Milestone is a pretty rare beast: a company completely focused on arcade shooters (well, other than that hula game) at a time when arcades and the old shoot 'em up game genre are both practically extinct. They were putting out Dreamcast games after that system died, so perhaps they just have a morbid obsession with dead game systems. In any event, Ultimate Shooting Collection is the Western name for the Milestone Shooting Collection released in Japan more than 18 months ago and a nice example of the "bullet hell" subgenre of shooting games.
Included are three games that originally appeared in Japanese arcades in the middle of the decade. They are all "bullet hell" shooters which means that whilst you're still shooting on-screen enemies your primary focus is often more on evading their fire than trying to destroy all of them since the screen will frequently be blanketed with bullets.
All three games have similarities in that they have a primary weapon that auto-fires whilst holding the button down, a secondary short range "sword" weapon that does more damage than the primary "shot" weapon; a life bar rather than separate lives - meaning your ship can take a few hits rather than being destroyed by one - and a limit of two continues to get you through the standard five stages. The first two games, Karous and Radio Allergy (abbreviated in the game select menu as "Radirgy") are very similar in their mechanics so we'll address these together. They are the more approachable games for new players, whilst Chaos Field is noticeably more challenging and differs in both structure and visuals from the other two.
In both Karous and Radio Allergy your central strategy is remembering when not to fire and when to use your special attack. Whilst firing you're exposed to enemy attack, however if you stop firing then a shield will form directly ahead of you to absorb enemy fire. It's only good against fire coming directly at you, so you still need to keep moving lest you be hit by shots coming in at angles or those few shots it won't block. The special "attack" in both games is a temporary shield that surrounds your ship, blocks attacks from all directions and causes damage to enemies it contacts - critical in boss encounters. Both games have auto-fire for your sword attack (though shot power decreases if you use both attacks at once) and both like to interrupt the action with little text messages from characters in the game or "spammers" (thankfully this can be turned off).
Whilst the strategies are broadly similar there are noticeable differences between the games. Karous is the more approachable game for bullet hell novices because the bullet hell sections are limited to the boss battles in the first couple of stages (after that all bets are off), and the bosses themselves aren't too difficult to defeat - once you get your head around the idea that not shooting is a good thing sometimes. There are carriers with power-ups that appear periodically that can be toggled between a few different types by hitting them with your sword: you can change your shot type between fairly conventional "spread" and "laser" varieties or upgrade your shot, sword or shield levels, which are recorded in a display in the upper-left corner of the screen. Upgrading your shot level increases the number of shots and their power, upgrading the sword increases the frequency of sword attacks when holding the button down and upgrading the shields increases their defensive capability and eventually reflects shots back at attackers. Your special attack can be triggered after filling your S.P. gauge either via a pick-up or, more slowly, by shooting enemies.
Radio Allergy allows an initial choice between three ship colours and three shot patterns which you stick with throughout the game. Your shot power is tied to an energy gauge at the top of the screen which is filled by collecting little capsules released by enemies after you shoot them. Using your special attack or hitting enemies with your shield will cause these to be collected automatically, but otherwise you need to intercept them which is not an easy task as they fly towards the bottom of the screen faster than bullets. You can also pick up power-ups, but given the energy gauge is constantly running down you'll still want to collect those capsules. Ground-based enemies leave behind various tokens after being shot and some enemies fire odd things like basketballs, baseballs and tennis balls or falling leaves at you. Unlike Karous, Radio Allergy is a bullet-fest right from the start though the goofy attacks and food tokens enemies leave behind make it feel a little friendlier - don't be fooled though, this is definitely the tougher game.
Chaos Field is substantially different from the other two games. Visually Radio Allergy and Karous are quite similar with a bright, cel-shaded look that makes the games look very similar to each other. Chaos Field is much darker and has a more conventional look to it. Rather than going through a series of smaller ships ending in boss battles, Chaos Field is simply a series of boss battles against giant screen-filling enemies and is quite challenging right from the beginning. You choose one of three ships, each with different shot types and degrees of manoeuvrability; your only defence is your sword and special attacks. Your sword attack can only be used as quickly as you can press the button after the attack animation completes, meaning that you'll have sub-second windows of vulnerability when using it to clear out shots (thankfully there are very few which it cannot sweep aside).
Rather than triggering a special attack the third button is used to change the game mode between the Fields of Order and the Fields of Chaos. In the Fields of Chaos your weapons do more damage, but the enemies' attacks also become more ferocious and fewer items are released when they're destroyed, so switching back-and-forth is a major part of your strategy. By pressing a combination of sword and shot or all three buttons you can pull off two different special attacks, though this is limited by the amount of Meta Stock you have. Collecting ten items will give you one Meta Stock; holding and releasing the fire button when items are floating towards you will cause you to collect them automatically.
Configuration options are plentiful with players able to adjust their starting life-bar amount, score required to regain a life point, overall difficulty and button assignments (though you'll need to press to confirm selections and high score entry regardless of function remapping). Karous and Radio Allergy also have an option to be displayed vertically just like the arcade - assuming you have a vertical monitor to hook your Wii up to. Controller choices include Remote and Nunchuk, GameCube Controller, or (best of all) Classic Controller/Pro. One thing you cannot change is the number of starting credits, so you're not going to see any of the endings until you master the games. The soundtracks are a great mix of techno and classical/opera and can be listened to separately via the Sound Test menu (there are no sound effects on offer, however.)
While all of these games have interesting mechanics, none of them are as compelling as Castle of Shikigami III or Ikaruga. Enemies tend to be pretty generic spaceships and tanks and the attacks are no different to any shooting game produced in the past 20 years. Nevertheless it's a good collection which is worth having for any fan of the genre.
Ultimate Shooting Collection presents three recent examples of arcade shooters and is firmly targeted at fans of the "bullet hell" subgenre or just shooting fans who might want to see what's been happening in Japanese arcades in the past ten years. Whilst none of the games on their own is particularly special, it should definitely have a space on the shelf of any shoot-em-up fan. UFO should be applauded for taking the time to localise Milestone Shooting Collection for the North American market; hopefully a European publisher will step up and follow suit for PAL territories.