10 Great Shoot-em-ups On The Master System

 

 

#1 MOST ASKED QUESTION: “Is Sega Does dead or alive?”

While I’m out gallivanting with the NES book and other assorted projects, writer James Swift of Uncommon Journalism has graciously offered to pen some Sega-themed articles for the site. Expect them once a week for the next while!

 

The Sega Genesis is often considered one of the greatest consoles ever for shoot-em-ups, and rightly so. While the 16-bit powerhouse can lay claim to having some of the greatest shooters ever (Thunder Force III, M.U.S.H.A.), many retro enthusiasts overlook the genre’s presence on the Genesis’ 8-bit predecessor, the Master System. For shame. The following 10 games prove that the Master System houses the finest shoot-em-ups on any 8-bit console.

 

Aerial Assault (1990)

DEVELOPER: Sanritsu Denki

PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

The  best way to describe Aerial Assault is a side-scrolling version of 1942. The game has a consistent WWII military theme, eschewing the genre’s typical sci-fi tropes … up until the fourth level, when the stage turns into an R-Type-ish labyrinth and you start getting attacked by sentient androids. In addition to its considerable challenge, Aerial Assault has some of the system’s most impressive (and intimidating) genre boss battles. All in all, a fun, no-frills shmup with satisfying and addictive gameplay – although the game never explains how a fighter jet works in the deep, dark vacuum of space. 

 

Astro Warrior (1986)

DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

Astro Warrior might be rough around the edges, but this early SMS release was certainly better than any shmup on the NES up to that point. With virtually no flickering or slowdown, the game gave early Master System adopters the most technologically advanced home console shooter to date, complete with fast, frenetic gameplay that felt darn near arcade-perfect. Of course, the visuals haven’t aged well and the fact that you can beat the game in less than ten minutes may turn off a few players. For its time, however, it gets the job done.

Read the full review.

 

Bomber Raid (1989)

DEVELOPER: Sanritsu Denki

PUBLISHER: Activision

 

 

The spiritual successor to the Atari 2600 classic River Raid is every bit as good as its pioneering forerunner. The visuals are bright and colorful and, unlike most NES shmups from the same era, there’s hardly any flickering or slowdown to ruin the pace and tempo. The action is constant and lightning fast and the boss fights are truly a sight to behold. The enemy types and well-designed levels are icing on the cake. Easily one of the best and most underrated shoot-em-ups of the entire 8-bit era.

Read the full review.

 

Cloud Master (1989)

DEVELOPER: Taito Corp.

PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

If nothing else, Cloud Master takes home the title of weirdest SMS shmup. In this beautifully animated side-scrolling blast-fest, you play a redheaded kid who (true to the title) rides atop a cloud. Cannon-carrying pigs, sentient bowls of kamikaze instant noodles, and other kooky adversaries all want to take you down. Just wait until you get to the boss fights against the giant green gargoyle with the friar’s haircut and Buddha himself! The animation and sprites in this game are tremendous, and there are plenty of weapon upgrades to keep things interesting. Cloud Master does get a tad repetitive towards the end, but it’s a wacky little adventure while it lasts.

Read the full review.

 

Power Strike (1988)

DEVELOPER: Compile

PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

Power Strike is a Compile shooter. How could it possibly suck? If you’ve ever played Gun Nac or Zanac on the NES you’ll feel right at home here, as the central gameplay and weapons systems are practically identical. The pace is amazingly fast and there is an astounding amount of action happening on-screen. Add to the mix a ton of beautifully designed stages, and you have all the makings of an absolute must-play shooter.

Read the full review.

 

Power Strike II (1993)

DEVELOPER: Compile

PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

Not only is Power Strike II the best shmup on the Master System, it might just be the best game on the SMS period. As good as the first Power Strike was, this sequel absolutely outclasses it in every category, with better visuals, better music and gameplay that’s exponentially more intense. This game looks and feels more like a Genesis/TurboGrafx-16 shmup than anything else on the platform. First-time players are sure to have their minds blown witnessing how remarkably fast and fluid Power Strike II is. This is about as close as we’ll ever get to an 8-bit M.U.S.H.A., and if you’re a genre fan you owe it to yourself to give this extraordinary shmup a try.

 

R-Type (1988)

DEVELOPER: Irem

PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

This was the game that proved once and for all that the SMS was the superior platform for 8-bit shmups. Not only did this port of the arcade classic look better than just about every other shoot-em-up on the home console market, it felt way closer to the coin-op experience than any of the flicker-heavy shooters on Nintendo’s hardware. The stages are huge and exquisitely animated (if you thought the “body horror” stages in Life Force were something else, just wait ‘til you see what R-Type throws at you), and the game runs with zero lag. With 16 enormous levels to plow through, you’re going to be logging a lot of hours with this one.

Read the full review.

 

Sagaia (1992)

DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER: Taito Corp.

 

 

Don’t let the title fool you: Sagaia is actually a port of Darius II. Of course, it isn’t as polished and visually impressive as the Genesis version. But considering the SMS hardware limitations, Sagaia is nonetheless a downright solid shoot-em-up experience. There are six ginormous stages to blast your way through, each with a preposterously oversized end boss awaiting you at the end of every level. The sprites look fantastic, the action is super-challenging and the background effects are some of the best-looking on the Master System. Special shout out to the music, especially that bangin’ track on level three!

Read the full review.

 

Scramble Spirits (1989)

DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

While you really can’t call it a faithful arcade port, Scramble Spirits is still an enjoyable shooter. The pastel-hued levels are vibrant and well-animated, and the twitch action is more intense than you might expect. It has its demerits: the soundtrack is repetitive, all the boss fights take place in mono-colored abysses and you can probably finish the entire game in 20 minutes. Even with these issues, for me, Scramble Spirits‘ entertaining and engaging two-player mode makes it one of the best genre offerings on the system.

Read the full review.

 

Submarine Attack (1990)

DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER: Sega

 

 

Submarine Attack needs to be experienced for its uniqueness. You’re constantly being bombarded by enemy attacks, not only horizontally, but from above and below the ocean, too. The level layout is more of a labyrinth than a straight forward side-scroller, with tons of tricky environmental obstacles all over the place. The sprites are tremendous, with some of the most intimidating looking bosses you’ll see in any Master System offering. The levels, although a bit short, all look great and differ drastically from one stage to the next. Submarine Attack may not be as great a sub-themed shmup as In the Hunt, but it beats the pants off Steel Diver.

Night Trap: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

 

Looking back on the hyper controversial Sega CD launch title, a quarter-century later…

 

“Is Sega Does dead or alive?” “Are you posting new content or not?

Yes!

While I’m out gallivanting with the NES book and other assorted projects, writer James Swift of Uncommon Journalism graciously offered to pen some Sega-themed articles for the site. Expect them once a week for the next while. So without further ado…

 

Night Trap: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

 

 

 

With Screaming Villains re-releasing Night Trap on Steam and the PS4 (complete with a gnarly, 25th anniversary collector’s edition physical copy of the game), now is as good a time as any to reflect and reminisce on the history and profound influence of Sega’s infamous full motion video offering.

 

Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Night Trap a true “Sega” game. Yes, it was eventually released on the Sega CD, and for a time at least, Sega marketed it as one of their marquee pieces of software. But the game actually began life as the killer app for Hasbro’s never-released Control-Vision console – a system that would’ve used video tapes instead of traditional gaming cartridges or CD-ROMS.

 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Night Trap

 

The mastermind behind the Control-Vision (which was briefly codenamed the NEMO – it stood, rather humorously, for “never ever mention outside”) was Tom Zito, a former Atari employee who quickly put together a series of tech demos to wow the suits at Hasbro. One of the demos, a ripoff of Clue called Scene of the Crime, pretty much served as the prototype for what would become Night Trap. The game included seven rooms which the player could check into with a push of a button, with a house layout map that would migrate over to Night Trap virtually unchanged.

 

Interestingly, Night Trap was initially meant to be a licensed game based on A Nightmare on Elm Street, but apparently New Line Cinema never gave Zito and their pals their blessings. From there, the Control-Vision crew mulled producing an interactive murder-mystery in which the player had to thwart invading ninjas(?!?) from looting their family fortune, but after a few more tweaks the Night Trap we all know and love (or loathe) finally began to take shape.

 

Quoth the mustachioed figure, “Saddle up, cowboy.”

 

The game was “filmed” in 1987 for about $1.5 million. It starred Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato as the main character, a plant for an undercover mission to lure a bunch of vampires – who, strangely enough, look more like Foot Clan castoffs than Dracula and his ilk – to a slumber party. Interestingly, the director of photography for the gig was a guy named Don Burgess, who would later get an Oscar nod for his cinematography work on Forrest Gump.

 

Keep in mind that, at the time, the movie/game was designed for Hasbro’s proprietary video console. As such, the NEMO team was beholden to their demands, which included diktats to tone down the violence. Inexplicably, one of Hasbro’s biggest problems was with the speed of the vampires; for whatever reason, they demanded that the bad guys in Night Trap walked at a stilted pace, I guess to deter kids from jogging through their kitchens after playing the game.

 

There’s so much “over it” in this shot.

 

By 1989, Night Trap – alongside an even more expensive FMV title dubbed Sewer Shark – was in the can and ready for the Control-Vision’s Christmas launch. According to David Crane (who served as a consultant on the game … for one afternoon), Toys “R” US were so impressed by the hardware they were ready to buy up Hasbro’s entire inventory. Unfortunately, a global RAM shortage drove up the manufacturing costs of the Control-Vision, more than doubling its retail price point. Feeling the console was too expensive to compete with Nintendo and Sega, Hasbro officially pulled the plug on the Control-Vision project, as Night Trap (more or less a completed game at that point) sat on the shelf for another three years.

 

Shortly after Hasbro cancelled the hardware, Zito bought the footage rights to Night Trap and started his own interactive movie production firm, Digital Pictures. He originally wanted to port Night Trap to the Super Nintendo, but after the Big N abandoned its CD-ROM partnership with Sony, he naturally decided to partner with their arch rivals Sega instead. And on Oct. 15, 1992, Night Trap – after five years in development purgatory – was finally released as a launch title for the Sega CD.

 

For I was blind, but now I’m trapped!

 

While the game was slightly retooled to better accommodate the Genesis’ lima bean-shaped control pad, relatively few alterations were made to the finished port. With the exception of an opening tutorial introducing players to the control setup (as well as the Sega Control Attack Team, the top-secret agency the player “works” for), hardly any other additional footage was filmed for the Sega CD title.

 

Gameplay-wise, Night Trap is pretty straightforward. There are eight cameras you can cycle through by hitting the A button, and to set off death traps, you hit the B button. Probably the biggest structural problem with the game is the inclusion of “security codes,” which are basically just random colors that constantly change, and you can only activate the aforementioned traps by knowing the correct “security code” color in each room. This gets really annoying because it’s pretty much impossible to listen in on every bit of dialogue in the game so you can know what the proper security code is at any given time. Which means, inevitably, that you’ll spend the bulk of your game time constantly mashing the C button until you inadvertently stumble upon the right one.

 

Those nutty bloodsuckers!

 

While it doesn’t sound very intuitive at first, cycling through the eight cameras isn’t as difficult or irritating as you would assume. You usually have a pretty good idea where all the characters are at any point in the game and believe it or not, there actually is something resembling a coherent plot in the mix. It takes some getting used to – and a set-up like the one in this user-generated video would have been much preferred –  but it certainly amps up the replayability. You’d have to play and beat the game dozens of times before you experienced everything Night Trap has to offer, and there’s certainly some cool stuff in there – ESPECIALLY the quasi-Easter egg where Dana Plato lip syncs to that amazingly awful “Night Trap” theme song.

 

In hindsight, you have to second guess Sega’s decision to bet the farm on “interactive movies” as the primary driver of the new hardware’s sales. But at the time, Night Trap and its kindred were considered extremely cutting edge entertainment, and all of the game mags back in the day were convinced this was going to be the future of video gaming, if not the first step towards bona-fide virtual reality entertainment. As a standalone game, Night Trap is pretty enjoyable for what it is – a playable, no-budget, late night Showtime horror movie. There are better FMV games on the system, and there are definitely worse as well. As a tech demo, the game succeeded as a hardware showcase, but alas, such didn’t translate into purchased consoles. About 200,000 Sega CD units were sold by the end of 1992, and Night Trap did very little to convince consumers that the add-on’s $300 asking price was justified. While the game initially did very little to make an impact on gamers, the title certainly made an impact on an entirely different demographic: federal legislators.

 

Teenagers clearly conversing in sin.

 

A little more than a year after Night Trap was released, the game was immortalized as the focal point of a Dec. 1993 Senate hearing on video game violence spearheaded by Democrats Herb Kohl and Joseph Lieberman.

 

You can check out the full three hour hearing here, but for those of you that don’t have an afternoon to kill listening to quarter century-old CSPAN programming, the gist of it was that Night Trap – with its lurid depiction of half-naked women getting their blood sucked out of their necks with giant K’NEX toys – was lambasted as the exemplar of virtual depravity and degeneracy. Avowed child development experts and other moral watchdogs took to the chamber to explain, without any tinge of sensational overreaction whatsoever, how games like Night Trap were making children more prone to aggressive behavior and encouraged sexual violence against women. The bad press eventually goaded Sega into developing its own MPAA-esque video game ratings system, which served as the basis for the industry-wide Entertainment Software Ratings Board standards shortly thereafter.

 

Kathleen Turner guest stars.

 

Yet despite the negative publicity from Capitol Hill, that didn’t stop Sega from re-releasing the game as an “enhanced” 32X disc barely a year after the infamous Senate hearing, nor did it bar Digital Pictures from porting the game to Panasonic’s short-lived 3DO system. In a strange way, all that political ire gave Night Trap a second life, turning what would’ve otherwise been a forgettable, full price tech demo into one of the most significant (and slightly financially successful) titles of the 16-bit era – indeed, the game managed to sell 50,000 copies just one week AFTER being torn asunder in D.C. Still, all the controversy in the world couldn’t save the Sega CD, and in many ways, the full-motion-video subgenre. By the time the Sega Saturn was on store shelves, the whole “interactive movie” shtick had become painfully passe, and it wasn’t long before Digital Pictures (who wound up producing more than a dozen games for Sega) went belly-up.

 

For better or for worse, Night Trap came to embody everything Sega did right – and wrong – with its initial foray into CD-ROM gaming. Even now, when most people think about the Sega CD they don’t think about standout titles like Sonic the Hedgehog CD, Snatcher or Robo Aleste. They think about the system’s deluge of Digital Pictures games – chief among them, of course, being Night Trap. Twenty-five years later and it’s still difficult to tell if the game, and all the controversy it courted, helped or hurt Sega in the long haul. While all the bad publicity may have put Sega in the doghouse with concerned parents, the brouhaha over largely uncensored games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat made the Genesis and Sega CD the edgier and more countercultural choice of the big two 16-bit systems and represented the fledgling medium’s first steps into truly adult-oriented entertainment. Still, one can’t help but wonder if Sega could have extended its lifespan by foregoing the Sega CD altogether, or at the very least focusing on aurally and graphically updated traditional video games instead of the glut of FMV titles.

 

I think this clip speaks for itself.

 

Regardless, Night Trap may not be a good game using normal quality measuring sticks, but it’s undeniably an entertaining title. The acting is hokey and hilarious, the softcore erotica soundtrack is cheesily endearing, there’s a ton of replayability and the tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall shattering grand finale – complete with a surprisingly well-done “twist” ending – is actually quite engrossing and nerve-racking.

 

Night Trap is one of those cornerstone video games you just HAVE to experience for yourself at least once. If you’re a hardcore B-horror fan, you’re going to love it and if you just have a general fondness for pop cultural cheese and sleaze, you’ll probably adore it, too. It hasn’t aged particularly well in all respects, but that’s sort of the game’s charm; it feels refreshingly simplistic, refreshingly dated and at certain junctures, even refreshingly frustrating.

 

Not pictured: Dana’s agent.

 

That, and it’s a pretty remarkable testament to our society’s ever-changing views on what is and what isn’t culturally permissible. Here we are in the era of Grand Theft Auto V and Postal 3 and games where you literally rape other characters, and to think that elected officials once thought grainy footage of Kimberly Drummond getting chased around a winery house by guys with pantyhose socked over their faces was positively obscene.

 

Images/GIFs courtesy of James Swift, MobyGames, GameFAQs, Factory Sealed, and RetroGameNetwork.

Let’s Try This Again

 

Gotta go to work.

 

Oy.

I gotta be real with y’all. I was excited to jump back into Sega Does, thus my hasty “Sega Does is Back!” proclamation, but… it’s not quite time to return yet.

“And why?” they asked.

The NES book is my first priority. I’ve been trying to push that thing out since early 2016. We’re in the second half of 2017, it finally has a tentative timeframe for release, and I have to see it through. I’ll be putting out more updates for it as the book gets closer to completion, both on Questicle and Sega Does.

I also feel like now is a time for behind-the-scenes work. I’ve wanted to build a post-2000 Nintendo handheld review blog (GBA, DS) and an early Sony console (PS1, PS2, PSP) review blog for the last couple of years, but I never felt like I could just stop or even slow down Sega Does to work on them. Now that I have, I realize taking a break is not the end of the world, and my desire to invest time and effort into these blogs has increased.

I will eventually be putting all these blogs – Questicle, Sega Does, Nintendo handheld, Sony, etc. – under one giant hub website. I have a sweet domain name picked out and everything, but it’s still in the planning stages, so I don’t have a lot of information to share yet.

While I’m constructing these sites, I also need to prepare myself for when Sega Does eventually returns. This means: buying systems I don’t have, modding them to play Japanese/European titles, stocking up on games, etc.

On top of all this, my personal life has gotten increasingly busier since the start of the year, and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. Growing older, responsibilities, and all that.

I’m sorry I published the last post and got peoples’ hopes up. I feel like a boob for getting ahead of myself, especially since I was excited to jump back into the Sega fray with y’all. I’m sure some of you saw a larger break coming, but I promise I’m not going away for good. I’ll be posting updates about future projects on Sega Does and Questicle, so you can stay in the loop.

Thanks, as always, for your support throughout the years and years. I can’t believe I’ve been reviewing games for seven years now. That’s a long time, but as a sage once uttered, “Can’t stop, won’t stop.”

Talk to y’all soon.

DC

What’s Next! – December 1990, Part 2

 

Sega Does Too Much!

 

You all remember Sega games, right? Well, December’s chock full of ’em. 30, to be exact. The first 15 games I covered in Part 1 of this post. If you missed any of them, all the links to the reviews are there, save for Star Cruiser, which is coming next week.

The next 15 games are below. Most will be simple, quick, and easy. Some are going to be extra-large, American-sized reviews, complete with high blood pressure. Now that the Game Gear’s out, the Genesis is picking up steam, and the Master System is gaining new life in Europe, multi-system reviews are the future.

For example, my coverage of Paperboy begins with its Master System release in December of ’90, but I’ll also cover the Genesis and Game Gear games in the same review, even though neither of those ports emerged until 1992. I’ve been doing this off and on for awhile (see: Klax or G-LOC), but multi-system reviews look as though they’re going to become more common as I move into 1991. It can’t be helped!

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