Out of all the games available for the much-maligned Virtual Boy, Vertical Force is possibly the most conventional in terms of game design. It's a vertically scrolling shooter (clue was in the title really) where you fight your way through swarms of enemies before facing a boss character to proceed to the next level. Aside from a few graphical tricks, it could have been done on practically any system - but that's not to say it's not worth playing. If you're aware of Hudson's lineage when it comes to shooters then you'll know that you ignore one of their games at your peril.
Your ship is quite simple looking as are the enemies, many of whom appear very similar. However, the game makes good use of the Virtual Boy's 3D depth effect. There are two altitude levels to each stage, each with enemies and obstacles. The feeling of depth is impressive and really enhances the visuals. It looks best when you can see the ground (or sea) below as nearby structures really add to the impression of your surroundings. You don’t fly as high above the surface as the Virtual Boy is capable of showing but as that would make everything on the lower plane too small to see clearly, that’s probably a good idea.
Enemies may start on one level before sweeping to the other to attack. Likewise you can change your own altitude by tapping A, either as an evasive move or to collect a power up. Alternatively, if you’re feeling confident and just want to take out as many enemy ships as possible then you can switch between the two for maximum destruction.
Some enemies attack on their own whilst others attack in a group. You also have to deal with fire from turrets, either ground based or attached to a battleship. To add to all this, you have to contend with the environment itself. Often you will have to change your altitude to avoid a piece of architecture, and the second level features whirlpools that drag you down from relative safety to face the enemy fire below.
Each level features an encounter with Bratt, a mid-level boss with upgraded weaponry for each subsequent battle (fans of the PC Engine/TG-16 classic Soldier Blade will appreciate the link here). Defeat him and it acts as a checkpoint for you to continue from should you die. The end level bosses are a varied bunch, more detailed than the smaller enemies, and include a splitting platform, a spinning snake-like creature and a skull. These can be quite challenging and will see you constantly changing your altitude to get in a quick attack before flying away to safety.
To help you progress through the game there are weapons power ups available. One includes a shield, one gives wider shots and the other is a powerful laser beam (three levels of upgrade each). There are also three types of drone you can collect to help you out by attacking some enemies for you. One of them will only attack when you do, but when not fighting will repair your ship. This is obviously useful and so at times it pays to avoid conflict to replenish your energy meter.
Drones have their own energy meter and should they get damaged you can tap a direction on the right d-pad to put them into reserve. As well as your active drone, three others can be held in reserve at any one time and whilst there, they are repaired. If you decide an active drone is of no further use to you, tapping B causes it to detonate, damaging any onscreen enemies.
Removing or adding drones is quick and easy and just tapping on the right d-pad feels natural, however adjusting their settings can cause trouble. Drones can be set to put themselves in reserve when their energy meter is low and you can also adjust if they should follow your altitude or fly wherever they want. Ideally this would be adjusted from a pause menu but instead the options are cycled through by pressing select. Whilst there are only four combinations of these settings, in the heat of battle you can quite easily select the wrong one.
The sound effects of the game are a mixed bag. Changing altitude leads to a appropriate diving-like effect but the beeping from your weapons (apart from the wonderful zinging laser) is quite annoying, though as it’s often accompanied by the satisfying small explosions of defeated enemies it’s not too bad. Music is appropriately spacey sounding and attention is paid to the surroundings, so as you fly over the ocean there’s a breezy sea feel to that stage’s track, whilst the fortress level has an imposing tone to it.
The disappointing thing about the game is (that constant Virtual Boy complaint) it’s length. Each level (should you avoid dying) is a few minutes long and there are just 5 levels. In fact there are only four full levels as the fifth consists of just Bratt and the final boss. However there are three difficulty settings to help extend the game’s life.
On the easiest difficulty setting the game doesn’t take long to finish at all. It gets steadily more difficult but after a few attempts each section will be cleared without trouble and as the game gives you unlimited continues you can afford to make a few mistakes. Continuing resets your score but high scores are not saved and if you are just trying to get through the game, that won’t really bother you anyway. You also loose any drones and upgrades but you will quickly find some more.
Move the difficulty up to the second setting though and you will notice a big difference. Whilst on the easier setting you could easily avoid attacks, here you may dive out of the way of an enemy only to find yourself heading towards another and having to tap A to climb up again where hopefully things are now a bit safer. Drone use also alters. Before you held on to them and didn’t have to think about adjusting any settings, now you constantly switch drones in and out of reserve and have to think about the best setting for your situation. Also you will start using that option of detonating them especially against bosses where you may often find your ship a hit away from destruction. Whereas unlimited continues made the easiest setting overly easy, here they seem to make things fair. It’s a lot more challenging which makes clearing a level all the more satisfying. That said, it’s unlikely to trouble experienced shooter fans but there is that third settings where things get even tougher, requiring fast movement to avoid the constant barrage of enemy attacks.
Although the gameplay is pretty traditional, Vertical Force’s levels make good use of the hardware's 3D effect. It’s a fun shooter that offers—on two of the difficulty settings—a tough challenge. This adds replayability but the game suffers greatly from only having four full levels. However it’s one you will enjoy coming back to again and again either to try and get that bit further or just to see how far you can make it on one life. While it's not quite good enough to be known as Hudson's 'lost classic', this is still a worthwhile purchase if you're a new Virtual Boy owner.