In the 1980s, Takahashi Meijin was a supermarket clerk turned home programmer, eventually picked up by Hudson Soft to work as a software salesman. This, however, was only the start of his journey into 8-bit stardom. In 1985 he co-presented a TV show in Japan that hosted tournaments, usually for Hudson Soft’s shoot 'em up catalogue and its featured competitive ‘Caravan’ modes: quick, timed stages designed to be perfected by accruing as high a score as possible. It turned out Meijin was a skilled player himself, and with his distinctive, bald appearance, he quickly rose to fame by demonstrating his 'trigger finger' speed technique. Kids at home attempted to emulate his impressively fast button mashing, to the point where a Mejin-branded Shooting Watch was released: a simple two-button toy with a digital display that would record the number of presses one could achieve within a time limit. At the height of his fame, Hudson Soft used his likeness for Master Higgins, the protagonist of their Adventure Island series.
Star Gagnant, partly crowd-funded and created with Meijin’s input, features him as Captain Takahashi in anime form. It also has a cute virtual version of his Shooting Watch toy tucked away as a bonus option, allowing you to test your own trigger finger speeds.
Designed and programmed by Terarin Games, the one-man army responsible for the superb Raging Blasters, Star Gagnant is pretty to look at, cleanly rendered, and carefully coloured to aid navigation. It bears all of the Terarin hallmarks, being Compile-esque in nature and extremely newcomer friendly on defaults.
On the surface, it's extraordinarily simplistic, and all the better for it. There are no additional weapon types or bombs; you have a toggleable ship speed and a default laser that can be powered up through three forms, and you can collect a shield and yellow SP icons that return your ‘special shot' gauge to maximum. Holding the 'A' button engages a regular red-coloured shot, while tapping the button powers it up through blue and then green depending on speed.
While this may seem a somewhat gimmicky correlation with Takahashi Mejin’s former trigger finger prowess, it’s by no means as taxing, requiring only very leisurely repetition. While the tutorial instructs that powering up can be reserved for larger enemies, in actuality scoring well requires you to keep it going for the majority of the game. On its default difficulty, this is easily done owing to the constant shower of power-ups that refill the already generous SP gauge.
Its uncomplicated setup works extremely well thanks to Terarin’s meticulous game design discipline. Calling on the Caravan challenges of the past, each stage and each enemy wave carries with it a certain amount of scoring potential. As well as chaining enemies together, learning patterns of larger enemies and those with formations that encircle the screen or close in on your craft, allows you to bag additional points for quick and efficient dispatching. There are secret bonuses hidden all over the place, as well as ground objects to blaze away. Finishing the game isn’t tough at all, even with its condition of restarting a stage after continuing, but learning the fine intricacies of its score game is a thoroughly deep and enjoyable challenge.
On top of the arcade campaign, Star Gagnant comes crammed with content. There’s a cute retro-graphics option that serves no purpose except to make everything beautifully pixel-y; granular audio adjustments; the aforementioned Shooting Watch challenge; a two-minute Caravan Mode; and an awesome Challenge Mode that moves through a menu of increasingly tough objectives. The latter is like a bunch of Caravan modes sewn together, timed vignettes that require you to perform different survival and scoring routines, ranking you with each before moving on to the next. And it’s great, with original music and an encouraging difficulty curve that will see hardcore players fighting for perfect results end to end. Online rankings are here, too, an absolute imperative considering the game’s engineering around scoring achievements.
On normal difficulty, Arcade mode is a moderate one-credit clear challenge for seasoned shooting game players, and is a far cry from the bullet hell format despite some thicker patterns later on. Life extensions are provided at regular score increments, and things don’t get particularly testing until the fourth (of seven stages), where closing ice walls with unforgiving hitbox parameters can trip you up, or fireball walls come peeling down the screen.
Things are kept interesting by the interjection of unique stage restrictions, like when your weapons temporarily go offline during a meteor storm, or the neat mirror-wielding mid-boss whose icy grip extends from its panes. Sometimes you’re battling through shrapnel trying to seek out those all-important SP icons to keep your special shot gauge filled, and in true Terarin fashion, it remains thoughtfully creative throughout. As with Raging Blasters, hardcore players may feel more comfortable with the game’s harder difficulty, where power-ups are more restrictive and missiles rain in thicker. We wouldn't really recommend Easy for anyone except the total layman, lest things become mundane.
Graphically, it’s nice and functional. Colourful explosions and enemies are all clearly delineated, and while it’s not aiming for any prizes, its aesthetic achieves just what it needs to. Little touches, like the adjustment of your ship's sprite as you toggle its speed, and the nice anime portraits accompanying dialogue exchanges are welcome presentation features. It neatly displays the game’s spacey locales at the full width of your widescreen, with transparent side borders hosting score details that confine the play area to a 4:3 space. The soundtrack deserves mention, too, a medley of awesome tunes that recall the days of the PC-Engine and many a Hudson Soft Caravan classic; and, with its additional OST for Challenge and Caravan Modes, there’s plenty to listen to. While it certainly doesn’t pip Raging Blaster’s blistering, driving oeuvre, it's still a satisfying audio experience.
The price, however, may be an issue for some. At £30 for a digital download, it's on the steep side. The Takahashi Meijin connection seems to be the driving force behind this valuation, but with Terarin's Raging Blasters (still slightly superior in our opinion) being only a third of the price, it's a tough sell for Westerners who may have never heard of him.
Even without Takahashi Meijin’s association, Star Gagnant would still be a Terarin work that genre fans can rely on. Its simplicity is what makes it so engaging: a clean, enjoyable shooting game with a deep scoring system to mine like crazy, and tons of modes in which to do so. And this, really, is where its creativity is strongest, drawing on games from the late '80s and '90s to build a new, Meijin-flavoured tapper that reworks those elements into something fresh. It's primarily pitched at existing Terarin fans and PC Engine shooting-game aficionados, and ably achieves its goals.