Toaplan, a shooting game developer that flew high in the '80s with titles like Twin Cobra and Truxton, possesses a formidable resume. Batsugun, the company's swan-song shooter, and one of its most historically significant works, spearheaded an evolution of the genre that remains prevalent today.
Programmer Tsuneki Ikeda joined Toaplan late in its life cycle. His first project, 1992’s Grind Stormer, acts as a bridge between traditional shooting game motifs and an emergent ‘manic’ gameplay structure. A year later, Batsugun cemented the concept and established the ‘bullet hell’ style — a formula that would underpin everything Ikeda and several other ex-Toaplan staff would go on to achieve at Cave Co. Ltd.
Junya Inoue, who would later become a resident Cave artist on projects like DoDonpachi and Deathsmiles, was drafted for the creation of Batsugun’s Skull Hornets, a team of crack pilots fighting for liberation against a despotic king. The backstory was so elaborately conceived that Inoue created an entire manga graphic novel — its first printing now absurdly rare — to fill in the backstory, although very little of it actually features in-game.
This being a Japanese release (there's no date on a Western release at the time of writing), there’s no translation for the amusingly corny character quips than footnote each stage, which is a shame. What you do get, though, is English-language everything else, including menus and complete option configurations. Being another entry in City Connection’s S-Tribute series, it’s again a port of the Sega Saturn release rather than the arcade PCB, using their proprietary emulation software. And, all things considered, it’s a solid port of a port that was already recognised for its excellence. While minor latency issues have been noted, it’s certainly no dealbreaker, running snappily enough on Switch to be unnoticeable to the untrained eye.
Although the package’s title screen is somewhat uneventful compared to what could have been, especially with the wealth of fantastic Inoue promotional art available, the content is at least comprehensive. On board are both the original Batsugun and Batsugun Special. Special, featuring a tweaked colour palette, is easier owing to a smaller ship hit-box and balancing adjustments. It also has multiple loops instead of ending after five stages, but these loops begin at the stage according to the loop number; for example, loop three begins at stage three, and so on, meaning each round is progressively quicker, and, thanks to suicide bullets, progressively tougher.
Options-wise, there are configurable scanline filters, the ability to adjust the screen by cropping, scrolling or rotating, granular difficulty adjustments, slow and rewind functions, and several soundtrack variations. The beauty of these features is the ability to mix and match, meaning you can choose a preferred soundtrack and hit-box type across both versions of the game. Notably, there’s an all-new arranged soundtrack to enjoy, with Shinji Hosoe and crew remixing the audio for a thicker, more cinematic sound.
Other tweaks include the raising of the online scoring ceiling beyond the 100 million mark, a critically smart alteration that gives hardcore players more to think about in terms of accruing points. The ability to save and load is also present, as well as a practice function that lets you choose a stage and select a powered-up state for your craft. A selection of bordering wallpaper backs an adjustable heads-up display, with point breakdowns and music information.
Of course, this is all just icing. More importantly, Batsugun remains an astoundingly fresh and altogether superb shooting game experience. Tsuneki Ikeda’s programming algorithms for fast bullets, small hit-boxes, and mammoth firepower still flows like it was launched yesterday. The pixel art is superb, with plenty of detail in its mechanised enemies and giant, screen-filling bosses. Unlike the epic stage lengths of Toaplan’s earlier games, where Tatsujin-Oh’s opening gambit would seemingly go on forever, Batsugun’s five stages are short, engaging beats that hop from one big set piece to the next. Naval armadas and their futuristic hovercraft, airborne gunships, and deep-set mountain artillery are all ripe for destruction, and carving through them is beautifully satisfying. Like all of Ikeda’s work, enemy attack patterns are created in such a way that they define the feel of each section, forcing you to regularly adopt different manoeuvres and strategies.
Since Batsugun was something of an experimental blueprint, increasing the action while reducing the threat, it’s far easier than many bullet hell titles that followed. In fact — and even with its fairly aggressive rank system — Batsugun Special remains one of the softest one-credit clears in Ikeda’s programming catalogue. This makes it a fantastic opportunity for newcomers looking to dip their feet in the genre.
There are six pilots to choose from, although three are assigned to the second player. Each ship has different shot types, with Type-A featuring broad spread fire, B pulsing out a crackling, central lightning beam, and C offering a variant depending on whether you hold down the shot button or tap away at it. Additionally, the game doles out bombs like there’s no tomorrow and life extensions at various point thresholds. Interestingly, Batsugun’s mountain of power-ups are coupled with a levelling meter that can be filled several times. With each new level up, the ship’s shot type transforms in a thrilling break, changing its colour and form to eventually dwarf the entire screen. Learning to hold onto this power is a real rush, and a death thankfully only knocks it down a notch rather than back to square one.
It’s also laden with scoring tricks and secrets, whether dissecting boss armaments or blowing planes off of runways at precision moments. Seeking out all of the myriad concealed secrets, and learning how to maximise them, is a big part of Batsugun's deeper layer. Revealing a drove of cartoony pigs might seem at odds with the tone of things, but when you have them pop out of the landscape only to milk them like crazy for score boosts, it adds a lump sum of strategic variety. And yes, that's milking pigs. More enjoyable than you would ever have guessed.
In our opinion, though, this Switch release seems a touch tougher than the arcade original. This is likely because it's a port of the Saturn version, which was faster owing to its reduced slowdown. It doesn’t impact the enjoyability of the game at all and certainly isn’t overtly obvious, but it’s worth mentioning as it makes those later loops that bit more challenging.
Batsugun remains a thrill ride: a barnstorming, explosive affair that holds a pivotal position in the history of the shooting game and its evolution. Its systems are not as in-depth as most Cave titles, and it’s also comparatively short if you discount all the looping, but it remains a superbly entertaining and surprisingly accessible piece of gaming history. It’s a shame the arcade originals aren’t present, but, with all its very welcome bells and whistles, it’s certainly the best home release yet.