Around the turn of the century, a game developer named Visco created a pair of shmups that take place in an alternate-history feudal Japan. When I say “alternate history”, I mean samurais riding flying motorcycles, shooting down Gundam wannabes and various other giant robots. That essentially sums up the premise of the Vasara duology. These games were never released outside of Japan; that is, until recently.
Last year, QUByte Interactive re-released both Vasara games as a collection on various platforms, including a new “Timeless Mode” that combines classic Vasara gameplay with updated aesthetics and features. Normally, this collection sells digitally for $10, but currently, it is on sale for $1 on both the Nintendo eShop and Steam (said sales end on 4/6 and 4/7, respectively). Being a shmup fan myself, and hearing good things, I decided to give it a try.
Vasara 1 and 2 sit firmly in the bullet hell subgenre of shumps. There are plenty of busy/intricate bullet patterns to weave around, and your ship’s actual hitbox is much smaller than the in-game sprite. However, the games also have much in common with more traditional vertical shmups. Mixed in with the slow-moving bullet patterns that bullet hell games are known for are the simpler, quick-moving enemy shots that require a faster reaction. Dealing with both types of bullets at the same time bumps up the difficulty quite a bit, and it quickly becomes clear that the Vasara games aren’t going to take it easy on you. This only becomes more evident as you progress through the game. While I’m certainly no shmup expert, I’ve played my fair share of games over the years, and I consider it an accomplishment to make it past the first stage of Vasara 1 on a single credit. This could be frustrating for some, but if difficult games aren’t your cup of tea, then you probably aren’t particularly interested in the shmup genre in general.
A brief overview of the controls (Vasara 1)
The controls are fairly straightforward. You have your rapid-fire button (which you hold to continuously fire), your single-fire button (which you can hold and charge for a melee attack), a bomb button (Vasara 1 only), and a special Vasara attack. While Vasara 1 and 2 are very similar, there are some key differences that set them apart from one another.
In Vasara 1, bombs are your typical heavy damage and/or panic button (to clear enemy shots), while the Vasara attack (VA) is much larger, deals much more damage, and lasts significantly longer. This is balanced by the fact that the VA must be charged, its progress indicated by a bar near the top of the screen. It takes a long time to charge, but the amount of charge you have stored is kept upon death, and even between credits. The VA is charged by collecting red gems that are dropped by most enemies when they are destroyed. When enough gems are collected, the progress bar will flash with big “VASARA” text written across it, indicating that it is ready to use. Unleash it to wreak havoc on anything unfortunate enough to be in your way, or to deal heavy damage to a boss or miniboss.
In Vasara 2, bombs have been removed, but the Vasara attack has been broken up into 3 uses as a replacement. The single charge bar is replaced by 3 smaller bars, each of which charges much faster than the first game (by collecting blue gems, which are easier to see against enemy shots than the red gems of the original). The VA itself isn’t as grand this time around, but it still does heavy damage, and you get more frequent use of it with the shorter charge times. You can only store up to 3 VAs (as opposed to the first game’s 9-bomb maximum), but you do get two VAs back upon every death (much like bombs in the first game), which is helpful. It’s hard to say that either game does it objectively better, but the difference adds a slight change on how the games are approached from a strategic standpoint.
Vasara 1 title screen, with playable character portraits on the sidebars
Vasara 1 has three playable characters, which cover the typical character types: fast but weak, slow but strong, and balanced. Vasara 2 has four characters, with the same stat spread and an additional balanced character. In both games, each character has unique normal shots, a unique melee attack, and a unique Vasara attack. The normal shots become noticeably more varied as you pick up powerups and progress along the one-track powerup path, which adds additional bullets and even a unique secondary projectile to every character. These differences ensure that each character will be a different play experience.
It’s also worth noting that different characters play stages in different orders, though as far as I can tell, every character will play every stage eventually. This results in some stages being easier for some characters and harder for others, as the stages get progressively harder no matter what order you play them in. For example, if Character A has the snow stage first but Character B has it as their third stage, then B will have a harder snow stage than A. It’s something to consider if certain stages are giving you trouble, as you could make them easier by playing different characters.
A feature that the Vasara series has that I’ve not seen in other shmups is that you aren’t automatically destroyed upon making contact with an enemy. If your ship simply bumps into theirs, you’re knocked away with no damage; this applies to both normal enemies and bosses. Of course, you lose control of your ship for a second when knocked around, and if there are any enemy bullets nearby, you risk getting your ship knocked into them and losing a life anyway. It’s an interesting feature that provides a bit of breathing room in a game that is otherwise quite difficult. Though occasionally, a boss will use this feature against you, attempting to knock you into their own bullet streams.
Totally rad blood splatter reminds you that bosses are people too!
Bosses are a delight, which is a good thing, because there are plenty of them. Each stage has a main boss, but there are usually 2-4 minibosses on the way there. Each boss and miniboss has a name, face, and pre-fight dialogue, which adds to the flavor of the fight. They also typically have multiple phases and multiple, breakable parts, which adds layers of strategy to the encounter. Getting tired of being knocked around by that boss’s big robot arms? Blow ‘em up! Then they’re not in your way anymore. Of course, they might leave behind a cannon that fires hard-to-dodge bullets, so it’s up to you whether it’s worth it.
Some minibosses will leave if you don't take them out quickly enough. Destroy them all for a sweet bonus!
Some players might be annoyed by the action being broken up in Vasara 1 by each miniboss having a pre-fight intro, but it’s generally pretty quick so it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting your time. In Vasara 2, the dialogue simply shows up at the top of the screen with no profile picture while everything else proceeds as normal; I honestly found this more distracting because I don’t have time to read it while I’m trying to survive at the other side of the screen. In any case, once you’ve seen it a couple of times, you’re probably going to mostly ignore it from then on.
Being from 2000 and 2001, Vasara 1 & 2 feature era-appropriate spritework, along with 90’s-style anime character art. The boss dialogue, fully voiced (but in Japanese), does a lot to give the game character, when otherwise it would just seem like you’re fighting one generic robot after another. Stages are nice to look at if nothing spectacular, and enemy sprites are detailed and well-animated.
As these are vertical shmups, there is empty, unused space on the left and right side of modern screens, which is filled by new character art. It’s clear that this art was created for this re-release, as it looks a bit “off” from the original in-game art. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but fortunately you can disable it and just have empty black space on both sides. Or you can play it TATE mode (very nice if you have a Flip Grip for your Switch!) and bypass the problem altogether.
The audio, while fine, is generally unimpressive. It does its job, and that’s about all. I generally don’t notice it much, one way or another. The audio is a bit muffled, but that’s not unusual for games of the time, so I didn’t find it particularly bothersome.
List of custom options for Vasara 1
The available customization is rather nice, allowing you to change the number of lives and bombs available, enable/disable voices and subtitles, toggle the aforementioned side borders, etc. One option that really stood out to me was the ability to switch between “coin play” and “free play”. Too many modern shmups are locked into free play, which makes it too easy to simply mash your way to the end. As someone who is more concerned about survival than score, I like it when a game says “nope, you messed up too many times, the game stops here” instead of the typical “keep continuing as many times as you want!” of more modern titles. Granted, the only practical difference is an additional button press to pop in another credit, but to me, it’s an important difference. Though I am willing to admit that I’m in the minority on that.
The extras section includes a brief but helpful tutorial, as well as a plethora of character and promo artwork. The featured original artwork is nice to look at, though the “new” art is less so. In any case, it’s nice that it’s all included.
Let's be honest, anime art peaked in the 90's
In addition to Vasara 1 and 2, this package includes Timeless mode, which is a third game featuring characters and bosses from the two originals, all in an updated artstyle and with some new features. Instead of using spritework, Timeless opts for 3D models, which lacks the soul of the spritework but otherwise looks very clean. Enemy shots are a bit easier to parse against the background in Timeless, which makes them a bit easier to avoid.
A bigger screen means more room to dodge bullets
Timeless also takes up the whole screen, making it a vertical shmup in landscape mode, similar to something like Jamestown. To help with horizontal mobility in this bigger play area, every character has been given an 8-way dash, which moves through enemy bullets but bounces off of enemy ships. This dash has about a 3-second cooldown to prevent spamming, which keeps it from being overpowered but still allows it to be quite useful. Utilizing this new dash seems pretty essential to succeeding in Timeless.
Every playable character from Vasara 1 and 2 is available in Timeless, keeping their game-specific differences like being able to use bombs or having 3 stocks of Vasara attacks. While the main games allow for two players, Timeless takes advantage of the wider play area and allows for up to four players. There is one character that is unlockable in Timeless, though I’m not sure if he’s new or a secret character from one of the original games. In any case, unlocking him requires you to beat Vasara 2.
Mix and match Vasara 1 & 2 characters to your heart's content
As far as I can tell (only a few stages in), every boss and miniboss is recycled from the original games. They do not have any special dialogue or voice acting, which makes them feel a bit more generic, though the bosses do get a full-screen intro with their names and a sweeping 3D model of their ship. Their fights seem to be pretty faithful to their original incarnations, though I admit that I’ve not studied it enough to know if they are perfectly one-to-one.
Oddly enough, I think Timeless has better audio than the originals. It’s very clear and crisp comparatively, and the music is a bit more upbeat, which gets the adrenaline going. While Timeless looks a bit bland compared to Vasara 1 and 2, the improved audio and new dash mechanic make it worth visiting occasionally, especially if you want to play with other people.
For anyone still wondering if this is worth a dollar, it most certainly is. I’ve only played it for a couple of hours, but I feel like I’ve already gotten my money’s worth, even if I never touch it again. Even for the normal $10, this is a pretty good deal. If you’re interested in shmups at all (and don’t mind a bit of difficulty), I recommend giving the Vasara Collection a shot.