The sun is shining, there's a warm breeze and we don't have to worry about the infinite vacuum of space tearing our mortal bodies asunder, so why stay cooped up in a stuffy old cockpit when you could fly around unimpeded? That seems to be what the heroines of today's game thought, at any rate: it's time for Vic Tokai's 1992 Megadrive / Genesis jetpack shoot-em-up Battle Mania!
This one actually received a Western release under the name Trouble Shooter, so if you were thinking that it looks familiar but the name didn't ring a bell you might have played that version. While I'm always slightly confused by unnecessary inter-regional name changes, both Battle Mania and Trouble Shooter are at least accurate - manic battles are a feature, and the heroines are shooters of trouble in the truest sense. Let's meet them now, shall we?
This is Mania, known as Madison in the English-language version, a wide-eyed anime type with hair so voluminous it looks like it was carved out of polystyrene. Her parents called her Mania knowing that she'd never end up working as an accountant with a name like that, and so it has proven to be. I'll accept Madison as an alternative, though - she looks like a Madison, or at least a Madison who would live in a world where jetpacks are commonplace and two teenage girls have replaced the world's military search-and-rescue specialists.
And here's Maria, renamed to Crystal for the non-Japanese releases. Her hair is even bigger than Madison's and it's also blue, so I guess she wins that battle. She's the stern, aloof one of the pair because there's always got to be one, right? They can't just both be cheerful / unconcerned with the consequences of firing large plasma weapons in an urban environment. The girls are given a vague mission by a man with an eyepatch, and then it's time for action!
Yes, let's get busy. First you must select a special weapon, but as I don't know what any of them do I just took the first one highlighted. I'm sure I'll figure it out: a 16-bit horizontal shooter about flying anime teenagers can only be so complex.
Here we are in the first stage, already under heavy assault from a legion of mechanical death-penguins. That's penguins as in the most unthreatening birds outside fuzzy-wuzzy, newly-hatched chicks, is it? You took a look around the fauna of the polar regions and thought yes, I'll base my robot army around those harmless monochrome lumps? I'd have gone with jet-propelled polar bears, myself. Incredibly deadly, but still cute enough to be merchandised as cuddly toys after my robot armies have enslaved the Earth.
Where was I? Oh right, Battle Mania. You might have noticed that both Madison and Crystal are on screen at the same time. Am I playing this game two-player? No, of course not - I don't have any friends, and even if I had managed to bribe the local vagrants into joining me in my hermetically-sealed gaming pod Battle Mania doesn't actually have a two-player mode. Instead the game's main gimmick is that you control both girls at the same time, or rather you control Madison while Crystal hovers nearby. Pressing fire makes both girls fire their weapons: Madison has a weaker shot that can be upgraded to a spread attack, but it can only be fired from left to right, while Crystal has a more powerful, concentrated beam. Helpfully, you can press a button to make Crystal turn around and fire from right to left in order to protect Madison's vulnerable backside. Don't worry about Crystal, though - only Madison can actually take damage.
Yup, I said take damage. Battle Mania eschews the usual "one hit = lose a life" shoot-em-up blueprint in favour of a health bar, which you can see at the top-right corner of the screen. You only get one life, and once you run out of health it's Game Over - and you only get two continues. Luckily your health bar doesn't have a top limit, so if you keep your health full and pick up a health recovery item you can keep stacking up hit-points. I think the most I managed to get up to was about twenty, and that really comes in handy later on when a game like Gradius would be punishing you for dying by making you restart the whole stage with no power-ups.
I did struggle a little at the start though, simply because I was so unused to the weirdly-shaped target that is Madison. Maybe this is just me, but whenever I play a shoot-em-up like this I hardly ever actually look at my ship, and I sort of... guess where it is by assuming it's at the point where all my bullets are coming from. This isn't the case in Battle Mania, what with the two girls only being loosely connected, and I kept getting hit because I was moving the center of my firing pattern to safety instead of poor Madison herself. Quite why Crystal is completely immune to all forms of weaponry is never explained. My guess is that she's not actually there and combat trauma has caused Madison to create an imaginary companion to share the mental burden of her one-woman war: it's either that or Vic Tokai are planning to pull a Bruce-Willis-in The-Sixth-Sense "she was dead aaaalll alooong!" twist at the end.
Madison and Crystal have fought well so far, but now it's time for the stage one boss, and what a boss he is. I love this guy: he rises out of the floor, laughing a hearty laugh (complete with speech bubbles) and starts blowing kisses to the non-existent audience. Then he does nothing. No, really, he just stands there while you hold down the fire button and blast him with everything you've got, which could be considered overkill as the boss is literally standing there and doing nothing. Why are you shooting him, anyway? Is that all you know how to do now? Can you only destroy? This brief jetpack-based war has changed you, Madison.
And then the boss blows up. Of course, this is all part of his plan.
The real boss fight - and that description is being extremely generous, given how "tough" this fight is - begins as the boss's head lifts off and flies around the screen spitting the odd laser beam at you. It is not a difficult battle. Madison moves around fairly quickly, at least once you've collected a few speed-ups, and the robot dome is quickly dispatched. His battle plan may need some work, but you can't help but admire his gumption.
Between each stage you get a short cutscene, and in a rare case of gender reversal our heroines' mission is to rescue a kidnapped prince. He's extremely caucasian for someone wearing a stereotypically "Arabian" outfit, so perhaps he's like Lawrence of Arabia had T. E. Lawrence been a young anime boy. Oh wait:
That was actually a thing that happened.
The villain's reasons for kidnapping the prince are never explained. Maybe she's just lonely.
Stage two is next, and already Vic Tokai are mixing things up by making the stage scroll downwards. This place is around eighty percent saw blades, and I'm struggling to see what practical purpose this machine could have. Leading possibilities are the throat of a giant robot that eats nothing but trees, or a deathtrap for hovering teens.
Somewhere in the middle, there's a fight against a mid-boss. It should be noted that this guy is so cool that he has to wear two pairs of sunglasses at once. Thankfully the jets of steam don't hurt you; they just push you around, more often than not into the path of the boss' projectiles.
No sunglasses for the actual end-of-stage boss. He's a rough and ready construction 'bot, he doesn't have time for fripperies like sunglasses when he's got pointless pits lined with saw blades and steam vents to build. I do rather feel as though Madison and Crystal have taken a diversion from their prince-saving mission for this stage. I just don't see what this construction robot has to do with anything, unless this is a two-part mission to save a prince and also uphold the local council's building codes.
We're back on track for stage three, as Madison and Crystal attack the villain's flying fortress "Colossus". This entails flying around the outside of the ship, shooting off various small components dangling from the outer hull. Most of them are somewhat vague in purpose, like those balls in the top-right corner of the above screenshot. I have no idea what their purpose is, unless it's to provide lazy writers like me with an easy joke about flying at the ship's vulnerable underbelly and shooting its balls off.
The entire time I was playing Battle Mania, I was needled by a curious sense of nostalgia. I say curious because I've never played Battle Mania / Trouble Shooter before and the simple fact that it's an early-nineties Megadrive game isn't enough to make me feel that way about it - Elemental Master didn't have the same effect, for instance. Then it hit me: it's because this game is so anime. I know, I know, the vast majority of 16-bit titles developed in Japan have some degree of anime influence, but Battle Mania feels especially like that wave of anime that washed up on British shores when I was a kid. For a brief period in the nineties anime was almost cool - Channel 4 aired Fist of the North Star and 3X3 Eyes and Manga Video were releasing things like Akira on home video, and if you were a geeky kid at that time they were cool, and very different than stuff you'd seen before. I have fond memories of a lot of the anime released in Britain at that time, and this is where the nostalgia for Battle Mania comes in. It feels like the videogame equivalent of something Manga would have put out around that time, a similar sense of fascinating, over-the-top Japanese-ness to something like AD Police or Gunsmith Cats, and that's why my nostalgia sense is tingling so.
Enough about my youthful viewing habits, though - there's a boss to deal with! I'm not sure if this boss, attached to a cycling machine and pedalling furiously, is generating power to fire his projectiles at me or if his legwork is powering the entire ship. I hope it's the latter. I'd really love to believe that the villain designed the ship, built the ship, turned the keys in the ignition and realised she'd forgotten to put an engine in. Not to worry, she said, I'll get one of the spare robots and attach it to an exercise bike. That'll keep my battle fortress aloft!
This poor guy isn't even that good a boss. He's hampered by the fact that he's welded to an exercise bike, because that's bound to lower your mobility whoever you are, and all he can really do is put out a stream of plasma balls. Unusually for the genre, in Battle Mania you can shoot almost all projectiles out of the air so if you've got a few power-ups under your belt you can just plonk yourself in front of the boss, hold down fire and blast his attacks out of the sky. This poor bastard never really stood a chance.
Well, the Colossus is still airborne, so our heroines head inside to find the prince. Not much to say about the stage itself, so let's talk about the weapon system instead. In the picture above, you can see a swarm of angry bananas flying forward, powered by sheer banana-y rage (and possibly rocket fuel). At the start of each stage, you get to choose a special weapon from one of four available options: that right there is the "Avalanche" weapon, and it fires a barrage of missiles straight forwards. There's also an expanding set of concentric circles, a wall of light that can be moved around the screen and is useful for placing on top of stationary enemies, and a set of vertical lightning blots that sweep across the screen. You can only use your special weapon when the "Charge" bar is full, and unfortunately for ham-fisted idiots like me you lose all your accumulated charge if you press the button before it's ready.
Other than that, your weapons never change aside from Madison's spread getting wider as you collect power-ups. This might seem a little limiting, and in another game it probably would be, but given your ability to make Crystal turn around as well as your special weapon Battle Mania strikes a very satisfying balance of complexity. You've always got options, but never overwhelmingly so, and this simplicity really works in the game's favour.
Stage four also has the most interesting boss in terms of gameplay if not in appearance. Your objective is to destroy the six pistons, a simple enough task that is complicated by the fact that enemies travel through the gaps in the engine the whole time, and the screen moves around to block off the various different channels at different times. It's... well, it's just honest good fun, even if I did occasionally get over-excited and fly Madison right into the whirring piston block where she'd have been horribly crushed to death if I hadn't collected a good number of hit points.
Pistons removed, and the engine is revealed to double as a prison as the prince pops out of that weird face/egg thing. Congratulations, the prince is safe and sound, so let's get him back to wherever he comes from and claim our nice big reward.
Or, you know, give him a gun and make him pull his goddamn weight. He'll never be a good king if he hasn't experienced the struggles of the average hard-working citizen with a jetpack and a very large firearm. You’re now controlling three people, sort of: where Crystal sticks close to Madison, the prince does the opposite of whatever she does. Fly to the bottom of the screen and the prince winds up at the top, and so on. In order to balance out your new-found comrade you lose access to your special weapon, and if I'm honest it's not a particularly helpful trade. Advanced weaponry or cosseted royalty? Yeah, I know which one you'd choose but sadly you're stuck with His Highness here.
This is a fun stage, fast-paced and full of missiles, birds carrying laser beams and these guys that I'm frankly at a loss to describe. It's fair to say that the villain of the piece hasn't really put forward a consistent theme for her army, as though she bought all her troops at a clearance sale for megalomaniacal dictators. Buy any two combat robots and get this unit of tea-tray-riding yellow shamans free!
This being a Megadrive shooter I've got to mention the music, and while it's not quite as excellent as Elemental Master or Skeleton Krew it's certainly well above average, with stage five's theme being a particular highlight. Gotta love that drum track.
Boss-wise we're back to the slightly more familiar theme of robot birds. I think it's a bird, at least. It's got a bit of a seahorse vibe to it as well. If you’re making something that's really just a mobile platform for some guns you can make it whatever shape you like, and I suppose wingless purple pincer-tailed bird is as good as any. It's a simple enough fight, especially if you're powered up - just keep blasting away and get ready to dodge its tail when it makes that weird sound. You'll know the sound I mean if you play the game this far.
Really? That's it? The final boss was a bit of an anticlimax, but Madison has reunited the prince with his father and there are girls in short skirts leading cheers, so I guess we're done here. Roll credits!
Err, psyche, I guess? In a move that will fool precisely no-one, the villain appears and attacks one last time. I do like the way they started the staff roll before she appears, though. That's a nice touch.
So Madison has to take to the skies once more to fight her evil cyborg clone. Not only that but she must fight alone, as Crystal buggered off during the previous cutscene, taking with her my ability to fire from right to left. Oh, and you don't have a special weapon either. And still, despite these many handicaps, this boss is extremely easy to beat by just flying around in a circle. The difficulty curve, which has been pretty good until now, appears to have wobbled off-target a bit and Vic Tokai over-compensated for Madison's newly weakened state by making this part far too easy.
Maybe the actual villain herself will fare better? Well no, not really. She flies around for a while and then stops to unleash an easily-avoidable attack. Every so often, she pokes her heart out of her robe instead of her gun / fireballs, and that's what you need to shoot. Yet another villain defeated by failing to keep their internal organs internal. Her heart must be on a timed spring or something because I don't care how absent-minded you are, you don't reach into your coat pocket to grab a weapon and accidentally pull out your heart.
See, now that's more like it! At least try to strike some fear into your enemies. This fight is harder than the last two, but honestly that's mostly down to the fact that it's quite difficult to tell what parts of this giant beetle will hurt you until you've flown into them a few times. You can fly over its chest area but you can't touch the head without taking damage, you can move through the arms but not the claws on the tips - these are all important things to know which can only be discovered by crashing poor Madison against them.
The boss has one final form, and this time her brain's sticking out. You're getting no sympathy from me, love - if you can't keep your delicate organs inside their god-given protective bone-cages / exoskeletal armor, then you deserve everything you get. This fight is made even easier by the return of Crystal, flying in at the last minute to help mop up and claim all the glory like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars. Eventually the giant bug is destroyed and that really, truly is the end of
A tranquil sunset ending, and a reminder that the Trouble Shooters remain as mysterious as ever. Forget Madison and Crystal, the big mystery here is exactly what did the team that translated this game for its western release have against that ending screen? Because they reworked it for the overseas release, and I'm really struggling to see why:
In America, we only drive on good, honest roads, and all defeated villains must slink back to their hideouts on scooters instead of advanced hoverboard technology! It's just a bit baffling - what possible reason could there have been for changing this ending sequence from "sunset drive" to "sunset drive, but with tarmac and also in the city"? Baffling.
Bizarre editing decisions aside, Battle Mania / Trouble Shooter is a great little title and one I suggest the shooter fans amongst you try out if you haven't already. It's fast-paced, it's smooth, it's got an unusual weapon / partner system that's very well implemented and gives the whole thing that extra bit of something that keeps the whole endeavour interesting. The presentation is good too, with crisp, easy-to-see sprites, catchy music and even some nice speech samples - Madison's cheery shout of "Lucky!" whenever you pick up a health item is particularly charming. The downsides? With six stages (and one of those is just a boss fight) it's a very short game and (I can't believe I'm saying this about a Megadrive shooter) I think it's a tad too easy. I know: madness, right?
Then again, that means you'll have more of a chance to see the whole game through, and Battle Mania provides such a fun, charming trip through a world where not much makes sense beyond "shoot all things" that I definitely recommend you give it a go.
BONUS! (And big thanks to Kid Fenris for reminding me about this)
Once you complete the Japanese version of Battle Mania - but not Trouble Shooter - you're shown a code that you can enter at the title screen (hold down C, Start and right on the second controller). Why did the Japanese get a bonus feature that the West didn't?
Because said bonus feature is an animation during the intro of Madison / Mania kicking the shit out of a SNES. That's just rude, Madison. No need for it.
Because said bonus feature is an animation during the intro of Madison / Mania kicking the shit out of a SNES. That's just rude, Madison. No need for it.