Wizards, eh? They’re not the most imaginative bunch in the world. It's all fireball this, freezing blast that - they should diversify from the traditional elements of nature, maybe catch their opponents unawares. Learn a spell that inflicts a feeling of overwhelming ennui on your enemies so that they lose all will to fight in what is a pointless, uncaring universe. They'll never see it coming. At least the elemental magic used by today's hero is all of the straightforward blow-things-up variety and not Captain Planet -style wimpery: it's time for Tecnosoft's 1990 Genesis / Megadrive shooter Elemental Master!
How much control must you have over the forces of nature before you can call yourself an elemental "master", anyway? I mean, I'd be impressed if I could summon a small flame from nothing but I wouldn't say I'd mastered the elements if I only had power equal to a Bic lighter. That's Elemental Novice level, Elemental White Belt, Elemental Hereford United in the grand football league of wizardry. Mastery is when you can hold back the very tides, raise a whirling tornado or do... something with mud. Build a small adobe building, maybe. What I'm getting at is that if this guy's calling himself an Elemental Master, we should be in for a truly awesome display of magical power. Let's meet him via the magic (oh ho ho) of the introductory cutscene, shall we?
Here he is: his name is Laden, because he's laden with shoulderpads. Note the two small pincers poking out of his hairline, no doubt part of a mystical crab that lives in his hair and feeds of his residual magical energies. He's on a quest to destroy the Dark Lord Gyra, and he really wants to get on with it.
They've literally said one sentence each before Laden declares that there has been ENOUGH TALKING! I'm sorry, are you in a hurry? Is there something better you want to be doing? Well you'll just have to wait because Gyra reveals that he is, in fact, Laden's brother Roki. Gasp!
He's taken the dark powers for himself, recruited some like-minded fellows with a personal ad that read "Evil Warlord seeks minions. Enjoys puzzles, long walks and global tyranny. Must like cats" and is now all set to take over the world.
Laden is understandably upset. My brothers can be irritating, but as far as I know they've never made a deal with a demonic force in exchange for limitless power. Even if they had, they'd probably just use said power to get free beer. Roki has grander plans, however, and now the scene is set for Elemental Master to begin: Laden must blast his way through the various stages until he can defeat his brother. You know how these things work. So, what's the first stage like?
I get to choose? How nice. Except I've been so thoroughly conditioned to work from left-to-right that the chances of me picking any stage other than the volcano - even though the one third from left looks much more inviting with it's blue skies and verdant greenery - are practically nil. Volcano stage it is, then.
Tecnosoft are probably best known for their more traditional shooters such as the Thunder Force series, but Elemental Master does away with the spaceships and dogfights and makes you bloody well walk everywhere. It's a fantasy-themed, top-down, vertically-scrolling shooter where you move Laden around the screen and pummel anything that moves with a relentless tide of deadly sorcery. Those blue lines emanating from Laden in the screenshot above are you attacks, although that picture is slightly misleading: when you're actually playing the game they fire so fast that they're essentially two solid lines, stretching out from Laden and up the screen. Or even down the screen.
Yup, you can turn around and fire behind you. That's the advantage of not playing as a spaceship travelling at near lightspeed, I suppose. You firing is nicely handled with a two-button system, the B button making you fire forwards and the A button firing backwards, which also has the added bonus effect of making Laden look like he's moonwalking. He's a wizard with style, goddamn it.
The enemy forces are made up of the usual ragtag bunch of volcano-dwelling fantasy tropes: there are skeletons and lizardmen, huge flocks of bats and pulsating sacks of flesh topping with gaping mouths that spit multiple fireballs at you, that kind of thing. There are also environmental hazards to contend with, like the jets of fire that travel along the chasms in the floor and require nimble feet to avoid. Luckily Laden controls sharply and goes where he's told when he's told, but then Tecnosoft made a lot of shooters so you'd think they'd be able to get the basics right.
Of course, every shoot-em-up has to have bosses, and here's Elemental Master's first. Honestly, there's not much I can say about him except that he definitely looks like something you'd find living in the volcanoes of a magical fantasy world. He can shoot fire out of his hands, but it's all quite easy to avoid and he's not that tough despite his fetching silver headband. Laden cuts him down with his spiky blue magic, and in doing so he rescues a fairy.
ENOUGH TALKING. LET'S FIGHT!
No, of course not. Neena the fairy / pixie / sprite / Tinkerbell cosplayer is so grateful to her liberator that she decides to tag along, which is handy because she's even more magically gifted than Laden and she gives you a whole new weapon to play with! Let's take it to the next stage and try it out, shall we?
Okay, so it's a little hard to see but our new weapon is those yellow spheres - they're fireballs that travel in a three-way spread pattern and come in very handy at certain points of the game. You can freely select between your weapons by pressing the C button, and in a very kind touch Elemental Master even lets you change weapons while the game is paused; now that's what I call elemental mastery.
The almost Mega Man-like ability to gain new weapons explains the lack of weapon power-ups, although there are still things to collect: mirrors give you a shadow helper for a while, there's a shield, berries restore your health and there are even golden chalices that increase your maximum life by one. Yes, I said health - no one-hit-kill frustrations here! Those orange blocks on the bottom-right of the screen are your health, and the fact that you can take a few hits is one of the reasons I'm enjoying Elemental Master so much.
Oh hey, and I just figured something else out: you can charge up your weapons (except the default one) by holding down attack. I wonder what magical carnage my charged-up fireballs can unleash?
Did... did I just summon a giant flaming swastika? Yikes. Still, it killed all the bad guys! Unless I'm the bad guys. I did just summon a giant swastika.
I just wanted to mention those little red guys on the left, the armoured chaps who look like little duck-billed dinosaurs. They try to kill you by pushing rocks off of cliffs, and boy do they try, but I went through the whole game and never got hit by a single one of them. I feel a bit sorry for them. They just seem so earnest in their efforts to crush a man to death.
No such affection for the boss, because it is one ugly son of a gun. So ugly, in fact, that I can't really tell what it’s supposed to be. Is it a two-headed dragon, or are those arms that can punch lightning at you? I hope they're arms. Arms would be cooler. The new spread weapon comes in handy here, as it means you can shoot the boss in its vulnerable heads / fists / lightning sphincters while staying away from its projectiles. Again, not a difficult boss and soon the second stage is over.
Your new weapon is a wider forward-facing attack, covering more of an area than your default weapon but not as much as the fireballs. Its charged attack launches homing lightning balls around the screen, which is kind of handy I guess. This weapon has its uses later in the game, but for now the play area is a little more open and the fireballs are a better bet.
Despite letting you choose the order in which you play the stages, I think the levels do actually get harder going from left to right. There's a faint but noticeable difficulty curve at work here, although I get the feeling that these first four stages are just a warm-up for something tougher. I mean, I'm getting through these stages without cheating or slamming in credit after credit and I'm terrible at shooters. Obviously having a life bar helps, but this is still a Megadrive shoot-em-up: it's bound to start kicking my ass soon.
This stage's boss isn't likely to be kicking the asses of anything tougher than earthworms or other small invertebrates, because he's just a hedgehog. A larger than average hedgehog, to be sure. Oh yes, a veritable titan of prickliness. Still a hedgehog, though. It doesn't even roll into a ball, the one defining trait of the hedgehog species. I wonder if Roki knew that becoming the Dark King would grant him dominion over all the giant hedgehogs of the land?
Okay then, time for the fourth stage and it's all kicking off here. Centaurs, gill-monsters, crocodiles, adorable bubbly crabs - all working together in harmony to make sure Laden doesn't get wherever he's going. I'm particularly fond of the crabs, because they don't really seem like they know what they're doing or even if they should be there at all. They just scuttle in with a bemused look on their chitinous faces, deploy some ineffectual bubbles and then get shot and explode.
Oh, and speaking of shooting things the weapon I got from the last stage was a slow, powerful shot that fires straight ahead. It seems to be the least useful of all the weapons simply because it doesn't fire fast enough, meaning any missed shots leave you very vulnerable. I'm sure there are expert Elemental Master players out there who'll tell me that this weapon's extremely useful in situations X, Y and Z, but I'm obviously not skillful enough to use it correctly so I'll give it a miss and stick to filling the screen with as many fiery swastikas as I can.
While I'm in stage four, I've got to talk about Elemental Master's soundtrack because it's extremely good and this stage's theme is one of the stand-out tracks. Composed by Thunder Force veteran Toshiharu Yamanishi, it's everything you could want from the soundtrack to a Megadrive shoot-em-up - dynamic, catchy, varied and just plain fun. One of the best things about running this dopey website is happening across the new and exciting soundtracks for games like Liquid Kids and Night Slashers, and Elemental Master's soundtrack is right up there with the best of them.
The stage four boss? Well, he's not very impressive. He's just a big snakey thing that zips around the screen dropping energy bolts. The end closest to Laden in that screenshot is the "head" end, although I admit you'd be hard-pressed to tell that just by looking at the picture, and his head is the only place you can do him any damage. I'm sure you'll figure it all out, and once the snake is defeated that's the end of the first set of stages...
...and the game doesn't waste any time in giving you your next challenge, dropping you straight into stage five without so much as an explanatory cutscene or an encouraging message. You're in a cave full of malevolent tar-men, angry wizards and giant swinging maces, and some of these things die when you shoot them with magic. That's all you need to know, Laden - now suck it up and get on with magically destroying everything with your magical powers of magic. That includes the new weapon I got for beating the previous boss, an unusual attack which fires a weak shot forwards but two more powerful shots horizontally left and right. These shots also travel along any walls they hit, so here's hoping for a stage set in a ventilation duct.
The difficulty level is starting to rise now, but happily it is doing so in a very steady, ordered way. In fact, I'd say that difficulty level of Elemental Master is pretty much perfectly balanced for someone like me: that is, someone who quite enjoys shooters but has the reflexes of an elderly, alcoholic walrus. Those of you who are real shooter experts who eat bullet hell games for breakfast will probably find EM a little easy (although you can increase the difficulty) but for us normals it feels pretty much spot-on.
Time for the boss already? Well, this guy doesn’t look so tough, I'm sure he'll be...
Aww nuts. This is Clauss, who we saw lurking behind Roki's throne in the intro (he was the big green orc and not the blonde woman wearing the bedsheets, in case you couldn't tell). We must be getting fairly close to Roki if he's sending his right-hand orcs after us, and Clauss shows why he's risen through the ranks by being the first boss that requires a little strategising. You can only hurt him while he's performing one specific attack, a stream of energy from his mouth, so most of the fight revolves around figuring out the pattern of Clauss' movements and being somewhere else when he tries to crush you with his giant body. If you panic you'll probably die, because by sitting on top of you Clauss can quickly deplete you life, but if you stay calm it's really not a difficult pattern to figure out. Once you've sussed out his attacks, Clauss will be dead meat and you get a cutscene for your efforts.
Neena reveals that she's actually "the reincarnation of the legendary ring", a ring that gives power over the elements, and she's been testing Laden to make sure he's worthy of wielding the mighty powers of nature. Apparently killing all these monsters and not dying has proven that, yes indeed, Laden is right man for the job, and Neena transforms back into a ring and asks Laden to put her on his finger. Ignoring the Freudian implications of Neena changing into a ring and asking Laden to penetrate her with his fleshy digits, how the hell does a ring get reincarnated? What did it die of in the first place, old age? Terminal metal rot? I think in the end "reincarnation" is just a poor choice of words and Neena is actually just the ring's alternate form. Whatever the case, I've got the ring now and apparently it grants me the power of light, although I didn't see much evidence of this when I started the next stage. Lots of moving spear traps, though.
And spinning maces of crushing death.
And holy moly, that's a lot of mummies.
It's like the London Marathon took a detour through a gauze factory. Despite the many fiendish traps and whatever-the-collective-noun-for-mummies-is of mummies, (a Fire Hazard of Mummies perhaps,) Elemental Master is doing a good job of maintaining the smoothness of its difficulty curve. Then I reached Salome, the aforementioned blonde in the bedsheets. Like Clauss, she's also transformed into a huge monster although she's disturbingly kept her original face.
She paid a lot of money for that haircut and she's not about to have it ruined by transforming into a nightmarish scorpion monster. Salome represented something of a stumbling block, because no matter what I tried I couldn't do her any damage. My weapons all just bounced off, the charged-up versions fared no better and none of her attacks seemed to leave her vulnerable to damage. So I died a few times, which wasn't great, but on my fourth or fifth attempt I realised that I could now charge up my default weapon. I couldn't do this before. This must be the power of light that Neena was talking about.
Fuckin' A, it's a home run for the power of light! Laden's newly-acquired laser powers make short work of Salome: three good, solid hits from the light beam can take her down, although of course the payoff is that while you're charging your all-destroying death-beam you can't shoot down any of her projectiles so I hope you're good at dodging.
We're almost there now - stage seven is the final battle and aww man, it's a boss rush. You even have to fight Salome again despite having just completely annihilated her in the last stage. Elemental Master's boss rush is far less aggravating than usual, however, because you now have access to the big magical laser of unerring death. In particular, the hedgehog boss from stage three stands no chance. They could have completely left him out of the boss rush and no-one would have noticed, although it is quite a nice little ego booster to see the giant hedgehog reduced to nothing before you. I'd like to point out that I don't lord it over hedgehogs like this in my normal day-to-day life, just giant videogame ones that fire their spines at me.
Once you've killed all the bosses again, it's time for the final showdown with your brother Roki. He's got a giant laser beam too, except his is all dark and evil and stuff. I suddenly feel much less special. Nice carpets, though. After some nimble evasion and a few lasers to the chops, Roki falls down and you can get one with fighting the true final boss.
Yes, yes, big surprise. Silly me, I was certain that (relatively) normal-looking, man-sized man was going to be the final boss of this game about magic and monsters. Of course, the real boss is the true King Gyra, a cheerful snot demon with no legs but a toothed vagina in his forehead. Forget about trying to outshoot this guy: you need to keep it calm with this one. Keep charging your laser while moving around him, using it to destroy his homing shots as and when you need to. Every now and then Gyra will stop and use a sonic wave attack, and this is you chance to hit him with a fully-charged laser blast.
He's nearly dead now, and he's swapped the bulk of his body for the ability to shoot lighting out of his nose. It's not a great trade. A couple more charged hits and Gyra can be sealed away forever. But what of Roki?
What do you mean, "What has happened to you"? You shot him in the face with the most powerful magic in your expansive arsenal of arcane destructive powers! Roki gets a little speech about how he thought he could control the powers of evil but they ended up using him as a puppet, and then he dies.
Well, the kingdom is safe once again but the next Christmas dinner Laden has with his family is going to be awkward as hell. "So honey, what have you been up to recently? Apart from killing your older brother, our first-born child, I mean?"
Game over, the world is saved and Elemental Master is complete. I'm giving it a gold star or my seal of approval or the VGJunk Order of Merit or whatever I'd give to a game I really like if I had access to a medal-making machine. Tecnosoft crafted a real gem when they made this game, a title often overlooked when it comes to 16-bit shooters but seemingly beloved by everyone who's ever played it. It's an interesting set-up, a nice change of pace from the interstellar battles or military combat found in most shmups, and pretty much every aspect of the game is handled perfectly: the graphics are crisp, clear and interesting, the music is excellent, the difficulty curve is just right and the mechanics of the game all work together to provide a really enjoyable experience that I'll probably be going back to again and again.
In short, if you like shoot-em-ups, play Elemental Master. If you like hidden 16-bit gems, play Elemental Master. If you're looking for a fantastic videogame soundtrack, play Elemental Master or at least use the sound test to listen to the Staff Roll music. I mean, check this out, it's great!
Just go and play it, alright? Good.