Vapor Trail / Vapor Trail: Hyper Offense Formation / Kuuga: Operation Code "Vapor Trail" (空牙 - Operation Code "Vapor Trail") - Arcade, Genesis (1989)
Shoot 'em ups were among some of the most common games in the arcade in the late 80s. The folks at Data East, not content with run and guns like Heavy Barrel, decided to release a shooter in 1989. This began what's loosely known in English as the "Vapor Trail Trilogy", despite the fact that only the first game is actually called Vapor Trail. In Japan, all of the games are entitled Kuuga, which means "Air Fang". The story focuses on a terrorist group called DAGGER, who've seized control of the latest military technology and used this opportunity to attack New York City. (The American version takes out the last bit of scenes from the Japanese version, where the player's jets fly over New York, though it's not a really big loss.)
From the moment you hit the "start" button, you're assaulted with an awesomely intense hard rock soundtrack, and three aircraft to choose from. These aircraft all have strengths and weaknesses, most notably in speed and power, but also in weaponry. After you select your fighter, you then proceed to New York City in your feeble attempt to single handedly save the world from these terrorists. There are only six stages, but they're all pretty challenging. Fortunately, your ship is rather sturdy, as it can sustain two hits and can perform barrel rolls, which lets you temporarily absorb any damage. Your ship can also be stocked with homing missiles, grenade bombs, an awesome flamethrower, and defenders, which shoots orbs in every direction. You can also find a Booster, which drastically improves your fire power. It allows allows you to fire nukes, although you have to sacrifice your Booster to do so.
Although on its surface, it doesn't look or feel that much different from similar games like Raiden, it's really the strange enemy designs that sell Vapor Trail. In the middle of the first stage, you have to destroy a tank - until its turret detaches and starts flying through the sky. The second stage is filled with small tanks that use anti-aircraft flame throwers, before you fight another larger vehicle shaped like a spider. Then you have to take on a huge aircraft carrier on treads and take down the dozens of fighters that launch from its deck. When you get to the center of the aircraft carrier, a voice says, "Destroy the Core!", which is an obvious reference from a certain Konami Shooter. Later in the third stage, you chase after a rocket into outer space, which is somewhat reminiscent of Sol in the manga Akira. All of these over-the-top scenarios are what make this game a blast to play. One other thing to note is when a boss is almost dead, the game says, "Aim for the Kill!" The music is also hard rocking excellence throughout, with some damn good guitar samples similar to Data East's own Thunder Zone, although unfortunately there aren't very many songs.
Due to its relative popularity, Vapor Trail was released on the Sega Genesis in 1991. The port was developed by Telenet Japan and released in America by Renovation. For the most part, this version is actually pretty faithful to the arcade. It's quite a bit easier, especially since you can take three hits instead of two, although they removed the ability to respawn when you lose a life. Most of the graphics are pretty faithful to the arcade. The music is damn good too, which is amazing considering that the Sega Genesis sound chip can't quite replicated the wailing guitars from the arcade version. They also added a completely different ending to the game that's actually better than the arcade. Instead of shaking hands with the president, you land and watch the stars while a brand new piece of music plays,. While this is a good port there are a number of differences in it. The most notable difference is the removal of the last bit of stage five, and the disappearance of the huge aircraft carrier in stage four. The Statue of Liberty also seems to be missing in New York City.
Rohga: Armor Force / Wolf Fang: Kuuga 2001 (ウルフファング 空牙2001) - Arcade, PlayStation, Saturn, PSN (1991)
Although you couldn't tell directly from looking at it, Rohga: Armor Force / Wolf Fang: Kuuga 2001, is actually meant to be the sequel to Vapor Trail. In fact, it's a completely different game, where you pilot a mech instead of a fighter jet It's a side-scroller this time, with a twist - your mech can't actually fly, but instead needs to jump, making it feel like a blend between a shooter and an action-platformer like Contra.
Wolf Fang takes place two years after Vapor Trail. Since it's 2001 mech technology is the most impressive technology that the military has to offer. The most important mech facilities reside in Oceania. Eventually DAGGER comes back for revenge be attacking the factories around Australia and New Zealand. Of course DAGGER's plan is to use the most deadliest technology available in order to accomplish their goal and it's up to you to stop them.
When you select your mech, the game lets you choose from four preconstructed ones with different strengths and weaknesses, similar to Vapor Trail, but it also lets you build your own. You can customize your melee weapon, your shoulder (secondary weapon) and your legs, with a total of four parts of each type. Your shoulder weapons need to be charged up, but naturally are the strongest. The different shoulder weapons consist of grenade launchers, homing missiles, flame launchers, and an electric field. Your left arm functions as a melee attack and is activated automatically when you're close to the enemy. These attacks are comprised of your mech's fist (called "Nuckle Buster"), an iron claw, beam sword, and a pile bunker. You can also assemble your legs, include the standard two-legged configuration, one with hover jets, a four legged model, or tank treads. Your standard weapons changes depending on what power-ups you find. You can obtain a laser rifle, vulcan gun, grenade launcher, and a cluster gun. You can also pick up tiny little buddy robots that ride on your mech which provide extra fire. Given how much firepower is at your disposal, your mech is also surprisingly agile, and can slide and double jump. You could do stuff like this in Target Earth for the Genesis, but this type of customization is pretty unprecedented for an arcade game.
You can eject from your mech when it's destroyed and continue fighting. You can rebuild your mech once your outside of it, but once you restore it, it starts off with one bar of health, so in many cases it's better just to kill yourself and put in a new credit in order to get full health.
Wolf Fang also features branching paths. After you finish the second mission, you can choose between two missions - a hard one and a easy one. Choosing what order you do your missions in will affect the ending. You can only liberate one country in one play through, and in order to get the good ending, you have to play the hard missions. In the level selection screen, it shows your chance of survival on the top left corner of the screen, which is a neat touch.
Similar to Vapor Trail, the level designs and enemies are pretty insane, though to a somewhat lesser degree. In mission eight, you fight this huge boss that uses a weapon that has the same effect as a black hole, causing the equipment on the floor to get sucked in. In mission four, you fight your way up to the top of this giant tank. The only thing that sucks about Wolf Fang is that the arcade units outside of Japan are horribly butchered. They removed the level selection, most of the briefings and story sequences, as well as the ability to see all four endings.
Thankfully Wolf Fang was ported to both the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation in 1997 by Xing, known for many oldschool arcade ports in the 32-bit era. Both versions are exactly the same and have all of the Japanese exclusive content from the arcade. It also includes an arranged soundtrack along with some FMV cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game.
Skull Fang is a perfect example of taking something successful and then running it right into the ground. After the side-scrolling mecha action of Wolf Fang, Data East decided to go back to the series' roots and make another overhead shoot em'up. Unfortunately, this one is painfully average.
Skull Fang happens seven years after the events of the previous title. Remnants of DAGGER survived the attack against them and hid for seven years. The remnants then attack major American cities at random with the ultimate mech Ragnarok. Fortunately the division in the Airforce that was apart of Operation Vapor Trail was renamed Skull Fang and consist of the best pilots in the Airforce. Skull Fang is then called on to select only two pilots to deal with the DAGGER due to insufficient funding.
Once you begin, the first option to select is your "speed" mode. "Chase" is the manual mode, which lets you adjust the speed of your craft. In most other games, this simply changes how fast your ship moves, but in Skull Fang, it affects how fast the screen scrolls. Obviously, the faster you set it, the quicker you'll reach the boss. The "Auto" mode will automatically alter your speed based on what's going on in the level.
Then, you select your fighter jet, just like Vapor Trail. The different aircraft you can select are part of various military branches, including the Space Force. What's strange is that the Space Force jet is the second slowest jet for some reason. You'd think that the spacecraft would be the fastest one available. There are also four different pilots, who are divided into "Fighter" and "Bomber" classes. The Fighter classes have the ability to roll and have special attacks such as the ion shield. Their effectiveness is somewhat questionable because you need to input complex joystick commands to use them. The Bomber class has the ability to nuke all of the enemies on the screen, which turns out to be a better deal in the long run.
The boss fights introduce an interesting mechanic. If the boss goes off the screen, a window pops up called "Skyeyes" which shows you where and how far it is. The bosses can also attack you off the screen and fly behind, over and above you, with a target on your ship indicating their positions. In the Japanese version, the fighter pilots are fully voiced and blather quite a bit. In the versions outside of Japan, the pilots don't say anything and only the commander speakers.
The most noticeable issue with Skull Fung is that it ditches the nice sprite work of the previous games and replaces it with badly rendered CGI ships, which makes the game look terribly dated compared to the older titles in the series. It uses some scaling effects to make the field feel more three dimensional, but it looks really cheesy compared to other shooters from around the same time, like Sōkyūgurentai. But it's more than just the visuals that are lacking - the game just feels sloppy. Everything starts off extremely easy, but the difficulty ramps up quite a bit by the third stage. By this point, your weapons are mostly useless. The bosses are also annoyingly difficult because they take forever to kill. To make up for the difficult, your shields are much more powerful and can absorb many hits, but it doesn't help much. The bland and unmemorable level designs don't really help either - the game just feels kinda boring.
Surprisingly, Skull Fang was ported by Data East to the Sega Saturn in 1997. This port adds a lot of stuff, such as a boss rush mode, a tutorial video, a trial mode, and an additional speed mode which has two settings rather than five. In some cases, the sprites seem to suffer from flickering. Considering the power of the Saturn. It's almost as if the developers realized the game was pretty mediocre and just didn't care about the quality of port. Still, as a nice bonus, some arranged versions of songs from the original Vapor Trail are on the Saturn disc as redbook audio.