Those with a longstanding interest in the worldwide shoot ’em up scene may well be familiar with German developer Hucast Games.
A developer primarily known for helping resurrect Sega’s defunct Dreamcast platform for modern audiences through the release of original, new arcade-style games for the system, Hucast’s work has had mixed reception over the years — though not necessarily entirely due to the quality of the games themselves, as this article from Segabits in 2015 explains in more detail.
As we move further into the “digital age”, however, it becomes a lot easier for developers such as Hucast to ply their trade — and, should mistakes occur, to correct them. Which is how we now find ourselves, two years after its original Dreamcast release, with an HD version of Hucast’s shmup Ghost Blade for Windows PC, PS4, Wii U and Xbox One.
And hey! It’s really good.
Ghost Blade HD cites its inspirations as the shoot ’em ups of the ’90s, and it’s clear from the outset that the whole thing is very much a love letter to Japanese danmaku shooters, especially those from Cave. The game bears more than a passing resemblance to the DoDonPachi series in particular, and even features similar combo-based scoring mechanics — though Ghost Blade HD is a lot more forgiving than Cave’s classics.
Mechanically, Ghost Blade HD is simple and accessible, featuring a three-button control scheme: one for a wide-angle shot, one for a focused shot and another for bombs. Bombs do not clear the entire screen as in some other danmaku shooters, but rather affect a circular area around where they are dropped, necessitating a certain amount of tactical positioning in order to use them effectively. The game’s easiest difficulty also features auto-bombing when the player takes a hit and has bombs in stock, too; unlike some other danmaku titles, there’s no distinction between an auto-bomb and a “proper” bomb, and no penalty for allowing an auto-bomb to go off — it’s simply a concession to less skilled players who want a more accessible experience, and it works well in that manner.
In fact, Ghost Blade HD works well as an introductory danmaku shoot ’em up. While it does indeed feature screen-filling bullet patterns as you might expect from the subgenre, it never becomes completely overwhelming, particularly on the easier difficulties. Its original Dreamcast incarnation drew some criticism for being much too easy, but its HD reincarnation seems to have balanced things nicely. While most players will probably be able to clear Easy mode within a credit or two on their first attempt, the two more challenging difficulty levels make things more interesting and demanding — and the fact the game features limited continues discourages excessive credit-feeding and instead demands that the player gradually improve their skills in order to progress further.
That said, there’s no real penalty for continuing aside from resetting your score; unlike in the aforementioned DoDonPachi, for example, using a continue doesn’t reset things like the score items you’ve picked up in a level, and you’re still able to register your name against the highest score you attained in a single session rather than it being automatically set to “=C=” or similar if you happened to continue since achieving it. In this way, Ghost Blade HD strikes a good balance between demanding a certain amount of player skill in order to see it through to its conclusion, and allowing those still learning the game to progress a little further — and attain higher scores — than they would otherwise be able to get on a single credit.
Presentation-wise, Ghost Blade HD addresses another common criticism of its Dreamcast predecessor by being a good-looking game. With art assets clearly designed with HD screens in mind rather than the blocky upscaled pixel art we often see in many other modern shmups with arcade origins, Ghost Blade HD features an interesting variety of backdrops over the course of its five stages, ranging from the red sands of Mars to a space station covered in blossoming Japanese cherry trees.
Enemies, too, look good, running the gamut from small, single-HP popcorn enemies to larger, bullet-spewing flying foes and ground installations. Different enemies exhibit different behaviours that need to be learned, as well; some explode into suicide bullets when destroyed, while blasting others into oblivion will cause their bullets to turn into a shower of score items. And an optional “soft slowdown” mechanic allows you to either play with a constant 60fps frame rate (much more challenging!) or with the kind of deliberate slowdown Cave shmups in particular became known for.
There’s also a choice of two thumping soundtracks to accompany your mission: one by Rafael Dyll (Söldner X-2, Rainbow Moon) and another by Ser Flash. Both are great, though for my money the Ser Flash “alternate” music just has the slight edge by being a tad more evocative of that ’90s arcade feel.
Perhaps the best news for those who have been following the saga of Ghost Blade since its 2015 Dreamcast release, however, is the addition of a dedicated Score Attack mode, which takes the place of the originally promised (but subsequently abandoned, much to the chagrin of supporters) Caravan Mode, where the player was to be given a limited amount of time to rack up as high a score as possible.
In Ghost Blade HD, the Score Attack mode consists of a single level in which you have infinite lives where you must score as highly as possible; since losing a life resets your combo meter, it’s in your interest to try and survive as long as you can, and the set difficulty level of this mode means that there’s no auto-bomb safety net for the newbies, either! It’s a particularly nice addition for those who fancy a quick blast but don’t want to run through the whole game; it has its own separate, dedicated leaderboards, too, making it an ideal mode for a bit of friendly (or even more serious!) competition.
On the whole, Ghost Blade HD is a great addition to any shmup fan’s collection, featuring highly polished graphics and sound, challenging but fair and accessible gameplay, and plenty of replayability across the three different playable ships, difficulty levels and Score Attack mode. And for those who came away a little disappointed with the Dreamcast predecessor, this is a good opportunity to revisit the game in a much more solidly put together form. It’s just a pity we don’t have a nice shiny physical release to enjoy!
(Edit: As it happens, we do, in limited quantities, thanks to Play-Asia. Thanks to Chris for the tip.)
More about Ghost Blade HD
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