Friday, January 21, 2011

Genesis Developers: Toaplan

The shoot'em up, the scrolling shooter, the shmup; whatever you want to call it it's one of the oldest and most enduring styles of video game. For our purposes we'll simplify things by going with the popular (and shorter) designation of shmup.

In these games you take on the role of the lone hero, or heroes in two player varieties, forced up against impossible odds. You usually, but not always, face down entire enemy armies in some kind of spaceship or aircraft. These games are usually known for their high difficulty that require practice and memorization and for their fantastic action.

Shmups found themselves at home on Sega's arcade oriented Mega Drive/Genesis but unfortunately with an overabundance of these titles released, and their waning popularity with a general public who viewed the game style as growing old and archaic, the genre practically died out maintaining only a niche audience. A minor resurgence is occurring in the present day though shmups will probably never be as popular and important as they once were. Regardless of all this, if you love shmups you will love the Genesis and its massive selection.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one. If you're not into shmups you probably never heard of a company called Toaplan save for the infamous "All your base are belong to us." meme from a game called Zero Wing. Toaplan however is an important player in the history of shmups and not just because they gave rise to the companies Gazelle, 8ing/Raizing, Takumi and Cave. Their first major hits Tiger-Heli and Sky Shark added more destruction than was usual for shmups at the time allowing you to decimate buildings, vehicles and other objects on the ground that weren't necessarily enemy combatants. It's difficult to use the word "realism" when talking about this genre but it certainly added to the atmosphere. Catchy music and other memorable gameplay quirks like enemy tanks driving in formation cemented their popularity.

They would continue to produce several quality shmups with a few games from other genres in-between. This ended with their magnum opus Batsugun, arguably the first of today's manic shooter sub-genre, though its success couldn't save them from bankruptcy. Thankfully the spirit lived on in the splinter companies I already mentioned.

Since this is a blog about the Sega Genesis we're obviously here to see what contributions they made to that particular console so read on and enjoy some of Toaplan's legacy.

Truxton (1989):

Truxton was the first Toaplan game to make it to the Genesis and it truly stands out as one of the best early games on the console. It's your usual space-shmup where you fly your lone super-ship against an evil star empire. Often criticized in modern times as being overrated and mostly loved out of nostalgia I tend to disagree since I didn't play it when I was younger and I still found it to be a lot of fun. The game is hectic with enemies swarming you from the front and the back. You have your choice of a standard red spread shot, a focused but powerful green shot or an awesome blue lightning shot that locks onto enemies. Another infamous weapon is the screen clearing-bomb that explodes into a giant skull. The levels are lengthy and difficult though the easy mode offers unlimited continues for inexperienced players. The graphics won't knock you out of your chair today but are nicely detailed for a 1989 home console game.

With great action and catchy music Truxton is old-school entertainment and simplicity at its finest. It's generally easy to find though I've noticed the price creeping up in recent years. I partially blame the incredible amount of undying love this game gets from Mark of Classic Game Room for that.

Twin Hawk

Twin Hawk is often criticized for being a clone of Capcom's popular 1943. Personally I feel the game is far more unique than that. Yes you're flying a fighter/bomber in a World War 2 styled scenario but a few things make this title different. One of those things is the fact that you're only doing battle against ground targets. If you like blowing apart tanks then this is the game for you. Luckily, blowing up tanks is one of the funnest things to do in Toaplan shooters if you ask me. Without any air targets there's nothing for the player to crash into leaving you to focus completely on enemy bullets.

Another very memorable aspect of this game is your squadron. Instead of just dropping a powerful bomb like in most shmups you call in a squadron of fighters to fly along with you and shoot at the enemies giving you practically full screen coverage with your shots. It's something I've never seen in this type of game before. No longer are you a lone fighter just the only competent one. When your buddies are hit they don't just welcome death they dive headlong into a kamikaze attack straight into the nearest enemy! You can also manually disband your squadron by ordering them to simultaneously kamikaze without needing to be shot down. Brutal. It's a really cool gimmick but unfortunately the game's setting and lack of air targets make this one feel a little bland at times.

This one wasn't released in the United States for some reason but you can find the European version rather cheap. The Japanese one will cost you a bit more. If you've got no trouble importing games this is a fun shooter with unique elements though I find myself preferring Fire Shark much more.

Fire Shark (1990):

One of my favorite shmups, Fire Shark is also my personal favorite Toaplan game on the Genesis and second only to Truxton for many others. Fire Shark is the sequel to their break out game Sky Shark. Like Twin Hawk the action takes place down on Earth which is the setting where I feel Toaplan gives us its best designs due to all of the little details they like to include. In Fire Shark you pilot a bi-plane instead of a high-tech super-fighter but this humble looking vehicle houses some ridiculously powerful weaponry. Much like Truxton you have your standard spread shot, powerful forward firing shot and your ultimate weapon which in this case is a powerful flamethrower. Once upgraded steady streams of napalm death will sweep the screen showing off probably one of the deadliest shmup weapons ever conceived. It doesn't make you invincible however and dying will severely punish you by leaving you slow and under-armed. Many times have I gotten cocky in Fire Shark only to die a stupid death and screw myself in later levels.

Because you're flying a bi-plane and fighting everything from other antique aircraft to hi-tech jets and tanks the setting is a little odd though it gives you a lot of variety in terms of things to blow up and it's nowhere near as strange as some modern entries in the genre. It's also not the most difficult shmup in the world but is still a challenge on the higher difficulties and is simply a blast to play. Fire Shark is also common and inexpensive so there's no excuse not to have this excellent title in your collection.

Hellfire (1990):

Taking place in the traditional space setting, Hellfire is a horizontal shmup as opposed to the previously mentioned titles' vertical scrolling. You don't hear much about this one and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the serviceable but forgettable graphics or more likely the legendarily high difficulty but Hellfire is a certainly a decent game that doesn't get enough credit. The main gimmick of Hellfire is the ability to switch between four primary weapons at will. A forward shot, a backward shot, an above and below shot and finally a shot that shoots in all four diagonal directions. Since you can cover all of your angles you can bet your ass that the game will throw enemies at you in every direction and it certainly does. Later levels will leave you struggling once you die and lose your power-ups. A familiar scenario for many shmup fans.

If you like horizontal shooters and have already played the hell (no pun intended) out of the Thunder Force series this one shouldn't be too hard to find or expensive to pick up. Just be aware that it's not going to be a cakewalk.

Twin Cobra (1991):

Twin Cobra is the follow-up to Toaplan's Tiger-Heli where you take control of an attack helicopter and blow apart enemy tanks and aircraft. A popular arcade game from 1987, the Genesis port of Twin Cobra leaves something to be desired. It's not the worst shmup on the system by a long shot but after giving us Truxton, Fire Shark and even Twin Hawk the uninspired graphics and below-average gameplay make Twin Cobra feel like a step in the wrong direction.

It still feels like a Toaplan game and thanks to that it's fun and difficult but compared to the others it comes off as a watered down experience. You can't really use the excuse of the arcade original's age for this one either since the arcade version is a much more enjoyable experience. There was also a version of this on the NES. The Genesis game is at least better, and harder, than that one. Still, you can find this game dirt cheap and if you're a fan of Toaplan's gameplay style you might get something out of it. Just don't expect the same quality as the earlier games.

Zero Wing (1991):

Well here it is, the infamous Zero Wing. Known primarily for its horrible English translation and the phrase "All your base are belong to us." which blossomed into an Internet meme, Zero Wing is another horizontal space shmup that puts the last surviving pilot of a doomed starship crew up against insurmountable odds. Depending on who you talk to Zero Wing is either generic and forgettable or one of the better shmups on the Genesis. I suppose I fall between the two groups somewhere. I like Zero Wing but it doesn't do much to differentiate itself from the crowd.

The game has an interesting gimmick (beyond its hilarious translation) to try and keep your interest. You have a capture beam that pulls enemy ships in front of you so you can use them as a shield. If you do this to a larger ship its weight will start to pull you down and might accidentally cause you to crash. You've got your usual assortment of weapons with the standard shot, the powerful focused shot and a homing shot which I usually find to be the most useful.

Like Twin Hawk this game was also only released in Europe and Japan and because of its Internet fame you'll probably have to pay a decent amount for a copy. Unless you really want it for the humor or you just happen to really like the game I'd say you could safely pass on Zero Wing.

Snow Bros. Nick and Tom (1993):

One of the few non-shooters in Toaplan's library. Snow Bros. is essentially just a clone of Taito's popular Bubble Bobble. That's not really a bad thing and Snow Bros. is not a bad game either. Released only in Japan and sometimes demanding well over one-hundred dollars on eBay it's probably not a title you're going to add to your collection any time soon.

Snow Bros. is a single-screen platformer where you cover your enemies with snow and give them a shove, sometimes plowing over other enemies that get in the way of the giant snowball you've created. You can also get harmlessly pushed around if you happen to be in the way of the snowball. The goal is to defeat every enemy in the stage and move up to the next level. If you take too much time an invincible pumpkin headed baddie will show up and start to hunt you down. Every ten stages or so you'll fight a boss to break up the monotony.

It's a nice game and a very addictive one but nowhere near worth the price of admission.

Slap Fight (1993):

Another game that was abandoned in Japan that regularly fetches prices of over one-hundred bucks. Just like Snow Bros. It's not a bad game but not necessarily deserving of that kind of cash.

Slap Fight is sort of the bastard child of two classic Konami shooters Xevious and Gradius. The original arcade game was released way back in 1986 so the 1993 Mega Drive release of this title makes sense in the context of a nostalgic port of a classic game rather than attempting to be a cutting edge shmup. The overhead view and enemy designs seem straight out of Xevious but the power up system where you collect stars and choose what upgrades you want comes directly from Gradius. Maybe in 1986 Toaplan just hadn't quite developed their identity yet since they were borrowing these mechanics from the popular Konami cabinets of the time? Beats me.

What's important is that these gameplay mechanics work pretty well for Slap Fight. Gradius similarities aside the upgrade system does manage to earn some points for originality. When you make new additions to your arsenal you also increase the size of your ship. As you continue building yourself up eventually it's going to be nearly impossible to dodge enemy shots. It's an interesting concept that punishes the player for getting too greedy.

Aside from the original arcade version there's also a rearranged version of the game called "special" mode where you get a version of Slap Fight with improved graphics, music and new gameplay elements such as a bomb that's independent of your other power ups. In a way you're getting two Slap Fight games for the price of one. Unfortunately that price is way too high and even the special version's graphics are old and outdated looking.

Grind Stormer (1994):

The final Toaplan game released for Genesis by Tengen in 1994, the year Toaplan itself went bankrupt. Thankfully Grind Stormer is a pretty good game but unfortunately many of the cartridges Tengen produced are defective. Not only has this added a few dollars to the game's price tag for a working copy but you should probably make sure you're able to return it if you choose to buy one.

Interestingly there are two versions of this game on the cartridge, the western Grind Stormer and the original Japanese version V-V (pronounced V-Five). This is an out of the ordinary but welcome addition. The only real difference between the two versions is the power up system. Grind Stormer is similar to most other Toaplan games where you find upgrades that instantly effect your vehicle when picked up. In V-V you collect gems to use in a Gradius style system which have lead some to call the game the successor to Slap Fight.

No matter which version you choose you're in for a difficult fight with long levels and loads of bullets flying on the screen. It's a bit too much for the Genesis at times and sprite flickering tends to be one of the big problems with this game. It's not a perfect port of the arcade version by any means but it's a good challenge with nice graphics and slighty mediocre music. It's not the first shmup I run to but as the swan song for Toaplan on the Genesis it's not half bad.


  1. Excellent coverage on Toaplan games, mate!
    There's great information all over the text, even though I don't agree with all your opinions (Zero Wing is awesome, Twin Hawk is the worst in the bunch, Twin Cobra is as great as it is underrated).
    Your blog is neat, keep up with the great work!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks!

    I really do like Zero Wing I just don't love it.

    I'll have to give Twin Cobra another shot sometime.

  3. My all-time favourite was an Amiga game called Xenon II. Fantastic graphics and incredible music.

  4. Wow, what a terrific write-up! I have a soft spot for shmups but didn't get into them until recently. I never really new much about Zero Wing, other than it's awesome Engrish, so it was nice to see an actual opinion on the game. Keep up the good work!

  5. I think Toaplan also developed Wardner.