Reviews | Mega Drive
By Alex Kierkegaard / May 15, 2006
Although I haven't bothered counting, I think it's safe to say that the Mega Drive is the system with the largest library of shooting games outside the arcades. Pretty much all of those games can be neatly divided in two categories: arcade ports (the vast majority) and exclusive titles. Since great shooters have almost always been born in the arcades, a Mega Drive exclusive is either an exception, or the equivalent of a straight-to-video movie release. Arrow Flash falls in this last category.
The problem is not that the game is terrible -- because it isn't. It's that the developers forgot to give it any soul. Telenet found inspiration for the plot and character designs in the Macross series, and took a few mechanical and aesthetic elements from Gradius (1985), R-Type (1987) and Thunder Force III (1990), but they didn't do anything interesting with them. What they ended up with is a very boring game, that only narrowly avoids being a total loss by virtue of its solid if humdrum mechanics. Arrow Flash has no control issues, no flaky collision detection, nor any slowdown. But it takes more than that to make a game worth playing. A good game has to provide a compelling experience; it has to make for an exciting trip. And it can only achieve that with good level design, interesting enemies and bosses, and beautiful art and music. Telenet's first shooter lacks all these things.
The story of Arrow Flash is typically forgettable. Zana Keene, a pink-haired anime chick, is given control of the "Chameleon" ERX-75 spacecraft -- the only thing that stands between the fearsome Viking terrorists and Earth's. The ship takes its nickname from the ability to instantly transform into a powerful robot at the touch of a button. Zana jumps in the cockpit and takes off on a series of mostly horizontally scrolling stages, with a couple of vertical segments thrown in for variety.
The ship's ability to transform is the central mechanic, and it is very nicely implemented. The main difference between the two modes is that in plane mode the so-called 'arrow flash' (your special weapon) is a six-way laser beam, while in robot mode it grants you invincibility for a short amount of time (so you are able to crash into enemies and destroy them). There are a few more differences. In robot mode the options you acquire assume a steady formation, whereas in plane mode they trail behind you. There's no speed difference between the two modes, but it's easier to dodge dense bullet patterns with the plane, because it's about half the size of the robot.
After some experimenting I found that robot mode is the best to use during the regular stages, because it's easier to control the direction of your fire with the options in formation. Plane mode is preferable during the boss fights, for easier bullet dodging and to take advantage of the more offensive version of the arrow flash.
The transformable mech deal works well -- it's just too bad the designers failed to come up with more interesting challenges for the player to use it. There are too many breaks in the action and, indeed, most of the time it feels like nothing much is happening. Enemies come at you in small numbers; they attack predictably and die predictably, too. More ground units (turrets and the like) should have been used to offer some variety and added challenge. Bosses can be easily beaten, and the first two would have been rejected as even mid-stage bosses in any decent shooter. Most damnably, the game seems to make no attempts to hold the player's attention; it doesn't build up your desire to see what happens next. And how could it possibly, when the opening stage is the worst one in the game?
Arrow Flash does offer a few moments that stand out -- at least by its own low standards. The boss fights get somewhat more challenging from the third stage, and the bosses themselves even start looking the part. The fifth stage picks up the pace of the action somewhat. At that point several new enemies make an appearance, including some that explode in a shower of bullets, and others that possess arrow flashes of their own. Mines that draw you towards them are also a nice touch. But all that is simply too little too late. No one should have to suffer boredom until the fifth stage of a shooter just to have a couple minutes of fun.
By far the game's most interesting feature is the option to modify the way your special weapon works. You have the choice (in the options menu) to keep the arrow flash in the default 'stock' mode, where you have to pick up items to use it, or set it to 'charge' mode, where you have unlimited flashes but need to charge them up for 2-3 seconds (a la R-Type) in order to unleash them. This means you can just keep flashing like there's no tomorrow, and effectively cuts play time in half. In most shooters this feature would have been anathema, but given how perfunctory Arrow Flash is, I am glad I used it.