Whenever horizontally-scrolling Neo Geo shooters are discussed, two names inevitably dominate the conversation: Pulstar and Blazing Star. Both were developed by the same core team (Aicom, which then became Yumekobo) and both rely heavily on pre-rendered sprites rather than hand-drawn visuals. Neither title was ported around the time of release, and it's only very recently that they have gained a new lease of life on modern formats, and this - coupled with the eye-watering expense of owning the originals - has elevated this duo to near-legendary status amongst shooter addicts. Blazing Star is now available on the Switch eShop for less than the cost of a takeaway lunch, but does it really live up to the hype?
Like Pulstar, Blazing Star is heavily influenced by Irem's seminal shooter R-Type - it is rumoured that Aicom, the studio which became Yumekobo, was formed by ex-Irem employees, so the connection shouldn't be that much of a shock. There are no smart bombs in the game; instead, you rely on variations of your main shot plus a charged-shot reminiscent of the one seen in R-Type. Tapping the fire button releases a standard shot, while rapidly tapping it produces a slightly different shot type. Hold down the fire button and you'll charge your main weapon, which varies in effect and coverage depending on which of the six craft you've chosen. That's not all, however; press the B button after unleashing this focused charge and the resultant shot will be split, covering a wider area of the screen. As a consequence of this mechanic, Blazing Star quickly becomes an exercise in deciding which shot to use, and when; taking down a boss enemy's weak spot naturally calls for a single focused blast, while it makes more sense to deal with a screen packed with foes by splitting the charged shot to maximise destruction.
Each ship in Blazing Star varies in shot type, charged shot power and overall speed, so there's plenty of scope for replayability as you attempt to find the craft which best suits your individual play style. The Hellhound has an incredibly powerful fireball weapon, while the Windina's charged shot covers a wider range and boasts an explosive effect which remains on screen for a short time, dealing out damage. Pulstar's Dino 246 is also included, and has a Force Orb-style attachment which calls to mind the aforementioned R-Type - this can be used as a shield but cannot be fired off from the ship, as was the case in Irem's groundbreaking title. The developers clearly want you to experiment with these unique craft; when you continue, you're offered the opportunity to switch ships before starting from the exact point where you died.
During play you'll come across a range of pick-up items, some of which boost the power of your standard shot as well as increasing the charge time (and potency) of your charged weapon. Other score-boosting items include bonus pick-ups and "Lucky" panels, the latter of which are revealed when you defeat specific waves of enemies and count towards your ranking at the end of the stage. Scooping up these items triggers a somewhat annoying "Bonus!" voice sample, which - after repeated plays - could tempt you to turn the volume down entirely. It's a little easier to stomach the downright hilarious "Engrish" text which also appears; phrases like "Get it more!", "Dangerous! Pay attention to backward!", "Stay Cool! Someone wakes the noise up!" and "Don't be panic! I have a bad hunch!" might not be up there with the works of Shakespeare or Keats, but they sure do stick in the mind.
Pulstar has a reputation for being as hard as nails, and while Blazing Star isn't quite as face-smashingly frustrating, it gets pretty intense on the later levels, where the screen is awash with projectiles and there's precious little room to manoeuvre. This steep learning curve is exacerbated by the fact that the opening two stages are a cakewalk, and even the most inexperienced of shooter fans should be able to breeze through them without losing a single life. The fact that you pick up from where you left off the moment you die means that it's tempting to simply force-feed the game credits in order to finish it, but we'd advise against this tactic - it means you'll see the ending in the space of an hour and potentially ruin any long-term interest you have in the game. A better option is to limit yourself to a set number of continues, learn the enemy patterns and hone your talents - although even then, it should be stated that Blazing Star contains many situations where it's seemingly impossible to avoid death.
Like so many titles which use pre-rendered sprites, Blazing Star hasn't aged as well as it possibly could have done. That's not to say it's an ugly title by any means; in fact, there are moments when the visuals are quite striking, especially in two instances where an animated CGI background scrolls smoothly behind the action, or during the many explosive boss encounters (one of which is inspired by the massive battleship in R-Type). Performance wise, this this is a perfect port - right down to the slowdown which occurs when the screen is packed with moving objects. This might be seen as a negative but these moments are a godsend as they give you the chance to catch your breath and avoid a fiery end - which leads us to assume they were an intentional move by the developers rather than a technological shortcoming.
Hamster Corp's Hi-Score and Caravan modes make perfect sense in a game like Blazing Star, so those of you who love proving your skill and sharing it with others online should get plenty of entertainment as a result. Online scoreboards are also included, giving you even more reason to revisit the game time and time again to improve your personal best. Outside of that, there's the usual raft of difficulty toggles, screen filters and save state support.
Like so many Neo Geo games, there's little doubt that some of Blazing Star's appeal lies in the fact that at one point in time it was an almost totally unobtainable title unless you were comfortably rich. Even so, Yumekobo's esteemed shooter has enough quality to entertain even when stripped of its lofty status as a collector's item; the action is fast and challenging, while the controls are tight and responsive. The three shot types add tactical depth to the gameplay and some of the boss encounters will have you sat on the edge of your seat. The biggest complaints are the rather inconsistent pre-rendered graphics and the way in which the difficulty level smashes through the roof in the latter stages of the game, but these are minor issues when you consider how downright enjoyable Blazing Star is. One of the most famous Neo Geo shooters is now a essential purchase on your Switch, especially at this price.