Toaplan Arcade Garage: Zero Fire Review - Screenshot 1 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

M2’s garage doors are open for business again, continuing to pay homage, and in fastidious attention to detail, to the shoot 'em ups of yesteryear. Zero Fire, a portmanteau of collected titles Zero Wing (1989) and Hellfire (1989) represents Toaplan during the height of its glorious arcade tenure.

Although released just four months apart, Hellfire is chronologically the first in this collection, a side-on horizontal scrolling shoot 'em up that was borne from the instruction to make a game like Konami’s Gradius. Hellfire was the company’s first horizontal foray, and its production was particularly problematic. Director Tatsuya Uemura cited it as being “extremely difficult to make” in an interview for the Toaplan Shooting Chronicle, a music collection, and that it was memorable only for the struggle he and his team experienced during its manufacture.

Toaplan Arcade Garage: Zero Fire Review - Screenshot 2 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Typically '80s sci-fi, Hellfire takes place in the year 2998 where a robot overlord is invading human-occupied space colonies. Playing as Captain Lancer, it’s your mission to overthrow the threat with the Space Federation’s newly designed fighter craft and its super weapon, the CNCS1. Hellfire features six stages and an equal number of bosses to work through. Graphically, it’s bold and Toaplan-gritty, with a large ship sprite navigating vast enemy bases, odd Egyptian-themed landscapes, and otherworldly rainforests. The four directional lasers attached to your craft, rotatable with the press of a button, are Hellfire’s primary gimmick. Each weapon type is steadily enhanced by grabbing ‘P’ icons until your CNCS1 is blasting neon about the screen, while ‘B’ icons reap points that net score-based extra lives. There are also drops that will increase your ship’s speed, although you may want to limit the number you pick up lest it becomes too fast to handle.

Hellfire is big, chunky, fantastic fun, its directional weaponry making for an engrossing and immediately tactical experience, buoyed by a traditionally fantastic soundtrack. It's simple and easy to adjust to, and entertaining to figure out how to best use your array to take out enemies and destructible scenery in search of bonus items. Hellfire’s creative merit lies in its layout revolving around your multi-directional fire. Stripping away the layering of bosses is all very cleverly arranged, forcing you into situation after situation where weapon adjustment is paramount. Within just a handful of attempts, it all becomes second nature, especially as you see your lasers climb the power scale against increasing rank. It may have been tough for Uemura and co. to figure out the horizontal format, but what they came up with — bar perhaps the oversizing of the player ship — is a grand space adventure that’s not only softer in makeup and therefore more approachable than the likes of Kyukyoku Tiger, but has novel ideas that feel fun to toy with.

Toaplan Arcade Garage: Zero Fire Review - Screenshot 3 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

A death, however — and much like in Gradius — is doom-spelling, especially by the third stage, as it reduces your power to the lowest rung of the ladder. This pushes you to go the entire six stages unscathed and finish the game on a single life. Should you topple its 30-minute length, a second loop awaits, a purely expert-only affair that considerably ramps up the number of bullets and their speed.

Zero Wing is best remembered for the meme-worthy 'Engrish' present in the Mega Drive home release, specifically “All your base are belong to us”, a phrase so infamous that the US town of Sturgis, Michigan, issued a terrorist threat alert after local pranksters picketed signs bearing the slogan about the streets. It reuses the Hellfire engine, making it another horizontal scroller, but one more formulaic in nature. There are three weapon types to collect: a spread gun, a straight laser, and a homing shot, their power increased by grabbing the same coloured icons on repeat. Zero Wing's key element is a small tractor beam that can be used to snatch certain enemies to be used as a shield or fired off as a missile.

Toaplan Arcade Garage: Zero Fire Review - Screenshot 4 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Although visually less bright and bold than Hellfire, it plays beautifully thanks to that magical Toaplan flavour, where tones of brown and beige form spectacular worlds, and the soundtrack is expectedly fantastic. And while Zero Wing isn’t the best of its ilk, it’s still a robust and enjoyable shoot 'em up with huge stages and more of a fair opportunity to get back into the game after a death. Figuring out when to acquire a particular weapon is part of the strategy, and while the game is tough, and its restart points occasionally infuriating, it’s still a highly beguiling space adventure for those who enjoy a challenge. (As a side-note, Zero Wing’s Super Easy Mode allows enemies captured with the tractor beam to be detonated as projectile bombs, which is not only really good fun, but works on its own as a clever scoring game.)

M2 has softened the pain of finger tapping by adding optional auto fire to the control setup, fixed at 30hz so as not to break the game. The usual ShotTriggers bonuses are present, including the M2 gimmicks that allow you to configure scoring and extra life information that borders the screen. There are nice, adjustable CRT scanline filters too, and online scoring is expectedly part of the package. Being horizontal too, they look great in a handheld format, making good use of the Switch's screen, even in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The menus in this import release are in Japanese only, but not too hard to figure out. In terms of modes, you get Arcade, a Super Easy mode that’s plenty of fun to wade through, and a Custom Mode that allows you to tailor your practice runs. Each title also has a Challenge Mode that allows you to take on selected stages or areas under compellingly tough conditions. We played the ports alongside the arcade originals and from what we can tell, emulation quality seems impeccable in every respect. There are also replays and a Visual Gallery feature that collects much of the materials related to the original arcade games, from manuals to PCB boards.

Toaplan Arcade Garage: Zero Fire Review - Screenshot 5 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

What we take exception to is M2’s persistent nickel and diming, locking everything in the digital release behind a DLC paywall. The PC-Engine version of Hellfire features nice anime story interludes and an original soundtrack, while the Mega Drive port adds a helper droid, a shield, and a laser bomb; but, unless you can get your hands on a Japanese physical release, where they’re included, eShop buyers are charged separately for the variations. The physical release also includes Demon’s World as a bonus, a neat, forced-scrolling Toaplan run 'n' gun, while digital adopters are again required to cough up extra for it.

Conclusion

It's hard to fault the presentation and delivery of M2's ShotTriggers collections. Hellfire and Zero Wing are both excellent old-school shoot 'em ups, representative of Toaplan's then-burgeoning creativity. They look good, sound great, and are super fun to learn. Emulation quality is on point, and the little extras, like the visual gallery, are very welcome. But again, it's lamentable that the digital release is so fundamentally different from the physical. It would be nice if digital customers could get their hands on the home console variations of Hellfire and Zero Wing without being required to purchase them as DLC. It's the one thing that feels wrong about the way M2 have handled their ShotTriggers releases, and it's not particularly fair to fans.