Fire Arrow Plus is caravan shooter heaven

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Fire Arrow Plus is a package I picked up during this year’s Steam sale, and I already like it a great deal, because it’s an example of a subgenre we don’t see all that much these days: the caravan shooter.

A caravan shooter is a distinct type of shoot ’em up that has a very definite appeal. Although most shoot ’em ups tend to be on the fairly short side — a typical arcade title tends to last no more than about 20 minutes or so — caravan shooters are intended to be even more bite-sized. In most cases, they present you with a time limit of three or five minutes, and then simply challenge you to score as many points as possible within those constraints.

Fire Arrow Plus

Why “caravan” shooter? Well, the term stems from when the prolific Hudson Soft (now swallowed up by Konami) used to host time-limited score attack competitions on their games, and these events toured around in a bright yellow van. As such, they became known as caravan events, and even after the events themselves stopped, the game modes used for the competitions stuck around as a distinctive way to enjoy shoot ’em up action under rigid time constraints. Hence, games designed entirely around this principle became known as caravan shooters.

Fire Arrow Plus, a package which was first released in 2017 by Team Grybanser Fox, takes on the caravan shooter formula in style, but still provides plenty of variety and value for players. For starters, you get two games for the price of one — Fire Arrow and its follow-up Fire Arrow X — and both can be played in several different ways.

At their core, both Fire Arrow and Fire Arrow X are about scoring as many points as possible within a three- or five-minute time limit. As with most modern shoot ’em ups, though, it’s not simply about destroying enemies. Greater scores can be achieved by destroying enemies in rapid succession, and pretty much everything you destroy shatters into a shower of collectible medals. These are worth points when you nab them, and at the end of the game you’ll also get a bonus according to how many you picked up — though each time you lose a life, your current total will be halved.

Fire Arrow Plus

Mechanically, both Fire Arrow and Fire Arrow X are largely the same. Rather than featuring collectible powerups to change weapon, you’re able to switch between ship “forms” at any time at the touch of a button, with the basic choice being between a focused blue shot and a wide spread red shot. Fire Arrow X in particular adds some additional options to the mix, but it’s best to try and master the basic blue and red forms first.

As you proceed through the game, certain enemies will drop powerups that increase the strength of your weapon. The focused blue shot becomes more intense and powerful, while the spread shot covers more of the screen. Losing a life causes the power level to drop by one rather than leaving you completely defenceless — which is good, because both Fire Arrow and its follow-up start intense and only continue to ramp things up from there.

You have a couple of additional tricks up your sleeve to help even the odds against the swarms of enemies and their fast-moving bullets. Firstly, you have a conventional shoot ’em up bomb, which behaves as you would expect. But perhaps more interestingly, you have the option to use a bomb stock to unleash a “dual attack”, which summons the ship type you’re not currently using (blue or red) to fight alongside you for a brief period, temporarily increasing your firepower quite considerably. You’re not completely invincible while using this, mind, so you still have to keep an eye on enemy bullets and formations — but it’s a great means of cutting through more powerful enemies when they show up.

Fire Arrow Plus

Fire Arrow is compared by a lot of players to Toaplan’s shooters, particularly those from the company’s later era. This is primarily down to the fact that the enemy bullets fire pretty quickly and have a tendency to “snipe” you — a characteristic feature of many Toaplan shoot ’em ups since Tiger-Heli, their very first title. Both Fire Arrow and its follow-up do make use of the modern bullet hell convention of having a tiny hitbox, however, so it’s a little easier to dodge than it might initially appear.

Handling will take a bit of getting used to, even if you’re a Toaplan veteran and especially if you’re more accustomed to Toaplan’s earlier titles with deliberately slow-moving player craft. The ship in both Fire Arrow and Fire Arrow X is very twitchy on its default settings, which is good for quickly getting out of the way of tricky situations, but can potentially force you into danger if you’re not careful.

Thankfully, the ship speed — along with a variety of other game variables — can be customised in the game’s comprehensive options screen, allowing you to tweak the exact way the game plays to your personal preferences. It’s not necessarily going to make the experience easier, but you can experiment a bit and see how you prefer to play if the default settings aren’t quite to your liking.

Fire Arrow Plus

Fire Arrow and its sequel are presented very nicely, with lovely chunky pixel art and an excellent Mega Drive-style soundtrack accompanying the action. Scaling and rotation effects on enemies look authentically retro and, aside from some occasional juddering in the background scrolling (which is barely noticeable when you’re focusing on the smooth, intense action going on in the foreground) the action performs well, feeling very much like a lost 16-bit home console title.

Fire Arrow Plus is not necessarily a package I would recommend to shoot ’em up newbies or those still learning the ropes, because it starts off difficult and only gets harder. Randomised elements mean that you can’t just memorise the two games, though there are plenty of fixed elements that you can learn to prepare in advance for also.

The sheer amount of chaos happening on screen at any one time can sometimes mean it feels like it’s hard to see what’s going on — but after a bit of play you’ll find that you can respond instinctively to what’s going on without having to look at your ship directly. The two games are experiences where, if you can get over the initial difficulty walls, you’ll likely find yourself improving quite quickly — and their short-form nature makes practicing your skills simple and highly addictive.

Fire Arrow Plus

So if you’re after a shooter that’s great for firing up during a coffee break and you don’t mind it kicking your arse a bit, Fire Arrow Plus is a solid choice. If you get in quick on the day this article is published, you’ll even be able to score it for less than a quid as the Steam sale draws to a close. So stop hanging around here and g’wan, git!

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Pete Davison
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