Speak ’em shmup

The bulk of Spriggan Mark 2‘s manual isn’t used to describe the stages to come, or show off some of the intimidating enemies ahead, or even spend any more time than it absolutely has to with something as ordinary and essential as basic instruction. Instead this full colour booklet’s densely-packed pages are used to pass on a wealth of character and world building information designed to help players better immerse themselves in the game’s impressively rich setting before they begin. It even goes so far as to include detailed info on the various kinds of Armoured Arms (mechs) found in the game and then illustrate how they relate to each other (did you know the Spirits-type A.A. is the cost-conscious successor to the Spriggan line – and the original Spriggan itself is an evolution of the old Bartholomew models? You do now), and then finishes with a small glossary covering a smattering of terms and place names just for good measure.

It’s an unusual approach for the genre, but there’s a good reason for it: Spriggan Mark 2 wants to be a dramatic shooting game, rather than a shmup.

And the game really does make a huge effort to live up to its lofty ambition, keen to weave storytelling into each stage rather than simply bookend each level with fully voiced cutscenes (although it does that too). This narrative-led design leads to an avalanche of exciting scenes; boss battles occurring during atmospheric re-entry, named allies swooping in and out again as the mission (or the current frailty of their mech) demands. There is something special about knowing exactly why you’ve turned up in a particular place or why this person’s helping you out (or trying to kill you off), and these details give Spriggan Mark 2 a sense of place and purpose rarely found in the genre.

Because of this the dialogue box at the bottom of the screen is a busy little thing, the action usually coming to a complete stop so you can read (and optionally, hear) every last line at your leisure. Yeah. If there’s one thing you don’t do in a game like this it’s pause the action several times a stage for a relatively lengthy chinwag, right? That’s what I thought at first anyway, but after turning all of the cutscenes and dialogue off (a simple toggle accessed from either the option or pause menu) so I could play the game “properly”… I think I honestly prefer experiencing the shmupping as intended, as one part of a greater whole. Spriggan Mark 2 commits so fully to its storyline that its stages actually felt not as much fun without all the chatter. I liked the characters. I enjoyed seeing sworn friends pop up at the right moment. I relished the times a rival would spit venom at me from the seat in their massive death machine.

Of course if the “greater whole” I mentioned above is going to work, then the shmup half of Spriggan 2 does still need to carry its weight – and thankfully with Compile at the creative helm, it does. The game’s horizontal shmup foundations play host to a wide range of interesting ideas, bestowing clever twists to every facet of the well-worn genre: a slowly regenerating shield in place of lives for example, or a dedicated turn button – a quick tap flipping your Armoured Arm around any time you like, allowing you to fire on anything currently behind you. What makes this feature really special is its subtlety: Plenty of shmups have a “Everything’s coming from behind!” segment, but Spriggan Mark 2 is more interested in using this to offer some flexibility, presenting lots of scenarios where you don’t have to change direction, but you can find good reasons to do so – maybe a certain enemy type likes to move in an arc overhead, or has a forward-facing shield. It’s an option that encourages you to use all of the available screen space all the time, rather than do the usual shmup thing of only pushing forward when forced to (by bullets or for your score’s sake) and retreating back to the left hand side the instant things return to normal.

There are no power ups or pickups here, but what you can do is freely switch between all available weapons at any time by pressing the Select button, and from stage four onwards choose from several loadouts to take into battle, each one offering a different mix of equipment. It’s a diverse arsenal, so let’s take a quick look at each type in turn:

  • Cannon: This basic gun is the only weapon with unlimited ammo and happily very useful from the first enemy to the last boss, a genuinely helpful core of your arsenal rather than a pea-shooting punishment for not being careful enough with your other armaments.
  • Missiles: The homing variety. Individually they’re pretty weak, but they do help keep you out of harm’s way while still doing damage.
  • Sabers: Dangerously short range but very powerful energy swords. The swing can cancel incoming bullets if you can time it right, and holding the shot button down keeps the sword pointing outwards, allowing for risky “poke” strategies.
  • Bazookas: These fire a shot forward which then explodes into a forward-facing fan of smaller bullets – a good choice for large swarms of smaller enemies.
  • Satellites: A pair of “option” style helpers that depending on the type either stick close and shoot or fly off and shoot.
  • Lasers: Slow, narrow, extremely powerful beams with very limited ammo.
  • Shield: The only passive piece of equipment. This makes the Spriggan Mk.2 more resilient to enemy fire.

As with movement, there’s a small but significant detail that elevates this system above mere on-the-fly weapon switching: Most special weapons are activated by pressing the shot button, with holding it down still firing the standard cannon (assuming you’ve not turned on the pad’s built-in autofire, that is) – and this means you can have your preferred shot ready to go but only unleash it when you need to, rather than have to choose between emptying the lot or constantly switching back and forth between the cannon and your preferred alternative to save ammo.

Spriggan Mark 2’s chosen core components feel like they should be the oil and water of game design, but in practise it’s a really well designed game from any angle. Shmup fans will be impressed by the wide range of enemy attacks and new events they have to quickly adapt to: screen-long energy beams, small ships that visibly vibrate as that ready an unusual splatter of bullets, aircraft that split apart before unleashing a powerful laser, tight passageways and devastating attacks from the sky. It’s a thorough workout, and the ability to knock the difficulty up a notch or two above the default setting ensures everyone can find a level they feel challenged by. Those hoping for an engaging spectacle will appreciate the way enemies physically recoil just a little as empty shells arc out of their gigantic guns in a dramatic fashion, enjoy watching the rain fall as they battle over a city, and cheer for a game that realises there’s no concept of up and down in space, so why not have enemy mechs release the “wrong” way up from the lower half of a carrier craft?

It has a palpable sense of quality and confidence to it, the right game made by the right people and for the right format, a memorable experience that makes it easy to see why the PC Engine will always be the shmup console of its era in spite of the stiff competition it faced from the many excellent examples of the genre found on both the Mega Drive and the SNES.

I wouldn’t want every shmup to try and pull itself in two directions like this – but only because I know most of them couldn’t do it as well as Spriggan Mark 2 does.

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