In recent years fans of the 2D shooter form have had to adjust their expectation of what a port can be, largely thanks to the sublime M2 ShotTriggers series. Indeed, we’ve been rather spoiled by that particular run of games.
A long-established convention across gaming’s history states that console ports never quite meet the quality bar set by arcade originals. That notion doesn’t appear to have deterred the longstanding Tokyo software house M2, however. Their ShotTriggers series has delivered a bounty of ports of iconic shmups that are often so good it can be tempting to posit that they trump the originals.
Switch owners have recently been treated to M2’s exquisite port of CAVE’s masterful 1998 arcade release ESP.Ra.De and the astounding Aleste Collection. Those lucky devils known as PS4 owners, meanwhile, could pick up M2 ShotTriggers’ exceptional realisation of Ketsui — perhaps CAVE’s most brutal contribution to the genre it has so often defined.
Those ports variously came with a wealth of original modes, new arrangements and revisions, or in the case of Aleste, an entirely new title. Each was festooned with a bounty of options and settings that even the most generous array of arcade board DIP switches would fail to deliver, letting players tweak their experience to a significant degree. Then there’s the ‘M2 Gadgets’; a customisable range of HUD-like elements that communicate all kinds of strategically valuable information to the player as they navigate dense, sweeping curtains of gaudy bullets — and, to be fair, a good dollop of extraneous detail. But as any score-chasing shmup player knows, you can never have too much detail about what’s going on beneath the pixels.
All of those things have made the M2 ShotTriggers releases stand as serious rivals to the arcade originals they revisit. A console port will never capture the social experience that is playing in a proper arcade, of course. Otherwise, though? M2 tends to get everything right and then some – including it’s ports of earlier console ports of the arcade games in question.
And so here we are at the release of the first of the new M2 ShotTriggers sub-series Toaplan Arcade Garage — which over time will bring almost every game released by the studio to contemporary consoles. Toaplan may not carry the cultural clout that CAVE does across the wider landscape of video game culture, but they are certainly as important, and are enthusiastically celebrated by most shmup devotees. Why? Toaplan ultimately debuted the bullet hell genre with their delightful release Batsugun
But that’s not all. On the outfit’s closure, former Toaplan staff went on to form unquestionably important 2D shooter outfits including Takumi, 8ing (AKA Raizing), Gazelle and — yes — CAVE themselves. The team even crafted Zero Wing, the game that spawned a meme, which arguably stands as a more familiar cultural phenomenon than the entire bullet hell form. Essentially, Toaplan stood as perhaps the most significant driver in evolving the shmup genre from its primitive roots to the era of danmaku. And so it is that Toaplan Arcade Garage’s first entry focuses on a pair of games that embody that journey, resplendent with modern features such as online leaderboards.
That means you get a port of Toaplan’s first ever 2D shooter, 1985’s Tiger-Heli, and it’s 1987 sequel Twin Cobra, known as Kyukyoku Tiger in its Japan homeland. Essentially, on release Twin Cobra gave an early taste of a future where shmups could have a great deal more going on, while bringing more energy and detail to the challenge they offered. Twin Cobra, meanwhile, garnished the genre with a new degree of dynamism and momentum. It certainly wasn’t bullet hell, but it equally wasn’t too far off.
Clearly, then, Toaplan Arcade Garage: Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli delivers two very important shmups from a very important shmup company. With M2’s porting quality a dead cert, surely all is said and done? Well, not quite, because ‘important’ doesn’t always mean ‘timeless’. And it turns out not every M2 ShotTriggers release is precisely even.
Before your shmupper’s heart sinks, rest assured that this is a title brimming with quality. It just naturally draws comparison with its label-mates, which happen to be the best shooter ports and compilations ever conceived. Shmups being one of the least penetrable genres there are, things have to be a little confusing with Toaplan Arcade Garage’s debut, of course. Because despite the title, you don’t just get myriad versions of that single pair of shooting game idols.
Firstly, if you go with digital, you get a selection of the games that come with the cartridge – but if you yearn for the full sweep, you’ll have to invest in a fair heap of DLC. This review, though, considers the boxed Japanese version, which essentially includes everything available in a single package. That means you get Tiger-Heli’s arcade original, plus Famicom, NES and Genesis ports. Then there’s the arcade version of Kyukyoku Tiger, along with its Famicom, PC Engine and Mega Drive ports, as well as the NES version of Twin Cobra. Each of the games are also available in ‘Super Easy’ modes, along with an arcade variant that offers a bounty of customisation, and an ‘Arcade Challenge’ mode, that breaks up the main games into smaller sections that can be tackled individually. It’s worth noting here that all the natively vertical titles are FlipGrip compatible, unless you’re rocking a Switch OLED, in which case you’ll have to improvise.
And then you get Toaplan’s somewhat middling 1986 scrolling beat ’em up Guardian (known as Get Star in Japan), and a download code for the curious 1991 arcade tile puzzler Teki Paki. It’s not absolutely clear why, but the assumption is that the Toaplan Arcade Garage series might tuck a few oddities in with the big-name releases in its effort to deliver as many titles from Toaplan’s past as possible.
Tiger-Heli is certainly a classic, and there is plenty of fun to be had exploring the different ports, all of which appear spot on — right down to the flaws of some console editions. It hasn’t aged perfectly, though, and feels somewhat a slog compared to its contemporaries. Tiger-Heli is a stalwart of it’s era, but that era itself hasn’t aged flawlessly. It is a reminder of a different time and certainly serves to spotlight how far the genre has come.
Twin Cobra, meanwhile, brings much more pace and excitement. It will likely not convert you if you are exclusively a fan of bullet hell, but if you have a taste for purebred military shooters as seen with the likes of Capcom’s 1942 series and later works such as Strikers 1945 and Toaplan’s own Fire Shark, there’s an ample amount to enjoy here. The same goes for anybody that brims with nostalgia for ’80s gaming. Indeed, Twin Cobra serves as a reminder that, relative to bullet hell, straight up military shooters are something of a forgotten form, with so many contemporary devs focussing on danmakus.
Playing the arcade port today also highlights the fact that Twin Cobra was remarkably ahead of its time with regard to intricacy, gameplay flow and its technical abilities, and it still stands out today thanks to its lively energy. There is a little too much idle time that breaks the rhythm of playing a credit — the transition between stages is painfully laboured — but it remains a gem of its era that played a key role in the emergence of bullet hell.
Clearly, then, the opening volume of Toaplan Arcade Games brings two very important games, even if neither are quite so timeless as the creations that came in the years that followed: Batsugun, DoDonPachi and their ilk. The port quality, meanwhile, is as finely tuned as the M2 ShotTriggers label suggests. And yet there is a lack of truly new modes — the engrossing and genuinely undemanding Super Easy modes do much to shift the dynamic by upper player ship speed, presenting a more welcoming challenge while doing what they can to inherit some of the vanilla version’s excitement. And yet Toaplan Arcade Garage’s first outing contains no bona fide new arrangements. Meanwhile, there appear to be a few less settings options across the entire package.
It’s worth noting here that across the menus and game guide text of this import, Japanese language dominates almost entirely, and there is a lot. You won’t need to read Japanese at all to play the games themselves, but navigating the deeper menus and options might require searching for a translation or two.
Again, all of this is a comparison to M2’s masterwork ports. Toaplan Arcade Garage: Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli presents a very high quality and expansive port of two pivotally important shmups. But if the studio’s ESP.Ra.De was a celebration of the game’s past as well as a modernisation of its potential, Toaplan Arcade Garage: Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli is more of a straight down the line archival release. Though it should be said that when compared side-by-side, it very much betters the now highly collectible PS1 release Toaplan Shooting Battle 1, which focuses on the same two lead games, and can set you back a three-figure sum.
Guardian brings extra content, but little particularly special within its familiar form. Its two-button punch-and-kickfest feels almost charmingly basic now, rather than magnificently minimal and pure. There is a link with Twin Cobra, at least. Guardian marked artists Kōetsu Iwabuchi’s first work in games before he went on to create Twin Cobra’s impressive styling. Teki Paki, meanwhile, failed commercially on launch, and today feels rather too conventional to be truly exciting, even if it was somewhat distinct in its day.
M2’s clearing out of the Toaplan garage is, inevitably, turning up icons, gems and oddities. If this compilation sets the standard, then there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the time the series makes Toaplan heavy hitters such as Dogyuun, Tatsujin, Out Zone, Same! Same! Same! and the one we’re all waiting for, Batsugun. You can just expect them to jostle for cartridge space with the likes of much lesser known creations.