PC Engine Memories: Caravan Battle Stage is a bullet you won’t want to dodge
It’s hard to believe it, but 2016 is almost over. And after a year of seemingly endless releases, things are finally beginning to slow down in what’s been an exceptionally busy time for the video games industry. There’s a chill in the air, the leaves have fallen from the trees, and soon the succulent aroma of roasting turkeys and pine-scented candles will be wafting through the homes of millions of gamers around the world. And what better way to wind down the last few weeks of the year than to blow off some steam by laying waste to waves of hostile aliens with some retro shooters on your trusty PC Engine?
Thankfully, the folks at PCE Works have you covered with their latest offering in their long-running PC Engine Memories collection. The Caravan Battle Stage set compiles three of the studio’s previously released Caravan shooters including Cycho Rider, Force Gear and Twin Bee Returns, along with “Special Version” of GUNHED. However, do these four bite-sized bullet-dodgers offer enough bang for your shooter buck? Read on to find out!
Twinbee Returns first appeared as a mini-game in Konami’s Japan-only dating sim Tokimeki Memorial, which released on the PCE in 1994 and eventually was ported to a number of other platforms including the PlayStation, Super Famicom, and PC. It’s essentially a dolled up demo of the original game that has players soaring over a bland and grassy landscape, blasting popcorn ships and lobbing bombs at ill-tempered mushrooms as you fly from boss fight to boss fight. As you fight off waves of generic enemies you’ll collect peaches for points and snag multi-colored bells to upgrade your arsenal with such signature weapons as twin and three-way shots, silhouette ships that triple your firepower, and more. It’s fun enough, but the fact that your ship moves at a slow as molasses pace can make playing without a speed enhancing power-up pretty maddening. The game also features some digitized voice samples, but they’re quite scratchy. It’s also a bit disappointing how little animation went into each of the game’s sprites. This was especially noticeable having just played a few rounds of the gorgeous and vibrant Detana!! Twinbee moments before starting up Twinbee Returns. Still, at least the music is just charming as you’d expect from Konami’s whimsical shooter series. Believe me when I say you’ll be hard-pressed to get that stage theme out of your head even hours after powering off your console.
Next up is Force Gear. Like Twinbee Returns, Force Gear also made its debut on Tokimeki Memorial, and was released last year in PCE Works’ Gems Collection alongside Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. This fast-paced horizontal shooter puts players in control of a morphing mech/spaceship hybrid in a white-knuckle scorechaser that takes no prisoners. Mixing elements from both Hudson’s Star Solider series as well as Konami’s Gradius games, you’ll see plenty of familiar enemies (like the gross one-eyed brain from the first stage of Salamander/Life Force) fill the screen in this three-minute affair that will put your reflexes to the test. Force Gear may be a quick burn, but the gorgeous visuals, pumping music, and challenging gameplay will keep you coming back for more. In fact, it’s so good that it’s hard to believe that Konami never ended up making a full featured release out of the title, as it lays the groundwork for what could have been one of the finer shooters on the PC Engine.
Cycho Rider, like Force Gear, is another shooter that provides players with a bite-sized bullet hell tour de force. Originally included as a mini-game in Hudson Soft’s PC Engine RPG Seiya Monogatari: AnEarth Fantasy Stories, Cycho Rider straps players to the seat of a motorcycle hurtling through the cosmos to battle waves of enemies and massive bosses in a two-minute thrill ride. Though it’s short, the game still throws an impressive variety of enemies at our cosmic biker. Thankfully there are plenty of power-ups, like the ever-destructive 8-way shot, to help give you a fighting chance as you battle dozens of enemy ships at once. With the tap of a button you can also switch to a laser to deliver a powerful focused shot in exchange for the standard blast’s considerable crowd control benefits. Giant robots pushing what looks to be massive shopping carts full of ghosts will appear from time to time. Blasting these bots to bits will free these smiling specters, which you can then collect and watch your score climb into the stratosphere. While Cycho Rider feels like the crown jewel of the collection in many ways with its gorgeous visuals and breakneck pace, it’s not without its faults. The most nagging problem to rear its head during my time with the game occurred when battling the game’s giant dragon boss. Switching weapons in this battle made the music suddenly stop, and it wouldn’t resume until I started a new game. Considering just how fantastic the music is, this oversight is a crying shame. Despite this nagging issue, Cycho Rider is a wild ride that you’ll certainly come back to time and time again, and the ability to choose from several different game speeds adds plenty of replay value to this high-energy shootout.
The last title to round out PC Engine Memories: Caravan Battle Stage’s four-game package is GUNHED: Special Version. The original Caravan Shooter that started the craze on the PC Engine, Special Version is essentially a revamped take on the original game’s third stage. Players can choose between either a two or five minute mode and test their mettle against legions of marauding spaceships, gun turrets, and multi-part metal monstrosities. Considering just how great the original GUNHED/Blazing Lasers looked and sounded, it’ll come as no surprise to veteran flyboys to hear that Special Edition features the same impressive production values. Enemy sprites are big and menacing, and the varied power-ups fill the screen with missiles, hellfire, and arcing electrical beams. The game also moves at a lightning fast pace and slowdown and sprite flicker are nonexistent, even when the screen is completely littered with bullets, ships, and explosions. Of all the games featured in this collection, GUNHED probably offers the greatest challenge to complete. And with its wealth of interesting weapons and addicting gameplay, you likely won’t won’t mind the two minutes of tough love Hudson Soft’s frantic shooter delivers.
PCE Works have never been slouches when it comes to presentation, and Caravan Battle Stage is no exception. The four-disc set comes in an attractive slip case adorned with glossy, high-quality art from all four games in the collection. As nice as the outside of the case is, our friends at PCE Works know that true beauty is on the inside. With that in mind, they’ve even gone so far as to decorate the inside of the slip case with art from a few of the games included in the set, giving the package an extra splash of class. As expected, each game also includes its own spine card and insert with instructions. Sadly, none of these are translated into English, but at least they look nice and are printed on high quality card stock.
Priced at about $110, four games offering just a few minutes of total play time each may feel like a tough sell for all but the most devoted shooter fans. Still, if you’re a die-hard score chaser with an appreciation for novelty titles like those found in Tokimeki Memorial and Seiya Monogatari: AnEarth Fantasy Stories, you probably won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer here. Without question, Twinbee Returns is the weakest link in the package. Its lack of polish and by-the-numbers level design makes it an unremarkable oddity in package that’s otherwise filled with excitement. However, Cycho Rider, GUNHED: Special Version, and Force Gear are all fantastic little shooters that deserve a spot in your PCE library. If the cost of admission doesn’t bother you and you’re looking for a fresh challenge to test your skills, Caravan Battle Stage is definitely worth picking up.
If you’d like to add PC Engine Memories: Caravan Battle Stage to your collection you can do so here at PCE Works’ official store.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC Engine / Turbo Duo; Publisher: PCEWorks ; Developer: Hudson Soft/Konami ; Players: 1; Released: November, 2016 ; MSRP: €99.00
Full disclosure: This review is based on a promotional review copy of PC Engine Memories: Caravan Battle Stage provided by PCEWorks.