Quarter sawn Oak: walnut stained, à la Frank Lloyd Wright.
Seimitsu Buttons: black plungers, clear rings.
Sanwa JLF joystick.
Blue LEDs w/ custom LED controller.
Sweet mother that is fucking BEAUTIFUL.
Scenes from the opening and character select screens of Soukyugurentai (unofficially also known as Terra Diver), a 1996 Raizing shoot-em-up. This is one of Raizing’s more visually striking games, with a top-down, 3D feeling world composed of bitmaps and sprites, not polygons. Because of the added depth, it isn’t quite as crisp as Taito’s Rayforce, but it also looks less muddled than their polygonal RayCrisis.
Unfortunately, the version of MAME that I’m running crashes entirely upon any attempt to actually play a level of the game, even watching the in-game demo. Since during this entire chronological journey I have skipped over other games entirely that were not compatible, I made the executive decision to not try a later version of MAME to play the game for screenshots. So, you get these images.
Even here, though it’s interesting to note that while the character and ship designs appear original, the presentation method borrows very heavily from Neon Genesis Evangelion, the original anime broadcast of which had begun a year before this game was released. (Yes, that’s right, Evangelion is almost 20 years old; let the lamenting about our ages begin.)
Over the course of three decades in a hobby, you get a lot of opportunity for disappointments. The premature death of a loved console; finding out that a series has been permanently canceled with no more sequels; and, of course, games that didn’t live up to expectations. Games like Salamander 2. I remember reading about this fondly during 1996 and seeing pictures in magazines. A sequel to Salamander, one of my favorite games ever? It had been 10 years since the original game and I never would have expected this. I imported the soundtrack right away and found it completely lived up to my expectations—fresh, energetic melodies that combined the feel of old-school Konami with modern 90s synthesis and flair. And the game looked great, too. I had to play it.
Unfortunately, it was unlikely to ever show up in any arcade I would visit, but when I heard about a Sega Saturn port, as part of Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus, I knew what I had to do. I ordered it—at an exorbitant amount of something like $50 (about $75 today) from Japan, and was able to play it with the help of my Saturn’s GameShark. I excitedly popped the disc in. I played the arcade Salamander and Life Force for old times’ sake, got my butt handed to me and loved every minute of it. Then it was time to head on to the main event Salamander 2.
And oh, the disappointment. Salamander 2 was nothing like what I expected. It had the looks and sounds of a modern Salamander, but it didn’t feel like Salamander. In truth, Salamander 2 seems more like Konami testing the waters of Bullet Hell than a traditional Gradius or Salamander game. Despite callbacks to the original game like the brain boss Golem, or the four-armed Tetran, the gameplay is too fast and far too unforgiving. Games in this series were intended as quarter munchers, but this was just egregious. There is at times so much to keep track of on the screen from so many different angles that I couldn’t find any fun in the game beyond the first stage or two. The final stage, if you make it that far, actually has segments like closing doorways that are designed to almost definitely kill you unless you have played enough to memorize them. The abundance of power-ups in the game betrays the developers’ expectations that you will die frequently and need to get back on your feet. To make matters worse, the developers ditched the pod-based power up system the series is known for and went for Life Force’s “pre-determined” power up types dropped by enemies. Your weapons have two levels of firepower—but the second is only temporary, lasting less than a minute and requiring you to pick up another power up to keep it going. You can fire your options as a sort of “super blast”, weakening them in the process, but it’s a dangerous prospect in tough stages.
Are there good points to the game? Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, it looks and sounds great (although the further along you go, the more generically outer space the levels become), and will provide a whopping challenge for anyone who thinks the more traditional Gradius family games are too tame. Beating the first loop of the game will send you through a second, even harder, completely ridiculous loop, the only real benefit of which is some changed music (including updated mixes of the original Salamander themes.) If all this sounds like your thing, then I invite you to take the plunge. For me, I’ll continue to listen to the soundtrack and let Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus sit on the shelf until times when I feel my self-confidence needs to take a beating.