Batsugun (1996) By:Toaplan Genre:Shooting Players:1-2 Difficulty:Medium-Hard Featured Version:Arcade First Day Score: 361,690 (one credit) Also Available For:Sega Saturn
Recently I had a thought which led to me trying to decide just how many categories of 2D shoot 'em ups there are. I settled on about eight (although it almost certainly needs a lot more 'research'!) but the most recently-invented of these is one I have little experience with. It goes by many names but the one I've most commonly heard is 'bullet-hell'. On the rare occasion a new 2D shmup gets released these days, and for the last ten years or so, you can almost guarantee it will be one of this type. But just how long have they been around, and who started the craze? There's probably lots of different opinions on this exact subject but the game most often credited with being the first bullet-hell game is this one right here from super-shmup stalwarts, Toaplan, and it's time I played it.
As would become typical of these games, there's little in the way of exposition or story here. The rather un-shmup-like title screen features a sextet of varied heroes in heroic poses (and the token teenage girly, wearing tiny shorts, of course) who represent the selectable characters that can be used to play through the five stages of vertically-scrolling action. Batsugun is a two-player game so three characters are exclusive to each player and they have three types of aircraft between them, complete with unique weapons. Ship Type A is piloted by Jenno and Schneider and comes armed with a spread shot, Ship Type B is piloted by Beltiana & Alteeno and is equipped with a narrow lightning cannon, and Ship Type C is piloted by Iceman & Olisis and is armed with a wave shot.
With the exception of a few between-stage motivational comments from their various occupants, the three ships, whilst different shapes and colours, otherwise differ only by their respective weapons. They all handle more or less the same and are equipped with a few smart bombs apiece. More of these can of course be obtained by collecting the 'B' icons during the course of the game, and your ship's weapon can be powered up by collecting the 'P' icons of which there are quite a few. Best of all, collecting the gold 'experience points' left in the smouldering ruins of destroyed ground targets will allow you to 'level-up' your weapon, RPG-stylee. There are three levels for each ship and each increases both the power and range of your weapon whilst also adding an additional type of attack, also unique to each ship.
These include missiles for Ship A, diagonally-firing arc-shots for Ship B, and lasers for Ship C. I'm not sure how much difference they make to the almost ridiculous power-levels the main weapons can reach but with the masses of bullets and enemies opposing you here, they're still more than welcome! Indeed, were this an easy game, the five stages would probably only last around ten minutes so it's probably a good thing that, like most bullet-hell games, it's harder than a five-tonne Balrog! Graphically, it's pretty amazing. The visuals remain very impressive today, even compared to some of the more recent hardcore bullet-hell games, but for the early 90's, they're incredible! The enemies are a roughly equal mix of aircraft and ground-based armoured vehicles, guns, and tanks of all shapes and sizes.
Few of the enemies are small, with even standard enemies often being as large as mid-bosses in other shmups, and the bosses are often larger than the screen! They're almost all nicely drawn though, regardless of their size. About the smallest craft on the screen are the player-controlled ones and that bring me to the most impressive visual aspect of the game - the bullets! Their quantity isn't quite as ridiculous as some more recent effects but when the screen fills up with multi-coloured projectiles of various kinds, it's hard not to be impressed. The enemies fire the usual orange 'energy balls' as well as a few more colourful shots and lasers and things of that nature but the weapons of the player-controlled ships can reach quite staggering proportions - if you manage to power them up.
It can be hard to even see much of what's going on when Ship A is firing a fully powered-up main weapon, and to see a level three lightning cannon in action is a sight to behold in itself! I suppose there's nothing forcing you to hold down the fire button permanently though and, as if Toaplan were attempting to illustrate that point, the weapons of each ship behave slightly differently depending on whether you keep the button held down or if you press it rapidly instead. This is particularly true of Ship C's weapon which covers a much wider area with rapid presses but at the cost of power. The only visual aspect of the game which doesn't dazzle quite so much are the backgrounds which vary between average and good, and surprisingly the first stage is perhaps the weakest one.
The players ships are launched from an underwater base and the first stage appears to be set underwater as well, over and around a submerged city of some sort. This probably sounds great but it looks a bit dull to my eyes. There's a watery element to the backgrounds of the first three stages and later ones aren't particularly creative either - flying through clouds, a beach, a wooded area, and enemy bases as usual. I guess you wouldn't really have had too many opportunities to admire them even if they were amazing though, and they probably only seem a little dull because the rest of the game looks so good! The MegaDrive and SNES could handle conversions of most arcade games around in those days but it wasn't until the Saturn arrived that a home port could do this justice!
The soundtrack is also fantastic, consisting of upbeat as well as slower, more moody tracks, and tense pieces for the bosses. If you took away all this audio/visual spectacle though, would you be left with the core of a good, well-designed game? Well, it's certainly not the most cerebral of games, even for shmup standards. Strategy is pretty much restricted to your choice of ship - after that, it's a reaction test. Enemy ships are numerous and well-armed but mostly appear from the top of the screen so top-drawer bullet-dodging skills are the main qualification needed for success here. Weaving your way through relentless patterns of enemy bullets is always a hugely satisfying thing though, and Batsugun is no different. As with most bullet-hell games, the bosses are easily the toughest challenge and they produce the most bullets too, swirling all around until you bomb them to hell. This definitely isn't the hardest game of its type that I've played though - I could get over halfway through the game on one credit after only a few tries, for example, but it certainly isn't a walk in the park either. However, the biggest problem I was expecting was that, since it was the first game of its kind, it would've dated somewhat by now. This is usually the case with games that start a craze, after all - the clones that follow are less original but refine what the first game started. As mentioned previously, my experience of bullet-hell games is thus far rather limited but I know enough to know that Batsugun has indeed been improved upon in the almost-twenty years since it appeared, but some of the more recent efforts have gone over-the-top, even crazy. The pace here is a little more serene but it's still a frenetic, not to mention highly playable example which I'm very confident remains as respected as the day it appeared.