Bullet Heaven: A Celebration of Sega Genesis Shoot ’em ups

Forget Sonic The Hedgehog: the Sega Genesis played host to some of the best shooters video games ever.

The early 1990s saw Sega at the height of its powers. After a difficult entry into the console market in the 1980s, where its Master System (or Sega Mark III in Japan) struggled to make much headway against the Nintendo Entertainment System, the company was better known in Europe and America for its arcade hits like Outrun, Afterburner, and Space Harrier.

Sega’s fortunes finally changed, though, with the Sega Genesis: a 16-bit, next-gen console that, on its Japanese release in 1988, beat its old rival’s Super NES to the market by almost two years. Unlike the ageing NES, the Genesis could get closer than ever to the speed and vibrancy of Sega’s arcade machines – you only have to compare the NES port of Altered Beast to the one on the Genesis to see how great the technical leap was.

Thanks to a brash yet highly successful marketing campaign, the Genesis made inroads in America, where the Master System had failed. When Sonic the Hedgehog became Sega’s mascot in the early ’90s, what once seemed like an underdog company now seemed like a genuine competitor to Nintendo. There was a similar story in Europe, where the Genesis  (or Master System) had a greater toehold than in the US. With the Mega Drive arriving in PAL regions in 1990, the console had a full two years to grow its audience before the SNES came along.

Admittedly, the Genesis was never quite as popular in Japan as it was elsewhere, but that was partly because it had greater competition not only from Nintendo, but also systems like NEC’s PC Engine, an otherwise wonderful console that largely failed to catch fire outside its home country.

Ad – content continues below

All the same, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the Genesis was a smaller concern in Japan from looking at its library of games. The console had hundreds of titles programmed for it in Japan alone – some of them exclusive to that country. And among that library of games (which globally stretches to around 900 titles), you’ll find some flat-out classic shooters.

The shoot ’em up genre had reached its peak in the late 80s, so it’s probably no surprise that the Genesis played host to quite a bewildering number of them. But its timing doesn’t entirely explain it. While the SNES had some classic shooters of its own – Axelay, UN Squadron, a trio of Parodius games – the system’s processor meant that it wasn’t exactly ideal for a genre that required dozens of sprites to hurtle around the screen at one time. As programmers got better at coding around the SNES’ hardware, they produced some amazing effects, but even so, the action would often slow down quite noticeably when too many bullets and enemies flooded the screen.

Although the Genesis had its own hardware quirks, including a more muted color palette than the SNES, its superior CPU speed (7.67 MHz vs about 2.68 MHz, fact fans) made it ideal for the shoot ’em up genre. And boy did the Sega Genesis get a lot of shoot ’em ups.

Bullet Heaven

At the height of the Genesis’ popularity, the number of shooters available for the console – either available in officially or via grey import from Japan – evidently bewildered game journalists at the time. Writers would often grouse that one side-scrolling blaster was broadly the same as another. In their review of Darius II (also known as Sagaia), UK magazine Mean Machines wrote, “I can’t believe how many horizontally-scrolling shoot ’em ups are being released on the Genesis at the moment – it’s all getting a bit much…”

In retrospect, though, it looks less like an irksome deluge and more like an abundance of riches. Sure, there were a few less-than-great shooters on the Genesis – the hugely forgettable Whip Rush (1990) is one example – many of them were flat-out astonishing.

The most obvious place to start is Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar(known as Thunder Force IV everywhere else in the world), a title released in 1992 by Technosoft. The studio was at the height of its creative powers at this point, having helped revolutionize the real-time strategy genre with the hybrid Herzog Zwei, widely credited with inspiring Command  & Conquer, and creating a string of technically excellent shooters, including the Thunder Force games and the lesser-known Elemental Master.

Ad – content continues below

Lightening Force was easily the series’ pinnacle: a tough, satisfying blast that epitomized everything that was good about the genre at its best. The alien enemies attacked in novel yet fair patterns, appearing to swoop in from the middle distance as well as the sides of the screen. The scrolling backgrounds gave the illusion of progressing through a dangerous and futuristic landscape. The weapons struck that balance between satisfying power and tactical clarity – you don’t just snag all the power-ups and mash the fire button in this game. You have to constantly switch between weapons, selecting the correct one for each encounter.

Blast Processing

Looking at Lightening Force as a case study, it’s quite extraordinary to look back at how quickly the shooting game evolved from its roots in 1970s arcades. By the early ’80s, the plod-plod march of Space Invaders had given way to the lightning-fast, side-scrolling action of Defender and the more measured but no less tense tunnels of Konami’s Scramble (both 1981).

From there, shooting games diverged along varying paths: horizontal shooters that built on the legacy of Space Invaders, Galaxian and Galaga (the latter being among the very first to introduce its own power-up system); side-scrolling shooters evolving from Defender and Scramble. (To this we could add top-down run-and-gunners like Commando, isometric scrolling shooters like Zaxxon, and so forth.)

Within four years, Konami had taken Scramble and transformed it almost beyond recognition with Gradius; another Japanese company, Irem, took things even further with R-Type in 1987.  By this point, the rules of a typical shoot ’em up were pretty much set: a lone player moved from left to right along a pre-set path, gunning down the enemies largely entering stage right. At the end of each stage, there would be some kind of gigantic enemy that would likely take multiple hits or some kind of special tactic to destroy. Destroy that enemy – or boss, or guardian – and it’s on to the next, more difficult stage.

As a concept, it’s pretty narrow, and you can see how developers freely pilfered ideas from one another in shooters of the late ’80s. Even so, it’s remarkable how many great shooters there are on the Genesis, and how different the best of them feel from one another. There’s a world of difference, for example, from the precise top-down shooters ported from Toaplan’s arcade machines – Truxton (or Tatsujin), Fire Shark, Twin Hawk – and Compile’s MUSHA. The latter is fiery, frenzied sensory overload where everything seems to be happening slightly too fast; Toaplan’s shooters achieve their difficulty with elaborate and multi-directional enemy patterns that require memorisation and pixel-perfect positioning.

By the same token, the quirky, fiddly Super Fantasy Zone,which didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 2008,was the polar opposite of the Thunder Force series. The former looked like a cross between a kawaii Japanese anime and a 60s acid flashback; the latter are all hard surfaces and pounding synth-metal music. Ironically, the Thunder Force games were generally more forgiving – Super Fantasy Zone, despite its friendly face, has the teeth of a predator.

Ad – content continues below

Sound and Fury

The 16-bit era also gave developers more leeway than ever to tailor their graphics and sound beyond the circles, blocks, and bleeps of, say, Namco’s Xevious from 1982 – and having been given this new box of tricks to play with, those developers duly went nuts.

Wings of Wor, sometimes known as Gynoug, is one of the weirdest-looking shooting games ever made. Released in 1991 and created by Masaya, it pits a winged hero (a kind of grown up Kid Icarus) against an army of exotic, demonic-looking entities. In short, Wings of Wor splices the iconography of ancient Greece with the H.R. Giger-inspired bio-mechanical look seen in games like Salamander and R-Type, then throws in some topless, muscular men for good measure. The result is a game that, in a genre not widely known for its atmospherics, comes draped in an unmistakeably spooky air. By the time the bosses roll in – a grotesque assortment of deformed lizards, sentient death machines, and giant screaming heads – it’s clear that we’re in the presence of something deeply strange. Masaya would later go on to make the similarly weird Cho Aniki series, which upped the muscular men quotient even further.

Less twisted, but no less captivating to look at, Steel Empire forged a steampunk landscape seemingly inspired by Studio Ghibli’s classic anime, Castle in the Sky. The usual array of chrome ships and glowing lasers seen in typical space shooters was here replaced by armored zeppelins and huge rumbling tanks. Its visuals alone were enough to justify its cult status, and Steel Empire was among the relatively small number of shooters that lingered on after the Genesis era ended. Ports later appeared on the Game Boy Advance and the 3DS in later years.

Few – if any – Genesis shooters transformed the genre in the way that some of its most famous names did, but the best of them nevertheless came with their own cool ideas and gimmicks. Toaplan’s Zero Wing is best known these days for its “All your base…” meme, but get past that, and you’ll find a rock-solid space shooter with a clever mechanic: your ship is equipped with a beam that drags in enemies, which you could then use as a shield or as a projectile. Gaiares, actually released a year before Zero Wing, took this even further. Here, the player could use a Force-like drone to take the weapons systems from enemy ships, resulting in some varied and spectacular displays of laser power.

It would be remiss not to mention one of the great driving forces behind all these shooters: the music. Wings of Wor was scored to an unearthly warble of faux church organs. Thunder Force‘s J-metal backdrop was almost as addictive as the action itself. Even more unassuming blasters were sometimes rescued by some great music. Take Dangerous Seed, for example – a port of Namco’s vertically-scrolling blaster that, although pretty entertaining, came fairly early in the Genesis’ life and contained some distracting sprite flicker. Its music, on the other hand, was absolutely storming: a relentless pulse of baroque electronica with an occasional rising, digital “whhhooosssh” that made the shooting feel far more thrilling than it actually was.

Shooters Forever

Shooters were ten-a-penny on the Genesis in the early ’90s, but today, they’re among the most avidly-collected genres on the system. This is partly because so many of them are so enjoyable – $50 for Lightening Force doesn’t seem an unreasonable amount to pay in 2018, given how good the game still looks and feels – but also because some are just so scarce. Take Eliminate Down, a space shooter that, at first glance, doesn’t look much different from most of the other titles mentioned already. But because it was only released in Japan and South Korea, by a relatively small publisher (Soft Vision) and in small numbers, it’s become something of a holy grail for collectors. A quick check on eBay will throw out prices of about $1,000 or more.

Ad – content continues below

Indeed, the market for some of the Genesis’ most sought-after shooters is now such that some small firms have started creating reproduction cartridges – A handy fallback if you don’t have hundreds of dollars lying around to drop on Eliminate Down or Gley Lancer, another unfathomably expensive game, though new collectors should be careful of buying counterfeit carts sold as the genuine article.

The continued affection for Genesis shooters is, inevitably, colored in part by nostalgia. But at the same time, I’d argue that the genre reached its pinnacle in the early ’90s. Developers were still coming up with creative ideas, musicians and artists were full of inspiration, and the difficulty levels were high, but not so high that the games were only designed for an elite few with flea-like reflexes. Spectacular shooters continued to emerge in the years after the Genesis gave way to the Saturn and then the Dreamcast, but in ever decreasing numbers. Today, the shoot ’em up is a niche affair – too simplistic to garner much interest from gamers who get their adrenaline from more modern genres, and too tough and drenched in curtains of bullets to entice a casual audience.

It’s possible that we’re only a short time away from some kind of indie resurgence. Games like Braid and Super Meat Boy helped remind people of the brilliance of the traditional platformer. With games like Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, and even Super Mario Odyssey paying homage to the genre’s ’80s roots, it’s a resurgence that’s ongoing today. Maybe there’s a developer out there with a satisfying, approachable new twist on the classic shooter – the horizontally or vertically-scrolling equivalent of a sleeper hit like Super Meat Boy.

At any rate, the Sega Genesis remains one of the single greatest platforms for the 2D shooter. From Lightening Force to MUSHA, and Steel Empire to Raiden Trad, the sheer range of titles made for the 16-bit console remains extraordinary. Much has changed in the games industry over the past 25 or so years, but plug in one of these cartridges today, and the experience remains undimmed: self-contained, immediately graspable but often full of tactical nuances that only reveal themselves over time.

Shoot ’em ups aren’t necessarily the most sophisticated of genres – they weren’t even back in 1991 – but therein lies their appeal. The simplicity, the challenge, the pace, the sights, and sounds: all these things made the best Genesis shooters absolutely timeless.