Most video game systems, once they “die”, are forgotten relatively quickly in favor of their successors – at best, one may be fondly, if briefly, recalled when a classic of its heyday comes up in a “retro” conversation. Few consoles make a truly lasting impression on the collective gamer consciousness, especially if their tenure was short: the Dreamcast, which turns ten years old (in the USA) this month, is a rare exception. While some may be baffled as to how something so widely labeled a failure could rate its own “theme week” on Destructoid, ask any participating blogger what the system represents to them and you’ll get a wide variety of answers. The end of an era for both Sega and its fanbase, as well as a distillation of what made them so distinctive. A tragic warning to others about the price of trying too hard to be “ahead of the curve”. An unofficial death knell for arcades and the dominance of genres bred there. A really weird-shaped controller. The list goes on.
But me? The Dreamcast that I spent untold hours on is best-remembered, I think, as “The Other Shmup Machine”.
The li’l white box might not have a shooter library as vast as those of the Saturn
, or PS2, or even the PC Engine/TG-16 if you want to go back that far, but especially considering how cheap you can pick one up for by now and how easy it is to play imports on a domestic system, I’d still venture to call the Dreamcast an essential acquisition for any shmupper. Even shooters fans (or curious passers-by) who aren’t much interested in the system itself, however, would probably still be surprised to know how many “contemporary” shmups actually got their start on Sega’s woebegotten console, some long after it was “dead” – while fighting game fans tend to praise the Dreamcast more fervently (not without reason, as the platform does boast plenty of worthy fighters, which someone else on DT will hopefully go into), but bullet-dodgers (and magnets) have plenty of their own reasons to be happy the DC came all-too-briefly into being.
The following is an overview, organized mostly by developer, of the Dreamcast’s nifty arsenal of scrolling shooters; what they are, how they work, and why you might want to give them a try if you haven’t already. So crack your knuckles, hook up that arcade stick, and let’s get down to business.
Takumi (Giga Wing, Giga Wing 2, Mars Matrix)
While Takumi, a descendent of former shooting stalwart Toaplan (Batsugun
, Tiger Heli
, Fire Shark
, the infamous Zero Wing
), isn’t as big a name within shmupping fandom as, say, Cave or Raizing, the company threw its full support behind the Dreamcast, and to this day all three games it released there remain system exclusives: thankfully, Capcom stepped in to publish the trio in both the USA and Europe, and as a result everyone has a relatively hassle-free opportunity to play them. Of course, back when they first hit shelves the shooter-starved West took one look at their bullet-drenched screenshots and declared them “impossible” – in actuality, though, if you put in the time to learn how they work, these games are far more forgiving than they look, and are a load of fun to seek high scores in. Of course, when I say “high” scores, I mean it – Takumi is famous among genre enthusiasts for its use of astronomical multipliers to send players’ scores into the quadrillions, quintillions, and beyond, though rest assured, the difference between an average Joe and someone who really knows what he’s doing is still plenty obvious.
The first Giga Wing
introduced the “reflect barrier”, which would be tweaked and spun off in future Takumi releases – while tapping the “fire” button makes your plane shoot as per usual, holding it down for a second triggers a barrier which temporarily renders the player invincible and deflects enemy bullets back at them (a few seconds of recharge time are needed before using it again, though they can seem like an eternity when you’re being bombarded). Aside from getting through tight spots (you also have a stock of smart bombs if you need them), the barrier is also crucial to scoring, as reflected bullets turn into multiplier medals, and saving the barrier for big volleys can boost your rewards exponentially. Giga Wing 2
, released a year later, not only switches to 3D visuals and includes an easier-to-use “reflect laser” option, but rewards you even more lavishly for cancelling lots of bullets at once: if you spawn enough medals onscreen in one fell swoop, all of them will split
, literally flooding the screen with score items. As such, while the first Giga Wing
encouraged players to divide their time between shooting and reflecting, here you’re encouraged to get by almost exclusively via your barrier if you want to rack up the most points.
, unlike its cousins, does not force you to use your entire shield gauge at once: you’re free to either activate it in quick bursts (which means quicker recharge time) or blow it all to activate a screen-clearing bomb. While this game offers you more focus and flexibility when it comes to counter-attacking (here your barrier actually “absorbs” bullets, which can then be shot away in your direction of choice), it also demands additional concentration, as the score multiplier is reset if you go without collecting an item cube for too long. In addition, your performance is vital to more than just bragging rights this time, as Mars Matrix
borrows from Radiant Silvergun
in tying your points to your firepower: if you don’t score well, your main gun will have a hard time bringing down enemies, especially later on. This is mitigated somewhat by the presence of a powerful close-range alternate weapon, but in any event if you want to succeed at this game you’ll need to put in some serious practice time. Of course, the same goes for any of these three, as Takumi is very
stingy with extra lives – you want the one-credit clear, you’re gonna hafta earn it.
While none of the Takumi shooters are quite
arcade-perfect on the Dreamcast, the trio is pretty close in most of the important areas (definitely better than the painful Giga Wing Generations
PS2 port), and each features at least a bit of extra content – the Giga Wing
s are most notable for their single-stage “Score Attack” modes (which add another
multiplier to the equation, which grows as you avoid bombing or dying), while Mars Matrix
has a whole “shop” set up, where you can spend the points you earn in-game to unlock all manner of stuff, including some very helpful replay captures. As a final bit of incentive, all three titles are designed to be played on a horizontal screen, so there’s no need to worry about rotating your TV to play them as they were intended. Again, while these games may look insane at first, all three come recommended to anyone who enjoys a good shmup: once you “get” them, you’ll be glad to add them to your library.
Psikyo (Gunbird 2, Zero Gunner 2, Cannon Spike)
Apart from its multitude of scrolling shooter releases, Psikyo, a successor of sorts to Video System (Sonic Wings/Aero Fighters
) is best-remembered (the company was absorbed into X-Nauts several years ago) for the naughty mahjong series Taisen Hot Gimmick
. Thankfully, there are plenty of said shooters to try instead, and a handful found their way to the Dreamcast, most of which were also published overseas, again courtesy of Capcom. Psikyo always took a decidedly “old-school” approach to shmups, keeping the stages short, the scoring systems simple, and demanding lots of trial and error to make it all the way through – thankfully, especially by the DC’s time, some modern touches had been applied to its products, and its potential audience thus expanded, which makes the company’s semi-dissolution soon afterwards all the more puzzling.
Let’s start with Gunbird 2
– while the first game in the series got a notoriously poor localization as Mobile Light Force
on the PS1, Capcom treated this one right, leaving the essential elements untouched and even including Morrigan from Darkstalkers
as a bonus playable character. The game’s cartoony look and silly dialogue are its most prominent selling points, but the game itself, while quite difficult, is also nicely accessible: aside from your run-of-the-mill shot and bomb, a power meter slowly fills as you destroy enemies, and can be spent, in varying degrees, on either a charge shot or a melee attack, both of which vary by character. Scoring is similarly straightforward, yet demands strict concentration – certain enemies leave behind coins, which rotate in place at fixed intervals. Collect the coins during the split second when they’re glinting completely white (rather tough to do when enemy bullets are breathing down your neck) and you’ll get several times their “normal” value; do it twice or more in a row and bag an additional bonus. Other than that, just blow up lots of stuff and don’t die.
Zero Gunner 2
trades in Gunbird
’s “cutesy” look in favor of a more traditional “military” atmosphere, and gives you a helicopter to pilot; the vehicle’s ability to rotate its trajectory on command will come in handy, as the stages scroll in various directions and baddies approach from all sides. While it might sound complicated, it’s very easy in practice: generally your chopper fires in one direction and moves as it would in a “normal” shmup, but press a second button and a point appears that you can rotate around. Let it go and your new direction is set – the only other thing to keep in mind is to release the “fire” button occasionally to collect energy for your special attack meter. Cannon Spike
) isn’t technically a shmup (it plays closer to Robotron
or Smash T.V.
), but I’ll include it anyway – a particularly close Capcom/Psikyo venture, you control one of several characters from the former company’s catalogue (you probably already guessed that Cammy is in it, but so are Mega Man and Arthur from Ghouls n’ Ghosts
, among others) who can use “normal” and “heavy” variations of both close- and long-range attacks to bring down all who oppose them. Aside from messing with the different offensive options at your disposal, it’s largely just a matter of picking up items and dodging bullets – if you want further details HG101 has a more in-depth writeup
While Psikyo’s distinctive (some would say repetitive) style isn’t to everyone’s tastes, you should definitely try it out to see how it strikes you – while Gunbird 2
eventually made it to a PS2 compilation (which Europe got, but the US didn’t), the others presently remain Dreamcast-exclusive, so unless you’re up for buying arcade PCBs this is your only option (and in Zero Gunner
’s case you’ll have to import). All three are faithful to the arcade originals (if a little bare-bones), so there’s no need to worry about getting anything less than the “genuine” experience from any of them.
Treasure (Ikaruga, Bangai-O)
Hopefully the little Konami offshoot famous for its love of big, fiery explosions doesn’t need too lengthy an introduction, and neither should its pair of Dreamcast shoot-em-ups – Ikaruga
, after all, was eventually ported to the Gamecube and XBLA, while Bangai-O
recently got a sequel on the DS. While players continue to debate over whether the N64 or DC release of Bangai-O
is the superior one, purists don’t mince words in declaring the Dreamcast Ikaruga
port the most faithful to the original Naomi version (which makes sense, since that arcade board’s structure is quite similar to that of the DC); while this might not make much difference to some, if you have a Dreamcast
(c’mon, I had
to) you’ve still got a prime opportunity to experience some pure Treasure love. And back in the day, it was by far
your best option to do so.
In case you’ve been in a coma these past few years, Ikaruga
is a relatively basic vertical shooter with one huge gimmick, namely the “conflict between light and dark” – not only are all the game’s targets either black or white in color (and can be “chained” in groups of 3 for big points), your ship can instantly switch between either hue, granting both the ability to do greater damage to opposite-polarity enemies and a means to absorb like-colored bullets. The lack of any real weapon power-ups makes long-term survival less harrowing than in spiritual predecessor Radiant Silvergun
, but if you want to impress the Youtube crowd you’ll need to memorize where all the cannon fodder comes from to pick them off in time. Bangai-O
, for its part, is another “not really a shmup” title, as you manually traverse through enclosed levels while fighting gravity as well as enemies – the main draw here is your multi-missile special attack, which gets bigger and more destructive depending on how much immediate danger you’re in, making for a veritable game of cat-and-mouse if you want to really unleash some hell (and trust me, you do). Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the game’s signature super-tiny sprites and kooky Engrish dialogue as well – here’s a sampling
if you’d like. In short, while the Dreamcast may not be quite
the near-exclusive Treasure powerhouse that it once was, it’s still a great acquisition for fans of the company’s recent work…and it’s something of an insult to the competition that the only non-licensed “exclusive” it ever got was Stretch Panic
Milestone (Chaos Field, Radirgy, Karous)
Made up mostly of former Compile (Guardian Legend
, Blazing Lasers
) employees, Milestone is one of a scant few developers who still choose, even today, to make shmups their primary product. A big part of their ability to keep this up is tied directly to the Dreamcast; even more interestingly, the “post-mortem” Dreamcast. Like most shooters, Milestone’s products debuted in the arcades, but when they decided to try porting to home consoles, who did they go with first? That’s right – as a small, newly-established company the most cost-effective route for them was Sega’s by-then-long-dead system, and even after they gained the confidence to release their work on the PS2 and Gamecube the DC continued to see support, right up until Sega officially stopped accepting new games for it. In fact, the console’s last “official” release was Milestone’s third shooter, Karous
, in March 2007: today, the company’s signature cartoonish visuals and hectic gameplay can easily be experienced on the Wii’s Ultimate Shooting Collection
is following them soon), but this likely never would have come to pass if not for the shelter from the storm that the DC’s still-warm corpse had to offer.
The developer’s first effort, Chaos Field
, has the feeling of a “doujin” product about it and borrow liberally from other companies’ shooters, which rubbed some consumers the wrong way; when you get down to it, though, the game can keep you plenty occupied if you’re willing to just sit down and accept it on its own terms. First conceived as a “boss rush” (with a few minor enemies added in later revisions), you’ve got a whole slew of attacks at your disposal, from homing lasers to shields to bullet-cancelling swords: moreover, you’re able to switch between “Order” and “Chaos” fields, with the latter enhancing both your attacks and the enemy’s. The trick is to figure out which rivals’ patterns are best used to “refuel” the energy gauge needed to activate the fancier attacks in Order field, and then switch into Chaos to take full advantage, and then back again. The graphical presentation is decidedly spartan, though the thumping soundtrack has a surprising number of fans; while overall opinions on Chaos Field
are split, it can be had for a song nowadays on several platforms, so you have no real excuse not to try it yourself.
With its next release, Radirgy
(aka Radio Allergy
), Milestone got the chance to refine some of the ideas from Chaos Field
and implement the cel-shaded graphical style that has since become its trademark. You’re still armed with both a gun and a sword, as well as a shield that blocks shots from the front when no button is being pressed; you’ve also got a “barrier” meter that grants temporary immunity when you defeat enough enemies to fill it. Moreover, damaging enemies with the shield or barrier builds up a point multiplier, so you’ll want to use those as often as you can – the result is a mad dash around the screen, constantly switching between your primary weapons to build up the meter and the defensive tools to maximize scoring. Fortunately, like Giga Wing 2
and Mars Matrix
, touching enemies (as opposed to their shots) doesn’t hurt you, so feel free to get in their faces and whale away. Karous
takes the basic weapon set of Radirgy
and puts it in a different context: now, destroying enemies with the shot, sword, or shield will power up that individual weapon, and also affects the score multiplier. Minor enemies also appear more frequently when destroyed quickly, so to maximize your intake you’ll have to eliminate them both efficiently and in a balanced manner. While also cel-shaded, Karous
takes a much darker tone than Radirgy
both visually and aurally, and is a good deal more striking as a result.
Even moreso than with Treasure’s games, nowadays only purists are likely to bother with the Dreamcast’s Milestone releases – not only are they presently dirt cheap and locally available on the Gamecube and Wii (plus the PS2 in Japan), but the DC versions, while faithful to the arcade originals, lack the extra modes added into later ports, not to mention that Chaos Field
have an annoying bug that doesn’t allow high score saving (which is particularly frustrating since they at first appeared to have fixed it in between the two, as Radirgy
doesn’t suffer from this). Notwithstanding, it would be unbecoming of any fan of the developer, or shooters in general, not to at least spare a thought now and then for the part that the Dreamcast helped play in keeping a rare modern shmup-maker alive and well – from the ashes of a forest fire, flowers bloom.
G.Rev (Border Down, Under Defeat)
The developers at G.Revolution, or “G.Rev” for short, started out at shmup mainstay Taito (Darius
), and their present work in the shooter field ranges from strictly traditional to highly experimental – they’ve also teamed up with Treasure in the past, having contributed to both Ikaruga
and Gradius V
. While most recently they’ve been occupied with the Senko no Ronde
series as well as the Pocky and Rocky
-esque Mamoru-kun is Cursed!
on the 360, much like the aforementioned Milestone the company got its start in home ports with the humble (and by-then-deceased) Dreamcast. While their first game was a Minesweeper
-esque puzzler called Doki Doki Idol Star Seeker
, by 2003 they’d begun their journey into shmupdom, and have yet to abandon that path – for any interested in trying out their pair of DC offerings, neither has ever been ported elsewhere and both received rather small print runs, so be prepared for some serious eBay scouring.
, G.Rev’s first shooter, pays ample tribute to the developer’s roots at Taito; on the surface it’s a pretty simple side-scroller, but much more lurks beneath. Your “main” weapon is a straight stream when the fire button is held down, and a weaker homing shot when tapped – moreover, as time goes on (and a handful of pickups are collected) a “power meter” fills and your shots grow stronger. No sweat, right? Well, it is, until you factor in the Mega Beam O’ Death – tap the “B” button and you send forth a Big Fat Greek Laser, which grants temporary invulnerability, eats up enemy bullets, and multiplies the points gained by blasting multiple targets. Moreover, as in Metal Black
and G Darius
, bosses have their own MBO’Ds, and you can counter with your own uber-laser to either do big damage, rack up big points, or a bit of both. Here’s the catch, though – using the laser drains your power meter and weakens your “normal” weapons, so if you overuse it you’ll be up the creek later on. Even more interesting is the “border” system – each stage is actually three courses in one, with a different aircraft working its way through each simultaneously. If you die on one, you’ll “border down” to the next, and be faced with a completely new layout – you can use this to your advantage, though, as lower “borders” grant extra points in exchange for the increased risk, as well as keep the background difficulty rank in check. Finding the optimal routes for scoring and survival will take some effort on the player’s part, as there’s a lot to take into account – and you haven’t even tried the console-exclusive “Remix” mode yet!
On the flipside, there’s Under Defeat
, a “helicopter shooter” like Zero Gunner
, but far more traditional in structure – while you can angle your guns off to either side a bit here, for the most part it’s standard fare otherwise. There’s still plenty to hold your attention, though – while its war-zone setting is hardly original, everything looks gorgeous on the old DC, especially the booming, particle-laden, smoky explosions (drop a smart bomb for a particularly nice fireworks show). The only other unique elements to take into account are learning how to dodge enemy fire “from below” before it reaches your level (a la Rayforce
) and utilizing your “pod” weapons – let go of the “shoot” button for a few moments and a little helper option will appear to temporarily add some extra oomph to your attacks (and also nets you double the normal score for anything it kills). Additionally, like Border Down
, the game rewards additional risk (the fewer lives you have, the more points you can get) as well as completeness (shoot everything that’s not nailed down in a level to multiply the profits). While G.Rev’s output is arguably the most obscure of any listed in this article, if you’re into shooters you should do yourself a favor and track these titles down – while some of their more outlandish elements might be tough to get used to, they’re still a powerful (if expensive, especially if you go for the soundtrack-enhanced “limited” editions of either) incentive to dust off the Dreamcast.
ADK (Twinkle Star Sprites)
- Alfa System (Shikigami no Shiro 2)
– Skonec (Psyvariar 2)
– Triangle Service (Trizeal)
- Warashi (Trigger Heart Exelica)
While the companies listed in the earlier part of this review were the most frequent supporters of the Dreamcast, several others had solo outings on the system, and in the majority of these cases, the DC release was 1) The first such port the developer put out, and 2) Said release took place after
the console was already “dead” (noticing a pattern here?). None of the above are exclusive to the system anymore, but all offer features not found in other ports, especially, once again, when it comes to nit-picky arcade perfection. A good example of this is Twinkle Star Sprites
– while first making a (non-NeoGeo) home appearance on the Saturn (and later getting a sequel on the PS2), the Dreamcast iteration, while lacking any “extra” stuff, is the place to be for exacting fans, as it offers the ability to perfectly tweak slowdown levels to one’s liking as well as the hilarious “English” language option. As far as how it plays…well, if you haven’t heard of this insane little puzzle/shooter before, first of all WHY, and second I know there are a handful of articles about it floating around already. And plenty of videos like this one
. It’s one of my personal favorite competitive multi-player games, so make sure you try it at some point.
Up for something a little less cutesy, you say? Well, how about a game or two that, rather than encouraging you to stay as far away from enemy attacks as possible, dares you to cozy on up to them as tight as you can without quite
getting nailed? Sound more up your alley? First on tap, enter Shikigami no Shiro II
(aka Castle Shikigami 2
in the West) – while it’s cool enough to choose from several very different characters to suit one’s play style, the real draw is the “tension” system – when you get close to enemies or their shots, not only does your own firepower get stronger, but targets’ values are multiplied, destroyed enemies lave behind more items, and said items are automatically collected. Basically, if you want to do well, you’ll have to actively cheat death
as often as you can, though especially later on your adversaries aren’t likely to need much help from the likes of you. Psyvariar 2
takes things even further with its “buzz” system – shooting baddies or scratching bullets will fill up a meter that grants a temporary barrier when full. While you can play rather “traditionally” if you prefer, to truly delve into what the game has to offer (I speak literally here, as you won’t be allowed to access the final level if you don’t score high enough) you’ll want to abuse this mechanic for all it’s worth, charging headlong into bullet clouds and enemy swarms while invulnerable, hopefully to activate another burst in the process and keep the sequence going as long as you can manage. You’ll also want to master “rolling”, activated by quickly shifting directions back and forth – not only does this focus your shots and affect your movement speed, but adds additional grazing bonuses. By the way, if you dare, don’t
kill the bosses; instead, milk their deadly patterns for all they’re worth. As usual, the DC versions of both games, while lacking some of the extra features added to later ports, are generally considered the truest to the arcade originals – moreover the “limited” edition of Shikigami
includes a soundtrack and some other collectables.
The last “official” shooters this article will mention are another disparate pair – first up is Trizeal
, a spiritual sequel of sorts to the incredibly obscure arcade exclusive G-Stream 2020
. The ability to “combine” several weapon types into a single salvo, as well as the gradually-increasing “medaling” scoring system, have returned for an encore in slightly modified form, though the bullet-cancelling charge shot is gone altogether. Through and through, Trizeal
is something of a love letter to the shooters of old, and includes a bevy of references and tributes (and/or ripoffs, if you’re the cynical type) that genre fans will recognize, going all the way back to Space Invaders
– perhaps even more than that, though, the game is infamous for taking this developer’s own “humble origins” storyline to its illogical conclusion, via their rather shameless plea
for people to buy the game and keep them in business (it apparently worked, as two additional ports of Trizeal
, as well as a semi-sequel, have since appeared on other systems). The DC version is still prized, though, especially for the exclusive pre-order goodies that came with it. Then there’s Trigger Heart Exelica
, which recently wended its way onto XBLA: while the questionably-dressed heroines are responsible for most of the attention the game has received, it also includes the fun ability to “capture” enemies and use them as shields against their allies’ shots, or even spin them around and fling them, hammer toss-style, right into adversaries’ faces. Simply grabbing and hurling everything in sight is a hoot, but getting a respectable score will require you to use this tricky technique with some prejudice – while the “enhanced” PS2 port predictably has some extra stuff (including slowdown, unfortunately), the Dreamcast edition is still considered, once more, as the most arcade-accurate release, and also has its own “limited” version with a soundtrack for collectors to sniff out.
Homebrew (Last Hope, DUX)
Finally, some mention must be made of the system’s continually-thriving independent developer community, which has several shmups to its credit: while one promising project called Drill
never made it past an early demo phase, a handful of other home-made shooters have rated unofficial Dreamcast releases in recent years, most notably a pair of R-Type
-esque side-scrollers. While Last Hope
was originally a NeoGeo project, it later came to the Dreamcast sporting a handful of enhancements: while the fully-adjustable “force” option and hand-drawn graphics
were well-received, many players had especial trouble with bullet visibility (more on that in a minute). About two years down the road, after a bevy of delays, DUX
, another side-scroller in a similar vein, was released in mid-2009 – while its reception was better overall than that of Last Hope
, an unfortunate scoring bug and a handful of questionable design decisions (previously reported
in The Obscurer Tribune
) got things off to a rough start. The saga is not yet over, though – an update disc is being worked on for DUX
, and a “Pink Bullets” revision of Last Hope
is already out. Actually, at the time of this posting, it just shipped within the past week.
The past week?
shooter? The thing might not be “thinking” anymore, but somehow, against all odds, it’s still breathing.
BONUS! Segagaga Chapter 9
While it’s really just a mini-game, there’s no way I could neglect to include this one: Japan-only Dreamcast offering Segagaga
is absolutely chock full of references to and parodies of Sega products across the company’s storied history, but it saved the coolest scenario of all for last. The final sequence of the game is – you guessed it – a side-scrolling shooter, in which you battle laser-shooting CDs and coin-blasting arcade machines to reach the final confrontation with (I swear I’m not making this up) giant, evil versions of all of Sega’s systems. If you don’t believe me (and even if you do) check the video below – the actual gameplay starts about 3 minutes in, but the opening anime cutscene is still worth watching for the cameos.
Well, there you have it – unless I screwed up and missed one, the entirety of the Dreamcast’s shooter stockpile is displayed before you. As was said, it’s not the biggest and/or baddest such repertoire ever assembled, but there’s still a load of great stuff here, which is especially impressive considering how frequently the system has served as a nerd-humor punchline. It’s clear, though, that the similarly-underappreciated shmup genre did not coldly leave the Dreamcast in the dust, even after just about everyone else had abandoned it for good – in the end, both the system and the games have come out all the better for it. In conclusion, if you want to celebrate Dreamcast Week in an unexpected way, dig up or track down a cheap copy of Giga Wing
or Gunbird 2
and give it a go – you might just find yourself curious enough to seek out the more elusive titles afterwards.
Humble Dreamcast, for the small but vital role you have played, even after death, in keeping the old-school shooter alive and well, I gratefully salute you, and hope others feel compelled to do the same – may players continue to fry evil aliens on GD-ROMs in the years to come!