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Backlog Impressions | Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha

NIS America brings us 6 classic shoot em ups from the esteemed Psikyo in the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha compilation on the Nintendo Switch! The question is, where do I deposit my wallet?

How the Shmup Was Won

The modern age of gaming – what an era to be a part of, am I right? Due to the advancements in technology, it’s never been easier for devs to truly express themselves. Both the barriers to entry are lower and there aren’t quite as many technological roadblocks as there were in the past. But not only that, there has never been a better time for those of us who play games, to experience and relive the wide breadth of video game history.

No longer do we have to pine over our inability to play a game because it has become rare, collectible, or unreasonably priced! Nor do we have to travel hundreds of miles to find that singular arcade cabinet we remember playing when we were children. And that’s because with the advent of emulation and the push for video game preservation, access to many of these titles are quite literally at our fingertips! It also helps that there is a genuine desire from developers and publishers everywhere to keep their storied histories alive. Not to say that many of us wouldn’t go out of our way to experience the honest to goodness article, but it’s nice to have that option as a fall back.

And a perfect example of this is the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha compilation from NIS America! Which houses six classic arcade shoot em ups in one tidy package. 

The Quickly Dead

Although they may not be a household name here in North America, Psikyo has been an arcade staple in Japan since the early 90s. During that time, Psikyo was most famous for their addicting, vertically scrolling shoot em ups that featured an interesting mechanic called the “second loop”. Which was kind of a way for the developers to reward and challenge skilled players by allowing them to continue playing after completing the game. That and it added longevity to what are typically short games. The caveat being the difficulty would be increased by overwhelming the player with more accurate and aggressive enemies!

Here and there, Psikyo also tried to mix up the formula a bit with their games, by experimenting with different and unique mechanics. Some featured horizontal scrolling levels, others weird and awkward aiming controls, and a few that even had fun brawler-style melee abilities! But these innovations weren’t always successful, at least in my mind.

Psikyo was also less famously know for their erotic mahjong games, but since this review is purely focused on their shoot em ups, that discussion can be for another time. Besides, none of that infamous naughty business appears in the Shooting Stars Alpha collection… unfortunately! 

The Good, The Bad and the Slightly Better

What does appear in this collection is a nice spread from Psikyo’s rich history spanning 6 games ranging from their early days to just before they went into retirement. That alone is fascinating, because it allows you to see how Psikyo grew as a developer over the years and how they adapted various mechanics from earlier games and integrated them into their later entries. Not only was it cool to see how they iterated upon certain themes, but also how they used tried and true mechanics in fun new ways. 

That being said, not all of the games in the Shooting Stars Alpha collection were bangers! And when I say that, I’m specifically referring to Zero Gunner 2. Which if I’m going to be perfectly honest, was kind of terrible. And its weakest point was its unintuitive control scheme where you are required to wrap your mind around a strange pivoting system! Meaning aiming and shooting was a pain, and more often than not led to frustration. I’m also guessing because of the focus on it’s bizarre controls, the developers needed to tone down the difficulty a bit. So basically, your left with a bland, tedious, and slightly too simple shoot em up. It also didn’t help that the background music and sound effects were inconsistent. At times they were not existent all or muffled. But this could just be a problem with how it was emulated. Now, after spending some time with Zero Gunner and getting used to how it’s played, I could see inklings of fun shining through, but I honestly had a hard time enjoying myself nonetheless.

Then there was Sol Divide, which was much better. Well, in theory. But I’m gonna give this one a pass because of its unique concept! I really liked the idea of combining a shoot em up with a sort of brawler! So, instead of there being a focus on shooting anything that moves, you use melee attacks and various magical abilities! Of course just mashing that shoot button is also an option! But you’ll find out very quickly that the best way to be successful in Sol Divide is to figure out your enemies’ weaknesses and exploit them. And that usually means saving up your magic points and unleashing your most powerful spell on them!! Truthfully, Sol Divide has a ton of potential and if it wasn’t for the bullet spongy enemies, the awkward hit boxes, and unresponsive melee attacks, I could really see myself getting into it. It very much reminds me of Deathsmiles and I really like the idea of its “rock, paper, scissors” spell system. And that’s not to say I won’t get into it, especially since I’m curious to see how it plays out, but there’s a whole 4 other games on here that are stealing all my attention!! And those games are the Strikers 1945 trilogy and their fantasy themed bastard lovechild, Dragon Blaze! 

Fistful of Arcade Tokens

Frankly, the three Strikers 1945 games surprised me the most considering, at a glance, they looked like your typical World War II shoot em up. But I think it was their simplicity and the fact that they took the core shmup concepts and did them right, that made them so appealing. It also helped that in each game you had a wide variety of ships to choose from that had unique shot patterns, movement speeds, and special abilities. It really added to the replayability of each entry and made them addicting and fun! One of my favorite parts of the Strikers games was their multi-part bosses that usually ended with the destroyed ship transforming into a badass mech! However, due to the relative simplicity in both their scoring systems and your offensive options (short of Strikers 1945 III), they’re easy to overlook. But it was cool to see how Psikyo improved upon each of the Strikers games as you moved from sequel to sequel!

And that leads us to the real star of the compilation, at least in my mind, Dragon Blaze! Which if you didn’t pick up on it, I may have crowned as the “bastard child” of the Strikers series. Well, that’s because Dragon Blaze is basically the evolution of those games! And although on the surface it seems like a simple fantasy themed re-skin of Strikers 1945, there’s so much more to it than that! For one, there was a major improvement in its readability and graphical fidelity! For instance, the bullets are now colored pink so they stand out from the background. Much like what you would find in the finest CAVE bullet hell shmups like Mushihimesama. That alone makes it so much easier to see what is coming at you. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easier to dodge them, but at least you can see them!

Then there was an enhancement to your offensive abilities. Which was kind of a mix between the magic found in Sol Divide and the “charged laser” mechanics found in the later Strikers games. When it came to the laser shot, if you held your fire button down you would unleash a powerful attack that consumes your magic gauge. Then, if the going is getting too tough, you still have your magic bomb that has the ability to clear onscreen bullets and do massive damage. But the most interesting addition to Dragon Blaze is it’s “Dragon Shoot” mechanic where you’re character will dismount the dragon and shoot it forward. The benefit of doing this is that you can typically destroy the bigger enemies in a single shot or quickly dispatch a boss in its second phase once it exposes its “core”. Of course, the downside is that you need to be relatively close to the enemy when you do this for it to be effective. Meaning you’ll be exposed and more likely to get hit.

And that leads me to the final improvement found in Dragon Blaze. Its scoring system. Which implements an interesting risk/reward mechanic. Typically when you destroy an enemy they’ll drop silver coins, but if you can defeat them with your riskier “Dragon Shoot” ability, the coins will become gold and give you significantly more points. This can even be used during boss fights. If you are able to destroy them with your “Dragon Shoot” while their core is exposed, then you’ll defeat them instantly and gain a “Technical Bonus” which is worth a ton! Now, this may not mean much for those who just want to play these games casually, but those of us that enjoy chasing that high score leader board, it makes the game more challenging and interesting!

A Bloody Shmup Extravaganza!

As some of you may already know, I have a soft spot for shoot em ups, so being able to play all of these classic Psikyo shmups was an absolute joy! Of course, not all of the entries in this compilation were for me, but being able to see all of the great work and experimentation that Psikyo pulled off during their active development days was super fascinating!

And whether your blood runs shmup or you’re just a fair weather arcade game enthusiast, I think there’s a lot of value in the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha set of games and I’d highly recommend you check it out! It’s available starting January 21st, 2020 on the Nintendo Switch and that includes a super fancy physical Limited Edition that comes with a lot of cool SWAG!


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