Over the years, I have come to realize that the shoot em up genre is among my favorite video game styles, and quite possibly my favorite. And while I enjoyed some of the earlier arcade games from the 80s which I would play whenever I came across a cabinet at the mall or pizza parlor or wherever, I fell in love with games such as Gradius, 1943 and Captain Skyhawk which I could play at home on my NES. But by the early 90s when I received a Sega Genesis for my birthday, my love for the genre exploded. You see, for a kid who was into shooters, the Genesis was a treasure trove of riches, and boy, did I take advantage of what was available on the console. But by 1994 or so, shoot em ups were old news as everyone was obsessed with Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II, Eternal Champions, and the litany of similar 2D fighters which proliferated the console. As a result, I was able to pick up a number of excellent shoot em ups from store bargain bins, as they were older games that no longer sold well. Of course, I picked up other types of games as well, but shoot em ups were definitely a high priority for me.
In the subsequent years since the Genesis has fallen out of vogue (and now seemingly back into vogue), I have managed to collect and play every Sega Genesis shoot em up released in the North American market. I realize that there are many shooters which were released as foreign exclusives, many of which are held in high regard, but I have not played them. I plan on venturing into some of these foreign releases in the future, however, particularly some of the Japanese releases by Toaplan (one of my favorite developers). But after years of careful, painstaking consideration, I have compiled the ultimate list of North American Sega Genesis shoot em up perfection, and will now share it with you. Hahahaha, just kidding. This is just a subjective list of my favorites, some that I think are strong representatives of the genre, and what I like and appreciate abouut them. And believe me, there are a number of others that didn't quite make the cut, but very well could have. Compiling lists like these is always a painful exercise in the art of elimination. Finally, always remember that I'm just a random dude on the internet, so try not to take it too seriously, eh.
10. Bio Hazard Battle
This may not be the most fun or technically advanced shooter on the Genesis, but it is one of the most creative. In the aftermath of a great biological war, the planet Avaron is inhabited by a plethora of deadly biological viruses. There are a few humans left, and they are all aboard a space ship which is in orbit of the planet. You are a member of this group and must choose a bioship to go down to the planet, fight these biological forces of evil and find a suitable part of the planet in which to settle your people. There are 4 ships to choose from and each can be modified by different weapon power ups which are conveniently plopped in your flight path throughout the game. No chasing floating icons around the screen like in the Toaplan games. The gameplay is solid. You have a satellite ship, similar to R-Type, that can be powered to use different types of shots, and the movement of your bioship controls the satellite ship's orbit, so this adds a strategic element, particularly in the boss battles.
The graphics get better the deeper you get into the game. At first, the bioship is dropping in from space, and the backgrounds here are rivaled by those of the Atari 2600. But as the game progresses and different geographic regions of the planet are revealed (forests, underwater, bombed out cities, mountain ranges, et cetera), the detailed backgrounds become sights to behold. While the sound does not reach the quality level of the graphics, what is here is unlike anything heard in other Genesis shooters. The music is just solely unique to the game and is often of a spacey quality instead of the normal upbeat rocking tunes that are generally associated with the genre. The bass and percussion would be right at home in a David Lynch flick, and I think if your Genesis is hooked up to a stereo system you’ll appreciate it. However, I can see the soundtrack polarizing gamers as it is so unique, but I think it works as it adds significantly to the overall atmosphere of the game.
Bio Hazard Battle does not reinvent the genre, and there are funner shooters on the system, but the atmosphere created here between the graphical elements and moody soundtrack makes for a unique gaming experience that you can’t find elsewhere on the Genesis. Furthermore, everything about the gameplay is solid and responsive, and being able to choose different bioships and weapons makes it customizable enough to tailor the game to your playstyle. This all contributes to a great gaming experience.
Gaiares is one of the most technically impressive shooters on the Genesis. It features exquisitely detailed graphics, both on the sprites and on the parallax scrolling backgrounds. And there are beautiful anime-style cutscenes which are animated and convey the crazy story about a foreign monarch that wants to exploit the radioactive, polluted Earth’s resources and destroy the sun. But the monarch offers you a deal, that should you stop them, they will restore the Earth to its original luster. So as one of the last surviving members of the human race living on a space station, it is your duty to save the Earth. The synth soundtrack, with its pulsating rhythm section, will get you pumped up to do your job. That said, while this game is as pretty as a diamond, it’s also as hard as one.
Aside from just blasting away at enemies with your ship, you control a little satellite ship that can not only shoot as well, but can also be launched at enemies where it can take control of their weapon and give it to you. This feature adds an entire dimension to the gameplay as there are a myriad of weapon choices available. This is an excellent hook which gives Gaiares its own singular style and feel among a sea of space shooters on the Genesis, but it is also a difficult ability to harness and use correctly. With time and patience, Gaiares can probably become the favorite game of any serious shooter fan, but for me, I just don’t have that time and patience. As it is, I find the game to be technically brilliant with an engaging story, beautiful graphics and kickass soundtrack that can be fun in doses. But for me, the difficulty level is such that I’ve never mastered it and can’t imagine that I ever will. But I still have a great appreciation for the game, and get enjoyment from playing it when I sit down and put in the effort. And considering the frustration that it's bestowed upon me over the years, the fact that I keep coming back for more speaks to the game's unique charms and qualities.
8. Twin Cobra
Twin Cobra is not one of the flashiest games on my list, but it is definitely one of the funnest. While I appreciate the graphical and technical achievements of some of the Genesis shooters, for me, gameplay trumps all, and Twin Cobra has that in spades. This is a port of an early Toaplan arcade game, and it translates perfectly to the Genesis. You control a helicopter and attempt to traverse 10 levels over sea and air in which a faceless enemy military goes to incredible lengths to stop you with cannons, tanks, planes, choppers, and some stuff that I don’t think even has a name. The further into the game you get, the more brutal the challenge becomes, with enemies that swarm you from every direction.
Similar to the other Toaplan shooters, you can power up your helicopter and there are 4 types of shots available by picking up the color-coded icons (red - straight fire, blue – spread shot, yellow – 4 way, green – laser beam). I’m most partial to the blue spread shot, but each of them offers something that can be helpful at different stages of the game. Twin Cobra has rather average graphics, there’s nothing remarkable here, but it does the job. Your helicopter and the enemy sprites are well-detailed for the most part while the backgrounds are plain and uninspired. The sound is pretty dang good with a rocking soundtrack that keeps you pumped up throughout the game. The songs eventually begin to repeat themselves by the later levels, however, so I wish they had added a few more.
What I really like about Twin Cobra is that, unlike many Genesis shooters, the action fills the entire screen. Too often in these games we see that an entire portion of the screen has a black strip filled with statistical information. This is usually due to games being originally designed for arcade screens which have a different aspect ratio than the Genesis, but it is annoying nonetheless, and that is not an issue here. In fact, as you control your helicopter from side to side, even more of the playfield reveals itself. And this can be used to your strategic advantage at certain points in the game to avoid certain enemies when the screen is already filled with enough to keep you busy.
What sets Twin Cobra apart from many of its contemporaries is that, in spite of its often brutal difficulty, the fun factor is so high that I don't want to throw in the towel, and feel encouraged to keep going. And that is the single biggest reason why it is one of the best shooters on the Genesis.
7. Elemental Master
Elemental Master takes place in the kingdom of Lorelei which is in a fantasy Middle-Earth universe. This is a setting not unfamiliar to RPGs and adventure games, but wholly unique to shooters. As Laden, a long-haired caped crusader with magical sorcery at his disposal, you must defeat the evil Gyra to restore the kingdom to its original tranquil state of being. Along the way, Laden gets to battle all sorts of mythical creatures who have been unleashed upon the kingdom by the evil Gyra and take on a series of truly epic bosses, some of which transform into massive grotesques. With the occasional animated cutscenes between levels which provide the story progression, EM is one heck of an adventure.
Graphically, this game is a sight to behold with so many creative enemies and backgrounds. You fight in dark swamps and forests as well as castles and dungeons, and each setting is well thought out in its design. Our hero’s flowing brown mane and shimmering red cape make for one of the most unique shooter vehicles of any of the games in the genre I can think of. And the music has that thumping Technosoft rhythm that powers you through the game, but still has that element of fantasy epic that fits the setting of the story; and it can be effective at times, particularly during dramatic cut scenes.
Laden has the ability to shoot his magical sorcery both ahead and backwards which is necessary to navigate the levels as the enemies come at you from every which way. Being able to switch magic types on the fly is an excellent feature that adds a strategic element to the proceedings as different techniques are more effective for certain enemies and situations which often change within a level. Furthermore, each technique can be powered up for a super shot which makes taking down some of the bosses much easier. And while all of this requires you to think on your feet, it can be mastered with practice. That is perhaps what I like best about this game, the way it makes you think your way through it. This isn’t a mindless shooter where you just fire away at everything willy-nilly, you have to devise a strategy to succeed in Elemental Master, and that is what sets it apart.
6. Fire Shark
In Fire Shark you control a little red World War I era biplane and take on waves of enemies that are decidedly not from the WWI era. More like Cold War era tanks, cannons, jets and battle ships among other far more technologically advanced war machines. But that lack of logic does not matter in the least because Fire Shark is as fun as shooters get. And don’t worry, the weapon power ups to your little plane turn it into something out of a science fiction movie anyway.
Similar to the graphics in the aforementioned Toaplan game Twin Cobra, the main plane and the enemy sprites are drawn well enough, and ooze that early Genesis charm, but the static backgrounds leave much to be desired. They're generally desert or water, and often appear rather plain Jane with no movement and little detail. At the conclusion of each level, your plane will briefly land at a base where tiny little green soldiers can be seen running around and sometimes form into a formation which is a cool sight. And these sequences occasionally throw in some humor, such as when a soldier boards a plane and takes off next to your plane as if he is going to be your wing man, but then promptly crashes before the level begins. If you look closely, you'll see the poor little fella lying in the smoldering wreckage twitching. It's sick, but hilarious, and I love these little details which occasionally pop up throughout the game. And Fire Shark features great music, but sadly, there’s just not enough of it. The songs begin repeating themselves in later levels which was also an issue in Twin Cobra. However, the music that is here is rocking, and keeps you alert during some of the game’s more difficult sequences.
The gameplay is as good as it gets in the shooter genre on the Genesis. Your biplane has 3 types of shots available throughout the game, green, teal and red. Green is a powerful laser that goes from straight ahead to sort of a lateral pattern as it is upgraded. Teal is the least powerful of the bunch, but it spreads outward across the screen which can be very effective at times. Red is a flame thrower, and when fully powered it can nearly cover the entire screen in a crazy pattern unlike anything I’ve seen in other games. The power ups are little colored squares which float around and bounce off the sides of the screen. If my teal or red weapon is powered up and the green square (or sometimes squares; yes, plural) is bouncing around, I do my damndest to dodge it like an enemy, but I don’t know, some gamers may prefer the green laser, I just happen to think it sucks.
Fire Shark does suffer from a lack of true end bosses. While some levels feature a large powerful ship or plane that must be defeated toward the end of a level, others have nothing to offer and the level just ends uneventfully. Okay, technically there may be a series of planes in a row that are a bit more difficult than a normal enemy, but nothing like a true end boss. Some of the levels are on the short side as well. As in, you blink and they're done, so when there's no true end boss, this is cause for disappointment. However, there is little to no slowdown to speak of throughout the game, even during an end boss battle or when an abundance of enemies fill the screen. This is impressive considering it is such an early Genesis title.
The game's flaws notwithstanding, it is quite fun and addictive. The plane handles smoothly with the ability to upgrade its speed throughout, and the shooting just feels so effortless and natural. While the later stages can test your patience when enemies appear fast and furiously, I always feel in control, and that if I am shot down, it is of my own doing. Speaking of which, when you're shot down, the game gives you a couple of seconds to get off a shot or two before you crash to your demise, so you get the chance to exact a little revenge, which is a great touch. So while Fire Shark is not perfect by any stretch, the amazing gameplay more than makes up for its deficiencies, and it is easily one of my favorites in the genre.
Be sure to check back soon for part 2, the incredible conclusion of the Top 10 Shoot 'em Ups on the Sega Genesis... (insert dramatic music here)
*Feature photo of Gaiares gameplay courtesy of Hardcoregaming101.