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Imperium (SNES) artwork

Imperium (SNES) review

"Imperium's power up system takes a bit of practice to master, and Vic Tokai only offer us three continues. As such, the game will seem challenging on even the Easy and Normal modes at first for most players. But after a day or so, most shoot-em-up veterans will start finishing the game with little trouble. The Hard mode offers a more balanced mission for these players, and the limited chances should keep them from the ending screen for awhile longer."

If it's buried treasure, it's costume jewelry

Old school gamers live for the find. We scour obscure sites that feature our favourite genre of video game--in this particular case, the shooter--and we thrill to finding what might be a possible gem. It all begins with an impressive screenshot. Locating one initiates a more focused search. When we find that little to no information can be unearthed on the game, our hairy palms begin to sweat. It is at this point that the call of Ebay and local pawn shops wax louder in our ears. It is at this point where we giggle insanely like Mr. T, and say to ourselves, ''let's make a deal…!''

Then the game arrives and it's Imperium. Vic Tokai's rare vertical shooter looks like a poor man's M.U.S.H.A. Like that game, Imperium chronicles the mission of a robot or robot suit flying Superman-style, blasting away as viewed from above. And though it doesn't have the Japanese feudal overtones that helped to colour that game, the bosses here do seem born of decidedly martial arts inspiration. But since the intensity in the presenation is nowhere close to the level of M.U.S.H.A., we can only hope that it plays better than the sensational Genesis shoot-em-up--there's still time to make us feel as if we've found the ultimate shooter that nobody knows about.

Time's up. Immediately, disappointment reigns. Imperium can't hold the Compile hit's jock on a gameplay level either. But with time, we come to realize that Imperium is a decent game in its own right. The search for that next Radiant Silvergun/buried treasure will continue, however.

The year is 2040 AD. On a far off planet where human life disappeared a millennium ago, a revolution is brewing. You've got your smart robots, and you've got your, well, not-so-smart robots. The smart ones are white collared (if robots wear shirts with collars) members of society who have subjected the slow-witted clunkers to a life of slavery. But the dummies have had their fill of the oppression, and want to renegotiate their position in the society--by force. Some of their brighter lights decide to build a Gundam-like suit of armour for use against their clever oppressors. However, being the morons they are, the enslaved create a suit that only a human can pilot. Surely the union boss told off the engineers behind the blunder:

''There hasn't been a fleshling around here in a thousand years you fool!''
''Duh, well don't worry boss. We'll find ya one, and learn him how to fly.''

And they did. Don't ask me how, but they did, bless their dumbass, cold iron hearts. And thanks to their resourcefulness, you get to play the role of that pilot.

Imperium takes us through six levels of shooting action. We must travel over crumbling cities, still seas, and beneath those seas. Our unit flies high above battleships, outer space outposts, and ultimately, the clichéd 'core' of the bad guys' intelligence. Most shooters could be described this way. So, like most shooters, Imperium must stand apart by way of its power up system. Gradius has it's 'buy-in' system, R-Type has it's Force Device. Imperium has experience.

You see, there are no power ups to be had anywhere on the screen, other than the odd smart bomb icon that an enemy will leave behind. The smart bomb is actually a barrage of strafing missiles that travels from the bottom of the screen to the top, doing hefty damage to all enemies onscreen while simultaneously providing you with temporary invincibility. With the bomb being the only power up icon available for the taking, primary weapons have to be earned via another method. This is where the game signs its John Hancock.

You don't earn points in Imperium; you earn experience points. For every enemy you destroy, you earn experience points toward the next level of experience, as you would in a Role-playing game. There are four weapons: the regular red bullets, the wave gun, the directional starburst, and the green lightning weapon. Each of them has three levels of power. You start off only with the red bullet gun at level one. Your first experience level gained will earn you the wave gun, then the lightning weapon, then the directional starburst. The very next experience level gained will take your red bullet gun up to level two. This will continue until all four weapons are powered up to the third degree.

But there's a catch. Imperium employs a five hit vitality bar, which sounds like a great thing until you realize that you only have the one life. If you take a hit, you not only lose a bar, but the weapon you're currently firing steps down a level. This sets up some great strategic shooting sequences where you'll switch your favourite weapon to something less valuable just before you know you're about to be hit. And your weapon of choice is likely to be the crackling green lightning gun. When it's powered up, it's a coursing, relentless boss-killer. The wave cannon fires the widest swath, and so it's usually best for cutting your way through the levels themselves. The starburst fires opposite to the direction you move. If you move forward, it fires down, when you bank left, it fires right, and so on. It is very useful in certain specific situations, but really nowhere else, making it the 'specialty teams' selection. The default red bullet weapon is your least potent choice, so it's a good idea to switch to it when you're in trouble.

When you die and choose to continue, fortunately you'll begin the area where you perished with all four weapons at the ready, but unfortunately, they'll all be set at level one. Powering them back up in the later levels will be very challenging, especially on the Hard difficultly level. It might have been better to let players choose what weapon to allot their earned experience to. As it is, the set up doesn't smile on rebuilding weapon levels from the bottom up after death. One nice touch is the ability to switch to any one of four levels of speed on the fly, which is certainly useful to the pilot in a pinch. But the lack of shields, orbs/satellite helpers, and extra men, and the difficulty involved in powering back up all add up to make things a bit more painful than they should have been. To summarize, the experience function is creative, and it works from the start, but should you crash and burn in later levels, you might be out of luck. It's an unbecoming trait that is common in the genre, but that doesn't excuse its presence here in a game that hasn't much else going for it.

If gameplay is a mixed bag, the sounds certainly are not. Imperium has spectacularly bad sound effects. They're doubly bad because of just how loud they are--the high-pitched, wimpy-toned explosions in particular almost completely drown out the music. Luckily for us, the music takes ''standard shooter fare'' to a new level of sheer banality. The synthesized tunes will likely make you say ''oh just quit it already''. The tunes are like bad athletes who try too hard. Their incredible efforts result in incredible disaster. The answer is to bench Imperium's sounds, as you would the player. Truly this is one of the few shooters I've played with the sound off while something else--anything else--is cranking on my stereo to fill the void.

The sights, while often pedestrian, are much better than the sounds, thankfully. Your initial flyby over the ruined city will evoke shades of Raiden which isn't the most exciting prospect. If you've never played that game, expect an appropriately brownish, ravaged look to the level. The boss is much more exciting, and that will be a sign of things to come. He is armed with cannons on either arm and provides a decent challenge. Survive his barrages and battle gamely in level two, on your way to the Base of the Sea. The stage is actually long enough to be two levels--the first half even seems to sport its own boss: a bubble-spewing crab. But the crab's appearance only marks the end of the sea area; the name of the area indicates that there's a base somewhere in the vicinity that needs destroying. Like Moses, you're able to part the seas, thus revealing the entrance to the base. A purple giant as far from Barney as can be conceived, awaits your company with axe, and ball and chain in hand.

Flying Battleship holds the game's greatest moment. The nondescript desert opening, and the dog fighting above the Raiden-like (again) flat-grey battleship serve as poor hosts to the moment itself. The boss will appear from a trap door beneath the ship. He is a ninja robot who circles you, tossing shuriken spreads in any direction you flee to. Defeating him once won't suffice either--he'll return with a pair of doppelgangers. The three of them will circle the screen menacingly, while the core at the heart of the screen suddenly begins to draw you in. The scenario in itself would be manageable, if not for the slow moving, but numerous energy balls that also find themselves drawn to the dense centre. Your fancy flying will be affected crazily as you fly the tight circular pattern, avoiding the balls that have become, along with your craft, willing satellites orbiting a diminutive sun while massive 'planets' that serve as your opposition complete the bizarre, extremely engaging, solar system of sorts. Regrettably, the game never again reaches this level of creativity and intensity.

The final three stages of this six-level contest aren't so memorable, and the only notable parts are invariably the boss encounters. One tosses double blades that spin and emit fireballs. The next is a departure from the martial arts theme--it is an immense robot-thing that is both the biggest of all the end guardians, and the one boasting the most varied arsenal. The final boss revisits the martial arts theme in grand style. He's a majestic, golden swordsman whose never-say-die attitude may catch you off guard.

Imperium's power up system takes a bit of practice to master, and Vic Tokai only offer us three continues. As such, the game will seem challenging on even the Easy and Normal modes at first for most players. But after a day or so, most shoot-em-up veterans will start finishing the game with little trouble. The Hard mode offers a more balanced mission for these players, and the limited chances should keep them from the ending screen for awhile longer. Everyone else will be adequately entertained on Easy or Normal mode.

However, if you're not a fan of shooters, don't even bother--Imperium isn't a genre-bending masterpiece or anything. Shooter fans on the other hand, should pick up a copy of Imperium if they can find it, to experience the game and its novelty power up system at least once. Despite its relative obscurity, it's surprisingly cheap. So strap yourself in the cockpit of your Gundam rip-off and pull up your gloves like the corny pilot does in the intro. Get ready for Imperium. With the sound and your expectations turned down. After all, once in awhile, you'll find a game that is almost forgotten that almost deserves to be. Imperium is one of those games.

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 13, 2004)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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