Genre: Shmup Developer: T&E Soft Publisher: Pal Soft Players: 1 Released: 1991
Hearing that this is quite a special shmup, I took a chance and bought UndeadLine from site contributor Uri Cohen a few months ago. It went some time until I finally began playing it, and when I did, this game really pushed my (gaming) discipline to a higher level. Being called the hardest shooter on the system, UndeadLine gave me many frustrating moments which in the end paid off. Originally released on the MSX computer, it was later ported to the X68000 sibling, and then to the Sega Mega Drive in 1991. All three versions are different from each other, but the things they have in common is that they are difficult, uncommon, and only released in Japan.
The story is altered a bit in each revision. The Mega Drive one tells about a kingdom being attacked by evil hordes led by Count Brahzen, a dude EXTREMELY similar to Handsome Tom of the ScrewAttack Duo (see my screen shot to the left). Count Brahzen wants an old, legendary force to accomplish his selfish generic needs. As Leon, a warrior, you must stop him – or your kingdom might become a Marxist republic with super-high taxes. OK, it wasn’t like that, but if there is anything more tiring than reading shmup stories, it’s trying to explain them.
UndeadLine has been called the evil twin of Twinkle Tale, and it really fits. Instead of magical dreamland styled fantasy, you have a dark horror theme here. Among the enemies there are bats, Jason look-a-likes, gargoyles, ghosts, zombies and the Reaper himself. The environments are for example a haunted house in a weird dimension, a sewer, and a rainy graveyard. It is without doubt a nice change of style for the genre, but the overall quality is still pretty bland, and lacking detail and colours. The bosses are probably the best-looking part of the game, and are also very well thought out.
The sound isn’t typical of the genre, although it is fitting to the game design. The style is often in mid-tempo, minor scales and sad sounding. Some tunes adapt nicely to the horror theme, especially the bass picks of the Cemetery level. My favourite tunes are the chilly and calm Cave theme and the rockier boss themes. Overall the music isn’t that good though, I feel it misses that “drive” you want in shmups. Fortunately, the sound effects are quite cool sometimes. Hitting the enemies may sound “plump-plump,” but it gives that good feeling of destruction anyway. The thunder of the Cemetery level sounds good, and the death laser and eyebeam of the two last bosses add greatly to your then super-pumping heart.
The gameplay is quite original in UndeadLine, with many ideas giving it that extra touch. First of all, you always choose the order of the stages you play, except for the seventh and last one. There are seven weapons in the game, three shield-type devices and ten power ups. The scrolling is vertical, like in Fire Shark and M.U.S.H.A. You always move up and cannot turn around, and you have three hits worth of energy. You shoot with the B button (auto-fire is selectable), while the C button activates the shield you always have. It blocks bullets coming in your front, which is very helpful when the bullet swarms are impossible to dodge. The second shield is an option spinning around you, activated with the A button. You only have three per credit (and you have two continues, which make nine total options). The option protects you from bullets, enemies and heavier attacks, until it’s destroyed. The third shield is the second last of all power ups and the best. It takes three hits from attacks, or vanishes instantly if an enemy touches you. Using all three shields wisely is essential in order to beat the game.
On the six first levels there are three fairies, which if taken are used to improve power of certain weapons and agility. Weapons, power ups and 1ups all have their individual chests. The items have a special order, and you shoot on the chest to change it. This is very troublesome when you usually have to take the stuff in the end of the order, while at the same time dodging gazillions of bullets and enemies. Also, when the order has been passed twice, you can only get the diamond, which gives points.
The weapons have three levels, except for the first one of throwing knives. You increase the weapon level by taking the same weapon again. Of the seven weapons, only three are useful, in my opinion. They are the powerful flamethrower, the homing crescent, and the spreading swords. The rest are just weak, forward-shooting types and will just add to the high difficulty by existing. Of the power ups, there are four bottles. Black gives you your first useless weapon back. Blue heals you one point, red damages you one point, and yellow makes you invincible for around five seconds. Then there is the red boot which gives you extra speed, and the grey boot slows you down. Next we have the three-hit shield and lastly dynamite that kills all enemies on screen. 90% of the time, I take the blue bottle or the shield.
It may seem like the gameplay is really advanced, but it doesn’t end here. Getting to level three on a proper weapon as soon as possible, obtaining a shield, and memorizing each level and finding out the pattern of each boss is going to take you weeks to master. I haven’t even explained how the battlefields looks, but picture yourself at IKEA on a rainy summer day during a sale, where everybody has a gun and wants to kill you. You’re going to have to test weapons, level orders and experiment with the fairies to find out how YOU can beat the game. It may seem impossible at first, especially the first part of the last level, but once you’ve mastered everything your thoughts will change. It’s just that it will take a lot of time, effort, discipline and strategy to see things through.
The game would have been better if it was only about this, but as said much of the difficulty comes from the annoying chest shooting. In the computer versions the chests had only one thing and you could choose different characters, something that unfortunately was scrapped for this version. A lot of stuff was altered for the worse in this version, so I guess it is a rush port due to a strict deadline, huh-huh. I must add that real men play on normal, except when they capture screen shots in Gens, the only time when it is allowed to play on easy.
UndeadLine is indeed a competent and original shoot-’em-up, no doubt about it, but its flaws bring it down from a top score. Despite the unusual theme, the audiovisual aspect isn’t really much above average. Furthermore, including worthless weapons and power ups makes the game badly balanced and seem poorly planned. I also think I would enjoy the game more if the difficulty was slightly toned down. On the other hand, you will still have a lot of fun battling this game. If you dare, I must add. Oldies with bad reflexes, shmup n00bs and people who hate challenges stay away. But if you like the genre and wants a special game that tests your skills, try UndeadLine.