GameBoy Roundup: Shoot'em-ups

 

By ShellShock
Revised on 08/31/09
   

 

 

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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Chikyuu Kaihou Gun
ZAS

Players: 1
About: Fancy shooter
Courtesy of: T&E Soft
Back in: 1992
Originally on: GameBoy
Also on: N/A

If you are a GameBoy fan, discovering Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS for the first time is like finding a $50 bill in an old pair of pants or jacket. The most impressive shooter on the system bar none and a game Shane Bettenhausen would probably add to his ever growing "Best Secret Game Ever" list, ZAS is in some ways GameBoy's own Recca, and product of T&E Soft, a small Japanese company known to most for its multi-platform golf obsession and to hardcore gamers for the Hydlide RPG series.

Although my efforts to unravel any clues about its plot have been foiled by the game's lack of presence on the internet, it's probably safe to assume we can all get by without it. There's no time to waste on clichéd shoot'em-up scripts when there are five gorgeously crafted, unusually varied stages to blast through. Far from content with mindless background eye candy (which there's plenty of), T&E Soft went the extra mile and designed levels that alternate between R-Type-style cramped spaces (where ship positioning and obstacle avoiding are key), and the more traditional open skies of games like 1943 (where quick reflexes rule). All of them packed full with impressive looking bosses with much-appreciated original attacks, interesting mid-bosses, plenty of borrowed ideas like destructible walls and floating mine gauntlets, and some original obstacles like self-assembling labyrinth walls and even railroad crossing with functioning gates. There isn't a dull moment in ZAS. It's a very satisfying cocktail of borrowed and original shoot'em-up conventions whose looks might remind of R-Type or Gradius, yet has hints of Star Soldier and Aleste when played.

Complete ZAS set

At this point, you wouldn't be wrong to expect a diverse weapon system, some sort of screen-clearing bomb, and maybe even a shield pod. Yet ZAS seems to have sacrificed all of the above in favor of avoiding further screen clutter (which is an issue that stems from the game's unorthodox graphic techniques, but we'll get to that in a minute). Instead, there's really only one weapon that can be upgraded multiple times, an energy shield in the vein of Darius, and two floating, indestructible gun turrets that follow the fighter and can be retracted or expanded for concentrated or wide fire.

The precise controls, forgiving collision detection, and overall slow pace of the game makes dodging (and specially seeing) bullets and obstacles in the primitive screen an easy job for our fighter, even if its movements are a little sluggish.
Strengthening its gun close to its full potential, however, seems to prove a harder task than it should despite power-ups being fairly frequent. Just like in Gradius, you will find yourself defenseless and struggling if you happen to lose a life during the game's hardest stages. If you happen to get stuck, ZAS generously provides three difficulty levels and even a stage selection option.

But as good a reputation ZAS has among the few that are familiar with it, it's also infamous for causing some headaches when trying to play it on more advanced hardware. Its unusual high number of animated sprites and gorgeous background details are already a little too ambitious for the GameBoy's blurry screen, yet that didn't stop T&E Soft from implementing a dual layer scroll in which two separate backgrounds move at different speeds. To effectively create this special effect without completely overloading the screen, developers came up with an ingenious idea that tricks the human eye, alternating frames between the two backgrounds (i.e. background A uses odd numbered frames, while background B uses even numbered frames). This is a great solution as long as one is playing on the original hardware, as the passive-matrix screen's slow response blending everything nicely. But when paired with more advanced Nintendo portables, funny things start to happen. Personally, I could not get ZAS to run properly on my GameBoy Advance SP or GameBoy Color for the life of me. All sprites seem to disappear and only the backgrounds are displayed. Is the game really not compatible with these systems?
Aversion to some flash carts and emulators seems to also be a problem, and it's especially troublesome when trying to take screenshots with the latter. But don't get discouraged, it is well worth the work.

Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - Game Boy

Beautiful abandoned temples overrun by vegetation, claustrophobic industrial areas full of guards, and big space stations and warship fleets are just some of the gorgeous locations ZAS takes place in. If you pay close attention you will discover most of them are even animated!
A very catchy soundtrack, although nothing technically impressive, seals the deal.

ZAS' tightly-integrated level design, complete lack of repetitiveness, impressive audiovisuals, and fair controls makes it my personal favorite on the GameBoy. Particularly sad is the fact that despite it being one of the best shoot'em-ups on the system, it remains virtually undiscovered to this day, undeservedly buried deep amongst some of the worst monochrome shooters (yes Sachen, I'm talking about you). Fortunately, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the only online English review of the game some years ago, written by a fellow named Chris Covell, to whom I owe this pleasant discovery.

 

Sources and special thanks:

- Chris Covell's hard to find review of ZAS.

-Another ZAS review, in French.

-Rey from www.vgmuseum.com for showing me how to take screenshots of the game.

 

Burai Fighter Deluxe

Players: 2
About: Jet pack shooter
Courtesy of: KID
Back in: 1990
Originally on: NES
Also on: GameBoy, GameBoy Color

Japanese developer KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) is responsible for multi-directional shooter Burai Fighter Deluxe, a downgraded yet faithful rendition of their first contractual effort with now defunct Taxan (and that encouraging guy whose name seems to pop up in lots of game endings, Ken Lobb, a.k.a. KAL): Burai Fighter for the NES. Follow-up co-developing endeavors between KID and Taxan include Low G Man, G.I. Joe, and some work on Kick Master and G.I. Joe 2: The Atlantis Factor; the latter picked up by other companies when Taxan went out of business.

American cover

In a remote corner of the galaxy, an advanced race known as the Burai has been focusing their vast mental capabilities on conquering the universe. Throughout thousands of years they have been creating armies of half-organic/half-mechanic creatures with this sole purpose, and the best tool available to stop them from overrunning the galaxy seems to be a trusty and versatile jet pack.
Just like its beefier console version, Burai Fighter Deluxe is one of those few auto-scrolling shoot'em-ups that stands out for granting the player multi-directional (as in 8 joystick directions) shooting, automatically drawing comparisons to Capcom's Forgotten Worlds since this combination of freestyle gunnery and uninterrupted scrolling is otherwise quite a rare one in the genre.

Versus Mode
A curiosity found only in the western version of the game, Versus Mode pits you against a friend via link cable to see who lasts longer without losing a life. The game synchronizes both players to start at the same time and keeps track of their progress, but each person plays independently in their own screen.

All three weapons made the transition to GameBoy and can be independently upgraded up to ten levels. "Laser" possesses moderate power and penetrates multiple enemies, "Ring" has low power but can traverse walls, and "Missile" is highly destructive yet has no additional advantages. Collecting four bomb fragments (crystal-like orbs) dropped by destroyed enemies adds one "Cobalt Bomb" to a maximum stock of seven, while pressing the A button detonates it erasing all enemies and bullets on the screen. The last power-up, a hard to find rotating shield that orbits around the hero, absorbs enemy shots.
Only five of the original seven stages are present. The two free-roaming, randomly arranged overhead levels present in the NES version of the game have been ditched; but most of the enemies, obstacles, and all bosses are faithfully represented. Including the impressive final guardian depicted in the cover, the serpent "Slimedragon".

Japanese cover

Naturally, stage design had to be adjusted to GameBoy specs. A slight vertical camera pan was introduced to give more space to maneuver in the smaller screen, while some background graphics were redesigned or even completely replaced (most notably stage 2, originally featuring moving organic walls) to adapt to the lesser hardware. Secret power-up rooms that were accessed by placing the hero in ambiguous screen corners at specific times, however, are still in the game.
Another of Burai's signature features was its crazy, undecided scrolling. Deluxe retains this characteristic feature, so the scroll still seems to have a mind of its own when abruptly changing the default direction (right) to up, down, or even back to where the player came from. It's a devilish touch that far from turning progression into a frustrating experience works together with the precise controls to make the pace more interesting, and also keep players constantly on their toes by guessing which new direction enemies will enter the screen from, or making sure one doesn't get unexpectedly squashed against walls.

Not much (if anything) seems to have been compromised when it comes to sound, and Deluxe still offers four letter password support, all three difficulty levels (plus unlockable "Ultimate"), and a gimmicky versus mode available only in the western release that pits you against a friend to see who can last longer on any given level.
In 1999, KID once again revisited the game in Japan under the title of Burai Fighter Color, this time with full GameBoy Color support, increased speed, minor graphic upgrades, and some stage layout tweaks; making it the definitive portable version. Agetec published it in America a year later as Space Marauder.

Japanese and American covers for GameBoy Color version

Despite its few obvious technical downgrades, Burai Fighter Deluxe does an excellent job of retaining the great controls and playability of the console release, and is a decent monochrome shoot'em-up option on its own. Fans of the NES original will be happy with this faithful portable version or better so, its updated colored release; yet newcomers should have few reasons not to go for the full console experience first.

 

 

 

 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
Note that because of the game's unique background scrolling
technique, these screenshots were taken by blending two
frames into one, thus their blurrier nature.
 
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
Eliminate this mini-boss R-Type style.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
Railroad-crossing gates automatically trigger when this
two-car train crosses the screen.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
ZAS' bosses have very interesting attack patterns different
to any other shoot'em-ups.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
Blast through vegetation and scorpion larvae.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
Mini-bosses are unique to each level, like most of ZAS' fauna.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
The last boss' (or bosses') must be killed at the same time in
order to prevent one of them from resuscitating the other.
 
Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
The game is known for switching scrolling directions on the
fly without any notice, so stay off of screen corners.
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
The "Slimedragon" is the last boss.
 
Burai Fighter Deluxe - GameBoy
Ken Lobb speaks Engrish?
 
Version comparison


GameBoy
 

GameBoy Color
 

NES
 

 

   
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