VGJUNK's Shoot-Em-Up Week continues, and what do we have today? Why, it's Technosoft's 1993 deep space arcade (also released, and now very rare and expensive, for the Sega Saturn) blastathon Hyper Duel! Well I never.

On hearing the name Hyper Duel, I admit I pictured some kind of fencing match between two French dandies wearing Tron-style costumes. Of course, this isn't the case, and my idea for a game about robot duellists with laser-swords goes into the file marked "Original Game Designs - DO NOT COPY!!" Technosoft have something of a pedigree in the shoot-em-up field, being as they are the creators of the Thunder Force series, so I've got fairly high hopes for Hyper Duel. We'll see if it lives up to those hopes soon, but first let's meet the pilots.

First into his spacesuit is Keith Spader, pilot of the Storm Forgel and brother to James (I presume). Is his ship supposed to be called the Storm Forger? Quite possibly. Apparently he was born on Valentine's Day, so he gets a double dose of birthday presents from his girlfriend. Perhaps that's why he's looking so smug in his portrait. Possible actor to play him in the Hyper Duel movie: Tom Cruise.

Next is Lisa Rowland, flying the Hi-Mustang. She looks a little awkward, probably because she's just realised that wearing a hat made of spaghetti was a bad idea. Possible movie role candidate: Meryl Streep, to give the project that bit of class.

And finally there's Dr. B. Lloyd and his ship the Phalanx Smasher. He's a scientist who's not so much mad as he is really bored. He's played a lot of shoot-em-ups, he's seen all this before. Movie candidate: the ghost of Pete Postlethwaite.
Have you chosen one? Good, then let's begin.

I hope you weren't looking forward to a deep, engrossing plot, because as far as I can tell the extent of the story is Bad People do a Bad Thing in space, and you're a Good Person who must stop them.
Hyper Duel is a shooter, it's set in space, there are explosions and lasers and whatnot. So far, so straightforward. But wait! There's a shocking gameplay twist. Okay, it's not that shocking, but it is a nice mechanic. You see, Hyper Duel features two attack buttons. Button one causes your ship to fire forwards. Genius! It gets better, though - press the other fire button and your ship transforms into a mech.

You're piloting a ship called a Buster Gear that can transform into a robot, and vice versa. The obvious comparison for the anime fans amongst you is the Valkyrie from Macross, but a better one is Starscream from Transformers. He's just plain better, that's all.
This mechanic changes the gameplay because your character is different in each mode. In ship mode, you're faster, more manoeuvrable and most importantly you're a much smaller target. However, your weapons are less powerful and you can only shoot directly ahead. Transform into mecha mode and you become bigger and more cumbersome, but with more powerful weapons that can also be aimed up or down at a 45-degree angle, which can come in very handy.

Other than that, Hyper Duel follows the shooter rules that have been carved in stone since the Early Times before man walked the Earth. You fly through a stage shooting things, you face a boss at the end and if so much as a hamster's fart touches your giant space robot you instantly explode in a cloud of bad engineering and broken dreams. Instead of the standard screen-clearing smart-bomb that you often find in shoot-em-ups, Hyper Duel lets you summon a pair of helpers to attack with you by pressing both fire buttons together. They attack differently depending on which mode your Gear is in when you summon them: in mech mode they attack forwards, and in ship mode they generally have a very useful multi-directional attack. Their use is governed by a slowly-refilling power bar, so keep an eye on that.

There are eight stages to shoot your through, which sounds like a lot but they're pretty short. Your first destination: Space! Wild, untamed space, filled with nebulae, battleships and, to use a phrase that will never get old, giant robot octopuses like the one above.

That's the benefit of having a space fleet: you can say "fuck aerodynamics, I'm building a ship shaped like an octopus!" Something else you often find in space are colonies, like the one that stage two takes place inside. This particular colony has, for some reason, been built with so many sharp peaks and valleys that it looks like a track from Excitebike. The above picture also illustrates how terrible I am at shooters, because even with a weapon I can aim I still end up shooting the floor like a berk.

Stage two's boss has no legs, but it doesn't keep him down. Because he's in space, you see. So he can float. Look, I don't know, he just doesn't need legs I guess. Overall Hyper Duel's mechanical designs are pretty good, especially on the larger enemies. If you like the way Thunder Force III and IV's enemies look, you should like Hyper Duel's too, because they were created by the same designers.

Stage three ditches space and takes you to a planet. It's a barren wasteland that for some reason or other is extremely well defended. Perhaps the wars of the future will not be fought over oil or water but high-quality building sand.

This boss is not in any way "inspired" by Mobile Suit Gundam's Zaku II mechas. Just because he's green, you assume he's a Zaku? You racist. Actually, comparing my mecha side-by-side to another 'bot makes me realise just how skinny my legs are. They're like pipe-cleaners! Is my Buster Gear actually some kind of Blue Peter build-at-home project, a "here's one I made earlier" that was cobbled together from old toilet rolls and eggs cartons? At least it would explain why it's so fragile.

Stage four is another colony, but forget that - this stage's most interesting feature is the introduction of your dark and mysterious rival, who appears as the stage boss. He's the Moriarty to your Holmes, the Protoman to your Megaman, the Dr. Pepper to your Coke. He's apparently called the Black Angel and was probably named by some unimaginative goth. You have a scrap and after a while he leaves, but we'll be seeing him again later.
Also worth mentioning in stage four is the excellent music, composed by Hyakutaro Tsukumo (also of Thunder Force V). It's very much in that '90s shoot-em-up mould, but very well executed and memorable. I couldn't find the arcade version, but here's the remixed version of stage four's theme from the Sega Saturn release:

Now stage five I really like. After your raid on the colony and the death of the many thousands who inhabited it, you make your escape into the atmosphere of the planet below, complete with a nice little effect of your ship heating up from the friction. In the background, you can see the colony crashing down, forming a suitably hellish backdrop as you pick off the remaining survivors. Another Gundam reference? I'll let you decide.

The planet below seems remarkably unscathed, mind you. Robot octopuses have been replaced with robot nautiluses, enemies fly in from the left side of the screen with an accompanying "WARNING!" sign and the boss fight takes place beneath the waves.

The Buster Gear is a very versatile craft, because as well as being a mech and a spaceship it is also apparently a submarine. And look, another robot with very spindly ankles. Is this simply a fashion trend? The robot equivalent of shoulderpads? Next year, I predict oversized thruster ports will be the next big thing on the cyber-catwalks of Neo Milan.

We're approaching the end now, and is that a pixel cityscape I see? I do so love a pixel cityscape. Stage seven takes place in a crowded city, again with excellent music (and again, this is the Saturn version):

This stage also has my favourite boss, a mechanical spider with a giant cannon on its thorax and the ability to slow you down by firing webbing at you. The Spider-bot nicely sums up the game's 1990's semi-cyberpunk anime aesthetic, I think - he wouldn't look out of place in something like Ghost in the Shell or Cyber City Oedo 808.

The final stage is essentially one long fight against the final boss, a huge multi-screen battle fortress that, rather disappointingly, you don't ever get a really good look at. It's a pretty standard affair, shoot the gun turrets, avoid the massive laser beams, etcetera, but on this occasion you've got help! Yep, Black Angel has returned to atone for trying to kill you earlier, and he hangs around taking potshots at the big bad...

... until right at the end when he gets subsumed into the boss and you have to fight him again. I don't know why this process equips the Black Angel with a skirt and a hunchback, but what I do know is that this fight is really, really tough. For me, anyway - I'm sure there's plenty of people out there who could brush this guy aside like it's no big thing, but I had an awful lot of trouble avoiding his shots which fire out, pause for a moment and then hurtle towards you. Oh, and his giant yellow beam cannon that repeatedly slammed into me like the mighty urine stream of Odin himself.

That's the end of Hyper Duel, then, and I guess the fact that there are two streaks of light heading back to Earth in the ending means that either Dark Angel saw the error of his ways and has been redeemed... or one of the three pilots was killed in action.

Hyper Duel has a lot going for it. The music is excellent, the graphics are good and there are some nice little touches, like your mech's legs swaying depending on the direction you’re travelling. Everything is smooth and zips along nicely. Best of all is the transforming mechanic. It might not sound much, but it's integrated very well and really makes Hyper Duel feel different to many of its peers. Combine this with the fact that all three of the pilots have slightly different weapons, and you've got something with a fair bit of depth. Do you take Keith and use the wider spread of his ship's cannon? Or how about the Doctor and his mechs short-range but powerful shotgun? Actually it's not that difficult for me to decide - I'm going to be the doctor. Scientist with a robot with a shotgun? There's no competition. That's probably why I died so much.

Ah yes, the difficulty level. It's a difficult one to judge, honestly. I did use an obscene amount of continues, but quite a lot of those deaths could have probably have been avoided if I'd played the game before, wasn't trying to get screenshots and also wasn't constantly distracted by the Lego ghost sitting on my desk. You don't understand, I have to look at him! He glows! He's... He's a glowst. Yeeeaaah.
Where was I? Oh yeah, difficulty. It seems to be a bit up and down - for example, I breezed through the city level on my first attempt after using five or so credits on the previous stage. Overall I'd say it's a little harder than Air Gallet, mostly due to having to remember to shift back to ship mode if you need to move somewhere in a hurry.

So, Hyper Duel gets a thumbs-up from me. It's even got an accurate title, because your duel with the Black Angel is pretty hyper. Hell, if I was playing it at the time it was originally released I'd say it was hyper to the max, because that was the kind of thing we said in 1993. So, if you want a shooter with an interesting gimmick, or you love the Thunder Force series and you want more, then I can unreservedly recommend Hyper Duel to you.

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