Top Five PC Engine Shoot-em-ups

5. Image Fight (1990)

Image Fight - Gameplay Screenshot

Developed by Irem soon after they unleashed R-Type, this fantastic vertical scroller is for some bizarre reason far less revered than its sibling, which is odd because even a quick session with it reveals Irem were more than adept at this kind of shmup as well as the horizontal variety. It’s not the flashiest shooter ever – the graphics aren’t particularly impressive and the music is instantly forgettable, but it is challenging, well designed, and, much like R-Type, features some interesting power-ups. Rather than the now-legendary Force from that game, here it’s possible to attach a variety of devices to the front of your ship, each of which give it a different weapon. A top blaster which deserves more recognition.

4. Magical Chase (1991)

Magical Chase - Gameplay Screenshot

For a long time an Engine exclusive, this horizontal-scroller is so charming it’s as if you’ve had a spell cast on you by the ‘Star Maiden’ protagonist of the game! It’s a horizontal-scroller in a similar vein to Cotton (which was released around the same time) which sees you in control of a witch complete with broomstick (but apparently no black cat) battling six demons and their bizarre minions across the six stages! A very strange but nonetheless compelling and highly playable little game which looks fabulous, has a fantastic soundtrack, and constantly beckons you to discover what lies around the next corner.

3. R-Type (1988)

R-Type - Gameplay Screenshot

Until the PlayStation came along, this remained the most faithful conversion of this eternally worshipped, all-time classic yet seen (Lord knows why it never appeared on the MD, come to think of it, that could’ve been a cracking version). Despite the fact that it was initially spread over two separately released Hu-Cards, it was still hard to fault it. The graphics and music are near- faultless and as close to arcade perfect as anyone could reasonably expect, and the timeless level design and gameplay is faithfully recreated. This was a God-send for the game’s many fans.

2. Gradius (1991)

Gradius - Gameplay Screenshot

As is the case with R-Type, this was arguably the best version of Gradius until the arrival of the 32-bit consoles, although the X68000 effort was also superb. While it’s true that the graphics are simplistic and do suffer from bouts of slowdown now and then, they are also beautifully defined and the twinkly, multi-coloured stars in the background are hypnotic! The remixed soundtrack here is fantastic too, and among my favourite shmup soundtracks on any system, but it’s the finely honed gameplay that keeps me coming back. Challenging it may be, but the difficulty curve is well pitched and there’s so many distinctive touches (including an extra level) it’ll take ages to see all it has to offer.

1. Gunhed (1989)

Gunhed - Gameplay Screenshot

It’s amazing to think that this was one of the first shmups released on the Engine. After all these years it’s still one of the finest vertical-scrollers I’ve played on any system. It’s true that there’s a vast number that I’ve still not played but that doesn’t detract from the sheer quality of this classic from Hudson. It eases you in with the gentle opening stage before gradually ramping up the intensity to sweaty-palms, edge-of-the-seat levels – this really is a game that oozes quality in every department. Given the Engine’s prowess with this genre, it’s possible I may encounter an even better shmup at some point but it’ll have to be something really special to beat this legendary game.

Blazing Lazers

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Title Screen

Gunhed a.k.a. Blazing Lazers (1989)
By: Hudson Soft / Compile Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: NEC PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 First Day Score: 1,699,100
Also Available For: Nothing
Download For: Wii Virtual Console

The late 80’s was an exciting time to be a gamer. When the PC Engine was released, the early titles for it were like Holy Grails to most Westerners. Games that we could only gaze at longingly in C&VG and the like. One of the most tantalizing of these was Gunhed. Month after month we would read Julian Rignall and chums rave reviews and general hysterics regarding the new power-house console and for many it was torture. This was the time gamers realised that Japan was now getting the a lot of the best stuff first. For those gamers who couldn’t afford to pick up one of the imported consoles and games that some companies were now offering (at inflated prices, of course), it would be a long time before any of these new games could be enjoyed. I finally got my PC Engine in the mid-90’s and Gunhed was one of the first games I sought out for it. I’d waited a long time to sample the amazing game I’d been reading about. Was it worth the wait?

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Gameplay Screenshot 1

Before being a frenetic PC Engine shmup, Gunhed was also apparently a movie. Set in the year 2038 in and around some sort of post-war ruins where a renegade computer system, Kyron-5, is causing havoc. Luckily, one lone hero discovers a GUNHED (Gun UNit Heavy Elimination Device), a large ‘mech’ type device (of the sort our Japanese friends seem so keen on), which he restores to working order and must then pilot against the defences of the computer complex. On the surface at least, this takes the form of a fairly standard vertical-scrolling shmup. It’s set over 9 stages or ‘areas’, some of which are set in space, others over planets (which must make the Kyron-5 ‘complex’ as big as a solar systems!), and all are crawling with countless, highly varied enemies. Some of these are ground-based or scenery-mounted gun emplacements and the like but most are aircrafts or ships, and they range from small and fast to large and lumbering, but all are more than capable of taking you out!

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Gameplay Screenshot 2

To combat this onslaught of evil you must use your ‘Gunhed Star Fighter’. Luckily it can be powered-up as the near pea-shooter-level cannon it’s initially equipped with is of little use. Even more luckily, the stages in Gunhed are awash with maybe the most frequent power-ups I’ve ever known in a shooter! Some enemy ships drop a numbered capsule which replaces your main weapon. Among them are huge, screen-covering lasers, homing lasers, multi-directional shots, and wave shots. There are also lettered capsules which grant your ship with a secondary power-up, These include shields, homing missiles, a drone type device called a ‘Multibody’, and ‘Full Fire’ – enhanced fire for your main weapon. Lastly and even more common are small, purple ‘gel capsules’ which increase the power level of any given weapon.

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Gameplay Screenshot 3

One of the reasons this game was so revered upon its release is down to its technical prowess. The fact it was co-developed by the designers of the PC Engine itself, Hudson Soft, goes some way to explaining this but it doesn’t detract from the ‘wow’ factor this game exudes, particularly when you consider it was one of the earliest games for the system. The graphics are outstanding throughout with a large variety of sprites, both in size as well as design. They don’t really have a lot of animation but there is often so many of them on the screen and the screen often scrolls so fast, it really is amazing that there’s no slowdown or glitches of any kind. The sound is also of a high standard with some fantastic, memorable music, and some nice (if quiet) speech.

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Gameplay Screenshot 4

As any shmup fans knows, however, all the window dressing in the world doesn’t necessarily make a game great, and excitement over being shown what a flashy new system is capable of can often conceal a game’s design flaws. The fact that Gunhed is such a fantastic game, therefore, is testament further still to its greatness. Unlike a lot of shmups, however, especially the arcade ones which Gunhed mimics so well, this game eases you in slowly and the increase in difficulty is very gradual the further you get. As you might expect, things do get really tough towards the end of the game though, with all manner of aliens, guns, and lord knows what else, out to get you, but the sheer frequency of power-ups means this isn’t one of those ‘one-life’ games where it’s impossible to continue when you lose your power-ups. Just look at the screenshots here – every one except the first has at least one power-up capsule floating about!

Gunhed - Blazing Lazers - Gameplay Screenshot 5

As mentioned, I was late to the party as far as this game is concerned, and yet not only did its visuals and music still impress when I finally played it, but even more apparent was how polished and arcade-like it was. The PC Engine was most famous for the quality of its arcade and arcade-style games, and it was titles like this that cemented that reputation. Admittedly I haven’t played them all (yet) but Gunhed must surely rank as one of the best shmups on this system, possibly any system.

RKS Score: 9/10