I really miss publishers like Vic Tokai. Like a Jaleco or Kemco they never had that breakout hit that gamers would associate with their name. Everyone reveres the bigger publishers like Capcom, Konami, and Square, and rightfully so. But the smaller guys were the ones more likely to publish lesser known but still great titles. How else would we have received gems like Conquest of the Crystal Palace or the Guardian Legend? Trouble Shooter arrived with little fanfare in a crowded shooter market. But this underrated beauty is far better than the majority of its contemporaries. This is probably the best $10-20 you’ll spend on an undiscovered classic.
Mercenaries Crystal and Madison are hired to rescue a kidnapped prince from Blackball and his lackeys. The story and aesthetic is anime to a tee. It’s doubly interesting as Trouble Shooter was released in America first. The story doesn’t take itself seriously and is actually pretty funny in spots. Try as he might villain Blackball is not taken seriously. Once you see his minions it is easy to see why. There’s also some fourth wall breaking as well. It’s not hard to see the game’s influences as even its creators acknowledge them. Both Madison and Crystal are modeled after the Dirty Pair and in fact I thought this might be a licensed title. That makes the game’s box art even more of a travesty.
Trouble Shooter flew under the radar and, uh, you can guess why. I can’t be polite about this; that box art is fucking terrible. Not that the original Japanese release was any great shakes but this abomination completely misses the plot. Instead of an anime inspired adventure starring cute teen girls we are left with middle aged women who look like they are about to fight traffic. This ranks up there with Mobile Light Force and Valis III as one of the worst box arts of all time.
The game isn’t big on power-ups as both characters are pretty strong on their own. Prior to each level you can choose from four special weapons with varying effects. Some of these like the blizzard are almost indispensable. The Tidal Wave in particular is pretty devastating against bosses as well. Rather than putting a hard cap on their use special weapons are instead governed by a meter. The meter constantly recharges very fast, allowing multiple uses per stage.
In a pretty unique idea for its time you control both Madison and Crystal simultaneously. While you directly control Madison Crystal is always on her tail. You can either have her cover your back or provide additional focused fire. You can also reposition her slightly depending on your movements. This works out great since you only take damage if Madison is hit. If you make it deep enough you even get to control three characters at once!
In terms of gameplay Trouble Shooter is similar to Forgotten Worlds. Except here you aren’t controlling a rotary cannon. The game’s story might be silly but when it comes to its action it is all business. The game isn’t the most original as you’ll see obvious homages to R-Type and Gradius. But its handled so well it doesn’t matter. Although the levels scroll in every direction I found the design to be focused around navigating tight spaces with hordes of enemies approaching. The action rarely lets up and the game is better for it.
I’ve made many comparisons to other shooters but Trouble Shooter is uniquely its own thing thanks to its goofy humor. Many of the bosses look menacing but are played for laughs. The first boss is a giant mech that spends all of its time laughing at you instead of attacking. Stage three is a cool assault on an airship but it quickly becomes comical once its boss appears. This giant robot is riding an exercise bike that produces projectiles as he pedals! Even ultimate villain Blackball comes across as a goof; he’s wearing a rodent as a helmet. The humor isn’t used to mask a sub par game though but instead adds character to an already great shooter.
Trouble Shooter presents a moderate challenge for shooter fans of all stripes. Madison is equipped with a generous life bar and life restoring hearts appear regularly. This was probably done because both protagonists present large targets. Despite that you’ll be surprised to learn you only have a single life and three credits. It may sound daunting but the game is completely fair. Using Crystal’s invincibility to cheese boss fights is incredibly satisfying. The game is short enough that even death isn’t that much of a setback. As much as I would have like a few more levels this still feels like a complete package.
Trouble Shooter is a great game saddled with tragic box art that deserved better. Ignore that and you will be rewarded with one of the most intense and original shooters on the system. For the cheap price it goes for this is an absolute steal.