Shmup Essentials: Psyvariar

Shoot ’em ups, being one of the oldest genres of gaming there is, have been a pretty constant presence in every major generation of gaming hardware.

The early years of the 21st century were no exception, offering us a wide variety of top-notch shoot ’em ups of all types, including bullet hell, traditional side-scrollers, vertical scrollers and full 3D efforts.

Psyvariar by Success Corporation, a company today primarily known for its Cotton series and puzzle game Zoo Keeper, is a particularly solid example with some interesting mechanics, and a game that remains eminently playable today.

The version we’re concerned with here is the PS2 port of the game, brought to Sony’s system by Korean developer Skonec, who we last saw here on MoeGamer with VR lightgun shooter Mortal Blitz. This incarnation, known as Psyvariar Complete Edition, includes both a straight port of the original arcade game (Psyvariar Medium Unit, to give it its full title) and a remixed version known as Psyvariar Revision. Both games play quite similarly, though Revision, as you might expect, adjusts things somewhat and actually ends up being quite a bit easier as a result.

Psyvariar is relatively straightforward to understand, with no complicated weapon systems to worry about — all you have here are standard shots and bombs, though an interesting twist on the formula is provided by the option to “roll” your ship. Doing so, either by rapidly moving from one direction to another or by pressing the dedicated button (which purists refuse to use, because you know what purists are like) causes your ship to focus its fire dead ahead rather than spread it out as is the default configuration, and also move slightly faster. Given that the standard speed of movement in Psyvariar is quite slow, rolling becomes essential not only to deal significant damage to enemies, but also simply to get around the screen.

Psyvariar’s core mechanic is the “Buzz” system, whereby you build up a counter by grazing against bullets without being destroyed. Doing so awards you with experience points, and levelling up your ship by filling the experience meter causes it to become more powerful, with a temporary (albeit brief) period of invincibility every time this happens.

Herein lies one of the main differences between Medium Unit and Revision: in Medium unit, each bullet may only be grazed once, so levelling is quite slow; in Revision, meanwhile, you can continue grazing one bullet for as long as it is on screen, potentially allowing you to set off enormous chains of level-up invincibility. This also tends to mean that by the end of a Revision game you’ll doubtless be a much higher level than the end of a Medium Unit playthrough; we’re talking level 70+ versus mid-20s for a player of my level of (in)competence.

Levelling up your ship, as you might expect, causes it to become more powerful, primarily through its default spread of weapons covering a larger area and its focused “roll” shot becoming more powerful. At various level milestones, the ship will “evolve”, too, changing its appearance and often its firing configuration. This actually presents one of the more challenging aspects of Medium Unit in particular; while in typical danmaku fashion, the hitbox of the ship is tiny, working out where it actually is on the model is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. It’s a little easier to do this with Revision’s redesigned (and largely more conventional-looking) ships, whereas Medium Unit’s odd-shaped vessels can sometimes prove a little confusing.

Unlike many shoot ’em ups, which feature linear progression through a series of levels and perhaps a more challenging second loop if you perform well enough, Psyvariar features a dynamic difficulty level of sorts, whereby at the end of a stage your ship’s current level is checked, and if it’s high enough you’re offered the choice between two stages to proceed to next, one of which bumps the difficulty up somewhat. If you don’t meet the (unrevealed) prerequisite, however, you’ll go straight to the default option, which features a more gradual difficulty curve throughout the course of a complete playthrough.

What this means in practice is that Psyvariar has a pyramid-like structure somewhat akin to something like OutRun, whereby you always start with the same stage, but have the potential to end up somewhere very different according to how well you’ve been doing — and how highly you rate your own skills. The more challenging stages are, of course, much more rewarding in terms of scoring potential, but you’ll have to gamble on whether you can survive the onslaught of enemies and bullets you’ll have to face. It certainly gives both games in Complete Edition plenty of longevity, particularly as Revision not only remixes the game mechanics, it also features different enemy layouts and bullet patterns for each level, too.

Presentation-wise, Psyvariar obviously shows its age a bit now thanks to running in standard definition, but it zips along at a delightfully slick and constant 60fps, with the only slowdown being (apparently) deliberate during boss deaths, giving you the opportunity to sneak in some last-minute bullet grazes before the level ends.

The music, meanwhile, is upbeat electronica, featuring some nice melodic hooks and a pleasing late-’90s vibe. Each stage is very distinct in audio-visual terms, and rather than being a straight vertical scroller throughout, the polygonal graphics allow for the backgrounds to swoop and dive around in a distinctly cinematic manner, rather similarly to how Qute’s excellent Eschatos does things.

Those lucky enough to have suitable display hardware will be pleased to note that Psyvariar has the option to rotate the screen vertically (or indeed invert it completely, for some reason) if you so desire, and the PAL version will run in both 50Hz and 60Hz modes.

Those seeking to improve their game will also enjoy Revision’s Replay mode, which not only allows you to watch the gameplay of whoever has the best score on up to two given stages, but also allows you to attempt to dethrone them and store your own replay for others to challenge. Of course, given the PS2’s lack of connectivity, this largely means you’ll be competing against yourself unless you live in a household full of shmup fans, but it’s a great way to practice individual stages.

In short, Psyvariar Complete Edition isn’t lying with its title: it’s an extremely solid, complete-feeling package all round, offering two excellent shoot ’em ups that still play extremely well today, and several ways to enjoy them. While the most dedicated shmup fans generally regard Psyvariar’s sequel to be considerably superior to the original, this is still very much a release that deserves a place in everyone’s collection, so if you have the means to play it, don’t hesitate!

More about Psyvariar

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