I’d been kind of curious about 1985’s Savage Bees — or Exed Exes as it’s known in Japan — for quite some time. After all, it’s one of the games most frequently seen being cross-promoted in other Capcom titles via default high score table entries, so presumably there must be something special about it.
Oddly, despite its name appearing so often in other Capcom titles, it’s not a game that appears to be particularly popular or well-known. There’s not a lot of historical information recorded about it, and it’s not a title that gets many callbacks in more recent Capcom titles — though one of the supposed player characters (who are not actually seen during the game itself) makes a cameo appearance in Project X Zone 2.
In Savage Bees (as we shall refer to it hereafter, as that’s the default English name seen in Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium), you take on the role of Colonel Issue (with a second player optionally taking on the role of Sergeant Issue) as you attempt to rescue the planet NEG-NIN from the evil insectoid forces known as Exes. What this essentially amounts to is shooting a lot of bees. A lot of bees.
Savage Bees is a vertically scrolling Tate-oriented shoot ’em up. Many see it as a spiritual successor to 1984’s Vulgus — which we’ll get to as part of the first Capcom Arcade Stadium in due course — though it actually runs on the same hardware as the all-time classic and super-influential 1942. It looks and feels quite distinct from its predecessors, though, thanks to its high-resolution graphics (for the time) and solid use of smooth parallax scrolling to provide an illusion of depth to the scenery.
Savage Bees is also noteworthy for being one of the earliest shoot ’em ups to allow simultaneous two-player action. While the vast majority of two-player games in the early ’80s simply allowed two players to take turns and compete for score, Savage Bees allowed both players to play at the same time, either competing against one another or supporting one another about the ever-intensifying hordes of bees.
Savage Bees is one of those games that starts off looking pretty simple, but as you start to get to grips with things, you realise that attaining the best scores is very much about learning the enemy attack patterns and prioritising the formations that give you a bonus for eliminating all of them. Rather than flinging enemies at you randomly, Savage Bees is very much scripted, meaning it can be learned, practiced and perfected over time.
It takes a bit of time to get used to in a few ways, though — most notably from the fact that it’s very fond of attacking you from behind. Normally in vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups this is a cardinal sin, since the player will likely be spending a lot of time in the lower portion of the screen, but here it somehow never seems to become a major issue.
The enemies that show up in this way are of the weakest variety and you can easily see them coming — it also looks like they might specifically spawn in such a way that they don’t simply plough into the back of the player without warning. What they do achieve, however, is getting the player out of that lower quadrant of the screen and dealing with stuff that is further up the playfield — which can make for some interesting situations when the bullets are a-flyin’.
Like most early ’80s shoot ’em ups, Savage Bees might not look particularly intense at first glance, but it takes skill, good reactions and good observation to be able to negotiate the incoming fire and swarms of enemies. You’re also clearly expected to make fairly liberal use of your bombs; when you first start playing, these seem massively ineffective in that they don’t actually destroy anything on screen, but as soon as you twig they’re actually intended for bullet cancelling — and you build up a substantial stock of them as you play — then the rhythm of the game changes quite a bit.
Savage Bees’ bosses are quite interesting, too, in that they’re essentially just collections of ground installations on a floating platform, with occasional enemy waves swooping in to make life a bit difficult for you. Again, making good use of bombs during these encounters can make life a little easier — as can prioritising the most dangerous targets to minimise the amount of bullets you’ll have to be dodging at any given moment.
There’s a few power-ups to collect in Savage Bees. An unadorned “Pow” icon simply turns all on-screen enemies into bonus fruit; these icons frequently appear in so-called “Hi-Point Areas”, which tend to emphasise higher value enemies and formations. The enemies aren’t actually worth any more than they are normally; it’s simply that the specific enemies that appear in these areas are worth more points.
Alongside the screen-clearing “Pow” icon is one mounted on a red sphere. This increases the power of your ship’s shots, making the bullets larger and allowing them to fire further up the screen. By default, your shots are affected by “gravity”, meaning that they will hit the ground before flying off the top of the screen; by collecting power-ups, you can fire further up the screen before your shots dissipate, which can make dealing with some of the more complex formations and bosses much easier.
You have to be careful, though, because there’s also a power-down icon — and for those accustomed to seeing Capcom’s iconic “Yashichi” ninja star symbol as a power-up, don’t run into it here, because it’s actually an enemy!
Savage Bees is a fun game, but much like many of Capcom’s earlier shoot ’em ups its main problem for credit-feeding players is that it goes on for far too long. There’s nowhere near enough variety between the levels to justify it being 16 rather long stages in length — though this does at least provide a fairly stiff challenge for those who enjoy pursuing one-credit clears.
Like titles such as 1943, Savage Bees is instead perhaps best approached as a single-credit score attack game, and indeed like all the other games in Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium, the Score Challenge Mode is ready and available for you to play at any time, allowing you to compete against worldwide rivals. This is probably the most enjoyable way to approach the game, because it also makes it clear and easy to see how you’re improving over time.
Savage Bees is enjoyable, but I came away from it none the wiser as to why Capcom promoted it so frequently in other games’ high score tables. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about it, nor is it held up by modern commentators as a particularly influential or noteworthy game for anything other than its simultaneous two-player mode.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing, mind; if you enjoy this sort of simple early ’80s shooter, Savage Bees is as good as any out there. Just don’t expect a particularly life-changing experience!
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