Not content with sitting back and watching the likes of Sega, Capcom, Nintendo et al releasing retro compilations, Konami’s decided to get in on the act too. To celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, the big K is launching a trio of anniversary collections. The Castlevania and Contra collections will be coming in the near future and we’ll cover them in due course, but for now let’s take a look at the first collection, dedicated to Konami’s arcade history.
Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection consists of eight vintage arcade titles, all running under Hamster Corporation’s much-praised Arcade Archives emulator. We’ll get to the general software in a bit, but it makes sense to cover each game individually first, because there's a mixed bag here - if by that you mean taking a bag marked 'Good shoot 'em ups’, putting a rubbish Castlevania spin-off into it, and mixing it around.
First up is Scramble, by far the oldest game in the collection. Released in 1981, it’s credited with being one of the first ever side-scrolling shoot ‘em ups, yet despite this, it still holds up relatively well 38 years later. It’s also the first to introduce a mechanic that Konami decided to use numerous times over the years, as seen elsewhere in this package: the use of one fire button to shoot forwards and another to drop bombs. It may not be visually stunning but it controls tightly and the tricky final shot you need to make at the end of each loop is still satisfying to pull off.
Then there’s TwinBee, the first game in the much-loved TwinBee series and an early example of the cute ‘em up subgenre. This one takes a little while to get going, but once you manage to build up your arsenal of weapon upgrades it becomes a nifty little shooter. The same goes with Nemesis (or Gradius, as it’s more well-known), which also starts you off with a mere pea-shooter but eventually has you filling the screen with lasers, bombs and the like. The NES ports of TwinBee and Nemesis/Gradius may already be available through Switch Online, but the arcade versions are clearly the definitive experiences.
Life Force (also known as Salamander) is a spin-off of Nemesis and ditches that game’s weapon selection system in favour of the more common ‘collect power-ups from fallen enemies’ mechanic you tend to see in most shooters. Meanwhile, Typhoon (or A-Jax as it was known outside of Europe) is the collection’s most ambitious effort and probably the best game of the eight: it regularly switches from a 3D rail shooter to a vertical scrolling shooter and accomplishes both well.
For some reason, even though seven of the games on offer here are shoot ‘em ups, Konami decided to also include Haunted Castle – a horrendous Castlevania spin-off – in this package. It’s got great art design and the music is cracking but it’s one of the very worst examples of an arcade game designed to kill the player quickly and make more money. The constant onslaught of enemies and badly-placed obstacles makes the whole thing feel cheaper than a Humble Bundle, and while you can technically get through it here by brute force via the ability to use save states, doing so is about as fun as spending hours learning how to kick yourself in the groin and then eventually succeeding.
Rounding things off are two more shoot ‘em ups. Vulcan Venture (aka Gradius II) brings back the weapon selection system from the original Gradius but also gives you four different weapon configurations to choose from before you start, adding a basic but welcome level of customisation to proceedings. Finally, there’s Thunder Cross, the youngest of the bunch (albeit not by much, given that it was released in 1988). It dials back a lot of the other games’ features and feels more like a straightforward shooter, but doesn’t necessarily suffer for it. It also doesn’t have an alternative title, which is probably even more surprising given the other games included.
What we have here, then, is a collection of seven historically important shoot ‘em ups and a rubbish platformer for a relatively low price (it works out at £2 / $2.50 per game). Considering they’re all running on the same engine as Hamster’s Arcade Archives releases, and considering those usually sell at more than triple that price, that sounds like a good deal, no? Well, yes, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that the games here aren’t handled with the same high standards as Hamster’s standalone titles.
First and foremost, there should be no concerns about the emulation: it’s flawless. Everything looks, sounds and runs like it’s supposed to, all the comically bad slowdown during intense shoot ‘em up moments happens exactly when it should in the original arcade releases, and at their core it’s more or less impossible to distinguish the eight games here from their coin-op counterparts. Instead, the issues lie with the other features that are usually associated with Hamster releases, and the fact they’re nowhere to be seen this time.
A couple of the games have a vertical aspect ratio, as was the case with many arcade titles at the time. Whereas other Hamster games give you an option to play in ‘Tate’ mode (i.e. rotating the screen 90 degrees so you can turn your Switch vertical when playing in handheld and play with a more suitable viewpoint), there’s no such option here. Neither is there the usual Caravan mode you get in those other releases, where you get 5 or 10 minutes to rack up the highest score possible then post it to an online leaderboard. In fact, there are no online leaderboards to speak of at all, and the game doesn’t even track your best local high score (you’ll need to create a save state and use that to keep playing, otherwise every time you start a game you’re essentially booting a clean, unused ROM).
Another disappointing omission is the option to choose between Japanese and western versions of each game, something Hamster almost always does when there are regional variations: and there are definitely variations here. The level order in Typhoon differs depending on which region you play, and some versions of Haunted Castle are even more obscenely difficult than others, with enemies doing more damage. This damage setting is an option you can toggle, but purists would argue you’re then playing a weird Frankenstein’s Monster that combines different elements from each region.
More importantly, the Japanese version of Life Force was fundamentally different in terms of game design. It kept Gradius’s weapon selection mechanic, where you collected generic power-up capsules and used them to switch to certain weapons whenever you wanted. The western version, however – the one included here – follows the more traditional shoot ‘em up standard of swapping your weapon for whatever item you next pick up. This makes one particular boss practically impossible to beat if you happen to be armed with the wave weapon at the time (since it doesn’t fit into a gap you need to hit), something you could avoid easier in the Japanese game.
Don’t get us wrong: there are still some welcome additions here. The ‘digital book’ that accompanies the game comes with a bunch of interesting behind-the-scenes storyboards and sketches, though whoever edited it went a little overboard translating it, laying the English text over the original Japanese. Some of these pages are text only, meaning claims that they’re “original design documents” start to get a bit silly when the only ‘original’ part left is the yellow paper. The option to switch between the original Japanese documents and the translated version would have been preferable, and it’s generally nowhere near as interesting to read as those featured in Capcom or SNK’s recent anniversary collections, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
In terms of in-game features, the option to turn on autofire for each button is an extremely welcome one, though we wish we’d noticed it earlier (if you have a partner, don’t try to play Nemesis in bed via the traditional method, or the noise of you constantly battering the A button will have you sleeping on the couch before you can say “actually dear, it’s more commonly known as Gradius”). There are also a couple of ‘blurring’ options: one simply blurs the pixels and the other adds scan lines. It’s as basic as it gets, but it’s functional enough.
That sums up the package in general, actually. The adequate digital book and auto-fire options aside, what you have here is a no-frills selection of arcade games – the majority of which still hold up well to this day – that function exactly as they should and not much else. You’re essentially getting eight of Hamster’s Arcade Classics games for the price of around three, but with none of the extra bells, whistles and additional features that come with them.
At only a couple of bucks per game it’s hard to complain too much about this compilation, especially when there’s only really one stinker in the pack. If you aren’t a fan of classic arcade shoot ‘em ups then there isn’t really much for you here: you may want to hold fire and see if the upcoming Castlevania or Contra collections are more to your taste. If you like your shmups though, there are seven iconic vintage examples of the genre here and they perform flawlessly. You’ll still have a decent time playing through them all, even though the lack of online leaderboards, lack of high score saving and general lack of options certainly make its budget price feel justified.