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
The late 1990’s saw a slew of shoot-’em-ups hit both the arcades and home consoles, some good, some bad and some truly awful. The Sega Saturn is renowned for its comprehensive shoot-’em-up library and saw many of the era’s best arcade shmups successfully ported over. The Sony PlayStation also saw some of these arcade titles ported, but, by-and-large saw more in the way of exclusive console only titles to pack out its shmup library, arguably the most famous of which is SquareSoft’s one and only foray into the genre – Einhander.
However, Einhander benefited from securing a release in both North America as well as Japan, ensuring that it did not just become another Japanese only curio for hardcore gamers to “discover” later on down the line. Still, many of the PlayStation’s “exclusive” shoot-’em-ups do fall into the category of a Japan only release and have thus fallen into general obscurity. Mentioning games like Stahlfeder, Two-Tenkaku and Air Grave will probably bring blank responses from many a gamer, as will bringing up Sky Think System’s 1997 release – Harmful Park.
That’s right, that Japanese powerhouse of arcade action Sky Think System, the geniuses behind games like Harmful Park, and, um, Harmful Park. Okay, so they released a couple of obscure puzzle games prior to this, but otherwise Sky Think System’s legacy kind of begins and ends with Harmful Park, which is a damn shame really considering how good Harmful Park is. For what appears to be, on the face of it, Sky Think System’s one and only foray into shmup territory, this is really up there with Einhander as a truly awesome one-hit shoot-’em-up wonder for any given developer.
Harmful Park is split into six stages, with each stage representing a different area of a large theme park which has been invaded and taken over by a mad-scientist type. Each stage is filled with a variety of wacky enemies to shoot down, with some stages having a mid-stage boss, before reaching the main boss fight for that particular level. There is an incredible number of different enemies that will approach you on your quest, many with their own unique way of attacking you, and each superbly animated and drawn. Some of the larger enemies are very well presented, and very memorable. You certainly won’t forget fighting the giant gorilla, eating bananas, riding on the rear of a train which looks like a cow in a hurry!
To help you defeat the weird and wonderful opposition thrown at you, your character comes armed with no less than four different weapons – a potato gun, a jelly gun, an ice cream laser and a gun that throws pies. No, I am not making this up. Honest.
At the beginning of the game all four weapons are set at level 1 power, and each will level up to a maximum of four when you collect on screen power-up icons. Each weapon must be levelled up individually, adding a bit of strategy into the mix, and if you die the weapon you were using at the time will reset to level one, the other weapons not affected. Each weapon also has its own smart bomb, each of which has a different effect, again adding to the strategy element of the game.
One of the nice things about Harmful Park is its simplicity. You can play for score, there is a score multiplier for chaining successful enemy hits, plus a hefty end of level bonus if you clear 100 per cent of enemies for that particular stage, and there are also green gems and hidden icons to pick up to increase score too. Alternatively, you can just play for fun and enjoy the amazing detail of the sprites and backgrounds while the cheerful background music plays. The only on-going strategy you need to employ is deciding which of the four weapons you wield and how you wish to power them up. After each stage a small animation plays detailing your progress through the “story”, but sadly this is all in Japanese, so I have no idea what they’re saying!
The game defaults to easy difficulty setting, upon which most proficient gamers will glide through the game on a 1CC; however, once you up the difficulty the game starts to bite back, and on the harder settings Harmful Park presents a stern challenge. I quite enjoying playing on easy, it’s an entertaining challenge (nothing more), and it gives you more opportunity to enjoy many of the site gags and little quirks that have been lovingly programmed into the game rather than having to focus on dodging waves of bullets. The sound is of a good quality too, sound effects are spot on with the action unfolding before you, and the background music fits each stage’s area character perfectly.
In many ways it is a perfect shmup for the more casual shoot-’em-up fan, but the high price for the PlayStation original is likely to shut out this type of gamer, leaving the game to either more hardcore fans of the genre who don’t think twice about dropping big bucks for good games, or the collector who is just going to buy it to fill another space on a dusty shelf. There are, of course, many “rare” and “obscure” games out there that are expensive for just being one or either of those two descriptions, and the games themselves are far from enjoyable to play. Thankfully Harmful Park does not fall into that category, because all though the price of admission is steep, it is worth every penny. However, if you happen to own a PlayStation 3 and can get your hands on a Japanese PSN voucher, you can download Harmful Park from the Japanese PlayStation Store for next to nothing – comparatively of course!
Once you have finished with the main game, there is an in-game option to go back to play for score, and there are also three mini-games also thrown in aimed at multiplayer competition, including support for Sony’s four-player adaptor. Sky Think System certainly try and give you plenty of game for your money!
Overall this is a cracking horizontal shooter, which is very often, and sadly, overlooked when people look back on the late ’90’s era of shmups. The level of sheer detail, not only in the main on-screen sprites but the backgrounds as well, oozes a quality rarely seen in late 90’s 2D shmups; the love and affection with which this game has been created is very evident, and the gameplay is there to go with it. From my own recollection, this is easily one of the most detailed 2D games I have seen outside of a Neo-Geo game. I would certainly rate Harmful Park above and beyond many of the games it is often compared to such as Konami’s Parodious series, and even the excellent Star Parodier on NEC’s PC Engine CD-ROM.
Harmful Park is easy to get into and enjoy, it will present a good challenge when the difficulty level is cranked up and I would highly recommend it to any fan of the genre if you can look past the price tag.
Version tested: PlayStation NTSC/J
Also available on: PlayStation 3 (PSN download – Japan only)