Retro Shooters for Beginners

Shoot 'em ups, shooters, or "shmups" are two-dimensional games that involve some flying ship that shoots at lots of enemies. They are were one of the most popular genres of video games historically, with roots all the way back to Space War, Space Invaders, Asteroids, etc. The genre remains popular today, with modern releases favoring the 2D style. I prefer the silver age of shooters, which centers around the 8-16-32 bit consoles, including the NES, PC-Engine (Turbo Grafx-16), Saturn, and Playstation. For clarification, the term "shooters" is my preferred way to reference them, as that was how the genre was named back in their heyday. Shooters is not to be confused with the modern first-person shooter war sims like Call of Duty, Halo, etc. 

Shooters are generally known for their difficulty, and to newcomers they can be intimidating, and inaccessible. Many devout fans of the genre are well versed and practiced, so their opinions of the best games will often favor games with high challenge. Examples of highly regarded but very difficult games are Battle Garegga, Gradius, and R-Type. These games have every right to be named in the pantheon of retro shooter greats, but they're not entry level material. I wanted to highlight some games that can ease new fans into the genre, and not obliterate them instantly. Games that allow for clear, linear progression of skill development, even if erring on the side of too easy are the focus. It should be mentioned that games with an easy setting fit in nicely here, especially since the settings can be upped as a player improves.

These are in no particular order:

Strikers 1945 (Saturn, Playstation)

Learning how to use the charge shot effectively is key

Unrelated to Capcom's 194X series of games, Strikers has a similar initial setting and appearance, but quickly eschews the WWII theme for gigantic, robotic aliens and screen-filling fire power. There are three games in this series, but the first is listed here as it is the easiest of the three. The game setup has seven difficulty modes, including the easiest, called "monkey". This is a good place to start for any beginner, as the difficulty increases a bit with each stage cleared. Another reason it is good for beginners is the charge shot system. Once you acquire power ups, you gain little helper drones that increase your firepower. In addition, when you charge your shot by holding the fire button down, your drones assemble in a concentrated fire formation, easing the boss battles. This can be done an unlimited number of times, but you are unable to fire during the charging period, which lasts anywhere from one to three seconds, depending on your craft. It is a tremendously helpful tactic, and enhances the gameplay experience as well as replay-ability as you explore each of the different planes and their unique abilities.  


Gunhed/Blazing Lazers (PC-Engine/TG-16)

The field thunder laser is as mesmerizing to watch as it is devastating

Blazing Lazers is a simple, straightforward game that doesn't do too many things that are flashy, but it is rock solid in execution. Your ship has selectable speed, which is always a welcome feature, but it's probably best for beginners to leave it set to level 2. There are four different weapon power ups, each increasing in power with additional orbs collected. The enemy patterns start out as fairly basic, and gradually become more interesting. The enemy shots don't reach a fervor until about the 5th stage, which is plenty of time for a learning curve.    


Gun Nac (NES)

Robotic Rabbits shoot carrots at you, of course

Good shooters on the NES are a rarity, even though there are a plethora. The programming during the 8 bit era was rough in the early days, which let to a glut of half-baked shooters in name only. The precision of control for the quick pace of shooters was hard to nail down, leading to games that felt slippery and too fast. Examples include Sky Shark, Star Force, Tiger Heli, Zanac, and so on. Gun Nac has the control dialed in perfectly. Power ups are plentiful, and can even be purchased inbetween stages with the cash collected from enemy drops. Bombs are plentiful as well, and come in several varieties. If you refrain from collecting everything, and only collect consecutive bombs of the same type, their power increases. Sporting a linear difficulty curve, Gun Nac lets you enjoy the oddball enemy design during gameplay. 


Final Soldier (PC-Engine)

Oft considered the black sheep of Hudson's soldier series, Final Soldier unfairly gets a bad rap. Just because it is regarded as the weakest of the three does not make it a bad game. I actually prefer this game over Super Star Soldier, which is normally considered the runner up to the magnificent Solider Blade. Final Soldier eases you in, showering you with all varieties of power ups so you can get a taste of each. Like most shooters, collecting consecutive power ups of the same type increase the level of the weapon. In addition, secondary weapons are helpful as well, specifically the options that can be sacrificed as bombs if the need arises. While the game may seem too easy to veterans, it's a lot of fun, and you don't really get bored. For anyone trying shooters on the PC Engine for the first time, I recommend this as the first one to try.


The Raiden Project (Playstation)

Cows help set the scene in Raiden

Raiden was always a game I played in the arcade whenever I saw it. It has textbook pick-up-and-playability. The movement is simple, firing is simple, and the bomb is self explanatory. Power ups come in two varieties, with successive pickups increasing the power. The default arcade game is a classic quarter muncher, accelerating the difficulty by the end of stage one. The game had numerous ports to home consoles, but the one that stands out is The Raiden Project for Playstation. It included Raiden and Raiden II, and was loaded with customizability. The difficulty settings open this game up to all skill levels. Button configs, number of lives, continues, etc., are all included. The game may appear overly simplistic, but it was executed well, and that's what keeps people coming back.


Fire Shark (Genesis)

Screen capture only shows half of the fire, but it's definitely awesome

On the surface, there doesn't appear to be anything special about Fire Shark. You fly a 1920's era biplane, and enemy and stage design is rather pedestrian. The draw here is the fire stream power up. It is a visceral, lashing, death stream that obliterates anything on screen when powered up. Once you are at maximum, all you need to worry about is dodging bullets, as enemies are vaporized the second they appear. It does take time to get to this point, and that might be easier said than done, but with some practice there's nothing tricky or mystifying about it. Some say the game is too easy once powered up, but I say just enjoy it. The other power ups are O.K., but I found myself avoiding them so that I didn't lose the fire stream. That might be the hardest part, since at some parts of the game the screen is jam packed with green power ups that are just as hard to avoid as bullets, as they don't leave the screen for a long time. 

So there are some easy going shooters for retro consoles that I recommend to anyone who is interested in the genre but doesn't know where to start. I think it is understood that original game prices these days can be cost prohibitive, but there are other means to access and play these games. Some of these games are region locked, like Final Soldier and Strikers 1945, but that won't matter if you use emulators, flash carts, or optical drive emulators. I hope some people out there take these suggestions, and start easing into the vast genre of shoot 'em ups.






Rare (?) Clamshell Variant of John Madden Football for Sega Genesis

 


I was running an errand one day in a town that I don't normally drive to, as it is out of the way. I happened upon a Half Price Books store, and figured, why not check it out. This one was larger than the HPB store closest to me, and had a larger inventory of retro games. Despite the larger selection, nothing remotely stood out to me. To be fair, at this point in my collection I have honed my tastes and curated pretty much all that I am interested in. As I was walking out, something caught my eye. It was a copy of John Madden Football for the Sega Genesis, but it looked different. It had a shiny veneer to it, and as I walked closer I realized that it was in a Genesis clamshell case. To the uninitiated, there doesn't appear to be anything special about this at all, but having been a Genesis fan since launch, I knew that this was released in a cardboard box. The first generation Electronic Arts games were all released in cardboard boxes, it wasn't until the second wave of EA games that they switched to clamshell boxes. Realizing that there could be something special about this copy, I gladly paid the $5.99 asking price.

The spine design is slightly different

As far as authenticity, a natural question to ask is if it is an official copy, or if it was reproduced in anyway. I know that some people cut up the cardboard box and stuff it into a clamshell case to better match the rest of the collection. My copy of The Adventure of Batman and Robin has this.  I examined the game to my own copy, and the physical game is a one to one match, Besides, who would bother to reproduce one of the most common games in existence? The printed artwork is of high quality, and printed on slightly heavier paper that my other EA clamshell games have. The clincher is the clamshell case itself, which has the EA logo imprinted into the plastic above the game slot. I can confidently say that this is an official product. 

The imprinted EA logo is plain to see

When I got home, I googled the game. In this day and age where you can look up practically anything, I thought surely someone would have a copy of it, or at least information on it. Initially, I only found information about the cardboard boxed copy. 

I did find an article on Nintendo Age about a proto-European release clamshell Lakers vs. Celtics, of which the author of the states only 13 copies have ever surfaced. This is relevant because that was an EA game also released in a cardboard box, and perhaps they had a similar backstory. A Nintendo Age forum user by the name of Supergamboy posted a discussion, in the comments and revealed a picture of the same clamshell variant of John Madden Football!  I was unable to contact the author, as I am not a member of Nintendo Age and their registration link appears to be closed. So now I know that my copy is not alone.

I reached out to several prominently-known Sega enthusiasts, people who know Sega through and through, and only one, Sega-16 founder and author Ken Horowitz, knew of its existence. He told me that it was this was either the first iteration of the transition to clamshell cases, or leftover European stock, which used clamshell cases.  The lack of UPC code on the case leads one to presume it must have been a sticker on the shrink wrap. 

The back of the packaging is totally different

So after all there are little nuggets of information out there, but it's definitely not common knowledge. I can find no record of the on eBay, so I cannot directly gauge its value. According to the Nintendo Age article, the aforementioned European Lakers vs. Celtics garnering bids for around 8000 British Pounds. I'm not suggesting that is what this copy of John Madden Football is worth. That was a different situation where the release almost happened and a few copies squeaked out. 

I am very curious to see how many people have a copy. It is definitely the most interesting retro find I've ever stumbled upon. Who knows, it could be an ultra rare collectors piece that would pay for my kids' tuition. If you do have this same copy, please get in contact with me.



My Console Setup in 2020


2020. Year of the pandemic. There's not much great news going around, so I'll write something that makes me happy: retro gaming consoles. Each year brings some adjustments, refinements, and replacements to my setup. Here we go!

The TV was updated last year, it's a 55" 4K LG smart TV. It's nice to be able to stream when not gaming. The speakers aren't great, but that's par for the course with these modern thin TVs, hence the sound bar. Some day I'll get a subwoofer.


I'll start with some equipment that makes the connection between retro consoles and modern TVs possible. Retro consoles generally output a video signal called 240p. That is, 240 lines, progressively drawn (instead of interlaced). On CRT TVs, 240 lines is half of the display number (480 interlaced was the normal TV resolution), hence the black scan lines that alternate between drawn lines. The Open Source Scan Convertor (OSSC) is a device that multiplies the line count to better fit the higher resolution of modern HD TVs. The signal can be multiplied 2, 3, 4, or 5 times. The higher the multiplier, the crisper the image. This process is done instantly, so there is not video processing taking place, and most importantly, no input lag. Input lag is sometimes a problem with modern TVs upscaling the vintage 240p signal, since the TV's built in upscaler takes time to do the job. The OSSC does this instead, producing a clean, crisp, lagless image outputting a modern resolution. I should mention that the older consoles need to output an RGB or component video signal, or be modded to do so to get the best results from the OSSC. It is well known that the OSSC does not do a great job upscaling 480i content, due to the nature of interlaced video signals, This is why my PS2 is not routed through this.


The RGB signal is carried through a cable with a SCART connection head. This is a video connection that was standard in Europe and Japan, but not in North America. I have acquired these SCART cables for all of my older consoles, and so there are a lot of them. In order to keep them all connected at the same time, I use a GSCARTSW switch. It is an 8 port SCART switch, which automatically detects which console is on. It is routed into the SCART port in the back of the OSSC. 


Top Row, left to right

First is the Core Grafx PC Engine with Super SD System 3 (SSDS3) attachment. The Core Grafx, for those who may not know, is a Japanese version of the Turbo Grafx-16.  The SSDS3 serves three main purposes: it is a flash cart that allows games to be played from an SD card, it is an optical drive emulator (ODE) that allows CD rom games to be played from the SD card, and it outputs RGB video. I needed a power supply, as the Genesis model 1 power supply that I was using was making an ominous buzzing sound. I found a custom, high quality supply from Retrogamecave, that specifically supports PC Engines with the SSDS3. It works great. Strangely, all PC Engines have only one controller port.

The Playstation 2 is region modded, allowing for domestic and import gameplay. It has a hard disc drive installed internally, and through the Free McBoot app games can be played from the hard drive. The PS2 is capable of outputting 480p, but most games output 480i instead. This is a major disappointment, but understandable for the time it came out. in 1999 most TVs were still CRTs, and the maximum resolution was 480 interlaced, not progressive. I have this connected through component, into a switch box, into the TV. The TV's deinterlacer does an OK job, and the game on the PS2 are not twitch reflex games like old school shooters, so the little bit of lag is not really noticeable.

The Dreamcast is region modded. It was ahead of its time in that it output VGA video, which was higher than standard 480i resolution. You will need a VGA 31 KHz adapter box to make use of this higher video setting, which can be displayed on HD TVs. It's not quite HD, it's somewhere inbetween, but it still looks real nice. I use a scart cable that has a 15/31 KHz switch, so that I can play games that support hi res graphics and standard res. It has been modded with GDEMU, an optical drive emulator. 

On the right is my RGB modded PC Engine Duo-R. Is it redundant to have two versions of the PC Engine in the same setup? This one has had jail bars (vertical discoloration stripes that appear in solid colors) removed. Despite having the SSDS3, I felt that I still needed a way to play original PC Engine CD games.


Second row, left to right

The CBox MVS is a consolized Neo Geo arcade board, encased in a plastic case and modded to have not only Neo Geo controllers, but Sega Saturn controllers as well. It has a universal bios installed, to allow for changing settings, cheats, etc. The Neo Geo was the pinnacle of 16 bit hardware, it is literally an arcade machine, able to put up ridiculous amounts of sprites on screen at once. Seeing one in a home setting was mind blowing in the 90's, and still holds up today. All it takes to be convinced is to play Metal Slug, and you'll immediately know. The console outputs RGB and component video. There was some controversy about the RGB line carrying too hot of a sync signal, which can damage other devices in the video chain, like an OSSC or Framemeister. This is easily remedifed by using an RGB Scart cable with a proper resister in-line. The arcade versions of the Neo Geo games are cheaper than the standard home versions, simply because there are way more of them out there. I have twelve MVS games, and that's about all I'm going to own, judging by current prices. The ubiquitous, yellow 161-in-1 cart is a budget alternative to going broke trying to collect for this system. It has nearly all the games that were ever released, and won't break the bank. 

The Sony Playstation has been modded with the PSIO optical drive emulator, allowing for game playback from an SD card. What is unique about PSIO is that it retains the CD drive functionality, still allowing the console to play original games. The console is region modded, as my import collect is half of my Playstation collection. The video output is RGB. 

Next is my beloved Sega Saturn, which has the MODE optical drive emulator. The Saturn collection is one of my largest collections, focusing on shmups and fighting games, and so I had to make a decision on whether to keep the original Saturn hooked up in order to play these, or have the MODE hooked up instead. I oscillate between the two, regularly swapping the MODE with my "This is Cool" Japanese model 2 Saturn. In a perfect world, I would make room for both. Hmm, maybe I will do something about that. The video output is RGB.

Farthest to the right is the Analogue Mega SG, a modern HDMI console with a field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, which recreates the Sega Genesis console at the hardware level. This is not the same as standard software emulation that you would see in so many clone consoles these days, there is no overlying operating system that would introduce latency during game operation. FPGA systems are lagless, and extremely faithful to the original hardware, depending on the skill level of the programmer. Kevtris is widely known in the retro gaming scene for his skill, and this is just another example of it.


Third row, left to right

Starting the third row is a standard Gamecube. There is nothing special about this console, there are no mods. It's not one of my favorites, I only play a few games on it. I do have the official Gamecube component cables, which re-convert the analog video output to 480p. I know there are lots of newer mods and ODEs for this system, but its not high on my priority list.

Next is the PolyMega Beta unit. The PolyMega is an emulation console that can play CD games for the Playstation, Turbo Grafx-16 CD (and of course PC Engine CD), Sega Saturn, Neo Geo CD, in all regions. It also can play cartridge based systems if you have the modules for them, including NES, TG-16, Genesis, and SNES. This has yet to be released, as the company, Playmaji, has struggled during the pandemic to keep its production schedule on track. The reason I have one is that I was an early backer, and was chosen as a Beta tester. I imported all of my compatible CD based games, and played them, and reported any bugs that I found. One of the best features of the PolyMega is the ability to import the game files to the console, potentially having your entire library available from the UI interface, forgoing the need to use the actual discs. As of the time of this writing, there are a few of my games that I cannot import, as the games are not recognized in the system's database yet. Fortunately, the system is easily updated through WIFI, and additions and improvements are made regularly. There are so many games that this supports, it will take some time for every single one to entered into its database, but its well on its way. I know this system is redundant, as I already have the consoles to play the same games that this supports. 

Next is the Retro USB AVS, an FPGA Nintendo console. This can play original NES and Famicom (Japanese version of NES) games. The console outputs at 720p, which not to the same level as Analogue's FPGA consoles, but the difference is not a great as it may seem. The flat loading style of the cartridges makes for a slim profile, and gameplay reliability is fantastic. No more blowing into the carts, or shoving another one on top to increase the tension to get the game to work. Analogue's NT Mini, which is their FPGA NES console, has more features like 1080p, but is encased in an aluminum shell and costs more than double the AVS. It's up to the user to decide if the price markup is worth it. 

Last is the Analogue Super NT, an FPGA Super Nintendo console. My original SNES console was having a hard time reading cartridges, probably due to dirty connector pins. I tried cleaning it with the credit card and t shirt trick, but it still was unreliable and frustrating. So I decided to upgrade. It was released before the Mega SG, so it doesn't have quite as many options and features, but there's till more than enough for satisfy hardcore users. 

In addition to optical drive emulators for disc systems, I have flash cartridges as well for the NES, Genesis, PC Engine, and SNES. These are convenient, as not only can you play any game in the library, you can apply patches to roms and play hacked versions of games, which is my favorite feature. This can breathe new life into games that you have played to death, like the playing as Robocop and ED-209 in Streets if Rage 2, or improving the PAN card functionality in the NES version of Metal Gear. 

Hidden behind the TV are my Nintendo Switch, PS3, and PS4, but I don't feel the need to talk about those. Behind the sound bar is my Raspberry Pi in a Retroflag Mega Drive case, running Retropie. I've talked about this before, it has its uses, but its not my preferred way to play. It is the only way for me to play arcade games on a TV, like Mat Mania, Alien Syndrome, and others. I use an 8Bitdo M30 Bluetooth controller for it.



Below the TV stand are switches for component video and HDMI. The component switch was made by Impact Acoustics, and is a powered 6-input switch. I currently use for the Gamecube and PS2, and it feeds directly into the TV. The HDMI switch has 8 inputs, and automatically detects the signal, except when it doesn't. The PS4 seems to be a signal hog, and I find that I have to manually push the switch to change when the PS4 is on. Other than that, it works great. 

Well, that's all I have connected at the moment. I do have a few more that are not hooked up, and sometimes they make their way into the setup. Let me know your thoughts, and if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!