Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Genesis Look: Fire Shark

One of the giants of the 2D shooter genre early on was Toaplan. These developers were responsible for such hits as Twin Cobra, Tiger Heli, Truxton, Snow Brothers, Hellfire, and many others. Shortly after declaring bankruptcy the remains of Toaplan split off to form or join up with Cave, Takumi, 8ing/Raizing, and Gazelle. 

Why am I telling you things you could have just as easily found in wikipedia? It's simply because after the fall of Toaplan we entered the Golden Age of Arcade 2D shooters. Cave's produced a number of excellent games from the Dodonpachi series to ESP Galuda as well as many others, Takumi put a number of classic titles including Mars Matrix, 8ing/Raizing went on to do the phenomenal releases such as Battle Garegga, Armored Police Batrider along with many more, and Gazelle...well...Gazelle did Air Gallet which isn't half bad. It's amazing that so much talent was kept under one name for so long.

Fire Shark is a vertical arcade shooter where the player takes control of a biplane through 10 stages of ever-increasing difficulty. The structure is similar to other shooters in that one hit leads to death while death leads to getting kicked back to the last checkpoint. At the end of each stage there's a boss waiting to be destroyed.

Like many other early shooters the main ship starts off fairly weak but grows in power through the collection of various goodies. By destroying key enemies(which are fairly easy to pick out as they're usually something like a zeppelin or a certain kind of boat) they release power-ups. By grabbing power-ups labeled with a P one can strengthen their current weapon. Players start off with a simple three-way spreadshot but that can grow substantially until the entire area is raining with bullets. Two other weapons are available and they are the Helix laser which has immense power but not a lot of range as well as the flame laser(yes I made that up myself). The flame laser is one impressive weapon as two jets of flame shoot straight ahead while other jets fan around the ship, creating a truly devastating weapon. This is provided of course that the player can successfully put these weapons together and hold onto them as one hit will send them back to square one. Speed-ups can also be collected as well as bombs. The bombs are quite impressive and can even take out many bosses with a single shot while protecting the player for a few precious moments. 

The scoring system in this game is really good. At the end of each level all of the bolts you collect(by destroying various grounded objects like cannons) are multiplied by the number of bombs you have remaining. So if you have six bombs and 30,000 points worth of bolts that's a cool 180,000 on your scoreboard. Holding on to these bombs is quite difficult though since they're so useful for escaping danger and if you take a hit you're back to only three bombs. It's a great system and provides an additional challenge for players who feel they've mastered the game.

The level design doesn't pull any fancy tricks or expects the player to navigate a bunch of trap-filled mazes. Every stage plays it simple by going for the right combination of tanks, cannons, suicidal biplanes, and whatever else that can eventually take you down. The biplanes tend to be especially tricky later in the game as they'll start employing formations and arrangements that could trap you if you're not destroying them fast enough. The bullet-spreads fired by the various enemies aren't complicated affairs to dodge but they're fast and the game has no qualms about catching the player unaware. Thankfully since the screen is capable of some horizontal scrolling anything off to the sides won't fire if they can't be seen(and therefore destroyed). It's also notable that when objects reach near the bottom of the screen they will cease firing. This is nice to have as there's hardly anything more frustrating than taking a bullet in the tail. 

A 2D shooter lives and dies by its mechanics and Fire Shark has them perfected. The ship's hitbox is very well defined and not too easy of a target. Even bullets that shave uncomfortably close to the wings of the ship aren't a problem. Also even though death is never far behind the ship is just strong enough that getting back into the game isn't a neigh-impossible affair. Even though at times the ship will spawn surrounded by cannons the game gives the player a second or two to re-acquaint themselves with the game before everything starts firing. Another important note is that bullets pulse as they travel along the screen. This isn't distracting in fact it's a great indicator of danger and it helps keep bullets from blending in with the background(something that happens far too often in shooters).

The bosses in this game aren't exactly epic but they work excellently within the context of the game. Since bosses don't take very long to destroy they are often accompanied by cannons and other enemy ships. Not only does this make for a more difficult battle but it really helps to move the pacing along. There's no boss where you're going to be stuck plugging away at it for ten minutes straight.  Even though there are ten stages the game never really slows down and there's only a couple real problematic spots if you're not paying attention(hint: don't always stay at the very bottom of the screen).

While Fire Shark doesn't offer the complicated scoring systems that give later 2D shooters their incredible depth it's very accessible to gamers new to the 2D shooter genre yet maintains an exceptional level of challenge for the veterans. Throw in additional difficulties and multiple loops and the game can last for quite awhile. In the end we have one of the best shooters available on the Genesis and a fine game in its own right. Highly recommended.

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