As I write, I’ve just cancelled a three month trial of Apple Arcade, which came with whatever 2021’s new iPhone was. I properly rinsed Apple Arcade in the few months after it launched in 2019, which I covered in my Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 at the time. Stuff like Bleak Sword, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Sneaky Sasquatch, Pilgrims and Speed Demons were among my games of that year, but then the games I wanted to play on there eventually dried up and I let the subscription slide for a couple of years until it wasn’t going to cost me anything to try again!

When the time came though, it didn’t look like there was a whole lot new to sink my teeth into, and what I did line up was, unfortunately, less than stellar in reality… The sequel to brilliant mobile Frog ‘er up, Crossy Road, turned out to be a mundane platformer that felt like it was originally intended to be free-to-play. Taiko no Tatsujin Pop Tap Beat should work find on a phone in principle, but it’s no replacement for the tactility of the physical drum controller I once scoured Tokyo’s 35 degree, 100% humidity August heat for! Cozy Grove seemed cool but not for me; Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City was great but more of the last game minus my dozens of hours’ worth of unlocks; and Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls just stank! And as much as I enjoyed a lot of these at the time, sticking a plus symbol on the end of Tiny Wings, Cut the Rope and the like doesn’t make me want to install a second version or play them again! After all of that, the sole remnant of Apple Arcade still installed on my iPad was a certain DoDonPachi Resurrection HD+, and yeah, it’s another plus symbol, but I’d never played this one!

As it happens, I’ve been playing a few shoot ‘em ups of late, but just like all the others I’ve played over the last four decades, they’re what you might class as “conventional” shooters – the likes of arcade Xexex, Phoenix and 1943, and Gates of Zendocon on Atari Lynx and Crisis Force on NES. And as much as I’ve had a great time with all of them, this DoDonPachi sequel unlocked something in me that I’ve known was there for sometime but had never broken the surface, and that is an appreciation of the art of the bullet-hell shoot ‘em up! All that said, as much as I know that lots of people like a shooter on a touch-screen, for me I can’t get past half of my hand being in the way, so that got binned off and we said farewell to Apple Arcade until the next trial! I wasn’t done with DoDonPachi though, and we went back to the original (sequel) on MAME and I played it solidly for the best part of a week, and while I’ll never be great, I could see progress, and more so than with a lot of those other shooters I just mentioned! I guess it’s a case of finding the game that’s going to inspire you to put the time in to learn its patterns as its mechanics slowly reveal themselves to you in parallel, and I guess DoDonPachi was the one! I just found the beautiful chaos of its enemy barrage utterly mesmerising, but at the same time I had the feeling I was trying to run before I could walk, and that’s where we meet Star Parodier!

Actually, that’s not entirely true. We were first acquainted during my first pandemic birthday in May 2020, when my wife had got hold of the newly launched PC-Engine Mini, and I spent weeks getting to grips with every one of its 57 games, although it’s taken me until now to properly get back to it – a testament to the curation that’s gone into that console because it’s been in regular use ever since! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself ever so slightly… I decided to do a bit of research, and came across a YouTube video by Schmup Junkie that went into shoot ‘em ups for beginners… Turns out I might have been right about diving into DoDonPachi, and what he’s done is go into games that aren’t just easier, but teach important skills and are fun too, from nineties shooters on Mega Drive and PC-Engine through to the bullet-hells of Cave and Touhou. And that journey begins with Star Parodier, although it being easy is easy for him to say!

Star Parodier might be my indirect gateway drug to bullet-hell oblivion, but it’s actually a regular vertical scrolling shoot ‘em up (notice I didn’t say “conventional” this time though!) from Kaneko, published on PC-Engine CD-ROM in Japan by Hudson Soft in 1992, then planned to be localised as Fantasy Star Soldier in North America, but that never materialised. However, the observant among you might well now have made the link with Hudson Soft’s Star Soldier series in the title, and putting it all together we might also suggest that Star Parodier is to Star Soldier what Parodius is to Gradius – a whimsical cartoon parody of a hardcore slice of sci-fi! Well, kind of. As my new guru Schmup Junkie explains, what Parodius failed to do was make Gradius’ hardcore gameplay any more accessible to the audience that its aesthetics were appealing to, while Star Parodier does the opposite; Hudson wanted kids and beginners getting into its at the time wildly popular live in-person caravan shooter events based on games like Star Soldier, and this was the answer. By the way, the strange word “Parodier” comes from the Japanese Star Paroja, which I think is a play on the phonetic Japanese for “parody” and “Soruja” meaning “Soldier” which is then further anglicised to sound like “soldier” giving us Star Parodier!

And I only mention that because if you think that’s a bit bonkers, wait for the story, which plays out in what must be the longest set of anime cutscenes I’ve ever seen, even by PC-Engine standards! While the Japanese acting that goes along with it sounds very dramatic, unfortunately I can’t understand a word of it, so I’m going to defer to Soldierpedia, the online database for everything Star Soldier, to take us through the action…

A vast, infinite universe.
A world full of silence.
On it, a full variety of life.
A dying star, a coming star. The breath of the universe that is received from life to life never ends forever. The battle between Mother Brain and Neo Caesar was nothing more than a chaos in the expanse of the infinite space.
And time has flowed…

“Emergency occurrence, emergency occurrence!”

A communication about the crisis on the planet Paroson reaches the Earth Guard Corps’s Kagura Saka branch. Tension runs on Bomberman’s face.

“Everybody is ready to be dispatched!”

Three aircraft are deployed by the Kagura Saka Branch of the Earth Guard Corps. When the guns are attached to the Paro Caesar, the Bomberman is equipped with the Crash Bomb, and the PC Engine is equipped with the Hu-Card, the mission preparation is completed. The three planes that hold the key to the fate of the planet Paroson finally take off.

Okay, now that’s all clear and we never need to speak of the story again, I do want to pick up on something that’s maybe not quite so obvious – you get to play as Paro Caesar (there’s that “parody” word-play again), based on the Caesar ship from Star Soldier, or the actual Bomberman from actual Bomberman, or an all-guns-blazing PC-Engine console no less! Each has their own weapons that will change how you play, for example Paro Ceasar is your regular nimble fighter where Bomberman is more of a tank and all about high explosives, while PC-Engine is a bit of both. A really nice touch is the the way each had their own self-referenced power-up icons too, like PC-Engine’s little HuCARD icons. Good luck making that choice, but once you do you’re finally on your way to the most joyful (albeit occasionally cruel) shooter this side of the Fantasy Zone!

The first thing you notice on your first (and every subsequent!) game of Star Parodier is not just the incredible cartoon visuals or the sonic feast that’s just taken your ears captive, or even the incredible craft that’s bringing it all to life, but the endless creativity of the world you’ve just entered! The first stage is some kind of airborne amusement park, with attractions spread across floating islands connected by bunting. It’s mid-boss is a giant ferris wheel rotating around a clock, and you need to shoot down the four blue-haired sisters with rabbit ears and big feet riding it to move on! A rollercoaster ride makes up the level-end boss, snaking around you as you try to shoot down its carriages one by one. Beat that (and you will, easily) and you’re in the toy factory, which is like flying through a mildly lethal rainbow, and from there you’ll be traversing beaches before heading under the sea, and through frozen snowscapes and mysterious deserts… The abstract geography lessons end as you approach the endgame, with references to at least three other PC-Engine game designs that I can see as gameplay switches up to almost auto-runner for a bit, before the final boss’ castle. Something for everyone, and definitely not the dark sci-fi fare you might expect from a PC-Engine shooter, even when it’s imitating those more attuned to that!

Every single environment is pretty much stunning in its own right, whether based in some kind of mad reality or parody or plain old Japanese anime fantasy. It’s all punctuated by huge landmarks, from Stonehenge monuments to even more monumental snowmen, and the scale of everything has allowed for the designers to go wild with detail and characterisation. And, of course, colour. It’s everywhere, and most of it is in motion in some way too, whether as a hardware-torturing mass of giant, pulsating bubbles of every hue, or a tree made of twinkling fairly lights, or some fleet of lunatic duck things that look like they’ve had an accident in a paint factory! Combine all of that with the mass of firepower hopefully coming out of your chosen ship sooner or later and this glorious chaos can be truly breathtaking!

On complete equal billing with the visuals is the music, probably the biggest beneficiary of the game being released on PC-Engine CD-ROM. Stage two’s soundtrack, in the toy factory, is a contender for the happiest song ever written, and nothing else here is very far behind. Every level’s tunes are unique, but share this common thread of being as upbeat as humanly possible, like circus music meets the Thundercats theme meets eighties synth pop. We’re way beyond the wonderful chip tunes the platform is legendary for too – it’s full-on layer upon layer of electronic melodies from “proper” electronic instruments and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Except maybe for some of the more generic boss themes, and actually, if I have to criticise anything it’s that some of the bosses are a bit generic in general. Maybe time to have a look at some…

I thought that as we’re approaching this from the viewpoint of a schmup beginner (or idiot or plain old loser), we’d have a look at the difficultly, and do that with a bit of a quick walkthrough… The first two levels are easy even by my standards, and are where you want to be working on collecting your preferred loadout while simply enjoying the space carnival scenery! After the best part of a week of daily play I’m then aiming to get through the third not only with all my lives intact, but having amassed a total of ten and a bunch of bombs. The third stage boss – a giant fish with maracas – is a bit of a challenge, but mainly because I don’t find landing hits on it very tactile, and also struggle to see the volleys of pink sea urchin things he’s chucking when the screen is full of your powered-up lasers; I’m okay with losing my first life here as it’s not my fault though, and I’m not going to take a back to the start of the stage penalty. By the mid-stage boss in the next level you’re going to be more than powered-up again even if you did lose a life at the last one, and you’ll have picked up a few more extra lives too. This end of level boss has some nasty multi-snowballs but you should have enough energy on you to make it through fairly easily.

I really like stage five, with it’s bonkers Japanese-themed desert filled with giant pyramids, Stonehenge monuments and crop circles, but it’s getting a bit harder now, with things shooting at you that you can’t shoot back at, and suddenly you’re not in control of the screen like you’ve been in the main up to now. My favourite boss in the game though, with a snake charmer surrounded by ornate sphinxes summoning up his three coloured snakes and announcing them with some beautiful Japanese-English… “Yellow snake, c’mon!” Just one of a load of iconic speech samples the game’s full of too, and I’ve glossed over sound effects until now, but they’re exactly the joyful cacophony you’re expecting me to describe by now! The main boss here is the hardest so far, demanding quick reactions and movement around its various attacks, but even losing a life here still gives us fourteen or so! Stage six is the first time the game starts demanding you practice until you know what’s coming – there’s a lot of enemies, and while they’re not too overwhelming in their own right, their movement isn’t what you’ve experienced so far, but if you’ve ever played Bomberman you’ll work it out quickly, and the Bomberman level boss fight definitely makes it worthwhile!

All those lives you’ve been collecting are now coming into play because level seven somehow combines the happiest visuals you can imagine with some very stressful, claustrophobic moments down its multiple-choice corridors! If you’re all powered-up it might not be so bad, but I don’t think I’ve started this level with much more than a basic blaster, and that means you’ll quickly be inundated by giant blobs of colour! I did discover a dirty little cheat on here though – when you die, you’ve got a couple of seconds of invulnerability; because you’re being funnelled down corridors, there’s space you can’t cross, but if you respawn on that space you’ll stay invincible for as long as you’re on it, and if you can get down the channel at the side in that state you can let go and saunter all the way up to the mid-level boss! Don’t get excited though, because it’s now very easy to lose a lot of lives in quick succession, and then the end of level boss is going to make you really work for it!

As you can imagine, to help write this bit I’m playing along again (after finishing it three times so far) and pausing now and again to note things down, and two unexpected things are happening on this playthrough… I’ve just cruised through the first part of level eight, effectively an auto-running maze where one wrong turn or, indeed, the right one but taken too slowly, and you’re dead. I lost a few lives on the way, but I had loads for the sole purpose of that bit of this level, and really wasn’t anticipating making it through it quite so easily by unplanned brute force and a load of spare lives! Secondly, level eight is also the last level, and on this particular pause I still have my original three lives left with just the final boss to go, so we are possibly on for a one-credit clear! What I know from previous play-throughs is a spread-shot and a bit of patience makes this simple – you can stay just out of the way and still make the hit. Bang!

Schmup Junkie was probably right – if I can beat this it must be easy! A couple of things to note though… Easy as it might be, if you’re not powered-up enough at critical times you’re screwed, just like in big-boy schmups like Gradius! I’m still not entirely sure what collectible is dictating how many times you can lose a life before you have to go right back to the start of the stage, but if that happens in the last two levels you might as well start again because a three-life start-from-scratch continue isn’t doing you any good here.

I’ve had a great time getting to know Star Parodier, as well as learning Schmup Junkie’s underlying fundamentals of getting good at shoot ‘em ups, but for as much as it was all I wanted to play for a few days, I doubt it will be one of the personal highlights of this journey as a standalone title. The gameplay is great but it takes cute way beyond old favourites like Fantasy Zone or Cotton, and that’s not really my thing.

This shooter journey that Schmup Junkie has prescribed definitely is my thing so far though! Let me quickly take you through what’s next… Lesson two stays on the PC-Engine, and is actually one of those games I said Star Parodier referenced in its last levels earlier, Blazing Lazers. Now, if Star Parodier was pushing the system then how this manages to do what it does on there is nothing short of a miracle! Blazing Lazers is another vertical shooter, way tougher and way darker, with an Alien-esque industrial sci-fi aesthetic that still manages to have some catchy tunes up it’s sleeve too! It’s really good too! From there, we head to the Mega Drive and the somewhat obscure horizontal shooters Steel Empire and Battlemania, and then we delve into bullet-hell on PC with fan-made labour of love Touhou 8’s slowed down easy modes, and that looks utterly mesmerising! There’s still a bunch of stuff lined up from there -Deathsmiles, Batsugun, Mushihimesama, Espgaluda II and the like, then some Euro Schmups, all carefully curated to teach beginners how to play, and it goes on and on! And while I’ll try not to go too mad with boring everyone about being a born-again shoot ‘em up obsessive, you’ll probably be hearing more about at least some of them here in future!