The TurboGrafx-16, also known as the PC engine in Japan, was at the time the go to platform for shmups. In Japan the console was immensely successful, but in the United States it sold very poorly after a seemingly successful launch. The lack of user base resulted in a number of the systems incredible games being ignored by the US consumer base. Blazing Lazers, also known as Gunhed in Japan, was one such game, despite being one of the most popular on the console.
Blazing Lazers was based on the 1989 Japanese science fiction film Gunhed. All references of the film were removed from the North American release, for obvious reasons. The player controls the Gunhed Star Fighter in an attempt to destroy the evil Dark Squadron.
Considering the game was released nearly two decades ago, it looks impressive. Being released in 1989, there wasn’t much competition graphically, with the power of the TurboGrafx-16. Many of the most popular games were still 8-bit at the time, so the 16-bit visuals of Blazing Lazers were literally mind blowing when compared with the game’s contemporaries. Even though the game was released rather early in the consoles short North American life cycle, it really pushed the TurboGrafx-16 and HuCard to to their limits.
The soundtrack is varied and very solid. The tracks fit the pace of the action and screen and ratchets up the tension quite a bit, especially in the later levels where the difficulty sky rockets. Each boss has their own theme music, rather than a generic tune which makes the fights feel more unique. Despite the TurboGrafx’s HuCards not being well known for great sound, Blazing Lazers delivers a catchy-ass sound track, with quite a few gems that help convey the sci-fi theme well.
No complaints with the control scheme for Blazing Lazers. Bonus points for the ability to hold down the fire button while shooting, severely reducing the necessity of button mashing. There is also an option to control the speed of the Gunhed ship using the select button, which allows for a customizable experience, with regards to maneuvering.
This game provides an uncommon experience that helps differentiate itself from other games of the genre. There is a multi-tiered power up system that provides a customizable player experience. First, and most importantly are the weapon upgrades that consist of four different orbs with Roman numerals, each consisting of a distinct mode of fire. These can be upgraded further by picking up matching orbs or by picking up purple “gels” that are inevitably strewn across the screen as you destroy opposing ships and enemies.
There are also 4 available sub-weapon types including a shield, homing missiles, modules, which provide side cannons separate from the Gunhed, and “fire power,” which provides an alternate mode of fire for the currently equipped primary weapon. For example having weapon III equipped, a laser-based weapon, in tandem with the fire power sub-weapon, yields a homing laser that destroys many enemies on the screen with ease.
In addition to the aforementioned weapon types, there is also the generic, limited-use bomb that is a pervasive trope in the shooter genre. Releasing the bomb destroys a large portion of enemies on the screen, but the ammo is limited use.
Though the weaponry is the highlight of Blazing Lazers, the rest of the gameplay can stand alone. There are a plenitude of enemies swarms to fend off as the player progresses through the space-themed levels of the game. Luckily, there are a few levels that give reprieve from the emptiness of space and spice up the shmup formula a bit. There is one area that appears as if it is occurring indoors, another that is in a pyramid laden desert, and most intriguingly, one that appears to occur in an organism populated with blood-thirsty brains.
The areas are all followed up with a boss, most of which are fairly varied and graphically impressive. Though these bosses provide a challenge, they are not nearly as difficult as the preceding levels. The have predictable attack patterns and can be felled rather quickly with the correct equipment.
The difficulty of Blazing Lazers is near perfect. The first few levels are a cake-walk, allowing even an inexperienced player to progress mostly unscathed. The game lures the player in with promises of an effortless romp through space, but after the first few areas Blazing Lazers, escalates the stakes immensely with hordes of enemies and near-bullet hell style gameplay. Overall Blazing Lazers is not too difficult to enjoy and doesn’t compare to the difficulty of some of the Japanese-style bullet hell games that have dominated the genre in recent years. This results in an experience that anyone can appreciate, while still providing enough of a challenge for space shooter veterans.
Some minor, yet annoying, problems with Blazing Lazers, are the hidden difficulty selection option and the crappy weapon I, that even at its highest upgrade level is underwhelming. There are 4 difficulties beginning with the “Normal Dog” option that is the standard, but to access the rest the player has to input a button combination comparable to a cheat code. Why such a system for difficulty selection was used is near-incomprehensible. How in the world would a player know to do that, especially in the pre-internet 1980’s. The other issue, the near uselessness of Weapon I, effects the balance of the game. Most players will never use weapon I, except when it is absolutely their only option. This weapon’s level 5 upgrade is the first time it begins to become useful, at which point it is has multi-directional fire capabilities. Even at that point it still doesn’t come close to the other 3 primary weapons, which become useful much earlier in their upgrade tree.
Overall, Blazing Lazers’ minor issues are vastly overshadowed with incredible gameplay, visuals and sound. The weapon variety permits a custom experience that helps Blazing Lazers contend with some of the greatest shmups of all time.
There are four primary weapons available in Blazing Lazers. The player is only capable of holding one primary weapon at a time, so wise choice of weaponry at the outset is crucial to ensure survival. Each of the four primary weapons are upgradable by way of collecting purple gels or picking up the same weapon repeatedly.
Photon Blaster (Weapon I)
The obligatory shit weapon of the bunch. It is not completely useless, but it is far out-shined by every other weapon. In its later stages it is definitely serviceable enough to defeat bosses. When upgraded to its highest level it delivers a 5-way shot, with three forward projectiles and two rear projectiles.
Power Wave (Weapon II)
Weapon II is arguably the best weapon in the game. Although it is only moderately powerful, it permits the Gunhed to fire a wide, rapid disc-like projectile. As you collect enough gels to upgrade this weapon the discs cover more and more of the screen. At its highest level this weapon fires 3-discs at the North, Northwest and Northeast positions, with another beam that fires from the back of the ship.
Field Thunder (Weapon III)
Anyone who is familiar with the shmup genre knows that a good weapon is usually defined by screen coverage. By that definition the base version of this weapon would appear to be useless, however this vertical beam is powerful and rapid-fire enough to preserve your ship until further upgrades. The only thing that keeps this weapon from being the best is its strange upgrade tree. It is the only primary weapon in which its usefulness actually drops upon upgrading to certain levels. The third upgrade is seemingly the most effective of all, and is a contender with Weapon II’s final upgrade for best weapon. The fourth upgrade, which sends four straight laser beam across a the screen, allows enemies to hide in the negative space between the beams. This can result in unnecessary deaths if one is not careful. It is frustrating to spend all the time powering up to get a less effective weapon. The final upgrade again becomes useful, but it is arguable whether or not the third upgrade is still superior, due to the fifth iteration’s strange pattern of fire.
Ring Blaster (Weapon IV)
The Ring Blaster surrounds the Gunhed with increasing amounts and differing patterns of strange cannonball-like objects. This weapon is reasonably useless until its highest level, when four “Rings,” aka cannonballs, surround the Gunhed blocking incoming fire and ships consistently and effectively. What holds Weapon IV back is the Photon Blaster being the weapon for all four levels Weapon IV. The player is stuck with small projectiles, with very little screen coverage for the duration of Weapon IV use. This ultimately hampers the effectiveness of Ring Blaster even at the highest levels. The sacrifice of fire power for a shield is just not feasible when their are other primary-subweapon combinations that yield better results without forfeiting damage output.
Gel Upgrade Tree for Primary Weapons
As previously mentioned purple gels can be collected to upgrade the primary weapons. Alternately, collecting an additional primary weapon pick up of the same type will increase your weapon to the next level. This will not reset the number of gels you have collected nor will switching between primary weapon types. Below is a list of the number of gels required to advance between each weapon level, as per the instruction manual.
- Level 0 to Level 1 : 1 Gel
- Level 1 to Level 2: 2 Gels
- Level 2 to Level 3: 4 Gels
- Level 3 to Level 4: 8 Gels
- Level 4 to Level 5: 12 Gels
- Level 5 to Level 6: 16 Gels
There are a variety of sub-weapons that serve as enhancements to the already extensive primary weapon system in Blazing Lazers. These include a shield, a mini-ship module, a fire power enhancing module and homing missiles. This adds depth to the Gunhed’s offensive and defensive capabilities while providing the player with an opportunity for strategy and replayability.
Homing Missile (H)
The homing missiles are just what they sound like. They slowly track enemies and cause some extra damage. The issue with the homing missiles are their incredibly slow movement speed and pitiful damage output. The homing missiles should be avoided in most combat scenarios. The only thing homing missiles are better than is no sub-weapon at all.
The shield provides a timed period of invulnerability permitting the Gunhed to take hits without dying or powering down. It lasts over a minute if no hits are taken, but the time is reduced with every hit. There is no indicator of the time elapsed in game, but the shield will begin to flash red and green when it approaches its end. This is arguably the best sub-weapon, preventing damage and maintenance of primary weapon upgrades is integral in progressing through the game unscathed. Many levels will have multiple opportunities to pick up a shield, meaning the optimal strategy is to leap frog from shield to shield throughout the level.
Multi-body provides a secondary module that acts as a miniature ship. The module fires the same primary weapon that the user has equipped, but at its most basic level in the upgrade tree. For example, even if the Gunhed has a fully upgraded weapon II, the multi-body module will only fire the single stream of discs characteristic of the first level of weapon II. This is a fairly useful weapon and serves its purpose as a great situational weapon. It can even be powered up to a point that the player has two units instead of one. Multi-body far outshines the homing missiles, but would likely be categorized as third best sub-weapon by most players behind the shield and “fire power” pick ups.
The firepower sub-weapon is the most complicated and likely the second most useful. It re-purposes the equipped primary weapon with an alternate mode fire, which in most cases is superior to the standard option. The effects are also capable of being upgraded using purple gels, much like the standard option.
- Weapon I: large blue fireballs are expelled from the front of the ship that explode on contact creating a multi-directional shrapnel effect. This weapon does not change with upgrading, except with respect to its rate of fire. This is much more effective than the standard weapon I, but is still inferior to the 3 other firepower-enhanced weapon options.
- Weapon II: an extra 2 crescent waves are added on either side of the ship. When fully upgraded the crescent waves essentially cover the entire screen. This is without a doubt the most effective offensive weapon combination in the game. It is unmatched by any other combination. The only reason the shield is often considered superior, is the invulnerability that becomes so crucial as the games difficulty increases.
- Weapon III: The classic blue laser beam changes to a greenish hue, which indicates homing capabilities. This weapon is offensively spectacular, doing high damage to every enemy on the screen, but it can occasionally be a defensive nightmare. When the weapon is fired you cannot fire another shot until the previous has finished clearing the enemies in its path. This creates situations where the Gunhed is defenseless and the only option is evasive maneuvers. The usefulness of this weapon is skill-dependent, if the player is great at avoiding incoming fire, than this weapon will be incredibly useful. The homing beam comes especially in handy on multi-part bosses in which cases it bounces between body parts sequentially, dealing massive damage.
- Weapon IV: This is an incredible defensive weapon when fully upgraded. Each level hurls a blue facsimile of the rotating cannon balls that surround your ship at enemies. The number of “blue balls,” that will be expelled towards enemies depends on the number of rings surrounding the Gunhead, correlating directly with the base weapon’s upgrade tree. At the highest level the ship is surrounded by four of the basic rings/cannonballs, firing weapon I’s stream of basic bullets, and blasting enemies with up to two circling rings of four “blue balls” at a time. Innuendo aside, this is a great screen clearing weapon and provides an interesting balance of offensive and defensive capabilities that should not be overlooked.
Bombs are the standard, screen clearing attack that are available in most shmups. The bombs in Blazing Lazers are useful, but they take some adjustment, as they are not as omni-potent as similar attacks in other games in the genre. It should be noted that the explosion is delayed and does not occur directly in front of the player, rather it occurs a ship-length or so away.
- Difficulty Select: Hold “Select” and press “I” and “II” ten times. A screen will come up with difficulty choices. Repeat the cheat a second time to add another, and a third to add the hardest. Soft reset by holding “Run” and pressing “Select” to return to the main screen and play the harder difficulty. Perhaps the most convoluted and idiotic difficulty selection method of all time.
- 30 Lives Code: at the title screen, press the “Run” button, then immediately hold the “Select” button until the game starts.
- Sound Room: at the title screen, press “Left” and “Right” alternately eight or more times, until “Sound 01” is visible on the screen.
- Debug Mode: In the sound room, Press “I” then “II” and continue pressing “Select,” until the debug screen appears.
- Level Select: Enter any number from 00 through 09, to select levels 1-9.
- Invincibility: enter 77, press “Up” and “Down” before leaving debug mode.
- Half-game with upgrades: enter 83
- Extra Lives and bombs: select the desired level then hold “I” and “II” and press “Run” to begin the game.
- Fleeing Bosses ?: Do not fire a shot at the bosses of odd-numbered areas. They will leave and a bonus of lives, bombs and score will be rewarded to the player. This isn’t necessarily the easier option in some cases.
- View the Ending: At the title screen, hold “Right” and continuously press “Run.”
- Carriers: Gray ships appear occasionally with primary and sub-weapon pick ups, but there are also green carriers that spawn in relation to the number and type of enemies defeated.
- Omni-directional shot: At any time when the Gunhed is out of bombs, the play must collect 30 purple gels, not die, and avoid all other power ups. If this secret is executed successfully a green carrier will appear with the power up.