Every so often, I come across a game that feels like it was created specifically for me. Silent Hill 2 and God Hand spring to mind, and while today's game isn't quite up to that heady standard it certain ticks enough of my boxes to make me slightly fearful that the developers had been spying on me since my infancy. Well, it looks like their creeping paid off in the form of Data East's 1992 arcade shooter Boogie Wings, AKA The Great Ragtime Show.

Boogie Wings is a side-scrolling shooter, seemingly set around the turn of the century. You fly around in your little Red Baron-style biplane, shooting things. A solid start, but hardly likely to make me or anyone else burst into a song of joy.

There you are, escaping from a collapsing hangar at the very start of the first stage. The graphics are in that detailed pixel style that I really love, so Boogie Wings is off to a good start. But I'm not easily swayed by fancy graphics - what about the gameplay? Well, like Hyper Duel, Boogie Wings has a few tricks up its sleeve in that department that make it more than another identikit shooter.

Check out the above screenshot, and you'll probably notice that your plane appears to have a naval mine hooked to it. Well, it pretty much does. Boogie Wings' first party trick is that your plane has a "skyhook" hanging from it which can, umm, hook things. In the screenshot, there's a bomb hooked to your plane: while this might sound like a bad thing, pressing the B button detaches whatever you have hooked. In this case, that means that any enemies below you are going to have to deal with the sudden appearance of a naval mine in their lives. And it isn't just bombs you can pick up - as we shall be seeing later, you can pick up more crap than the winner of the World Litterbox Emptying Championships.
The second big gameplay mechanic is that once your plane is destroyed (after two hits), the battle isn't over.

You get to continue on foot! Yep, once you're out and about Boogie Wings takes on a distinctly Metal Slug feel, with your teeny-tiny vulnerable character running about, firing at different angles and hopping in the many vehicles that are lying about. This really does make it feel like Metal Slug, although Boogie Wings was released first (by four years or so).

With the ability to fight on foot and also pick things up with a ruddy great hook, Boogie Wings has already set itself apart. The first stage is a short one to get you used to the idea of picking things up and using them as impromptu bombs, culminating in a battle against a steampunk-inspired airship. The villains of the piece, a Dick Dastardly look-alike and his two assistants, threaten you a bit and then fly away. It's not a difficult start, and if you do die you are rather generously given a bomb when you respawn.

Once you've finished the intro stage and have hopefully gotten used to the gameplay mechanics, you get to choose the next stage you want to attempt. There are five in all, so let's take a look at them!

Konyi Island

I liked the graphics before, but Coney Konyi Island is where the Boogie Wings kicks it up a gear. You have to blast your way through a fairground, which is already a pretty novel location for a shooter - you don't often find the Vic Viper down the carnival, do you? Wait, I forgot about Parodius, scratch that. While the fairground is a fairly unique setting, what really makes it shine in Boogie Wings is that fact that there's just so much going on down there.

The screenshots don't really do it justice, I'm afraid, but every stage in BW is filled with activity and detail. The patrons of the amusement park scurry around beneath you, a dog chases your plane and barks at you, shooting the trees makes them explode into neatly-trimmed topiary figures - there’s always something to catch the eye, beautifully rendered in the crisp, detailed pixel style.

Halfway through the stage, a set-piece kicks in and a Ferris wheel starts careening through the stage, acting as both an obstacle and a platform when you're on foot. I’m not on foot, though - I'm riding around on the shoulders of an Iron Giant-looking robot. Still, it's not as impressive as the pogo stick. Forget Master Chief and Samus: BW's nameless hero doesn't need any pussy-ass power armour to get the job done. He'll take down your evil organization and he'll do it riding a child's toy.

The boss lives up to the high standards set by the rest of the stage. When you read the fair's Haunted House, it rises up from the ground to reveal your nemesis playing an organ. That's him at the bottom-right of the picture above, wearing the blue cape and top hat. Oh, and there's a giant Frankenstein's Monster. You will naturally need to shoot him a lot to kill him, but you can also hook the items he drops, like the big statues, and drop them on him for extra damage. I'm sad to see him go, I must admit. Godspeed, Monster - you were to purple for this world.


Although it might seem a little banal after the exuberance of the carnival, the Transporter stage still has a lot to recommend it. After fighting your way around the outside of the huge transporter airship, you're forced to ditch you plane and make your way inside on foot.

What is the transporter transporting? Unfortunately for our hero, it seems to be a pretty large portion of the enemy army. My favourite detail in this stage is the soldiers that are woken from their sleep, presumably by the sound of me killing their friends, and animatedly struggle into their uniforms before attacking you.

The stage's showstopper is an excellent section where the airship begins to crash, throwing the contents into freefall. It's a great idea, and well executed. It is made even better by the fact you can ride an elephant around in this zero-gravity environment. I'd think that'd be something of a relief for my opponents: they have to fight an elephant, but on the bright side it can't crush them into a fine red paste. What's that? I've gored them to death with my tusks instead? Fantastic. Now I just need a way to combine the elephant with the pogo stick...

Imperial Science Museum

Science Museum, huh? Yeah, sure, just fly your plane right in there. Appropriately enough, the first exhibit in the museum is dedicated to the history of flight, with da Vinci's gliders and "aerial screw" helicopter in the background. Nobody cares about that, though. People only go to museums for one thing - dinosaurs!

Oh, this one's head has fallen off. Never mind: I'll just hook it to my aeroplane, which fortunately is aerodynamically stable enough to not be affected by the added weight of a giant fibreglass T-Rex head. Then I'll drop it on an enemy soldier. I don't want to kill him; I just want to give him the greatest war story of all time.

The boss is the Trojan Horse, a gambit that is much less effective when you're fighting an aeroplane and not trying to sneak into the ancient city of Troy. Mind you, it holds up to gunfire better than you might have thought, and they sure do pack a lot of soldiers in there... which just means there are more targets for my hook.

Merry Merry Christmas

Not just Merry Christmas but Merry Merry Christmas, which is the difference between a glass of brandy and the whole bottle. The villains are terrorising the snow-covered streets with a giant drilling machine, because their true goal is to rob a bank by tunneling underneath it.

Notice that I appear to have hooked some poor bastard by the leg. You, my hooked friend, are going to take out that horse for me. Your sacrifice will be remembered.
A nice touch here is that you can see people going about their business on the streets above, the sound of a biplane fighting with a tunneling machine mere feet below them apparently lost in the din of their Christmas shopping, which is not an altogether unbelievable scenario.

Along with Konyi Island, this is probably the most detailed stage. Every shop has some blinking neon sign, banners can be shot down to float to the ground, snowmen can be hoisted into the air and dropped on unsuspecting shoppers. I should also mention the music, which is an intensely jolly ragtime medley of Christmas carols which I will be playing at this year's Yuletide festivities.

It certainly blows "Do They Know It's Christmas?" outta the water.

What else could the boss be but Santa Claus? An enormous robot Santa with a sawn-off shotgun at that. He has two mode: normal, jolly, red-suited Santa who deposits gifts for you, like vehicles and bombs... but after a while his face rotates and he becomes Purple Santa, destroyer of dreams, shotgun bandito and all-round evil bastard. BW isn't an especially tough game, and after the likes of Hyper Duel it's so pleasantly relaxing it's like being rubbed with particularly fluffy kittens, but Jolly Saint Dick here is one of the hardest points of the game.

Detroit Rock City

Yep, that's what it's called. The stage's music even starts with the same riff that Kiss' "Detroit Rock City" does.

You gotta hook a guy in Detroit Rock City. Not many things in videogame are named after Kiss songs, although I believe Yoshi's Island was originally going to be called "Lick It Up".

While it's still fun, and full of detail, this is probably the weakest stage. After the carnival and Robo-Claus it's difficult to get worked up about a car factory, you know? Even the boss, a tank, isn't very good, although seeing the soldier crew scurrying about is a nice touch.

Once you've finished those five stages, the final stage appears. Our hero begins his assault on the villain's castle, flying through the forest in a manner not dissimilar to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's intro.

Once you're inside, the Castlevania feel continues with a whole bunch of clockwork getting in your way. It's right behind the main doors as well, not hidden away in a clocktower like gigantic battleship-sized cogs and springs should be. The villains must have a real bugger of a time putting their bins out for collection.

The clockwork even sort of works, too: for example if you shoot a gear out of place, the other gears connected to it will stop spinning. Considering it's the final area, it's surprisingly easy and free of enemies, although I'm not complaining after the usual cavalcade of bullshit that's thrown at you at the end of most shoot-em-ups.

Eventually you reach the villains, and they present you with their side of the story. Apparently they actually invented a time machine, travelled forty years into the future, saw that the world was devastated by war (presumably they travelled to the Second World War and saw the atomic bombs) and came back determined to seize power and protect man from their own stupidity. At least, I think that's what they mean, because the game seems to get a little muddled here. You can choose whether to believe them or not, and if you chose not to you have to fight them in the final boss battle.

It's some kind of rocket sled, although it appears to have taken some inspiration from the Time Machine in the film version of H.G. Wells' The, uh, Time Machine. It also kindly drops some vehicles for you to jump into if you're on foot. Once you've destroyed them, they call you a fool for not seeing the big picture, and even our hero has his doubts.

"Oh well, never mind! He's just a red stain on the tarmac now, and I'm off to hook myself some dinner."
If you choose to agree with them, the villain congratulates you on your clear thinking and then bizarrely decides he has to punish you for trying to stop them in the first place. They send you back to an earlier level, and then to the final stage, and if you reach the end again they finally proclaim you their new rocket sled/time machine pilot and the game ends.

The problem is, I have no idea which of these is supposed to be the good ending. I suppose it all depends if the villain was telling the truth: while you get a much longer ending sequence if you refuse to listen to them and destroy their ship, you may also have destroyed the one man who could have put mankind on a path to peace and enlightenment. Alternatively, he could be a lying scumbag and if you join him you're unwittingly helping to enslave the Earth. Whoopsadoodle.

I have to assume that not helping them is the right option, because yes, you get to shoot them, but mostly because this way you get the excellent full-length ending sequence. You can fly around and shoot anything that appears, which is good because pretty much everything appears. Every pilotable vehicle (and there are a lot of them), every hookable bit of scenery, every human bystander shows up which a series of still pictures show in the background. So this must be the best ending, right? Ah, moral ambiguity. I'll admit, when I started playing BW I did not expect to be pondering the ending afterwards.

Boogie Wings, AKA The Great Ragtime Show comes highly recommended by me and currently sits proud as the best game I've played as part of Shoot-Em-Up Week. In fact, it's pushing pretty close at the heels of Life Force / Salamander as my favourite shooter ever. It's certainly a crying shame that it was never ported to consoles. The charming and detailed graphics, excellent music, fantastic gameplay mechanics that never feel contrived or forced and most of all a real sense of invention and pure fun make Boogie Wings something that I love and I think you might, too.

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