The Top 5 Posthumously Released Shmups for the Dreamcast

In the world of shoot-em-ups, you’re either a sinker or a floater. Either way, you’re shit in the eyes of the mainstream gaming scene. Somewhat trendy shit, but shit nonetheless. The avid shmupper is simply not catered to in the same way that RPG or FPS gamers are. The hottest new shooter might NEVER be coming to a console near you, so the enthusiast is usually forced to import his fix from Japan. And we scramble madly for whatever crumbs they drop, gladly paying large sums of money for releases that are most likely bargain bin material in their native land.

So it only seems appropriate that this shit-on genre would find unlikely refuge on a shit-on system. The Dreamcast, one of the best systems ever to have failed miserably, most certainly fits that bill. Sega’s glorious swan-song may have been buried in early 2001, but a handful of small shmup developers have dug up the corpse to experiment upon, and nothing but explosions and gunfire can be heard echoing from their labs.

In this feature, I’ll be giving you the straight dope on all the illest DC releases that you never knew you were missing out on (that’s how you kids talk these days, right?). To keep things funky fresh, I’ve decided to EXCLUDE the games that have since seen U.S. releases (no Ikaruga here, folks). Games that have future Western releases planned are also disqualified (no Trigger Heart Exelica here either, folks). While some of these games have since had PS2 ports, and almost all of them originated in the Japanese arcades, none of them will leaving the Land of the Rising Sun anytime soon, so hunting down the imports is your only option.

While importing games is usually somewhat of a pain, the Dreamcast is one of the easiest systems to import for. System modification is always an option, as is buying a Japanese system, but the easiest and cheapest solution is to obtain a boot disk, which can be downloaded and burned to a standard CD without much trouble. If that sounds sketchy to you, a Game Shark should also do the trick.

And, before we get started, I should remind you that all of these games were released after the Dreamcast was officially dead here in the States (deader than dead), so if you do decide to try out any of these lost gems… show some respect.

#5 – Trizeal

Trizeal is about as traditional and no-frills as a game can get, but that’s certainly not a criticism. The developer, Triangle Service, was clearly focused on getting the fundamentals right rather than gimmicks or innovation. The result is a game that harkens back to the shmups of the 16 bit era (back when they were just called shooters).

Despite using polygons for many of the game’s larger objects, Trizeal is old school all the way, from the music to the level designs. However, one of the game’s few concessions to modernity is also it’s greatest flaw.

Much like Mars Matrix or DoDonPachi, enemies drop bonus point items when they die. But unlike those games, where enemies spout bright neon bullets, the enemies in Trizeal shoot (often quite speedy) bullets that are colored very similarly to the bonus items. The game would be tough on it’s own, but paired with this design flaw, it can seem rather unfair.

But if you can put this relatively minor niggle aside, you’ll find a game that’s both attractive to look at (very basic, but also very clean and colorful) and fun to play. It might be a throwback, but this one’s definitely a keeper (yes, that was a non sequitorial fishing joke and yes, of course I’m ashamed of it). Also available on PS2 (still import-only, however).

#4 – Zero Gunner 2

While most of the games on this list were made by relatively small developers (hell, Trizeal was made by just three people), ZG2 was made by the highly-respected Psikyo, developer of the Gunbird and Strikers 1945 series. This fact tells us two things; One, we can expect fairly high quality standards, and Two, all the bosses will inevitably transform into giant robots, and if they’re giant robots to begin with, they’ll turn into a different kind of giant robot. These are the calling cards of the developer, and they hold as true here as anywhere.

Despite these givens, ZG2 is a bit of a departure for Psikyo. It’s actually a bit of a departure for shmups in general. Though the screen usually scrolls vertically, your aircraft (helicopters in this case) can be rotated a full 360 degrees. This really opens up the gameplay to allow for a variety of situations that wouldn’t normally be very practical. Bosses that circle the screen, normally an annoyance, can be dealt with easily by turning your chopper toward them.

I say “easily,” but the game is actually far from it. I’ve heard many people state this to be a fairly easy shmup; a good one for beginners to the genre, but for me, this is far from true. I actually find it to be harder than most of Psikyo’s games, mostly due to the rotation element (and also due to the absence of smart bombs).

While the control mechanic that governs this ability is fairly easy to pick up on, it also means that enemies will assault you from every conceivable angle. Even when I use multiple credits, later levels of the game usually turn into a frenzied gang-bang. My helpless chopper, much to my dismay, is usually on the receiving end. The curtain draws on a pitiful scene; a helicopter sobbing hysterically in the darkness, all of it’s orifices having been brutally violated by the bullets of well-sculpted polygonal enemies.

Luckily, as with all games by Psikyo, there are a wide variety of difficulty selections to accommodate all skill levels, from the tellingly named “very hard” down to the shockingly easy “child,” for the challenge-challenged. At least they spared us the insult of including a “monkey” mode this time around.

All around, an excellent game, and the DC is still the only place you can play it (other than Japanese arcades). Expect to pay about 80 bucks for this one if you go through ebay. No Sir, these here games ain’t cheap.

#3 – Under Defeat

On the surface, this one might look a bit similar to Zero Gunner 2. But other than the fact that they both place you in the cockpit of a helicopter, they’re as different as two games can be. And if ZG2 is tough, Under Defeat is absolutely murderous in difficulty.

Created by G.Rev, one of my favorite up-and-coming developers (fun fact: they assisted in the development of Ikaruga), the game has production values you wouldn’t expect from such a small studio. The graphics are crisp (especially in TATE mode), the sound is powerful and booming, and the controls are spot on. Every aspect of the game is as solid as a neutron star.

One thing in particular will impress you within mere moments of booting up the game; the explosions. Of all the hundred+ shmups I’ve played, I have to give UD the nod for having the very best explosions around. This isn’t a distinction I take lightly, but I feel that in this case it’s an undeniable truth. The frequent bowel control issues I’ve had while playing the game are a testament to the sheer force and ferocity of these amazing displays of pyrotechnics. The bosses in particular have ridiculously detailed and satisfying death throes.

The gameplay itself is simple. You can shoot, move, and drop smart bombs. You can also deploy one of three types of helper pods, which will take a few potshots at the enemy before disappearing to be recharged. The only feature that’s even close to being a “gimmick” is that you can shoot at a slight angle (say, 30 degrees or so to the left and right). It might not be as versatile as the 360° rotation seen in ZG2, but it allows for a more focused and intense old school experience.

The game only uses two buttons to control all these various abilities, and when the action gets heavy, this simplicity is a necessity. You only have your dodging skills to rely upon, and the simple control scheme allows you to get the most out of your (*cough* piss poor) reflexes.

Things get hectic rather quickly, and only the twitchiest of gamers will see the end credits, if there even are end credits. That’s right, I still haven’t been able to beat this one. The difficulty of the final boss in particular is absolutely absurd. But that’s exactly what makes these games so maddening and so addictive.

Other than the arcade, you can only find this one on the DC, and I highly recommend that you do. This is actually one of the cheaper games on the list, and should only cost you about sixty clams. Get it now before the price goes up, as these games rarely come down in value.

#2 – Psyvariar 2

Out of all the games on this list, this one least adheres to typical shmup conventions. As a matter of fact, you could go so far as to say that Psyvariar 2 turns the whole concept of the shmup on it’s ear. Flying directly into enemies and their bullets is not only possible, it’s essential to scoring well. And experts at the game tend to shoot their weapon only occasionally; purposely (though selectively) sparing the lives of their adversaries. It’s a strange beast; a shmup that requires very little dodging and shooting. “B-But how is this POSSIBLE,” you scream in red-faced indignation.

Here’s how. Gameplay revolves heavily around leveling up your character (you play as a mech, by the way). For every level gained, your mech becomes temporarily invincible for a fraction of a second. During this time you are free to kamikaze your enemies and dive into their bullets. With some skill, and perhaps a bit of luck, you can level up repeatedly and frolic carefree through even the thickest waves of enemy fire. And man, oh, man does it feel nice.

This simple concept spawns a devious conflict of interests in the players’ psyche. Risk is the key to both success and failure, and this is mostly due to another of the game’s key mechanics; bullet scraping.

Placing your mech in close proximity to enemy bullets increases both your score and your experience level. This risk obviously puts you in immediate danger, but it’s also fundamental to leveling up, which temporarily cancells out this danger. You frequently find yourself in both situations; dying because you get carried away with bullet-bathing heroics, and the other side of the coin; dying because you didn’t fill up your experience gage fast enough to cancel out the massive wall of lead coming your way.

These elements create a game that’s as maddening as it is captivating, but for all it’s complexity, it’s not as difficult as it sounds (nor as complex). The hit box is extremely small, perhaps even as small as a single pixel. Thus, only a tiny portion of your mech is actually vulnerable to enemy fire, resulting in many “how the hell did I survive that” moments, and who doesn’t love those.

The true difficulty of the game is psychological. It’s the struggle to find a balance between playing carefully and going for it that makes this game tough. As such, it’s one of the few games that you seem to get worse at as you play and become more confident with it’s concepts.

It does indeed take a while to get used to playing a shmup this way though. And it’s equally difficult to get un-used to it when you switch over to a more conventional game. It’s as unique as Ikaruga and as addictive as crack-laced crack. And when you get into the rhythm of the game, it’s an experience like no other. This game simply must be experienced, and you should do whatever it takes (w h a t e v e r. i t. t a k e s) to get your hands on it.

Psyvariar 2 is also available for the Japanese PS2, which can be picked up for significantly less zenny than the Dreamcast version. So, as much as I hate to say it, that might be a more sensible route to take if you have an import-enabled PS2.

#1 – Border Down

It was a tragic day for lameness the day this game was released. Simply put, Border Down is awesome. I could end the review right now and be content in the knowledge that I’ve described the game 100% accurately, but I suppose I’ll ramble on for a while (for typing practice).

The spiritual sequel to another fairly obscure import shooter called Metal Black (which is also very good, by the way), Border Down isn’t distinguished by gimmicks or clever twists. No, BD separates itself from the pack simply by kicking a lot of ass in every conceivable department. Graphics, music, controls – yes. Memorable bosses and level designs – check. Massive firepower – Cliclick. That last one was a text approximation of a shotgun pumping, by the way. A space shotgun.

The weapons at your thumb-tip are the glue that hold the game together, more so even than the average shmup. Developer G.Rev (Under Defeat) has been extremely generous in this department by giving the player a highly versatile yet elegant weapons system. As you play, your gun-power increases automatically (the occasional power up helps to expedite this process). When fully charged, your guns are fucking beasts. Two firing modes are available at all times; holding the shoot button will fire the traditional forward gun, while tapping the same button launches (surprisingly powerful) homing beams.

As potent as these standard weapons are, sometimes the situation calls for something bigger. Enter the super-laser. At any time, your firepower can be traded in for a supercharged laser blast, which will steadily drain your power meter the longer it’s held. It will also render you invincible, making it a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. One of the game’s coolest touches is that certain enemies (mostly bosses) have a superlaser of their own. And if two of these mammoth weapons should happen to collide head on… awesomeness ensues.

This simple control scheme quickly becomes second nature, which frees you up to concentrate on two things; dodging and blasting, the rock-solid foundation on which any respectable shoot em up is built.

And you’ll need all the concentration you can muster, because challenge makes a rather prominent appearance in this game. And while it could certainly be argued that such things are highly subjective, I’ll nevertheless go out on a limb and say that the difficulty is perfect. You’ll get your ass kicked until it’s the consistency of raw ground beef, but with time and practice, the game is surmountable. Even for someone with the reflexes of Bruce Lee (meaning, a corpse; probably not the best dead person I could’ve chosen as an example), beating the game in one credit seems tantalizingly doable.

So since I’ve ranted and raved for a bit longer than I’d planned, I’ll try to sum up Border Down in nine words; instant classic; the final nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin… removed. Damn.

As of this writing, there are no known plans of porting BD to any other system, so busting out the ol’ DC is currently the only way to play it at home (it was originally an arcade release, also Japan-only). It’s also a bit expensive to get a hold of, with mint copies selling for well over a hundred dollars, but for anyone who’s interested in picking up one of the best shmups available, it’s money well spent.


~ by Krooze L-Roy on February 1, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Top 5 Posthumously Released Shmups for the Dreamcast”

  1. I love shmups, I love lists, and I love this article! The only one I haven’t played yet is Trizeal. The other four I think are the four best shooters on the dreamcast, domestic releases included, and four of my all-time favorites. It is just splitting hairs to rank them, but here is how I see it:

    4. Under Defeat
    3. Border Down
    2. Psyvariar 2
    1. Zero Gunner 2

    Again, splitting hairs. I also happen to be in the Zero Gunner is (relatively) easy camp. Psyvariar is also not too bad for a “bullet hell” game.

    Border Down’s music kicks ass? Not mine. I suppose the space-lounge style works, but I don’t care for it much.

  2. Crack-laced crack, indeed.

  3. This is a very well written article. Too bad I read it so late! hehehe

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