Shmup Essentials: Steel Dragon EX

The shoot ’em up genre is one in which it is quite difficult to innovate.

This has, of course, led to a number of games over the years that can quite reasonably called knock-offs of other, popular titles that became well-established, though that doesn’t mean that said knock-offs aren’t interesting in their own right.

One such example of this being the case is Warashi’s Shienryu, a game which unashamedly draws great inspiration from the legendary Raiden series, and which was originally released for arcade, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. It was subsequently bundled in with an all-new sequel, Shienryu Explosion, as part of D3 Publisher’s Simple Series for PlayStation 2, and this is the version we’re concerned with today.

Simple 2000 Series vol. 36: The Shooting ~Double Shienryu~, or Steel Dragon EX as it was known outside of Japan, is a great investment for any shoot ’em up fan. Not only do you get an excellent port of the original Shienryu which, despite its resemblance to Raiden, manages to make itself quite distinct, but its sequel Shienryu Explosion benefits from being specifically designed for console with full 3D visuals and use of the full screen rather than a vertically oriented “TATE” arrangement.

Let’s take a look at Shienryu first, or Steel Dragon as the English version calls it and as we shall refer to it from hereon.

Steel Dragon is a fairly conventional sort of shoot ’em up for the late ’90s era. It eschews screen-filling danmaku patterns in favour of choreographed groups of enemies that combine simple popcorn fodder with larger vessels that both require more damage to destroy, and which fire more intricate bullet patterns.

As you proceed through the level, destroying enemy formations and ground installations occasionally yields powerups which can be one of several different types: red “P” pickups increase the power of your current weapon, “S” pickups increase your ship’s movement speed (which is initially rather sluggish) and coloured orbs change your weapon to one of three different types.

It’s with these powerups that Steel Dragon primarily distinguishes itself from Raiden. For one thing, the “P” pickups can be “overstocked” once your weapon is at full power, meaning that your next life will start with a better weapon rather than dropping back down to the basic fire pattern, which is a nice touch, and a little different from Raiden’s “fairy” system.

It’s the weapons that demonstrate the biggest difference, however. While the “red” weapon is still a vulcan cannon that fires increasingly wide spreads of bullets the higher its power level, Raiden’s famous “toothpaste laser” has been replaced by a lightning cannon. This fires out in a wide arc from the front of your ship, attaching to nearby enemies as a solid mass of electrical charge and continuing to deal damage over time. The interesting thing about this weapon is that while the lightning bolts are still attached to enemies on screen and arcing to their nearby allies, you’re not able to fire any further shots.

Meanwhile, Raiden’s powerful blue laser is nowhere to be seen, with the “raw power” weapon coming from yellow pickups and taking the form of a barrage of missiles, some of which fire straight ahead, punctuated at a slightly lower frequency by a volley of smaller, homing rockets.

Steel Dragon’s levels are arranged in such a way that weapon pickups drop at the same places every time, and often, in the early stages of the game, provide an eminently suitable weapon for the situations you are about to encounter. Early in the first level, for example, you’re presented with a lightning cannon that is good for whittling down stronger enemies and letting it arc to nearby popcorn foes, while as you approach the boss you’re given the powerful rocket barrage, which makes defeating the stage’s guardian very straightforward indeed.

Steel Dragon’s bosses are pleasingly varied in their attack patterns, and most have multiple parts that can be blown off to lower the overall intensity of their attack patterns. They’re well-designed encounters, challenging but fair, and, with the relatively short length of each stage, keep the pace of the game nice and varied.

Shienryu Explosion, also known as Steel Dragon Evolution, is a rather different beast — so much so that it almost seems a little strange to consider them part of the same series.

The first, most immediately apparent difference is the fact that you get to select both a ship and a pilot before you begin the game. Each ship has a different way of firing, with the choice boiling down to being whether you want bullets, missiles or both. The pilots, meanwhile, have two main functions: they affect the colour of the ship’s shots, and they have varying “special attacks” rather than the more conventional bombs of the previous game.

Some characters have simple screen-clearing attacks, others fire wide volleys of powerful shots, and others still shoot powerful missiles that only have a bomb-like effect if they actually hit something. When used correctly, these special attacks will clear the screen of bullets, changing them into collectible stars.

Simple 2000 Series vol. 36: The Shooting ~Double Shienryu~/Steel Dragon EX

Stars, which also drop from defeated enemies, have two purposes. Firstly, they’re the usual “score items” that add to your bonus points at the end of a stage, so collecting them is essential for those chasing high scores. But perhaps more significantly, collecting them in increasing volume rewards you with extra lives, with your first extend requiring 100, your second 200, your third 400 and so on. Because stars can be generated even by setting off a bomb during a boss encounter, you can actually find yourself in the position of coming out of an end-level encounter with more lives than you went in with. Which is nice.

The other way Steel Dragon Evolution distinguishes itself from its predecessor is with the lack of collectible powerups, adopting a variable-strength weapon system using three different fire buttons instead. This also ties into the game’s scoring system.

Your three different shot powers vary in intensity and spread, with the lightest power having a wide spread and the ability to “bend” it to cover most of the screen at once. By contrast, your most powerful shot has a relatively narrow arc, but fires much more intensely and consequently does much more damage. In practice, it’s pretty much the different between the “shot” and “beam” attacks in two-button shoot ’em ups.

Where things get interesting is how this weapon system affects scoring. While the weak shot certainly deals with popcorn enemies very efficiently, using it in this way causes you to get the minimum possible score for them. Conversely, using the narrow powerful shot causes anything you destroy with it to be worth 256 times the normal amount of points, so it’s a significant difference.

Well then, you might think, just use the power shot all the time. Except it’s not quite that simple. Using the power shot causes you to move more slowly — and more significantly, the bonus stars are subject to a complete inversion of this multiplier mechanic. In other words, if you’re firing your power shots when you collect a star, they’ll be worth the minimum amount of points; stop firing altogether when you collect them, however, and they will then also enjoy a 256x multiplier.

This scoring system takes a little while to get your head around, but it’s accessible and relatively easy to understand once you know the core rules. And it’s because this system requires a little more in the way of strategy than many other shmups’ “just hold down the fire button and avoid bullets” approach that Steel Dragon Evolution, as a whole, may initially seem rather on the easy side.

In contrast to Steel Dragon, which it is a challenge to get through even the second level of, Steel Dragon Evolution is highly accessible even to shmup newcomers, at least in terms of clearing the game. Where the real challenge comes from is in carefully manipulating the multiplier mechanics to attain the maximum possible score. Between this and the variety in gameplay styles afforded by the different ships, Steel Dragon Evolution has a whole ton of longevity about it.

In fact, the complete Steel Dragon EX package has a lot of longevity to it as a whole, because Steel Dragon will take you a while to master and presents an enjoyable contrast to Steel Dragon Evolution’s gameplay. The two games play markedly differently from one another and are both enjoyable in their own right; bundled together on one disc, well, it should be a no-brainer if you’re a shmup fan who still has a PS2 in their gaming setup.

More about Steel Dragon EX
More about the Simple Series

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