GINGA! FUKEI! DENSETSU! SAPPHIRE!
From “Girlish Grimoire Littlewitch Romanesque” to “Galactic Policewoman Legend Sapphire”, The Japanese love their crazy long-ass names. Since so few Westerners have actually played it, the super-rare vertical shooter Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, simply called Sapphire by normal people, was best known back in 2005 as the most expensive commercial PC Engine release (promo items like Darius Alpha and the nudie tournament edition of Super Real Mahjong P4 don’t count). High prices are nothing new to Turbo CD owners; we’ve been selling black-market babies to pay for overpriced obscurities since the early 90s. But now it’s 2011, and TurboGrafx “fans” have screwed the market up forever by paying over $300 for common stuff like Dynastic Hero, so stock-watching collectors don’t pay much heed to Sapphire anymore. Why look for buried gems when people pay through the nose for topsoil?
It was a rhetorical question, but here’s the answer: because videogames are meant to be played.
The spine card advertises Sapphire as being “Super-Cute but Super-Hard!” With four curvaceous character designs by Mika Akitaka of Yuna fame, developer C.A.P.S. had “cute” in the bag . . . but “hard” is another story. You see, by the time of Sapphire’s 1995 release, the modern shooter era had already begun. I’m not talking “modern” like Cave’s score-focused ESPGaluda or even Toaplan’s Batsugun; I’m talking about straightforward but hellish bullet-fests like Psikyo’s Strikers 1945 that delivered short bursts of manic action punctuated by demanding fights at the end of each level. Aside from the high-powered boss battles, Sapphire’s screen rarely becomes so cluttered with projectiles. In ways, it’s more like Gunhed than Gunbird; not only is the two-part level structure similar to Compile’s early shooter, but Sapphire‘s strategy is based more on predicting enemy attacks than on reflexively navigating through seas of bullets.
Aside from the fiersome bosses, it’s easy to predict the attack patterns of Sapphire‘s visually outrageous mechanical sphinxes and polymorphing gargoyles. The tricky part is compensating for your chosen policecraft’s slow speed and large hitbox. While modern shooters share the slow speed and 16-bit shooters share the large hitbox, these two traits don’t mix — and normally aren’t mixed, for reasons that should be clear. Since the purported “Super-Hard!” difficulty is mostly based on your vehicle’s shortcomings, Sapphire often feels more like a matter of overcoming the game’s mechanics than mastering them. Eventually, either by intent or accident, you’ll select Charotte’s quick(er) “Peregrine” policecraft, and things start to feel slicker.
While your chosen policewoman pursues time-traveling terrorists into the floating palace Zenmijou, the level’s first unofficial boss — a large crimson hellkyte — flies up from the abyss and sprays fire around the screen. Scary! Take too long, and smaller enemies begin flying around and getting in the way. Although normally easy, these smaller enemies are now dangerous because you’re still fighting the dragon. After that, you’ll approach a forest, and a giant vehicle (like the Grindery from Lunar) suddenly lurches forward, smashing everything into the ground. The Grindery does more than steamroll a bunch of trees; it launches a slew of oversized missiles. It’s less dangerous than it sounds, but it does look pretty cool.
If your policecraft survives that barrage, you’ll come across an aqueduct marked by a sinister pagan symbol. A robed man stands in the center of the symbol for a while, then starts spinning around like a wind-up ballerina. This is actually a secret druidic rite that transforms him into a giant rock monster, but it’s scarier than your everyday giant rock monster because this one breathes flames and hurls splintering boulders. Smash that beast to pieces, cross the canal, and enter a castle where dragons fly out of paintings and enormous steel balls . . . just kind of roll around on the floor. Through an ornate set of doors lurks the big floating Starfox head, which has Raiden 2′s toothpaste attack. As you fight the Starfox head, it throws its face at you until all that’s left is a creepy, laser-spitting, clockwork skull.
All of that awesome stuff happens during my least favorite level.
While slaughtering sand-worms above Egyptian deserts and knocking giant crabs into pits, each policecraft can pick up (and power up) three unique color-coded weapons. Some shots bounce off the walls, some bullets pierce enemy formations, and others fire in spreading patterns — whether using Helena Evangelin’s bulky battlecruiser or willowy Jasmine’s purple Ibis, there’s very little overlap. Each weapon even has its own unique sound effect, which is awesome except for when you accidentally pick up the chirping blue laser beam. TWEET TWEET TWEET!
Despite their differences, the weapons are basically interchangeable; none of Sapphire’s easily-mastered armaments ever demand the same expertise as Thunder Force V’s free range or Robo-Aleste’s yellow chaser, although C.A.P.S. meekly implemented a “homing option” ability that’s useful twice in the first level.
But that’s okay. Sapphire doesn’t need deep weaponry. It just needs to ROCK . . . and with spotlight effects, smooth rotation, spinning polygons, lightning storms, and an unforgettable soundtrack by T’s Music, it succeeds. Only a few shooters even try to reach this level of style. But for all its explosive energy, Sapphire never matches the controller-gripping intensity of Gate of Thunder’s Dark City gauntlet or Rayxanber 2′s claustrophobic firefight beneath an enormous mechanical spider. Obscene production values and overflowing imagination can’t replace careful game design . . . but they can turn a competent, straightforward game into an entertaining spectacle.