In A.D. 2027 a race of "ultra high-tech" robots have watched the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter and have enlisted you to fight against their tyrants using an armored suit in Imperium (Kidou Soukou Dion in Japan), a 1992 vertical shoot-em-up by Vic-Tokai.
The mechanics in this vertical shooter is unique for a few reasons. The first and most obvious reason, is there is no score. The second is that in this game, like Silpheed you are not destroyed after one shot. Instead, you have a health meter. When you run out of health, you're destroyed and must use one of your continues to restart the stage over. The third, and perhaps most important is that the game uses a level-up system similar to Double Dragon. Every enemy you kill rewards with you experience which earns you new weapons, advances them a level (3 MAX), and health replenishment. Whenever you are hit, your current weapon downgrades and you have to earn experience to recover. There are four weapons in total. Your standard vulcan, which at level 3 fires behind you as well. A wave beam which at level 3 fills most of the screen. A penetrating laser which at level 3 fires two homing-lasers from the side. Last is a handy star-weapon that fires in the opposite direction you are flying. So if you fly left, your stars fire right.
Though the game has a health bar, it is anything but easy. There are many enemies on-screen, sometimes appearing behind you, and have smart bullet patterns. The bosses have unusual attacks that can take up a lot of screen real estate. Imperium will test your reflexes by having your mech go full throttle at certain sections resulting in stages going fast enough to even give the Sega Genesis a workout. For those wanting even more challenge, you have a Hard Mode which rewards you additional slides for the ending. Unlike some certain Konami games, the slides aren't important so you're not punished playing on the default difficulty. While shoot-em-up fans will feel right at home, this game isn't accessible even on the easy setting. At six stages, the game is a decent length for this type of game.
The game immediately showcases its graphical prowess with nice anime pixel art and Mode 7 effects in the intro and title screen. The graphics in-game are also decent, with bright colors, detailed sprites, and animated backgrounds. The bosses are the height of the in-game visuals with their varied designs, giant sprites, and effects. After you defeat each boss, you see a trippy background animation before proceeding to the next stage as an added bonus.
The audio quality is just as high with clear sounds and good music. There are multiple explosion sounds for the different sized enemies and the weapons each have their own distinct sound. The music, composed by Tenpei Sato: the composer behind many Nippon Ichi titles like Phantom Brave and the SNES Alien vs. Predator, is fast and technical which suits the game's frantic nature. The bosses need another mention because each one has their own theme. This game's soundtrack will find it's way onto your playlist next to the Raiden and Darius soundtracks.
Imperium and Kidou Soukou Dion have a number of differences between them. Some stages have graphical changes such as Kidou Soukou Dion having an additional background layer in stage 2 and Imperium showing the enemy destroying a city in the first stage. The two games also have exclusive enemies and different enemy placements. For example, Imperium has an enemy rush in the middle of the third stage whereas Kidou Soukou Dion does not. In the same stage, Kidou Soukou Dion has missile-turrets along with the laser-cannons. Imperium has platforms with steel balls that act as blockades and pharoah mask enemies while Kidou Soukou Dion has miniature transformers and blue rocket-powered jets. There are also some audio differences such as additional sound effects in Kidou Soukou Dion and an alternate music track for Stage Four. The most substantial difference is that Kidou Soukou Dion does not have the wave beam weapon. Instead, it has a laser weapon which homes into enemies. Though the two games may not have changes as drastic as the US and Japanese versions of Silhouette Mirage, the differences do make it worthwhile to play through both versions. If you have to play just one, Kidou Soukou Dion would be the better choice as its graphical and audio enhancements make the game feel more polished compared to Imperium.
Imperium throws you straight into the action with your mech blazing over cloudy skies. The skies disperse revealing a city below being annihilated by the enemy. Midway through the stage, you encounter two rotund robots with an orb bouncing between them. The robots will bombard you with spike balls while the orb bounces between them. You can damage the robots but to defeat them you have to destroy the orb. Afterward, the skies disappear completely revealing the ruined city leading you to the boss. The boss is a giant mecha with dual laser-cannons. The mecha is a typical first boss with a simple side-stepping pattern.
Stage 2 – Base of the Sea
This stage starts off over a beach environment reminiscent of the first stage in Raiden. Throughout the stage the terrain will alternate between beach and ocean. Over the beach, you will have standard enemies and over the ocean, you will have submarines pop from underwater and metal balls forming blockades. The midboss is a crustacean robot with extending claws. The robot will fire either bullets or bubbles in a circular pattern across the screen and occasionally expose it's core. Simply circle around the screen dodging the projectiles and fire at the core when it's exposed for an easy victory. After the midboss is destroyed, the seas will part revealing an enemy base. In the trenches are marching humanoid robots and bombers that fall after firing their payload. Waiting at the end of the trenches is a knight robot wielding an axe and mace. The axe acts as a boomerang and the mace will be thrown in your general direction. The second form of this boss is a giant spider that fires spikes from its back while generating miniature support spiders. The spikes and spiders spawn at a rapid rate and cover the screen so you will have to rely on your reflexes to dodge everything in this battle.
Stage 3 – Flying Battleship
Stage 3 has you chasing an enemy cruiser over a stormy desert. This is where the game ramps up the difficulty with enemies swarming you at fast speeds, filling the screen with bullets. There is no midboss. Instead, powerful jets drop from above and rush towards you. After the enemy rush, you catch up to the battleship and encounter mounted laser-cannons which when destroyed reward you with a ton of experience. The boss of this stage is a ninja-robot with a katana and throwing stars. The ninja will float around the screen firing stars and teleport around the screen. The boss also slashes with the katana generating shock orbs after teleporting. When defeated, the floor reveals a core which pulls you into the center of the screen. The boss splits into three and floats around the edge of the screen. Similar to Gemini Man (Mega Man 3), you have to find and destroy the real robot to defeat it.
Stage 4 – Aggressor's Moonbase
This stage begins with you fighting waves of small enemies with movement patterns similar to Galaga. Twice in the stage a ship will dispense jet-troopers which make for good experience fodder. The midboss for this stage is a giant machine with three interchangeable heads. The heads will fly in, attach itself to the machine making it's attack, then leave the screen to allow the next head to do the same. The red head fires a flame thrower around the screen which can be dodged by sitting in one of the corners of the screen. The blue head releases the arms, emitting lasers between them. You have to move along with the arms to avoid the lasers. The yellow head unleashes a wave of missiles. After the midboss is defeated, the stage speeds up and has you dodging many turrets. There are also rectangle corners that close in to crush you if you're in the middle of the rectangle as well as a mask enemy reminiscent of MUSHA. This stage has the only female boss in the game, an armor-clad robot equipped with spinning scythes and a chest laser. She will throw her axes either in front of her in a circle or the axes will fly around the screen firing smaller axes. This boss doesn't have a second form, but when you inflict enough damage her helmet is destroyed revealing her face.
Stage 5 – Space Fleet
Stage 5 has you flying through an asteroid belt flying towards the aforementioned space fleet. This stage has some interesting enemies, such as a ship which stretches itself across a large portion of the screen and fires below. The midboss of this stage is a ship that looks like the Vic-Viper if it were built by the BYDO (R-Type). The not Vic-Viper will teleport across various sections of the screen and fires a spread shot out in front of it. After you SHOOT THE CORE (two cores that is), the ship will transform into a robot and start hopping around in a frantic figure-8 pattern. When the midboss is defeated, you see below you two fleets of ships that look like Imperial Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers amidst in battle. When you approach the fleet, the screen will be flooded with missiles and robots dropping from above that dispense Flechettes. To prevent you from entering the "Fortress Planet" is the largest boss of the game. This behemoth is nearly large enough to fill half the screen. In an attempt to fill the rest of the screen, the boss will fire large lasers out of it's shoulder cannons and machine guns. The best thing you can do is stay on either side of the screen and attack with an indirect weapon.
Stage 6 – Fortress Planet
The "Fortress Planet" stage is climactic last stand. There's no tricks or gimmicks, it's just a straight forward grand finale with an outright enemy onslaught. Good news is that you have plenty of chances to gain experience with smaller enemies and jet-troopers so you can be well equipped against the final boss. The final showdown is with a golden-winged mecha that looks like it was pulled from a Tokusatsu television serial. The mech is equipped with a sword, which instead of being swung at you floats across the screen in a stabbing motion. Between stabbings the mech shoots stars out of it's shoulder-cannons. Midway through the fight, the sword will be destroyed and three electric orbs firing smaller orbs appear circling around the center of the screen. When defeated, the stage proceeds as if there's more, but the boss appears from behind you and bombards the sides of the screen with fire. Taking a page from the book of Gradius, this form is completely ineffectual as all you have to do is stay in front of it's face for about 30 seconds.
The Ending shows your battered robot drifting in space while the credits fade in and out. If you have completed the game on Normal or Hard, the next slides will be of your character's girlfriend and a closeup of your mech. Before the game shows the final slide, you are given a congratulatory message which serves as an epilogue.
If you played the game on either the Easy or Normal difficulties, the final slide will be a black screen with "End © Vic Tokai 1992" on the bottom. If you're good enough to beat the Hard difficulty, the final slide will show your character hugging his girlfriend. A disappointing reward for such a difficult feat.
In conclusion: Imperium is an inspired shoot-em-up with some unique gimmicks, making it a good addition to the shmup-starved Super NES library. Unfortunately, Vic Tokai never revisited Imperium as there are no sequels, ports, or remakes. The game is not rare and can be had cart-only for a low cost, so it is accessible in that regard. Vic Tokai have closed their doors in 1997, just before the retro revival. Perhaps if Vic Tokai had managed to hold on for a little longer, there could be a compilation with Imperium, The Krion Conquest, Mazin Saga: Mutant Fighter, Clash at Demonhead, Aerostar, and others for the PlayStation 2. It appears that the robots will have their wish of having the suit be put to rest forever...