Before we dive in to the wonderful world of Trouble Shooter, a brief preamble as to what this new column is all about.
You know what’s great? Shoot ’em ups. They’ve been around literally since the dawn of gaming, and they’ve managed to survive even amid the advancing technology of the medium over the years.
A shoot ’em up provides the sort of primal thrills you don’t often get from today’s big-budget, high-profile games. They’re intense tests of your skill, dexterity and memorisation abilities — and your reward is spectacular, over-the-top chaos that you played a significant role in creating. Or, at the very least, a memorably bizarre experience.
Not only that, they’re endlessly replayable; you can always improve on your best score, try and make a bit more progress through the game as a whole — or take aim for those elusive one-credit and no-miss clears that are the final goal for many enthusiasts!
With that in mind, it’s time to kick off a new Rice Regular! Blissful Death, named after one of Cave’s famous DoDonPachi games (specifically DoDonPachi DaiOuJou) is a weekly column that aims to explore the rich and varied array of shoot ’em ups that are available in today’s marketplace — as well as some from times gone by that deserve a bit more attention.
We’re going to kick off with one of the latter since, frankly, I’ve been absolutely hooked on it for the last week and I would absolutely love to see it get a modern rerelease — are you listening, Evercade folks? Let’s get blastin’!
Trouble Shooter is a shoot ’em up for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, produced by Vic Tokai and released in North America in 1991, with a Japanese release following in 1992. The Japanese version is known as Battle Mania and has a number of substantial differences to the game script, character names and even some sprites used throughout, but plays identically.
Exactly how did the game end up getting released in North America first when it’s a Japanese game that is very obviously an homage to the equally Japanese light novel, anime and manga series Dirty Pair? You may well wonder, and there doesn’t seem to be an official record of what went down anywhere, but we can make a few inferences.
The North American version features a startup screen that features a synthesised version of the iconic “Se-Ga” jingle (as made famous by Sonic the Hedgehog’s vocal rendition) as well as Sega branding plastered all over the intermission screens between levels; the Japanese version, meanwhile, omits the latter as well as the “Licensed by Sega” text from the title screen — though it does keep the introductory jingle.
Both versions were published by Vic Tokai themselves rather than Sega, however, suggesting that there was once a publishing agreement with Sega in place, but something fell through at the last minute, leading Vic Tokai to release the finished localised version themselves before taking a few months to tweak the Japanese version and remove the most obvious branding.
All this ultimately doesn’t matter all that much so far as the game itself is concerned — but it is interesting to contemplate when you consider that the game’s script and character names vary quite considerably between the North American and Japanese versions; the peculiarities surrounding this game’s release actually make it quite tricky to determine whether the apparently “localised” English script came first, or if the Japanese version was still written first despite releasing later.
Either way, we’ll be referring to the game by its English name Trouble Shooter, and making use of the character names from therein from hereafter. Just so you know.
In Trouble Shooter, you take on the role of Madison (Mania Ohtorii in the Japanese version) and Crystal (Maria Haneda in Japan). The not-so-dirty pair are Trouble Shooters, which means they’re warriors-for-hire, and as the game starts they’ve been recruited to track down a missing prince who has been kidnapped by nefarious forces.
Thus begins a mission to blast through the enemy forces, take down a series of superweapons along the way and ultimately rescue the prince. Maybe even finding time for a bit of shopping along the way — those boots were still on sale last time Madison looked, after all.
Trouble Shooter’s unique gimmick is that you control both Madison and Crystal at once — or, more accurately, you control Madison and Crystal follows along in formation. Madison always fires to the right of the screen, while Crystal can be switched between firing right or left with the tap of a button. This allows you to not only hit enemies coming from behind you, but also to double your frontal firepower when the occasion demands it.
Mastering how to handle Crystal is an important part of getting to grips with Trouble Shooter. Only Madison is vulnerable to bullets and collisions with enemies, so with careful use of the scenery you can sometimes deliberately get Madison “stuck” and send the invincible Crystal ahead to deal with incoming threats. Make sure you reunite the pair before it’s too late, though — this is a game where getting “squished” by the scrolling screen means instant death!
Madison’s default weapon fires bullets straight ahead of her, and picking up power-up icons can increase its strength to provide a wider firing arc and, eventually, detaching a weapon module from her back to spin around her and provide additional firepower. Crystal, meanwhile, always fires barrages of wave-like blasts in the direction she’s facing, and does not power up as Madison does.
Prior to each stage, you’re able to choose between several different subweapons; these take the place of bombs from more conventional shoot ’em ups, but they’re only limited by their charge level rather than the quantity you have on hand. The weapon can be unleashed at any time the charge level is full — though attempting to trigger it too early will short it out and require you to charge up again.
The subweapons cater for a variety of play styles. A lightning blast calls down powerful columns of electricity at random locations on screen; a laser wave sticks around for a few seconds and can be manually moved left and right to obliterate specific targets; a “blizzard” attack rapidly spins around the pair in ever-expanding circles, potentially hitting everything on screen in the process.
The nice thing is that there’s no “correct” way to play Trouble Shooter; if you particularly favour one of the weapons, you can stick with it for the whole game. If you fancy some variety, you can switch it up between every stage — the choice is yours.
That said, don’t count on being able to breeze through the whole game; Trouble Shooter may not start tough, but it amps up the difficulty relatively sharply from its second stage onwards.
Adding to the challenge factor is the fact that Madison only has one life — though she has a health bar, with each stage offering quite a few generous opportunities to top it up — and only three credits with which to get through the game. This means that you’re not going to be able to brute-force your way to the end of this one — you’re going to have to actually get good if you want to see the ending.
Opinions vary on this, but for my personal taste I prefer this way of doing things. Trouble Shooter was built for the home rather than the arcade, so it is rather well-balanced throughout, with no difficulty spikes that feel particularly unfair despite the relatively sharp challenge curve on the whole. And, knowing that, most players will determine that with enough practice they will be able to make it to the end with those three credits — and eventually with just one.
Contrast with the absurd difficulty of some arcade-first titles even on their easiest difficulty levels — a bit of design intended less to challenge and more to get people to dig deep for more pocket change — and it’s clear that Trouble Shooter hasn’t been designed in a cynical manner. It challenges you to get better, but it doesn’t taunt you with seemingly insurmountable obstacles; as such, seeing that ending will feel all the sweeter when you know you got there without using infinite continues.
Within each individual stage, Trouble Shooter offers plenty of variety. The first stage feels fairly conventional for a horizontal scrolling shoot ’em up — though it deliberately puts a few scenery obstacles in the way to remind you that you need to pay attention to your surroundings more than in some other titles. The second stage scrolls vertically as Madison and Crystal descend into a factory, avoiding sawblades and heavy machinery. The third sees the pair orbiting a battleship, blowing bits off it as they go — and so on.
As you progress, you’ll notice various ways to help keep Madison and Crystal safe. Many bullets can be shot down, for example, and the same is often true for dangerous scenery elements. A good rule of thumb is that if it can hurt you, you can probably hurt it right back — and you should do so as much as possible. As you proceed through the game, this makes for a pleasantly dynamic feel to the combat.
Bosses, too, are great fun; the first stage’s giant laughing superhero-inspired robot is more of a joke boss than anything but is well-animated and enjoyable to fight — and the visible “Ha Ha Ha” onomatopoeia is a delightful comedic touch. Other highlights include the secret weapon of the third stage’s battleship: an enormous metallic robot atop what can only be described as a gigantic exercise bike… with cannons attached, of course.
Trouble Shooter displays a great understanding of what makes a good shoot ’em up great. Not only does it provide plenty of memorable setpieces that are fun to experience time and time again, it also recognises that in order to keep people coming back, the core gameplay needs to be polished to a fine sheen, too.
And it certainly is at that. Trouble Shooter is a supremely fun shoot ’em up that is highly accessible to genre newcomers or those who lack confidence and skills; meanwhile, there’s plenty here to keep veterans interested, too, with the different possible strategies the subweapons offer, the pursuit of ever-greater high scores and, of course, those all-important one-credit and no-miss clears.
It’s just a shame it costs nearly three hundred quid on eBay these days. Now, about that Evercade version…?
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