Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha and Bravo review – what’s shmup, doc?

Two collections of classic 2D shooters, including Strikers 1945 and Gunbird come to Switch, but do they have anything to offer non-fans?

The success of the Nintendo Switch has been a surprise on a number of levels, from becoming the format of choice for the majority of indie developers to playing host to a number of highly demanding third party ports, from Doom to The Witcher 3. But one thing it was clearly born to play is vertical-scrolling 2D shooters, which just so happens to be the focus of these two compilations and our favourite genre of retro game.

Psikyo was a Japanese arcade maker in the 90s, with many of the team starting off by working on Sonic Wings (aka Aero Fighters) before starting up their own studio. They were bought out and shut down in the early 2000s, but not before leaving behind a host of acclaimed 2D shooters (and some grotty soft porn mah-jong games). Their most famous franchises are Gunbird, Strikers 1945, and Zero Gunner but they produced more than enough quality games in their short lifespan to fill out two compilations – Alpha and Bravo – without too much filler.

Of course, if you want to be cynical about it the reason why they were able to pump out so many games is that most of them share a lot of very similar gameplay and graphics. From always having to shoot the red aeroplanes/robots/ninja to get a power-up to the famous (within certain circles) ‘second loop’ structure where the unusually mild difficulty of the first playthrough is suddenly ramped up on the second go around if you beat it.

Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha review

The games included in Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha are the three Strikers 1945 games, Sol Divide, Dragon Blaze, and Zero Gunner 2. Strikers 1945 is heavily influenced by Capcom’s 1942 series but with a more fantastical bent, where relatively realistic blimps and tanks always seem to have a final form that’s a transforming robot. Despite their hardcore credentials, Psikyo games are never punishingly hard, at least at first, and while they do have elements of bullet hell they’re not quite that abstract either.

The result is a near perfect blend of old and new influences, in a game that’s challenging but not offputtingly difficult. Surprisingly, the two sequels are not only just as good but manage to feel quite different, especially the third one, which switches time period to the modern day (or rather 1999). It’s also the first time the third entry has been released on a home console, whereas the others are all available individually already.

It’s cheaper to buy them all together as part of this compilation but the problem is that it really is just the games. There’s no museum mode to explain who Psikyo were or provide a historical context for any of the games – or an explanation for why Strikers 1945 Plus (a remake of the second game) and Zero Gunner 1 aren’t included.

It’s a shame because the games deserve the attention and Dragon Blaze is another particularly good one. At first it just seems to be Strikers 1945 but with a fantasy setting but there’s a neat complication with your dragon, where you can use it a bit like the Force from R-Type and shoot it out in front of you and leave it in position onscreen, leaving your rider more vulnerable in the meantime.

Zero Gunner 2 is another unusual one in that you’re flying a helicopter that you can rotate around 360° by holding down a button. This takes some getting used to, but the game makes full use of the ability in the stage design, with enemies appearing from every part of the screen and not just floating in from the top every time.

The only dud in the collection is Sol Divide, and that’s not just because it’s the only horizontally scrolling one. It’s a shame, because it is trying to do something different, with some minor role-playing elements and what is essentially melee combat. But the digitised graphics are horrendously ugly and the pace of action slow and uninteresting.

Score: 8/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £35.99
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Zerodiv and Psikyo
Release Date: 24th January 2020
Age Rating: 12

Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo review

As you might imagine, Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo is the same basic set-up as the first collection. Which means you get absolutely nothing beyond the games themselves, with no save states, rewind options, or any of the other comforts of most modern re-releases. Although given the obscurity of Psikyo we can’t honestly say we’re surprised or all that upset. Some artwork and bonus features would’ve been nice, but the important thing is that the emulation is very good and so, in general, are the games.

That said, Alpha is clearly the superior of the two collections as the three Strikers 1945 games and Dragon Blaze represent Psikyo at their very best. Gunbird 1 and 2 are the highlights in the second collection, with the sequel being one of the few Psikyo titles that may be relatively well known for Western games thanks to its Dreamcast port. Again, it works essentially the same as Strikers 1945, but has some of the best graphics Psikyo ever put out (despite being a relatively early game for them) and a fun mix of fantasy and sci-fi tropes that results in some interestingly odd-looking enemies.

There’s also a third Gunbird game, in the form of weird Breakout clone Gunbarich, which we’ve never heard of before this. It tries to mix Arkanoid with pinball but isn’t really much fun, given how long you can be left watching the ball rattle around the screen without you even touching it.

The other focus of the collection is the Samurai Aces series, which includes Tengai (aka Sengoku Blade) and Samurai Aces 3 (aka Sengoku Cannon). As you might imagine, the theme is Japanese folklore, with lots of yōkai inspired enemies as well as samurai, ninja, and, err… giant robots. The first entry is a typical Psikyo vertically-scrolling shooter but the second is horizontal and unlike most of their other side-scrolling games is actually a lot of fun. The third game though was not actually developed by Psikyo and was originally a PSP title, complete with some now very old-fashioned looking 3D backdrops.

We should also mention that we’ve been playing most of these games using third party peripheral the Flip Grip. It’s a square of plastic that lets you hold the Switch screen vertically in tate (Japanese for vertical) mode, with the Joy-Cons attached to the left and right. It’s the ideal way to play vertically-scrolling shooters and while there still aren’t that many on the Switch it’s less than £10, not including postage from the US, and perfect for Psikyo games and other shooter classics such as Radiant Silvergun.

As for the Psikyo Shooting Stars, we’d recommend the Alpha collection to almost anyone, as long they know what they’re getting themselves into. The lack of ancillary content is a shame but the games themselves are surprisingly accessible and a good introduction to the genre for newbies. Although Gunbird is great, the Bravo collection is far less essential and should have either had more games or a lower price. It’s great to see an almost forgotten developer like this be remembered though and even better to find out that the majority of their games really do stand the test of time.

Score: 7/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £35.99
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Zerodiv and Psikyo
Release Date: 21st February 2020
Age Rating: 7

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