I was suprised to learn that the original Dezaemon was actually a 1991 Famicom title – from what I can gather a lot of other people let this 8-bit shmup construction game pass them by too as this inventive game had the rather unfortunate luck of trying to pull potential customers attention away from the launch year of nothing less than the Super Famicom. Athena weren’t dissuaded though and in 1994 they came back for another go, offering a more powerful suite of shmup-creating tools as well as including a sample game called Daioh Gale, a complete six stage shooter for you to play, take apart, and then rebuild at your leisure.
Once you get going there’s a chance this example shooter may feel a little familiar to you, and that’s because it’s heavily inspired by Athena’s 1993 arcade title Daioh. Daioh Gale doesn’t make any attempt to recreate the arcade experience at home but if you take a look at some screenshots of the two of them it’s clear they’re both cut from the same cloth.
Considering it’s only there to show you what can be done it’s a very competent if not particularly noteworthy shmup – there are power ups, different shot types, bombs (which rather nicely behave differently depending on which weapon you’re using), speed ups, a shield – all pretty standard for the era. But this is actually what makes it so good, because as you’re playing you start to think ‘This would be more interesting if it had <THING> like <COOL GAME>’, or ‘I know what’ll make this exciting!’, and unlike just about any other shmup out there, Dezaemon actually lets you have a go for yourself.
This editor is as intimidating as it is exhaustive – but thankfully not unfriendly. On the whole icons all have obvious uses, everything feels pretty intuitive and strangely enough even using a controller doesn’t feel awkward, probably because at the resolution you’re working at it’s all about filling in individual pixels on a tiny grid than trying to recreate flowing curves or capture any great detail. The SNES mouse is supported if you have one around and really can’t get on with a regular pad.
So just how much can you change anyway? Well, pretty much anything and everything! Every last sprite, bullet, boss, explosion and background tile can either be edited or redrawn from scratch. Enemy shot rates, movement patterns, speed, and where they appear in a stage too. You can draw your own title screen graphics and then set them to spin, stretch and squish with just a few button presses, and when you’ve finally got all that sorted it’s time to hop on over to the music creator and make some rockin’ arcade tunes.
The downside to all this customisation and creation is that if you’re hoping for an easy way to make your own shmup Dezaemon really isn’t it, but that’s because it goes as far down into real game design as possible without getting your hands dirty with any real programming. The editor isn’t so flexible that you can code in new abilities or make an R-Type clone rather than a vertical shmup, but within the sandbox you’re given you have the tools to do a hell of a lot - and certainly far more than you’d expect from a SNES cart that contains a shmup, an art tool, a music program and all the AI/stage/layout options you need to make your very own game. Dezaemon is not going to stroke your ego or make you feel like a game design god but if you want a taste of how things really are on the other side of gaming, this is a fascinating way of experiencing all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into game creation first hand.