Cosmic Epsilon

I have to admit to being a bit jealous of the Famicom library at times.  Make no mistake, the NES had a fantastic library overall, full of classics that hold up.  But there are certain genres that were underrepresented in the US that had some brilliant software in Japan.  The rail shooter is all but absent for the west with the only exceptions being the assy 3d WorldRunner and okay port of After Burner.  Meanwhile in Japan some of the most technically brilliant games for the system lined shelves.  Cosmic Epsilon is clearly patterned after Space Harrier but rises above being a mere clone.  The game is fantastic and one of the best shooters for the system overall.

There’s an interesting bit of history behind Cosmic Epsilon.  It was once scheduled for a US release and even appeared at CES.  But like many late era games it was cancelled for unknown reasons.  The game is also interesting as it used the Famicom 3d System, a giant pair of Virtual Boy glasses.  The 3d effect is no more pronounced than in Rad Racer and is essentially worthless.  It is obvious why it never left Japan too bad we can’t say the same for the Virtual Boy.  While that was no great loss we did miss out on a really cool game.

More so than any other genre shooters typically feature a suite of awesome weapons.  Sadly Cosmic Epsilon will leave you wanting in that category.  You have standard twin lasers and a charged shot.  There are also homing missiles but they are so useless they shouldn’t have been included.  Aside from the rare invincibility power-up you’ll have to make do.

One of the most common issues with rail shooters like this is targeting.  Your character presents a large target in the middle of the screen and obscures your vision.  In this case Cosmic Epsilon has a slight advantage over its brethren.  You are accompanied by two satellites that actually produce your fire.  Since these are above you it is easier to target enemies than in similar titles.  Essentially they are crosshairs which works brilliantly without a reticule.  You’ll still have a hard time judging distances to dodge enemy fire but that is the trade off in this viewpoint. 

It’s a good thing the gameplay is simple enough that this is all you need.  Anyone familiar with Space Harrier will know what to expect.  Enemies appear in preset waves and from all corners.  In addition to enemies you’ll need to avoid all manner of obstacles in the environment such as volcanoes, laser traps, and fire.   Possibly the most surprising aspect of the game is its speed.  This is a very fast paced game with very little idle time. 

Cosmic Epsilon is long by shooter standards at eight levels.  But that isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Each level is extremely long and highlights the game’s lacking variety.  Once you’ve seen the two or three enemies populating each stage that’s it.  You are left with to deal with the repetition as each stage drags on way too long.  The intense boss battles offer a reprieve as they require a great deal of skill to complete.  But if the game were better paced you could look forward to these battles as a test of skill rather than a break in the monotony.

The one aspect Cosmic Epsilon shares with its brethren are its unrelenting difficulty.  The enemy waves are continuous and come from all sides.  It can be unfair to die unexpectedly from ships spawning behind you, which the game does frequently.  The fast pace means any random bullet is deadly and with the viewpoint they can be hard to dodge.  Heat seeking attacks are a crutch the game leans on too heavily, especially during boss battles.  It can be incredibly intense but also insanely cheap.  Luckily you respawn immediately on death.  Otherwise the game would be impossible.

There is one particular sequence that is absolute bullshit however.  The lead up to the final boss is a corridor filled with moving laser barriers that need to be avoided.  It is all of the game’s problems made manifest and drags on way too long, as if the designers were making one last ditch effort to drain your lives.  The game’s end boss is one of the most intense on the NES but I still can’t say if that is good or bad.  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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This is an absolutely amazing technical achievement for the system and one of its best.  The look is nearly identical to Tetra Star which makes sense as it shares the same developer.  The scrolling is fast and smooth and there is almost no slowdown which is a miracle.  The overall color palette is very bright although there are times where it is extremely garish.  The massive end level bosses are even more impressive than the scrolling. These nearly screen sized monstrosities are very alien in their design and present an awesome challenge.  The soundtrack does not stand out unfortunately, it’s just….there.

In Closing

What a great game.  Cosmic Epsilon is probably the best rail shooter on the NES.  There isn’t much competition but it doesn’t matter, a great game is a great game.  Shame it didn’t come to the US but it is in English anyway so it doesn’t matter.

Cosmic Epsilon