Vertical Force
  • Genre:
    • Shoot 'Em Up
  • Platform:
    • Virtual Boy
  • Developer:
    • Hudson
  • Publishers:
    • JP Hudson
    • US Nintendo
  • Released:
    • JP 08/12/1995
    • US 12/01/1995
Score: 65%

This review was published on 07/16/2016.

Vertical Force is a vertically scrolling space shooter video game developed by Hudson Soft for the Virtual Boy. It was originally released in Japan on August 12, 1995, and North America on December 1, 1995. The game was published in Japan by Hudson Soft and by Nintendo in North America. Hudson is best known for developing the Bomberman games, many of which are multiplayer focused experiences wherein players attempt to blow each other up with bombs. In addition to Vertical Force, Hudson published another game for the Virtual Boy called Panic Bomber, which is a Tetris-like Bomberman spinoff. Strangely, Hudson made no standard Bomberman games for the Virtual Boy. When compared to most other Virtual Boy games, Vertical Force is pretty solid. However, in the grand scheme of things, Vertical Force is an average shoot 'em up with a few interesting ideas. Without those ideas of interest, this game wouldn't even be worth a cursory glance.

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The year is Space Era 210. Humans have advanced considerably by this point, leaving Earth to establish colonies on thousands of planets all throughout the universe. Every colony had a master computer equipped with special drones that would mine resources and send them back to Earth. Life was good until a colony computer on a planet named Odin spontaneously reprogrammed itself to annihilate all of humanity. The bad computer called itself Mittgard and sent an army of drones to attack Earth. These drones were armed with a ray that rendered all the equipment of the United Earth Army useless, leaving Earth completely defenseless. Luckily, a team of archeologists unearthed an ancient spaceship fighter on a planet named Ragnarok that was impervious to Mittgard's rays. Now the United Earth Army summons its number one ace pilot to take control of the alien spaceship and use it to battle against Mittgard's forces. That's you, in case you were wondering.

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One thing's for sure: this game isn't the least bit remarkable when it comes to graphics. The sprites lack detail, the animations are stiff, and the backgrounds are dull. Even for the time period and platform, these graphics were archaic. They basically look like something running on an 8-bit system from the 1980s like the Nintendo Entertainment System, except they're limited to the red and black color scheme of the Virtual Boy, making them worse in some very obvious ways. It's not that they're ugly; they're just very modest from a technological standpoint. The Virtual Boy is certainly capable of far better graphics than these, as is evidenced by games like Teleroboxer. If there's something positive to say about the graphics, it's that the Virtual Boy's stereoscopic 3-D effect is put to good use here, with liberal use of parallax backgrounds to simulate visual depth. Other than that, the graphics are disappointing for 1995.

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You control a spaceship fighter as it flies across outer space, shooting down other spacecraft. This being a vertically scrolling shooter, it's got a top-down perspective, and you constantly move towards the top of the screen. Under the standard control scheme, you move around with the left d-pad and fire lasers with the L or R shoulder buttons. Like most spaceship shooters, you can augment your craft's base weapon by collecting power-ups, and they include things like a more powerful laser, a wide shot, and a shield. You can upgrade each of these up to three times, but they go down a level whenever you get hit, plus you completely lose them upon death. Speaking of, you actually have a life bar in this game, which is unlike most spaceship shooters of the time. Further extending that unusual generosity is the ability to continue from the last checkpoint no matter how many times you've died. The responsive controls, simplistic power-up system, and forgiving nature of the game make it good for beginners.

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In order to incorporate the Virtual Boy's stereoscopic 3-D shenanigans into the core game play, Hudson implemented the ability for you to switch between two altitudes at virtually any time with the mere press of a button. Each altitude has its own enemies, obstacles, and power-ups. This can either be used to avoid enemy confrontations by escaping to an altitude that's less densely populated by foes, or to do the exact opposite in a bid to get extra points and power-ups. It's also possible to fly underneath gigantic battleships and such. Occasionally, you'll be forced to fly above or below certain environmental objects. You can sort of tell the altitude of an object based on its size and sometimes color; sprites will appear smaller and darker at lower altitudes and bigger and brighter at higher altitudes. While the 3-D stereoscopy helps in this department, there's still a lot of guesswork involved. That aside, this whole altitude concept is definitely the best part of the game, as it's the one thing that separates it from most other spaceship shooters of this type.

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Besides the regular power-ups, you'll sometimes find drones throughout the game. Whenever you do, they'll fly alongside your ship, automatically assisting you in the heat of battle. You can have a total of four drones, though only one can be active at a time. Inactive drones will remain in reserve, but you can swap them with your active drone at any time. All drones have their own life meters and they regenerate energy while in reserve. In a pinch, you can detonate your active drone to damage all enemies on the screen. Additionally, you can change some of the drone's AI settings on the fly, like setting it to always stay the same altitude as your ship, or instructing it to automatically go into reserve when it's low on energy. As for the drones themselves, there are three types and they're mostly modeled after the weapon power-ups your ship can get. In other words, there's a drone that shoots powerful lasers and one that fires a spread shot. However, there's one that slowly regenerates your life meter when you aren't shooting, which is unlike any of the regular power-ups. In any case, drones are another unique thing this game has going for it, plus they add a tiny bit of strategic depth to the action.

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The weakest part of the game is also the most essential: the stage design isn't that great. It's by no means terrible, but a lot of it feels like random formations of plain enemy space fighters with not much thought put into them. Aside from the moments where the game forces you to avoid environmental hazards by changing altitudes, there is very little creativity in the stage design. This also extends to the bosses, which exhibit painfully simplistic patterns and are generic save for their ability to change altitudes just like you. One boss makes a reoccurring appearance all throughout the game, featuring an attack pattern that only changes slightly each time you fight it. There are also only five stages in the game and they're all fairly short, so you can blow through the whole thing in no time flat. The game can also be seen as too easy, as it's possible to tank most hits if you have the life regenerating drone around.

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Generic graphics, generic stage design, generic enemy design, generic boss design; pretty much everything about this game is generic. It's technically the best 2-D shooter available on the Virtual Boy, but that's because the only other one is Space Invaders Virtual Collection, which is just Space Invaders with a red coat of paint. If it weren't for the ability to change altitudes and the drone system, this would be an extremely typical space shooter with nothing to stand it out from the crowd.

Word Count: 1,293

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