Over the course of the past year or so, the Sega Astro City Mini has firmly established itself as one of my favourite consoles of all time; the form factor, the build quality, the arcade stick and not least the fantastic line-up of games have elevated it right up there with the likes of the PlayStation 2 and the Game Boy Advance SP! To say I’m excited about the prospect of the Astro City Mini V would be an understatement, with its vertical screen to get the most out of its selection of shoot ‘em up’s greatest hits, and especially for me, Batsugun, a top three favourite in the genre, as well as Armed Police Batrider, Gunbird and Strikers 1945. Actually, all of them! Anyway, that might be some time off yet here in the West, which gives us plenty of time to jump over and see what Taito are bringing to the party in the meantime!
As much as I’m still planning to break my own record for the most games ever covered in a single review here, I do have a bit of a head start, having already covered both the Taito Legends collection on Playstation 2, which was twenty-nine games, then there’s another ten on Taito Milestones, although at this stage I’ve not done any checks for specific crossover. We’ll work that out as we go, although I am now wishing I’d covered Taito Legends 2 already too! Also, we’ll take a look at the Paddle & Trackball Expansion set and all the games that come with that separately, just to avoid totally frying all of our brains! And as I always disclose when I’ve been given something for review, I’ll mention that I paid for this thing, and not only that, but I got stung for £50 import duty too! With that out of the way, we should quickly look at the unit before we get to the games…
The non-mini Egret II first appeared in Japanese arcades back in 1996 – a standard form-factor cabinet that could host different Taito games, either with a vertical or horizontal display format thanks to its unique screen rotating mechanism. The Mini version is pretty much the same, minus second player controls, plus a couple of (welcome!) colour tweaks and it’s been shrunk down to about 21cm high (and 6cm more with the instruction card in) by 15cm wide by 18cm deep. The 5-inch, 1024×768 resolution 4:3 monitor monitor still rotates to horizontal and vertical alignment, offering an optimal format for the selected game. There’s a 6-button arcade layout and joystick that’s also individually adjustable for each game, with a switch on the bottom of the unit to easily jump from eight directions to four. Around the back, you’ve got USB-C for power, an HDMI output to also play on TV, two USB Type-A controller ports for additional, optional controllers, an SD card slot to add even more games (currently limited to the additional ten with that paddle and trackball set we’ll review separately) and integrated sound through stereo speakers.
Those speakers are about the only thing I don’t like about the whole unit so far. Way too puny, even with the volume turned up in settings, and while there is a regular headphone socket I’d have liked a little bit more oomph for a quick casual plug in and play session. Apart from that, the unit is a mini beast, with a real weight to it, which is also true of the stick and the buttons that return a decent click in response to your inputs. And that rotating screen is genius! So easy to push it in, pop it out and turn it around to suit whatever you’re playing, which will in turn automatically adjust itself. That mechanism feels as sturdy as you’d want it to as well. One more neat touch is the inclusion of original instruction cards that slip into a clear plastic extension for the top of the cabinet, and there’s one for every game so you can exchange them to your heart’s content. Their little case is a bit easy to knock off the top, but given how many times I’ve done that already it’s probably preferable to it snapping off; it lights up a bit too from the unit’s generous front-illumination through its locator holes.
The system takes about five seconds to get past the Taito and console logos and into the vertical game carousel, which you can sort by release year, name or any assigned favourites. The left side of the screen illustrates an original Egret II cabinet, with the attract mode playing on its little horizontal or vertical screen for the selected game, plus an indicator of any save states existing – every game can have three at a time, and you save and load by pressing the menu button in-game. The menus overall are perfectly intuitive, and I like the various beeps that sound as you move around them or select something. There’s also a background tune playing until you actually load up a game, but if you leave it idle for three minutes it goes into a demo mode. You can change the music, change that time limit, add filters, adjust brightness, volume and so on in system settings on the main menu. Once you select a game, you get a description and button layout over an animated preview, as well as the choice of new or saved games, and access to any original DIP switch settings (difficulty, number of players, bonus thresholds, etc.). Everything you need and it’s all easy to get to, so now we’re ready to take a brief look at every single game on this thing, in the default by year order!
Space Invaders. Easy place to start with no introduction needed, except this is the colour version from 1978, and I’m glad they’ve gone with that one rather than the black and white original or some other sequel or respin because this is the version you know best and the one you want to be playing! You move your cannon left and right, you shoot the invaders, you don’t let them get to the bottom or shoot you. You know the score, and the score is timeless, just like those sound effects! And if you want more, check out our review of the Space Invaders Invincible Collection on Switch where you’ll also find this one.
Lunar Rescue. Built on the Space Invaders board in 1979, this has you dropping down through a load of comets to rescue people on the moon surface from increasingly small but higher scoring platforms, using your thrust as sparingly as possible to conserve fuel. Then it’s back up to the mothership in a more familiar shoot the aliens phase before going down again for the next one. Fantastic game with those different mechanics for variety, and a lovely, vibrant looking playfield too. And also included in that Space Invaders Invincible Collection.
Steel Worker. I’d never even heard of this arcade puzzler from 1980, and I love it for that before I’ve even tried it! You need to select the right type from the menu at the bottom and then connect your girders to guide hapless workers from the left of the screen to the right without dropping any, otherwise you’ll never make it to chief engineer. And you won’t because this Lemmings spiritual predecessor takes no prisoners! Not much to look at but it’s clever, and maybe too clever for its own good because it’s going to take a while to get your head around the different girders, let alone place them before your guy falls to his doom. One for a rainy day!
Lupin the Third. Or Lupin III. Either way, I think this is a Japanese manga license from 1980, so a very early one, and it must be one of the earlier examples of cutscenes too! You play a gentleman thief in a single screen maze, grabbing eight bags of money from the safe at the top and trying to escape with it at the bottom. You can take two bags at once but that will slow you down, meaning Inspector Zenigata, his guards and their dogs are going to be even harder to avoid. And it’s hard enough already, but you do have limited magic to teleport you away from danger if you’re desperate. Simple looking, of course, but pleasantly ambitious all the same and really addictive, so a nice, unusual inclusion here!
Qix. When we reviewed this here as part of Taito Milestones on Switch, my red-black colourblindness uncovered a fundamental problem with my enjoyment of this 1981 puzzler – I can barely see my own little thing moving about, and the enemies are pretty much invisible, so while the concept is fantastic, and I’d definitely love the thing otherwise, unfortunately it’s just not for me. However, if you can see what’s going on, and you can guide your line to cover 75% of the screen while avoiding various nasties, then I’m sure it’s great!
Pirate Pete. This is a literal pirate reskin of Jungle Hunt from 1982, so if spear-chucking cannibals aren’t your thing then this is what you’ve been waiting for! I’m not fussed either way and I love them both, but I think the shark-infested ocean level that replaces the crocodile-infested river here is a real looker! The rest has you swinging and jumping and running through the four perilous levels to rescue your girlfriend from the nasty pirates before they don’t eat her. An epic adventure wherever it’s taking place!
Adventure Canoe. Another one I’d never heard of, but the spear-chucking cannibals are back! This one’s from 1982, and reminds me of Taito’s Alpine Ski (which I’d have loved to have been included here too) but obviously this time you’re on a river in your canoe, with adventure provided by logs, whirlpools and the local fauna, some of which looks so cool casually stood on the bank watching on! Nice environmental and musical changes as you progress, and controlling the canoe feels good on this system. I’ll be spending a lot more time on this treacherous river!
Elevator Action. Here’s our first system seller for me, and a 1983 spy thriller that has you on a mission to steal secret documents as you make your way down to your car, waiting underneath high-rise buildings full of elevators, lifts and enemy agents. It all looks a bit Spy vs Spy, with a bold cartoon aesthetic and increasingly complex structures to negotiate. This sits painfully one place outside my top ten games of all time, and we also covered it with Taito Milestones and the wonderful Taito Legends collection on PS2, but I’ll always take another version, especially on a unit like this one!
Chack ‘n Pop. Another Taito Milestone from 1983, and I think I’ll just drop those references now because there’s loads still to come – read the reviews we’ve already linked to if you’re interested! Anyway, this is a bit of a spiritual predecessor to a game we’ll come back to, Bubble Bobble, as your little yellow blob platforms his way to free caged hearts that will open up the level’s exit while avoiding monsters hatching from eggs, or just lobbing bombs to destroy them. I enjoy seeing a lot of familiar faces here but unfortunately that’s about it; it controls awkwardly and it never gets intuitive to move around. Still not really keen on this.
Outer Zone. Something else to discover for the first time with this 1984 space oddity! You start out in this mind-bending 3D Escher-style maze, and you have to make your way diagonally in all directions to a load of “outpoints” then destroy them, all while avoiding various meanies. It’s a bit Pac-Man meets Monument Valley, but honestly without the fun of either – awkward controls ruin the party again. However, that’s only the start, and should you manage to complete that bit, it goes vertical shooter and you get to “battle the Demons” by shooting at their three weak points. Then repeat. Great soundtrack, very nice concept, and all nicely polished too, just poorly executed and not a lot of fun as a result. Something is nagging at me to come back to this one though, so we’ll see!
The Fairyland Story. Another great soundtrack, another strong whiff of the still to be released Bubble Bobble, and another reason why I’m increasingly glad I was given a review copy of Taito Milestones rather than buying it multiple times! I’m a big fan of this one from 1985 wherever though, not least because of the bonkers premise described behind the game’s menu screen… “Ptolemy must recover the Holy Gem to restore peace to the land! Do battle with the Dracolisk and its monster army using magic which can turn them to cakes.” In that respect its also a full five years ahead of the also very similar Rodland, but like Bubble Bobble too, it’s not quite got that magic of either. I actually described it as Diet Bubble Bobble in one of that compilation review before and I stand by that even though it still tastes better than Diet-anything I ever tried!
The Legend of Kage. I’d have said this one was a year or two later than 1985 if I hadn’t just checked. Certainly comes across like it! There are some games that don’t feel right on anything but an arcade stick, and that’s why this jumper and slasher feels so at home on the Egret Mini. Your ninja guy’s girlfriend has a habit of getting kidnapped in the forest so you have to fight your way among the trees, tunnels, sewers and castles to rescue her. Repeatedly! If she wasn’t such an idiot there’d be no game though, and that would be a shame because it’s great! Very stylish in all respects and another reason I was so keen on picking up the system – I actually finished the Spectrum port a few weeks ago as I write, so I reckon I’ll try the same here soon too!
Halley’s Comet. This one’s even further ahead of its time, although at first glance you might be forgiven for thinking the exact opposite! It’s a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up from 1986 that feels a lot like something Cave would produce years later, with loads of bullets flying about, overpowered weaponry, defensive mechanics and some very forward-thinking boss fights. Some really cool explosions and graphical effects too, as well as the epic Dambusters meets Star Wars music! This was a favourite before that feels great to play on this setup, and if you’ve never done so before then it’s a real hidden gem to dig out here!
Bubble Bobble. No more messing about – it’s 1986 and this all-time arcade classic is finally here! Bub and Bob, transformed into dinosaurs by an evil wizard who’s also kidnapped their girlfriends, who are currently 100 fiendish single-screen platform-based levels away! Blow bubbles to catch his bullies then burst them with your spine is all there is to near-enough arcade perfection! Its wonderfully unbearable cuteness, iconic soundtrack and general simplicity hides insane depth if you want to go there, but you can also just go for the pure, undiluted fun version instead. However you play, it’s one of the greats, and certainly another highlight in this lineup.
Kiki Kaikai. A 1986 top-down run and “gun” and sometimes slash set in Feudal Japan and steeped in Japanese mythology that’s probably better known to many of us for its 1992 SNES sequel, Pocky & Rocky. This is familiar territory if you’ve played that though, with your young shrine maiden, Sayo (or Pocky), out to rescue seven Gods of Fortune who have been spirited away. I’ve never really found this or any of the series it spawned especially inspiring – it looks like an old-school JRPG and plays like a less interesting Ikari Warriors. It’s alright though!
Scramble Formation. That’s not bad… Although I have noticed the odd Japanese character here and there so far, it took me sixteen games to actually have to complain about the laziness of including something untranslated from Japanese! Don’t suppose it will be the last time here either, but at least this is a vertical shooter, and they’re hardly known for their compelling narrative! (In case you’re interested though, this one’s about a meteorite bringing mysterious flying objects with it that want to invade us)! As a favourite genre of mine though, it is more disappointing to report that one of its number here just didn’t click with me, especially when it’s one set over a reasonable representation of different areas of Tokyo that I’m also pretty familiar with! Unfortunately this effort from 1986 feels neither well paced nor well balanced to me, it’s got a grating soundtrack, even more grating strobing bullets and it looks like it was created on a Commodore 64. It’s another one I think I need to come back to though, if only because I wanted to like it way more than I did.
Rastan Saga. No worries about not liking this one! Fantasy hack and slash royalty from 1987, with jumping and killing everything in sight in a quest to deliver the kingdom from a dragon in return for some treasure. First and foremost I’ve always considered this to be beautiful, from its smoothly scrolling, evocatively lit backdrops to the detail and creativity behind every nasty thing you come across. And while it might be unfair because we’re going in date order from the very beginnings of video gaming, this is undoubtedly the best-looking thing we’ve seen so far and I reckon is going to take some beating. We’ll come back to that I’m sure! The gameplay is punishing but fair, and there’s a huge amount of all sorts of sword and sorcery nonsense to make your way through, which feels just right on the Egret Mini. If only it had beefier speakers… Brilliant then, brilliant now!
Kyukyoku Tiger. There’s nothing like the word “Toaplan” in the menu icon’s copyright information to restore your faith in the next vertical schmup on offer here, but when we call this one by its Western name of Twin Cobra then it probably needs no introduction to fans of the genre. It’s the Toaplan-developed 1987 sequel to the classic Tiger-Heli, and it’s your helicopter gunship and a colour-coded weapon system versus other aircraft, tanks, warships and all sorts over various war torn locales. Brutally hard from the outset, but it’s always the same and you’ll learn it and you’ll love every second of doing so. Those weapon pick-ups and power-ups make for some great strategy too. It’s a classic and is the perfect reason to spin that screen around here!
Ramais. 1988 is the first time I’ve actually felt the need to use the 4-way joystick lock, rather than default 8-way, just for a bit of certainty in direction changes. Because it’s a hardware lock too, it feels almost like a car’s gearshift, and you have to “find” your direction. Not that it’s anywhere near that complicated! Anyway, “Rika must brave the future’s holographic mazes on her Organiser bike to save her brother, Makoto! Open the exit by collecting the energy plates or the “B!” Which translates to Pac-Man on a futuristic motorbike, but fear not, because as we all know, the best Pac-Man isn’t always even Pac-Man… It’s Alien on Atari 2600! Not played Ramais before, despite owning it on Taito Legends 2 for PS2 (which is definitely going to be our next big compilation piece now I’ve covered half of it here already), but this is a really good take as well. Everything has a clean sci-fi vibe, the levels are varied, the difficulty curve is good and the controls here are perfectly responsive. Not the most original overall, but a real hidden gem all the same.
Rainbow Islands Extra. What with this and Bubble Bobble and New Zealand Story still to come, regardless of anything else I reckon this has got to be the happiest set of games ever collected in one place! This version is a really cool inclusion too – mostly the same as the 1987 original but with enemies and bosses in a different order, plus some rearranged music, and it’s one I’ve never played before; in fact, until just now I thought it was a Mega Drive exclusive mode, but it turns out it did get a very limited arcade release too. Learning all sorts here as well as finding new stuff to play! Rainbow Islands is, of course, the non-numbered sequel to Bubble Bobble, although it then kind of spawned sequels in its own right (while Bubble Bobble did the same, as well see), but anyway, this modded version is from 1988, and has you using Bubby’s multi-purpose rainbows and jumps to race to the top of the 7 islands before the sea swallows you up. It might just be me, but I swear the original never got this hard this fast, but you’ll soon be in the zone whatever, launching double rainbows and running about in your speedy shoes, marvelling at the bold cuteness, another shimmering soundtrack and the ridiculously addictive gameplay. Masterpiece.
The New Zealand Story. As if by magic… We looked at this in-depth not that long back, when I finally got my hands on the Atari ST version over thirty years after first setting my heart on it! I’ve had the arcade version all over the place in the meantime though, but there’s something special about playing it here with this little arcade setup. Your kiwi brethren have been kidnapped and locked up all over the place, so being flightless, you’re running, jumping, swimming, shooting spitting water at enemies and hijacking things to help you reach the caged bird in each section of the iconic yellow zoo and then various other locations around New Zealand. This game is such a joy, with possibly the best graphics I ever saw on an Atari ST (and definitely the most yellow!), and dare I say it, it’s possibly taken that crown from Rastan here too! Then there’s the music, the effortless movement and the staggering depth for expert players. This is a beautiful game to have on the Egret Mini and another reason to own one.
Tatsujin. Which is a vertical shoot ‘em up from our friends at Toaplan in 1988 that also goes by the name of Truxton. When this unit first arrived, this was where I went first. After I’d spun the screen around! This one is heavy sci-fi, set in a future space war between future space aliens, with your future space fighter pilot out to repel the future space invaders over five levels. You probably won’t need to worry about that for a while though because this one is, would you believe, hard as nails within mere seconds! As well as sharing developers, this shares a similar weapon system to the one we saw in Kyukyoku Tiger, but even that couldn’t compete with the “iconic thunder laser and Tatsujin Bomb” which produces an insane skull-shaped explosion! I love this game’s often-understated colours, textures and simple parallax scrolling that can suddenly burst into life at any moment, and the music couldn’t be more 1988 shoot ‘em up if it tried, but the main draw is the gameplay. It’s the pinnacle of old-school shooter design, and as we avoided using the word “masterpiece” for the last game, I’ll use it here again instead!
Don Doko Don. This is incredible! A couple of days ago I was flicking through an old copy of C&VG where they reviewed this great-looking PC-Engine game I’d never heard of; some crazy score too, so I wrote down the name on my big list of games to look up later and, of course, it turns out it was this! (And for the eagle-eyed among you, yes, it is on that Taito Legends 2 collection I apparently own too)! Anyway, Bubble Bobble with sledgehammers is what I think they said, and I don’t think I can come up with anything better, although not for the first time here, we’re probably talking diet version again, albeit with sledgehammers! It’s single-screen platforming from 1989, and this time you’re a pair of carpenters rescuing the king and the princess with your trusty hammers, and anything you flatten with them can then be chucked as a weapon too, like some kind of undead frisbee! We’re now in the realms of the fancy graphics you’d associate with cool early nineties consoles like the PC-Engine, with bold, richly textured backgrounds (not to mention music) and tons of detail, animation and humour in the character sprites. Plays great too, but just not as great as some of the greats of the genre we’ve already looked at here.
Volfied. Now, this seems familiar, and not just because it’s on Taito Legends (the one I have played!), but because it’s a fancy 1989 sci-fi take on that Qix game I couldn’t properly look at earlier! Your home planet has been taken over by aliens, and the only way to win it back is to connect laser beams to walls or whatever and fill in enough of the screen while avoiding said aliens in order to reveal the scene below. Now, I might be able to see what’s going on here, but now it’s way too hard – the stupid unskippable intro at the start of every game lasts longer than your three lives will! Like its predecessor(s) this thing is so close to greatness , but it just blows it unfortunately. It blows.
Violence Fight. Wherever we go from here, that will always be the best name for a game ever! Since I mentioned some lazy un-translation quite a few games back now, I have noticed a bit more Japanese text now and again but, as before, nothing worth mentioning. However, I do want to give full marks for effort in translating here because it’s actually all the better for not quite coming off… “In the early part of the 1950’s in the USA, a game called “Violence Fight” was in vogue among Mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen. The “Violence Fight” was the game to struggle for “No. 1 quarreller” with fighters who were gathered from all parts of the USA speaking boastingly of their strength.” There is even more if you want to look it up! The game itself is beat ‘em up meets regular fighter, maybe a bit like Pit-Fighter to play, which it does actually precede by a year or so in 1989, but it also uses a round system and specials more akin to a Street Fighter. It might be rough around the edges, but I’ve had a good time getting to know this one so far. It’s pretty accessible, and I like the big, detailed cartoon style graphics even if they do move like crap. And it’s called Violence Fight!
Cadash. “Choose from fighter, mage, priest or ninja then embark on a quest to rescue princess Sarasa from the evil Baarogue and bring peace to Deezar” in this 1989 side-scrolling fantasy platform RPG. Which is all well and good but everything is in Japanese, so including it here is a bit pointless for anyone that doesn’t speak it because we’re not talking the nonsense plot to some shoot ‘em up, but tons of text. It moves like crap and the combat is crap too. Didn’t like this on PC-Engine where I played it once before, and I like it even less here, so let’s move on…
Mizubaku Adventure. This is Bubble Bobble and all that cute stuff we’ve looked at before but in a side-scrolling platformer from 1990 that’s also better known in these parts as Liquid Kids. I also have this on PC-Engine and the Taito Legends 2 collection, and I’ve actually even played it on there! It’s very good too, starting out like a pastel Wonder Boy but quickly developing its own identity (or at least going classic Taito) as your little hippo uses his water magic to stun enemies so they can be kicked into oblivion. Sounds very familiar by now! Gorgeous cartoon graphics, same for the soundtrack, and a very solid platformer that is very much its own thing so far in this lineup despite its obvious heritage. Great game!
Gun Frontier. By coincidence I think this 1990 vertical shooter might be this week’s (as I write) Arcade Archives release on Switch and PS4, which I could now write off as £7 saved against that customs duty bill by already owning it here instead! The in-game text is Japanese again, which is a shame because it’s in some nicely produced static cutscenes, but the description tells us all we need to know in this case… “Battle the bandit gang “Wild Lizards” over the skies of Gloria to protect the frontier!” It’s another I have played a load of on Taito Legends 2 on PS2, and I think it’s even better here – the arcade stick feels just right! It’s presented as a space-Western, but in reality you’ll be flying over a variety of gorgeous backdrops, full of animation and literally full of life – in particular, there’s a bit over the edge of a waterfall with a flock of wild birds flying below you that will never get old, and, perhaps controversially, might put it out in front as that best-looking game here, although I’ve a feeling not for long! The music and sound effects in general are excellent too, often veering on the epic, and, most importantly, so is the gameplay, with a great level of challenge and some cool power-up mechanics. It’s another game that sold me on the Egret Mini, and was never going to disappoint!
Runark. More familiar territory with this 1990 side-scrolling beat ‘em up, although it’s more familiar here as Growl, where you’re the world’s most dangerous forest ranger, protecting the wildlife from the evil poachers driving them to extinction. There’s a real-world message here to be sure, but it’s also totally bonkers! I actually decided I was going to do a deep-dive on Growl just before this Taito Mini thing was first announced, but then held off when I saw it was included so it could be the first game I did that for on this – watch this space! According to Go Straight, the wonderful new beat ‘em up bible from Bitmap Books (which I’ll also still try and review here sometime), the version on Taito Legends 2 is censored, but I’m not sure about this one yet. I’m having loads of fun with it again regardless though, and its massive crowds of enemies, the brutality of some of the ground-pounds, the chaos of a load of rampaging deers, the chaos of a gaggle of miniskirted enemies emerging from a tank, the attention to detail when you take down one of your miniskirted enemies… Whether Runark or Growl, exploding bodies or not, this is awesome!
Hat Trick Hero. I’ve always enjoyed some arcade football, and in particular the SNK Super Sidekicks series, but I’m really struggling to place this take on the genre from 1990 alongside it. I think Sidekicks just about takes it on presentation and definitely on depth of competition, where this one has some neat camera tricks but the animation is a bit primitive, and there’s only seven teams to try and beat one after the other. On the other hand, it’s easier to control and might just play the better game of football, if you ignore the shirt pulling, punching and incredible running high-knee tackle! Both are equally a nightmare to score a goal in though! Ignoring its competition from other games, it’s loads of fun and plays great on this machine, and I’ll definitely be spending more time here.
The Ninja Kids. I’ve actually finished The Ninja Kids on that PS2 compilation! It’s another scrolling beat ‘em up from 1990, which has you taking control of one or more of four ninja dolls, each with a special ninja power of water, wind, fire or earth, which you’ll need because “…In the 7th month of 1999, a great king of terror flyed down from the sky. Now is the end of a century. Because of the “SATANISTS” who wished the resurrection of satan realized, the town became an unlawful town.” What it lacks in sophistication or polish compared to a Final Fight or a Streets of Rage, it more than makes up for in ultra-violent cartoon humour, with people being decapitated and left with a shocked look on their face as it tumbles, or exploding or being flattened, and there’s some lovely animation all over the place as you fight back against “The SATAN” but it’s by no means a genre classic. Fun while it lasts though, which was obviously long enough to beat it in a respectable handful of credits!
Metal Black. Now we’re talking! The working title for this 1991 horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up was Project Gun Frontier 2, and I know that because it even says that on the pre-title screen, but while it ended up with the loosest of connections to the Gun Frontier we looked at earlier, this is another fantastic horizontal shoot ‘em up! Another fantastic description too… “Shoot with the A button and collect Newalones to charge the Black Fly’s ‘ultimate weapon for peace’: an energy beam with enormous destructive power.” There’s a big, fully translated story here that scrolls by way too fast, but it’s something along the lines of asteroids being pushed towards Earth by a Jupiter companion star, whatever that is, and while we’re weakened from the barrage some ne’er-do-well aliens decide to take advantage. Doesn’t matter. I know there’s been a few shooters now, but this was another reason to buy this here console – it’s stunning and it’s a delight to play… At least until it gets too hard for me! The detail and colour in both the backgrounds and a lot of the bigger enemies especially is incredible (and the stage two boss is especially i, and there’s some great psychedelic special effects, impressive set pieces and one of the great schmup soundtracks. I might know it best from Taito Legends 2, but once again, this is the new best place to play it.
RayForce. Lucky I’m so into these shoot ‘em ups! We’re spinning the screen to vertical again for this one, all the way from the 1994. It shows too – visual feast and no mistake, with a cool lock-on laser that allows you to take advantage of the stuff coming out of the staggering graphical depths before it can get at you! And yes, we do have a new best-looker on the system! For all of the sheer quality on display (and being shoved down your ear-holes) though, apart from the lock-on weapons the gameplay itself is pretty old-school for the time, but I don’t really have a problem with that and nor should anyone else. This Egret II Mini is shaping up to be quite the platform for shooting stuff!
Kaiser Knuckle. What’s wrong with Kaiser Knuckle? Far more interesting than Global Champion, which is what this 1994 2D one-on-one fighter was known as outside of Japan! I’ve not been an expert on these since well before even then, but it feels like a pretty good take on the genre to me – clearly trying to cash-in on Street Fighter II’s popularity at the time, with a decent roster, some good-looking locations (especially the classic Saturday Night Fever disco), cool animation and special effects. It’s got a unique “power zone” metered Crush attack too, although I guess not unique enough to have given it any kind of edge, and in fact this is the first release it’s ever had since the arcade version. I like it a lot though!
Darius Gaiden. I’ve known for some time that while G-Darius might be my favourite in this legendary horizontal shooter series, it’s possibly only because I haven’t played enough of this one to knock it off its perch! That said, I have played enough to know that the utterly menacing approach of the mega-fish boss in the distance as you get towards the end of the first level is one of my favourite sights in any game, so I was really looking forward to seeing it again here! Anyway, this is the 1994 fifth instalment and predecessor to G-Darius, and playing on this setup is the perfect way to feel just how responsive everything is as you plot your own route through seven of the branching twenty-seven gorgeous levels, with their genius, unsettling soundtrack and brutal mutant-aquatic enemies. I’ve been meaning to properly get to grips with this for ages, and this is definitely where I’ll be doing it!
Bubble Symphony. This is Bubble Bobble II from 1994, with original characters Bub and Bob’s kids now also playable – I’d tell you more, but strangely the character select screen that describes them is the only part of the game still in Japanese! It’s another one I have no recollection of ever playing on Taito Legends 2 on PS2 too, but it’s mostly familiar territory, with branching routes, more bosses and a few gameplay tweaks on top of some gorgeous backgrounds and an exquisite (albeit less memorable) soundtrack. There’s also new stuff to collect, and while I’m not sure about new secrets to find yet, there’s definitely a few cameos from other games we’ve looked at already! This is such an enjoyable game in every respect, and one I’ve no excuse for not spending time with in the past but I’m kind of glad I’ll be discovering it properly on this machine now.
Elevator Action Returns. No surprise that considering my love for the original, this is one I have now spent plenty of time with on Taito Legends 2! It’s the 1994 sequel that starts out feeling a lot like the original, except with a hell of a graphical overhaul, but by the end of the first stage all the walls have come spectacularly tumbling down, and then it soon branches out into a much more complex and expansive run and gun platforming spy jaunt, full of wonderful set pieces and all the one-more-go gameplay of the original. Already a real favourite, but like the last couple of games we’ve looked at, a real reason to own an Egret II Mini!
Puzzle Bobble 2X. Just when you thought 1994 was never going to end, it’s now 1995 and this is the upgrade to the Bubble Bobble spin-off sequel that adds more stages to the new ‘X’ Puzzle Mode as well as a single player versus mode. It was Bust-a-Move 2X in Europe and America, but annoyingly this the original Japanese language version, which isn’t the end of the world once you’ve worked out which mode is which and you’re just lining up matching-coloured bubbles to pop! This game sits right at the very limits of my colour vision, with blues and purples, yellows and greens a struggle, but after a couple of games I can just about identify which is which at moderate pace without having to squint at the symbols instead, although I can’t deny that it does temper my enjoyment of what is otherwise a fantastic arcade-puzzler.
Bubble Memories. I’m now thinking this thing might have more Bubble Bobblers than shoot ‘em ups because for our penultimate game our Bub and Bob, or Bubby and Bobby if you prefer, are back again in this 1996 third instalment “proper” of the original game. As such, it’s enjoyable enough to play, but I do question how much it needs to exist when the other two already do. It adds some giant enemies and some giant charged bubble shots, but not only have you played it all before, it’s had all the charm of its predecessors stripped-out, with generic circus music playing over weird digitised photos of various exotic animals and fossils. Won’t be adding it to my favourites list!
Dan Ku Ga. We were right – 1994 is never going to end on this machine because we’re going back there to finish our journey! I assume this is a bit out of sync with the rest of the sorted by date chronology because it’s a bit of a curio… Dan Ku Ga is an unreleased, Japan-only follow-up to Kaiser Knuckle that we looked at here a bit earlier. As far as I can tell, it’s effectively the same game but with a new difficulty level and a training mode, as well as two playable characters who I think were unplayable bosses in the original game. There’s a few colour and gameplay tweaks too, but apart from a quick go out of curiosity, probably not enough to drag me away from Kaiser Knuckle any time soon.
That’s it! We’ve had a quick look at the system and all forty games. I hope! Before we close though, I haven’t really mentioned the various versions of the console. It’s mostly about controllers and other extras (soundtracks, flyers, etc.) included I think, and they definitely get expensive, but mine’s the standard Limited Edition Blue Bundle, which, as well as the colour-tweaked console and the little instruction cards, comes with one of the most useless pieces of bonus tat that’s ever come into my possession, a cup and cup holder set! The cup holder is like a giant bulldog clip, and I assume you’re supposed to attach it to a shelf or side of a table, but why not just put the cup on the shelf or table instead? It would take up about the same space and be a lot safer because it doesn’t even fit the holder! I’m loathe to dump even more unwanted plastic on the planet, but really? It takes nothing away from the rest though! The console is a truly premium unit and the games, in the main, are superb and given new and unique life by their inclusion on it. You know if you want one already, but all the same, I can’t recommend it enough!
And don’t forget to check out our look at the paddle and trackball controller set, as well as all ten games that come with it!