Although Toaplan left an indelible mark on the arcade shooting game genre, by far the most mainstream thing it ever produced was the line in Zero Wing’s introduction sequence, “All your base are belong to us”. It’s so commonly quoted that even people unaware of its origin are prone to repeating the grammatically calamitous phrase. In Sturgis, Michigan in 2003, seven signs displaying the idiom were placed as a prank throughout the town, misunderstood as “a borderline terrorist threat” by local authorities; while in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the line in response to winning a poll for a proposed tax rate.
Toaplan were founded in Tokyo in 1979, but didn’t really find its calling until 1985’s Tiger-Heli, a sharp but unrelenting shooting game that met with surprise success. Toaplan would produce fifteen more titles within the genre until folding in 1994. Its latter output - Dogyuun, Grind Stormer and Batsugun - paved the way for the ‘bullet hell’ renaissance when its unmoored staff went on to form CAVE Co. Ltd.
Toaplan’s games had a particular style; a rawness that can only come from a small development team, where a desire to keep upping the ante fuelled experimentation. If nothing else, its titles always felt fresh and creative, and rarely rested on their laurels.
The Toaplan Arcade Collection features four arcade games packaged together at a very reasonable price, or available individually from the Steam store. Historically speaking, they’re titles that defined the company’s innovation and drive at various points in its history.
Twin Cobra (1987) is the sequel to Tiger-Heli, and you had better strap in for this one. Obscenely brutal, you pilot a helicopter pitted in a mechanised war against giant tanks and ocean fleets, where bullets snipe you with utter indecency even as enemy craft are poised to exit the screen. You fly vertically, chasing down cycling power-ups, the inspiration for their swirling pattern coming to the programmer when observing a bowl of noodles. Getting through the lengthy first stage is a challenge that requires some learning, because without enough power you’re a sitting duck. Manage to stick to a set weapon and power it up to maximum volume, however, and you can press back in a satisfying, havoc-wreaking manner that keeps you ever on the edge of your seat. Twin Cobra’s fictional war is adrenalised by Toaplan’s in-house musicians, Masahiro Yuge and Tatsuya Uemura, whose timeless action soundtrack comprises wonderful, driving themes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rambo movie. In all, Twin Cobra is a fantastic game that stands the test of time for players with the resolve to take it on.
Truxton (1988), known as Tatsujin in Japan, is another vertical scroller, now in the sci-fi realm. A huge hit on release, it was ported to various home consoles, and blessed with a stellar sequel, Tatsujin-Oh, in 1992. Your ship’s hit-box is threateningly large, and like Twin Cobra you need to survive the trial-by-fire of the initial stage to get your ship powered up to a workable level. It’s a tough affair buoyed by a great soundtrack, that punishes death by stripping your weaponry and knocking you back to an earlier checkpoint. Ultimately, these games were designed to be beaten on a single life, requiring the player to memorise every inch of its space-themed fabric and navigate bullets coming in at almost point-blank range. And, like nearly all of Toaplan’s titles (and those featured in this collection) a harder second loop awaits those able to clear the vanilla set of stages.
Zero Wing (1989) is a nice change of pace. Less aggressive and adopting a horizontal side-scrolling format, it uses the same engine as Hellfire (1989), released just a few months earlier. You control the ZIG spacecraft in a bid to dispatch an alien nemesis, which is all the story these games ever needed back in the 80s. That said, Zero Wing did come with more of a story than many Toaplan releases, in that it featured several cutscenes; cutscenes that were so badly translated as to be barely legible, and giving rise to the infamous internet meme mentioned in our opening paragraph.
Although perhaps not up there with Toaplan’s best, Zero Wing looks great, and is a fun and engaging shooting game that demonstrates the company’s pioneering ideas. The Seizer Beam, particularly, allows the player to tag certain enemies and use them as a shield. Like Twin Cobra, colour-coded weapons allow you to beef up your fire if you pick up several of the same type, and it's empowering to work your way to beefier ordnance and let loose on the alien hordes. Interestingly, Zero Wing started life as a training game for Toaplan’s new employees, before being reworked as a commercial release.
Finally, Out Zone (1990), one of our all-time favourite Toaplan entries, changes the format to a top-down MERCS style run and gun. Keeping the popular sci-fi theme, here it’s one or two players traversing strange planets and gunning down its lifeforms with unique and powerful weaponry. Out Zone might not be a strict ‘shmup’ in the same sense as the other titles, in that it doesn’t force-scroll, but it does retain similar bullet dodging requirements as you move vertically through its stages. It is, regardless, gloriously fun. You can switch out weapons regularly, nab enormous special power-ups and unload devastating bombs, while strategising your way through maze-like corridors and carefully camping in safe spots to clear the path ahead. It’s one of the easier titles Toaplan produced, and all the more enjoyable for it. Evoking a sense of journey, it’s great fun to work through its varied maps, obstacles and enemies, taking on giant bosses to a blistering audio score. A slightly lesser sequel, Fixeight, appeared in 1992, retaining the same format and throwing a likeness of Mike Tyson into the mix.
One might wonder why this collection can’t contain more of Toaplan’s works. Having Fixeight to accompany Out Zone, or Tiger-Heli bound with Twin Cobra would have been a more cohesive cataloguing of the company’s history. That said, these are still four superb highlights that have years of depth to mine. What’s best, though, is in how they’re presented. While the menus themselves are rather unattractive and crude, the features and options on offer cover a great deal of valuable ground. The ports themselves seem flawless, with zero discernible input lag thanks to the input and visual rendering being processed on exactly the same frame. Additionally, being able to adjust things like auto-fire rates (a godsend for Truxton), and change regions to experience version differences really lends credibility to the product. As well as screen adjustments and solid filter options, the wallpaper can be set to display original arcade instructions, amongst others, and set up with a border frame to give everything a nice authentic flavour. There are rewind functions, hit-box customisations, auto-dodges and more, as well as a training mode that allows you to set all the parameters for a starting stage. If it’s proving too tough, a very easy mode has been added to allow you to coast on through, and there are online leaderboards split between normal, assisted and one credit-clear runs, which is a very thoughtful way of handling individual successes.
These options make all the difference. Helping the player to work with and understand the details of the games themselves, it elevates what would otherwise have been a bare-bones set of four into a package that fans can really appreciate all over again.
While Toaplan Arcade Collection’s appeal is somewhat limited to pre-existing fans, shooting game diehards, and those with an affinity for everything retro, it’s undoubtedly a package that delivers for those audiences. Although the external presentation won’t win any awards and the menu font feels oddly amateurish, it’s the attention to detail that makes this collection work. In addition to being salient examples of Toaplan’s formative years, the port quality and bevy of adjustable options is top-notch, especially where input lag is concerned. If your trigger thumbs are twitching at the prospect, it’s a comfortable recommendation.