Given how popular "shmups" were during the late '80s and early '90s it's odd that the Neo Geo didn't have more of them, but the few it did play host to were generally amazing. Blazing Star and Pulstar instantly spring to mind when talking about the genre on SNK's system, but there are many fans who hold a candle for one of the console's earliest shmup efforts, Last Resort.
Released in 1992, this horizontally-scrolling blaster was notable for its somewhat sombre mood, clearly influenced by Irem's equally atmospheric R-Type and Armed Police Unit Gallop. This enabled it to stand out from the crowd, but it was the engaging and challenging gameplay which made Last Resort a coin-op classic. Much of the game's appeal and depth focuses on the orb-like weapon which circles your ship. As you move, the orb rotates in the opposite direction, allowing you to cover all sides of your craft from incoming fire and enemies.
Pressing the "B" button locks the orb in place, which is handy when you're facing a constant barrage of projectiles from a particular direction. The orb can also be used as a battering ram to damage enemies. Its other trick is a charged attack, activated by holding down "A" and releasing it. The orb flies in the direction it is facing, slamming into foes and bouncing off environmental elements. While it's clearly inspired by the "Force" weapon seen in R-Type, this element of Last Resort is arguably more complex and mastering it is essential to survival, especially on the later levels when the screen is awash with unfriendly fire and enemies swarm from all directions.
It's possible to pick up various weapons during the game which range from seeking missiles to a massive, ripple-style laser. You can also boost the pace of your ship by picking up speed icons, but these often end up being a hindrance rather than a help; a single speed boost is usually all that is required but it's too easy to accidentally pick up more, making your craft much harder to control.
For a shooter released in 1992 Last Resort is surprisingly tricky. As early as the second level you're faced with bullet hell-levels of fire, and the fact that dying means having to re-start from a checkpoint makes your mistakes even more annoying. Curiously, when playing with a second player this checkpoint system is removed and play continues from where you died; this has the effect of unbalancing the game, because you always respawn without your orb weapon and have to pick it by destroying special craft, just like in R-Type. When facing some of the harder sections of the game - such as boss fights, where no orb-dropping craft appear - the weapon is utterly essential to progress, a fact which renders the two-player mode almost impossible. Another annoyance is that when there's a lot of on-screen activity, the game slows down quite noticeably.
Last Resort's presentation goes a long way to smoothing over any grumbles you may have, however. While it shamelessly rips off other games, it remains strikingly handsome for such an early Neo Geo release. While the dark and dismal aesthetic is maintained throughout, there's plenty of variety on display in both enemy design and level structure. Neat little touches like pilots spilling out of enemy ships when they're destroyed add to the appeal (although the plummeting people can sometimes obscure incoming bullets, making them harder to dodge).
A special mention must go to Last Resort's music, which is absolutely fantastic. Ominous tunes with rumbling beats and basslines accompany the on-screen action, and make for a refreshing change compared to the driving, upbeat music which usually goes hand-in-hand with shooter titles. The sound effects are equally effective, packing a sonic punch which makes every explosion convincing.
Last Resort may be a little rough around the edges in places - the broken two-player mode being the most obvious example - but it's still one of the best shooters on the Neo Geo and a solid purchase for Switch-owning blaster fans. The impeccable presentation really makes the game stand out from the hordes of similar titles, and it's challenging enough to ensure that you won't have it licked in the space of an evening. Casual players may find it a little too stern a test - especially with the checkpoint system which forces you to re-play sections of the game upon death - but serious shooter addicts will be totally at home.