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[ Writer ] = CMoon
[ 04/09/04 ] = Fire Shark aka Shark! Shark! Shark! aka Same! Same! Same!

Man, you gotta dig Toaplan. When they do a vote for best shooter company, this is who I always vote for. Toaplan was to shooters what Punk was to rock and roll. It stripped the shit down and got right to the big shooting bliss out. You don't need to understand anything to play a Toaplan shooter other than your basic shoot and bomb button. And EVERYTHING needs to be shot; it's the fucking one chord sentiment that the Stooges managed through the entirety of their second outing, Fun House.

You might argue that somehow Batsugun forgets this with hyper-over-powered weapons, and that V-Five betrays its mother company by throwing in a Gradius-style power-up bar and adjustable satellights - well, you might have a point on the later (though I do love it), but everything else, Batsugun included, is pure zen shooter nirvana. Of these, Fire Shark stands out as a surprisingly early example of everything a good vertical scrolling shooter should be.

There's 10 levels, after which it repeats - perhaps indefinitely - at a significantly higher level. As far as the multiple names, I really dig Same! Same! Same! Sort of a metaphysical undertone to this World War I shooter (replete with futuristic weapons). Maybe it's justifiable since the game works more in the spirit of a raga than the start and stop of so many other games, or the absurd panic-dom of Cave shooters (though I love them as well). Fire Shark starts out slow and easy; you could go through the first three levels almost sleeping and the difficulty seems to only increase very gradually. But fear not, challenge awaits!

There are three weapons - a standard spread shot (blue), a red 'beam' type of weapon that becomes an undulating type of thing with tendrils and what-not as you power it up, and a straight-ahead uber-powerful green shot. The green is the most risky, and I only use it very early on, but the other two are great!

Of these two, the red is the most defensive but not until later in the game when it is fully powered up and shoots in all directions. Fully powered you can also control the red weapon - holding it down for that undulating effect or tapping it now and then for a more focused frontal attack. The blue spread type attack is great during the mid-levels of the game since you can canvas a good chunk of the screen with it, and it is quite powerful! The problem is, as you get toward level 7 and beyond, enemies come from behind regularly - it's time to switch to red!

There's also plenty of extra points (and lives) to be had, but this will become a game of waiting out the different weapon-icons. When you pick up a color you already have you get 5000 points or so, and sometimes I've seen three or four of the same color pop out in quick succession. Fortunately (unlike Raiden), picking up a different weapon type does not affect your power level, so if you want to just suck up the different weapon types, you can. This is a good thing since they bounce around the screen obnoxiously and are hard to dodge.

Weapon change icons do not actually power you up though. This is reserved for the P icon - three power up your weapon another level. There's also an S icon for speed. Both rarely come toward your ship and demand that you take a risk grabbing them! Lastly, there's a B icon for Bomb, but this moves freely around the screen.

Before I get on to the game play I might as well mention one other weird bit. When your plane is hit, you're given a few seconds before you crash. It's utterly useless but if you want to dump your bombs in frustration, you can. Why not?

So yeah, gameplay. Fucking classic! Tanks shoot right at you instead of bullet-spam. Smaller planes move about in formation, sometimes shooting but mostly trying to suicide into you. They're pretty fast so make sure and stay away from the borders of the screen (that includes the bottom of the screen too!). Turrets appear from time to time. Man, it's so classic, just like Zanac and what not. All the stuff you'd never see past '95. Little turrets digging their way out of the ground, carts zooming around on tracks to shoot their little orange balls of lead at you. Despite the slow beginning, it does begin to pick up. Frantic, crazy shooting hell begins to rear its ugly head past level four!

Bosses are the first hint that this isn't going to be just the occasional tank taking pot shots at you. Bosses fire Psikyo-like patterns at your rather large hit-box, though with any experience at shooters you'll easily survive. Really, by the time you're into level 4 this has become as good a game as Batsugun (one of my favorite shooters). You don't need to be a god to play it, but it taps into this pre-human instinctive dodge/kill festival that will put a smile on anyone's face who has the patience to play a game made in 1989.

The music is completely spot-on. There is a certain music from the late 80's/early 90's that says to me: 'Arcades live forever.' The music of the last stage of Batsugun is like this, but I think almost every game by Toaplan has great music. Fire Shark screams nostalgia and I can only imagine screens filled with 2-D goodness perpetually lit in some far away arcade where you can still put in your quarter and play a round of Street Fighter II, UN Squadron, Raiden II, or even the older games like Galaga and its ilk. The soundtrack is SOOOO perfect, even though it repeats, it hardly matters. At times a bit more aggressive, at other times all wobbly and full of nostalgia. I want a Toaplan greatest hits soundtrack. Thank god Batsugun can be played as a CD! (And Fireshark has a soundtest mode in the options too!)

So I'm playing this on the Genesis - picked the console up for free, and I think the game cost me $5. It's certainly one of my favorite shooters already. I'm not saying best shooter ever. I'd have to argue with all the people who love the crap out of Thunder Force, etc. But Toaplan, in its relatively short existance, managed to lay down all the ground rules for just about everything I love in a shooter. Sure, there's all those who will try to make something better. I love Radiant Silvergun as much as the next guy, but it's Toaplan who really makes me believe. Toaplan taught me how to dodge and weave and shoot the crap out of every living (and non-living) thing. And Toaplan lives on the Genesis! Truxton, Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire! Not that they're arcade perfect by any means (that wouldn't start until the Saturn), but they're fun as hell, and more redeeming than anything to be found on a modern console. Sure, I love 3-D too, but find me a game on the PS2 with as much to love as Same! Same! Same! I bet you can't even find a game with a title that good!

All in all, Fire Shark will surprise a lot of players. It's got all its roots stuck deep in the ground, way down before the 16-bit era, yet as the game expands it clearly points the way toward where Batsugun and even Donpachi would go. Its graphics are sometimes impressive for the Genesis, with it's warm depiction of mountain ranges and war-torn shores, though they are not disconnected from the 8-bit shooter. Maybe this is what I most love about Toaplan; nothing is disconnected. Rather than an isolated game, the 2-D shooter becomes language, part intuition, part folklore; ancestral casio melodies are the neolithic cave paintings of my youth, not made obselete by the next, or next-next generation of videogames that forget we were never trying to simulate the real world, but rather fighting to live an incredible fantasy! Fire Shark is such a welcome reminder of what video games were, both insanely difficult and innocent from the nonsense of Grand Theft Auto III or whatever cynicism video games have become. Dodge, shoot, move in perfection through the hail of orange bullet hell. Sure, there's a story to come after this, but Fire Shark has everything any shooter needs, and while there's plenty of other games - many with better graphics or superior scoring systems, you won't find anything absent in Fire Shark; rather, after so much elaboration, it's something like a homecoming.

Give me my one chord of shooting, that's all I really need!