PUBLISHER: Technosoft (JP); Renovation (US)
RELEASE DATE: 12/14/90 – (JP), 03/93 – (US)
Technosoft breathes shoot-em-ups. Not content to make 1942 or Gradius clones, they often experiment outside the genre’s supposed limitations. For example, Thunder Force II implemented top-down, non-linear exploration, an ambitious, if ultimately flawed idea that would be better utilized in Herzog Zwei. The latter had the visual trappings of a shoot-em-up, but the unrelenting gameplay was all strategy, resulting in the accidental birth of the real-time-strategy genre.
Elemental Master is another intriguing step sideways, a vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up that’s framed around a story straight out of late 80s fantasy anime, silly cutscenes and all. You play Laden, a servant of King Lorelei, who’s been usurped by the evil sorcerer, Gyra. In the opening cutscene, Gyra is revealed to be Laden’s brother, and it’s all “No it can’t be!”s and “Mwahaha!”‘s from there. In order to confront Gyra and his all-encompassing power and save Lorelei from the dungeon, Laden must harness the power of the elements – earth, wind, water, fire, and introducing Light – and defeat Gyra’s darkness.
Laden starts out with the Light weapon, a blue two-pronged beam, but he gains a new elemental weapon after each of the first four levels. Fire is a multi-directional orb attack, Wind unleashes three rows of torrential gusts, Earth uproots the ground in front of you, and Water releases streams both in front and beside you. Each weapon has a standard attack and a charged attack that does greater damage in a wider range.
Because Laden is a towering man-sprite who can’t fly, the seven levels are mostly built around his limitations. You’re always on the ground, scrolling automatically to your destination, while enemies and environmental obstacles, like swinging spiked balls, attack you from every which way. Like any good shmup, you’ll feel overwhelmed at times. Because of Laden’s size and his generous hitbox, however, health replenishments are more plentiful. Any time you go through a particularly devious area, health will be waiting for you at the end.
Laden acts like a naive dork in the cutscenes, but he’s a beast on the battlefield. In addition to his array of elements (that he can switch between at any time with the ‘C’ button), he can take several hits of damage before death – a rarity for any shmup protagonist – and fire forwards and backwards. Items like the Mirror provide him with a couple clones that trail beside him and extend his firepower, while the Crystal gives him a shield and extra hit points.
After you beat one level, a fairy named Neena will join your cause and become a companion of sorts. She flies around you, takes out a random enemy here and there, and strikes at just the right time during boss battles. Near the end of the game, she transforms into a ring that gives you a supercharged Light attack. This attack, while stupidly overpowered, makes the last few bosses considerably easier to take down.
Most levels have brilliant moments. In the Fire level, for example, the ground opens up and flames erupt around you, limiting your walking space. In Gyra’s Palace, you gently navigate around a series of sharp pointed spears, while hordes of of mummies race towards you from behind. On the whole, however, I found myself disappointed with them. There’s an abundance of enemies, but few surprises. In particular, the elemental levels don’t make much use of the elements. Laden walks over water in the water level, sure, and there are crab enemies, but…. that’s it? No avoiding massive tidal waves or something? The boring visuals reminded me of Phantasy Star III and its overreliance on muted, dull colors. The Mega Drive is certainly capable of stronger graphics (as seen in other Technosoft titles), despite its limited color palette, so I’m not sure why more time wasn’t given to them.
What doesn’t disappoint is the soundtrack by Toshiharu Yamanishi. The tracks are filled with melodic depth and sound like something you would hear in an epic RPG or a lost prog album, not a shoot-em-up. In fact, some of the tracks are so intricate that they’re wasted within the actual game; the din of battle silences the music’s subtleties. You’re better off listening to the tracks via the in-game Music Test or a Youtube link.
Even with the lackluster level design, Elemental Master is a welcome change from the overabundant “Blowing Up Stuff In Space: The Game(s)” that the Mega Drive suffered from in 1990. It’s weird and awesome to control a large man as opposed to a ship, even when his size occasionally gets in the way. The story is cliche-ridden and ridiculous i.e. amazing; try not to shed a tear at that ending, I dare you. The soundtrack is masterfully composed. And unlike most Mega Drive shooters that I’ve played, Elemental Master is not super difficult. Shoot-em-up newbies would find a solid, but not overwhelming challenge here. Technosoft, those Grand Architects of the genre, have done it again.