You can now find me at https://mongunzoo.substack.com/
You can now find me at https://mongunzoo.substack.com/
Be Quick or be Dead
While observing the major events of past decades, you can detect a dialectical pattern in the way things play out. The 40’s were a time of Depression and War, with the 50’s being seen as an era of Stabilization and Growth. The 60’s could be defined as a time of Change and Progression, with the 70’s being summarized as a tumultuous time in response to a majority population coming to terms with that progress. With this in mind, what would one see when examining the Zeitgeist of the 80’s? This time of Fast Cars, Action films, and Hair Metal Bands. And, of course, Video Games.
As a newer medium of entertainment, they would naturally emulate and mirror movies such as Commando, Aliens, and Rambo. Resulting games like Contra, Ikari Warriors, and Turrican would give fans of action a more interactive experience, and proved to be incredibly ppoular. While it is true that these games fell out of style in the late 90s and after due to the proliferation of 3D Games, dialectical examinations teach us that nothing ever truly vanishes. Instead, they merely wait for a time when nostalgic yearnings enable them to return, similar yet also changed. What form would such a game take, drawing not only on the original film and game inspirations, but also on three decades worth of refinements and ideas that have been introduced collectively by an industry always in motion?
Blazing Chrome answers that question in a bombastic throwback to 80’s action sensibilities that will leave fans of the genre yearning for more. Combining ideas and gameplay from a variety of the best run-and-guns through the ages as well as bringing it’s own ideas to the table, it’s a wonderful time capsule. It also represents some of the best things about the Indie gaming scene. Namely that gamers have figured out that even if the industry is no longer interested in genres you are passionate about, that we can just do it ourselves in the space they conveniently left for us.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Contra is my childhood. My first video game system was a used NES, coming with a box of games that included Mario/Duck Hunt, Contra, Black Bass, Defender 2, Super Pitfall, ExciteBike, Baseball, and Contra. Though my favorite game was always going to be Mario, Contra was a close 2nd. Watching my Dad playing this game and later joining in using the now famous Konami Code are memories I still hold fondly to this day.
My next systems were SEGA Genesis and SNES. Again some of my favorite games were run-and-guns. Games like Mega Turrican and Gunstar Heroes introduced me to mechanics outside of Contra, and I enjoyed both immensely. Then I played Contra 3; to this day it is one of my favorite games to just pick up and go, delivering one of the tightest arcade-style experiences you can get. Sadly by the time the next generation of consoles showed up, developer attention turned to 3D Games. With the new emphasis being of First person Shooters and 3D Platformers, and the efforts like Contra: Legacy of War being….painful, I began to move on from this style of game, forced out by a lack of viable options.
Years later, with the birth of the Indie scene, a plethora of genres forgotten by a progress-obsessed game industry began to come out of hibernation to the excitement of many gamers, myself among them. Even more hype-inducing was the prospect of these games getting physical releases thanks to the efforts of small limited-edition publishers like LimitedRunGames. Blazing Chrome was among the ones that I was most excited about, and from the moment I first heard about it I knew that if it received a physical release I would have to get it. Sure enough, not long after it’s release it was announced for $34.99. I bit immediately, and when it arrived the box went on the shelf, the cart went into the Dacckit, and it awaited it’s turn as I burned through my backlog.
That time is now; I suited up and prepared for the mission.
In Search Of The Last Action Heroes
Blazing Chrome wears it’s inspirations on it’s cutoff sleeves. Sometime in the future, the development of a supercomputer led to the decimation of the human race. As the machines became stronger and began to produce biological weapons as well as more combat robots, humanity began to fight back. You are one of two commandos on a mission to infiltrate and shut down the core of this AI in order to take the planet back for team Homo Sapiens. It’s a barebones premise to let you know the high stakes you are fighting for.
Every action epic needs a Hero, and this one has two that you can play as from the get-go. Mavra is a Human resistance fighter, and Doyle is a reprogrammed combat robot. From what I can tell they both functionally play the same, with each having the ability to jump, go prone, roll, and shoot (melee when the baddies get close). Both have access to a plethora of powerups and guns that can be found in supply drops as the stages progress. In addition to your default Machine Gun, There is an arcing Grenade Launcher, a charging single-fire Laser Rifle, and an Energy Whip what operates like a flamethrower, heaping on constant damage. There are also pickups like a Double Jump that increases maneuverability, An assault Drone that doubles your firepower, and an energy shield that allows you to eat an attack.
You’ll need all of it. Blazing Chrome is a hard game. enemies are numerous and aggressive, and on higher difficulties can make short work of even the most seasoned action star. Which is why the lessons learned from other Run-and -Guns come into play so effectively here. Each player has the ability to switch between the four guns on the fly, provided that they have collected them from a supply drop. Your default gun is now auto fire, and you can also aim in all 8 cardinal directions, with a button to anchor in Place while you do so. This means the only tricky shot is the one straight down below you. Checkpoints are also numerous, giving you an allotted number lives to reach it depending on what difficulty was chosen. It takes elements from games across the genre and distills them down to their essence for a challenging but fair excursion.
The Enemy That Defines Us
The campaign takes place across 6 missions, 4 of which are selectable from the beginning ala Gunstar Heroes. Each mission has a simple description of it’s objective and an accompanying difficulty rating. Once selected you will immediately be thrown into combat against a variety of Machines and biological mutants out to finish you for good. Enemy variety is consistent but not overwhelming, and generally fit in with the scenario at hand. expect to see Robotic Warriors in defense of the Communications Tower, Mutant Experiments at the Bioweapons facility, and a variety of berserkers and infantry robots in the City Siege.
Each mission also has a number of set-pieces and hazards that will also factor into your run. From crumbling floors and platforms to quicksand that you slowly sink into, the environment themselves also offer an obstacle to fulfilling your objectives. The game also serves as a greatest hits compilation of awesome moments from past run-and-guns. There are over the shoulder straight on gauntlets ala Contra 1, Speedbikes and Mechs from Metal Slug, and an innovative jetpack sequence that is all their own thrown in for good measure. These are conservatively interspersed between the standard fare and show up just enough to keep the pacing feeling brisk and efficient.
A modern game like this would also be lackluster without a stellar group of boss encounters, and in this instance, Blazing Chrome does not disappoint, either. Bosses are doled out several times throughout each mission, in a manner reminiscent of Alien Soldier and Contra: Hard Corps. Many of these bosses also have multiple moving parts that can be targeted to remove a dangerous weapon from it’s arsenal as well, giving the player some choice in how to engage each encounter. Each fight also has relevance to the scenario at hand. You will fight the tentacles of the Biomonster on the surface prior to going underground to fight the body itself. Units rain from the sky from the final carrier you will fight at the end of the train stage. These battles provide an explanation as to the problems you have faced and give a great sendoff to each stage.
The Art Of War
I can’t say enough about the graphical direction chosen for this game. JoyMasher nailed it, providing a 2D Graphical style with depth and shadowing that give a lot of character to this technological apocalypse. There are a lot of details in the multilayered background that gives the game a real sense of motion as you trek through these missions. The Straight-On, Over the shoulder segments are well done and provide some interesting uses of the game’s engine, in particular a late game segment that I was honestly blown away by. All in all, nothing but praise here.
It will also rock your socks off in the audio department. This is an 80’s-Style soundscape that is equal parts Mega Man and Contra, and was really impressed with how well it synergized with the pacing and mood of the game. Equal parts upbeat and desperate, it drives you forward with a sense of urgency, with my particular favorites being the Communication Tower and Train mission tracks. In terms of sound effects they do their jobs admirably, and synch well with the onscreen action. The detonation of enemy robots and sounds coming from both friendly and enemy fire do not detract from the game.
in regards to performance, the game was smooth, and I did not notice any hiccups in either 1 or 2 player mode. In fact, the only thing I can say in critique of the game is that I never really understood the utility of the roll ( In fact it actively killed me on a few occasions), and that I wanted more of it. Once you complete Blazing Chrome, there is more to do in what is certain to be at least one more playthrough. Outside the unlocking of a Hardcore difficulty, which challenges you to complete the game with less lives, limited continues, and more numerous and aggressive enemies, you’ll also gain access to 2 additional characters. These are melee-oriented, changing the way you will engage the enemy. There is also a mirror mode that flips the levels in a fun way, adding further challenge. While the replay value is high, it must also be kept in mind that at the time of writing, Blazing Chrome is an expensive package, and that at the time of this writing I could not find a copy for sale for less than $110.00. Proof of the games quality, but also of the limitations of limited physical releases.
Putting Down the (Run And) Gun
In recent years, Konami has been one of the most disappointing studios in the world, squandering the potential of their franchises or ignoring them completely. In the case of Contra, one of the legendary inspirations responsible for the existence of blazing Chrome, they chose to put the utterly Putrid Contra: Rogue Corps the same year, showing not only that they do not care about the fans or IP, but also that no amount of begging or competition will alter their behavior.
And that is fine. Konami may own Contra, but they do not own the Run-and-Gun. When a genre outgrows a particular franchise, sometimes the right thing to do is say goodbye. Konami’s lack of care can never take the memories I have of prior entries, and cannot prevent talented developers like JoyMashers from making more. As I tore through the robotic hordes in 2-player with my Dad, I can’t help but think that we are in the middle of making the second batch. Though I wanted more, If I’m being honest I can understand that Blazing Chrome is a game that respects my time, and will always be waiting for me when I come back, which I will. It’s a hell of a good time.
The Limits of Human Potential
Throughout the eons of cognitive development, a wide variety of theories have been proposed, discarded, debunked, and built upon. It now seems that there is a direct link between the cooking of food, shrinking of teeth, and development of larger brains. For an entire generation the belief persisted that we can only access 10 percent of our brain’s potential, despite the fact that damaging any part of the brain results in limited cognitive function. And in more modern times, the ideas of Parapsychology (The belief that brains have latent abilities like ESP) and Moist Robot Hypothesis (the theory that Brains are Computers that can be programmed) were studied by Governments for potential military application.
By the late 80’s these theories escaped the halls of of academia and the filings in classified documents to drift through the currents of popular culture, ending up in novels like Firestarter, Anime such as Akira, and yes, even videogames. Being the newest and most immersive form of entertainment, games have the potential to explore this concept in ways that other mediums cannot, as these are often player-centric affairs’, offering a backdrop for you to tell your story. How would you fare in a world of psychic powers and the technology that this unlocks? Can you go the extra mile and unlock a level of focus and concentration necessary to take your brain to another level?
ESP Ra. De Psi allows you to test yourself, focusing on how you feel as a player thrown into a brutal and unforgiving world with rules you won’t immediately understand. It’s possible that you will start out completely overwhelmed even on the more forgiving modes and difficulties. Yet as you fight through your misgivings and frustrations you will notice your concentration and focus growing sharper, your reflexes becoming nimble, and in the end, you will be dodging bullets like a natural psychic.
Allegory of the Cave (Shooter)
I was never a stranger to Shmups. One of my first games was the NES version of Defender 2, and from there I graduated to games like Life Force and Axelay. While I enjoyed them, they were never my favorite genre. This was not helped by the fact that I didn’t move on as a gamer past the SNES and Genesis era, missing out on some of the most legendary shooters like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. I had heard about them, but without having their systems in the household I never had the opportunity to give them a spin.
Time marched on. During Junior College you could always count on a few Xbox 360’s going in the Student Union, and while Halo 3 was usually the feature presentation, every Friday afternoon you could count on a raucous group of gents huddled around the a screen playing obscure Japanese Shooters. This was my first encounter with Cave, a company renowned for so-called “Bullet Hells”, and to according to their playerbase, there was no going back once you gave them a try. High scores became their mantra, and like Plato’s Allegory in reverse they stepped into Cave’s catalogue of shooters and never emerged.
Years passed; The Switch came out, I got the Collector’s Bug, and when I saw this game pop up on PlayAsia, I quietly filed it away in my “keep an eye on it” drawer and moved on with my day. Anyone familiar with the fanaticism of Cave’s fans and the Shmup community in general could have told me this was a bad idea, and by the time I remembered to buy it was too late. It was off to EBay, where I winced as I put down 99 Dollars to add this one to my collection. I began to second-guess the purchase; Could a game you can theoretically complete in less than an hour be worth that much money?
The game arrived, and I stepped into the Cave…
Remember, Execute, Forget
The world of Esp Ra. De is a rough one. Development of Psychic power continues unabated, leading to breakthroughs in technology and the development of psychic soldiers. This spirals into a war between factions, with the most powerful among them being the Yaksa Group. As Yaksa begins to build it’s army of psychics and augmented weaponry, three people with their own personal reasons for opposing them step forward to put a stop to their machinations. Bonus Points for taking place on Christmas Day!
Selecting your character, each combatant has different strengths and weaknesses. Yusuke is fast and damaging but has a straight, slow and narrow firing range. He also seems to be the only character that can fire both his power shots and standard shots simultaneously. JB-5th moves normal speed with moderate damage, but his shots have a shotgun-style spread capable of wiping out large swaths of enemies. Then there’s Irori, who is the slowest of the three but has rapid and screen-wide shots as well as the ability to angle her power shots. She also has an incredibly annoying voiceover.
From there, you’ll begin in one of the games first three stages, dependent on who you picked, and shoot your way through them before tackling the last 2 Stages culminating in a final encounter with Mrs. Garra, the leader of Yaksa. It’s a fast, frantic, and exhilarating experience that takes you through a variety of environments such as a school campus, a shopping district, and a docking area on the coast. Christmas décor is abound to remind you of the period, and the stages are full of detail and life. Roofs break away revealing hidden tanks and soldiers. Trains roll onward underneath often carrying enemies. There is a lot to look at. At least there would be if you weren’t busy dodging the absolute swarm of projectiles being hurled your way.
All that is within you
Fortunately you are given all the keys to your success up front. Get used to your Shield Button; You are going to be using it often. Charging your shield taken energy that you will build up over the course of your battles, and it serves to protect you from enemy attacks. Upon releasing the button you will set off your Bomb, which will clear out a good chunk of enemies and do big damage to a boss or miniboss. As you destroy enemy forces they will drop green powerups that increase the potency of your attacks, and orange powerups that replenish your shield meter. Naturally dying not only expends a life, but makes you drop some of this power, so try not to.
Pairing with this is a unique scoring and combo system designed around an order of operations. Your goal is to Hit bigger enemies with your power shot once it is charged up, then kill them with you standard fire. Doing this give you a multiplier up to 16x that you can use to rack up your score as you kill smaller enemies. High scores will yield extra lives and continues that you will absolutely need. This is because your opponents are numerous, relentless, and nonstop. You are going to die in this game a lot. One thing that discouraged me in the beginning is that there was NO WAY to dodge some of these bullet patterns. That’s because 1)Your character sprite is NOT your hitbox; It’s actually around your character’s neck area. 2) They don’t expect you to dodge everything in a bullet hell, which is why I emphasized your shield and bomb.
The whole thing serves to put you in the zone. Dodging and blocking hailstroms of bullets and psychic blasts; Hitting big enemies with everything you have before unleashing hell on the hapless smaller forces supporting them; Strategically collecting powerups when you have a quick moment to do so. It’s an aerial dance supported by a strong cast of opposition units, full of psychics, soldiers, tanks, and aircraft. Minibosses are also frequent and serve as impressive set pieces ready to put you to the test, my favorite being a Cloaking Spider Tank and a couple of Battleships. Then there are the bosses; Skilled Psychics or Massive weapons of war designed to kill you will extreme prejudice. With multiple parts to them and the ability to target specific parts, these encounters are strategic highlights that will test if you are ready to move on to the next barrage of bullets.
Structures and Functions
From a design standpoint, there is a lot to appreciate. There are a variety of details in the destruction wrought by your one person war against the Yaksa Group. Bosses gush blood as they die, Pilots fall out of downed planes, and Helicraft launch from below into the sky to do battle with you. Character designs share inspiration with Shin Megami Tensei (This was an Atlus Game, so I suspect they also may share artists), a style I have always enjoyed. The world’s inspiration is also clear, drawing from late 80’s and early 90’s Anime to paint a picture of a world altered by psychic technology.
Aurally the game is a mixed bag. The soundtrack was serviceable, but lack any real earworm type tracks, and having even played it today I can only vaguely recall the Boss theme in my head. Sound effects are spot-on, with no detectable detachment from what is happening on the screen versus what was hitting my ears. Voicework is in Japanese, but was of high quality as well, with the noted exception of Irori, which I personally found to be almost intolerable. In short, nothing stands out, but it certainly does it’s job.
Once I figured the hitboxes out, I am happy to report that I had very few deaths resulting from faulty design. While there is some slowdown at times I honestly saw this as a blessing being a neophyte to bullethells. More experienced players may disagree. There is also a fairly long initial load when first booting up the game, but after that it’s quick. A final thing worth noting is that this is NOT an import that supports English Language, and so unless you can read Japanese, you are going to be very limited in regards to the full offerings this package has. There is an Arcade Plus mode, as well as some sort of room building Sim where you decorate a room based on mini challenges presented from the game’s stages. There also seems to be multiple difficulties to choose from, and a Super Easy Mode to help you dip your toes in. Most of the game’s myriad options continue to elude me.
Bending the Spoon
As I reflect on my time with Esp Ra. De. Psi, that 99 dollars that was spent on it’s purchase weighs heavily on me. Is this a fantastic game, and one of the best Shmups I have ever played? I think so. Can I recommend you buy it at the insane asking prices currently showing up in listings. Absolutely not. Of course, money is relative; 99 dollars to an executive is not the same as 99 dollars to a cashier. Still, there is no way that I can say with a straight face that someone should spend this kind of money on a Switch game when there are so many cheaper and more reasonably available bangers out there.
I am reminded of a quote from the Matrix. “Do not try to bend the spoon. That is impossible. Instead, try to see that there is no spoon, and the only thing that bends if You”. In the end, I bent to Esp Ra. De. Psi, training myself around it’s foibles and mechanics. And I am honestly happy that I took the time to learn it’s intricacies and have the means to experience it’s greatness. The interesting scoring mechanisms, tight and well-paced action, and addictive qualities rival even the apex shooter Ikaruga, and is worthy for any fan of the genre.