I guess this should probably say my ‘favourite’ rather than the best rail shooters ever made. With Crimson Dragon free via Games With Gold this month, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the rail shooters that I love the most. It’s not that I dislike Crimson Dragon – it’s actually okay- it’s just that, given the hardware, I hoped for so much more from a next-gen rail shooter.
It’s a genre I think that doesn’t really get much attention these days, but one I have always had a real soft spot for. Free from the need to offer players complete freedom, they can compensate with beautiful design and providing an exhilarating journey.
Few games exemplify this idea more than;
Panzer Dragoon Orta
Xbox – 2002
I guess this is the real reason I’m starting this whole list. As much as Crimson Dragon’s is enjoyable – it’s always going to be compared to this. Fact is Panzer Dargoon Orta is not just a better game, but it’s a better looking game. No mean feat given that Crimson Dragon is two hardware generations clear of Orta.
Orta’s locations are gorgeous – even when desolate – the design is always on point, delivering a game world with real atmosphere. Better yet, the stages themselves are designed in such a way that, while certain dragon types work best for certain situations, there’s still a little wiggle room for player preference. Remember that this was a launch year title on Xbox – given that its design is so striking, even now, speaks volumes for what Smilebit achieved.
I’m hesitant to say it’s the best Rail Shooter ever made, but it’s certainly always at the forefront of my mind.
House of the Dead 2
Dreamcast – 1999
I have such fond memories of this game that I had to put it on the list. It’s certainly been surpassed in recent years by Overkill and Umbrella Chronicles – but for me House of the Dead 2 has a certain charm that brings me back for a replay time and time again.
Maybe it’s the terrible dialogue, you Dogs of the AMS? 😉 Or maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for the this era of Sega graphics. That kind of clean, vibrant and sharp look – even on games that were meant to be grubby-looking. Back then Sega had a knack for making games that looked solid and chunky and they had a certain… way, with their textures and design that, for me, makes their games more timeless somehow.
Anyway, I digress, House of the Dead 2 was a a slick Rail Shooter in it’s day – fast-paced, varied, with great enemy placement and a pretty steep difficulty. Getting through this on your own is actually a pretty tall order unless you’ve got the stages memorised pretty well, as such it’s one best played with a friend.
If you’re a Wii U owner, then I’d recommend picking up House of the Dead 2 and 3 – you can find it dead cheap now, and both are solid ports that are perfectly serviceable with the Wii Remote.
N64 – 1999
With Pokemon Snap, Nintendo took the rail shooter template and did to it, what they do best. They twisted it, and bent it and enriched it to create a game that felt at once familiar and yet completely refreshing.
The basics were simple. You’re in a cart with your camera trundling around Pokemon Island. As you travel, different Pokemon pop out and you have to take photographs of them, rather than kill them. Where Pokemon Snap really excelled is in how it got you to experiment with the Pokemon you saw – by throwing apples to them (or at them), pesterball and the pokeflute to get different reactions from them, or trigger different events for you to photograph.
You’d then get your photo’s rated by Professor Oak. Putting aside the fact that Oak had all the artistic sensibility of a dead Pidgey, Pokemon Snap, at the time, was like nothing else out there and was a great indication of the level of invention that could be achieved with the rail shooter template.
This is certainly one of the best Rail Shooters ever made – and a game that’s crying out for a sequel. Surely, with the WiiU’s second screen, the time is perfect for Pokemon Snap to get its much-deserved sequel?
Dreamcast – 2002
There isn’t a rail shooter out there which is more perfectly aligned with my personal tastes. I’ve always been more ‘electronica’ than ‘rock’ – more ‘Bladerunner’ than ‘Lord of the Rings’. Rez’s distinctive neon visuals and incredible soundtrack made for a shooter that I obsessed over for weeks until I had perfected every stage.
For me it’s one of those few ‘perfect’ games. Small, short lived – yes – but oh-so-perfectly formed. There’s nothing you could say that’s wrong with it – it sets out to deliver a certain kind of experience and absolutely nails it.
It also houses one of my favourite boss encounters from any game ever – the Area 4 running man.
It’s a game that I’ll continue to come back to time and again. If you’ve not played it, then you absolutely should – download the Xbox 360 version on XBLA , it’s the best version available.
Mega Drive – 1994
This is a game that never made it out of Japan, and came towards the end of the Mega Drive’s life. I originally picked this up at up at my local store purely because of the boxart – which back then was kind of a stupid risk to take, because imports were really, REALLY expensive.
I was kind of blown away by it when I brought it home – not because the game was great as such, but because it was making the Mega Drive do things that I never thought possible – effects that I’d always though were reserved exclusively for the SNES. Sure, the Mega Drive didn’t have the same colour pallet as the SNES, but towards the end of its life it proved it could certainly punch above it’s weight in the right hands. I struggle to think of a single game on the Mega Drive which can better Panorama Cotton on a technical level.
Mercifully, it was a great little shooter too. Think Space Harrier but with a lovely, dreamy anime aesthetic. It also have some great additional little gameplay elements to it too – you could upgrade your shot power and also cast different spells (though some were practically useless) as well as change the speed at which you traveled.
I think there were two other ‘Cotton’ games released on Dreamcast and Saturn, but I’ve never played them. Anyone know if they’re any good?
Sin and Punishment
N64 – 2000
I can’t say Treasure have never made a bad game anymore, because I’ve played Dragon Drive D Masters Shot – but at the time that Sin And Punishment came out, I was certainly in the camp that thought this developer could do no wrong. After Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Heady and Mischief Makers I already knew I would be importing this. It was a game that far exceeded my expectations.
Yasushi Suzuki art and design is awesome throught – but then that’s always going to be a given right? The journey you’re taking is long and varied, intense and exhausting. From the moment your alarm goes off to the final battle atop the earth, you’ve battled everything from giant crabs to whole fleets of ships on top of a floating piece of junk – all taking in a wide range of camera perspectives, making it feel incredibly cinematic.
Sin and Punishment’s crowing achievement, however, is its controls. Rolls and double jumps. Lock-on or manual aim asking you to sacrifice precision for power and a close quarters attack, which allows you to slice at enemies up close and, even better, send rocket projectiles back at the enemy.
The controls might make you feel a little flustered for the first ten minutes, but with practice you become a laser-skipping, rocket-deflecting badass.
Sin And Punishment is undoubtedly one of the best rail shooters ever made – at a push, I’d say this probably tops Panzer Dragoon Orta for me, at least in so far as it had a bigger impact on me at the time of it’s release.
N64 – 1997
Or Star Fox 64 if you lived in Japan or the the US.
While I enjoyed the original Star Fox, it was Lylat Wars that really cemented my love of the rail shooter. Like so much of the N64’s best output – the 3D in this game felt really chunky and solid, collisions felt right – the impact of your lasers against enemy targets felt like they were really doing damage.
I particularly loved the fact that you could change the path of your journey by completing specific tasks mid-level too, I also really liked the landmaster stages – though the submarine stage less so, I must admit.
There are some really memorable set pieces in this game (one of my all time favourite rail shooter stages is the train level) and the scoring system (which saw you earn extra kills for using the splash of your charged shot) made replaying levels really compulsive.
It also made it all the more infuriating that there wasn’t a level select – a real dirty fly in an otherwise, soothing ointment.
Xbox 360 – 2011
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But really, my love for Gal-Gun has nothing to do with the sexiness actually – but because it’s another example of the Rail Shooter genre taking the basic template and changing it into something which isn’t about killing perople, zombies or spaceships.
Gal-Gun is an absolutely ludicrous premise – ALL THE GIRLS in school want a piece of you, so you have to fend them off with love, while trying to get the girl you really want – and it delivers it in a game so outrageously colourful that you can’t help but feel deliriously happy while you play. You just don’t get games that have their happiness levels set this high. You just don’t.
I own the Xbox 360 version of this, so you have to play using the pad, which never feels ideal, it must be said. The PS3 version is Move compatible (as well as being region free) so you if you’re curious, then that’s the version to go for. Be aware that there’s a lot of story text to skip though – but then you’re not buying this for the plot, right?! 😉
3DO – 1995
I have a ‘thing’ for flat un-textured polygons. Seriously, there’s something about them that’s really aesthetically pleasing to me. They age so much better than their badly textured counterparts. I will always find games like Starblade appealing, no matter how old they get.
This is the one Rail Shooter that I never actually owned myself. If I wanted to play it, I’d have to go to my friends house who’s parents had a US Panasonic 3DO, which, at the time, was an absurdly decadent thing to own. Combined with a home cinema system which was so big and in your face, it made this pretty average rail-shooter seem like ‘The Future’.
I’m not sure the best way to play this game now – there was a PS Once version (which has been ‘upgraded’ with textures, ugh) and an iOS version that comes with Namco Arcade, but I hear it’s kinda sucky.
Actually, if it’s so average, why is it on this list?
Good Question. If I remove it, it will even make this a ‘Top Ten best rail shooters’ article, but it will also mean I’ve got nothing to show for the last four and a half minutes of typing. So I’m leaving it in.
PS Vita – 2014
Is it really a Rail Shooter? I’m going with ‘yes’, if only to mix up this articles content a little. 🙂
If you’d asked me six months ago, the hugely divisive Space Giraffe by Jeff Minter, would be in the place of TxK. Jeff Minter’s been playing around with the Tempest template for a very long time – and here he’s really managed to perfect it.
Personally, I think this is the best game he, and his partner Ivan Zorzin, have ever produced. Perfect slippery controls with the right amount of inertia propel you left and right atop each stages’ mesh while enemies slowly work their way towards you – exploding into fountains of color, bursting and pulsating at your eyes from the Vita’s lovely OLED screen.
There are nice little sub-systems at work too, like a little drone that attacks on your behalf, the ability to jump from the mesh, smart-bomb your way out of trouble and bend shots a little left and right. Ignore them if you like, or embrace them if you want to start working your scores up.
Best of all though, this is the perfect game to zone out to with a decent pair of headphones. Rez looks like the kind of game you can do that with, but you can’t really- it requires too much conscious thought. TxK is more hypnotic. As though you have to let your unconscious do the work if you’re going to play at your best.
It’s always a decent price on PSN – if you have a Vita, then it would be a mistake not to buy this.
Gamecube – 2007
You could easily forget that this is a rail shooter – but it really is. You can only move in two directions, forward and back, the path very much pre-determined – with just a few branching path options to select. At intervalls you’ll hear a laugh and have to switch to first person mode in order to dispatch the enemies who come at you, shooter style.
It is, absolutely, a rail shooter. But with puzzles, and some truly bizarre set pieces (shoot a man’s brain while he adjusts his partners tie!) and a compelling narrative and a constant, disconcerting atmosphere, memorable characters and one of the most distinctive visual styles a game has ever seen.
Oh, and it has an awesome twist at the end. Those who play and finish it (that’s the important bit with Killer 7) can’t fail to love it. It was the game that really put Suda 51 on the map and personally, I think he’s yet to better it.
Also: it also has the best walking up and down stairs music ever.
And that’s the end. Feel free to tell me which game’s I’ve criminally overlooked in the comments section below. You know you want to.
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