Shienryu (1997, Warashi for Sega Saturn)

Sega Saturn is blessed with a thousand great shoot-em-ups. Shienryu (“Purple Flame Dragon”) is one of the genre’s best titles and a personal favorite of mine. It boasts excellent graphics, superb weapons, endless waves of enemies and boss battles that are challenging yet never overwhelming. It delivers everything you expect from a quality shooter, and if it never offers any new ideas, you’re more than happy to buy the ticket and take the ride.

This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake. Your spaceship is also very similar to the ships in Raiden with its red coat of paint. Even the architectural designs are very similar in many respects, as you battle on land, sea, air and outer space, as you take the fight to the aliens’ home worlds.

I am most reminded of Toaplan’s classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs. Shienryu has a late-1980s groove and could have easily been a product of the 16-bit era. By 1997, it’s positively retro in is pacing and structure, which is more laid back than the frantic, over-the-top danmaku (“bullet hell”) titles that consumed the genre. The challenge lies not in avoiding impossible waves of bullets, but in navigating the ballet of spaceships, tanks, turrets, giant mechs, starships, and massive bosses that are quite the challenge to defeat. This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.

Your weapons included the usual assortment of spread-shot bullets, rockets and homing lasers, again in the classic Toaplan mold. Each of the three main weapons also has its own smart bomb which adds to the variety, although I prefer the transparent blue beam the most, if just for the cool visual effects. Your weapons can be powered up to an impressive but not overwhelming level. You never reach a point where you are significantly more powerful than the enemy fleets, and the challenge always remains more or less constant. Bosses are impressively large and foreboding and need to be dismantled piece by piece, eventually giving way to a massive series of explosions.

Shienryu was released to arcades on Sega’s Titan hardware system, which was based on the Sega Saturn, and this enables for a perfect home translation. Graphics are crisp, vibrant and varied, with a highly impressive color palette that saves its best artwork for the latter space-bound stages. Explosion animations are extremely fluid, again pointing directly to Raiden, and it’s always fun to see tanks or aircraft shatter into a hundred tiny pieces. There are an impressive number of sprites on screen, with rolling attack waves from above and below, but the hardware is never really pushed as hard as the genre’s top titles.

Warashi, the software developers, were not interested in reinventing the wheel or pushing the limits of the Sega Saturn. They only wanted to create a great shoot-em-up in the vein of the genre’s golden age, and they succeed admirably. If you’re someone who feels overwhelmed by Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga or Souky, then this videogame is perfect for you. As always, you have the option of playing in standard or “tate” view, with or without sideways controls. Everything looks great on a large television screen, and I can think of far worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. Grab two Saturn controllers, a couple beers and some nachos and you’ll have a great time.

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