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Run 'n' Gun History Book: first-look sample!
The first draft's done - woo!
Hey everyone, here’s a wee update on my run ‘n’ gun history book, which is a hardback book that follows the genre from its origins with Taito’s 1975 arcade shooter, Gun Fight, all the way through to present day - featuring such classics as Contra, Gunstar Heroes, Metal Slug and Cuphead.
It’s my follow up to last year’s Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat ‘em Up, which came out in collaboration with publisher Bitmap Books. Speaking of which, the book’s second printing is due in August, so hit the link for an email alert once they’re available.
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I’ve teamed up with Bitmap Books once again, and they’ll be designing and publishing my run ‘n’ gun book. We’ll have more to share on a cover reveal, the first fully designed pages, a release date and pre-orders in due course.
Today is my last day of writing the book’s first draft, then we need to get all the guest writer pages in and then a long editing and design process. The Bitmap Books team puts so much love and care goes into the look and feel of these books, and it really is a fascinating process behind the scenes.
To mark the end of my first draft, I wanted to share a wee writing sample with you - it’s my write-up of Treasure’s hard as nails SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis shooter, Alien Soldier. This game is brutal but brilliant - and it’s part of the Nintendo Switch’s Mega Drive Online service, if you have that.
Check it out and let me know what you think below. Cheers :D
Formats: GEN, MAC, NSW, WIN, WII
The majority of Alien Soldier was designed and programmed alone by Hideyuki Suganami, who wanted to use the project to push his abilities to the limit. Although 32-bit game consoles were already around at the time of the game’s creation, Suganami (credited as ‘NAMI’ in the game) instead chose SEGA’s Mega Drive to impose restrictions on himself, just to see if he could actually pull it off.
Speaking in Japanese book, The Style of Games, Treasure’s president, Masato Maegawa revealed that he gave Suganami approval to make Alien Soldier on his own. Typically, development of Treasure’s 16-bit games would take around ten months, but Maegawa assigned more people to help finish the game by its January 3rd, 1995 deadline. The lack of time also meant that much of Suganami’s grand plot ideas had to be cut and he even spent New Years completing the game in the Treasure office.
Maegawa lamented that the game was released in a half-finished state, due to its cut content. It’s unclear exactly what elements were dropped during development, but Maegawa has confirmed that Suganami initially wanted to include a boss made up of 100 multi-jointed parts and that the team also had to cut down the game’s opening introduction, which is why it opens with such a huge text crawl instead of cutscenes. The game even features a new version of Seven Force (the legendary boss from Gunstar Heroes) called Seven Force Kaede, but thanks to all the cuts, it only has five forms.
In Japan, Treasure held a contest in Mega Drive magazine BEEP that invited readers to design a new form for Seven Force Kaede using multiple components. The winning entry was chosen as the boss’s Sirene Force form and was submitted by someone who now works in the games industry as a designer, working under the pseudonym ‘Shigatake.’ They’ve gone on to create illustrations for game studio Vanillaware, working on such titles as Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa Rebirth.
Alien Soldier stars Epsilon Eagle, the leader of the Scarlet terrorist organisation. The group is formed of genetically-modified beings that have the ability to inject themselves into humans, machinery and other objects to control them. Using this power, Scarlet has mostly overthrown the human planet of Sierra who, in a last ditch effort, order the assassination of Epsilon. The attack goes wrong and Epsilon is sucked into a rift in the space-time continuum, which leads to his former comrade Xi-Tiger overthrowing the Scarlet group. As Epsilon, your mission is to take down Xi-Tiger and their forces before they eradicate all the humans living on Sierra.
In all honesty, the opening text crawl and exact nature of the plot are a bit fuzzy, but it doesn’t really matter as none of this comes up again after you start playing. Alien Soldier isn’t your typical run ’n’ gun game. It was designed with so-called ‘hardcore’ players in mind and placed emphasis on score and skill attack play. Initially, Suganami wanted the game to feature 100 boss battles, which is why so much of the game feels like an endless boss rush. This works to the game’s advantage, as you’re always wondering what challenging monstrosity you’ll face next.
Make no mistake, you’re going to die a lot in this game, even on the hilariously named ‘Super Easy’ mode. To make the game even fairer, Maegawa secretly increased the damage output of the game’s weapons while Suganami was sleeping in the office on the game’s final day of production (the sly bugger!) Right at the start, you get to choose a custom load out of four interchangeable weapons, with a whopping six shot types to choose from. Buster Force is your basic machine gun, Flame Force is a short range flamethrower, Sword Force fires thin laser beams, Ranger Force is a three-way spread shot, Homing Force fires weaker heat-seeking rounds and Lancer Force is another laser that hits for huge damage.
You have to be careful not to spam the fire button too much, however, as you only have so much ‘Force’ energy to power them. It’s a neat mechanic that encourages you to switch weapons regularly so your depleted shot types have time to recharge and so you don’t become too dependant on a single style of weapon. If you pick up the same shot type again in the field, you’ll extend its Force bar slightly, which gives you a nice sense of character development.
Weapons aside, you can also perform an evasive dash that negates all damage, hover using Epsilon’s jetpack wings and you can even counter enemy bullets and transform them into much-needed health pick ups with a well-timed double tap of the fire button. By pressing down and A you can cycle between two different firing modes - one roots Epsilon to the spot so he can fire with greater precision and the other allows him to lock his aim in a single direction while moving around freely. As run ’n’ gun shooters go, Alien Soldier gives you a lot of combat options and moves to work with. You’ll need to become familiar with them all if you hope to get far in the game, as it really is that brutal.
From the very first moment, Alien Soldier doesn’t hold back on its difficulty. Each of the game’s short stages opens with a bit of classic running and gunning against low level enemies, which gives you some time to compose yourself after each intense boss battle, while collecting health and weapon drops. The first stage’s boss is a real trial by fire that doesn’t go easy on you. It’s a rampaging robotic worm that thrashes around wildly and can kill you in just a few hits.
The key to surviving this fight is to use Epsilon’s dash dodge to pass right through the worm once it gets too close, then turn around and shoot it in the back before repeating the process. Once it stops to fire a projectile at you, use your counter to transform it into a health drop to keep your life bar topped up. Once this rhythm clicks into place, you should get a feel for what Alien Soldier demands of you.
It’s this constant tug of war between attacking, dodging to create space, countering to generate health drops and knowing when to back off. To use a worn comparison, it’s similar to the flow of combat in FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, in that you also need to become familiar with boss attack patterns to succeed (expect in Alien Soldier you also have savage time limit to contend with!)
Maegawa was asked about the game’s difficulty in the September 1995 edition of Game Hihyou magazine, to which he replied, “Difficulty is the eternal riddle for us. All of the staff at Treasure are gamers with tons of experience playing games, so around the office all you hear is people saying ‘this is too easy’ and so forth. Furthermore, the developers playtest the game over and over, so they get to a point where they can easily clear it.”
Alien Soldier may seem intimidating but like in Dark Souls, you’ll feel like a million bucks each time you slay one of the game’s bosses. Every encounter is a real treat, thanks to Suganami’s inventive boss design, with each creature having its own unique identity and attacks. Each battle feels like a grand event and once the in-game announcer yells ‘Fight!’ you’re thrust into a non-stop war that never lets up. It’s intense, it’s stressful but it never stops being engaging. That’s the unrelenting beauty of Alien Soldier.
Dave Cook's Hyper Comic Jam is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.