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by Nick Gibson - October 20, 2013

Blast Wind (ブラストウインド) - Saturn (1997)

Japanese Saturn Cover

Retro gamers call almost any obscure game a cult classic. Unlike most of Technosoft's catalog, Blast Wind hasn't amassed enough fans to earn that title. A search of the usual forums produces just a handful of cobwebbed discussions of the game. There are no fansites, obsessive strategy guides, or detailed retrospectives. But the game hasn't quite been forgotten, either. Technosoft's reputation keeps Blast Wind afloat as a curiosity among enthusiasts, and a small print run drives prices high on the secondary market. Shmuppers and Saturn fans alike have at least heard of the game, and most have played it. Yet in fifteen years, Blast Wind has never attracted widespread interest. Why? First, the backstory.

Blast Wind's plot is a cipher. Aside from a strangely fluent English ending, all resources on the characters, setting, and plot are in Japanese. The titular "Blast Wind" refers to a nuclear shockwave, and it seems to be a fitting title from what we can deduce of the post-apocalyptic milieu. The actual story is Biblical. Devastating nuclear war has almost eradicated life on Earth, but humanity is preserved through the foresight of a man named Noah (translated "Noa" in-game). Noah anticipated the cataclysm and gathered a small group of people inside an Ark. This Ark shielded Noah and his followers from both the firestorm and the subsequent fallout. Centuries later, once the residual effects have dissipated, the descendants of Noah's faithful emerge from the Ark and begin building a new civilization based on natural harmony.

This idyllic lifestyle is jeopardized when the fledgling civilization comes under assault by a culture called Gorn. (Technosoft fans will notice the similarity to a certain other franchise's ORN Empire.) Gorn embodies machination and artificiality, even to the point of appropriating Technosoft's own "World of Technology" slogan. The same disaster that almost eradicated humanity merely drove the Gorn beneath the Earth's crust. So while Noah's children struggled through a long nuclear winter, Gorn evolved and prospered. Gorn's overwhelming military superiority crushes humanity's forces. As a last resort, the surviving humans unearth an ancient weapons program and surrender their fate to the twin "Ultimate Destroyers", Kyo and Faun.

Characters

Kyo

Kyo is an artificial life form created with the superhuman reaction times and combat instinct needed to pilot Blast Wind technology. His ship is the Hayate, or "Gale" - a reference to the World War II-era Nakajima Ki-84. It fires a powerful blue cutter blade that can wrap around objects. Holding down the fire button turns the cutter into a homing shot.

Forn

Faun is Eve to Kyo's Adam. (Her name is translated as "Forn" in-game.) She's more reluctant to join the struggle between Noah and Gorn than Kyo is, but she's just as capable a pilot. Her ship is the Reppu, or "Strong Gale", named after the vintage Mitsubishi A7M. The Reppu's weapons are a concentrated beam and an alternate spread shot.

Nothing in the actual game reflects this back story, except for one scratchy voice sample before the final boss. ("Citizens of Gorn, hark! We are the forces of heaven. Gorn is forever!")

Luckily, the game's troubled development history picks up that slack, as far as interesting stories go. Technosoft released Blast Wind as a Saturn exclusive in 1997, but rumors suggest an arcade version had existed for several years. ShimaPong - a MAME developer known to be a reliable source for information on Japanese arcade games - claimed to own industry publications that advertised a 1993 release date for this arcade version of Blast Wind. Notable PCB collector Shou corroborated the claim by stating not only that a prototype was field-tested in Technosoft's hometown of Sasebo, but also that the PCB still exists. The plot thickened when ShimaPong quoted magazines that slated a Technosoft game named Inazuma Saber for a 1994 release. ShimaPong guessed that Inazuma Saber was actually an alternate name for Blast Wind. A little digging unearthed a source from 2001 that took ShimaPong's guess even further. The source, named OctyMGR, apparently played Inazuma Saber at a location test. He described Inazuma Saber as a lighthearted revamp of Blast Wind - complete with selectable ships and comedic dialogue between the pilots

We'll never be certain about Inazuma Saber or an arcade Blast Wind until a PCB surfaces or an ex-Technosoft member comments on the issue. But Blast Wind's long-disputed origins continue to fascinate. Why was the arcade version canceled? What happened to Inazuma Saber? And what motivated Technosoft to resurrect a shelved arcade game for the Saturn? The simplest answer to that last question is that Technosoft needed the money. By 1997, times were getting tough. The company had gambled heavily on the PlayStation RPG Neorude, leaving their Saturn lineup anemic. It might be that Technosoft dusted off Blast Wind as a stopgap measure until the release of Thunder Force V in the summer of 1997. If so, it wouldn't be the last time Technosoft tried to buy time with Blast Wind. Just before Bernie Stolar killed the Saturn in the US, Technosoft tried to work out a licensing deal with Victor Ireland's Working Designs to release Blast Wind, Hyper Duel, and Thunder Force: Gold Pack 1 on a compilation disc. The deal fell through, and Technosoft folded shortly thereafter.

But to look at Blast Wind in detail, we must turn away from the company's twilight days and remember their heady beginnings. It's time to discuss the monolith that looms over any conversation about Technosoft: Thunder Force. Why? Simply put, it's essential to review what popularized the Thunder Force series to understand why Blast Wind never found the same success.

Technosoft entered the Japanese computer market in 1982. After several years of selling business applications, it released Thunder Force for Japanese PCs. The unassuming shmup laid the foundation for an eponymous franchise that would become the company's flagship property. Fundamentally, the Thunder Force games distinguished themselves through four key design choices: rollicking synth-metal soundtracks, lengthy stages, varied weapons, and a focus on shooting over scoring. These traits defined the Thunder Force vibe and, by association, the Technosoft brand. It's no surprise that the company never strayed far from those roots. Of the three standalone Technosoft shmups, Hyper Duel and Elemental Master sit squarely in Thunder Force's shadow. Hyper Duel crunches the Thunder Force level flow and art style (especially in the Saturn remix) into a bite-sized arcade experience. Elemental Master - developed by the Thunder Force III team - borrows that game's weapon systems and stage selection mechanics.

In contrast, Blast Wind comes out of left field as a game hellbent on defying expectations. The energetic soundtrack from company staple Tsukumo Hyakutaro sounds like it could be from a lost Thunder Force game, but the similarities end there. To start, Blast Wind's levels are short even for an arcade game. At a twenty-minute 1CC, Blast Wind is a third as long as Thunder Force IV. The game is also much less difficult, and there's only one weapon. Dying merely resets your shot power, which is a slap on the wrist thanks to an insane abundance of weapon powerups. It's a paradigm shift from the Thunder Force model of unrelenting intensity, but the only challenge in Blast Wind is racking up a high score. This emphasis on scoring, when combined with such brevity, produces a focused experience. So focused, in fact, that at times Blast Wind borders on minimalistic.

The game is short enough that even casual players can develop a holistic memory of each stage. In addition, every stage features waves of one-time enemies that further segment the game into a series of distinct encounters - that part with the crazy deluge of coins, or the tough bit with the swooping robots, or the turret section with the yellow popcorn stuff. These waves are a metronome for Blast Wind's breakneck rhythm. But the scoring is minimalist as well. There are no complex strategies or technical mechanics. Points are acquired through killing enemies and collecting items, with a stock bonus at the end of the game. It's pure, but a downside of this purity is that high scores begin to crowd each other as they squeeze toward a limit. Eventually, logging a personal best might come down to using one less bomb or snagging a few extra weapon upgrades. When this happens - and it might not take long - the game's replay value will begin to fade for many players.

For others, though, Blast Wind's "switch" mechanic might be just the shot in the arm needed to delay the inevitable. Each stage features one or more switches that activate on contact. Switches can release powerups or trigger events such as shrinking the player's ship, but usually they change the stage path. When a route switch is flipped, the screen shifts and play continues on a new rail. The mechanic is often advertised as Blast Wind's primary selling point, but it more than a gimmick? Yes and no. To a casual player looking for an easy 1CC, choosing route variants isn't that exciting. Unlike in Darius Gaiden, which provided alternate routes that led to exclusive stages and wholly new environments, you'll always end up in the same place in Blast Wind. Alternate routes don't offer radical changes or bold new sights - just remixed enemy waves, different powerups, and sometimes altered boss patterns.

But for those playing Blast Wind for score, the switch mechanic is more interesting. Each alternate route changes the level's difficulty and maximum potential score, giving a player finer control over their scoring run. For example, a stage's alternate route may lead to a shower of coins (and therefore a 1UP) at the expense of a harder boss encounter. Or it might ease up on the enemy waves at a penalty of reduced scoring opportunity. The changes are subtle, but the effect is huge considering the limited pool of possible points. So while the switches won't change anyone's mind about Blast Wind, they will deepen the experience for those who already enjoy the game based on its other merits. Such as, say, the music.

The soundtrack is a major highlight. Tsukumo Hyakutaro serves up a blazing set of synth-rock jams that confirm his status as a worthy successor to Toshiharu Yamanishi. Four months after Blast Wind released, Technosoft published the soundtrack as Reincarnation, the seventh volume of their "Game Music Collection" series. The album is absolutely worth listening to on its own. Actually, a few spins in the CD player are almost required because Blast Wind suffers from the same audio leveling woes that crippled Hyper Duel. Hyakutaro's blitzkrieg shines through during the boss fights, but explosions constantly drown out the music in the normal stages. Highlight tracks to check out would be "Burning Heart" and "Justice Ray". (The latter song kicks off the "Justice Ray Trilogy", continued in Thunder Force V and Segagaga.) One tantalizing thought regarding Blast Wind's music is that the Hyakutaro soundtrack is almost certainly not the original score. If the game was destined for arcades in 1993, then Hyakutaro's redbook OST must either be wholly new, or as ShimaPong claimed, an arrangement of the lost arcade chiptunes. Perhaps the original composer was Toshiharu Yamanishi - the title track especially resembles his style.

But at least the music for the Saturn revival is top-notch. If only the sprite engine had received the same facelift. From a technical standpoint, the visuals are underwhelming. Especially considering the 1997 release date. As with Hyper Duel, Blast Wind resembles a juiced-up 16-bit game more than its ST-V contemporaries such as Radiant Silvergun, Sōkyūgurentai, Cotton 2, or Guardian Force. There are no transparencies, no aggressive scaling or rotation effects, and no oversized sprites. These shortcomings would have been significant disappointments to gamers at the time, but it's easier to appreciate the positives fifteen years later. The sprite work and environments show significant cohesion, the stages have been polished, and there's no kitschy CGI. Technosoft used traditional pixel graphics for all of the enemies, stages, and objects, so the artwork pops with color and variety.

That variety is sorely missing from the weapons system. As mentioned before, the player's offensive options are unnaturally restricted for a Technosoft game. Each ship has just two fire modes. There are no weapon pods, although there is an orb-like shield item that can absorb a few enemy bullets before it disintegrates and leaves behind a powerup. The shield's area of effect is large, and positioning can be controlled by careful maneuvering. Blast Wind also includes rudimentary bombs, but the most unique offensive option is the actually weapon powerup item itself. Every time the player picks one up - even if the weapon isn't at full power - bolts of lightning erupt from the ship's nose and sides. This lightning damages enemies and grants the player temporary invincibility. The mechanic is easy to abuse since each level has a dozen or more powerups, but waiting until the last moment to grab a powerup and then swooping up the entire screen never gets old.

If there's anything that needs to be noted about the weapons, it's how ludicrously overpowered Kyo's Hayate is. Not only does the Hayate's cutter blade wrap around obstacles and deal heavy damage, but even the "weaker" homing version kills normal enemies almost instantly. Since Kyo is the default 1P character and playing Faun requires a second controller, Blast Wind has earned a reputation for being too easy. It's not entirely deserved. The Reppu's normal shot and spread shot inflict a fraction of the damage that the Hayate does, and the delay allows enemies to live long enough to fire their salvos. Playing as Faun turns an easy 1CC into a challenge, and there's several difficulty settings as well. At least the high-score table acknowledges the difference between Kyo and Faun by including their ship next to each entry.

So, there's a lot to be said about Blast Wind. The game barely made it to store shelves, and the graphics were past the expiration date even when it did. It's very short, with such distilled mechanics that it can feel empty. But all that aside, Blast Wind truly hits its stride when played for score. There's an obsessive joy in tinkering with alternate routes and seeking a balance between risk and reward. The game's overall presentation encourages this sort of replay, thanks to solid artwork and a fevered soundtrack that always hits hard. Unfortunately once your personal high score has plateaued, the switching mechanic alone isn't enough to bring you back.

There's a good shmup hiding inside Blast Wind - a minimalist experiment that emphasizes scoring while restricting point totals to margins you can almost count on your fingers. The overall package, though, doesn't rally enough positives to shake the vibe of being a stopgap. Perhaps that's why Blast Wind is destined to be plowed under the soil of shmup history. The game will resurface every few years when a new generation of Technosoft fans rediscovers it, but those taking a Shmupology survey course should look to certain richer, more boisterous games from the World of Technology. It's a shame - even Blast Wind, the shmup designed to be different, can't escape the shadow of Technosoft's juggernaut.

Special thanks to Victor Ireland for his contributions to this article, and Nick Zverloff for the screenshots.

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