A little look at…Han Seimei Senki ANDOROGYNUS

(Catchy title eh?)

This 1988 game by Nihon Telenet (them Valis folks) is a Japanese computer exclusive, seeing release only on the PC-88 and the lovely MSX2. Of the two the MSX2 version looks a lot nicer but it doesn’t have the fabulous decorative border of the PC-88 release, and I just can’t resist an old game with a decorative border even if it does mean looking at background tiles that on occasion appear to have been designed by somebody who hates their job, you, and pleasant colour schemes. So, PC-88 version it is then!

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ANDOROGYNUS is an old shmup with a neat little twist – every stage in the game scrolls downwards, taking the player through a vertical cave shaft filled with all sorts of oddballs out to ruin your day. The scrolling is, err, “rustic” in its execution, but the PC-88 was never really designed for games at all, never mind ones that chuck glowing bullets about like there’s no tomorrow.

The other nice surprise with this game is how plain fair it all feels – a lot of older titles and shmups from this era (R-Type came out in 1987) were designed either as arcade-based credit-eaters or as titles that confused “Deep immersive experience” with “You’re going to spend every night for the next two months playing this with graph paper in hand or else you’ll never finish it”. In contrast ANDOROGYNUS is a game that wants you to see the end credits, it’s a game that gives you all the tools you need to do the job and has enemy patterns and level layout that expects the player to react to troubles ahead, rather than already know they’re coming (my pet hate with Rockman 2 right there). Checkpoints are frequent and while they do strip you of all your weaponry you’re always left with an incredible handy shield that not only absorbs incoming bullets also destroys regular enemies on contact, meaning that no matter where you die you’ve always got a fighting chance to make a comeback and reach the end.

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Speaking of power ups, there are a few surprises there too! Nothing too exciting on their own – a bunch of different weapons, a speed up, and a rare “second chance” item that blows up instead of you if you’re hit – but the way they sometimes mix together to create new weapon combos is very interesting and another feather in the cap of what all too easily could have been Yet Another Impossible Retro Shmup.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though – bosses are either a total pushover or keyboard-destroyingly hard and they’re all a bit too weird or abstract to feel threatening or visually impressive. The difficulty mentioned before doesn’t come from an aggressive attack pattern or (mercifully) from having the “wrong” weapon equipped either, just obscure weak points that give absolutely no indication you’re hitting the correct area unless you check a guide or get lucky and see them explode. 

But that’s only an issue that raises its head three times all game, which isn’t too bad at all considering there are thirteen levels and fourteen bosses in total, split across two loops. I consider myself to have quite a short attention span and even less skill when it comes to these games, but I was happy to stick with ANDOROGYNUS just because the game itself seemed to be more concerned with getting me back into the fight than kicking me out to the title screen at the earliest opportunity. Heck, you can see for yourself in the video at the bottom – I die once on each stage, but it doesn’t put me at a massive disadvantage the way restarting in Gradius would.

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This isn’t the sort of game that’s going to change the way you see the genre or burn itself into your mind (hideous colours aside), but for the 500 yen Project EGG are asking for it you’ll find yourself with an entertaining and unique shmup that doesn’t require the included emulator’s save state function or months of dedicated play to see to completion. There’s also some fabulous Engrish at the end referencing ANNCIENT GREECE (spelling mistake and all), because how else do you try to make a deep philosophical point in an 80’s shmup?

If you do take the plunge then of course I want to hear all about it! Don’t forget to head on over here too for an incredibly useful (Japanese) guide - http://mii5.at.webry.info/200908/article_5.html