2289: Blast Off to battle the Bosconian and Battura menace

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A year after the UGSF successfully assaulted Planet Galaga and discovered the technology behind the Hyper Drive, a second wave of Bosconian attacks commenced. And this time around, they brought friends. Sensing an incredible danger from this new threat, the UGSF commenced a new military operation, known as “Operation: Blast Off”, during which they deployed their latest model spacefighter, the Blaster FR.

The Bosconian forces were supported by a mysterious group known as the “Battura”. Little was known about the Battura at this time — and it would be several hundred years later before the Battura themselves would attack humanity directly — but it was clear that they had bolstered the Bosconian forces considerably.

Blast Off

The Blaster FR’s mission this time around was to fend off the incoming Bosconian invasion forces, penetrate the defences of their powerful space platforms, and destroy them from within. And, since previous similar operations had gone so well with a lone pilot in charge of defending the entirety of humanity, the UGSF once again only sent one of them into the fray in order to raise some hell.

Blast Off, as both the title and the narrative setup suggests, is a follow-up to 1981’s Bosconian, released in Japan in 1989. While there are aesthetic and conceptual similarities between the two games, they are actually quite different from one another; while Bosconian was a free-flying multidirectional shooter, Blast Off is a more conventional vertically scrolling shoot ’em up, albeit with a few interesting twists along the way.

Most notable of these is the Blaster FR’s ability to switch between multiple weapon configurations. There are no collectible power-ups in Blast Off, but a tap of the arcade machine’s second button instead allows you to change the Blaster FR’s firing pattern between four different styles and colours. Red shots fire in pairs straight forwards in a spiral pattern; yellow fires three shots in different directions; blue fires two shots in front and behind, similar to the original Bosconian’s Blaster ship; and green fires a different configuration of three shots in multiple directions.

Blast Off

In Blast Off, each major stage is split into several smaller substages — and these vary quite a bit as you progress through the game, with different backgrounds providing a real sense of proceeding on a journey to assault several different Bosconian bases.

The first substage of each stage tends to involve flying through space, fending off enemy formations of various kinds. The enemy formations are fixed each time you play, so it’s possible to learn them; different types of enemies also behave in specific ways, so it’s important to learn how to anticipate the way different incoming enemy formations will behave according to your actions.

As you fly through this initial space stage, you’ll likely come into contact with the hexagon-shaped bases seen in the original Bosconian. Here, they are much tougher to destroy, requiring multiple shots to their core, so it’s often easier to simply avoid them as you pass by. Their appearance also tends to coincide with the appearance of the spy ship from Bosconian, also; when this shows up on screen, you must destroy it before it escapes, lest you suffer a temporary “Condition Red” status, which supplements the enemy attack patterns with mines that explode into missiles that fire in eight directions when you shoot them.

Blast Off

It’s features like this that keep Blast Off feeling consistent with Bosconian despite being a very different game. Blast Off once again accompanies the action with some loud, crunchy digitised speech — though it’s a female voice this time around, and it’s able to pronounce the “R” in “red” properly — and this really adds a sense of drama to the situation, providing a sense of very light unfolding narrative as well as informing you of important gameplay elements that you need to be wary of.

After successfully approaching a Bosconian base in the first substage, you then need to blow off the defences around its entrance. This is a mini boss fight of sorts, usually requiring you to destroy some turrets and fighter-launching hangars; it’s usually over quite quickly, but it does at least provide a sense that the Bosconians are at least putting up a bit of resistance to your one-man assault.

Probably the most interesting substage when compared to other shoot ’em ups is the third one. Here, the view zooms in considerably, showing your ship flying through the internal tunnels of the Bosconian base as you destroy defensive turrets and tanks on your way to blow up the main reactor. There are strong Return of the Jedi vibes to this section — indeed, the presentation is quite similar to Atari Games’ 1984 arcade machine adaptation of the classic Star Wars movie, albeit from a top-down perspective rather than an isometric viewpoint, and thankfully without the perilous pipework one had to avoid in that game.

Blast Off

The “inside” substage concludes with a proper boss fight against the base’s reactor, which tends to involve blasting not only the reactor but also its defensive turrets, and dealing with some of the most intense bullet patterns in the game. Like most of the rest of the game, though, these are heavily pattern-based and can be learned; success therefore becomes dependent on positioning yourself appropriately and making good use of your different firing configurations.

Blow up a Bosconian reactor and there’s a dramatic non-interactive escape sequence as the Blaster FR zips out of the base just in time for it to explode dramatically in the background. And then you go and do it all again — though as previously noted, rather than simply repeating the sequence of stages at a higher difficulty, each new stage does introduce brand new hazards, enemies and backgrounds, providing a sense that you’re actually battling your way through a series of threats rather than simply doing the same thing over and over again.

Blast Off is a great shoot ’em up. It’s obviously very different to Bosconian — to such a degree that many people refuse to acknowledge it as a sequel — but it’s a solid example of the vertically scrolling formula. Its use of player-configurable weapons rather than power-ups adds an interesting quasi-strategic element to the game, particularly when combined with the fixed incoming enemy patterns, and the limited number of shots it’s possible to have on screen at once forces you to think before firing rather than just hammering the fire button willy-nilly.

Blast Off

The presentation is excellent, with some lovely pixel art on both the sprites and backgrounds, and the musical accompaniment to the action is stirring and exciting. In fact, there’s the distinct sense that some later shoot ’em ups might have drawn some inspiration from Blast Off’s soundtrack; there are some strong similarities between the music of Blast Off and some of the tracks heard in shareware/freeware classic Tyrian, for example — though, of course, this may well be coincidence.

All in all, it’s a shame Blast Off never hit arcades outside of Japan, because it’s a fun game, and an entry in Namco’s back catalogue that it’s worth taking a look at if you’ve never encountered it before. Sadly, your options for doing so these days are a tad limited, as at the time of writing it has never appeared in a Namco Museum compilation on any platform, nor has it had an Arcade Archives release on modern systems.

You’re a resourceful bunch, though — I’m sure you know what to do in situations like this, and it’s worth going through the trouble in this instance. You might just find yourself finding a new favourite blaster!

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

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Pete Davison
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