Macross: Scramble Valkyrie for the SNES

Robotech was one of the better 2nd-tier cartoons of the 1980's. I say second tier because is not as much of a household name as Transformers, G.I.Joe, He-Man, and so on. It was only broadcast on smaller networks, and at moderately inconvenient times (I think 6 a.m.). It was a translation of the  Macross anime series, which was popular in Japan in the early 80's. The series is known for its giant transforming fighter plane mechs, and dramatic personal relationships that developed between the main characters. The localization consisted of a few name alterations and some stretch editing to prolong the series into a full season here in the U.S.

Chō Jikū Yōsai Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie is a game for the Super Famicom, only released in Japan. Fortunately, it is playable on a NTSC Super Nintendo if you remove the plastic barrier tabs in the cartridge slot. The game follows the plot of the anime series; how closely I don't know as I am not too familiar with the original. I imagine its pretty much the same as the localized Robotech story, which goes like this. A giant alien ship crash lands on earth. The world is in the midst of a global world war, and ceases  

The game is a one-player horizontally-scrolling shoot'em up. You can choose between three pilots: Hikaru, Max, and Milia. Americans may know Hikaru as Rick Hunter, Max is still Max, and Milia is Miriya. I wish they included Roy Fokker, as I he was my favorite. Your veritech fighter can transform on command into its three modes: plane, guardian (gerwalk), or battloid (battroid). The three different forms handle differently. The plane is the fastest. The guardian has the most agility and best speed level as you can navigate tight quarters. The battloid is the slowest, and largest target as it stands upright. In addition to different handling of the three forms, the weapon load out varies with the configuration as well, and each character has vastly different weapons on their crafts. This makes for nine unique weapons available during the game. In addition, each can be leveled up three times by collecting "P" icons. 

Weapons by character:
Hikaru (aka Rick Hunter)
plane - straight ahead piercing laser
guardian - maching gun with vertical bombs (above and below)
battloid - machine gun with powerful but slow missiles

Weapon load outs are visually shown during the character select screen

plane - machine gun that can spread with power ups
guardian - strange energy ball chain thing: can be maneuvered as a defensive shield but hard to use
battloid - homing shots

Max would be the ideal choice, if only his guardian weapon were useful


plane - forward vulcan cannon
guardian - wide shot scythes
battloid - super powerful but slow bursts

Millia's battroid shot is the most powerful in the game

The gameplay takes al of these character nuances into account as the stages require knowledge of which weapon/craft is ideal for a given situation. You'll have to learn how to pilot all three forms as just one will not be successful through an entire stage. In wide-open space with waves of enemies the plane or guardian mode is the way to go. In tight corridors the guardian or battloid will negotiate the space and obstacles better. Each boss and mini-boss battle is unique, so you just have to see what works. Due to the variety, there's loads of replay value. 

The difficulty is adjustable, but I found that normal was too difficult initially, at least until I became familiar with the stages. If you collide with the walls and other stage elements, that counts as a hit.
Your ship has a shield gauge, which can withstand about 4-5 hits. Also, each hit will power down your currently selected ship configuration. Three continues are provided, and more can be picked up in the stages. "S" icons will restore some of your shield. A Minmei doll will restore your entire shield. 
The Minmei weapon is pretty easy to turn enemies with

The most unique gameplay aspect is the "Minmei" weapon. When you refrain from firing for three seconds, your craft will have a glowing aura around it. Touch an enemy during this and that enemy joins you, and follows you around, firing at its former allies. The enemies all have different patterns and styles, and you can swap one out for a different one as you progress. This is pretty useful, especially since your little helper is not confined to the same physical stage barriers that you are, and is seemingly indestructable. While not as useful as the claws in the Thunder Force series, or the multiples in Gradius, its is still a welcome addition, and fits in with the storyline.

Look at all those poor Zentradi soldiers adrift in space.
The game presents you with new challenges and enemies that are refreshing and unique. In stage one, gravity mines litter the field of play, and navigating away from them as you are under attack is challenging to say the least. In stage three, giant missiles zoom towards you seemingly from out of nowhere, until you see the missile battery up close and have to figure out how to take them out without being in the direct line of fire. Later, the ship fills with water, making buoyant enemies bob with the water level and float in and out of your path.  

Visually, the game is very appealing. Sprite design is very faithful to the series, and there is lots of variety. The parallax scrolling in some sections rivals that of the Genesis. From the start of stage one, a giant enemy ship materializes on screen in a flashing, screen obscuring manner. From that point on you know this is not a typical shooter. Even the background have extra details that show the love and effort put into this game by the developers. 

While licensed games are generally shoddy and quick cash grabs, this game seems to buck the trend. It is a fantastic game for anyone who is a fan of the genre, and doubly so for fans of Robotech/Macross. Its a shame that it was not released here, as it is easily one of the top three shoot'em ups on the SNES. 

The Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade

The Retro-Bit Super Retro-Cade is a consolized $60 emulation box that has official licenses for some Capcom, Irem, Data East, and Technos franchises. It is an interesting device that has a lot going for it, and a few issues as well. It has received a lot of hype online for how easy it is to "extend" its capabilities. I'm going to review this considering all aspects from a retrogamer perspective.

First off, the game selection is pretty good. As hinted by in its name, the Retro-Cade has a focus on licensed arcade ports, you can play the superior versions of many games such as Double Dragon, Final Fight, 1943, Armored Warriors, and many Data East, Capcom, Irem, and Technos classics. Too bad that it didn't have the Konami license, that would have had serious potential.

In some cases, both the arcade and home console ports are included, like Bionic Commando (NES), Mercs (Genesis), and Strider (NES). There are 90 games included, which is way more than the NES/SNES classic, and none are filler, unlike the At Games Genesis Flashback, which infamously included dozens of shovelware games amongst its game lineup. There are a lot of gems here, including Knights of the Round, R-Type 3, Mighty Final Fight, Ninja Spirit, Final Fight 2 and 3, and so on. I was hoping that the arcade version of RoboCop would make the list, but obviously sure the license expired. Those who are adamant to play official releases will be pleased.

Given that this is an emulation device, the execution is hit and miss. The game play is responsive with nominal lag. My test is the flagpole jump at the end of the levels in Super Mario Bros. If I can make the 5000 point jump more times than not, the lag is minimal. I was able to pull this off more times than not.

The the video quality is a bit soft, considering it advertises 720p output. It almost looks like and unconverted 240p pumped through HDMI; definitely not as sharp as a real console outputting RGB into an upscaler, but again, this is practically a budget device. While it may be sending 720p into the tv, I don't think it is processing 720p. The default setting stretches the image out to fill the screen, which is unfortunate. This can be changed to the normal aspect ratio, but you have to do this for each game individually as there is no global setting. This is a pain. I also would have liked a scanline option, but its not included.

Stretched aspect ratios just don't look right; I find it irritating

The original aspect ratio can be chosen

The original aspect ratio (4:3) looks much better.

The sound quality is fine, I didn't notice any issues while playing any of the Sonic or Mario games, which seem to be the benchmark. There is an option to use RCA cords for composite video output, if you wanted to use a CRT, but I stuck with HDMI. Save state functionality is included as well, however it takes a few seconds for the save state file to be written, which seemed unusual. For comparison, Retropie save states are nearly instantaneous.

Two usb controllers are included, and they are not great. The cord length is 10 feet, which is one thing that they did right. While the button layout mimics that of a SNES controller, its shape is a bit on the small side; there is less to hold overall on the bottom side and leads to hand cramps after a while. Because there is less material to hold onto, your thumbs are arched more than they would be. The buttons are a little mushy, and the shoulder buttons especially so. The d-pad is ok, except there are times that the right arrow doesn't register, which could just be my particular controller. I will have to try out the second controller (which is nice that there are two included).

Retro-Bit's own Dual-Link controller (left) doesn't work on this console, strangely.
Oddly, when I tried the official Retro-Bit Dual-link controllers (which are great, and sold separately), they did not work on this. I don't understand how a company can produce such a great controller, and then not make it compatible with one of their own consoles. I tried Hyperkin's GN6 controller (which is also good), but it lacks a select button. Pressing the start and select buttons simultaneously will exit a game, and if you have no select button you are relegated to power cycle the console to change games, which would be bad in the long run. So, not having good controllers is one thing, but not being able to use other controllers it even more annoying. I watched some videos of controller compatibility with this, and saw no good options listed. I hear that the SNES Inext controllers work, but the build quality on those are garbage. Essentially, you're stuck with the pack in controllers at the time of this review.

Genesis games via SD card

SNES games via SD card
NES games via SD card

The not-so hidden feature that has people clamoring to pick up one of these is its ease of adding roms. Whatever your stance on downloading roms is, that is not point of this review. The ability to play any game from the NES, SNES, Genesis, and MAME catalog is tantalizing, especially since there is no difficulty in the process whatsoever. Speaking as a person who plays original games and  Retropie, I can't deny that I was blown away with the ease of adding games via SD card. Just throw your roms on an SD card, in a folder titled "retrobit games", and voila! You can even add pictures associated to the games, so they are easy to read from the selection screen.

I will say that you can have too much of a good thing. If you load lots of roms on a card, you will be in scrolling hell as you slowly churn through the immense game select screen. With Retropie and Everdrives you can cycle through screens of titles at a time, quickly advancing to the desired title. On the Retro-Cade, you have to scroll one line at a time. Thus, I recommend a separate, SD card for each system. You can just pop a different card in the back whenever you want to change, just like a cartridge. 

Original hardware via OSSC in 1080p

Retrocade video output presents a softer image

If the standard for modern plug n' play devices is the NES/SNES classic, then this falls a tad short in overall quality. The poor controllers and compatibility and the soft video output are the sore spots for me. However, adding the ability to play roms is a huge boon to its appeal, possibly the main reason why some people are buying this. I don't myself prefer this over my other means, but I do think it is great for casual gamers. This is something that I would give this as a gift, along with some preloaded SD cards. There's just no fuss about its setup, it is truly plug and play. There are no issues that come up if you hit the wrong button combination or enter a weird menu that they don't know how to exit from (a'la retroarch in Retropie). The target audience is the nostalgic gamer who does not already have a bookshelf full of original carts nor RGB modded consoles. This is not for those who are adept at setting up Retropie images nor hardcore collectors. If you're are satisfied with your current console setup and game collection, this will not have much for you, but your friends will probably like it.

Some of my favorite classic arcade games that I have loaded onto the Retrocade:

My Top Dreamcast Shoot'em Ups

The Sega Dreamcast did not have the same volume of shoot'em ups as its predecessor, the Sega Saturn. The number of releases in the genre are few, not just for the Dreamcast, but for the sixth generation as a whole. Consider also that at the time, 2D games were considered antiquated, and not impressive enough in the refined age of 3D polygons. Thus, shoot'em ups were no longer a reliable sale for publishers to take a chance on.

However, the Dreamcast still has a loyal following, and indie games are still being produced to this day. Developers like G-Rev have released nearly all of their catalog after the death of the console, without official sanction. Some of the games on this list are Japanese exclusives, so a disc swap method or region mod is necessary. Disclaimer: this is my personal list, and due to the highly individualized nature of opinions your list will obviously differ from mine. So be it!

10 - Fast Striker
A relatively straight-forward game, this embodies the modern concepts of bullet hell. Tons of bullets litter the screen, changing shot type from a spread pattern to a concentrated shot also changes your ship speed, ala Dodonpachi. The background visuals are on the dark side, to suit the space/mechanical aesthetics, while the bullets are all bright and neon, and easily stand out. Interestingly, it sports a full screen, which is not as common for a vertical shooter. Selectable  difficulty levels help ease you along if you're new to the genre. The screen-engulfing fire bomb is very satisfying. A good entry point and solid game.

9 - Psyvariar 2
A shooter where you pilot a choice of mech, this game utilizes the "buzz" mechanic, where you shot power increases if you are grazing enemy fire. You can play this conservatively, and just try to survive, but your default shot is pretty weak and enemies will eventually require several hits to take down. Boss battles exemplify how this mechanic is best used. Your mech has a tiny hitbox, which is helpful, but hard to get used to; it feels like I'm about to take a direct hit, only to fly by harmlessly.
The powerful spinning shot when buzzing multiple bullets is satisfying, a reward for taking risks.

8 - Mars Matrix
Mars Matrix is a frantic bullet hell shooter with a few unique mechanics. Tapping the fire button produces a typical vulcan shot. Holding down the button fires an electric piercing shot, which is pretty powerful but risky due to its short range. Holding the button for half a second generates a magnet shield of sorts, which when released reflects all enemy bullets back and it pretty satisfying.  Its not not for the faint of heart. This game is pretty difficult at first, but eventually you learn to anticipate when you'll need to charge up the shield, and what bullet gaps will allow you to do so.

7 - Giga Wing
Giga Wing is another frenetic bullet hell style shooter. It has a reflector shield mechanic, not unlike the one in Mar Matrix, that absorbs then shoots back enemy bullets, with surprising effetiveness, almost the like enemies are more susceptible to their own bullets than yours. The penalty for using the shield is the recharge down time, but at least it gives an audible cue ("OK!") when it is recharged.
The scores are ridiculous (how many zeroes are in that score counter?), and the colors (all of them) are vibrant. This is perhaps a second step for those getting into shoot'em ups, as it takes a bit more of a discerning eye to focus past all of the on-screen chaos and survive.

6 - Gunbird 2
A Psyikyo shooter through and through, I probably like this game more than I should due to its similarities to other Psikyo games like Strikers 1945 and Sengoku Blade. In traditional Psikyo fashion, the first couple of stages are randomly selected, giving it a fresh feel each play through.
This game never really get any attention. Maybe its too straight forward, and not inventive enough? Maybe the anime-inspired characters and themes are misplaced in the shooter genre? Who knows.
Sometimes a game needs just basic, solid gameplay, which this has.

5 - Border Down
The lone horizontal shooter on this list, Border Down employs a unique "Border" system which changes when you get die. When that happens, the border switches from green to yellow, where yellow is a shorter level but enemies are more condensed on screen. If you get hit on a yellow border, you continue in the red border, which is shorter and even more frantic. An interesting concept for sure, but I'm not as enthralled by it as others are. Its still a great game, and worthy of the list. This is one of the posthumous releases for the Dreamcast, developed by G-Rev, who would continue the Dreamcast legacy through other releases.

4 - Ghost Blade
A 2015 release by HuCast Games, Ghost Blade is one of the latest releases. So much so, that there is an HD release for the PS4 as well. This game has a lot of similarities to the aforementioned Fast Striker. There's a quick a sense of speed, as the background constanty zooms past. The graphics are vibrantly colored, and the enemy bullets a little less so, making for some unseen deaths. Your shot can be concentrated as your ship slows, a'la Donpachi, or spread wide and weaker.  This mechanic, while derivative, is the glue that holds the game together. A simple concept for sure, but expertly employing it is the challenge. The techno music keeps the upbeat pace throughout the game, and becomes forgettable after a while. This is a relatively easy game, and another good entry point.

3 - Zero Gunner 2
One of my all time favorites, ZG2 is a helicopter game where being able to rotate and adjust to different enemy directions is key. You can turn in 360 degrees, and firing will lock down your direction. This may take a little getting used to, as it is an uncommon control mechanic, but once you get the hang of it, you won't give it a second thought.
Defeated enemies will drop power icons that you collect to fill your secondary weapon meter. There are three helicopters to choose from, each with its own main weapon type.
The bosses are giant transforming mechs, that present their patterns fairly early, and so you can figure them out relatively easily. Being a Psikyo game, there is adjustable difficulty, which I am a fan of. Really good players play for score or 1 credit clears (1CC), I just try to survive and advance as far as possible. This was just released on the Nintendo Switch, so hopefully more people will get to enjoy it.

2 - Ikaruga
Otherwise known as Project RS-2 (Radiant Silvergun 2), this gem from renown developer Treasure is highly polarizing (pun intended) amongst the shoot'em up community. Some feel it focuses more on the puzzle mechanic, and thus not a true shoot'em up. I disagree, I feel that it is a fantastically unique game that took a risk and still presents the action and precision that all good shooters have, if not more so. The graphical design, the outstanding musical score, and the intriguing challenge make this a must have for fans of the genre.

1- Under Defeat
Notice the year on the title screen. Under Defeat is an example of a posthumous revival for the Dreamcast, one of several soon to follow. The game is a splendid combination of traditional, vertical scrolling action, and modern bullet hell patterns during boss battles. Set in some alternative universe that is reminiscent of World War II, the art design is a blend of history-inspired motifs and anime.  Like most shooters that involve helicopters, the controls take some getting used to, which doesn't take long. I found the controls to be more intuitive than Zero Gunner 2, which was mentioned earlier.
The challenge curve is smooth, as anyone can pick up a controller and make it to the first stage boss. Getting past that depends. The sound effects are better than they have any right to be, sounding like they're straight from a Hollywood blockbuster. The bomb is a screen-clearing wave of destruction that is extremely satisfying to employ. There is a minimal power up system, which forces the player to learn the nuances of the option pod for effective attacks. The option pods can fire, from weakest to strongest, a vulcan machine gun, repeating cannon, or heavy missile. After the option has been activated, it fires for a brief period of time and then stops. It needs time to recharge before being fired again, and the stronger the weapon, the longer the wait time. This strategic element of who to fire what at and when gives the game a bit of a resource management quality not seen in other shooters. This game was re-released for the PS3, with a new widescreen mode. I strongly encourage any fan of the genre to find a way to play this.

Honorable mention: Sturmwind, Redux, Last Hope Pink Bullets

Review: Under Defeat for the Dreamcast

Under Defeat was a 2006 release, from developer G.Rev. This is a classic example of the continuing respect for the Dreamcast, releasing a game for a system that officially died in 2001. The game was also released in HD for PS3 and Xbox 360 (digitally).

The game is a vertically scrolling helicopter shoot'em up. Helicopter games can invoke some atypical shooter mechanics, due to the different nature of the vehicle's movement, and this is no exception.
You can choose between two control schemes. The normal controls involve your ship pivoting to the left or right as you turn. Think of a windshield wiper motion, you rotate to the side as you move. The reverse control scheme has your helicopter swing from left to right, all the while centering aim towards the middle.

Moving while firing locks your angle, while your ship is free to rotate when not firing. This does take some getting used to, but it makes sense when you consider that your craft is a helicopter, and not a typical space ship. I do like this control scheme better than the one used in Zero Gunner 2, another excellent Dreamcast helicopter shooter, as it is more intuitive to lock position while firing (as opposed to using buttons to change direction).

Your helicopter is equipped with a standard machine gun. An option pod can be picked up, and it fires one of three types of additional weaponry: a vulcan machine gun, a sporadic cannon, or a devastating missile. Once acquired, your option will start firing once you start firing. It has a limited time to fire, and then disappears. You can summon it again by not firing while it recharges. Once recharged, the option will reappear as you start firing again. It fires in the same direction your helicopter is facing when you started firing. Here in lies a strategic element of the game: being able to time the option and knowing when to invoke it. Some options are better for certain situations. The rapid fire vulcan is good for waves of weaker enemies (quick recharge), but the cannon or missile (longer recharge) is better for the bosses. It can be a bit tricky to line up a missile option attack on a boss, but it is supremely satisfying when it connects. Beginners may have a hard time surviving the recharge period, things can get hairy in the later levels.

At first I was disappointed that there were no power ups to your main gun; it was a departure from most shoot'em ups. After playing it for a while I started to embrace the minimalism. The limited weaponry suits the theme of the game, and makes you focus on what the primary targets are on the screen at the time. There's not so much strafing from left to right, wiping out hordes of enemies al'a Dodonpachi, the action is more deliberate. You need to understand the greatest threat and attack that first.

Sepia toned pics between stages add a nice psuedo- historic touch.

The setting appears to be an alternate WWII-like setting, with vehicles and weapons related to the era. The art style is catching, as it incorporates anime aesthetics with military realism to beautiful effect. These graphics are a showcase of what the Dreamcast was capable of; black smoke from downed craft, a screen-blistering firebomb, bullets that arc as they ascend from the ground, and water eruptions from sinking ships all seem to advanced for the Dreamcast, and yet there it is. Interestingly, the enemies speak English, while your compatriots speak what sounds like German over the radio. I can't recall ever playing a game from the German perspective, even if it entirely fictional and never stated that we are the Germans; we are assuming that.

The game has two-player co-op, and that makes it even more friend (if not hectic) to play with a friend. Like all two-player shoot'em ups, keeping track of your craft on screen becomes difficult, especially when the screen becomes abuzz with bullets. The HD versions added a "New Order" mode, where the field of play is expanded to the 16:9 screen ratio. This opens up the field of play and makes for a less cramped experience, although that means more enemies can be onscreen at once, firing at you. Its worth a play through for a slightly different experience.

While this is a Japanese exclusive on the DC, the PS3 and Xbox 360 releases were worldwide. Its not the cheapest game anymore, as word has caught on about it. The Xbox download is probably the easiest/cheapest way to play a legitimate version, but we all know there are other ways to play Dreamcast games. Keep in mind that it is region locked on the DC. I recommend playing it anyway that you can, its a great game for fans of the genre.