At the time of writing there was news that Konami was officially dissolving Hudson Soft, the latest in a long string of dying companies including Irem, Flight-Plan, Cing and Climax Entertainment. As pointed out by one HG101 reader: "You know what caused all this? The skyrocketing costs of HD gaming. Xbox360 and the PS3 killed the Japanese console industry." Broadly speaking this is a sound enough statement, though developers have always struggled with hardware shifts, right from the dawn of the industry. The defunct Play magazine by Dave Halverson had an excellent write up by Casey Loe on the subject (pg 1, 2, 3, 4). The equally defunct developer DataWest (no relation to Data East) followed this trend.
In contrast to any of the developers mentioned by Casey though, DataWest's passing wasn't mourned and most likely went by completely unnoticed. Information on them is sketchy; they apparently started around 1986 and continued until 1998, surviving mainly through visual novels for Japanese home computers and underdog consoles like the PC Engine CD-ROM. It seems none of their games officially reached the west. They dabbled in other genres occasionally, but their only real claims to fame are the Rayxanber trilogy of hori-shmups, and an unreleased PS1 action game called Bounty Arms which, in fairness, looked incredible. A detailed write up on Bounty Arms and possibly the last surviving bit of playable code is on Kid Fenris' blog.
Bounty Arms didn't make it to market, but all three Rayxanber games did (sometimes capitalised RayXanbeR). They span an epic space trilogy heavily ripping-off R-Type, with Earth having to battle the bio-mechanical alien Zoul Empire for the first two games, before taking the fight to the Zoul homeworld in Rayxanber III. While the first two are not the greatest shmups available, they had some interesting ideas and the third more than makes up for them.
There are only really two noteworthy things about the original Rayxanber. Firstly, it started the series and presumably sold enough to warrant better sequels. The other is that it's a system exclusive on a piece of hardware generally lacking exclusives. There were some good games for the FM Towns, but they were mostly ports. Back in the day you could only experience Rayxanber if you owned an FM Towns variant (according to Shmups.org it also works on a Marty). Today you just need to burn the ISO to CD and run it via the emulator Unz.
Looking over its back-catalogue DataWest often sided with the underdog, but it's anyone's guess why they chose the FM Towns over, for example, Sharp's X68000. They'd already released games for the X68000 and, honestly, there's nothing about Rayxanber which necessitated the CD medium of the FM Towns. Presumably with so many other shmups available for the X68000 they thought it would fill a niche. The credits mysteriously attribute it to a "Team 50", with just a director, programmer, musician and couple of graphics guys, in addition to two testers.
Graphically it's lacklustre, with some acceptable but uninteresting spritework and dull, static backgrounds. The music is alright, a jazzy easy listening blend which is melodic and melancholy, but not wildly exciting. Aesthetically it could almost pass for mediocre; mechanically it's awful. Your standard weapon is painfully weak, resulting in enemies acting like bullet sponges. The generic waves of zako (shmup vocab for small grunt) go down with one hit, but everything else is pretty much invincible to your pea-shooter.
The power-ups aren't much better. They don't stack, meaning you constantly feel underpowered. When collecting weapon orbs it's also important to pay attention to the angle they've rotated, since this affects the direction the bullets fire from. Clever in theory but dreadful in practice since choosing any angle other than ahead tends to cripple you. Even when enemies are coming from behind, you are always better off keeping it firing ahead, otherwise after they're gone you're stuck like that! You can charge special weapons but the attacks they release are useless. The Blue Orb fires a couple of extra shots behind the craft, which is pointless when fighting enemies ahead of you. The Red Orb launches two homing flames, but until they connect to something you can't fire again, leaving you - again - crippled. The Green Orb temporarily creates a barrier which seemingly does nothing.
Your craft is also too slow, making one-hit deaths all too common. There's a speed-boost button for dodging, but activating it launches the craft insanely fast in the given direction, more often than not making you hit something else. The checkpoint system is also ridiculous, rendering the game almost unplayable. Shmup veterans may scoff at this statement, but this isn't like the bullet hell of a Cave title where you can get good through practice. The fundamental system is flawed; it's not even a fast game and there aren't many enemies, it's just sluggishly unfair.
Although a blatant R-Type rip-off, Rayxanber does have a few unusual ideas. At one point you come across something being dragged by two enemies, surrounded by an energy field. Kill them and it turns into a miniboss - unfortunately they all zoom by so fast that most players will probably miss it. The third stage, set inside some kind of organic body, culminates with a boss fight where you realise the background is actually a long set of teeth. Another level sticks with the horizontal format, but scrolls vertically as you descend through a planet's atmosphere into its subterranean caverns. A later stage features an HR Geiger art-style and a sliding block puzzle which plays out around your craft. There's also a stage which grows around you, forming a maze of blocks. Admittedly several Gradius titles do something similar, but it's neat to see. Unfortunately in almost all these examples the ideas have been poorly executed, resulting in punishing play mechanics which are more frustrating than fun; in Rayxanber you will repeatedly end up in unwinnable situations due to poor sign-posting and plain bad design.
There is little redeemable about the original Rayxanber apart from the fact that if your only gaming system in 1990 was an FM Towns computer, there were only a couple of other shmups available to you. it's so shockingly bad it easily classifies as kusoge.
For a ludicrously detailed walkthrough, check out this Japanese fan-page.
A year later and DataWest released a sequel for the PCE CD. It's a definite improvement over its abysmal predecessor, but it's still not great. The most apparent change is the visuals. While the main ship and other sprites are smaller than previously, there's at least a generous helping of parallax scrolling in the backgrounds, and everything moves along much quicker. The ocean background for Stage 2 is excellent and has to be seen in motion to appreciate, while the subsequent post-apocalyptic level is equally gorgeous - at least DataWest put some effort into making everything look nice. The enemy design has also improved slightly, with freakier biomechanics. The music is mostly the same though, even re-using some tracks from before, but is otherwise OK.
Along with improved enemy designs there's also more of them on-screen and they move around a lot quicker. Balancing this out is the fact that with a PCE controller you should now have the option for turbo fire. This is a godsend and makes dealing with the zako waves much more tolerable. Unfortunately they made the larger enemies even bigger bullet sponges than before - seriously, don't even think of trying to take them down with the pea-shooter, the screen scrolls so fast you'll die long before. In fact the chronic underpowerment of your craft can't be emphasised enough. No matter which power orb you collect it still never feels like enough, and often the best situation is to use the dash button and run away from everything. Your charge attacks, as before, are useless.
Using turbo fire for the dash offers you slightly better control, but the designers have taken great pleasure in contriving situations which force you to use it. The third stage, where you fly under a gigantic mechanical crab, requires you repeatedly dash under its legs as they're raised. Which would be fine if it weren't for the multiple phalanxes of enemies speeding in from both the left and right, not to mention enemy cannons above and little tanks on the ground firing shots at you. It's absurdly difficult, and our clearing it was thanks only to unlimited lives, slow-motion, quick-saves and emulator rewind. Even then it wasn't easy! A quick search online confirms that this is indeed one of the most maddeningly difficult shooters on the system.
It's a shame they didn't consider better balancing, because again it has some interesting ideas. The stage mentioned above is pretty cool, apart from the obscene difficulty. The subsequent stage is even better, since it's basically one massive solid wall of ice. Weapons don't melt the ice, but your ship and a particular worm-like enemy can. The ingenious thing is that most other enemies are trapped in little boxes in the ice until freed. It creates a sandbox-like situation of emergent behaviour, since the route you choose to carve affects how enemies function. Stupidly difficult, but still fascinating.
Apart from high difficulty due to poor design, the checkpoint system is also sort of broken. Presumably due to DataWest's inability to get a handle on the PCE hardware, the boss doesn't appear at the end of a stage. Rather, in the middle of the action in a normal stage, the screen just suddenly fades to black, even if there's enemies still flying around. The game then loads an entirely new area for the boss fight to happen. Apart from being damn weird, if you die the checkpoint is this new area, and there are some occasions when power-ups aren't available. Just try taking on a boss with the pea-shooter!
It's difficult to say how well it did in Japan upon release. Googling the Japanese name reveals nearly 20'000 entries for the series, so presumably it did gain a following. THIS scan from EGM claims it was an "instant success", though given the journalistic standards for the time they could have just been filling space.
According to Shmups.org this second release isn't especially rare or expensive, but then again it's not especially good either. Considering the number of other hori-shmups on the PCE, many of which are astounding, and the massive improvements in Rayxanber III, there's not much reason to play this.
Finally, a game worth playing and the title that warranted this article. It took DataWest two botched attempts and three years (longer if you count earlier games) to finally create a decent shmup, and in truth it's pretty damned excellent. Dare it be said: it's possibly one of the best on the system, with enough interesting ideas to stand proud amongst the entire genre. As they say, third time is the charm.
Absolutely everything has been overhauled for the better, while simultaneously staying true to the style of the previous two games. For starters someone finally fixed the dash mechanic, so now it actually works and is easily controlled. Like before there's a temperature bar, so if it goes in the red you need to cool down before dashing again, but it's now much easier to regulate the duration of your dash without resorting to a turbo button. Level structure and enemy attack patterns are also much better balanced to take into account use of the dash - no longer are you forced to dash headlong into a phalanx of zako because something is chasing your tail. It has legitimately become a useful tool in your arsenal.
Another major improvement is that turbo-fire is automatic, so you can just hold down fire and leave it. Because you're not relying on a controller's turbo function this also means that the charge attack can build up while you're spraying out walls of protective death. Power up weapons have also been greatly improved too - whereas before something like the Red Orb gave you two weedy fireballs, now you get two massive jets of flame which can crisp most enemies pretty quickly. Everything is considerably more powerful and actually useful now, and there is genuine tactics involved when choosing which Power Orb to stick with. This also means normally enemies are seldom if ever bullet sponges. You still need to choose which direction it fires in, based on its angle at the time of collection, but enemy patterns and layout are designed in a much more clever and more balanced way to make use of this, in addition to Power Orbs being more plentiful, so you'll never be stuck with the wrong weapon.
A secondary charge attack has also been added, which is the same regardless of Power Orb collected. Once charged, release the fire button to launch two large missiles in a straight horizontal line - if you hit the fire button again these break up into a series of homing missiles which obliterate most things on screen. Better still, this charge attack can be used even when you're down to your pea-shooter, meaning you need never feel underpowered again. The dynamics of this new charge attack are fantastic, since it creates a pleasurable rhythm of holding down fire, weaving between enemy blasts and then - when the moment is absolutely right - you raise your finger and bring it down again to unleash a torrent of destruction. The later released Bari-Arm would feature a similar mechanic.
It's not necessarily an "easy game" now, but it's definitely a lot of fun, and the difficulty that is present is an enjoyable tension as you always feel like you can clear a section with a little more effort. Which really is the key ingredient for any shmup. Plus for those diehards there is a Maniac difficulty option which heats things. Worth noting is that the checkpoint system has changed, with two in each stage, clearly marked by the presence of a sub-level counter (ie: Stage 4-2). These are placed much more thoughtfully, in close proximity to Power Orbs, so each progression feel like something earned. This rebalancing of the gameplay was sorely needed, since a lot of the cool ideas present before were overshadowed by the fact that few would ever see them. Now there's a greater emphasis on clever mechanics rather than relentless struggling.
The clever ideas also go hand in hand with a much slicker and more professional visual aesthetic, also making it one of the most beautiful games on the PCE. Immediately at the start we see Earth launch an attack on the alien Zoul Empire, by sending a massive space carrier to their homeworld. The player's ship is first to leave the docking bay, complete with neat miniature animation sequence, and in most other shmups you would dash forwards and never see the carrier again. Instead, the first half of the opening stage is spent flying around Earth's mother ship, watching as it takes down enemies coming towards you, and witnessing your comrades also leave the docking bay in waves. It recalls the giant ship stage in R-Type, but is infinitely cooler because it's your ship, not the enemy's. Little parasites will try to cling to it, which you need to dislodge with homing missiles, all while taking down enemy carriers and fleets of zako. It feels exhilaratingly epic, and yet still manageable if you keep your wits about you.
DataWest took great care with this third instalment to create a unified and coherent whole, so each stage overlaps with the next. After this initial assault you enter a cavernous area which leads to a boss, which then leads directly into another cavern, this time partially submerged. This chaining of stage themes carries on throughout, and is perhaps comparable to the way the original Half-Life presented players with effectively one long, continuous level. Particular mention must go to the watery second stage, which features some absolutely stunning wavy distortion effects and faux-transparencies beneath the viscous liquid, the kind you wouldn't expect to see on the humble PCE. When pixel aficionados talk about the glory days of retro games and their beautiful visuals, this is the kind of thing they mean. It also affects the mechanics of the level, since below the surface your craft is more sluggish, require judicious use of the dash. After this level the game pulls another clever trick, switching to an overhead view of your craft, with a deep chasm shown below. It still functions 100% like a hori-shmup, the only difference is that all the sprites are now perceived as being overhead instead of side-on. It's a neat idea handled with subtlety, and one that most probably won't even notice.
There are so many great ideas in Rayxanber III, several of which really invigorate the shmup genre. The boss of Stage 4 for example can't simply be fired at randomly like your standard shmup boss. He takes the form of some kind of giant eyeball thing, surrounded by a rock barrier, with the only opening protected by a series of coloured balls. Shooting the eyeball itself does nothing, while shooting a coloured ball sends it flying into the gooey core. Though if you do this the boss retaliates with an attack based on the colour just shot (shoot the yellow ball into it to unleash a web of laser fire). So you wait and watch, and nothing much happens, just the boss firing the occasional and easily dodged pot-shot. Then you notice a red orb revolving around the eyeball core. The trick here is to shoot a coloured ball so it flies inwards and hits the revolving red orb. Defeating the boss only requires a couple of hits, and in effect it becomes a puzzle game, but when the genius of this set-up clicks, it's a fantastic moment. As is dashing like hell to avoid a retaliatory attack should you miss the red orb and instead hit the eyeball itself. The coolest bit is that after blowing up the eyeball, the next stage is entered by flying through the fresh cavity created in rock-like eye socket. It's like the entire game is one massive alien body, and to reach the brain you have to poke out its eye and force your way inside - that is unbelievably awesome! The next stage is even better, since the alien creature which you are now inside is obviously intelligent, and it creates a few interesting "antibodies" to psychologically fake you out.
The only downside to this sequential style of level themes is that it does limit the entire game's palette almost entirely to various hues of red and brown, since you're either in caverns or, later on, inside the biological interior of the alien homeworld. It's also obvious that to cram in more details some background areas are left entirely black (such as in the opening). Considering the staggering attention to detail seen in these areas though, DataWest can be forgiven for a slight lack of diversity. The music also reaches its peak since, while not necessarily something you'll buy the OST for, each track nicely compliments the atmosphere of the game. It's still got that easy listening, jazzy vibe to it, which may upset those expecting something heavier like Lords of Thunder, but the payoff with the final boss, which lacks sound effects and has a dream-like quality, is totally worth it. DataWest were actually trying to be artistic with the set-up. The overall style is leagues ahead of the previous Rayxanber games, and a cut above many other shmups across various formats too. The sprite designs on the bosses also need special mention, since how insanely cool does the above boss look? (obviously a cheeky wink to Darius in there)
For all the excellence of Rayxanber III, which is unquestionably a top tier shmup, it's sad to realise that the poor quality of the first two games probably put many people off trying the third. It's certainly rare and expensive enough to conclude it never sold particularly well. Or perhaps there's just greater demand for it? It's difficult but fair (though perhaps a little short), absolutely gorgeous at all times, and chock full of more clever ideas than many of its peers. Rayxanber III absolutely vindicates DataWest's existence as a developer. They may have spent a decade working on visual novels, and several years practicing with poor shmup design, but they really created something special back in 1992. In a way it makes the failed release of Bounty Arms on PS1 even more disappointing, since these guys had clearly been improving themselves in the action genre. Sadly right when they seemed to have nailed it, changing markets and hardware shifts killed them off.