Side Arms (TurboGrafx-16) review
"Flying through space, having a blast (except for fighting the same couple bosses every few minutes)."
As a diversion to fiddle with when taking a brief break from one of those obscenely long games that take up the bulk of my gaming time nowadays, the TG-16's Side Arms is pretty solid. It might not be the sort of legendary shooter that captures my imagination and leads to me devoting a decent amount of time towards mastering it and it might suffer a bit from sending the same tiny handful of bosses at you so often I found myself seeing them whenever I closed my eyes, but it is a fun little time-waster that's enjoyable to at least experience.
Side Arms made a good first impression on me simply by being different than the vast majority shooters not named Forgotten Worlds, which came out one year earlier than this game's release date of 1989. You control a cybernetic dude flying through space. By holding down one button, you'll shoot to your right. Hold another down and you'll see your guy turn around to fire to his left. Enemies are fond at coming at you from both sides, so being able to go back-and-forth effortlessly is essential to your success. In other words, if you're the type of person whose brain locks up when forced to confront a deluge of foes coming from all angles, making progress here might be a bit tricky.
Unless you pick up a certain power-up. Most of those things affect your guy's speed and the power of his weaponry, but one in particular is far more useful in a give-and-take way. The negative aspect is that you'll become a lot larger, making it far easier to collide with a bullet, laser or enemy -- which reverts you to your one-hit-wonder default guy. However, you'll also gain the ability to supplement your regular attack with multi-directional fire, allowing you to blast shots in every direction. I preferred the spread shot for everything except bosses, so as long as I could maintain this power-up, I'd be emitting a near-impenetrable deluge of fire in one direction and sending forth enough in the other that I still had some degree of safety from incoming attackers.
While I normally used the spread shot, I did enjoy how easy it was to switch to something else if circumstances told me that'd be a good idea. To go from one weapon to another, all I had to do was hit the pause button and select a new one there. That worked for me as, while the spread shot was my weapon of choice for going through levels, I loved using the auto-fire weapon for bosses. It was the only one (other than the large ship's multi-directional attack) that constantly fired while I held down the button, allowing me to focus on avoiding the boss' attacks. And, considering that bosses have specific weak spots vulnerable to damage, its more focused attack proved superior to the spread, which was best at hitting enemies coming at me from all over the screen.
I also enjoyed the way the game progressed. If you've played any number of shooters, you know how things usually work. You start the first stage, fly through it, beat the boss and the screen fades to black. Words denote you're ready to start the second level and the game starts back up again, usually in an area that's completely unrelated to where you finished the previous level. Not in Side Arms. You start flying over a city and then an ocean. After doing away with the first boss, your ship will sink to an underground cavern that turns into a base. Beat another boss and you'll descend down a shaft to another battle and off to the next location.
Every place in this game is connected to the last area, regardless of how nonsensical those connections may be. The screen never fades to black after a boss -- instead simply scrolling on and then shifting into the next location. This gave me the feeling I was actually going through a connected series of areas instead of popping from one random location to the next. Few of these games do that, so it was quite refreshing.
The lack of boss variety wasn't nearly as cool, though. The final boss, which we'll get to in a bit, is the only truly unique one of the bunch. Of the others, we have:
• A ship that primarily fires four lasers at you. You fight this guy three times in the earlier stages of the game.
• A ship that primarily fires four lasers at you, but also will randomly dart across the screen in an attempt to ram into you. This one shows up frequently in the second half of the game. And by "frequently", I mean that it will be a boss encounter five times in a row. It's been a bit since I played through this game, as I simply haven't had time to pen a review in a couple weeks, but from going off my notes, the simple fact that my fifth encounter with it is referred to as "AGAIN!!!" helps me remember I was getting quite tired of repeating this fight with stunning regularity.
• A big, spinning wheel that shows up twice in the early going and then reappears as the penultimate boss. The wheel spins really quickly and bullets emit from various points on it. Well, the second version has lasers instead, which makes it one of the most difficult opponents in the game, even if it can only take three or so hits to its weak point before going to the big scrapyard in the sky. Regular bullets often can be destroyed by your fire, but lasers can't. And with the boss taking up a large chunk of the screen, you can only get so far away from it, making it so that you won't have much time to get out of their path.
The final boss is a big shooter snake. Now, to step back a bit, snakes are the one regular enemy in this game worth mentioning. While most foes go down the instant they're shot, these things are durable, with each hit taking off one segment. Some are only three or four segments long, while others are up to twice that size. They follow you around the screen and normally wouldn't be much of a threat, as they're easy to avoid, but with all the other enemies zipping around and shooting at you, their presence can wind up being a lethal distraction. Their boss version also is lethal, but it doesn't need other enemies around to do the actual killing. Regularly firing clusters of bullets at you while flying erratically around the screen AND forcing you to destroy virtually every segment of its body, this is the one challenge in Side Arms that I felt crossed the line to become frustrating.
Still, most of this game was perfectly acceptable fun. The repetitive boss fights brought the experience down a bit, but I liked how each stage seamlessly blended into the next. Being able to switch between weapons on the pause screen made it easy to determine which one was best suited to a particular challenge and the addition of the more powerful, but easier to hit, super-powered version of my character was a particularly nice risk/reward aspect. While Side Arms might not be a classic retro shooter (or even a TG-16 classic), it does provide enough fun to at least be worth going through once or twice.
Community review by overdrive (August 23, 2019)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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