1942 (Arcade, 1984)
After my run through one of the genre's classics, I decided to jump back a year to a shmup that's always interested me - Capcom's 1942. The series has always stood out in a sea of sci-fi space shooters, not only because of its military trappings, but also its real-world based WWII setting. There is something very strange, and not a little uncomfortable, about a game in which you mow down hordes of Japanese fighter pilots across the Pacific - not to mention it was developed by a Japanese studio. There's a small niche group of military fans in Japan - people who are fascinated by the technology behind wars of days past with little regard to the concept of war itself. That's all well and good, I suppose - in Germany you might find the same type, people who are able to dissociate the atrocities committed in wartime and the technological prowess of, say, the German Panzer. Well, whatever. What this means is that 1942, despite its absurd premise (a lone American fighter flying and blasting his way all the way to Tokyo), still uses plenty of authentic planes, both American and Japanese.
It's one of the more interesting things about the game, and helps to give it a unique flair all its own. Which is good! Because the gameplay isn't particularly interesting. It's tempting to give older games a free pass, but then, Gradius was released less than a year later and it's still the superior shmup. The problem with 1942 is the lack of variety - and this is a genre that isn't really known for its variety, so that's saying something.
Every encounter plays out mostly the same - a limited number of enemies with a limited number of patterns, all of which increase over the course of the game's 30+ levels. It's here we can really see the roots of the shmup - the "fixed shooter" like Galaga and Space Invaders, the old single-screen arcade shooters. Enemy fighters even move like those in Galaga. Without any real weapon variety - you can upgrade a bit, but not too much - it becomes a bit of a slog. Hell, the relatively large amount of levels also contributes to that.
Maybe's the lack of real bosses. Sure, a larger enemy comes along every so often - but it's not difficult enough to be considered a boss, and they always come in the middle of a level. Or maybe it's the repetitive backgrounds, which are mostly aquatic until you reach land towards the end of the game. There isn't much reason for this be a scrolling shooter at all. Sure, the game offers a defensive option - a roll maneuver that temporarily puts your plane out of reach of enemy fire. It's an impressive little trick, but I found the timing to be too tricky to ever make real use of it.
I don't mean to dump on the game - despite the music and sounds that are terrible even for 1984 - if anything, the game has given me an even better appreciation for what Gradius did a year later. Whereas that game laid the foundations for what would become the shmup genre, 1942 is stuck somewhere in between a shmup proper and the old single-screen arcade shooter. Which doesn't make it bad, just boring.
All screenshots are my own.