Welcome to The Shmuptake, an occasional column about the history of the shoot ‘em up, aka the “shmup.” Here’s an introduction.
There’s a subset of the shoot ’em up colloquially referred to as the “cute ‘em up.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: an inordinately, cloyingly, almost oppressively cute shoot ‘em up. Instead of spaceships or jets both your character and the enemies you shoot down might be animals, or children, or cute robots. The sleek, metallic sheen and militaristic sci-fi aesthetic of most shmups makes way for bright candy colors, cartoonish character designs, and surreal backgrounds. Some cute ‘em ups will also be a little bit more forgiving than normal shmups, at least in the early levels; their target audience wasn’t necessarily standard shooter fans, but players who didn’t normally jibe with the genre, for whatever reason, and matching the cheery visuals with less brutal action makes them even more accessible to newcomers.
Sometimes, though, the cutest shooters you’ll ever see don’t give a damn about accessibility. They just want to make you hurt.
In Hacha Mecha Fighter, a horizontal shooter developed by NMK and released to arcades in 1991, you play as an otter or an aardvark who flies an old-fashioned airplane and shoots down kamikaze squirrels, fighter pilot pigs, paratrooping groundhogs, and tank driving moles. You can gain up to four smaller fighters that are identical to your main pilot and who fire every time you do, a trail of tiny otters flying tiny planes in unison. Your bullets are sea animals and vegetables and you collect fruit for extra points. The storybook backgrounds include a gorgeous sunset, an eerily luminous moon, the dark blue expanse of the ocean. It’s one of the cutest games ever made. It would be the textbook definition of a cute ‘em up, except for one fact: it’s extremely difficult.
Hacha Mecha Fighter doesn’t hold your hand. The first level gives you a brief moment to grow familiar with its traditional mechanics—one button fires a standard shot (with autofire), the second button triggers the game’s equivalent to a bomb, which in this case briefly makes your character invincible and really big, about half as big as the entire screen—but by the halfway point it’s already introduced bullet sponges and waves of enemies that cover most of the screen. By the second level it’s already hit that point where the screen is almost always clogged up with enemies or their bullets, and that doesn’t let up for the rest of its eight stages. Enemies pick up speed and power with every level, and eventually they start coming at you from behind, as well. Despite its cutesy exterior, Hacha Mecha Fighter was clearly designed to suck as many quarters out of its players as possible; fortunately you start immediately where you died when you continue, making it fairly easy to play through to the finish as long as you just keep restarting after every death.
The key to playing Hacha Mecha Fighter well—or at least as well as possible—is liberal use of that embiggening bomb. The game calls it, simply, Big, and its on-screen icon is that word. You start with three and can pick up a few more throughout each level, and because it both makes you invincible and expands the coverage of your fire, it’ll get you out of some of the game’s stickiest situations. There are multiple scenarios throughout the game that are rtually impossible to survive without using Big. If you like to hoard your bombs, you might have a hard time adjusting to Hacha Mecha Fighter; if you normally hit that special attack button every opportunity you can, you’ll feel right at home.
Through it all the game is never less than adorable. It’s like playing your way through a classic cartoon that’s somehow turned into a war movie that’s all action and no plot. It’s a game I would love for the aesthetic alone, but that thankfully has enough thrillpower to keep me interested in actually playing it. It almost feels like it could be a parody of the cute ‘em up genre itself, with some of the most egregiously cutesy character designs married to absurdly difficult action. That difficulty is probably just a result of the game being made for the arcade; the goal of arcade games have always, first and foremost, been about getting you to spend as much money as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to make games inhumanly difficult. Whatever the intent, that difficulty defines Hacha Mecha Fighter just as much as its cutesiness.
Hacha Mecha Fighter is curious. It’s rare to see a game, even a cute ‘em up, that’s simultaneously this adorable and this brutal. It feels like it should be a tie-in to a cartoon or comic, but apparently it’s an original concept. Long an obscurity known only to the most devoted of shoot ‘em up fans, it’s now available in its first home edition on the PlayStation 4 and Switch, as part of Hamster’s excellent Arcade Archives series. If you’re interested in a crash course into the cute ‘em up that will make almost every subsequent one you play feel easy in comparison, it’s worth a shot.
Hacha Mecha Fighter
Original Platform Arcade
Platform We Played It On: Switch
Also Available On: PlayStation 4
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.