Posted on March 23rd, 2011 6 comments
Maker: NEC Avenue
Release Date: 7/14/89
Price: 5400 yen
Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 20.86 / 30.00
Kōgien: “An innovative shooter that lets you attack to the left and right. A faithful port of the arcade game that features a fine-tuned balance that keeps things accessible for beginners and veterans. Collect an item power up your attack further.”
Another NEC Avenue port of a Capcom arcade game, this one a shooter that oddly never made it to any other Japanese hardware platform, only finding official home release on
Europeancomputers. (EDIT: I was wrong here. Capcom USA released their own Commodore 64 port for the US market in 1987. It’s not great.)
It was never a very popular arcade game — I think I saw it only once or twice in person — but considering it came out in 1986, it was a pretty decent upgrade on what Gradius offered just a bit previous.
Two main improvements make this game different from Konami’s: the screen can scroll vertically and diagonally as well as the standard horizontal; and your robot fighter can fire left or right depending on which of the two buttons you press. The power-up system is also a little freer, letting you choose your weaponry from the pause menu as you acquire the needed items (the arcade version had a third button for changing weapons on the fly). Grabbing the α/β items lets you combine with another fighter jet and transform into a super-duper robot that fires in eight directions; this also lets you take a hit without dying, which perhaps says something about the building standards they use on robots of the future — surely my last hope of Earth, savior of the people, etc., can take more than one stinking hit at a time. Also worth noting is that you can shoot onscreen power-ups before grabbing them to transform them into something else, a system that Capcom reintroduced a year later in the much more successful 1943.
The game has no smart-bomb function, and presumably the left-right firing arrangement is meant to take its place. It becomes a bit of a moot point, though, considering that you’ve got enemies swooping upon you from both sides starting about two minutes after you press the Run button. If Gradius got a little tricky after you died and lost your weapon upgrades, this is the equivalent of challenging Darth Vader with a used Panda Express chopstick. Sure, it’s fun while you’re alive — you easily bash up swarms of enemies with your 8-way fire, and the game demands enough dodging ability from you that the pace remains engaging and fun. But lose them all, and you’re pretty much done for that go-around, especially given that Side Arms starts you right in the same place, still surrounded by all the bad guys that killed you the first time.
This may be much of the reason why Side Arms never caught on worldwide the way that Gradius and, to a lesser extent, stuff like Capcom’s own 1943 and Legendary Wings did. But the PCE port is pretty faithful, at least. Despite its two-megabit size, all 10 arcade stages are included; the graphics are varied enough (although the bosses repeat too often); and the sound’s excellent throughout. NEC Avenue would go on to release a CD-ROM version of this game that included an original “Before Christ” mode and recorded music from Capcom’s in-house studio, but I’ll get to that later on.
(Of particular interest with the HuCard version: The music was rearranged for the PCE by Takashi Tateishi, whose most famous soundtrack work in games probably still remains Mega Man 2. That title came out half a year before Side Arms in Japan, and tracks like the one above make it pretty obvious that it’s the same buy behind both scores. Tateishi still remains in games, running indie music contractor Most Company and making contributions to Dance Dance Revolution and the like.)
I can think of a lot of mid-to-late-’80s shooters that look just like this. They all seemed to get PC Engine ports, too, is the funny thing.