At the very end of our review of the Taito Egret II Mini Paddle & Trackball Expansion set, just about three months ago as I write, we established that we had a huge, high quality controller on our hands and ten games that might just about provide 120 Euros of value over time. And of those ten, there were three (Marine Date, Strike Bowling and Birdie King) that, while fun, were “retro” to the point of being one and done for me during first play sessions, then three that were Arkanoid and four that ranged from a lot of fun to genius – probably in the order of cute Arkanoid Plump Pop, then falling gem puzzler Puchi Carat, then just about equal standing for maze racer Cameltry and maze roll and gunner Sylvalion, which, of course, we’ll come back to in way more depth shortly.

Now that a bit has time’s passed since the review though, I thought it might be fun to briefly review the review and see how things have turned out for both these paddle and trackball games, and also the other forty games that come as standard baked into the regular arcade cabinet. Not that I’m going through forty games again like the first time, or even ten of them, but I’ve now spent many more hours playing this thing, and I thought I’d just list out the handful of games that I’ve actually spent serious time with because they’re not necessarily the ones I’d picked out as likely candidates for that in the reviews! One I did, though, is Darius Gaiden, the 1994 horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up that grows and grows on me the more I play it, even though I’m still useless at it! The environments are spectacular, as are the giant robot-fish bosses, and the semi-psychedelic undersea vibe, backed by some great sound design, is a joy to experience. And that’s why I’ve spent way more time there than on anything else…

Which actually should be true of Runark (or Growl), the bonkers 1990 side-scrolling beat ‘em up with you protecting the wildlife against evil poachers and women in miniskirts piling out of tanks that I’ve promised a deep-dive on several times now, but as I write it’s pencilled-in for a couple of months after what you’re reading, so I’ll get there! I’ve also played a bunch of a couple more shooters in Gun Frontier and Metal Black, as well as the run and gun platforming sequel to one of my all-time favourites, Elevator Action Returns, but I guess the surprise package has been Puzzle Bobble 2X, the 1995 bubble-matching puzzle spin-off from a well-known game named after some of those words! In the review I bemoaned the colour-blindness issues that forced a struggle to match bubble symbols instead of bubble colours, which is far more stressful than the game was designed for, but it turns out that if you play it enough then that’s perfectly worthwhile, and I’ve gone from annoyance to absolutely loving this thing! Apart from that, some Rastan Saga and The Legend of Kage, but that’s about it, which isn’t to say I’ve not already had my money’s worth, but I do tend to focus. Kind of!

How about this paddle and trackball beast then? Well, as I just hinted, the hot list for further attention in the review were certainly Cameltry and Sylvalion, and I have played loads of the latter – not quite 120 Euros worth of loads yet, but it’s doing alright! Not touched Cameltry again yet though, which is odd because I really hit that hard in the first week or so of having it. Not going anywhere though! I’ve actually been on the old Arkanoid though, and, perhaps surprisingly, 1997’s Arkanoid Returns, not that there was anything wrong with it, but from the outset I wasn’t keen on either the primitively digitised backgrounds or the soundtrack, so I decided there’d be way more enjoyment to be had in the first two games, also included, before I even needed to think about that one. And the opposite turned out to be true, I guess from curiosity because I’m pretty familiar with the original and Revenge of Doh, but didn’t even know this one existed before I picked this up, and Arkanoid is Arkanoid! By the way, there’s also been a couple of firmware updates since the review that have further optimised these three brick-breakers and, most importantly because it was my biggest bugbear, added all of the paddle and trackball games to the main game navigation so it’s not one list for one and one for the other and never the twain shall meet anymore.

Right, we should turn our attention to Sylvalion now. It’s Taito, it’s a Japan exclusive, it’s October 1988, and we have an arcade shooter of sorts from the hand of Fukio Mitsuji, also the creator of Bubble Bobble that we almost mentioned earlier. We definitely mentioned Darius earlier, and Sylvalion is actually a spin-off of sorts from that series, and not only will you come across some folk from the planet Darius in this game’s storyline, but in 2009’s Dariusburst for the Playstation Portable, there’s a boss called Dark Helios, and when he changes form he’s the metal dragon we’re pushing about with our trackball right here! Anyway, the storyline here is presented as a series of scenarios, chosen at random at the start of the game, and they’re conveyed in Japanese-only diary entries, sadly for us, at the start of each stage, and apparently adapt to your performance so far, resulting in over a hundred possible endings. None of which I can understand, but I don’t suppose I’ll ever see many of them anyway! It all goes along the lines of aliens invading Earth and turning us into their robot slaves, and depending on the scenario, you’re going to either steal the Sylvalion – a golden, fire-breathing dragon-shaped spaceship – then fight them, or you’ll respond to a distress signal instead. Then fight them! The story isn’t the only randomness at play here either – everything else is too! Each chapter or stage or level is a big maze, and you need to make your way through it, helped by some handy signposting, while also avoiding obstacles, breathing fire at enemies, until you hit its boss room at the end. And all of that is random, along with the music playing behind it.

Before all of that though, firing up the game is going to give you a couple of options, or one more if you’re playing the SNES conversion but we’ll come back to that later. Now, keep in mind that this is all in Japanese because Taito couldn’t be bothered localising it for the 120 Euros expansion to their 200 Euros console, so we’re now in the realms of Google Translate! First up, you’ve got “Basics” mode which lets you “play while learning how to play!” It’s a training mode, with all of that random stuff pulled out so you’re playing through fixed stages, and instead of the story at the start you’re getting gameplay tips… “Control the mecha dragon with the ball. Defeat the goal boss to clear the first stage! Use the flame attack (button) to send enemies and bullets flying! Also, release the button to accumulate firepower! (If you move, it will accumulate faster). Let’s proceed while avoiding damage!” You know, I was a bit facetious about this a minute ago but actually that’s pretty much all you need to know! The second mode is “Actual Battle Edition” and “depending on what you do, you can also get enhanced equipment.” As we touched on before, it then tells us that scenarios, courses, sounds and so on change every time you play, and there’s also double bonus points on offer, so “choose with the ball, decide with the button” before the timer runs out!

I’m done mocking bad Japanese-English because I’m way too impressed with the tech that’s just generated it for me, but I do want to give a flavour of one of these random story scenarios we’ve talked about as we jump into that mode… “I was finishing my long space journey. However, on the way, the mechanics of the autopilot system failed for an unknown reason. I’m a stranger. It was washed ashore on a planet! Restoring its functions, as I explored the strange planet, I came across a surprising fact. This planet! They are planning to invade Earth! In order to destroy it, I challenged the battle alone.” You get the gist, and actually, what I’m realising now I’m doing this for the first time is that there’s a whole dimension to the game that we non-Japanese speakers are totally missing out on here! Might have to get that translation tool out again later. By the way, I’m going to grab a few photos from MAME here because trying to get photos of the Egret II Mini in action is a nightmare, especially with this thing’s exotic lightshow going non-stop, but rest assured that everything we’re describing is coming from the little arcade cabinet. In case you care!

One thing’s for sure whether you’re playing mini cabinet or MAME though – you can never not be impressed by just how good your fresh, golden dragon looks at the start of every game! This is a real good-looker, and however random the backgrounds might be, it’s like every single one has been carefully crafted to perfectly set-off the dragon as the star of the show. The colouring everywhere is exquisite, and none more so than across the metallic scales and rivets, teeth, claws and minute details set into your high sci-fi fantasy craft as it glides and turns and coils around itself. The flames are really beautiful too, erupting from your suddenly parted fangs into this volcano of fire that triggers multiple explosions as it consumes your enemies, resulting in some spectacular effects way beyond their 1988 pedigree!

As you take damage, the gold will gradually start to fade from your tail towards your head, which is also a nice allegory for the enemies and obstacles and environments you travel through across the game’s five stages… While everything consistently looks great, with intricate and vibrant backdrops, ranging from earthy and organic to just the right side of sterile, and despite the randomly generated nature of almost everything, outside of the mostly imaginative bosses you’ll come across at the end of the level there’s only a handful of nasties to burn and hazards to negotiate, and you’ll soon notice the repeating patterns. And that’s even more true of the mazes, which might be random but they’re effectively all the same blocks placed in different directions, so overall the visual novelty at least soon starts to fade, although the dragon really never gets old! In its defence, it’s an arcade game that was never meant for the kind of money-no-object treatment it’s getting here, and you’re not exactly going to be breezing through level after level either…

Playing with anything but a pad or an arcade stick in 2022 or beyond is always going to be something of an alien concept, but I think that’s always been the case with a trackball! Right back to Combat School in 1987, and all the way through to what I think was Golden Tee 3D Golf that we used to give a proper hammering in the pub a decade or so later, a trackball controller was never particularly welcoming to the first-timer. Give it some time though… Your dragon’s movement is a directional roll of the ball, and taken independently, and even accounting for having a long body with a tail, this bit is pretty intuitive, but being able to spin it at the right speed to duck through some spikes or outwit some laser fire takes some time. Throw in a load of big, indestructible robot skulls bouncing around while other stuff flies around shooting at you, all above a lava pit, and you’ll be looking for a modicum of mastery before you’re progressing too far past level one! Same for the boss fights, which vary in predictability but at some point all involve you making reactive movements where success is very much reliant on your instant “feel” for the controller.

Once you’ve got the feel though, it feels great, and, as I discovered, switching back to a controller for both MAME and the SNES port, that suddenly becomes the alien concept for Sylvalion! While nuanced movement takes a while to come, breathing fire is far more immediate, and immediately far more intuitive. It’s really cool as well! Hit the single button control and out it spews for as long as the cool-down meter at the bottom allows; if it runs out you need to take a break and let it replenish, fully or partially, and as we saw earlier, according to my primitive attempt at translation, moving about will make this happen a bit faster. While it’s going though, getting it where you want it is fantastic – imagine putting a tennis ball on a table, laying your palm on it and rolling it around… That’s exactly how you direct the fire here, and it works brilliantly, offering instant 360-degree destruction. It’s so good that every twin-stick shooter should have a trackball for the shooting from now on!

It’s hard to tell when you don’t understand any of the mass of text that appears between stages, but I think the random characters you “meet” along the way are just referenced in text, and as a result you’ll end up with some kind of special power at the start of the next stage, such as some backup from a more traditional spaceship flying alongside you, or a protective ring of something gold and destructive spinning around you. Whatever they are, along with the regular bonus score and life drops, they’ll always be welcome though, because beyond the first stage you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed no matter how adept you get at flying. That said, only five stages, all built on randomisation, means you’re sometimes in with a shot, and there’s a hundred endings to find for a reason!

The native sound on the Taito Egret II Mini cabinet isn’t one of its strong points, even after you’ve discovered the software volume controls hidden away in a settings menu, but I’ll do my best to do the sound design here justice all the same because it’s another highlight. As mentioned earlier, it seems like the in-game soundtrack composition is also randomised, though obviously there’s a limit to that or it would be unlistenable, like jazz, which it certainly isn’t! What you are getting is melody-focussed synth rock that veers from early Depeche Mode in vibe to moodier Miami Vice-style incidental music as you go through the level, then generally something a bit more tense and “boss-like” for the end of level big fights. There are occasions where things go a bit generic shoot ‘em up, but on the whole it’s a very energetic bunch of music both in-game and in the title screens that fits what’s going on very well. As do the sound effects, which are mostly functional but always fine, thoug special mention for the wonderful Star Wars-esque siren that heralds the on-screen warning that all the gold has nearly been drained from your body and you only have a handful of hits left. Despite the predicament you’re then in, I loved hearing that every time!

And it’s time we had a really quick look at that SNES conversion before we get out of here, and you really couldn’t ask for any more of it. The problem is I’m not sure I’d ask for any of it in the first place! Sylvalion just doesn’t feel right on a controller, and on top of that the gameplay often demands more of the controller than it can give you. For example, a bunch of enemy robot insect things approach all at once, coming at you fast from all sides, and as I’m typing I can almost feel the trackball motion needed to dispatch all of them in one quick circular movement, but it’s just too slow and cumbersome here, and that leads to frustration. It’s too binary, and that applies to movement too – all that fluidity provided by the trackball just doesn’t translate here. Everything else does though. I’m not sure how random it all is but there’s certainly enough variety from what I’ve played, and while the music and graphical fidelity is understandably toned down, it’s all present and correct. It’s even got a time attack mode not present in the original. Good conversion overall, just doubt I’ll be going back. I’ve not played the Sharp X68000 version, which was the only other port, but I have played another version of the original on Taito Legends 2 on PlayStation 2 and it’s not bad. The analog stick is halfway to the trackball compared to the SNES controls but it takes even more getting used to and is still lacking the sensitivity of the trackball. It is in English though, which makes me even more annoyed about all that translation I did earlier, so in protest I’m not even going back to check it. If it’s good enough for Taito to be lazy then it’s good enough for me!

Sylvalion is a very curious, very unique game that takes some getting used to but rewards you for doing so. That said, I also don’t want to forget that right at the beginning, as well as in that expansion set review, I said that this thing immediately grabbed me and has kept grabbing me and bringing me back for more for some time now. I’m sure it’s no accident that behind all the trackballs and randomness there’s still all the classic arcade game ingredients to get your attention then keep you feeding in the coins! And I am still curious to see what some of the other endings are like beyond numbers 62 and 64… “We took our hands and were sincerely pleased that the peace of the earth was maintained!! …But when we returned to Earth … we were just stand still ….! Is in a state of destruction!! All the earthlings died out. It was a little late!! It’s!!” As impressed as I’ve been with these fancy new real-time translation tools, maybe that PS2 version isn’t a bad shout after all!