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
By the late 1990’s Psikyo had released sequels to all its early shoot-em-up titles, so it was probably not too much of a surprise to finally see a follow up to 1994’s Gunbird hit the arcades in 1998 as the mid-90’s shoot-em-up revival was reaching its peak.
As with the first game the plot revolves around the characters the player can choose trying to track down objects that will ultimately grant them a reward while despatching the enemy who is trying to obtain the same, ultimate, goal. Whereas in the first game you were fighting for pieces of a broken mirror, in Gunbird 2 it is three bottled elements that you are fighting for. Players can choose from seven characters in total, five of whom are immediately playable and two extra characters that can be unlocked with a code (these two extra characters are automatically unlocked in the Dreamcast port).
Only Marion from the original Gunbird makes it in to the sequel, although a few of the characters are similar in personality to those from the first game, and through the cut scenes and various endings, the anarchic and rather adult humour is also retained from the original.
Gunbird 2 can be approached in one of three ways – one player only, two player simultaneous, or the player can select a partner mode. In the latter mode, you pick two of the selectable characters and alternate between them as you lose a life – for example, choose Valpiro and Marion, and when you lose your first life as Valpiro you will respawn as Marion. Although each character has different attributes, from my experience there isn’t one particular area where one character excels over another, so this feature does not lend itself to suiciding to change character. Also the extends are every 600,000 points, which cannot be racked up that quickly to replenish life stock should you feel the need to suicide again to switch back. However, this mode does add some additional dialogue to the story scenes between stages, and I believe the character endings are different in this “co-op” mode as well.
Each character has slightly different attack patterns and strength of attack as well variations in their speed. They all have three forms of attack – standard shot which can be powered up by collecting icons, your standard smart bomb that will cause damage and clear enemy bullet spray, and a power-up shot attack which has both a long and short range depending on how you implement it. This third way of attacking enemies is governed by a meter in the bottom left corner which increases every time a normal shot hits an enemy. The higher the gauge the more often you can implement the attack or power it up for a more powerful attack (which obviously depletes the gauge quicker).
So, we’ve chosen our character(s), on to the main event – the core gameplay. However, this is where it is likely that game will quickly polarise players. Gunbird 2 is very, very hard, especially on the higher difficultly settings. The Dreamcast version has seven difficulty settings ranging from “Baby” to “Hard”, and settings from “Very Easy” onward are likely to challenge any shoot-em-up veteran, and substantially so once you hit the “Normal” and above settings. I usually start with a game I’m not familiar with on “Normal”, but I had to quickly abandon this with Gunbird 2 and rank down to “Child” to start getting a grip on things!
Bullet patterns are dense, can feature different sizes of projectile, and bursts fired at different speeds. This game really does fall into the danmaku category, seriously so, despite not looking like one on the face of it. However, if one begins with one of the more manageable lower difficulty settings, learn the game’s mechanics and level layouts, it is possible to progress through practice. Taking this method, I have actually 1CC’d the game on the lowest difficulty settings, and it certainly helps when moving up to a more challenging setting.
You can credit feed if you want to take that approach, but you loose all your power-ups when you continue, your power gauge resets to zero and so does your score. The game also feature two loops, whereby you’ll play the random stage not played on the first loop at Stage 1, but, on the lower difficulty settings the game ends at 1-7.
As with any self-respecting late-90’s shmup, there are strategies to building up bigger scores, if you can distract yourself for long enough from keeping your character alive. Certain enemies will leave coins behind when destroyed, worth between 200 and 2000 points each, depending on how you collect them. They are worth their maximum as they “gleam”, but timing the collection of the coin and dodging all the oncoming bullets is a skill all in itself. Collect gleaming coins in a row and you’ll start a chain multiplier for big points, but it really is easier said than done given the onscreen action.
In addition, hidden in a spot on every level is a “Gem Head”, a floating urn with a face on it, that when shot repeatedly drops large gems that help to boost score, but again you have to balance collecting the falling gems with dodging enemy bullet spray. There is a small element of boss milking present, but using this strategy will not substantially increase your score.
What appears to be a multiplier appears on screen every time you release a smart bomb to protect yourself from imminent death, however, it does not appear to have any direct effect on score despite it suggesting so. Odd, but that sums up large parts of the game!
As with the original, the graphics have a very anime style to them, with bright bold colours, lots of detail and superb animation, even with the smallest of on screen sprites. Each of the characters, both player and enemy Pirates, have their own distinct personality and style, and Psikyo do a great job of bringing these guys to life both within the game and the confines of the brief cut-scenes between levels. The Queen Pirates are very entertaining, and Shark (the leader of the Queen Pirates) is rather eye catching I must say (from a purely male perspective I’m afraid!!).
Sound is good, if largely unremarkable, cheery tunes that fit in with the cartoon style the game carries, but not really memorable. Options on the Dreamcast port are fairly limited, but there is at least a TATE mode so you can enjoy the proper arcade display if your TV or monitor allows for practical rotation of the screen.
Gunbird 2 first saw a home port to the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. Published by Capcom and featuring two additional characters, Aine & Morrigan (from Capcom’s own Darkstalkers series), the Dreamcast version is a very faithful port of the arcade hardware and the release formed part of Capcom’s late 1990’s shoot-em-up push through both the Dreamcast and arcades. Gunbird 2 was released on Dreamcast in all three of the major format territories, and later on appeared with its predecessor in a compilation for the PlayStation 2.
Despite the fact I almost resent the steep difficulty curve in Gunbird 2, it is still a well polished and enjoyable game to play, and both the player and enemy characterisations give it a certain charm that raises it above many of its peers. If you’re a Psikyo fan, or just enjoy challenging shoot-em-ups, then you’ll want to track this down, but for the more casual player, or those looking for a more forgiving entry into the “bullet hell” genre, there are better options out there that will suit your playing style.
Version Tested: Sega Dreamcast (NTSC/J)
Also available on: Sega Dreamcast (PAL; NTSC/UC), PlayStation 2 (PAL; NTSC/J/UC), JAMMA PCB