By the mid-90s the shooter genre had a problem: there were too many! Whether it was on consoles or especially in the arcade no other genre suffered from a glut of product other than fighting games. It wasn’t long before they all but disappeared from the US market outside of the occasional token release. The great shooter exodus of the 32-bit era was doubly sad as some of the best games in the genre also never left Japan. Everyone import shooter fan has heard of Radiant Silvergun, Gradius Gaiden and Thunder Force 5. But one release that flew under the radar is one of the greatest shooters of that generation and my personal favorite of all time. Harmful Park is a phenomenal game and one that should be in everyone’s library.
The game has a wacky story that drives its madness. Heartful Park was a simple amusement park until the evil Dr. Tequila takes over. Dr. Tequila retrofits it into a deathtrap and is up to no good. One of his former colleagues wants to stop him but is too old and instead arms her daughters with flying bikes to take up the fight in her stead. The story could easily have fit in a Parodius title, too bad Konami washed their hands of the series the year before.
The game arms you with a complete set of weapons that can be switched at any time. All four (potato, ice cream, pie, and jelly beans) have their strengths and weaknesses and will see some use. Jelly Beans are heat seeking but weak and don’t prioritize targets. Pies explode on contact and cause splash damage. However at most you can throw two at a time and if they miss you are screwed. Potatoes are the equivalent of a machine gun and good when all else fails. I lean toward ice cream, as its long, piercing lasers demolish enemies. Each weapon can be powered up three times plus possesses a special attack, such as the jelly beans forming a pudding shield.
Setting the game in an amusement park is a stroke of genius on a few levels. The setting allows for a diverse set of levels, each with their own theme. While it would be normal to expect nothing but happy go lucky circus attractions it instead aims for variety. The Haunted House, zoo, and Dr. Tequila’s lab feature their own enemies endemic to that area. Even the carnival and roller coaster manage to stay unique.
Like Parodius the game doesn’t take itself serious and can be downright hilarious. The enemies are your typical carnival attractions gone mad but it doesn’t stop there. There are plenty of small details that you can easily miss. The midboss of the haunted house is a massive heart. Beneath them a couple are tying the knot but another man bursts in and the bride leaves the groom. His tears of sadness are deadly and unexpected. The Frankenstein monster that comes after is harrowing fight but if you look closely you’ll also see he’s flipping you off the entire time! The boss of the carnival is a teen girl with a nice body but her head is obscured. Once you beat her you’ll discover why. While funny the game doesn’t rely on its humor to carry it as its mechanics are solid.
Despite the occasional moments of chaos overall Harmful Park falls on the easy side. You respawn instantly on death and even continuing does not send you to a checkpoint. Once you’ve figured out which weapon to use in each situation it becomes trivial. The slower pace allows for plenty of time to react when the screen is cluttered which isn’t often. Even boss battles pose little challenge if you use the ice cream cannon’s special attack. This grossly overpowered weapon destroys bosses in seconds. While I wish the game had more teeth the easygoing difficulty also makes it accessible in a way most shooters aren’t, especially from that period.
The easy difficulty also exposes the game’s short length. At six levels Harmful Park is over far too soon. With its setting they could easily have squeezed in two or three more levels and made this a classic. To be fair the game could have been twice as long and I would still want more. There are a few minigames that add longevity, especially Sky Circuit, but I would have preferred that attention being spent on the main game. It’s a brief journey but one hell of a ride from beginning to end.
As much as I wish the game were longer chances are you will play through it multiple times to ogle the graphics. This is one of the most beautiful 2d games ever made. The game is full of gorgeous artwork that really brings the setting to life and is rife with minute detail. There is vividness to the color palette that is simply exquisite and it never slows down no matter how many sprites and explosions pop off. The game is endlessly creative with its enemies; witness the Frankenstein robot controlled by a cat in his brain. Or the insanity of the beer garden in the last level. I could go on and on.
The backgrounds boast the kinds of detail we only dreamed about during the 16-bit era. There are cows being abducted by aliens, a hippo eating a princess and even a nod to Gulliver’s Travels. The layers of scrolling rarely go beyond a single layer because it isn’t necessary. There are also very few special effects. The presentation goes a long way towards showing that good art trumps technical tomfoolery. Harmful Park shows that in the right hands the PlayStation was capable of mindblowing 2d.
What an incredible game. Harmful Park is utterly fantastic and one of the best shooters of all time. Great graphics, exceptional gameplay and a wacky setting combine to create a game everyone can enjoy. Sadly it suffered from a small print run and is hard to find. If any game deserves a re-release this is it.