Out for a while now on the Japanese PSN, I review the PS1 shmup Gaia Seed - in a similar vein to HG101's Digital Pick of the Week.
I’d seen Gaia Seed, a hori shmup originally released in 1996, on the Japanese PSN a while back, and the three screenshots they included made it look interesting (why the hell don’t the US and UK PSN stores have screens for PS1 games?). But with only 2000 Yen left and the extreme difficulty of getting point cards cheaply, I was reluctant to buy it on a whim. Then Dave Halverson’s PLAY magazine had a six page feature on shmups (which is in itself an incredible event considering how it’s become such a maligned genre), where they covered each system’s download titles. Gaia Seed was mentioned as being extremely rare. A quick check on eBay showed copies for $150 and upwards, and then I realised I had some spare Hong Kong dollars on my HK account!
Unfortunately, Gaia Seed’s quality doesn’t match its high prices.
It has a few cool ideas, like a constantly, slowly recharging health bar and the fact that enemy shots continue to cause damage for as long as you’re in contact with them. This is ingenious and makes every encounter, no matter how badly you’ve done so far, feel like you can just about scrape through if you keep it together, and boss battles can get quite tense as you scrape by on the skin of your teeth. But beyond this the design is average and the game quite easy (less than hour with continues, maybe a weekend without). Enemy patterns are predictable, while their fire is slow and easily confused with background elements. Weapons consist solely of two main weapons which can be powered up and two sub-weapons, with a power-bomb-type weapon based on your currently collected main weapon. The power weapon runs off a continually charging bar, so is technically infinite if you can survive long enough.
It’s very basic 2 by 2 weapons set-up, and you’re likely to end up sticking with RED for main weapons (since it gives you a homing power attack), and GREEN for sub weapons. But this actually works in the game’s favour – shmups like Radiant Silvergun gave the player a plethora of weapons all at once, which was confusing, whereas Gaia Seed harks back 1980s-style shooters where the choices were limited. Personally I like a gradually increasing roster, ala Axelay, but hey, that’s just me.
Visually the game disappoints. The front end is poor, the intro ropey (in-game dialogue is read in English by people who have never spoken it before), and the graphics, while there are a few clever rotational tricks, are less than what you’d expect from a good 16-bit shooter. Parallax scrolling ranges from a single plane consisting of one giant, bland, moving bitmap, to about 3 layers on some levels. Not much transparency, and not much that stands out. A far cry from the glory days of games like Thunder Force IV. In its defence though, this kind of 2D laziness became prevalent across the board when people started becoming obsessed with 3D around the late-1990s. Still, I miss the era of 8-and-more layers of parallaxic fantastica.
What does stand out, and almost makes it worth the download, is the soundtrack. It’s unconventional to the point of being either refreshingly excellent or hopeless inappropriate. The music is ambient, with a lot of sampled chanting. Some tracks sound as if they’ve been ripped straight from Panzer Dragoon Saga (stage 2), others blend classical and techno, and one sounds like a machine trying to compose hip-hop (stage 3 boss). It’s eclectic, strange, and very good.
Generally, playing GS reminds me of a whole bunch of other excellent hori shmups I’d rather be playing instead. Keio’s Flying Squadron (which featured simultaneous horizontal and vertical parallax scrolling!), Biometal (with music by 2 Unlimited), Darius 2, or Einhander, which is also on PS1 and PSN, for the same price as GS. And that’s the crunch. There’s a lot of other, much better shmups on PSN, all vying for your limited supply of Yen or Hong Kong dollars.
But I don’t want to criticise it too much, because it’s doing precisely what I want from PSN: making forgotten, obscure and rare games available to the public for a low price. And considering how under-represented the shmup genre is these days, I’ll eat saccharin and call it honey if it gets my mind into that one-credit zone. Gaia Seed is fun, and certainly superior to Soldner-X (which was terrible). If you’ve already got Einhander, the Taito Raystorm/Crisis games, Darius, Cotton, Gunner’s Heaven, and hell even Cho Aniki, then Gaia Seed is worth adding to your collection – just make sure it’s low down on your PSN list.
Before finishing off, I’d like to add that there’s a clever trick to finishing the game. Each boss comes with a timer to defeat it within, and to see the true ending and final boss, you need to let the timer run down without killing him – just avoid his attacks.
Most screenshots stolen from this guy.