Do you ever worry that you’re making a game way harder than it needs to be? Terra Cresta, a 1985 arcade shoot ‘em up by Nichibutsu, should feel refreshing after playing a bunch of bullet hell shooters from the ‘90s and ‘00s. I don’t have to worry about a million bullets bearing down on me, or a screen absolutely full of pixels that will all individually bring me death. 1985 was still fairly early in the shmupstakes, and Terra Cresta owes a lot to Xevious, a game that has never vexed me half as thoroughly as Terra Cresta has. I just have to pay attention, dodging bullets and waves of alien ships, occasionally killing a dinosaur or giant floating fortress that looks a bit like Sinistar, and just focus on driving that score ever upward.
I’m really terrible at that, and I’m not entirely sure why.
Terra Cresta’s vertically scrolling screen is almost never overwhelmed with bullets or enemies. Most of those enemies are unpredictable, though. They regularly vary up their approach, coming from different points on the screen each playthrough. Like Xevious, some enemies are based on the ground, and at least those will be in the same spot every time you play. Most enemies are airborne, though, and it’s a toss-up where they’ll come from.
That unpredictability can make it easier than expected to slip up and get nailed by some alien jet pilot, or accidentally drift into the path of a bullet or laser while trying to dodge a ship. Your rocket doesn’t necessarily die immediately on contact, though. You can effectively add a second hit point to your ship, but ultimately that makes the game harder, at least for me: that extra hit point is tied to your power-ups, and with one hit your gun can go from a souped up world-beater back to a glorified pellet gun.
That unique power-up system is Terra Cresta’s calling card. It’s also why I think I’ve struggled with the game more than I should have. The ship starts with a basic two-bullet pea shooter. It’s fine against basic enemies but close to worthless against, say, the giant dinosaurs that occasionally pop up in the desert below. Don’t even think of facing off against one of the game’s bosses, final or even mini, with just the standard weapon; you’ll get tired of dodging and circling during a futile attempt to whittle down their invisible health meter.
No, you’ll want to boost that lackluster cannon whenever possible. Terra Cresta has a power-up system with five tiers, and each power-up is found in the same spot every time you play. You’ll find little military installations on the ground throughout each level, with numbered nodes. Shoot the nodes and a new addition to the ship will appear. The first one doubles the shots from two to four; the next fires off shots behind the ship as well as in front; the third adds a powerful missile to every shot; the fourth adds an energy wave to the back of the ship that destroys any enemy that touches it; and the fifth and final power-up briefly turns the ship into a completely invincible phoenix. That firebird can just slice through anything on the screen, instantly destroying it. It’s Terra Cresta’s chief selling point: be the bird that burns the world.
Getting the power-ups is easy. Holding onto them long enough to make good use of them isn’t. Any hit will blow up all your current perks and reduce you to the basic twin-shot gun; it doesn’t matter if you’ve collected the first three power-ups in the series, one hit and you’re right back to the starting point. And although most standard enemies can be killed, or at least withstood, through smart flying and fast shooting, it’s very hard to get by any of the bosses without at least the first power-up. And because the locations of those power-ups are hard-locked and few and far between, and because the game’s weird checkpointing system will often restart you further ahead in the level than where you actually died, you’ll probably wind up facing bosses without any power-ups fairly often. It’s a death sentence.
Terra Cresta is one of those games where I start every single run full of hope and determined to avoid the one obvious mistake that did me in the last time I played. And then, every single run, I make another dumb, obvious mistake, lose all those power-ups, and then struggle through a few quick, ignominious deaths. Frustration, optimism, then frustration again: it’s the ultimate cycle of the shoot ‘em up.
Terra Cresta doesn’t have bombs. Instead it has a mechanic where, once you’ve acquired at least one of the five power-ups, you can briefly detach it, basically using it like the pods you’ll find in so many other shooters. The more power-ups you currently have in Terra Cresta, the more pods will appear. It’s a quick way to clear a screen full of enemies, but it’s not as useful against bosses. Honestly, in dozens of plays I’ve never quite found this special attack to be all that important; either I’m not able to collect enough power-ups at once for it to be that effective, or else I get sloppy and get cut down almost as soon as I trigger it. It’s something different, which is always commendable in a genre known for its repetition and iteration, but I can’t help but think that a more traditional bomb option, one that clears the screen, would make Terra Cresta a little more fun to play.
Of course, that unwillingness to make concessions is part of what makes not just Terra Cresta enjoyable, but the entire damn genre. The best shooters work with you, but only after you realize how to make that possible; the hostility of these games as a whole, and the desire to tame them, is what keeps players coming back. That has kept me coming back to Terra Cresta again and again over the last few months, despite making minimal progress in all that time.
All I want is to see the space phoenix—to be the space phoenix. To breathe life into the seal of my hometown, Atlanta, but in outer space somewhere. To let its purifying flame course through the brutal plains of this alien vista. If I could do that I would be happy. Don’t you want me to be happy, Terra Cresta? Don’t you?
: 1985 Developer
: Nichibutsu Publisher
: Nichibitsu Original Platform
: Arcades Platform We Played It On
: Nintendo Switch, as part of Hamster’s Arcade Archives series Also Available On
: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 2, NES, Commodore 64
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.