Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle for Sega Saturn)

In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.

In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.

Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.

In the hands of Toaplan, however, “bullet hell” means one thing: absolute, overwhelming, glorious chaos. Have you ever noticed how every spaceship shooter gives you a massive firepower advantage over your opponents? Now the enemy is armed with the same weapons as you. The aliens have emerged from the galactic arms race as equals, raising the stakes as every you progress.

Batsugun begins easily enough, much like the shoot-em-ups of the period. Enemy spaceships fly in the usual formations, aquatic ships sail over alien waters, bunkers aim and fire their cannons. This is all standard procedure and even beginners will successfully clear the first stage. Then the speed begins to pick up in stage two and tension begins to rise. And rise. And rise. Aerial and ground formations hurl at you from all directions, in all shapes and sizes. Bosses become larger and more dangerous. By the third stage, you are flying at breakneck speeds and desperately clinging on to life.

Your own fleet of six spaceships (three for players one and two), each with their own unique offensive weapons, are armed with a tremendous firepower potential. An intriguing RPG-like system is introduced, where you gain experience points with each kill. Achieve a set amount of experience points, and your weapons will immediately evolve into another stage of intensity. This is very helpful; as the game becomes more intense and challenging, you will discover that you have not lost all your weapons after being shot down. You won’t be sent back to using a cheap pea shooter, which in most cases would mean certain doom.

Batsugun is a very short videogame, only five stages, but I feel this is a virtue. Like the great early Ramones albums, Batsugun is lean and mean and ready to assault you without missing a beat. Seven or eight stages would become exhaustive and repetitive. Toaplan always understood the right amount of balance for their shooters, and knew just when to end the song.

The Saturn version of Batsugun, released in Japan in 1996 by the former Toaplan crew at Gazelle, is as brilliant as you’d expect: superb, all blistering hypercolored visuals, smooth animation, booming bass explosions. The music is superb and filled with melodic hooks and bouncy chiptune beats, like all the classic Toaplan games. I’m reminded of their classics on Sega Genesis such as Truxton and Fire Shark and smile.

In addition to the arcade mode, an additional “special edition” is also included which features remixed graphics, a smaller “hitbox” for your ship, a shield that protects you from enemy fire, more powerful smart bombs, and additional scoring items such as cartoon pigs. After completing stage five, the game loops back to the beginning but at a higher difficulty setting, with added waves of enemy machine gun bullets, requiring you to defeat the final boss a second time. This version is actually based on an arcade upgrade that was never released due to Toaplan’s bankruptcy.

You have the choice of playing with a standard perspective (either scaled scaled out or zoomed in close), or “tate” mode that turns the game ninety degrees to its side. This recreates the vertical orientation of the arcade and perfectly preserves the graphics with no loss of fidelity. In addition, you can even tilt the joypad controls and play the game as a side scroller. Personally, I just lie down on the couch and play with the vertical controls. These gameplay options are standard with nearly all arcade shoot-em-ups on Sega Saturn and is wholly welcome.

Sega Saturn is beloved today largely because of its wonderful 2D videogames, and especially its large library of arcade shooters. Batsugun is one of my favorites and one that I enjoy playing again and again. It has a much more forgiving difficulty curve than its peers, is wonderfully fast and fluid, is vibrantly colorful in that classic pixel art style, and just booms through stereo speakers. How I do miss Toaplan. They guys were legends.

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