I doubt that, when Nintendo was developing the Switch, its designers were thinking, “This thing will be great for retro arcade shooters!” But thanks to its built-in screen and detachable Joy-Cons, this thing is absolutely great for retro arcade shooters, and Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha happens to be a no-frills collection of six ‘90s and early 2000s (mostly) classics of that genre.
Many arcade shmups used a vertical monitor with dimensions that are drastically different than our modern widescreen televisions. Porting them to home consoles usually means relegating the playfield to just the middle slice of your big TV, bookending the sides with static wallpaper. But the magic of the Nintendo Switch’s screen is that it can be vertical if you pop the Joy-Cons off, and many arcade shooters released on the platform – these included – allow you to rotate the screen to take advantage of this unique feature.
Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha Screenshots
Psikyo’s formula is well-represented by most of the selections included in Shooting Stars: you soar through waves of enemies, dodge bullets, blast huge bosses, and try to secure yourself a decent spot on the leaderboard. Most of these are among the best the genre has to offer, thanks to exciting moment-to-moment aerial maneuvers and an attractive art style. Five of these games were previously released on Switch separately, and one of the best of the bunch is making its console debut here. Let’s take aim at each one individually.
- Originally released: 1995
Strikers is the series for which Psikyo is probably best known. It’s often confused with Capcom’s 19XX games, since both feature vaguely WWII-era vehicles and alien robots disguised as battleships and bombers, and at a glance you can’t always tell the difference. But while the Strikers games are on par with the 19XX games of the ‘90s, they’re quite a bit more fun than the early 19XX games of the ‘80s. This original game in the series offers six different planes with unique weapons, and it’s fun to try all of them out and see which prove most effective for you. I like the Shinden and its powerful bomb attack, myself; despite this plane’s unusual “wings in the back” appearance it’s actually based on a real Japanese WWII plane.
Strikers 1945 II
- Originally released: 1997
The sequel slightly tweaked how your weapons leveled up, but the gameplay is mostly the same (and thus mostly as enjoyable). Four of the six planes are new and different from the original six, and again a lot of fun comes from taking them for their own test flights. Again, they’re based on real-world planes, but its imagination isn’t bound by reality. The Flying Pancake, for example, is a chonky plane that in real life was designed to fly at very low speeds, but here it’s the fastest plane in Strikers 1945 II. Oh, and seeing a speeding train shed its exoskeleton to reveal its final mech form for a boss fight? That’s also fun.
Strikers 1945 III
- Originally released: 1999
Strikers 1945 III – the last and arguably the best in the series – escapes its ’90s arcade (and emulator) prison by making its console debut here. Even though it still has 1945 in the title, the vehicles (both friendly and unfriendly) have a much more modern appearance. The gameplay feels faster, more intense, and features some of the series’ coolest bosses, like the hovercraft that turns into a giant mechanical water spider.
- Originally released: 2000
Although it never got a sequel, Dragon Blaze might be my favorite Psikyo shooter. For one, it has a fantasy setting that is relatively unique to the genre, putting you in the saddle of a dragon mount instead of the cockpit of some plane or spaceship. Also, in addition to your standard shot and bomb attacks, you have the satisfying ability to sic your dragon on an enemy with a powerful bite attack – at the risk of leaving yourself severely underpowered while out of the saddle. That creates a tense dynamic where you have to weave through bullets trying to get in close to large enemies instead of keeping your distance as you so often do in arcade shmups.
Zero Gunner 2
- Originally released: 2001
Although still a top-down shooter, Zero Gunner 2 is quite a bit different than the Striker or Dragon Blaze games. You pilot a helicopter, which is unusual in a shmup, but what really sets it apart is the unique gimmick of the rotation mechanic, which allows you to aim in different directions while you move it around the screen instead of being locked in a forward position. The controls take some getting used to, but once I did Zero Gunner 2 became a satisfyingly unique shooter, and it’s distinctive both within this collection and in Psikyo’s broader catalog.
- Originally released: 1996
Sol Divide is the only bomb of the bunch. Psikyo tried something drastically different with its fantasy-themed horizontal shooter, but the result is a frustrating and dull affair that lacks the excitement of the other five games. I wouldn’t recommend Sol Divide on its own. Still, in a collection like this, it does provide a curious look at a failed experiment from an otherwise reliable developer.
So Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha includes six games, most of which are good and a couple of which are really, really good. The best way to enjoy the bulk of the collection – the Strikers and Dragon Blaze games – is with your Switch in vertical, or “tate” mode. (And the best way to do that is with the third-party Flip Grip attachment, sold separately.) Those four games all allow you to rotate the screen 90 degrees and maximize your playfield (and enjoyment).
And that’s why it’s so frustrating that none of the games will remember your preference for playing in vertical mode. That means every time you start a new game, you have to go into the options and rotate the screen again. It should have been a toggle, like when you let a game know you want to invert the Y-axis controls.
Another disappointment is that although you can rotate the gameplay, you can’t spin the menus or game selection screens. So checking the options or bouncing out of one game into another finds you awkwardly holding your vertically-rotated Switch on its side – or tilting your head 90 degrees. It seems as though the developers only put in the bare-minimum effort in enabling the vertical mode.
“Bare minimum” is an accurate way to describe the entire collection. While most of the games are quite fun and using the Switch’s vertical mode gave me an old-school thrill that’s hard to come by these days, there isn’t anything else in the package to explore. No historical information, no artwork, no option for save states, no rewind function. Other recent classic game collections offer much more in the way of extras that complement the compilation.
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