A beautifully preserved slice of video game history – Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol 1 review
Even if you’ve never heard of long defunct shoot-’em-up developer Toaplan, any historians of meme culture will know a key moment from the Mega Drive conversion of its arcade classic Zero Wing. Load that game up and during the opening cinematic, the enemy leader appears on screen with the legendary quote “all your base are belong to us”. That garbled phrase has appeared in everything from YouTube error messages to Elon Musk tweets to AOC speeches, but if one line of dodgy translation is ALL you know about this often overlooked innovator in the shooter genre now’s your chance to get better acquainted.
Toaplan Arcade Shoot-’em-Up Collecton Vol 1 includes four games from throughout the company’s 15-year life span, and they provide a varied overview of both its own output and the history of the shooter genre. The earliest of them, Twin Cobra, is a military-style vertical scroller with your helicopter battling a range of enemy aircraft, tanks and artillery emplacements, while collecting power-ups to change and upgrade your main weapon. It’s very much in the style of Capcom’s smash hit 1942, but massively unforgiving – a factor acknowledged in the original Mega Drive conversion which included a cheat for multiple smart bombs. Truxton is arguably Toaplan’s first ageless classic, a sci-fi blaster with a similar three-type weapons mechanic as Twin Cobra, this time including the awesome Truxton Beam which fires a continuous laser that locks on to and tracks enemy craft. Zero Wing is a horizontal scroller from 1989, clearly inspired by Gradius and R-Type, with similar biomechanical enemies and landscapes, but it’s notable in its own right due to the tractor beam feature that lets you grab enemy ships and use them as shields.
Finally, there’s Out Zone from 1990, a vertical run-and-gun shooter in which you play as a cyborg mercenary battling alien invaders. This is my favourite of the lot with its multiple firing styles, which require constant changes depending on enemy attack patterns, and its tension-inducing energy system which requires you to constantly pick up energy icons to avoid powering down and dying.
What these games illustrate is the aesthetic brilliance of Toaplan’s work. Gorgeous detailed sprites, richly coloured highly elaborate backdrops, superb use of parallax scrolling and imaginative weapon design abound, while the soundtracks are evocative masterpieces of 80s synth pop. The emulation, coded by Toaplan obsessive Carl-Henrik Skårstedt, is excellent, with near perfect input response (I’m using an 8BitDo arcade stick), and a range of display options, allowing you to switch between scanlines and pixels, different scaling options and full screen or window – you can also rotate the display in case you fancy putting your monitor on its side and playing in true arcade perspective.
There are also welcome modern-day additions for curious players who didn’t spend their teen years shovelling coins into arcade machines. A save function lets you retain your progress, and there are different skill levels and multiple assists such as auto fire and a rewind function so that you get to appreciate the later stage designs even if you don’t have the reflexes of a caffeinated wild cat.
Yes, it’s only four games, and yes, there are other ways to experience these ancient relics, including emulation via free online software. But this is a lovingly produced package, designed not just for nostalgic fans but newcomers who want to experience the glory days of scrolling shooters without having to put in years of practice. I really hope developer Bitwave brings out a second collection with titles such as Truxton 2 and arguably Toaplan’s magnum opus, Batsugun, widely regarded as the first “bullet hell” shooter due to its intense waves of enemy fire.
For now though, this collection should draw in old fans, new genre enthusiasts and those who only know of Toaplan through that meme. Thanks to the wonders of careful emulation, all these greats are belong to us.
• The Toaplan Arcade Shoot ‘Em Up Collection Vol 1 is released on 14 February on PC, £6.69 per game, £16.59 for all four.