The following is a guest post submitted by Ted Haydon for you readers to drink in; It’s good timing given the recent release of Batsugun EXA Label, Saturn Tribute Boosted, and Kumagumi’s official merchandise collection (which this article was originally written to support). My editing has been minimal. Enjoy! – AH
Ted: Danmaku – or ‘bullet hell’ games, in the most common English parlance – are known by many as one of the most important pillars of shooting games (STGs, shoot ’em ups, ‘shmups’ – etc). Like many other Japanese game genres, these subgenre labels and pigeonholes have gradually been made woolly by overseas fans, obscuring the original meaning into eternity. But what remains all but unquestionable is that one game, above many others, was seen to perfect and crystalize the strand’s truest elements into one of the earliest genuine examples.
Danmaku can be retroactively applied to Batsugun and its numerous subsequent versions with little contest. Key hallmarks of it latterly deemed in its country of origin came together in the title’s melting pot of mechanics and design, making it an epochal work. Yet the fact that it is even more than this – another example of Japanese video game artistry oozing class, a company’s final, valedictory shooting title – is also the key to why it has endured in the annals of gaming history, and continues to be celebrated by dedicated fans across the world.
Founded in 1979, Toaplan Co. Ltd spent the first five years of its corporate existence not making video games. It would take the demise of Crux and Orca for the company to finally capitalise on the growing industry and take several of their employees in, establishing their game development division in 1984. This office operated out of Shimizu, Suginami in Tokyo.
Though it made numerous games in other genres, there was one in which Toaplan truly made their name. Between 1984 and 1993, the likes of Truxton, Tiger-Heli, Twin Cobra and Zero Wing established the studio as a shooting game force to be reckoned with. These titles contained elements that would soon be collated into one cumulative masterpiece, worked on by a small team of developers led by producer and co-designer Yuko Tataka.
Credit: Beep Megadrive, October 1990
Previously a co-designer on Truxton, Tataka continued the vivid science-fiction stylings that informed it. Its strong visual aesthetic had typified much of Toaplan’s output since 1988, and was naturally a standard in shooting games. This was only one component of the alchemy that formed Batsugun’s appeal, however. One integral part was to be its approach to enemy fire placement; It would grow from the first boss and second level onward, designed by Toaplan to become more complex and hypnotic as the game went on.
Throwing manic amounts of bullets to create a hell-like atmosphere was not unheard of in shooting games. Toaplan’s own Grind Stormer from earlier in 1993 heralded the direction their output was moving in. And prior to that, Recca, a 1992 title by KID for the NES, pushed the console to its limits. Indeed, Recca’s main programmer, Shinobu Yagawa, went on to be involved with the seminal likes of Battle Garegga and Ibara. But with Batsugun, Toaplan’s designers would go all the way and take full advantage of the widening horizons ahead.
Toaplan personnel including Masahiro Yuge have retrospectively attributed this no-holds-barred approach to bullets with fresh hardware that could withstand displaying a great deal more sprites at once than before, and new ideas from their development personnel, who were inspired by other boundary pushing games from around that time. Reflecting their influences as independent developers, Toaplan’s in-house newsletter, ‘∀・TOL∀NP’, notably had a regular feature recommending a new innovative game to try.
To accommodate the considerably larger number of bullets, adjustments had to be made to other design aspects. Hitboxes of player ships in the game were decreased slightly from their typical size. This meant that the difficulty from the first boss and second level onward would not hinder things to an untenable extent, with players able to graze oncoming enemy fire – itself notably slowed down to weave in and out of. Paving the way for other games with these logical design choices, they would become defining characteristics of danmaku games.
Outside of key gameplay mechanics, a couple of other things cemented the lasting impression that Batsugun would leave on gaming & game development culture. For the first time in Toaplan’s shooting repertoire, periphery characters were given more prominence. A big part of this was down to debuting designer and illustrator Junya Inoue (Joker Jun), who alongside Takata and Takeshi Kawamoto designed the Skull Hornets, a squad of six pilots comprising Jeeno, Schneider, Beltiana, Iceman, Olisis, and Alteeno – each with their own distinct identity and background.
And for the music, inhouse musician Yoshitatsu Sakai composed a varied, eclectic original soundtrack. Often hopefully upbeat, but also containing darker, more menacing corners and sombre twists, Sakai reflected the design of the levels in tracks such as ‘Skim the Surface of the Sea’, blending aquatic vibes with motivated rock melodies and percussion. These tracks were put out by Scitron and Pony Canyon as a soundtrack album at the time.
Batsugun finally released to Japanese game and amusement centers during late 1993. That same year In Europe, Taito also took responsibility for officially distributing the game to arcades. On release in its domestic territory, Batsugun was an immediate hit, being listed by Game Machine as the seventh most popular joystick and button title in its ‘Best Hit Games 25’ listings published for February 1994. Arcade games from the legendary Gamest to console publications such as Marukatsu PC Engine gave it considerable print coverage.
Credit: Marukatsu PC Engine, March 1994
The following year, Toaplan would begin early planning on a sequel, beginning with an updated revision of the original game called Batsugun Special Version. This update decreased ship hitboxes again, bringing them further in line with what would come to be standard in danmaku, along with a few other additions and tweaks. Unfortunately, this new version would not officially release outside of its appearance at the 1994 AOU show in Japan; Alongside every other project in development, Batsugun’s sequel was forcibly cancelled.
Credit: Game Machine May 15, 1994
At the end of March, Toaplan suddenly declared bankruptcy. With its final work altogether becoming Snow Bros 2, Batsugun was now the swansong of the company’s shooting game output, one last defiant gift to a genre more recently overshadowed by the bigger mania for fighters and the first 3D titles at that time. Its preference to develop neither had caught up with them, despite offshoot businesses like directly managed game shop Soft Plaza Youki.
The closure of Toaplan can be seen as a dire, early premonition for the wider faltering of the amusement industry that would plague it during the ’90s, with other small and medium sized companies like Technōs following suit. Yet this did not stop Batsugun from influencing something of a shooting game renaissance, with an underground enthusiast sleeper boom in Japan. Following its release, other shooting games in its style and popular with fans appeared one after another.
And the ingenuity of the personnel that created it would not stop there. Many developers found new family at successor companies – most notably CAVE, where they would establish the hugely popular Donpachi series and other danmaku legends that expanded the niche subgenre – but also Takumi and Raizing, as well as Gazelle, who would port Batsugun and several other Toaplan classics to the Sega Saturn during their single year in business.
Gazelle later gave way to Tatsujin, which with Masahiro Yuge at the helm and other Toaplan originals including Inoue and Tsuneki Ideka claimed rights and responsibility to titles like Batsugun. With Tatsujin today under the vast Embracer Group, the game has lived on, with recent updated consumer and arcade versions as well as an official merchandise collection from Kumagumi once again demonstrating its long-lasting commercial appeal.
And so through the decades, Batsugun continues to endure, more accessible than ever to shooting gamers all over the world after its initial impact in Japan. But then that’s of little surprise, for a game confidently and definitively titled to mean ‘outstanding.’
Thanks again to Ted for this history on Batsugun – in case you didn’t know why people were into it, that should help. As mentioned, this game has found its way to arcades again. If you’re a collector though, does Batsugun already find a home in your collection? What do you love about the game?