SHMUPS: they’re neither candy nor some weird Asian bird flu derivative! ‘SHMUP’ is Internet shorthand for “shoot ’em up”, a genre of game where you pilot a person or craft through a series of auto-scrolling stages destroying everything in sight to earn power-ups so you can destroy everything in sight even faster. In other words, they’re video game adaptations of my morning commute to the RGM office. And in this week’s Top 3 Tuesday video, MichaelBtheGameGenie wants to know which three SHMUPS are our favorites. He asks and I respond with the only 60FPS, 4k resolution article you’re likely to see on the subject this week. PROTIP: Blink really fast while reading to simulate sprite flicker if you’re looking for added realism, and click those titles to access video of the game in action!
U.N Squadron (Area 88 in Japan) does its job so successfully it’s mind-boggling that nobody else looked at Capcom’s creation and said, “We need to rip that off immediately.” While most SHMUPS of the day offered simplicity, U.N. Squadron dripped with complexity. Games like Gradius and R-Type which defined the genre in its infancy were so basic that most games that came after in the 80’s and 90’s only took baby steps away from the canonical requirements of a SHMUP. You used the ship you were given, you unlocked special weapons in the middle of gameplay, advanced through the levels in one single order, and when you died you lost every power-up in your arsenal. U.N. Squadron turned all that on its ear.
Capcom’s most excellent game offers up three different pilots, each with his own skill that alters the experience, thus inviting multiple playthroughs. If that was all it did it would still be a competent entry, but U.N. Squadron is just getting started. Players earn money through their actions in each stage, and that money is spent between missions buying new special weapons and even new planes. You enter the battle armed completely with whatever you just bought, and even if you blow up, you resume the game with all your unused weaponry right where you left it. There are also power-ups to your standard gun to pick up while you play, and this gun level travels with you no matter what plane you’re flying. The player decides when and how to tackle each mission, can undertake bonus levels that offer the opportunity to earn more cash, and engages in fights with increasingly massive and awesome bosses at the conclusion of each mission. For some reason, nobody rushed to capitalize on these ideas, not even Capcom (despite releasing the arcade-only spiritual sequel, Carrier Air Wing a short time later). This is a travesty that needed correcting a long time ago, but Capcom’s been determined to churn out nothing but sub-par sequels to Resident Evil for the last decade, so the chance of this happening is about as remote as one of Umbrella’s research outposts.
2) Vanark (PS1)
Chances are unless you’re a serious enthusiast, a completionist collector, or just plain lucky, you’ve never heard of this one. Vanark is to PlayStation what StarFox 64 is to the Nintendo 64 or Panzer Dragoon is to the Saturn: a 3D action SHMUP with a third-person camera placed behind your ship. Released in 2000, it came at the tail end of the PS1’s game catalog, ensuring developer Bit Town’s beautiful cinematic action game sank in the tsunami of PS2 mania which swept the globe. Perhaps knowing this was a possibility, US publisher Jaleco didn’t press very many copies. That means unless you were one of the fortunate who grabbed this at launch, a copy will set you back a considerable outlay of cash. It’s a great game, but scarcity has driven the price to stupid levels and while I love it to death, I can also state with complete confidence it’s not at all worth the current asking price on the second-hand market.
Vanark features a full-fledged storyline concerning your pilot’s efforts to save the planet (in this case Mars, since Earth bit the big one in a nuclear war already), some great cinematic cut scenes, and tons of the lighting and transparency effects for which the PS1 hardware was so well-known. The 3D models of the various ships and monsters you encounter are dated by today’s standards but they hold their own for the time, and most importantly for a title like this, it maintains a constant frame rate no matter how many lasers, rockets, and enemy mechs crowd the screen. Good performance during a mission is rewarded with upgrades to your craft, and you can jump in the simulator in between missions to see if you can improve on past performances. Vanark isn’t all unicorns and rainbows though. The on-foot sequences where you traipse around the space station on foot using Resident Evil-style tank controls feel horribly out of place. These can’t be skipped, you don’t move very quickly, and can turn into a game of hide-and-seek if you can’t find the one person you need to chat with in order to activate the next mission. It’s also a short game overall, with only seven missions to complete before the credits roll. Despite this, it’s still one of the best SHMUP experiences you can find for the original PlayStation hardware. Not worth the absurd price it commands today, but if you find it in the wild for a reasonable sum, consider it a must-buy for your collection.
Wait, wait! Put down the pitchforks and torches–I can explain! (Also, watch the video if you want to see someone humiliate this game like he pantsed it in front of the entire female population of his local high school).
There aren’t enough unkind things one can say about this mess that haven’t already been said by James Rolfe and other reviewers who make it their life goals to shred bad retro games. But think about this for a second: Silver Surfer isn’t just a bad game, it’s a game that doesn’t even understand how bad it is because the developers clearly didn’t know one damn thing about the source material. And to me, that’s so absurd as to be worthy of elevation. Software Creations made a 3 megabit NES cart starring one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe, and they approached it like they were making a clone of Salamander.
The Silver Surfer isn’t just some dweeb who looks like Iceman and flies around on a board. He’s the Herald of Galactus, a being so colossally powerful that he consumes entire planets for energy. Unicron might also devour worlds, but Galactus would eat Unicron without a second thought then go looking for dessert. This is the caliber of villain Silver Surfer faces in the comic books — while the X-Men are busy beating up other human-sized mutants and the Fantastic Four struggle to keep Doctor Doom in line, the Surfer’s rocketing around in space, using the Power Cosmic keeping beings like Thanos from assembling the Infinity Gauntlet and eradicating half the universe. When he does team up with other Marvel heroes, it’s usually with the likes of Thor, Adam Warlock, or Doctor Strange: living gods, obscenely powerful magic wielders, and so forth. He’s fought almost all of Asgard single-handedly; can survive in virtually any environment up to and including the total vacuum of space and even the gravitational well of a black hole; may travel faster-than-light if he chooses; can emit blasts of energy powerful enough to shatter planets; and lives by converting matter around him into energy meaning he has no need to eat, drink, breathe, or even sleep. His speed, strength, endurance, and invulnerability to damage are on par with the likes of Superman. The Surfer cruises the Marvel universe with God Mode activated…and if your only encounter with him was this 1990 debacle, you’d never know it. It’s not just punishingly difficult, it gleefully pisses on the legacy of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, John Byrne, and every other creator associated with the character since his 1966 inception by saying this potent being would die from grazing his board against a fish. I’m hard-pressed to think of any licensed title so willfully ignorant of its source material, and for that reason, Silver Surfer has to be on this list. The amount of hate, vitriol, and comedic gold today’s reviewers have mined from Silver Surfer‘s gulch is suitable payback for the release of such a terrible cartridge. But that soundtrack though…
As always, check out MichaelB’s channel, and feel free to leave your own comments on these Top 3 Tuesday topics or make response videos of your own!