Sunday, September 14, 2014

And I'll Form the Head: Terra Cresta... and Friends!

It's Shmuptember, and in honor of the occasion, I thought I'd take a look at one of my favorite titles from the past. Terra Cresta was released in 1985, and capitalized on the rising popularity of both the recovering video game industry and futuristic Japanese toys like the Transformers. It also raised the stakes for shooters in the 1980s, giving the player a small army of ships while competing games were satisfied with one. If you were really good, you could merge all five fighters together and burn your adversaries to ash with a flaming phoenix!

Here now are reviews of eight games either directly related to the Terra Cresta series or heavily influenced by it.

Arcade/Super NES

The eyes have it.
Moon Cresta was an inauspicious start for the series; closer in spirit to the glut of Galaxian clones available in the early 1980s than the brilliant vertically scrolling shooter it would become. In this game, it's your mission to gun down an assortment of abstract aliens, which fly in unpredictable, often frustrating patterns. Succeed in clearing the screen of hairy eyeballs and atomic piles (hee hee!) and you'll get a chance to dock with another ship, increasing your firepower. Here's the catch, though... you only get three ships, so if you lose one, you can't combine it with the others. Complicating matters is that each of the ships in your arsenal is more powerful but also larger than the last, turning what seems like an upgrade into a dangerous liability.

I'll give it to you straight... there were dozens of games like Moon Cresta in the early 1980s, and a large chunk of them were more entertaining than this. GORF builds on the success of two other classic shooters to great effect, and Astro Blaster serves up tension by the truckload with its tight time limit and devilish enemy formations. If you insist on playing Moon Cresta, the version of the game in Nichibutsu Arcade Classics for the Super Famicom is your best bet, as it's got an enhanced version with the same cacophonous sound effects but more polished graphics. Curiously, it still congratulates you with terms like "Far Out!" and "Right On!," which must have seemed crusty even in 1980, when the original game was released. I guess Nichibutsu couldn't be expected to update everything!


The Phoenix, the Winger's ultimate
form and a recurring character
in the series.
Oh yeah, now THAT'S the stuff! Terra Cresta sent Nichibutsu soaring into the late 1980s with a clever reinvention of Namco's ground-breaking shooter Xevious. Instead of flying solo with the Solvalou, your tiny but formidable Winger can merge with up to four other ships, turning it into a fearsome flying juggernaut. Its strength can be further boosted by splitting the component ships apart, choking the screen with firepower but leaving the Winger unprotected.

With more variety and without jarring pauses in the action, Terra Cresta's fleet of ships is a far more exciting play mechanic than the docking in Moon Cresta. Beyond that, the concept couldn't have come at a better time. Video games were slowly making a comeback after the crash of 1983, and toys like Voltron and the Transformers were red hot. Kids of the '80s were hungry for Japan's giant robot culture, and Terra Cresta scratched that itch in a way no other video game could.

Terra Cresta was successful enough to inspire a dozen sequels and spin-offs. It was also given a surprisingly faithful conversion on the Famicom, although the game took its sweet time reaching America. By the time it hit the NES in 1990, players had already moved on to 1943 and Life Force, with a lucky few graduating to the shooter-heavy libraries of the Genesis and Turbografx-16. It may have arrived a little late, but Terra Cresta was at least worth a rental for fans of the genre who hadn't yet stepped up to a 16-bit game system.


There are three different UFOs,
each with their own signature
If Terra Cresta dipped its toe in the sea of Japanese mech culture, UFO Robo Dangar dived into it headfirst. Rather than a phalanx of five ships that combine into one, you're put in the driver's seat of a towering android armed with fist missiles. Survive the relentless assault of your enemies and you'll be awarded a power capsule that gives your already mighty robot a hand cannon. Persevere for even longer and you'll discover a flying saucer which boosts your firepower to devastating levels.

Beyond the aesthetic changes, UFO Robo Dangar is largely the same game as Terra Cresta. Ships pour out of the edges of the screen in mesmerizing patterns, and you blast them while weaving around their bullets. You can split your mech into three ships and fan out your shots with a tap of the Formation button, but it's a temporary solution, and could end in tears if your lead ship is destroyed.

Aside from the robot motif, there's one other thing that distinguishes UFO Robo Dangar from Terra Cresta. On rare occasions, you'll stumble across a black hole which takes you to a world with a creepy bio-organic look. That art style would later resurface in Armed Formation F, a distant cousin of the Terra Cresta series.


Is that decayed brown building on the left
Nichibutsu headquarters?
Terra Force takes the same "two games for the price of one" approach as other late 1980s shooters like Life Force, with both horizontally and vertically scrolling stages. However, it's a move that distances the game from its predecessors, turning it into an experience that's pleasant, but quickly forgotten. Terra Force gives you a single ship with a chance to collect two escorts, but you can't combine the three fighters into one bullet-spewing behemoth. Instead, you're given power-up panels that increase the strength of your bombs and lasers... a depressingly predictable move from a series that usually strives for better.

You can change the game's perspective from top-down to side-scrolling and back by flying into specially marked tunnels, but Terra Force feels more like a genuine Terra Cresta title when played from an overview view. It also gives you more room to dodge the waves of non-descript aliens, and makes your bombs a little less useless. That last sentence was dripping with the same lack of enthusiasm that went into this game's design, so I'll just close by saying that Terra Force is a respectable shooter that's kept grounded by its low aspirations.

Commodore Amiga

It's not Terra Cresta, but a remarkable simulation!
Out of all the video game gadgets, gizmos, and geegaws in existence, I don't think I've ever wanted one more than the Commodore Amiga. First released in 1985, the Amiga was a personal computer with a heavy focus on multimedia applications. For Commodore, that meant dazzling business presentations and professional video editing. For me, it meant only one thing: awesome video games.

The Amiga delivered exactly that, dropping jaws with killer titles like Ruff 'n Tumble, Turrican III, and the headliner Shadow of the Beast. This side-scrolling action game doesn't hold up under close examination, but when you're a fifteen year old video game addict playing the demo in a computer store, it makes a big impression. It also made it awfully tough to go back to that crusty old NES...

Anyway, on to the game! Many Amiga titles were European riffs on arcade favorites, and Hybris is no exception, doing its best impression of the Terra Cresta series. You're still piecing together a heavily armed battleship and splitting it apart to spread out your firepower, but this time, you'll be doing it to a catchy Eurosynth beat, and dropping bombs to clear the screen when the action gets too frantic. 

Hybris's only major malfunction- aside from plain graphics that sometimes camouflage the bullets you need to avoid- is that it's a three button game that has to settle for a one button joystick. This happened a lot with Amiga software... even Mortal Kombat was playable with one button, if you can call that "playable."

Arcade / PC Engine

The Insect Stage is guaranteed
to make your skin crawl.
Armed Formation F borrows heavily from the Terra Cresta series, but it's not a true game in the series... more of a black sheep in the family, like Irem's R-Type Leo or Konami's Xexes. Its biggest departure from Terra Cresta is that the Constructicon angle has been completely abandoned. You've only got one ship, along with two sidecars called Armers. The Armers lay down a spread of horizontal fire, and can either be sent behind your ship or in front of it by tapping the Formation button.

Using the Armers isn't as fun as merging and splitting ships in the Terra Cresta games, and the narrow playfields leave the player with less room to dodge the bizarre creatures in each level. Despite all that, Armed Formation F is still a fairly diverting shooter, as long as you stick with the arcade game. The PC Engine conversion loses a lot of the original's charm thanks to overly tiled backgrounds and smaller, less detailed monsters.

PC Engine

A triumphant comeback for the Terra Cresta
series. Uh, better make that an adequate one.
The long overdue sequel to Terra Cresta suffers from being a pretty good shooter on a game system that's home to a whole lot of better ones. You've got to put on one hell of a show to compete with the likes of 1943 Kai, Blazing Lazers, and R-Type, and Terra Cresta II can't meet those high standards.

Having said that... for fans of the series, it's good enough. A game as inherently Japanese as Terra Cresta is a comfortable fit for the TurboGrafx-16 hardware, and the gameplay has evolved in subtle but welcome ways. Ship pieces are now held in metal capsules, and shooting them causes the ends to pop off, destroying anything they touch for a huge point bonus. You can also design formations for your fleet of ships, an idea first explored in the NES conversion of the first game. Finally, the music stands as some of the best you'll hear on the TurboGrafx, with rich, complex tracks that add tension to the action.

There are issues, of course. The game doesn't put up much of a fight, with enemies quickly falling to your overpowered guns. There's also not much to distinguish one stage from the next beyond themed wallpaper. One level takes place over active volcanoes, and another sends you into the ocean to blast spinning turtles. There are no truly iconic moments, like chasing after pagodas on tank treads in M.U.S.H.A., or one of the many wild boss fights in Paradius. Nichibutsu could have done so much more with this game, but a pretty good Terra Cresta sequel is better than none at all...

Sega Saturn

Your Saturn can do better than this.
Much, much better.
There are plenty of great shooters on the Saturn... but I'm not reviewing any of those. Instead, I'm stuck with Terra Cresta 3D, the unfortunate end to the Terra Cresta series. This Saturn exclusive (to the great relief of the Nintendo 64 and Playstation) was released at the worst possible time, after Nichibutsu had abandoned action games for nudie mahjong, and during gaming's awkward transition from two to three dimensions. It's not a change that serves Terra Cresta well... the number of ships you can combine has been dropped from five to three, and the action is largely forgettable, with a sluggish pace and bland level designs. 

Things go from bad to worse during the boss battles, which are fought from a behind-the-ship viewpoint that adds only superficial depth and leaves the action disconcertingly cramped. The game's got competent orchestral remasters of the themes from the original Terra Cresta, but even they're not up to par with the music in better Saturn shooters (read: nearly all of them). Even if you're as attached to the Terra Cresta series as I am, you're better off flying right past this tragic conclusion.


  1. Well, this certainly is a comprehensive write-up, Jess! I guess I'll have to try the NES or PC Engine versions soon. Oddly, despite my nearly life-long love of the ol' PC, I didn't know until now that the system was home to a Terra Cresta game...

    1. The Turbo/PC Engine is really good at slipping games right past you. For instance, there was a collection of fifteen different games for an ancient home computer called the VIC-20, released by a company called Image. Retro collections like this were practically unknown at the time this was released, so it didn't get much publicity.

  2. I have a Terra Cresta arcade cabinet (converted by a prior owner from Donkey Kong) that I'd like to go to a good home. I've had it for a decade, but the people I live with aren't as crazy about it as decor as I am, sadly. I know this is something of a shot in the dark, but I'm near Los Angeles, if by pure happenstance you know what I ought to do with this thing!

    1. Gosh. It's tempting, but I sadly live nowhere near LA. If I can find anyone who does and who's interested, I'll be sure to let them know! Thanks!