Back in the late eighties and early nineties Hudson’s summer caravan events were a bit of a big deal, with gamers across Japan practising that year’s official tournament soft for fame, glory, and whatever else came as the reward for beating everyone else after intense practise and blistered thumbs two decades ago (A speedboat? A teasmade?). In 1991 Naxat decided they wanted a taste of this success and gamer-worship for themselves, and took on the mighty Bomberman creator at their own game for with Spriggan, then Recca and Alzadick the year after, before finishing off their ‘carnivals’ in 1993 with Nexzr Special.
The main game here is identical to the standard release from 1992 bar the removal of the (impressive) opening and pre-final boss cutscenes, which means you get a space-themed vertical shmup with an emphasis on memorisation. It’s also damned hard if you ask me, and after a few failed attempts to get anywhere I found myself scuttling off to the options menu with my tail between my legs ready to knock the difficulty down to easy only to find… there is no easy. As it turns out ‘normal’ is not only the default but also as laid-back as the game gets, with three harder difficulty settings (one hidden behind this cheat) but no way to make the game easier other than spending less time crying and more time practising – especially as the game uses a checkpoint-style restart system, making credit feeding as a means to stumble through the standard mode’s seven stages to see the ending in half an hour impossible.
The shmupping itself is about as straightforward as the genre gets with just one button to rest your thumb on and no bombs, charge shots, power levels, or fancy R-Type-style ship attachments to worry about. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of collectibles, and Nexzr Special uses a simple mix-and-match weaponry system that lets you swap out your main and sub weapons independently of each other. Of the three main shot types the most useful is probably one of the two that let you fire at a 45° angle, as bullets tend to be small and fast or GIANT LASERS that appear with little warning, so keeping off to the side will increase your chances of survival immeasurably, arguably even more so than picking up the one-hit-and-it’s-gone shield that turns up every now and again.
You’ll need to get the hang of shooting down as many enemies as possible because even on normal a lot of the regular enemy ships will take a shot at you on the way down the screen, then cheekily fire another one backwards at you, when they’re almost off-screen if you don’t kill them before they pass you by. It took me a while to adjust to the way these little sods behaved, and even now I know it’s coming I still think it’s a rather mean-spirited tactic to include as a standard feature on ‘popcorn’ enemies.
But if you’re interested in reading about Nexzr Special you’re probably here for the fast paced scoring challenges found in the ‘carnival’ mode, and the good news for the gamer lacking patience or skill (or both, if you’re like me) is that the score and time attack variants found here are both simultaneously more complex than the main game while also being a lot kinder to the player’s life counter.
The only objective in these modes is to rack up the biggest score you can, either the highest amount within a two minute time limit or the quickest to 1,000,000 points, depending on the mode you’ve picked. Memorisation is still important for the really high watch-me-on-YouTube scores but it definitely takes a back seat to playing aggressively and reacting on the fly to your immediate situation, which is always nice. The brevity of these modes and the general easing-off of enemy fire makes for a short but intense burst of shmupping that’s fun even if you’ve never been anywhere near the game before while still offering players with more free time a layered challenge that grows with their skills.
It’s easy to see why Nexzr Special’s got a good reputation, as it’s
obscure and expensive a visually impressive shmup for 1993 with a lot of action and a lengthy challenge: but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not a cheap purchase, a fact that’s only highlighted by the centrepiece mode lasting just 120 seconds and the more fully-featured alternative being a re-release of a game from the year before with the fanciest bits taken out. But even with those issues Special’s exclusive carnival modes offer exactly the sort of pick-up-and-play depth I love, and being able to switch between the immediacy of Carnival and the more long-term challenge of standard Nexzr makes the game feel like a package with a bit of something for everyone. It’s fair to say that in an era where some of the PC Engine’s greatest shmups can be bought digitally for a mere ¥617 each, or for those who just can’t get enough of the real thing for prices that tend to be on the ‘less than Nexzr Special’ end of the scale, this isn’t the easiest recommendation in the world. But if you do find yourself in the mood for some premium-price shmupping then it’s unlikely that Nexzr Special would leave you disappointed.