Welcome to The Shmuptake, an occasional column about the history of the shoot ‘em up, aka the “shmup.” Here’s an introduction, and here’s an archive of every column so far.
Blazing Lazers wasn’t my first shoot ‘em up. That would’ve been Galaga or Defender or maybe even Space Invaders. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first one I truly loved, the first one to make me realize how special these games can be—the first one that showed me there was more to them than shooting a few spaceships before dying every 30 seconds. Blazing Lazers isn’t the best shmup, but it’s my favorite, still, over 30 years after first playing it, and I don’t see that changing at any point.
Anybody who didn’t first play Blazing Lazers on the TurboGrafx-16—or its PC Engine version, Gunhed—in the early ‘90s might have a hard time seeing what makes it special. It’s not the best looking shmup, or the smoothest, or the fastest or most challenging. It doesn’t have a particularly complex or unique weapons upgrade system. It wasn’t innovative even in its own day. It doesn’t really break any ground, but there’s a reason it remains one of the better-known and more beloved shoot ‘em ups from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—even Kanye West has called it his favorite TurboGrafx game.
Blazing Lazers might not be the best at any single aspect of the shooter genre, but it’s excellent at every one of them. It has everything a good shooter needs: an easily maneuverable player character, a legitimate sense of speed and propulsion, a variety of different weapons that can be incrementally powered up, varied music and environments to keep the game from growing too repetitive, and enough enemy swarms to provide a constant challenge without resorting to the ridiculous extremes of the most intense bullet hell shooters. Nothing in the game’s design, either intentionally or unintentionally, distracts from its primary goal, and there are no glitches or technical hiccups to pull the player out of the moment. For players coming straight from the NES to the TurboGrafx, Blazing Lazers’ combination of high speed action, detailed scrolling backgrounds, and a lack of slowdown (long the death knell of console shooters) was a revelation—the closest any home shmup had yet gotten to arcade standards. That smart design and technical reliability ensure that Blazing Lazers masters the concept of flow better than almost any other shmup, which is why it’s exactly as good today as it was in 1989.
Blazing Lazers is also so beloved because it’s very user friendly. It’s not stingy with the power-ups, offering up constant opportunities to level up a gun or swap out secondary abilities like shields and missiles, and each power-up has a tangible impact on the ship’s destructive capabilities. There are four primary weapons that can be cycled through depending on what power-up was most recently collected, and each of those weapons can be beefed up by collecting more of the colored orbs that regularly float through space. Eventually every weapon becomes so powerful that it’ll fill almost the entire screen with its deadly force; the most impressive is the lightning bolt, whose ultimate form spits out multiple bolts that snake around each other and hit almost every enemy in sight. And again, those power-ups are everywhere; anybody who’s played enough shmups knows how terrible it is to die deep into a game and restart with a basic weapon far from any power-ups. Intentionally or not, that’s one of the most punitive and frustrating things about playing these games, and can pose a true roadblock to anybody who doesn’t have the patience to restart again and again. Blazing Lazers avoids that by pumping out power-ups at a steady clip throughout the whole game, and by making them genuinely useful at powering up its main weapon.
As frequent as those power-ups might be, they’re still drowned out by the sheer number of enemies that swarm the screen. The inherent fluidity of Blazing Lazers extends to these waves of bad guys, of course; they rhythmically swoop across the screen at a constant pace, launching streams of bullets and missiles that never quite hit bullet hell territory. Like everything in Blazing Lazers, these enemies are bright and colorful, with a vibrancy that console games weren’t known for in 1989. They remain eye-catching today, even after the rise of HD, photo-realistic gaming.
I’ve been replaying Blazing Lazers this week, but I didn’t need to in order to know it was still excellent. I’ve kept a TurboGrafx-16 plugged into a TV in my house for almost all of the last 32 years so that I could pop into games like Blazing Lazers or Military Madness or Devil’s Crush whenever the urge struck me. Many of the games that were so impressive on the system at the time have lost most of their luster, but the best remain impressive today—especially Blazing Lazers. It’s a game I’ve returned to regularly over the decades, usually on the TurboGrafx, but also on the Virtual Console on the Wii and the Wii U, and then again on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. Part of its appeal in 1989 and 1990 was definitely because of how much better it looked than an NES game; what looks like retro nostalgic warmth today was startlingly new at the time. But Blazing Lazers isn’t an example of a game coming out at the right time and right place to make an impression. It remains a great game today, regardless of any first-hand nostalgia. It’s not the best shmup, but it’s still my ideal one, three decades later—and probably the main reason this shoot ‘em up column even exists. Kanye might know what he’s talking about when it comes to videogames.
: 1989 Developer
: Compile / Hudson Soft Publisher
: Hudson Soft / NEC Original Platform
: PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 Platform We Played It On
: TurboGrafx-16 Also Available On
: TurboGrafx-16 Mini; Wii U’s Virtual Console
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.