Posted by Sean Aaron
A rare Neo Geo CD gem comes to the Japanese Virtual Console
You can be forgiven for not having heard of Chotetsu Brikin'ger (often referred to as Ironclad Brikin'ger on the web) as it's one of a handful of Neo Geo CD titles that was never released in MVS cartridge form for arcades or outside of Japan (though according to message boards this VC release is based upon the unreleased MVS ROM). Assuming you can actually find a copy, you'd expect to pay somewhere in excess of $200 for it on eBay, but the real reason it's such a treat to have on the Virtual Console is it's one of the best shooters to appear on the Neo Geo and can hold its own against other respected games in the genre.
You're placed in control of a prop-driven aircraft in a future war in some unknown place fighting off an invasion of some kind - it's fair to say the story isn't hugely important. Enemies are an unremarkable assortment of helicopters and other aircraft in the air and there are tanks or walking robots on the ground. Objects in the game are rendered in 3D and are very well animated, with lots of fine detail to be seen in both ordinary enemies and screen-filling bosses. Explosions are varied and look good with different destruction animations rather than generic orange fireballs. The backgrounds you're horizontally scrolling past are 3D renders, often overlaid with digitised images. Visually it's decent enough even by modern standards; for the Neo Geo it's a revelation, but the real star of the show is the gameplay.
There are three ships to choose from with differences in power and speed, but that's not terribly important, what is interesting is the "option" ball and how it provides players with various strategies for playing the game. It works very much like the option in R-TYPE, although unlike the one in R-TYPE this one is present from the beginning and when separated from your ship it fires up and down rather than straight ahead. Pressing (A) on your Classic Controller Pro (the preferred method for playing this and other Neo Geo titles) will launch the option and holding the button down will cause it to retract. As in R-TYPE this retraction feature can be used to drag it into various places to assist in shooting enemies.
When retracted it provides some protection against enemy fire, but not an unlimited amount so you cannot use it to wade through enemies. Having it docked also changes your weapon fire. The three ships on offer have different main weapons, but with the option docked they're all short-range burst machine gun weapons until you power-up the option. Separate power-ups are available for your option and your ship's weapon: two levels for the option and three for your ship which are indicated by display lights in a panel in the lower left of the screen. Like many shooters there's a super bomb, which is the option firing out a laser that lays waste to everything. This isn't without penalty however, as triggering the super bomb will use one of your power-ups. It makes for some rather novel strategic decisions on the part of the player in how they approach the game and is refreshing to see in a mid-90s shooter.
There are interesting differences from other contemporary shooters too, some of which reference older games in the genre. There is no auto-fire or weapon charging when holding down the fire button: players can only fire as fast as they can physically press the button. That's as old-school as it gets, though you can still play a 2-player game with a friend who can jump in at any time. Unusually you aren't destroyed by contacting enemies - only their shots - and much like Capcom's classic 1943 you only have one life, but your ship can take four hits before being destroyed. Any power-ups you've collected will be released when you're hit and you'll need to collect them again before they fade away. Best of all, like Taito's Darius series, there are branching paths to different levels and endings from the very beginning, providing loads of replay value.
If you're not terribly proficient at shooters then Chotetsu Brikin'ger is very approachable. Regular enemies start out slowly and don't fill the screen; the main challenge is the bosses themselves, all of whom will helpfully have a damage meter so you can see how well you're doing against them. Rather than navigating a maze of bullets, the game is all about recognising boss patterns and reacting to them and is much more in line with games like Salamander, but without the effort required to navigate the playfield to reach them. The game never feels cheap; you get the sense that if only you were good enough you could beat the whole game with one credit, as in the days before continues.
There are four difficulty levels on offer and despite never having an official cart release it seems clear that an arcade version was once on the cards, because the fourth difficulty listed is MVS - a reference to the arcade cart version of Neo Geo games. You only get four credits, but despite not being able to increase beyond that you can still pick up where you left off - if you remembered to save data when prompted at the end of your last game. The next time you start the game you can choose to load the save data which will present you with the last branching path reached in that game; none of which affects your high score.
In a sea of samey shooters, Saurus managed to make a solid shooting experience by taking bits of ones that had come before it, mixing it up with some nicely detailed animation and a decent - if unobtrusive - techno soundtrack. The fact that you can get such a rare game at a fraction of the going rate for the collectable CD version is one of the things that makes the Wii's Virtual Console service so excellent; especially when the game is as good as this one. If you have access to a Japanese Wii then this is well worth a look; otherwise you'll just have to wait!