Toaplan was primarily known for vertical shooters, but Hellfire is their first (of two) horizontal shooters, with the other one being Zero Wing. It’s also the first game to be released directly by Toaplan without going through any other distributors – previously, they worked closely with Taito.
Hellfire‘s main feature is its innovative weapon system. There are four modes your ship can switch to at any time, all firing in a different direction. They are Forward mode, which fires straight ahead; Backward, which was obviously inspired by the Thunder Force series and only fires behind your ship; Vertical mode, which fires simultaneously above and below; and finally Diagonally, which fires four shots in an X shape around your ship. Mastery of this 8-way firing system is key to survival, as for the most part, it is all you really get.There are ships that drop power-ups to strengthen these weapons, though they take a little too many hits to destroy. If your ship is fully powered up, they drop “B” chips that give 2000 bonus points.
The ship is a little large, and the scrolling is a little slow, but the levels themselves are usually wide open, as opposed to the typically cramped levels usually found in horizontal shooters. It feels quite methodical, as having the right directional fire at the right time can be crucial to survival. There are actually two arcade versions of the game – one will send you back to a checkpoint upon, while the other features automatic respawns, plus two player simultaneous mode. This generally makes the game easier, but unfortunately since power-ups are fairly scarce, so you might find yourself stuck with the default weapons.
There are six levels, each with their own unique theme. The opening area is much like the first stage of R-Type, taking place in space and moving into a gigantic battleship. The second level has a distinct ancient Egyptian theme, complete with a sarcophagus boss at the end. The third takes place inside a cave with strange, purple, alien plants growing everywhere, while the fourth is a vibrant forest filled with strange volcanoes that periodically sprout out of the ground and erupt fish. The fifth level is a somewhat boring fortress that has a segment where the screen scrolls downward, while the sixth and final stage takes place in space, has a strange, color changing background, and is filled with battleships.
Like Truxton, Hellfire has no shortage of bosses, with each level usually having a mid boss and a stage boss. Unfortunately, many of these guys are just ripoffs of Gradius enemies, featuring have glowing red cores as their weak spots. The first boss in particular looking almost exactly like the recurring Big Core boss from Konami’s games. A few are original, though, like the final boss, Super Mech, is basically a gigantic shield who wields a mighty lance and blocks his weak point with his shield.
Hellfire received two ports to home consoles – the Genesis and the PC Engine CD. The Genesis version adds an AI controlled robot that helps you through levels and destroys enemies for you, much like in Soldier Blade. There’s also an extra shield item, which lets you absorb damage, and a powerful super laser called a Hyper Cannon that crushes anything in its path and does heavy damage to bosses. Unfortunately, ammunition for the laser is extremely scarce and it doesn’t affect gameplay nearly as much as it should. This version speeds up gameplay and offers an easy mode that can be useful for learning the levels. plus it rearranges some of the enemies, attack patterns and graphics.
For those craving more challenge, there’s also a secret difficulty, humorously called “Yeah, Right” that makes an already hard game even harder. Upon beating this mode, your commander even accuses you of cheating. This version is based on the arcade board where you get sent back to a checkpoint when you die. On the Genesis 2 model, there’s a bug that causes the music to play slowly. Overall, despite the slightly weaker visuals and music, it’s a decent port.
The PC Engine CD port, ported by NEC Avenue and renamed Hellfire S, is based on the arcade version with instant respawns and two-player simultaneous play, but it’s missing most of the extra stuff from the Genesis port. The graphics are slightly better than the Genesis version, although the ships no longer change color when cycling through weapons.
The main draw are the cutscenes and the soundtrack. The arcade version was composed by Tatsuya Uemura, who also provided the music for Flying Shark. It sounds like many other late 80s Toaplan soundtracks, with distinctive upbeat synth. The PC Engine CD version has a mostly new soundtrack, provided by T’s Music, the outfit responsible for many other CD games of the era, including Gates of Thunder and Lords of Thunder. It’s very different, but maintains the same high quality as to be expected.
In the other versions, the pilot is faceless, while the Genesis version adds a female commander in at the ending. In the PC Engine CD version, the pilots are two women named Kaoru and Yuu. This was following a trend at the time in featuring attractive anime girls on the cover in order to distinguish their games from the many other shoot-em-ups on the marketplace. The character designs were provided by Hiroyuki Kitazume, character designer of Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack as well as animation director for many other mecha anime, and are typical of the early 90s, with bright hair and wide-eyes.
The intro cutscenes show the girls sleeping before waking up and getting ready for their adventure, slipping on skin tight suits. It’s not particularly explicit, but there’s a joke amongst Japanese gamers that the “S” in Hellfire S stands for “sukebe” (pervert). (It actually stands for “Special”). While these might seem superfluous, the finale is surprisingly touching, where one of them sacrifices their life in order to kamikaze into an enemy spaceship, making one of the handful of shoot-em-ups with rather dark endings. Overall, it’s also easier than the arcade version while remaining more faithful than the Genesis version, so it’s the (slightly) better option.
PC Engine Cutscenes