For those of us old enough to remember, shopping has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Some of the experience is still the same, but gone are the Wednesday’s of half-day closing, nearly everywhere is open on a Sunday (albeit at slightly reduced hours), and shops can stay open as late as 8pm during the week, all to satisfy our diverse lifestyles and thirst for consumer goods.
One area of retailing that has changed significantly since the mid-1980s is the experience of purchasing the humble video game. I recall, as a kid, being able to pick up a new Spectrum game almost anywhere, even my local newspaper shop could supply me the latest Joe Blade game for £2.99 or the newest shovel-wear to escape out of Codemasters. Oh yes, I didn’t need to scroll down the information super-highway, oh no, long before the mass accessibility to the internet, it was a stroll down the local high-street to get my gaming fix. WH Smith and Boots were brilliant for games in those days, and my town even had a very good independent just outside the town centre – Software City.
Software City was a goldmine. Not only did they stock all the latest releases at prices competitive with the major chains, but they also had some of the less recent titles at really good prices. I regularly walked up to their shop from Sainsbury’s car park whilst my mum did the weekly shop, and more often than not walked away with a purchase. I’ll always remember going in with my mate and seeing Ocean Software’s The Biz compilation (R-Type, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf and Batman: The Caped Crusader) on the shelf for a mere £4.99… it was supposed to retail for £14.99! Software City was a mecca to me for a good few years, right through until about 1992/’93 when more and more retailers were jumping on to the home console boom as gamers switched to Mega Drive’s and Super Nintendo’s and ditched the Amiga and Atari ST as gaming formats. Today, Software City is no more, their presence long since replaced by a hair salon. How the times have changed…
Whilst 8-Bit computer titles were an easy score twenty five years ago, console games were not. In the late 1980s video game consoles were very expensive compared to the popular Commodore, Amstrad, Atari and Sinclair home computers, and nowhere near as popular.
In the Christmas of 1988 I was very fortunate to receive a Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe pack (the one with R.O.B the robot), to which I was delighted, and played it constantly over the Christmas holidays much to the annoyance of my parents. However, two factors that did not particularly endear me to the system soon came to light. The first was availability. There was nowhere local that stocked NES games, the nearest place was Toys-R-Us, and that was a good forty minute drive away, assuming I could persuade my mother or father to take me there in the first place. The second issue was price. In 1988 / ’89 the average full price title for one of the 8-bit computers was £8.99, and for those who had an ST or Amiga between £14.95 and £19.95. Now, back then £10.00 for a game was a lot of money, and you didn’t want to spend that and then get home and find out it was a load of pants. NES games on the other hand were usually priced between £29.99 and £49.99 – an eye watering amount of cash for a video game back then and over £100.00 in today’s money!! Subsequently, my NES collection was very modest (at best), and I pretty much gave up on it within a few years as it was just too expensive and inconvenient to shop for.
I believe it was a copy of Mean Machines that I picked up at random one day that first altered me to the imminent arrival of the new, and powerful, 16-Bit home consoles from Sega and Nintendo. In the previews section I looked at the first screenshots I had seen of Super Mario World and Capcom’s port of Final Fight, and my jaw hit the floor at the stunning graphics. I eventually picked up a Sega Megadrive for cheap off a friend at school, but by now consoles were moving into the main stream and I didn’t have to travel to the other side of the county to buy games.
Software City stocked the latest PAL Megadrive and SNES games, and a new competitor shop, A R Computers had also opened selling console titles. The high street retailers had also jumped on the band wagon, with Dixons, Woolworths and Argos all stocking the major 16-Bit formats in the UK. I stayed loyal to Software City, other than when they didn’t have the game I wanted. I think the last title I got from them was Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition if I recall correctly. They closed down a short time later.
Later with the Playstation I finally got fed up with stunted PAL conversions and six-to-twelve month lead times to see the UK version of a new release, and so bought a NTSC/J Dual Shock Playstation package from Another World in Stoke-on-Trent. This heralded the last of the real games buying experiences for me.
Between 1997 and 2001 I would regularly go into Another World to see the latest import offerings, and they would generally not disappoint. It was a great shop, hidden at the back of a rundown shopping arcade in central Hanley and just a few doors away from the legendary (and by then defunct) Console Concepts store. The downstairs was tiny, and filled with comic related stuff, but go up the narrow wooden stair case and you entered import heaven! All the latest Playstation and Saturn games from Japan, and the odd US title as well, plus some Neo-Geo and PC Engine stuff too. It was a great place, I really miss its musty smell and grubby building it sat in (now demolished). I really hate to think about how much money I spent there, but, you can’t take it with you, right? At least that’s what I tell my wife nowadays.
Do you remember Tottenham Court Road Computer Exchange? Today they’re better known as CEX, but in the late 90s they had some brilliant shops in London, stocking all the latest import games for all the formats you could think of. I remember going into their, sadly, short lived retro shop and seeing the display of Neo-Geo AES games – I had never seen so many in one place before, and the price tags were wallet busting back then too (comparatively to today).
As we moved into the Playstation 2 and Gamecube eras, the international release dates for major titles began to standardise, and letterbox PAL games were replaced with proper full screen releases, and the import market started to rapidly contract. Who wanted to play the latest Resident Evil game in Japanese when you could go to Game and pick it up cheaper and in English?
As the sun has set over the Twentieth Century and the New Millennium marches on, the internet dominates the way we buy our games today. While some of the great names of ’80s gaming like Boots and WH Smith still permeate the Great British High Street, they have both abandoned video games retailing; Game has had some very serious issues and downsized considerably; and the independents have all but disappeared. CEX has changed beyond all recognition, almost becoming like a personal electronics (only) version of Cash Convertors peppered with a smattering of Xbox 360 & PS3 titles.
While video game nostalgia may only be a quick eBay click away, it could never replace cherished memories of going into WH Smith and picking up my copy of Elite’s Paperboy, the buying experience today is just so soulless.
During the mid-1990’s there were two shoot-em-up’s released which had, for reasons lost on my good self, a rather Germanic theme to them, and both were released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation.
One was produced by the highly respected, and influential Square Soft (they of Final Fantasy fame). This game was critically acclaimed, rather stunning, and, is this writers favourite all-time horizontal shoot-em-up – Einhander.
The other Teutonic release came from am obscure developer called Santos; and the game was the rather critically un-acclaimed, and equally as obscure, Stahlfeder:Tetsukou Hikuudan.
Released in 1995 for the Japanese market only, Stahlfeder is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up with a style much borrowed from contemporaries such as Raiden, Strikers 1945 and the 194X series by Capcom. You take control of one of four different fighter planes, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses as you set out to defeat the enemy before you over six stages.
As with most shoot-em-ups the plot device is pretty much superfluous, however, in this case it really needs to be unless you can read Japanese. There is no plot reference in-game and so only the actual manual advises of the plot over two very brief pages, and it is all in Japanese; and there is little to no additional information to be found on the web. Yes folks, Stahlfeder is that popular.
Gameplay is a rather straight forward affair, each ship has two shot types, a weak wide shot type and a more powerful concentrated shot, and a bomb. The three attacks are spread over three buttons on the controller, ship speed is dependant on the player ship selected, as is the strength of your shield. Hit box is quite large, so bullet grazing is not recommended, and every time you are hit you lose a chunk of your shield bar. Once the shield is totally depleted it’s game over. Along the way you can collect additional bomb stock, power-ups for your two main shot types and also energy pick-ups to replenish your shield.
Scoring is as basic as it gets. There are no extra points for destroying scenery, there is no milking to be had, no chaining and no medal systems or ranking to be concerned with. At the end of every stage you will be rewarded for the amount of remaining shield you have and the number of unused bombs left in stock; so technically I suppose you could hinder your scoring opportunities if you select one of the ships with a weaker shield. Collecting shield items when the bar is full only adds score, it does not increase your shield capacity.
Enemy attack patterns, are, for the most part, not particularly challenging. Basic attacks seem to be Toaplan and Seibu Kaihatsu influenced, and bosses can be generally defeated without any reliance on bomb stock with the probable exception of the final boss who throws out near impossible to navigate bullet patterns where you’ll need bomb stock to cancel them out. In fact the game recognises this strategy by allowing you to pick up a quite healthy supply of additional bombs just seconds prior to the final confrontation. There is no second loop.
One area where Stahlfeder did break new ground, at the time, was that in the options menu you can select the colour of the enemy bullets to suit. The rest of the options are a distinct let down though, with even the difficulty setting only affecting how many credit continues you have at your disposal and not the enemy attack patterns. So, if you’re gunning for the 1all, you’ll bounce this straight on to “normal” knowing that the game will be pretty much no more challenging than when set to “easy”. The “hard” difficulty setting ups the ante by making the enemies slightly more aggressive, removing the end of stage shield top-up, and powering you down if you get hit; it also does reward with greater end-level bonuses though.
During the mid-1990’s there were many games that mixed sprite and polygon visuals, and Santos took this approach with Stahlfeder, using a combination of 2D and 3D. The player sprites are each well drawn, but lack detail, and the enemy craft is generally rather generic looking and does not differ much between stages. In the early years of the 32-Bit era, as developers got to grips with the new technology and shift from 2D to 3D games, many early PlayStation and Saturn games had rather crude 3D visuals, and as a result have aged rather badly. Stahlfeder is no exception. The 3D rendered bosses look rather basic in form and animation, the final boss in particular is very poor, and rather unimaginative, especially compared to some of the earlier boss encounters. The backgrounds are generally dull, uninspiring and lacking in any great detail.
Sound is par for the course for a shoot-em-up and the rock infused soundtrack has a few good tracks but does little to help drive the action along, and could be generally summed up as unremarkable.
That, ultimately, is the best word to describe Stahlfeder – unremarkable. The game is neither good, nor dreadfully bad, but it is rather bland, bordering on dull, and you’ve really got to want to play it to get anything out of it.
Santos will undoubtedly be an unfamiliar name to many, but they actually have a rather interesting history:
Founded by Takeshi Tozu, Santos also had on board Akio Inoue, who was the founder of Aicom, the developer best known for the classic Neo-Geo game Pulstar. In late 1996, with funding from SNK, Aicom and Santos were merged to create Yumekobo, who are now best known for Blazing Star and Prehistoric Isle 2 on SNK’s Neo-Geo hardware. Sadly, when SNK collapsed in 2001, Yumekobo folded along with it and the team disbanded. With only a handful of dedicated Japanese shoot-em-up developers left by the turn of the Millennium, it would be interesting to find out what happened to some of the Yumekobo team, but as yet I’ve not had the time to see if any names crop up elsewhere.
Overall there is little for me to really enthusiastically recommend to anyone about Stahlfeder, there are so many better examples of the genre out there, not only on PlayStation, but on just about any system of the era you care to mention. During a time when shoot-em-ups were developing into much deeper affairs than just “point-your-ship’n’shoot”, Stahlfeder delivered a back-to-basics package so unremittingly dull that it would seal its fate as nothing more than an early PlayStation curio.
Stahlfeder: Tetsukou Hikuudan
Version tested: PlayStation (NTSC/J)
Also available on: n/a
Walk into any decent arcade, bowling alley or Quasar during the late 1980’s through to the late 1990’s, and before the Dance Dance Revolution machines started to take over, and you were guaranteed to find at least one gun game taking up a few square feet of floor space. Operation Wolf, Beast Busters, Alien 3: The Gun, Virtua Cop, Area 51… and that’s just naming a few of them! Konami, Sega, Atari, Taito… all the major arcade developers were churning out a light-gun shooter of one variety or another. One such arcade developer to jump on the band-wagon was Pac-Man producer, Namco.
Namco were on something of a roll in the mid-90’s and hit commercial and critical success with 1995’s Time Crisis arcade machine which took the now tiring gun game genre and added in some refreshing new mechanics in the way of the “duck” feature, tight time limits to clear area’s (and build scores), and the blowback feature of the actual hand-gun the player wields during play. A successful port to Sony’s PlayStation followed in 1997, accompanied by an all new light gun peripheral – the Gun-Con 45 – a very accurate and balanced light gun, that very much helped bring the arcade experience of Time Crisis into your home.
Namco were not shy on recognising the success of their IP’s during this period, and among the sequels to Tekken and Ridge Racer that were hitting the arcades and Sony’s PlayStation, they also launched a sequel to Time Crisis into arcades in the Spring of ’97.
Now with an all new two-player simultaneous option, Time Crisis 2 offered alternate positioning and views during repeat plays, a feature to occasionally upgrade your handgun to a sub-machine gun, and the battle environments were much more bold and varied from the first game – you fought through city streets, down a canal on a speedboat, on a train to name some of the situations the game presents. The plot is a wafer thin affair about your typical CEO megalomaniac who has managed to get hold of a nuclear armed satellite, and it’s your job (and that of your partner if you’re going two player) to stop him and his henchmen before time runs out.
Time Crisis 2 is set across three well paced and action packed stages, each having its own boss fight at the end. Standard enemies follow a similar pattern to the first game with blue suited soldiers rarely firing on target, white suited soldiers being a little more accurate and red suited soldiers being deadly accurate. There are also soldiers with machine guns, RPG’s, knives, swords and grenades… basically you’re not very popular with the opposition and they want you dead any which way they can. Time is also against you, and if you cannot complete stages within the allotted time then it is game over for you. So, the more accurate you are and the quicker you dispatch your foes, the more likely it is you’ll get to toward the end. Again you must press a foot pedal to duck & reload, a feature which needs to be used quickly and wisely if you’re going to have any sustained success.
At a casual approach the game is entertaining enough, and if you’re good enough, or have access to enough continues, you’ll be pleasantly occupied for the 15 minutes or so it takes to complete the game. However, if you play for high scores then this is where some of the game’s more subtle mechanics come into force; it’s one thing to complete the game quickly, but this may not necessarily grant you a place particularly high up the score board. No, to get high scores you need to score multiple hits on enemies and then chain those hits to the next enemy, and so on, while combining in an effective reloading technique so that you do not break your hit chain. These techniques are what brings the game its tremendous replay value as you not only try to improve your chaining, but also try to cut your time down to get the best score/time ratios. Time Crisis 2 really is more than just your average light-gun shooter.
Time Crisis 2 was ported to the PlayStation 2 in 2001 and brought with it not only compatibility with the brilliant Gun-Con from the PlayStation, but also introduced the even better Gun-Con 2 controller. The port not only gave you a graphically enhanced version of the arcade game, but also carried over the two-player option (either on a split screen or via console link, which obviously required extra copies of the game as well as two Gun-Con 2’s), allowed for one-player dual gun use and added in several sub games and challenges to keep players entertained once the main arcade story mode was exhausted. The graphics and animation are very good, and even today the PS2 port has not aged badly at all, tied in with an excellent score to drive along the action in the background, and you have yourself another competent Namco release.
Time Crisis 2 came packed either on it’s own or in a box set with a shiny new Gun-Con 2 light gun; and the PS2 port has kept me entertained pretty regularly since its release, indeed, so much so, that I have bought additional Gun-Con 2 controllers over the years in case one packs up!
For any self-respecting light-gun game fan, Time Crisis 2 is a must have, and even those who only have a passing interest in this type of game will find it supremely entertaining. Along with the simultaneous two-player mode, there are a plethora of additional options that can be unlocked to sustain the titles longevity as mentioned above. Pick the game up with the Gun-Con 2 and you’ll also allow yourself to fully enjoy Namco’s other arcade light-gun ports of the late ’90’s early ’00’s such as direct sequel Time Crisis 3, the loosely related Crisis Zone, Vampire Night, and if you have an import console, the PlayStation 2 exclusive GunVari Collection – a Japanese only port of the Point Blank trilogy and the original Time Crisis. Oh, and for those of you who may be fans of Sega’s seminal Virtua Cop games, the Gun-Con 2 also works with Virtua Cop: Elite Edition!
Time Crisis 2
Version tested: PlayStation 2 (PAL) with Gun-Con 2 light-gun
Also available on: PlayStation 2 NTSC/J & NTSC/U/C, Arcade