The last time I went to Rhyl to play arcade games, circa 5 years ago, I saw two women get arrested by undercover Police whilst I was eating a hotdog. I’d only been there ten minutes.
My kid-age visits were slightly more U-rated than this, with Rhyl one of the many spots along the North Wales coast where I’d indulge myself in the playing of classic shooters. Astro Port’s SHMUP Collection is a stab at this era; a lost age of smokey seaside parlours with sticky carpet, where the arcade was king and consoles like the Mega Drive, PC Engine and Neo Geo were Scramble-ing (arf) to replicate its delights.
Developers Astro Port have targeted this point in time with a laser focus and, if I told you all of them were originally released in the time of 808 State and the second summer of love (ask your Dad) you’d instantly believe me.
The three titles in question are Satazius Next, Armed 7 DX (‘Next’ and ‘DX’ denoting the versions with improved graphics and sound, although the originals are also available) and Wolflame. The first two are horizontal and the latter vertical, with each taking obvious cues from the classics to produce a nostalgia buzz.
Satazius is arguably the most polished of the three, unsurprisingly as gameplay is a grab-bag of ideas lifted from other hori’s. You have a weapon selection screen yoinked from Gradius, weapons inspired by Thunder Force, with enemies and level layouts reminiscent of UN Squadron.
It’s an affectionate picking-up of another dev’s playset rather than empty imitation, which is mostly down to the fundamentals: hit boxes are sharply defined and proportionate and your fire does significant damage even before power-up. In each title the early game is fun, then ramps up the challenge in increments whichever difficulty level is pre-selected, allowing you to acclimatise and improve.
Of the three, Armed 7 DX is the brash, cocksure one. Looking like Cybernator’s younger brother, the pace and screen-filling ordnance is immediately dialled-up to 11 and seldom backs down from there. You pilot a mech through frantic screen after frantic screen of missiles and bullets launched at break-neck speed, a shield to protect you before health (and then life) is lost. Which is a good job, as you only have one life before game over, making your slaloming between giant stompy robots and pesky little drones extra perilous.
The final chapter in this package is the vertically scrolling Wolflame, which contains no wolves and isn’t lame. Instead, it’s like… well, let’s face it, it’s Raiden. I’m no vert expert, but the two games that sprang instantly to mind were the aforementioned plus Tiger Heli. Those two set the scene well enough; you’re a futuristic jet fighter facing giant walking tanks and vast, turreted weapons installations.
Although all three games let you collect power boosts for your armament, both Satazius and Armed 7 let you select weapon plus sub-weapon before launch, with only Wolflame letting you choose them mid-game: either ballistic, energy beam or lock-on laser attachments.
Astro Port makes a good fist of making armament options varied for each title, but Armed 7 is the standout. You have three active nodes: a main weapon and sub that fire simultaneously, plus a tertiary option that takes time to charge. There are 15 variants (five of each type) to choose from, each with its own fire rate, damage count and range, meaning that finding the right set for your play style takes time; an entertaining enterprise in its own right.
To be truthful, none of these games are outright classics. Individually each one suffers — to a greater or lesser degree — by its self-imposed era restrictions. The graphics are basic, of course, but perhaps even more utilitarian than you’d expect. None come close to the visual standard of Fantasy Zone, R-Type or Side Arms, even. And those are games from the mid/late Eighties.
Beyond that, these shooters are throwbacks in the truest sense of the word. You’ll find no colour-matching enemies with weapon output for MASSIVE DAMAGE, no grabbing unwitting opponents to use as weapons, no charge weapon that powers itself when repelling a boss character’s beam attack (name each game for a special no-prize!) and anyone looking for the equivalent quality of recent genre highpoints like ZeroRanger, Dariusbust CS or Devil Engine will be left confused and disappointed.
There’s also little to nothing in the way of modernisation in presentation. There are no online leaderboards, no save states or rewind features, no option to increase or decrease credits, and (perhaps the biggest negative) the image looks a little blurred and stretched on the Switch’s screen. Some of this will be deliberate omission, but I can’t help feeling some aspects — especially the resolution and lack of display options — can only be put down to lack of effort. In fairness, Wolflame does have a TATE (vertical rotation) option, even if it does then stretch the image to fit the handheld’s 16:9 aspect ratio.
If you’re on board with these deliberate (and sometimes obtuse) stylistic choices, or have a hankering for a less sophisticated yester-year, the SHMUP Collection may be the one for you. If so, throw on your baggy jeans, stuff your Golden Wonder crisps into your TMNT lunch box, throw it in the boot of your Austin Maestro, stick some Madchester sounds on the radio and prepare for a drive down to a seafront arcade near you. Metaphorically speaking, of course.