We’ve covered various releases from Blaze’s Evercade retro gaming platform on numerous occasions in the past here on Rice Digital, but one of the newest cartridges will doubtless be of particular interest to our readership. The Renovation Collection 1 cartridge features a range of excellent Japanese retro games that are enormously expensive to collect in their original format today, and so over the course of the next couple of weeks we’ll be taking a look at each of them. Up first is Gaiares, an excellent but challenging shoot ’em up with an interesting twist… and one of the strangest villain names of all time.
In Gaiares, which was originally released for Mega Drive in 1990, you take on the role of Dan Dare — no, not the Mekon-bashing jolly good time hero from the Eagle comic, for those of you old enough to remember that — who, in true shoot ’em up tradition, is tasked with saving the Earth.
This time around, the Earth is proper fucked, having had almost all of its life completely obliterated by pollution and environmental disasters — and what’s worse, a terrorist group known as Gulfer (led by the gloriously named space MILF Zz Badnusty) is moving in, hoping to make use of a planet’s worth of toxic waste to make new weapons.
There is hope, though; the mysterious Leezaluth race managed to contact humanity, and offered them an opportunity: defeat Gulfer and prevent them building up their toxic weaponry stocks, and Leezaluth will restore the Earth to its former, pre-disastrous glory — a sight which no human living right now has ever seen. Fail, however, and Leezaluth will detonate the Sun, wiping out the Earth, humanity and the assembled Gulfer forces in one fell swoop.
Presented with such a compelling non-choice, Dan steps up somewhat hesitantly, though a little more confidently when the immensely cute Alexis from the Leezaluth also provides him with a cool ship to fly. Key to this cool ship is the TOZ system which, it seems, will not only help Dan to take down the Gulfer forces, it will also play a key role in restoring the Earth to glory. Thus Dan’s quest begins, with Alexis taking the controls of the TOZ system — and it’s onward into one of the absolute toughest 16-bit shoot ’em ups you’ll ever play.
Before we talk about the gameplay, it’s worth acknowledging that all that plot isn’t just for show: there’s a substantial and beautifully drawn intro sequence that explains all this in detail. This was a hallmark of games published by Renovation in general, and cutscenes of this astonishingly high quality (particularly when you bear in mind it was the Mega Drive playing host to them) can be found throughout most of the games on the Evercade’s Renovation Collection 1 cartridge.
Gameplay-wise, Gaiares unfolds as a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up that might initially look quite similar to many other shoot ’em ups on the Mega Drive — it bears a particular resemblance to titles like Techno Soft’s classic Thunder Force series and Gley Lancer, for example. But there are a few twists on the usual formula.
The first one you’ll need to get to grips with is the intense difficulty. This is a game that will quite happily obliterate you seconds after you launch into the first level, and it has absolutely no shame in doing so repeatedly if you don’t pay attention to what it is that’s killing you.
As annoying as this might sound, Gaiare’s difficulty isn’t cheap; rather, it’s simply a fairly extreme example of what all shoot ’em ups tend to do, which is demand that you learn and memorise the attack patterns you’ll come up against in any given stage.
Once you’re familiar with where the enemies are going to come from — and you’re able to predict the path their speedy shots are likely to take — you can gradually start making progress a bit at a time, and it’s consistently satisfying to do so. Within just a couple of play sessions I went from “fuck this game” to “damn, I’m really having fun with this” — just be prepared that this transition may take a bit of practice!
Gaiares’ pattern-based nature extends, as you might expect, to its boss confrontations also. Boss fights are heavily based on pattern recognition to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to complete them by playing reactively. You need to understand the visual and auditory cues that indicate what is about to happen, and position yourself on screen accordingly ahead of time; more often than not you’ll find that simply finding a “safe spot” on screen is infinitely more effective than flailing around trying to dodge everything manually, and the very first boss in the game is an excellent lesson in this.
The other part of Gaiares you’ll want to get your head around is its power-up system — or rather its relative lack thereof. While there are a few collectible icons that appear occasionally, these only take one of two forms: a bomb that immediately destroys everything on screen when you grab it, and a very welcome shield that allows you to take a couple of hits before being destroyed. In other words, there are no collectible weapons in Gaiares.
Instead, you need to make use of that mysterious TOZ system, which operates a little like the “Force” in R-Type: it’s a pod that flies around with your ship, fires independently, absorbs bullets and can be shot out ahead of you before pulling it back. Its unique selling point is that if you chuck it out in front of you and hit an enemy with it on the path out, it’ll latch on to the enemy and suck out its weaponry, allowing you to make use of it. An initial TOZ hit like this generally gives you the weapon at half its maximum effectiveness, while hitting the same enemy twice or more in succession powers the weapon up.
The nice thing about Gaiares is that amid all its monstrous difficulty — and quite unlike many other power-up centric shoot ’em ups — the basic weapon isn’t completely useless; indeed, it’s absolutely possible to take down bosses with it. The main benefit that the weaponry from the TOZ system provides is additional range, reach and power; in other words, if you can hold on to a weapon you secured through the TOZ system, you’ll be able to fight more effectively, but you’re by no means left helpless if, say, you die on a boss and have to fight it using just your standard weaponry.
This strikes me as a sign that although Gaiares is quite widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the toughest shoot ’em ups on the Mega Drive, it’s actually balanced quite well. It’s tuned on the higher end of the difficulty scale, for sure, but, as previously noted, it’s by no means difficulty through frustration or cheapness.
Instead, Gaiares is an eminently learnable game that, with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to get to grips with. It is not a game you’re going to beat in a single sitting unless you’re already familiar with it or a particularly seasoned shoot ’em up veteran — nor is it a game you can simply credit-feed your way through, since each death sets you back to a checkpoint and there are a limited number of continues available. Pleasingly, though, continuing resets you to the same checkpoint rather than completely restarting the stage as some other shoot ’em ups do, so it is possible to get some solid practice in on a tough section by using some of those credits.
All in all, your enjoyment of Gaiares is likely to be dependent on your tolerance for games that are immediately and unapologetically unforgiving. There’s no gentle easing the player in with this one; it’s hard right from the outset, and that may well send some people fleeing for the hills — perfectly understandably so.
If you have the patience to actually put in the practice, though, you’ll find that Gaiares is a great shoot ’em up with which to develop your skills — and you may well be surprised how fast you find yourself improving when faced with such a stiff challenge!
And if you need a break… well, just watch that glorious intro again, and revel in the majesty of the one, the only, Zz Badnusty.
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