like a beach, a cave, an alien lair, or a space city), a corresponding huge but almost completely stiff boss, and an often catchy soundtrack that seems to have been carefully composed specifically to fit each environment. In this manner, the beach side stage starts with a very catchy, upbeat, anime-like track; while the cave level is backed up by a much somber, mysterious, low-tone tune.

Lastly, the game's manual tells the story of a desolate, inhabitable Earth product of World War IV and how returning humans are confronted by an alien race while trying to rebuild their home planet. But I'll spare you the clichéd details. What matters is the 3 difficulty levels, varied stages, good soundtrack, and original jump mechanic that makes Aerostar a very decent shoot'em-up. So don't get discouraged in the beginning by the unique control scheme or slow pace, this is one of those games that gets progressively better stage after stage.

 

 

 

 

 

Mercenary Force

Players: 1
About: Team shooting
Courtesy of: Meldac
Back in: 1990
Originally on: GameBoy
Also on: N/A

No, this one did not mistakenly slip in. Despite the abstruse cover art, misleading screen shots on the back of the box, and much to the dismay of children who thought were spending their allowances in something Zelda-like, Mercenary Force is very much a shoot'em-up whose unintentional deception could be attributed to the lack of information game packaging used to be known for in the past; or the often hardship of trying to make sense of such low resolution games from a single screen capture.
Japanese record company and videogame producers Meldac (virtually unknown in the game industry except for their Heiankyo Alien GameBoy port and cultish NES Zombie Nation shooter) decided to infuse their new shoot'em-up, known in its country of origin as Tenjin Kaisen, with RPG elements and feudal Japan themes. But the world hadn't yet warmed up to role-playing games and Asian culture themes when the company decided to also publish it in the west under the title of Mercenary Force. Sitting on western store shelves next to much safer, conventional ideas like Solar Striker and Battle Unit Zeoth; Meldac's shooter offered extra layers of complexity uncommon to the genre at the time and a completely atypical setting that although welcomed for originality's sake, felt completely unfamiliar to anyone who didn't grow up in Japan. Unfortunately, these very particular characteristics would push Mercenary Force towards obscurity despite it being a fairly distributed cartridge around the world.

American cover

Like other early shooters, however, the game makes no effort to even try to explain the plot behind it. According to the manual, the "magical Lord of Darkness" and his minions rule Japan with an iron fist. One day, the Tokugawa Shogun has a vision in which he sees a small group of warriors defeat this evil and restore peace to Japan, so he decides to act on this premonition and recruits five different fighters to try and take the dark lord down. These five mercenaries are the unnamed selectable characters off of which the player can construct his customizable team by paying the required hiring fees. With a maximum number of four members and no repetition restrictions, you can include:

Characters:

Nem-boMonk

The monk is a top tier character, and the most expensive to hire at ¥1200. He shoots energy rays up and down diagonally, and has average hit points, 9. His special attack makes the screen scroll forward incredibly fast while taking out any enemies in the way at the same time, skipping part of the stage.
Special attack: Spirit Of Time
SakuraMystic
The mystic (a.k.a. a priestess) is probably the worst recruit because she shoots fireballs vertically, something there's barely any use for. She'll only set you back ¥700 though, and her hit points total 8. Her special attack makes the party invincible and hits everything on the screen with bouncing bullets.
Special attack: Spirit Of Life
KichiServant
The servant (a farmer with a rifle) is the cheapest unit at ¥400, has the least hit points at 6, and has a long range forward shot with a rate of fire of 1 shot at a time. His special attack simply destroys most enemies on the screen in one hit.
Special attack: Explosion
ToraNinja
The ninja is another top tier unit that can throw two simultaneous shurikens straight ahead, although short in range. It has above average hit points (10), and is the second most expensive recruit (¥1000). His special attack makes the party invincible and destroy enemies on contact.
Special attack: Spirit Of Wind
TakeSamurai
The samurai has the highest hit points, 12, and is the third best character type. His cost is average at ¥800, and he shoots two side-by-side arrows from his bow that make a great, wide forward shot. His special attack turns the party invincible and shoots bullets in all directions if button B is pressed.
Special attack: Spirit Of Fire
 

Once the game starts, tapping the A button makes all characters shoot their specific projectile at the same time, while the B button switches between the many team formations (square, diamond, arrow, or column-shaped; with variations on these depending on the total number of warriors) to effectively dodge attacks and counter enemy waves, and Select changes the leading man. The latter is important not only because the team leader is the one directly under the player's control while the other three mimic his movements, but also due to his ability to sacrifice his life to execute a special attack (A+B together) with varying effects depending on the type of character. Therefore, a very basic strategy consists of moving near-dead characters to the front line and executing their special move right before they die.

Japanese cover

Each character has his/her own hit points, which balances out the fact that moving the clumsy warrior formation unscathed through narrow spaces as well as in-between enemy fire is more often than not an impossible task. Thankfully, the mercenaries can enter stores, temples, and houses scattered throughout the stages in which they'll receive help in the form of free hit points; or just use the Yen enemies drop to revive downed allies or buy healing items Forgotten Worlds-style. If you manage to survive the end-of-level bosses, you can also re-hire any lost party members at the beginning of each stage.
Yet as permissive as all of this sounds, Mercenary Force still leans towards the difficult side. There are no continues (you can use cheats to select levels), and money is not only limited but also hard to pick up during battle because it disappears from the screen incredibly quick. And while keeping your party healthy is perfectly feasible once you master the controls and know the best character/formation combinations, a sudden downed ally can quickly bring the entire party down to its knees.

The cast of tiny sprites is surprisingly varied but poorly animated, and the simplistic background graphics of each stage include Japanese forests, ghost towns, cemeteries, villages, and mountains all accompanied by an unremarkable matching soundtrack. Still, there's a distinctive charm stemming from its unique theme, overall originality in the genre, and diminutive scale. But still no match for the snail-like pace of its six levels and overall bland, no-thrills progression that only the most patient players will be able to put up with in order to see it all (3 different endings can be achieved depending on cheat usage, as well as if a particular character is in the party when the game is beaten).

Sources:

- HardcoreGaming101's article on Mercenary Force.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
Sachen 4-in-1
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
Always take the time to make sure you land on safe ground.
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
Space to maneuver is premium in the last stage, and enemies
build it and destroy it at will.
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
 
Aerostar - GameBoy
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
Having troubles with the limited money and lack of continues?
Press Up, Select, A, and B at the same time on the title screen
for a stage select code, and do it five times in a row for ¥50000.
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
The Formation Of The Mountain: Excellent fire power reach
for open spaces, but very hard to dodge attacks.
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
The Formation Of The Wind: a well-balanced tactic for both
defense and fire power.
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
The Formation Of The Fire: concentrated fire power in the
middle of the party and easy maneuverability in tight spaces.
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
 
Mercenary Force - GameBoy
The Formation Of The Forest: Close and tight like a dense
forest, this formation allows for good defense.
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
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