Friday, 10 March 2017

Truxton for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Taking a night off from the politics and suchlike, it's time we had a look at a well known MegaDrive title that's been in my sights for some time. Truxton, or Tatsujin as it was dubbed in Japan, is a vertically scrolling shooter that sees you operate a rocketship of doom against waves upon waves of dastardly aliens just begging to get blasted. Yes, as no frills shooters go, Truxton pretty much wrote the book.

As an early MegaDrive title, I remember its review back in t'day in jolly old Computer and Video Games. In common with nearly all of the initial crop of games, Tatsujin as we knew it then walked away with a massive pile of accolades. Remember, these were the days when replication of the arcade experience was the sine qua non of action-based gaming. The tiny number of screen shots jumped off the page and looked like something I'd only ever see at the sadly-missed American Adventure up the road. The graphics were crisp and crapped over all the shooters available on the 16-bit home computers, and the bosses were simply huge. I think this was the moment when I realised that the pennies I had hitherto put away for an Amiga might best go on Sega's machine instead - even though the official release was still over a year away.

Summer of 1991 came round and I finally had cash enough to sink into a MegaDrive. I started off with two games and spent the next year or so (very) slowly building up a collection. Truxton as it was now styled for Western audiences by this time wasn't something I particularly fancied, until the purveyor of cheapo console games on Ripley market introduce a swapping service. For a complete game and a fiver, you could have a new game. This is how I got my copy, stupidly swapping my original, complete and pristine copy of Star Control for it. Duh. And you know what, I was disappointed.

Truxton made a fantastic first impression in 1989, but three years later while it was old hat, even if considered a solid blast by the video game mag cognoscenti. I was forced to reluctantly agree at the time. It was tough - stupidly so, in places - and for a shooter, and a Toaplan-developed one at that, the thumping soundtrack I was expecting was curiously absent. The music still disappoints to this day. It hung around on my shelf for a while before getting swapped for Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (which, in its turn, later made way for Golden Axe). And that was it until a couple of years ago when I picked it up in my second wind of MegaDrive collecting. Did absence make the heart grow fonder?

Not this time, alas. Those first impressions formed 20 years ago all came back when it flashed up on my MegaDrive. The format, fly up a forced scrolling screen dispatching waves of enemies can be quite satisfying, but in Truxton's case it is marred by a litany of cheap deaths. Baddies suddenly appearing up your backside with little chance to avoid them. Exploding light bulbs (yes, really) that throw shards of death around the screen while trying to battle hordes of aliens are annoying. And, occasionally, those evil sods off screen throwing a bullet or two in your direction. This is partially compensated by the weaponry, of which there are three types obtained through power ups. The standard spread shot eventually develops a shield of bullets that prevent any kamikaze sneak attacks from the rear. But not helpful against the light bulbs. The "green weapon" is the most powerful but concentrates your fire in a strictly narrow column of death to the front of your craft. Excellent for bosses, not ideal for the rest of the level where enemies pop up from here, there and everywhere. And lastly there is the most awesome looking weapon, the lightning. On the screenshots it looks extremely impressive, and powered up fully five columns of electrical energy stream out to encompass almost the entirety of your screen. Problems? Sides remain vulnerable, the bolts can obscure exploding enemies, and there are nefarious mid-level bosses that use the beams to home in on your craft. Though word has to go to the Truxton smart bomb, which remains the most awesomely ostentatious explosion grace a 16-bit machine.

This might sound like a whinge (and it is), but it does make for a very frustrating experience. One moment you're basking in the near-invulnerability of total destructive power, and one cheap death reduces you back to a sluggish, underpowered vulnerable nonsense. Under these circumstances, you're sure to be less X-wing, more ex-wing. Yes, it's one of them. Truxton also has the annoying Toaplan characteristic of offering speed ups to the point of uncontrollability, making it nigh on impossible to effectively avoid enemy fire without careening into something else.

Despite being annoying and having rubbish music, Truxton managed to accomplish a few important firsts for the MegaDrive. The game helped cement its reputation as a machine capable of arcade quality action in the sphere of vertically scrolling shooting. Which, at the time, was (with its horizontally-scrolling brethren) the canonical game form - albeit one due to be replaced by the platformer. As far as I know, Truxton was the first game of its type for the MegaDrive. Second, it repeated the trick Altered Beast managed to pull by showing off (a little bit) some of the tricks the machine was capable of. There was some sprite rotation-y stuff on some of the enemies, and sometimes this was accomplished with many of them at screen on once. This was then a big deal, albeit one not picked up on at the time. Second, the game throws a lot of enemies at you without any slow down - again, a truly impressive feat of programming on then new hardware. Thirdly, Truxton also established the base standards one should expect from a game of this kind. Plenty of enemies, challenge, beastly big bosses - these were the standards by which vertically scrolling console shooters were to be judged. It wasn't a canonical game, but nevertheless the conventions it condensed were sublimated into reviewers' judgement criteria. As a rule, if a game didn't advance or innovate beyond what was on offer here it was destined to be a sure fire critical failure.

As games go, Truxton is now a museum piece. Worth a whirl certainly, but rapidly eclipsed at the time by other vertically scrolling fare Super Aleste as well as Toaplan's subsequent efforts on the MegaDrive.

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