Thanks to Nintendo making imports available on the Virtual Console, you've probably come across Chō Aniki: a shooter on the PC Engine in the same mold as Gradius and other side-scrollers, but with some rather unconventional enemies and a lot of muscles. You may be less familiar with this sequel, which was released on the PC Engine CD format and has probably given more screen time to body builders than any game in history – until recently.
Chō Aniki spawned many sequels, but this one is regarded universally as the best of the bunch. Visually it's better than its predecessor because there's a "zoomed-in" look due to the use of larger sprites. This means you have a greater level of detail, which is put to good use in a large variety of unusual enemies ranging from winged things that look like bug-eyed, mascara-wearing baby heads, to walking flowers, sunfish with bulging biceps instead of fins, half-naked musclemen – lots and lots of them – and some of the most fantastic bosses ever to see the light of day.
On the internet you may find this game referred to as "the gayest game ever." We have to take issue with this label – after all, merely featuring semi-nude muscle-bound figures as enemies and heroes has nothing to do with sexuality. Of course by the time you reach the stage with the nearly naked men doing wheelbarrows and "69" poses or see the boss in a recreation of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" shaking his bottom at the screen to cause aubergines to rain down on you, that debate may well be academic. Suffice it to say that if you have a problem with excellent game art that also happens to celebrate the male form, you should stay away from this game, but if you do, you'll be missing out on one of the best shooters on the PC Engine.
As with the first game you control a flying person rather than a ship. In this one the twin bodybuilders Adon and Samson take centre stage with Chō Aniki's Benten only appearing in the intro and in-game to announce "It's Showtime!" and drop some power-ups from time to time. Despite the shorter distance between your character and enemies it plays quite well. Rather than focusing on reaction time, you need to effectively navigate through mazes of enemies and the few shots they fire. Whilst the main draw of this game is the oddball presentation, the mechanics are rather novel and make for some good gameplay.
Rather than your typical three lives, players have a time gauge represented by hourglasses and a health bar with three hearts at the top of the screen. Every time you collide with an enemy or get shot you lose a heart; lose three and you lose an hourglass, which also runs down during the course of play. When all hourglasses are gone the game is over.
Instead of conventional power-ups for changing shot types, you use a combination of (DPAD) moves and fire button presses to pull off different attacks just like a fighting game. Just pressing the fire button results in a low-power shot emanating from your body-builder's...lower abdomen, which will automatically hit the nearest enemy and can be fired almost as quickly as you can hit the button. By pressing the (DPAD) in the direction you want to shoot and then pressing fire a bunch of stars/fairy dust is cast with more impressive results. Every few shots fired left or right in this manner will result in a massive beam firing from the top of Adon/Samson's head-hole – great for taking out colourful bosses. All of the shots are accompanied by body-building poses and grunts and can be fired in any direction as the action changes from horizontal to vertical scrolling. Whilst the backgrounds scroll automatically you can move your man to any part of the screen – which is often required as bosses sometimes come into the screen from different directions.
Since there's no continues and no game saves or checkpoints, you'll need to do your best to complete the stages in a single sitting – though of course the Virtual Console's save state can come in handy. Helping you (and a friend, since Adon and Samson can fly together) on your magical mystery tour is an outstanding high-quality soundtrack made possible by the game's original CD-ROM format. It's a weird mix of traditional-sounding Japanese rhythms and techno-dance with the occasional opera singers on helium. The description may sound bizarre, but it's one of the best soundtracks we've heard in a shooter and is definitely worth hearing on its own. Add in some great cut scenes consisting of stills of Adon and Samson doing poses and moving towards the camera until their highly-detailed faces fill the screen and it's a game you'll probably have on regular rotation for months to come!
Yes, Ai Chō Aniki is strange and it cannot be debated that the art director had a thing for images of muscular men, but that cannot take away from the fact that it's one of the most interesting shooters of the 8/16-bit era. Hopefully Hudson and Nintendo will see fit to give it a worldwide release so all gamers can experience the awesomeness of this game.