PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
RELEASE DATE: 1989 – (EU)
Scramble Spirits is Sega having a go at Capcom’s trendsetting (and perennially ripped off) 1942. You control a biplane making destructive merry across half-submerged buildings, quicksand traps, and Buddha statues. There are no power-ups to help you, save for two mini-planes that attach to your side once obtained. Planes, tanks, ground turrets, and other standard shmup vehicles attack you with minuscule projectiles, barely visible with old tired eyes, like mine. Bosses of confusing shape and design attack you (no country would willingly bring these funky planes into war unless they were desperate) and are easily brought down, even without your mini-plane friends. This humdrum action continues for six steadily paced stages, until finally, you have scrambled all of the enemy’s spirits. A crushing blow to whatever menace you’re fighting.
Scramble Spirits is as barren a shooter as I’ve ever played on the Master System. If you have any experience with the shoot-em-up genre, you’ll be able to beat the game’s six short stages within thirty minutes (three continues and four lives per playthrough will help those with no experience). The action is by-the-numbers. Planes fly in, let loose a bunch of projectiles, then fly away or get shot down by you. Or tanks crawl steadily towards the biplane, let loose a bunch of projectiles, then sit there, exhausted by the weight of war. The lack of power-ups, save for the mini-planes, feels inexcusable. Sure, Scramble Spirits isn’t space-themed, so there’s no need for triple laser cannons and what not, and you do have the obligatory secondary bomb (good for screen-clearing, etc.), but something beyond regulatory pea shooter would have given your own spirit some extra life.
There are bonus portions called ‘Raids’ that occur in levels 1, 3, and 5. You’ll know when they’re coming when you’re in the middle of the stage and text appears on the screen, proclaiming that “You’re entering the enemy base!” Once in the base, your plane will expand in size to about 1/3 of the screen and a shooting gallery of the game’s enemies will be paraded by you, ripe for the shooting. Blast as many as you can for maximum points. They can kill you too, of course, but their projectiles will only stun you, not destroy you. And while these Raids only distract you from the game at hand (who ever heard of a bonus portion in the middle of a stage? C’mon commenters, let me have it), they are the most interesting feature in the otherwise rote proceedings
Based off of the 1988 arcade title of the same name, Scramble Spirits is playable, and occasionally enjoyable in the way the majority of shmups are playable and occasionally enjoyable. As a whole, however, the game takes the foundation of a better, older shmup (1942) while adding nothing to distinguish itself from other shmups on the market; shoot-em-up fans may have heard of Scramble Spirits, but the title is largely forgotten compared to ’80s stalwarts R-Type, Gradius, Life Force, and yes, 1942.
Sega’s lack of an American release for this Master System port, and an even more surprising lack of a Mega Drive/Genesis port makes me think that Scramble Spirits wasn’t even that highly regarded internally. But that’s just late night speculating, a dangerous activity if ever there was one. Sega’s thoughts on their own game aside, one fact remains: for a title that implies intense activity, Scramble Spirits barely has enough energy for a trip to the boneyard. Sluggish spirits.