Irem Post-Apocalyptic Games
Let's take a look back at Irem. Yes, they are responsible for the excellent R-Type, that little spaceship game that was so difficult yet so amazing. But what you probably don't know is that this company was born under the name of IPM in 1974. They started by manufacturing, selling and renting arcade cabinets. In 1978, they created their first video game, and then in 1979, changed their name to Irem Corporation. Originally standing for "International Rental Electronics Machines", in the mid '80s they switched to "Innovations in Recreational Electronic Media", probably to better reflect their involvement in software.
In the early 90s, Irem wasn't doing very well at all. They ceased production of video games in 1994, with their arcade cabinets division separating itself from the company, and a frustrated team of programmers left to form Nazca Corporation. However, a selected group of games in the years before their disbandment shared a common graphic theme, style and animation. This is something that can be seen in every Irem game in this article, Irem's "post-apocalyptic style". The graphics are very detailed, and animation is very smooth, with large amount of frames detailing what others would skimp over. They have a very mechanical feel, with lots of steel and dust, combined with some impressive special effects like beautiful screen-shaking explosions. They are filled with abandoned and destroyed vehicles, buildings and even cities. It has a very cyberpunk feel, and it comes to life remarkably, thanks to the outstanding detail. There's so much to pay attention to in the backgrounds and on the enemies.
Many Irem arcade games share this style. However, this article concentrates on the darker games. Irem is also responsible for classics like the goofy Ninja Baseball Bat Man, the creepy shooter X-Multiply, and Hook, a surprisingly decent four player beat-em-up based on the movie.
Irem is still around, but they're not nearly as big a name as they once were. Recent games include the Zettai Zetsumei Toshi series, Sub Rebellion and Steambot Chronicles. Even though they've fallen from being a prominent arcade game publisher, they're still putting out quality titles, even if they're kinda niche.
Air Duel sports futuristic aircraft, cities in ruin, a dark ambiance and lots of rusted metal flying around. The only downside is that the animation isn't quite as smooth as the other titles here, probably because it's the oldes.
Two players can team up to save the world on this overhead view shoot-em-up from a "secret organization" through seven extremely difficult levels. At the beginning of each, you choose either a plane (with a straight regular shot) or a helicopter (which can shoot diagonally but with a weaker shot). Weapon upgrades? Check. Secondary button for a bomb? Check. Huge end-of-level bosses? Also check. And that's it, nothing more to it. Air Duel is a very simple game. No pods, no secondary weapons, but most importantly, no different weapons to switch to at all. You can upgrade your shot multiple times and it becomes barely wider and more powerful, but who wants to go through all the levels shooting the same puny gun? This is the game's first fault, and switching to the little helicopter will only get you a 30 degrees diagonal shot capability besides shooting straight. The chopper's gun is even weaker and you are likely to get surrounded by enemies quicker since it takes more shots to take simple enemies down. That's quite a step back from earlier Irem works, since R-Type came out 3 years before and featured three totally different main weapons, a secondary weapon and an attachable pod.
Air Duel's second fault is its poor enemy variety and design. Smaller enemies tend to repeat themselves on every level, and they are poorly designed and uninteresting. Same goes for the bosses - although huge, they lack in attack patterns and above all animation. They are just a big chunky sprite that moves side to side on the screen. These two issues render the game rather boring. Add a really hard difficulty level and there's really no reason to play.
The graphics are really good for the time, but they do not make up for the rest. The backgrounds are a kind of bland, too. A special mention for the final confrontation though, it looks awesome. Too bad the boss just sits there and shoots these five little ray bullets. The music is almost non-existent, it's low, and even if you pay attention it doesn't have any kick to it. SFX are bad, a few shots and explosion sounds. It's like they just threw them in there. Overall, Air Duel is a mediocre game that smells like a rushed job.
Gallop is one of Irem's most unpopular shooters, and many haven't even heard of it. The game can easily be compared to R-Type 2 - it has smooth animation, a similar style of graphics, crazy huge bosses and that "look how many times I can kill you before you learn the pattern"-attitude. The first time you see it, and if you like old school shooters, you will be thinking "How the hell is it possible to have missed a game like this? Awesome graphics, big sprites, lots of frames, post-apocalyptic scenery... It needs to be played now!"
The Armed Police Unit Gallop is out on the streets chasing and taking down "mad cars", dangerous war vehicles that are terrorizing the city. Your job as representative of the law is to engage them in your armored police ship. There's really nothing new with the gameplay. In addition to your standard weapon, you get a side weapon that shoots together with your main one, which can be a ground bomb, a straight shooting missile, or a ground-based torpedo. You won't get a bomb that kills everything on the screen, but instead a homing laser that locks to the nearest unlucky vessel and does some nice drilling damage on its armor. This laser will run out when the gauge at the bottom of the screen is depleted, and has two levels to upgrade to for more power.
Gallop is not nearly as hard as R-Type 2. For example, if you get hit, you first lose your side weapon - get hit again and you'll explode. You can also thank the programmers for not killing you when you hit a wall. Nice touch isn't it? There's nothing worth mentioning in the sound department, the music is good but the sound effects lack quality. The graphics, on the other hand, are very good (the police ship is beautiful) and maintains Irem's characteristic decayed-future theme. However, it does get a little repetitive, with backgrounds, wall designs and enemies feeling dull after a couple of games. Gallop is fine when you start playing it and a lot of fun frying your enemies with the laser, but the game just doesn't deliver in the long run. The game grows even more annoying when you reach the fourth boss. It's R-Type-ish ways will frustrate you, and the designs aren't nearly as interesting as other similar games.
Gallop was never ported anywhere, which could explain why hardly anyone has ever heard heard of it, while R-Type 2 is a classic even though it's hard as hell.
One of the best examples of post-apocalyptic chaos is Undercover Cops, a Japanese beat-em-up similar to Final Fight. Even though Irem was mostly known for it's shoot-em-ups, it dabbled from time to time on side-scrolling fighting games, even if previous efforts (like Blade Master) were somewhat mediocre. On that note, it's surprising that Undercover Cops turned out so well. You start the game by choosing one of three heroes, each with their own attributes. They're ready to teach the local gangs a lesson and bring back peace to the city. You brawl through five (maybe too few) stages by yourself or with two other friends, beating up the usual boss at the end of each one. For the most part, this is nothing new. But here is what makes Undercover Cops different: Each character has a slightly bigger repertoire of kicks and punches than your usual Captain Commando or Vendetta. Much like Final Fight, there are two buttons: an attack and a jump button, along with the usual special attack by hitting both buttons simultaneously. You are also capable of dashing forward, dashing forward and attack, dashing forward jump and attack, and performing a special throw. There's also a move to knock enemies back when you're on the ground, and a final attack that looks outstanding.
Undercover Cops features a cast of interesting characters and opponents. There are some very original bosses with cool attack sequences (like Parcs, who tries to throw you inside a metal compactor) and some fresh and original enemies (like mole people.) The animation is very smooth and the movement has more realistic physics than most games in the genre. The stages are mostly dark, featuring abandoned sites and derelict buildings, with lots of debris to pick up and hurl at your foes. Nothing more satisfying than picking up a Hummer and swinging it at the stage's boss! The music is excellent. There are catchy tunes on every stage with some voice samples, along with screams and warcries for the characters and enemies. It's a great beat'em up all in all, that anyone who likes the genre should play.
Now, on to more obscure facts. There are two extant versions of the game: a Japanese and a World version. And herein lies the problem. The World version that showed up in American arcades is very crippled. Half the moves are gone, making the game boring and simple like Final Fight. There are also graphics missing in the backgrounds compared to the Asian version, and lots of details are missing. There are also some differences in names - the main characters in the Japanese version are Zan, Matt, and Rosa, while they're named Claude, Bubba and Flame in the English release. The whole thing reeks of beta testing. I remember playing a different release of the game at the arcades called Undercover Cops Alpha back in 1993, with everything intact from the Japanese version, along with English translated titles. This was apparently a finished Western edition, but this game is nowhere to be found now.
Undercover Cops was ported for the SNES by Varie. There are some obvious cutbacks in the graphics department, but it's nothing too offensive, and the excellent music is still intact. It's so close to the arcade it will amaze you. But the playability takes quite a hit since it's only a 1-player game.
Undercover Cops Gaiden: Hakaishin Garumaa, a turn-based board game hybrid, was released for the original monochrome Game Boy only in Japan. You choose one of the three heroes and roll a die to advance on a Mario Party style board, encountering shops where to spend your money and running into enemies you take down on turns. It's a cute idea and has nice super-deformed art, but gets boring really quickly. It's playable even in Japanese, so a look at it can't hurt if you are a fan of the arcade game.
Many players have saved earth from aliens thousands of times in their shoot-em-up careers, and fought the Japanese over Midway half a dozen. The genre is rarely original. In the Hunt is a nice, fresh concept. Despite the obvious reference to a Sean Connery submarine movie in the title, Irem's take on submerged warfare is different from the usual submarine simulators like Silent Service, as the experience much closer to R-Type.
Your sub is a little cute chubby tub that bounces around like crazy, showing off the well crafted animation. You have a horizontal firing main weapon (usually torpedoes), and an upward secondary one (including anti-air machine guns, missiles and mines) plus depth charges that slowly sink underneath your ship. These of course are interchangeable and upgradable via items. Where In the Hunt deviates from the classic shoot-em-up formula is that you choose your own pace. You control the scrolling of the screen, and being that the fat vessel you pilot is so slow, you will often take your time waiting for openings on the enemy's attack to advance. It's a nice change. There are other unique touches: like in Gallop, walls do not kill you, and you have the ability to shoot down most enemy bullets. The replayability is high, mainly due to the beautiful stages, stylish bosses and other heavy machinery, hindered only by the slow pace of the ship and the screen getting so cluttered with explosions and torpedo trails that you can't see what's going on. And that's when the slowdown kicks in.
Technically the game would almost be a masterpiece, if it wasn't for the cheap SFX and music. This is especially disappointing after the excellent job Irem did with Undercover Cop's soundtrack. But forget about the sound and look at the screenshots. Notice the shades of blue from the ice and water of the first level, and the greens of the underwater city in the second stage. These are some beautiful stages. filled With houses, bridges and buildings that can be demolished at your whim. You have to see those big enemy destroyers crack down the middle and sink. This is another Irem gem.
The Saturn version was ported by Imagineer and features a cheesy FMV as an intro, giving a little bit more insight into the game's story (it really was an evil organization trying to rule the world). The PlayStation port was published in America by Kokopeli. Both are pretty much arcade perfect.
Gun Force was an obscure Contra-like game you might have seen at the arcades back in the day. It was "feed me all your quarters" hard and pretty much unplayable, but contributed one exciting new element: you could jump into war vehicules and used them against the enemy. Most of you probably didn't even know that it had a sequel. Gun Force 2 was one of the last arcade games (if not the last one) from Irem Corp., published in 1994. When looking at the screenshots, the game's similarity to Metal Slug becomes evident immediately. Yes, Metal Slug is an evolution of this game, as the staff members are actually the same. When Irem Corp. ceased activity, a group of its staff members got together and founded Nazca Corp. They revived their last idea, pumping it up and calling it Metal Slug on the Neo Geo system.
Gun Force 2 is easier and even more enjoyable than Metal Slug. You won't need a dozen quarters to finish it. It's much friendlier and more replayable, but there's less to see and find through out the whole game, as it's just not as technically complex as its modern brother.
Your character is equipped with two guns at the same time that can aim in any direction, at a slightly different angle each. Different weapons are available but only one of your guns can be upgraded, with the other one always keeping the basic shot. There aren't any bombs or grenades, though. Our hero can jump, crouch and hang from ceilings and wires, and also use one of eleven (yes, eleven) war vehicules. This is why Gun Force 2 is so cool. Engaging the enemy with bipedal walkers, jeeps, tanks, and even a Gundam-like flying suit provides such a fuzzy and trigger-happy feeling. Your objective in every level is to rescue hostages for higher scores, which was also later taken over by Metal Slug. Luckily, they are sexy half-dressed cuties instead of Robinson Crusoe's look-a-likes, but they won't leave any rewards or power-ups behind.
Plot-wise, Metal Slug and Gun Force are not related, although you fight off mutants, soldiers and aliens in both games. But technically they are almost identical, utilizing the same graphic design and color palette for backgrounds, explosions and vehicles. There's lots of metal and shrapnel flying everywhere following the extremely well animated explosions (which, interestingly enough, also causes slowdown here). The characters are less cartoonish than Metal Slug. They look more menacing and cool, except for the goofy looking hero, who looks like his arms are going to fall off from carrying those two huge guns. All of the sprites are fluidly animated, with huge mechanical bosses and mini-bosses that perform various attack sequences, with the ability to destroy parts of the background too. The music is just repetitive and bland, but what's interesting is that some of it was first used in another Irem game. They are remixed versions of stages 1, 3 and 4 of Air Duel. Some weapon samples and sound effects are exactly the same as in Metal Slug.
Gun Force 2 looks nothing like its predecessor. The graphic design, playability and animation has completely changed and it's improved in every point. An excellent last arcade jewel from Irem even if you are not a Metal Slug fan, and if you are, do yourself a favor and catch up on the game's roots. You shouldn't miss this.