When I look back upon my life, it's always with a sense of shame, I've always been the one to blame. Not a slice of VGJunk autobiography (although you'd be forgiven for thinking it was) but the lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys, who have no connection to today's article other than being the only thing I can think of whenever I see this game's title: It's Mutech's 1990 PC Engine shooter Toy Shop Boys!

That's Toy Shop Boys, the least threatening gang name ever. The developers took the bold creative decision to just slam the title right over the intro sequence - novel, yes, but rather hampering my efforts to find out what's going on.

"I got your toys," says a mysterious robed figure. As megalomaniacal videogame schemes go, it's underwhelming so far, but let's see where he's going with this.

Jesus, that escalated quickly - from toy theft to kidnapping in two sentences. What's your next move, complete global annihilation? Luckily, the potential child abductee - presumably one of the Toy Shop Boys - is having none of it, and as he strikes a pose reminiscent of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure he firmly declares that "No, Gamma! You never!" From this we can learn that the villain is called Gamma and the Toy Shop Boy needs to spend more time on his grammar lessons. Not time for schooling now, though - in order to regain their missing toys and as a pre-emptive strike against future kidnapping attempts, the Toy Shop Boys set out on a dangerous mission to take down Gamma.

Oh look, the Toy Shop Boys can fly. That's going to make getting through this scrolling shoot-em-up easier for them. That's the kind of game Toy Shop Boys is, a vertically scrolling shooter with a theme based - surprisingly loosely based - on toys.
The main gimmick of Toy Shop Boys is that there are three of them, who I'm going to refer to as Huey, Dewey and Louie thanks to their colour-coded baseball caps. Press the button that isn't fire cycles through the Boys, each of whom has a different weapon: the red hat has a forward-firing "machine gun", the green one launches homing boomerangs and the blue Boy is the most interesting, as his weapon is short range beam sword that he swings around in a circle. The sword can only hit airborne enemies, but it can also destroy projectiles, and so the core of the game is deciding which Boy is the most suitable for each situation.

The power-up system is basic. There are four levels of weapon strength that are increased by collecting the appropriate balloons, changing the properties of each weapon but only a little: elongating the beam sword, adding a slight spread to the machine gun, getting more boomerangs on screen at once. The movement speed of the Boys is determined, again, by how many balloons you've collected.

Despite the weaponry available to me I didn't have to look much beyond the boomerangs, at least not in these early sections when the deadly projectiles are sparse and the enemies disinterested. Then I reached this city section where these Rubenesque jetliners (if such a word can describe an aeroplane) float ponderously through the skies, ignoring my boomerangs and spitting fatal red orbs around the place until I gave in and switched to the sword. Of course, using the sword means taking the risk of getting close, and it wasn't exactly slicing through the planes like hot butter so we ended up coming to a mutual agreement that I would stay away and swing my bullet-cancelling sword around while the planes drifted past taking ineffectual pot-shots at the Boys. It worked out well for both the planes and the Boys but not so much for me, the player.

Toy Shop Boys has been pretty dull so far. Wide open spaces with minimal incoming fire to avoid and small waves of enemies that can generally be wiped out before they even get on the screen - I was having to stop firing so I could get screenshots that actually had enemies in them - and plain, basic graphics make for an experience that doesn't compare favourably in the excitement stakes to flossing your teeth, never mind something like Gradius or a Cave shooter.

Things picked up a little during the first boss fight, with these two Formula One car firing enough shots at me to force me into paying attention. I wasn't feeling particularly threatened, mind you. There's plenty of space to move around in, the bullets follow obvious patterns and more importantly the Toy Shop Boys have gained a protective golden coating that allows them to take two hits before they die. I didn't need the extra defence or anything, but it was nice to have a safety net just in case firing boomerangs from the bottom of the screen and occasionally making a small movement to the side stopped being the most effective strategy (spoiler: it didn't).

In a shocking indictment of just how unengaging Toy Shop Boy's first stage was, I managed to get through it despite only destroying 49% of the enemies. I let over half the enemies survive, and not because they were difficult to beat but because making the effort to kill them held a similar amount of appeal as running a marathon with dumbbell stuffed down each sock. Still, 49% is really low. I'm going to have to pick that up in the next stage.

The Lego-Megabloks War took a devastating toll on the surrounding landscape.

The ruined buildings, tanks and these soldier enemies based on those wind-up "crawling sniper" toys so commonly seen in pound shops and seaside markets up and down the length of Britain made me think that stage two was going to have a war theme, which seems like fertile enough ground for a game based around toys to exploit. Sadly, Mutech couldn't stick with that theme and instead of fighting tubs of green army men or those paratrooper toys whose flimsy plastic parachutes never seemed to work properly, there's a miniboss fight against some model trains which I'm only calling a miniboss because the screen stopped scrolling momentarily. There are also rubber ducks.

Look at that duck's face, he's got no idea what's going on. Neither do I, really. On a basic level I know I'm trying to defeat Gamma and that he "has my toys", but what does that mean? Are all these toys I'm fighting my own toys, twisted by Gamma 's evil machinations to fight against their former masters? Why do these toys even have guns? Are the Toy Shop Boys a shadowy cabal of weapons developers who are merely hiding their true work behind the candy-coloured smokescreen of a Toys R Us clearance aisle? It'd explain why Gamma wants to steal them if that was the case, but it definitely doesn't explain why you would design your mobile aquatic artillery platform to look like a duck. A goose I could understand, because geese are vicious, murderous creatures, but a duck? C'mon.

This is stage two's boss, and although it doesn't look hugely like one outside of being a bipedal robot I'm going to assume it's based on Gundam. My evidence is that it has a smaller ship inside like the Gundam's Core Fighter, and also because it's a Japanese robot. The idea behind this battle is that you survive the robot's attacks until it splits into its constituent parts, allowing you to target the inner core and damage the boss. A familiar mechanic that's been employed by many videogame bosses over the years, but in this case I can completely ignore it. If your sword is powered up, it's got enough reach to swing through the robot and hit the core at any time, a strategy that's certainly risky but which beats the tedium of waiting for the boss to expose its weak spot.

I did a lot better on the destruction front this time. My time amongst the Lego blocks and gun-toting ducks has hardened me, made me a killer.

The third stage follows a paved trail up towards a couple of bosses, because if you're trying to create a videogame to excite and enthrall the player then setting it against the backdrop of a poorly-maintained garden path is the way to go.
There's not much of a theme to this stage, unless you count "enemies that fall down from the top of the screen" - playing cards, stacked daruma dolls and these darts. The darts provided some frustration, and not just because they move quickly: several times I was sitting in the same place, destroying wave after wave of them, until one got through the wall of fire that had easily dealt with the previous thirty-odd darts. A bit of consistency would be nice, but the bigger problem was that death in Toy Shop Boys not only strips you of all your power-ups in typical shoot-em-up fashion, but it also forces you back to a checkpoint rather than letting you continue from where you died. Toy Shop Boys is barely keeping me interested as it is, and having to re-do parts of it, wondering whether a strategy that's 99% effective is suddenly going to to stop working, did not endear it to me any further.

Maybe I'll have more fun with this cuddly yet downbeat teddy bear.

Gah! Okay, fun's out of the window, I'll just beat it to death with my sword. The sword is quickly becoming the go-to weapon for boss fights, allowing you to destroy the boss' projectiles, do damage without aiming and, best of all, to give your thumb a break because it's the only weapon of the three that attacks continually while the button is held down. The teddy bear isn't much of a challenge and you can quickly beat the literal stuffing out of it, but he's only a precursor to stage three's main boss.

The huge Medusa doll's head battle is probably the best part of the game, a challenging but honest fight that manages to be fairly engaging as you avoid the doll's eye lasers and the snakes that crawl out of her hair. My favourite thing about her, however, is her face.

That is the expression of someone who one hundred percent does not give a shit about what is happening around them.

Toy Shop Boys doggedly continues its refusal to provide an interesting theme in stage four, which is a desert. I thought the developers might have made it into a sandpit or something in keeping with the kid's toys theme but if they did try that it doesn't come across very well, besides the broken toys sticking up through the sand. In my experience, that's a key component of what a kid's sandpit looks like but they didn't carry it through and the real fun in this stage comes from picking out some of the half buried references.

For instance, here's Godzilla, and the King of the Monsters has fallen on tough times but he still manages to look like he's shaking an angry fist at his predicament despite said fist lying on the ground several feet away.

There are little robots that look a lot like a differently-coloured Tetsujin-28, complete with double rocket pack on the back.

Then there's this tragic sight: the sun-bleached bones of beloved children's character Scales McCool, the shades-wearing, wise-cracking rock-and-roll lizard who captured the hearts of generation with his Saturday morning cartoon series Scales McCool and the Lazer Lizards.

The boss is a robot dinosaur, possibly from the same toy line as the first robot boss - the Grimlock to his Optimus Prime, if you like. Dinorobo moves up and down the screen breathing fire, his attacks supported by the two turrets at the side of the screen. Normally when a boss in a shoot-em-up - or any videogame, really - has appendages like these that can be destroyed, they're either destroyed for good or they take a while to come back. Not so here, and the gun turrets respawn after about five seconds, meaning that blowing them up is so pointless you'll wonder why the developers even made it possible and making this the disappoint appearance by a robot dinosaur since, erm... when did the new Transformers film come out again?

Stage five: the canyons, and you can't go wrong with the classic extending boxing glove. I know it's easy and very lazy to say "hur hur videogames aren't like real life" but I'm imagining those boxing gloves - which are about the size of a child, if the scale's consistent - springing out of the wall and smashing the Toy Shop Boys around and it's amusing me more than it probably should. I think the heat's getting to me.

Not amusing is the boss, a cymbal-banging monkey that spawns a swarm of smaller cymbal monkeys who, in turn, throw cymbals at you, this boss brought to you by Sabian.
The cymbal monkey is the second-creepiest child's toy, just behind the clown-headed jack-in-the-box, but that's not the problem: the issue is the sheer volume of apes swirling around the screen, a horrible hominid cloud that makes it very difficult to keep track of where attacks are coming from. The battle is more frustrating than challenging, especially when you know that failure not only means having to fight the boss again but having to do a significant portion of the stage again just for the chance to do so. I died quite a lot here, and if this had been earlier in the game I probably would have stopped playing, but my determination to see it through won out in the end and I somehow found a way through the monkey barrage.

The final stage is a boss rush. Of course it is. This whole game has shown a lack of invention and no desire to offer the player something beyond the very basics, so a boss rush is a perfectly fitting way for Toy Shop Boys to end.
I spent the whole stage hoping that I wouldn't have to fight that cymbal monkey again, not five minutes after I beat him the first time, but here he is at the end of the boss rush.

You'll notice the fight has been made even harder by the two lumps of rock at the bottom of the play area that drastically reduce the space you have in which to fight the boss. Happily this wasn't a problem, because by some generous whim of the gods I happened upon the trick to defeating this boss. Just park the Boys in the position shown above and hold down the sword button. That's it. You can speed up the process by switching to the machine gun when the boss is vulnerable, if you like. I know I did.

Waiting for you at the end of the game is this crowned skull. So this is Gamma him/her/itself, huh? And they stole a load of toys? All right then. I wish Toy Shop Boys had taken this bizarre concept further - I know the scrolling shooter isn't generally the videogame genre best known for plot and characterization, but I'd have been happy for an exception to be made in this case. I want to know what Gamma's deal is, and where his skin's gone, and how toys and flying children factor into it. I also want to know why the developers though it would be a good idea to fill most of the screen with flickering TV static during the fight. It is very off-putting, and honestly I'm worried that the flashing signals have programmed me to assassinate a series of high-profile targets when the time is right.
The fight itself isn't much to write home about. You'll probably die the first time you attempt it thanks the boss' ability to launch object out of the static that are night-impossible to avoid and can only be destroyed by your sword, but once you're past that it's just a matter of hovering somewhere nearby with your beam sword spinning until Gamma explodes.

I think these fireworks are my favourite-looking part of a game that had plenty of options when it came to setting up some interesting, varied stages but instead opted for blandness. The pool of different enemies is shallow, the music is barely average and while the three-weapon system works well, the majority of the gameplay somehow both boring and a little annoying.

The game is over and Huey, Dewey and Louie can get back to their normal everyday lives, whatever the hell that entails. Fitting mechanical ducks with high-calibre cannons and hopefully not getting abducted by big evil skulls, I would guess.

The game ends as one of the Boys (I think it's Huey) trips over on his way home. The Boys stare out of the screen as it fades to a sepia tone, their eyes seeming to blame the player for this latest mishap. The screen fades to black. Toy Shop Boys is over. Well, it isn't, because the game just keeps looping once you clear it (with no increase in difficulty or changes to the game at all, I might add) but I'm definitely going to stop playing it right now. I've probably been a bit harsh on it, and Toy Shop Boys is nothing more or less than a very average shooter on a console that's packed with them. It's just that the more shoot-em-ups I play, the more I think I just don't like the genre. So, next time on VGJunk - I have no idea what game it'll be, but hopefully it won't be a scrolling shooter.

1 comment:

  1. Toy Shop Boys looks as if someone took Blue Blink (a pretty neat platformer that's also for the TG-16) and turned it into a rubbish shmup. I agree what what you said in the article; the premise had so much promise but in the end it just fell flat.


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