America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 15th Jan 2020 | 3,049 views
The scrolling shooter renaissance on Switch continues with Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, a commendable compilation of six shoot-em-ups from defunct Japanese developer Psikyo. Featuring several of the studio's best efforts, including three titles from the outstanding Strikers 1945 series, it's a valuable proposition for any serious shooting fan, despite a lack of special features and a few missing Psikyo classics—due out next month in the Bravo collection.
For those unaccustomed to the ways of Psikyo, a studio spun off from the team that created Aero Fighters, it specialized in vertical and horizontal shooters with multiple ships/characters, relatively short stages, and "second loops"—the arcade equivalent of a New Game+, with faster, harder-hitting enemies. The developer also had a penchant for close-quarters combat, whether it was melee strokes in Sol Divide or dragon dismounts in Dragon Blaze.
This Alpha collection, the first of two planned releases by NIS America on Switch, features six arcade games: Strikers 1945, Strikers 1945 II, Strikers 1945 III, Sol Divide, Dragon Blaze, and Zero Gunner 2. Individual shooters come equipped with several display settings, including three screen filters, two wallpapers, and support for TATE (for some titles); game settings like fighter count, number of credits, and score needed to earn an extra fighter; mappable buttons; difficulty settings; and a handy manual to explain each game's HUD, commands, and power-ups. Minus save states and a rewind feature, these settings encompass just about everything you'd need for a home console version of an arcade shooter.
The heart of the collection is the Strikers 1945 series, one of Psikyo's finest. While there are some variations among the trilogy, each installment conforms to a standard template: six fighters, each with unique bombs and charge shots; enemies and levels that combine conventional aerial warfare with science-fiction designs; and transforming bosses. The premiere game is the most accessible; part II arguably the greatest thanks to a charge gauge, an interesting collection of planes, and increased graphical depth; and part III the most challenging and complex due to its chain and technical bonuses.
If the Strikers series marks the best of Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, then Sol Divide represents the worst. A bold, unorthodox horizontally-scrolling action title that combines arcade shooting with hack-and-slash gameplay and RPG elements, it sounds fascinating on paper but stumbles in execution. Players can choose from three characters who hover around levels, firing projectiles, swinging blades, and deploying spells powered by a magic bar. It's all very provocative, but due to clumsy combat, unusually short levels, and blurry CG rendered graphics, Sol Divide is easily the most skippable entry in the collection.
Another knock against Sol Divide: it's missing the rogue-like "Original Mode" exclusive to the PlayStation and Saturn ports of the game.
On the other side of the spectrum is Dragon Blaze, one of Psikyo's top individual efforts. Where many of the studio's earlier titles conform to a classical shoot-em-up formula, Dragon Blaze falls more in line with Cave-style bullet-hell shooters; it's among the most frantic and difficult of the games in the Alpha anthology. However, thanks to bright, attractive graphical assets, four playable characters, and a unique dragon dismount mechanic, it's also one of the very best. Each character rides a flying dragon steed, which can be dismounted and ordered forward to act as a melee battering ram and/or a remote turret. This adds depth to the scoring system as enemies downed by projectiles grant silver coins while those destroyed by dragon melee attacks award gold currency.
The final game on file is Zero Gunner 2, a 2001 swan song for Psikyo. Although it's one of the prettiest and most unusual of the six games assembled here, it's also one of the easiest and most straightforward. Across several brief levels, you'll pilot one of three helicopters in full 360 degrees. By holding down the Y button (by default) and moving the analog stick, you're able to rotate the chopper around to face enemies up, down, left, and right. It's a bit fussy—the Switch port seems to be screaming for a twin-stick option—but it does provide refreshing freedom of movement. Thanks to its widescreen presentation, this one is especially entertaining with a friend by your side in local co-op.
While Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha graciously supports two-player co-op in all six games, TATE mode for the four vertically-scrolling shooters, and reliable technical performance throughout, it's missing a few special features, including concept art, a music select option, and behind-the-scenes information about the games and Psikyo in general—the kind of extras that have become more and more commonplace in Switch collections. It's also absent online leaderboards, which seems a strange misstep for a series of games all about achieving high scores.
Despite some missing extras, Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha is a fine collection of some of Psikyo's best works. The headliners include Dragon Blaze and the Strikers trilogy, while Zero Gunner 2 is a fun diversion and Sol Divide interesting mostly for its novelties. Scrolling shooter fans—particularly those with a Flip Grip—should snatch it up, aim for high scores, and prepare themselves to complete the package with February's Bravo anthology.