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Review: Power-Up

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powerup_boxConsole: Xbox 360 (XBLA Indie Games)
Released: September 13, 2013
Developer: Psychotic Psoftware
Publisher: Psychotic Psoftware
Difficulty: Hard
Price: $1.00
Similar Titles: Sine Mora, Deathsmiles, eXceed

In full disclosure I have been watching Power-Up since it was first discussed about a year ago, along with my push to support the game on Kickstarter, and contact with the developer.  Still, like so many other games one can get jazzed about in concept art and developer interviews it really comes down to the released product (and I never show favor to a project I back).  I assumed that with the title and art design Power-Up was going to be a Gradius clone – which definitely isn’t a bad thing since I’ve been dying for a true sequel – but what I received instead was a delightful surprise.  Power-Up has a hook that feels unique, and coupled with the beatiful art, aggressive design, and a momentum-inducing soundtrack it stands alone as its own property.  The fact that it sells for a mere dollar only stresses even more that developer Psychotic Psoftware is almost giving away a product that would be a steal at ten times the amount.

powerup_1Naturally as the title implies, Power-Up is a side-scrolling shmup that is all about building up weapons and raking in the highest possible score.  What’s unique about the way it handles power-ups is the fact that you have five weapons to choose from, all available from the beginning, and it’s up to you how you upgrade them.  Swapping weapons at will is easy, simply tap the left or right bumper to move to the previous or next weapon, and whatever you have active when you collect a power-up will level it up.  While this may seem somewhat simple, especially since most shmup players are acutely aware of their preferred shot, the level and enemy spawn design forces you to utilize each weapon at certain times.  This combination of having all the right tools at your disposal and requiring you to know when and how to use them is why I’m so impressed with this game.  All of the so-called rules of shmups are broken, enemies flying in from every direction attempting to shoot down or even kamikaze their way into your ship makes for a frantic game of cat and mouse.  Not only that, but play tactics depend solely upon you, so if you can handle enemies from behind without relying on the reverse shot or above/below without a vertical shot then success can really be had any way you want it.  There are times – namely boss battles, flurries of enemies, or scenarios – where I couldn’t see how you wouldn’t use a specific weapon, but if there’s one thing I know about shmups it’s that nothing is impossible.

powerup_3You can’t really categorize the title either, it’s not a “bullet hell,” “cute ‘em up,” or any other fun nickname we give to the overall design of a game because it simply tries to be everything at once.  Bright beatiful sprites float onto the screen and although it can get quite frantic and real estate becomes rare, the color scheme assures that both enemies, bullets, and your fighter are clearly defined.  This is a problem many contemporary shmups have and with the screenshots I initially saw it was a concern, but never did a background or enemy type allow for hidden obstacles.  On top of all that the art is beatiful.  I had seen design sketches and screen grabs and it all paid off with a gorgeous game that knows how to utilize 2D sprites with correct hit detection.  In the end it’s an addictive title that quickly justifies some of the deeper unlocks (like a skin that’s available after 20 hours of total gameplay).  Difficulty is no exception to its peers – Power-Up is a tough game – but you really need to play quite a bit and get used to the upgrade weapon system before even thinking about getting through the game’s graciously large levels.  I found this game best in small, one hour doses in the beginning to get warmed up and after a while I was able to get only a play or two in with that little time.  I was a bit bummed with no continue system, something I don’t see the damage in adding, and without it I was more tempted to give up after each game over if my run had gone on more than 45 minutes.  Fortunately the responsive controls assured that any failure was my fault and mine alone, and I someday hope to drop to my knees in triumph upon completing the title.

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Shmups have fallen to the wayside, especially in the United States, these days and with fewer and fewer developers on the horizon I fear the extinction of the genre.  Furthermore what remains are predominantly Japanese developers like Cave that refuse to think outside of the box and let go of the now too common “bullet hell” subgenre.  Power-Up restores my faith that with enough effort, some flexibility, and just a tweak to an established system new life can breathe back into the world of shmups.  With this price point we may even see those not too keen on the genre taking the dip, but with the sea of pathetic clones of titles like DoDonPachi crowding the XBL Indie space it’s important to let word of mouth set this title free.  I hope to see Power-Up sell a bit better at a more appropriate $10 price tag because I’m certain most developers won’t put the care and love that Psychotic Psoftware has at this price point, but who knows.  Either way, fans of shmups and even those wondering if they can still love the genre after being away for so long should support this project and developer by picking it up.  It’s a drop in the bucket from a cost perspective, what can you lose?

Final Score: 4 out 5

Written by spydersvenom

September 30, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Retro Game Night: Patriotic Edition

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This week we post a little early and celebrate America’s Independence Day with patriotic video games:

First up is actually a Japanese game, Parodius Da! but it has quite the patriotic boss so it’s here because I love this game and found a connection:

Next up is a rare unlicensed NES game by Color Dreams entitled Operation Secret Storm:

Third on the list is a digital pinball game from the PS1 era, because why not right?  Here’s Patriotic Pinball (please excuse my technical difficulties):

And last but not least we close the show with a game so American, so amazing, so awesome it was only released on one console (Xbox) and in one region (Japan).  Yeah, you read that right.  Since I have no way of getting my hands on it and don’t have a Japanese Xbox to play it on, here’s a great flashback of 1UP’s Broken Pixels show bragging about From Software’s 3rd person uber-American title Metal Wolf Chaos:

Hope you enjoyed those and have a safe and happy 4th of July!

Podcast: Game Club – Salamander/Life Force

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This week Fred flies solo to discuss the shoot-em-up (shmup) series Salamander, better known as Life Force in the United States.  He discusses the various games from the arcade titles to the NES/Famicom port, to even the MSX and PC-Engine (Turbografx-16) ports.  Additionally the connections to series Gradius are discussed and the various ways to play the games today.  He also announces April’s game club title.



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Written by spydersvenom

April 3, 2013 at 11:00 am

Retro Game Challenge: Stinger (NES)

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stinger_boxConsole: NES
Released: 1987
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? No
Value: $3.65 (used), ???? (new) (pricecharting.com
Other Releases: Yes – as Muero! TwinBee in Japan on the Famicom Disc System and Famicom (cart version)
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console for Wii (Japan only)

Below is the completion of the hybrid horizontal/vertical shmup Stinger, better known in Japan as Muero! TwinBee due to the fact that it is a sequel to the original TwinBee set 100 years after the events of the original.  Since we did not get TwinBee in this country, the title was changed to Stinger and a different back story was given, the title belonging to the given name of the ship you pilot.  It’s clearly a TwinBee title, though, with the distinctive bells that you juggle to gather power-ups and point bonuses.  Other interesting differences between the American and Japanese version were multiple difficulty settings, selectable as medium or hard in Japan and eventually an easy option was added for the Famicom cart release.  In America we only received one default difficulty (medium) but the game immediately starts over upon completion on the hard difficulty, easy does not exist in the US version.  This title was intended to support up to three players and in Japan the cartridge had an extra controller port for the third player.  Since carts loaded out of the top on the Famicom this was possible, however at this point there was only a side load for NES carts and thus the game was forced into a two player only mode.  If you had the optional accessory, the four score, which added four more port to the console, Stinger would still only support two players.  In the video below I complete the entire game although I do not replay the harder difficulty as it does not give more content or a different ending.

Written by spydersvenom

March 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Top 5 Shmups on Portable Consoles

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Given the frantic and brief nature of most shmups, the genre is perfect for the portable platform, much like it was perfect for the arcade. For one reason or another, these titles can be rare to find on traditional handhelds and even harder to find actually good ones. On the other hand some of my favorite shmups are exclusive to portables (at least in the United States) so we’ve compiled a list of the portable shmups actually worth playing.

5. Space Invaders Extreme (Nintendo DS)

space_invaders_extremeWhen Taito decided it would re-invent the Space Invaders formula I was skeptical. We were told in previews that the game would feature an upbeat techno soundtrack, plenty of screen tricks and explosions, dual screen integration on DS, and a hybrid between modern game mechanics and the original title. Just in case that sounds tempting to you, it’s almost verbatim what no gamer wants to hear when a beloved franchise is rebooting. Somehow Taito pulled it off and with no updates save for that fearful list Space Invaders Extreme was an addicting masterpiece. It released in a few forms on a few consoles but bar none the Nintendo DS version is the one to get. With non-linear level progression and utilization of dual screen to make the DS function more like a vertical arcade monitor, it’s like having Space Invaders on speed. Bonus rounds, boss battles, and power-ups were simple tweaks to the original formula that switched up gameplay without being a specific reason to play the game. Needless to say if you haven’t played Space Invaders Extreme, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the original, you should give this handheld game that’s easy to learn and brutal to master a try. It will keep you occupied for many a train, plane, or bus ride to come.

4. Halley Wars (Sega Game Gear)

halleywarsWith the small screens of most portable consoles it never ceases to amaze me how many vertical shmups find their way over, but despite that fact Halley Wars is not to be missed. Set in space, this is the sequel to the 1986 arcade game Halley’s Comet entails defeating an alien invasion that is utilizing Haley’s famous comet as cover for an attack on Earth. In Halley Wars you progress through six levels that are not only lengthy but end with great pattern-based boss battles. True, this game did come to home consoles in Japan but in America the only version we received was on the Game Gear. While I can’t think of anyone who had this in their collection growing up, I found it surprising that this title is neither hard to find nor is it expensive locally or on eBay.

 

3. Solar Striker (Nintendo Gameboy)

solarstrikerGameboy (and Gameboy Color) aren’t really hurting for shmups, but I don’t like many of the home console ports that seem forced into Gameboy’s little screen, especially when I’ve got a much better version I can play in another room. Solar Striker was developed purely for the Gameboy and it’s a vertical shmup that not only follows the Gradius theory of beating the game in one life, but it also takes to the green blurred effects of the portable nicely. Each enemy is larger, taking up real estate on the screen and not making their presence a secret, sub bosses and end stage bosses offer pattern learning that’s sure to aggravate today’s gamers with their initial unfair feel. You get power-ups throughout the game and building up five in a row gives you a primary shot that fills a big portion of the screen, which is why I say the game is best completed in one life. Maybe compared to all shmups that exist it’s nothing special, but for a game that is aware of and works with the limitations of the Gameboy, you can’t do much better.

2. Gradius Gaiden (as part of the Gradius Collection on PSP)

Hosted at Universal Videogame List www.uvlist.netThis is another game that was previously released to a home console, but unfortunately we never saw Gradius Gaiden on the PS1 in the US so your only option is through the collection. It’s really a shame too because Gradius Gaiden is easily the best in the series, utilizing 3D sprites in a 2D background and bringing a nice aesthetic to the Gradius formula. It’s not all smoke and mirrors either, this was the first in the series to feature fully customizable ships and power-up chains – you can literally use any previous Gradius ship and have your power-ups unlock in any order. If you want to have your first power-up be options, fine, you can have 5 options before the brunt of the level even starts. This doesn’t make the game easy by any means; the balance is that attacks and enemies are so varied you will need various power-ups to overcome many of the levels. Not only that but the new graphical tricks allow for some crazy encounters like ice caves crashing to pieces and dropping snow and debris into the play field as you traverse the level or a cube of Moai head statues rotating in all directions around you. While the Gradius Collection is the only of the three Konami collections to release on PSP in the US (there are fantastic Salamander and Parodius collections in Japan), it has become a title that’s a bit hard to come by with no digital version released. Still, I don’t see it for more than about $10-$20 when I do find it and you can always give in to eBay mark-up if you’re desperate, but the fact that you get Gradius Gaiden plus the original three titles (including the super rare Gradius II: Gofer No Yobo arcade version) makes this a must buy for shmup fans on the PSP.

1. Aerial Assault (Sega Game Gear)

aerialassaultI have no specific argument as to why this is my favorite portable shmup, except for the fact that it fulfills the need for catharsis with every move. You play as a simple airplane craft that navigates a horizontal landscape taking down mostly easy to shoot enemies and collecting power-ups along the way. Like the other Game Gear title on this list, the levels are lengthy and offer a decent run for a game designed to be played in short spurts. While I’m sure hardcore shmup fans find the difficulty to be pathetic, I personally appreciate the fact that the game isn’t too hard or requires too much concentration from you. It isn’t enough to make your bored, there is still some fight in the title, but it’s not Ikaruga by any means. I appreciate it because the developers seemed to understand that you will most likely be playing this in public where it’s difficult to offer the concentration of a normal shmup and you probably don’t want to throw a hissy fit in front of a bunch of strangers. It’s for those long days at the office or nervous moments before a dentist appointment when you can bring out your Game Gear, spend 10 minutes feeling like a badass by blowing up a ton of aircraft, then power it off and move on with your day. Thankfully this title is neither rare nor particularly expensive and as it’s the only fighter jet shmup series that’s set in my preferred horizontal perspective. As if this isn’t enough, growing up this was the first portable title that I played at home when I had other consoles at my disposal. I can’t help but love the fact that Aerial Assault exists.

Written by spydersvenom

March 21, 2013 at 11:00 am

Review: Espgaluda (PS2)

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espgaludaConsole: Playstation 2 (Japan Only)
Released: 2004
Developer: Cave (original arcade design, port by Arika)
Publisher: Arika (PS2 version only)
Difficulty: Moderate
Price: $60-$100 (used, unknown new)
Digital Release? No

Aside from its Japan only status and the incredibly difficult pronunciation, Espgaluda (pronounced “esu-pu-galuda” in English) has so much going for it. A second generation shmup from Cave, the development studio responsible for DoDonPachi, this is when the studio began to think outside the box and expand its audience to the masses. This game is made easier than most titles in its genre with the slowing of bullets and shields to assist the player in getting familiar with the danmaku (bullet hell) genre. Wrap it all together and it truly is a shame this title has never made its way stateside because it’s much more approachable than the titles we have received.

The roots of Espgaluda stem from the arcade (and Japan) only title ESP Ra.De. (pronounced “esu-pu-rye-do”) about a group of young girls with super human powers. It all takes place in the not-too-distant future (2018) on a remote island called Tokyo-2 off the shores of an overpopulated Japan. It appears the Japanese police force is hunting down these “ESPers” that are capable of psychic powers and the story takes place over a 24-hour period of time for three escaping females. None of this matters all that much since the game was only in Japanese (not localized on the MAME versions I’ve found), but the game is notable for several reasons. For starters the fact that you control a flying girl instead of a ship or vehicle will be the first thing you notice, and given the 1998 release of the title it’s quite possibly the first time this type of character is used in a shmup. Each girl has a barrier power, which allows them to temporarily absorb the power of the bullets coming at them and then release that energy back at their opponents. Aside from that the game is relatively a standard vertical shmup with plenty of explosions, bullets to dodge, and massive boss battles.

Espgaluda is a spiritual member of the series and acts as a prequel of sorts, but you have to give me a little slack because I don’t speak Japanese and I’m piecing together a plot and game that aren’t often covered. From what I can tell it explains the story of a queen of a small and peaceful village that has special powers incredibly similar to the ones we saw in ESP Ra.De. and the king has begun experimentation to extract and implement her powers in others. At the core of this are his two children whom he infuses the powers to at a young age for the sake of conquering. Trouble begins when a senior scientist moves the kids away to an isolated location in an attempt to give them a normal life. Eventually they are found, the scientist father figure is killed for his treachery, and the kids attack the town of their father with newfound powers unleashed.

espgaluda_1This is the world you are dropped into with Espgaluda, which is unlike many shmups of its type. First of all most of the enemies are organicand the whole world has this steampunk feel of technology fused with semi- medieval aesthetics. Like its spiritual predecessor, the barrier system joins the ranks allowing you to protect yourself against oncoming bullets, especially when those crazy danmaku patters explode across the screen. The barrier may be less necessary than you think, though, because the game has a power mode that slows down its pace and enters a sort of slow-mo or “bullet time” mode when you get bombarded. This is great for those newer to the genre that need to get used to the pattern weaving required to succeed in bullet hell shmups. Not only that, but your barrier automatically absorbs bullets, unleashing a mighty auto-attack once you soak up enough, and your attacks get super charged. It’s one hell of a mode to say the least, especially because you change genders completely (although with all the Japanese I can’t understand the explanation is lost on me and it doesn’t look like the brother turns into the sister or visa versa but perhaps that’s what it is).

Either way it’s a new take on a classic genre that truthfully is a great place to start if you’re not big on shmups or are tired of not making it past the first level. Of course the tragedy is that the game was only released in Japan, but if you’re into importing or know how to access a MAME copy you should be good to go. While I must admit that it doesn’t diverge too far from a Cave shooter across the board, I like the lush and vibrant colors of the game and the training wheels its various options support. Hardcore shump fans don’t need to worry too much, though, because there are many difficulties and the game is still tough as nails even with these various options in place. I must admit, though, that with this title in the back pocket it shocks me that much more niche shooters like Otomedius and even Cave’s Deathsmiles made it to the US and Espgaluda (and its sequel on the 360) have remained locked away in the East. Perhaps the vertical perspective that wastes a large percentage of the screen is to blame?

Written by spydersvenom

March 8, 2013 at 11:00 am

Top 5 Shmups Worth Importing

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Ah March, shmuppreciation is back and in full effect on Gaming History 101.  If this is your first time hearing the phrase, shmuppreciation is for the love of the shoot-em-up genre (shmup for short) and is celebrated all March on the site.  If you missed Shmuppreciation 2012 I highly recommend you check it out as we provided more than 30 articles dedicated to introducing you to genre specifics and the myriad of popular series in the most triumphant genre of all time.

This year we’re going past introductions and into the intermediate world of shmups, which requires more skill, dedication, and money than the games covered last year.  While I would hardly call the games we will be covering obscure by any stretch, these titles are much less known outside of enthusiastic shmup fans.  To kick it off we’re featuring the top 5 games worth importing.  Shmups are of the most expensive games out there so you can expect a bit of sticker shock even with the games mentioned here.  Just keep in mind that you’re currently dropping $60 for day one releases and sometimes even more if you’re into that special edition stuff.  The titles in this list are unique because they have not seen a release, even digital, within the United States and thus require some sort of special circumstances to play today.  There’s a great list of import games that have released digitally on PSN, XBLA, and Wii Virtual Console as well so be sure to check out our article on those titles as well.  In order to play these games you have to either import them or get access to a digital service outside of your region.  The links in each title will take you to the games’ review or video on our site.

5. Zero Gunner 2 (Arcade, Dreamcast- Japan Only):

Zero_Gunner_2_CoverartWhile it’s not a traditional shmup by any means, Zero Gunner 2 is similar to Geometry Wars except that the arcade and Dreamcast title didn’t have twin sticks.  In a 3D rendered world, it carries an aesthetic similar to that of Silpheed or Star Fox updated by the graphical prowess of the updated hardware.  Ironically the game plays much like a traditional arcade game with a series of enemies attacking you on a single screen and you are taxed with taking them out by flying around the screen and firing in all directions.  Now that I think of it, connections could be made to Asteroids without much of a stretch, but there’s no denying the addictive nature that is Zero Gunner 2. – Review with video coming next week.

This title can only be found in Japan but is easy to find in the import market.  Dreamcasts require a mod chip or boot disc to load an import game.  Typically the title sells for $80-$110 on Dreamcast and upwards of $500-$750 on JAMMA arcade PCB board.  The PCB is high in cost due to the rarity and difficulty to emulate properly in MAME.

4. Espgaluda (Arcade, PS2 – Japan Only):

espgaludaNot only is this title developed by prolific studio Cave, known for shmups of all kinds, but this danmaku title has been adapted to a more general audience.  Since “bullet hell” shmups dominate the contemporary market today it is key to get good at weaving in and out of the bright beautiful bullets invading the screen in various patterns.  Instead of getting a game over every five minutes in the traditional origins of the genre, Espgaluda is highly recommended because it’s adapted for a general audience.  When you get ambushed by bullets, like you will, they slow down to allow easy maneuver between them and getting hit doesn’t net you a death.  With a great cyberpunk setting, bright colorful sprites, and an adapted difficulty make this a must buy for those who want to get into modern shmups.  I won a contest and received it as a prize, which at the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was.  Now I know.

This title can only be found in Japan and is somewhat common in the import market.  Playstation 2 requires a mod chip or a boot disc to load an import game, however boot discs can be frustrating due to various security methods in the console.  Of course a Japanese PS2 is another (albeit expensive) option.  Prices range from $50-$75, making it one of the cheapest on our list, however the arcade JAMMA PCB is more rare and valuable due to popularity and thus sells for around $350 (and much higher) in US import shops and at least 40,000 yen ($450) in Japanese stores.

3. Sexy Parodius (Arcade, PS1, Saturn, PSP – Japan Only):

sexy_parodiusI do love this title and despite what the name suggests, it’s not very titillating and the best installment in the Parodius series.  A long running parody of Gradius, Konami released these games in every territory but the United States and why is anyone’s guess – although the original titles did mock American culture in some levels.  As the only title in the series not released outside of Japan it’s a shame that more shmup fans haven’t been able to enjoy this great game, especially because most ports were nearly arcade perfect.

This title can only be found in Japan however it’s very common.  Saturn can only play imports via Pro Action Replay cart (most modchips do not make it region free) whereas PS1 can use either a modchip or a boot disc with mild modification to the console.  PSP can play imports naturally and this title is found in the Parodius Collection.  All console versions sell for around $35-$60.  The JAMMA PCB is also quite common and sells for around $100-$125 in US import stores.

4. DoDonPachi (Arcade, PS1, Saturn – Japan Only):

Dodonpachi_titleCave’s most popular shmup of all time and partially responsible for the love danmaku is every bit as great today as it ever was.  Despite its ramped difficulty, the game features amazing explosion animation and unlimited credits as an option in the console versions.  It’s a point of contention as to whether the PS1 version and Saturn version differ much, but I can see that argument given the Saturn was designed around 2D sprites and the Playstation around 3D polygons.  Personally I do feel the Saturn version is a bit better, however given the larger availability of the PS1 version it’s not worth the extra cost.  Many consider this title to be the best shmup of all time and it’s among my favorite in my collection.

This title can only be found in Japan however it’s very common and even available on the Japanese PSN.  Saturn can only play imports via modchip whereas the PS1 can use either a modchip or a boot disc with mild modification to the console.  PS3s from any region can get a Japanese PSN account and with prepaid cards play the title off of the Japanese PSN PSOne version.  At $75-$100 on both PS1 and Saturn this is a justified expensive import and the JAMMA PCB is quite rare at $300-$500.  On the other hand the Japanese PSN version is a meager 600 yen ($7) and definitely the best option (it even plays on PSP and Vita if you go through the annoying process of setting up a Japanese account on it). 

1. Battle Garegga (Arcade, Saturn – Japan Only):

gareggaCountless lists of best shmups of all time will rank Battle Garegga as number one and for good reason.  It feels like the pinnacle of the airplane vertical shmup that was started by the 19xx series but with design choices that are appreciated by those that aren’t purists.  It has fast paced action, modified bomb options, and is one of the few shmups from 90s that can be completed without memorizing the game after countless hours of play.  It’s not a cake walk either, but Battle Garegga can be successfully navigated by twitch instincts, making it feel more “fair” like the classics.  Furthermore the Saturn release, while one of the most costly on the console and in my collection, is arcade perfect and has special features that resemble contemporary shmup releases.  If you’re going to get into the Saturn for its great library, especially as a shmup fan, the title justifies its ridiculous cost.

This title only released in Japan and is rare due to its print run and popularity.  Saturn can only play imports with the use of a Pro Action Replay cart (most modchips do not make the Saturn region free) that is to this day available at various outlets for $30-$40.  This title sells for a staggering $125-$175 average complete – I found mine for $75 at a retro convention in disc only format – and the arcade JAMMA PCB (if you can find it) has sold anywhere from $200-$500. 

There you have it, five incredible titles tailor made for shmup fan consumption and almost $500 to collect them all.  Still the entire concept of a shmup is that you play them over and over.  When you think about it, any one of these titles can take months or even years of your gaming life if you let them.  Keep in mind these are titles that never entered our country, never became part of a re-release or collection in the US, and never got released in digital format.   When you think about it that makes them obscure and rare for all gamers worldwide and thus justifies the higher price tag.  Stay tuned for more great shmup coverage and reviews on the three games we haven’t already reviewed on this list next week!

Written by spydersvenom

March 1, 2013 at 8:49 pm

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