For that vintage atomic trash / For the alien breeze / The bright white flash
“The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”
The Konami Holdings Corporation was founded in 1969 in Osaka, Japan as a company that fixed jukeboxes and made electro-mechanical arcade amusement games. Within 10 years, they made the jump to video games. Many of their early video games were designed for play on the MXS home computer system, but Konami gained their initial renown in the West after releasing well-loved arcade games like Frogger and Time Pilot in the early 80s. As the slumping gaming console scene became reinvigorated by the Famicon/NES’s successes, Konami expanded their popularity into North American homes by creating games known for exciting gameplay and visuals, introducing game series like Contra, Castlevania, and Metal Gear.
The home videogaming boom continued to expand through the late 80s and into the 90s, and Konami continued to bring a steady stream of titles in multiple genres and platforms to market. Their star arguably peaked somewhere in the early 90s, when they had created a number of outstanding arcade games with terrific 16-bit era console ports (Sunset Riders, TMNT: Turtles in Time, Gradius III, to name a few) and had seemingly perfected a number of their popular 8-bit gen console series favorites with outstanding sequels (Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Castlevania IV), along with creating a number of highly popular licensed multiplayer arcade games like X-Men, The Simpsons, and Aliens.
Now in 2019, Konami has reached their 50-year anniversary milestone as a company. And what better way than to commemorate this achievement and make a quick buck then by packaging up some old games and trying to reintroduce them to a whole new generation of gamers? Ok, yes – Konami has already put out multiple compilations of their games, but this is the 50th Anniversary, so it should be bigger, bolder, better. Right? But with so many beloved series and genres of games to chose from, where to start? To get the big five-oh party started right, Konami began with their roots. Arcade games. And specifically, their shooters (at least mostly – more on that later). So what did they select for their ‘Arcade Classics’ collection? Seven shmuppy titles that span the 1980s, plus an anomaly. Here’s the breakdown:
- Scramble (1981) – a simple, yet challenging side-scroller where you navigate your ship through a cave, taking out enemy ships with your gun, and ground targets with your bombs. Along the way you have to manage your fuel consumption, which is done (inexplicably) by blowing up enemy fuel storage tanks!
- TwinBee (1985) – a vertical scroller shooter cute ‘em up. Bells! Eggplants and Peapods! Flying knives! It pre-dates Sega’s own arcade cute ‘em up (Fantasy Zone), and plays very much like Namco’s Xevious.
- Nemesis (1985) – AKA ‘Gradius’ to Japanese arcade players (and later North America NES owners of the port). A more serious shmup, side-scrolling, and with a unique power up system that lets the player select what weapons/features get upgraded and when. And it’s our first introduction to the iconic ship, the Vic Viper.
- Lifeforce (1986) – AKA ‘Salamander’ to Japanese audiences. Not technically the direct sequel to Nemesis/Gradius (though it does bring back the Vic Viper), but it plays similarly, with the added twist that it alternates levels between side-scrolling and vertical-scrolling. Likely the North American version was used in this collection, as it retained a similar ‘Nemesis-style’ power up system, while Salamander did not.
- Typhoon (1987) – known as A-Jax in Japanese and North American arcades, Typhoon is the European equivalent. A pseudo-3D and vertical scroll shooter with impressive sprite scaling and rotational effects for the time.
- Thunder Cross (1988) – a side-scrolling shooter with detailed graphics and an early version of parallax scrolling of the background.
- Haunted Castle (1988) – another shmu… wait, what? The arcade adaptation of Castlevania. I’m really confused why this is here. Especially with the Castlevania Collection coming later this year…
- Vulcan Venture (1989) – AKA ‘Gradius II’ in Japan. The Vic Viper is back again for more side-scrolling shmuppery, but with expanded weapon configuration options and bigger levels with more vertical freedom.
There are some interesting and fun titles here, several of which I’ve never played, in the arcade or otherwise. But I’m left scratching my head more than anything. Seven of the eight games included are shooters, and ostensibly this a highly abridged Gradius collection. I feel like Konami could have potentially gone three ways here: 1) Re-create a proper ‘Gradius Collection’ in its own right, similar to the one released for the PSP in 2006 or; 2) Take a wider range of Konami arcade shooters, not focusing on any one specific genre or; 3) Assemble a collection of arcade games with a wider variety of gameplay.
One of these this is not like the others… one of these things just doesn’t belong…
Instead we get this strange “shmups + 1” combo, where Haunted Castle feels terribly out of place. Swap in Parodius or Lightning Fighters, or even Top Gunner/Jackal and this package feels more sensible. Hell, throw in Sexy Parodius and Salamander 2 and I would’ve paid another $10-15. Then just call it your ‘Arcade Shooters Anniversary Collection’, which as a shmup fan, I would have bought enthusiastically.
You see, us true shmuppers are a disaffected bunch. There aren’t a ton of games coming our way, and rarely do new ones have a lot of resources sunk into making something spectacular. And so we are often forced to live in the past. In some ways, many ways, the gaming world has passed us by. We live with our heads in 2-D clouds, constantly trying to anticipate which way to dodge the next figurative bullet hell life lobs at us, all while and hoping some bored game developer will throw us a bone every few years and give us a remake of Aero Blasters or pull Super Star Soldier out of mothballs… but I digress. The point is, if you’re gonna give gamers a collection of arcade shmups – give us lots, give us all the versions and variants. We’re desperate. We import. We often overpay (see importing).
Alright, let me clamber down off my soapbox and actually review this compilation.
Each of these arcade games have effective and memorable graphics, but do not quite sit at the head of the class for the era in which they were released. Scramble is colorful, but less interesting to look at than competitors like Galaga and Gorf. TwinBee has a fun and whimsical look, but is trumped by Fantasy Zone’s hyper-color palate. Typhoon stands out for its sprite scaling and sense of 3-D in the jet levels, but is still a notch below Sega’s legendary Afterburner. Thunder Cross is a vivid looking game with immersive background scrolling, but the sprite art does not stand out. The Gradius family of games (Nemesis/Lifeforce/Vulcan Venture) all look very good, with large, varied, and well-animated sprites. All three suffer some from slowdown and flicker when action on screen gets busy, but Lifeforce suffers the most (see Level 2 – ”kidney stones cannot be destroyed!”). Luckily its the best looking of the entire collection and truly stands out with its level variety. Haunted Castle looks very good as well, especially some of the large bosses and backgrounds. For the most part, these games fall into the ‘pretty good, but not great’ category when it comes to raw graphics.
Several games in the collection really standout in their style and art. The Gradius/Nemesis family tree of games introduced some cool and visually distinct levels and sprites. The Vic Viper ship is almost a universally known icon of the shmup. The Easter Island Moa ring spitting monolithic heads, fiery phoenix, and end-level ‘shoot the core’ boss ships, among others all became memorable, recurring elements in later Gradius sequels and spin-offs. Lifeforce throws you into the vicera and bulbous tissues of the inside of a massive ‘Bio-Sentinel’ to cure it from an infection/tumor. Vulcan Venture forces you through levels crowded with artificial suns or jam packed with massive ice crystals. It all looks beautiful and unique.
On the whole, Konami’s arcade game visuals leave me with a pleasant taste in my mouth, and their sprite art game was strong. It doesn’t feel like there is anything decidedly impressive or groundbreaking about the graphics, but their innovation to the shmup genre came in other ways (more on that later). One nice retro feature included allows you to put a cathode ray tube (CRT) television filter over everything, giving you the arcadey feel of those CRT monitors destined for screen burn-in.
Nemesis… with the CRT filter on. Scan line effect set to full.
While visually these games were not extraordinary, most of these titles stand out a bit more aurally with terrific sound and music. Much of the level music is brilliant and catchy, and the Nemesis/Lifeforce/ Vulcan Venture soundtracks are popular enough to have been reproduced on vinyl. And many of the in-game sound effects are instantly recognizable. The power up pickup, base gun firing sound, and ship explosion effect are tattooed into the brain of many a shmupper. Lifeforce even makes use of some crude digitized speech during each level. Haunted Castle has its roots in Castlevania music, and familiar tracks like ‘Bloody Tears’ and medley blends of several other tunes that appear in Castlevania and Castlevania II for the NES are worked in as well. With so many distinct and memorable tunes throughout, you’ll be hard pressed to not end up whistling the theme to one of these games randomly during the day after you put in an hour or so the night before.
The Nemesis/Gradius and Haunted Castle/Castlevania family trees do their part to bring the score up here and TwinBee is a bit of a sleeper with some very catchy level music. Thunder Cross and Typhoon are rather dull in the music and sound department, and do nothing to pull the entire collection’s score up into elite status. But the overall audio package here is very good.
Many of these games were rather innovative in how they played relative their contemporaries. These gameplay features not only helped define each Konami game’s uniqueness, but also allowed for the flexibility to vary the way a player can approach each game.
Scramble is unique in that it was the first true side-scrolling shooter. The player is required to take out aerial and ground targets, using both bombs and guns. Changing elevations and confined spaces make it a challenge both to navigate and bombard targets simultaneously. But where the terrain allows, it also lets you strafe ground targets, instead of being forced to use bombs exclusively. All the while, you’re forced to keep an eye on your fuel levels, which continuously deplete, and can only be replenished by locating and destroying the enemy’s fuel storage tanks. Classic risk reward design, where the player can decide to hang back and focus on staying alive and refueling, or be more aggressive and rack up points by destroying everything.
TwinBee gives us a unique power-up and scoring system with ‘juggling bells’. These bells are found by shooting clouds as you move through the level, and after your shot initially pushes the bell up the screen, it begins to fall back down the screen. But it can be shot repeatedly to push it further up the screen. Doing this can either increase the point value of the bell or turn it into a different colored bell that can be collected for a power-up (shields, twin-shot, etc). All this ‘bell management’ has to be done while dealing with aerial and ground enemies, making for a very unique and challenging experience. Combine this with several unique co-op multiplayer ship combo effects when you move close to your teammate, and seemingly kids-only game gets deep in its gameplay elements.
Nemesis/Gradius introduced its own unique power up system, allowing you to stockpile generic power ups that can be spent on a variety of ship/firepower improvements of the player’s choosing, allowing for a custom (albeit limited) firepower set. Vulcan Venture expanded upon this system by allowing the player to select from multiple variants of each set of improvements, further expanding the customization of your abilities. Lifeforce deviated from this trend, by implementing a more standard power up system, without choice, but later home ports from the arcade version ditched this for the more standard Gradius-style system.
While this method is unique and fun as you are building your power set, it all comes crashing down if you die later in the game, as you lose everything. Nemesis/Gradius makes it somewhat easy to restore at least a portion of your power back, by throwing a high number of power-up dropping enemies right after you restart from the checkpoint, but Vulcan Venture and Lifeforce areunforgiving in this respect. Lose your build in the wrong place in a level and you face a serious challenge to advance. However, the obsessive shmupper simply sees this as a means to drive the player to perfect their play going forward. The reality is, if you are driven to beat these games, simply dropping more quarters in the slot won’t get it done. You need to basically play near flawlessly from start to finish. Daunting and frustrating, but not impossible.
The Nemesis family of games also introduced us to the ‘multiple’ or ‘option’ powerup. Essentially an invincible equivalent of your ship, represented by a glowing spheroid, the option can fire the same weapons as your ship, effectively doubling your firepower. It trails your ship at a fixed distance, opposite from the direction you just moved. It’s every bit as useful as it sounds, making dealing with swarms of enemies all the easier to dispatch. It’s quite literally a game changer, allowing you to go from survival and dodge mode, to ‘destroy everything in my path’ should you accumulate enough. It’s an innovation we’ve seen imitated in many shmups since, including this collection’s Thunder Cross.
Lifeforce probably has the most interesting and unique gameplay of the Nemesis/Gradius family, with alternating side- and vertical-scrolling levels, and highly varied environments. It also has a particularly maddening feature that can cost you all of your accumulated options. Die, and the options drop off on screen where ever they were when your ship was destroyed. The good news is, you can potentially reclaim them upon death, if you can fly to them before they scroll off screen. The bad news is, your new ship always spawns in the upper or left third of the screen (depending on perspective), so if you died near the opposite side you spawned, you have virtually no chance of recovering the options at all. A rather nasty tease, as it were. It works for co-op multiplayer, allowing your teammate to recover what you lost, but if you’re alone on the stick, too bad-so sad.
There are some questionable issues with the Vic Viper’s hitbox, particularly when navigating tight spaces or on the upper/lower edges of the levels in caves, which allow for some cheap deaths. On more than one occasion, you seemingly move your ship near an edge (but not touching) and you’re done (insert classic Gradius ship exploding sound here). Luckily, Thunder Cross and Typhoon do not appear to suffer this issue. Thunder Cross, especially, plays very tightly; it’s probably the best of the bunch.
Typhoon throws an interesting gameplay twist at the player, as well. It starts you off with a pseudo-3D view with incoming fighters and missiles coming right at the player’s third-person view of their F-14 Tomcat equivalent. Complete this level, and you’ll be thrown into several attack helicopters in a top-down vertical scroller level with targets to both shoot and bomb, Xevious-style. And while there is a good variety of powerups in this mode, they appear so infrequently that it feels as if you never get a chance to make use of them.
Thunder Cross is rather bland in how it plays, relative to its younger relatives. The power up system is overly simplistic, with one basic upgrade to your normal shots, and then the addition of up to 4 ‘options’. Pretty blah when compared side by side with Lifeforce or VulcanVenture, where you can grab speed boosts, equip lasers, ripple shots, and ground/ceiling hugging missiles. But you do get 3 screen-clearing bombs per level that can bail you out of dire situations. Despite the rather limited powerups, Thunder Cross does control the tightest of all the games in the collection, and I had the easiest time negotiating tight spots and bullet heavy zones in this game.
And then there’s our oddball, Haunted Castle. As smooth and responsive as most Castlevania games play, Haunted Castle seems plagued by a Belmont who moves twice as slow as his brethren, while his enemies run circles around him. Character movement just feels sluggish and unresponsive (he walks like a constipated ape), leading to a game that feels off from its beloved home console relatives. This makes for a plodding, frustrating experience, so much so that I didn’t want to push on and try to master even the first level. The game is very tough, but so are many of the others in this collection. The difference here is the gameplay being far tighter and more compelling in the shmups. Haunted Castle already feels out of place and the questionable and frustrating gameplay seems to isolate it even more.
For an arcade collection, there are only two genres represented, and it’s not because Konami lacks in non-shooters. What’s here for shmups is good, and it bridges the entire span of the 80s well, but it feels like more of a missed opportunity than an archival triumph. As mentioned earlier, I struggle here with the selection of Haunted Castle. It’s completely out of place, both in genre and style. And with so many other Konami arcade shooters available to include in this collection, there were plenty of other good options to maintain the flow and feel of this assemblage of games. Even stranger is the fact that we’ll see a Castlevania collection from Konami later this year, and Haunted Castle could have fit more sensibly there.
A good number of these titles have already been released separately, so it’s not quite the thrill to revisit them as some other selections could be. In my mind, the Nemesis/Gradius series is extensive enough to warrant its own updated collection for the home consoles (again, see the 2006 Gradius Collection for the PSP). In a perfect world, I’d love to see a separate Gradius collection, and then another separate shmup collection that includes Thunder Cross, Scramble, Typhoon, plus a few more titles. Konami does include a ‘Bonus Book’ which allows for a digital page-by-page look at conceptual art, information on the development of each game, hand-written musical scores, and even a transcripted interview with two producers involved in these games. This gives some interesting insight into what these games meant to Konami, and the efforts and pressures these employees were under to deliver a quality game.
Each of these games is quite difficult in its own right, and while some allow you to continue right where you left off after each death, others checkpoint you back a bit, losing valuable progress and all your powerups.
Upon death, Scramble checkpoints you to pick up after each short section, as does TwinBee. Nemesis gives a chance re-gain power ups at each checkpoint. But these are often in difficult spots where you have other threats on which to focus. Vulcan Venture is even less forgiving in that regard, giving you a fraction of the power ups to earn back, making further progress all the more difficult. Lifeforce is a bit kinder and as it allows you to continue right where you left off at least, but again with limited chance to restore your firepower. Slow down affects all of these games in several sections where sprite populations climb, but its typically a welcome ‘problem’ as it gives your reflexes a break in negotiating a path through the strife. Typhoon is rather unforgiving, especially in the vertical-scroller sections, where you constantly feel underpowered and overwhelmed.
Thunder Cross is by far the easiest of the shmups here, with no checkpoints but the ability to continue in-game on another credit right where you left off. And with limited power ups to begin with, you aren’t completely handicapped against your enemies after you are initially downed. And Haunted Castle? Well, it was so frustratingly difficult that I lost interest in trying to fight the sluggish movement and annoying enemies. I’ll just slide over to Super Castlevania IV for the same big sprites and whip-cracking action, but with gameplay I can handle, thank you very much. Have I mentioned this game feels out of place?
Each one of these games is easy to dive right in on and pick up and play. A good arcade game should always be one that pulls you in initially, gives you enough of the right taste of fun, and then hammers you shortly thereafter to put in another quarter. The bulk of this collection does just that.
These are all simple d-pad/stick and 2 button affairs. If you grew up on an NES gamepad you’ll feel right at home here, so the learning curve to get a little ways into the game isn’t steep initially. How quickly you get frustrated and put the controller down is a function of your tolerance for challenge and repetition.
There’s an addictive quality to a challenging game in which you die at certain bottleneck points, but you KNOW you can overcome them. Most of the shmups here create that exact feeling. Nemesis/Gradius family of games are difficult, but not to the point where you ever quite feel like you couldn’t do a little bit better on your next run. For the right kind of gamer, this hook pulls you in and keeps you engaged despite frequent baby-step progress. Scramble and Thunder Cross have this effect as well, but less so. Typhoon is a bit more frustrating, as levels 2, 3, and 4 are all vert-scrollers and your helicopter just can’t quite accumulate enough power ups to make life easier. This is a shame, because the sprite scaling jet levels are a blast. Haunted Castle just didn’t get its hooks into me though, as I tired with my Cro-Magnon Belmont’s speed and gait.
My Personal Score: 7/10
I love shmups, so that biases me more than a little to give a favorable score. The ones assembled here are an enjoyable group that does a nice job sampling Konami’s shooters from across the 80s. I like what’s here, but as I’ve suggested it feels like there was a better way for Konami to organize their shmups into two separate collections. And playing the arcade versions of the Nemesis/Gradius family of games was preferred, since I was already familiar with the home console versions of all of these games. Everything on the shmup side is pretty darn good, but not quite great.
Haunted Castle being present brings the number down from a solid 8, because it’s just irritatingly silly that it was even included. It’s tiresome to keep mentioning it, but I challenge you to play all eight games here in a single session and tell me it doesn’t feel ridiculously out of place.
The addition of the ‘Bonus Book’ with the background info and interviews with Konami employees integral to the development of these games as a terrific add, one that I wish more collection-style compilations would include, as it puts a bit more out there than the standard 20 or so slides of conceptual art with no other explanation. Bottom line is, if you like shmups, you’ll want to add this to your digital gaming library. If this genre doesn’t interest you, I’d hold off for the forthcoming Contra and Castlevania collections.
The Konami Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection was released on April 18, 2019, and is currently available digitally on the PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam.
Aggregate Score: 7.1
The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room. Racing games from every era are in his blood – challenge him to a lap time at your peril! Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review