Review: Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol. 1

14 Feb 2023

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Japanese developer Toaplan was an indisputable juggernaut of the shoot ‘em up. After the release of their first shmup (and third game overall), Tiger-Heli, the developer went on to unleash no small amount of shooting games across arcade floors. Some time later, they would also make their foray into console gaming via the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, but ultimately went defunct in 1994.

As a result of this series of events, several of Toaplan’s classic shmups have languished in a lack of rereleases or ports, with many of them fully confined to arcade cabinets or classic consoles of the era. That is, at least, until developer and publisher Bitwave Games’s Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol. 1. On February 14th, 2023, four Toaplan shmups will be available for purchase on PC for the first time: 1988’s Truxton, 1989’s Zero Wing, 1990’s Out Zone, and 1987’s Twin Cobra.

We’ll be running through each game individually below, but first let’s talk a bit about the collection itself and the features it provides in redelivering these classics.

Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol. 1

When you first boot up a game from this collection, it might be easy to assume you’ve skipped a step. Much like you’d expect from the games’ original arcade cabinets, each will instantly boot straight to the menu with no logos, introductory cutscenes, or anything of the sort to sit through first. By default, each game’s settings are locked in at their arcade originals, but a simple button press will open up an in-depth menu that allows you to change everything from the game’s appearance to the way it functions.

The customization options are particularly impressive. Individual difficulty options, the behavior of extra lives and powerups, and the way the game is presented on-screen are just a few of the aspects you can adjust. Though the artwork and framing choices leave a bit to be desired, the ability to display the game with direct pixels, smoothed pixels, or emulating a CRT display (complete with screen curvature) takes care of a lot of preferences. It’s also very easy to appreciate the option of text tutorials on either sides of the screen, especially when you consider that these games are presented very much as-is.

No doubt the features of this collection that will be getting the most use from players are the slow- motion, fast-forward, and rewind functions, all of which are accessible at any point in any of the games. With the simple press of a button, you can instantly change the pacing of the game or rewind to correct a fatal mistake. I found myself consistently using the rewind and slow-down features in conjunction with one another to better understand my mistake and how I could improve for the next go-round, and being able to learn the ins and outs of each game this way made for a very engaging sense of improvement. Save states are here, naturally, and are just as helpful as they’ve always been.

The Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol. 1 also supports a very thorough set of achievements—and I do mean thorough. Zero Wing alone has 95 for players to work towards, and the other games have similarly high numbers. They range from simple progression like defeating bosses, but there are also more interesting ones, like those that are rewarded for avoiding the collection’s assist options or achieving certain feats in co-op mode.

Gone Truxton

Even in a compilation packed with games that are tough to get through when played in their original formats, Truxton (known as Tatsujin in Japan) is perhaps the most brutal game on offer. Its difficulty is largely characterized by the lack of an HP meter, which means a single collision with a single projectile or enemy will result in an immediate death that sends the player back to their most recent checkpoint.

This wouldn’t be too challenging in and of itself, but most other aspects of the game’s design are also actively working against you: the vertical background is constantly scrolling, mountains of enemies fly into view and spew mountains of bullets, and their firing patterns are equal parts quick and varied. What’s more, enemies will not only sometimes rush towards the player to make their projectiles more difficult to dodge, but also spawn in from the bottom of the screen without warning, actively punishing those playing it safe.

All of this is to say it’s a game that greatly rewards the player for committing its enemies, patterns, and item pickups to memory. To wit, it can feel immensely satisfying when you’re able to remember exactly what you should be doing at a given stretch of screen and then deftly maneuver through a labyrinth of bullets in order to take down a boss.

And yet despite optimal play always being a great time, the on-screen visuals leave a bit to be desired and, in some instances, actively impede gameplay. The color palette is quite drab for most of the experience, and designs of the enemies struggle to leave a lasting impression. The different attack powerups are a notable exception and look great, but they also obscure the screen to such a degree that it makes it even more of a struggle to see the tiny pellets of light spelling certain doom for your progress.

It’s an enjoyable, challenging experience, but it’s not the best offering in this collection. Truxton’s drawbacks, in conjunction with its more monotonous design, made it the game I returned to the least in this collection.

Somebody Set Up Us the Zero Wing

Ah, Zero Wing. Even if the title itself doesn’t a ring a bell, most internet denizens of a certain age will immediately recognize its most infamous lines of dialogue: “All your base are belong to us” and “Sombody set up us the bomb” have long been chiseled into the annals of memedom. Lamentably, the arcade version is completely bereft of said cutscene because it was exclusive to the European Mega Drive port of the game, but what remains in its absence is an excellent shoot ‘em up.

Like Truxton, Zero Wing begins right in the thick things, with your ship jettisoning itself out of a space station just as it begins to implode. Also like Truxton, it doesn’t take long to learn that taking one hit in Zero Wing means death. Mercifully, rather than using a stringent checkpoint system, the game instead plops you right back where you were on-screen until you run out of lives, and when you do hit the dreaded continue screen, it’s simply a matter of pressing start to keep on zooming.

Zero Wing scrolls horizontally at a relatively lax pace for this style of game, and that works wonders for the title in the way it prevents you from being overwhelmed from the sheer number of projectiles and flashing lights scattering across your screen. It has your typical array of powerups, three different weapon choices (which in themselves have three tiers of power pickups), and items that increase your overall speed.

One of the title’s most interesting gameplay facets is the tractor beam, which allows you to suck enemies onto the front of your ship and hold them there indefinitely. You can opt to launch them at other enemies to deal damage, or you can keep them right where they are to buffer an extra hit. It’s a small feature, but it adds a much more active element of decision making to the gameplay and fosters the potential for some clutch moments of survival.

Certain sections of Zero Wing also task the player with traversing narrow passageways, where so much as bumping up against a wall will mean death. These sections usually run pretty brief, but serve as a welcome reprieve from the deluge of action that also lets you flex a different type of gameplay muscle.

When you pair the above elements with excellent pixel art, designs, and asset variety, you get a shmup that’s well worth your time—even with a deficiency of meme dialogue.

In the Out Zone

Though the release of this collection marks the first time any of these games are available for purchase on PC, Out Zone stands out in particular for the fact that it’s never been ported or otherwise rereleased outside of its original arcade form before. On top of that, it’s also the only game in this collection that puts you in direct control of a boots-on-the-ground cyborg mercenary, rather than someone in the cockpit of a spaceship or similar vehicle. As a result, Out Zone is more accurately categorized as a vertically scrolling run-and-gunner.

To that end, the gameplay provides a unique feeling that further delineates it from the others. You have full control of movement across eight different axes, and one of the two weapons you have access to will fire in whatever direction your character is facing at the time. The second weapon, however, locks your character to be forward-facing, but compensates for it by loosing a trio of large bullets in a cone before you with each shot.

Switching between these weapons is accomplished by picking up an item on the ground instead of the player being able to do so on the fly, which is an interesting way to encourage your eyes to stay glued to the on-screen intensity rather than needing to keep track of a UI element or similar. More importantly, there’s a large variety of enemy placements and environmental layouts to keep each weapon (and the switching between them) relevant throughout the entire runtime.

There’s also a time limitation present in Out Zone, represented by an energy meter at the top of the screen. It’s constantly ticking down, and should you forego any energy pickups as you play, will eventually empty and result in slowed movement and death shortly thereafter. The pickups are plentiful to the point where this meter isn’t a constant stressor as you play, but it does provide a tangible enough threat to keep you moving.

Being the newest game in this collection, Out Zone is also a visual treat, with pixel artwork that’s crisp and incredibly detailed. Some screens are certainly more interesting than others—walking across tread-trodden dirt or nondescript warehouses isn’t always the most exciting thing to look at—but its overall aesthetic is positively dripping in the gratuitous, rule of cool goodness inherent in the era of its release.

The Twin Cobras

In several ways, Twin Cobra (Kyukyoku Tiger in Japan) is the most straightforward game in this list. It eschews the intergalactic scale of fighting off aliens for the more earthly scope of military warfare. It puts you in control of a helicopter equipped with missiles and bombs and sees you mowing down tanks, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and the like. More than that, its general gameplay and itemization tends to be more cookie-cutter than not—there’s likely little you haven’t seen before in other shmups.

At the same time, Twin Cobra’s execution of a more basic shmup is handled rather well. The stages play out at a brisk pace, the enemies show off an appreciable degree of variation in their attacks and designs by land, sea, or air, and the title has the notable distinction of being a direct sequel to Tiger-Heli: the genesis of Toaplan’s shoot ‘em up output.

Twin Cobra also isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun with the player either. There are a few surprises along the way with regard to enemy placements, and the powerful weapon powerup (the item you’re constantly hoping to acquire in each life) doesn’t just sit there and wait for you to pick it up when it drops. Instead, it’ll move around the area where it appeared, forcing you to chase it down in short match of cat and mouse.

Visually, the game is a bit unexciting when stacked up with its contemporaries in the collection. Like in Truxton the color palette is a bit dim, and stages that have you predominantly flying over water aren’t much fun to look at. That said, there is some impressive use of perspective when it comes to ground-based enemies, and the rip-roaring soundtrack does a lot of heavy lifting.

Shmups Galore

No matter which way you slice it, developer Toaplan’s output in the 1980s and 1990s was an important factor in the proliferation of shoot ‘em ups en masse. These are undeniably older games with the design sensibilities to match, and as such may not convert you into a shmup fanatic if you aren’t one already, but it’s undeniable that this is the definitive (and most accessible) way to experience them on PC.

With accurate emulation, impressive quality of life features, and a slew of difficulty options to tailor the experience to one’s liking, it’s difficult to find many negatives in the first volume of Bitwave’s Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection. Whether you’re already a fan of these classics or have yet to experience their original arcade incarnations, shoot ‘em up fans won’t be disappointed with their treatment here.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review code provided by Bitwave Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Bitwave Games.