Earthion: headliner of the vintage shmup renaissance?
Veteran shooting game developers are serving up a smorgasbord of new STG for vintage hardware.
This year's Tokyo Game Show was blessed with announcements, reveals and playable demoes for a wide range of classic and retro games, including more than a few that reside quite a ways down the classic game iceberg; if you had Exerion, Rushing Beat, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja or Relics on your TGS bingo card, you can confidently pat yourself on the back. The arguable highlight among these reveals was the hotly-anticipated announcement of Earthion, a brand-new shooting game being developed by Ancient, the company owned and run by the legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro, which was formally unveiled after months of teasing on Twxtter and officially scheduled for release on both modern consoles and authentic Mega Drive hardware (or, strictly speaking, "MD-compatible hardware") in 2024.
The reaction to this announcement was, understandably, both quite positive and quite far-reaching: Koshiro remains one of the most recognizable (not to mention, approachable) composers of his era and one who regularly contributes fantastic work to modern games, and the appetite for both classic-style games and new games for vintage hardware is white-hot right now, so the fact that he was returning to the MD coalface naturally turned a lot of heads. That said, being the shooting game maniac that I am, I can't help but wonder if people are aware of just how many other veteran shooting game developers have also returned to vintage hardware in recent years — given that traditional shooting games were primarily programmer-driven, the notion of developing to vintage spec seems to be a particularly enticing draw for shooting game developers, so if the Earthion announcement has piqued your interest, know that there are plently more shooting game legends lined up to provide you with something new to play on your classic systems.
The games listed here are a selection of recent, impending and/or on-the-horizon shooting games being developed by established, classic-era developers for vintage hardware — I'm clearly biased towards games coming out of Japan, but if you know of and would like to mention any games being made by the many European computer devotees or, god forbid, any Jaguar survivors, feel free to share them in the comments.
- Target spec: Sega Mega Drive (also coming to modern platforms)
- Availability: ETA 2024 via Limited Run Games / Super Deluxe Games
The game of the moment is Earthion, a classic-style horizontal shooting game that sees Ancient, creators of such games as Streets of Rage 2 and Beyond Oasis/Story of Thor, returning to active Mega Drive development for the first time in almost thirty years. What's more, Yuzo Koshiro is not only composing this game with the aim of realizing never-before-heard sounds but is also actively involved with game design for the first time in many years, with Ancient stalwart, Gotta Protectors creator and hobbyist vintage dev Makoto Wada handling graphics, programming and additional game design. You can look forward to playing this game on either MD-compatible hardware or your current modern platform of choice sometime next year. (Skip to 3:30:55 in the above video for footage if the timestamp's not working.)
GG ALESTE 3
- Target spec: Sega Game Gear (available via Aleste Collection for PS4/Switch and the limited-edition white Game Gear Micro)
- Availability: out now in Japan, ¥4950 (PS - Switch)
One might argue that GG Aleste 3, the all-new Game Gear sequel to Compile's classic GG Aleste duology that was produced as part of M2's Aleste Collection release for PS4 & Switch in 2020, paved the way for all the other games mentioned in this article — made by a small team of shooting game veterans whose past works include M.U.S.H.A., Super Star Soldier, Battle Garegga and the DoDonPachi series, GG Aleste 3 not only represents the pinnacle of audiovisual and technical relative to its target hardware but also reflects a maturity of design that could only be actualized by a crew of seasoned crafstspersons, that firmly places the game on equal footing with other games designed for contemporary hardware and sets a daunting benchmark for other vintage shooting game projects. (Why it still hasn't left Japan after all this time is beyond me...)
- Target spec: Sega Game Gear
- Availability: 3-minute "challenge version" available in Japan, ¥5500; full version due out in 2024
GG Aleste 3's influence can be directly felt on the upcoming GUN STREAM, an upcoming Game Gear shooter being made by a pair of Compile veterans — GG Aleste 1 & 2 director/artist/designer Hiroki "Daigattai" Kodama and GG Aleste II programmer/co-designer TAKIN — whose activities on the periphery of the Aleste Collection release gave them the itch to throw their hats into the ring with their own game. Joined by Star Soldier composer Takeaki Kunimoto, their game is well into production and has been demoed at several Japanese retro gaming events, with publisher Habit Soft making the three-minute demo build available for purchase a month or two back.
- Target spec: Famicom/NES
- Availability: out now for Famicom, ¥7500; NES version TBC
Declaring OVER OBJ to be the work of a famous creator might be stretching things a little: developer Little Sound's earlier works, which include the hardware-pushing Sharp X68000 danmaku game Bakuretsu Kukeidan, were and are only really known to a tiny number of Japanese devotees to doujin computer software, and they're probably more famous, if at all, for newer homebrew Famicom/NES productions like the recent pseudo-rotating overhead racing game F-THETA. Nevertheless, the sheer technical excess on display in OVER OBJ, which exploits the quirks of the processor to exceed the sprite limits of the hardware, will assuredly put this developer on at least a few people's radars. Physical versions are intermittently available from the Japanese stores BEEP and 1983, and the developer has suggested there may be a dedicated NES release at some point down the line. (Because the game runs so close to the metal, it may not work correctly on all revisions of genuine hardware; as of right now, early-version Sharp Famicom Twin hardware is confirmed as non-compatible.)
- Target spec: Famicom
- Availability: TBC
We're going to have to wait until the Digige Expo in November for a full reveal or even a name for this one, but the little info that's already out there is extremely promising: Takayuki "Jemini" Hirono, chief architect of the Compile shooting game style and programmer of classic shooting games including Zanac, Aleste, The Guardian Legend and Blazing Lazers, is returning to program their first Famicom/NES game since Gun-Nac way back in 1990, with help from former colleague and current GUN STREAM designer Hiroki "Daigattai" Kodama on illustrations and world-building. This project is scheduled to be the first game release by Cat Hui Trading, an independent company formed by Genesis/Mega Drive Mini and Game Gear Micro director Takayuki Komabayashi, and promises horizontal shooting with a transforming mecha player-character, built to 3MBit ROM capacity.
- Target spec: Famicom
- Availability: TBC
Over the last several months, Yoshiharu Takaoka, the prodigous programmer who handed cult Turbografx-16/PC Engine shooting games Coryoon and Air Zonk/PC Denjin, has made mention of a brand-new Famicom shooting game they've been working on behind the scenes, and it seems like they're finally gearing up to reveal this project in the not-too-distant future — as of right now, there's absolutely no concrete info about the game out there, so forgive me for being light on details, but I'd recommend keeping a tab on Habit Soft over the next month or two... (and if it doesn't show up, try not to hold it against me.)
- Target spec: Sharp X68000 / X68000 Z
- Availability: out now, ¥5500
Strictly speaking, this isn't a new game or even a game at all, but I think it qualifies: in tandem with the just-released X68000 Z mini replica hardware, the 1991 STG-maker software SHOOTING68K has been revamped and reissued on SD card as SHOOTING68K Z-EDITION, a new revision with additional features including native autofire and support for the .lze compression format, allowing for much smaller file sizes. What's more, the developers have also thrown in the full version of Valist Leznalt, a game being developed by Trouble Witches devs Studio SietstA in the '90s and finally polished up for commercial release in 2018, for people to play and dissect at their leisure.