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.
Great review, how did they handle the screen flashing for Zero Wing?
Another fine review! Solid price on these historical titles from a genre legend. Of these , i’ve never played Out Zone and it sounds like a gas.
Also was unaware of the Zero Wing meme “terrorist threat” incident in Michigan. Not having been to Sturgis, Michigan, the story begs the question why the town’s inhabitants thought it would make a point of interest to violent extremists. But i suppose fear isn’t always rational, and better safe than sorry is a policy often established in its wake.
As always, thanks for the review, Tom!
Out Zone may be my favourite run and gun games ever, pure adrenaline rush from start to finish with a top tier soundtrack.
Be aware that, according to its reviews on Steam, this re-release of Zero Wing is based on the arcade version, and therefore DOESN'T have the famous "All your base are belong to us" opening cutscene.
(That cutscene originated in the Sega Mega Drive port of the game from 1991, and the bad English localization of it was exclusive to Europe/UK all the way up until 2020 when Retro-Bit re-published it, as a limited run of physical MD/Genesis cartridges, in North America.)
EDIT: on Feb. 16, the developer posted a reply to one of the Steam reviews, in which they said that they're planning to add the cutscene in a patch. ("It is true that the intro is not in the game right now, but we're preparing to add an updated intro with the classic dialogue that we all love in a patch coming soon. All Your Base Are Belong To Us is too important to us.")
sold! thanks for a great review!
btw out zone looks AWESOME!!
@SonOfDracula It's still there!
@Diogmites My pleasure, thanks so much for reading. From what I understand it was at the time of the Iraq war, when literally anything even vaguely suggestive of hostility could be mistaken for a threat in the US. There are various articles about it. Apparently seven people were arrested over the signs.
@Dracula_on_a_bike Isn't it patched already? I was under the impression it was due to be patched before launch. Kind of disappointing that it wasn't in there otherwise I would have mentioned it. :/
@-wc- Oh it is, I adore it. Not too punishing and great fun to wade into.
I don't seem to be able to find the collection together on Steam, only the individual titles.
I have some of them on my Evercade, but this being a better release, cheap and on PC would be willing to double dip.
That leaves the M2 Toaplan Arcade Garage releases on the fence, though. They're supposed to be great and have console versions and other non shmup games as bonus... But don't know if the emulation is on par with the reviewed release.
@Moroboshi876 I heard that the compiled collection is very well hidden. I noticed someone on Twitter who was sharing the link stating that it was almost impossible to find. Perhaps they're trying to push the individual releases first, which would be a bit of a disingenuous tactic. It is on there somewhere, however.
@Tom-Massey I was looking at reviews for the stand-alone release of Zero Wing on Steam. Its stated release date on the store page is Feb. 14, and there's a review dated Feb. 14 ("Doesn't even have the intro cutscene") and another one dated Feb. 16 ("If you come in expecting the iconic "All your Base" scene, you'll be disappointed for a second") that both mention that this version of the game doesn't have the cutscene. The developer's response in which they said they'd add the cutscene was posted on Feb. 16 as a reply to the aforementioned review from Feb. 14.
(Also, I wasn't even aware that a "compiled collection" exists. I was able to find a reduced-price bundle of the separate games listed for sale on the Steam store, but I still haven't been able to find any listing on there for a single app/"game" that contains all of these arcade games...)
I just saw that these games are available on GOG as well as Steam, so bonus points to Bitwave for doing that. I see both stores offer the games as a bundle with a discount and it looks to be at a fair price, though that of course depends on whether you like the games offered. I tend to prefer the console ports, where available, of Toaplan's games. That's partly because I am inadequate, at least on their harder games. Truxton arcade, for example, is way harder than the console ports, at least in terms of how the game starts. The red weapon seemed nearly useless in the arcade version. I still like it, though. I'm much better on the likes of Grind Stormer and Dogyuun. Yeah, I die a lot, but I can finish them. Zero Wing I prefer on the Mega Drive. The intro is fun("You have no chance to survive make your time"), but the music is a good bit better on that version. But good to see these made available, especially for those who want or prefer the arcade versions. Seeing this, it makes me want to give Outzone another shot. I only tried it briefly and it wasn't grabbing me, but then I've had that experience before only to revisit a game later and for me to really get into it.
Wasn't Zero Wing's infamous storyline (all like eight lines of it) something created for the Mega Drive port?
I've that was not in the arcade original nor the PC-Engine (CD?) port.
@KingMike That's right. That famous intro was made for the Mega Drive port. Of course, it got so well known that people expect it in the arcade version. It sounds like they're going to make a new version of that intro for this new release that they're going to include in an update patch, which is actually a cool thing to do.
I don’t play much for schmups-but Truxton was one of the first games I had on the Genesis! I’d love to play it again! If this comes to console I’m sold…or I may need to actually playing games on PC
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