Shoot’em ups with in-depth storylines are a dime a dozen, and even one of the earliest vertical shooters, Xevious, had a full length novel devoted to it by its creator, Masanobu Endō. What is rare even today, however, is a shoot’em up where that story is actually fully presented throughout the game itself rather than in a brisk intro or an obscure piece of merchandise. Instead, like the Ninja Gaiden series Down Load offers cool interludes between every level as we follow Syd and Deva through the plot’s few but earthshaking revelations about the game’s antagonists. All of the characters are designed by Masaomi Kanzaki. Kanzaki is best known for illustrating manga like Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior in 1986 and the 1993 adaptation of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, but his style is also a perfect match for Down Load, and it’s easy to see how his style also influenced the general aesthetic of the game.
The game’s numerous cutscenes are
colorful and wonderfully expressive.
The story itself was created and written by Wataru Nakajima, who also produced an OVA based on it one year later that sadly executed with less success than the game itself. With an aesthetic that never rises above “sad ripoff of Dominion Tank Police” compared to Endo’s original designs for the game. It’s also especially bad since Madhouse produced it, and they released a certain other cyberpunk OVA just a year prior. Still it’s worth mentioning here though because Nakajima managed to somehow get a few Hiroshi “Monsieur” Kamayatsu songs onto the soundtrack! In the game itself, our intro opens up with a hacker named Syd getting a frenzied message from a friend just as he gets in over his head with a potentially new life form. Soon the city’s authorities are alerted to Syd’s presence, and as soon as the intro ends players are thrown into the deep end.
The first thing players will notice about this game is that it’s fast. Enemies fly in from all over the place a merciless clip, and without the rampant slowdown seen in many console shooters of the time the game is always intense. To put it in perspective, it won’t be uncommon to have around eight to twelve enemies on the screen at once, most of which are actively shooting at the player, and have that situation cause only a minimal amount of flicker, and almost no slowdown. This is a technically accomplished that still makes time for cool details like the sunrise subtly lighting up the bleak cyberpunk hellscape of the first level’s introduction as players fly through it.
Everyone’s out to get you, but don’t
miss the game’s great use of
light and shadow.
The graphics get even more interesting during the game’s cyberspace levels. The grungy urban landscape gives way to bright, surreal spaces and enemies that get more and more abstract as the game on. These levels use some exceptional parallax scrolling trickery, with very detailed “foreground” elements shared across the top and bottom layers of the background that make them feel even faster than the game’s real world areas. The effect is almost disorienting since these levels also have enemies appearing out of nowhere in higher numbers and more complex patterns than what Syd has to contend with otherwise. Some cool sprite trickery is employed here to even given the impression of some of them flying towards Syd from the levels’ background elements.
The game’s visuals also change to suit the story very consistently. Syd’s vehicle is a futuristic flying bike, but is given a subtly sleeker treatment with an enclosed opaque cockpit during the game’s cyberspace levels. There’s also a brief stage where Syd flies from earth to board a space station during which his vehicle has some extra engines and hardware attached to it to ensure a safe trip. Due to the game’s difficulty however, the visual detail most players will immediately run into is its variety of game over screens.
These change from area to area to show off various bosses throughout the game as well as depictions of Syd just prior to being incinerated in his own vehicle. It would have been easy to not even have these and use more traditional “Game Over” text, but the extra bits of dialogue and imagery do a nice job of showing the horrible odds Syd is up against throughout the game. Most importantly, however, is that unlike the rest of the in-game story the dialogues that accompany each game over are written in badly worded English. These brief last words have provided plenty of amusement for English speaking PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 fans, a family of systems already famous for its regular butchering of both the English language and the English voice. That we get liberal use of the words “fuck” and “shit” out of Down Load‘s game over screens, however, has earned the game some cult appreciation.
The cyberspace levels are FAST and
make great use of parallax scrolling.
The alternately suspenseful and hard rocking soundtrack is perfect for the Down Load‘s fast action and dark atmosphere, with most of the game’s music being on the low side punctuated by some more aggressive tracks. One can tell that Yasuhiko Fukuda is a Judas Priest fan, listen carefully for a few seconds of Electric Eye during the first cyberspace cutscene, along with some other musical influences. This still gives Down Load a unique aesthetic, making it stand out against other 1990 PCE shooters be they the derivative Double Ring, the excellent Super Star Soldier, or the embarrassingly awful Deep Blue. The soundtrack may seem like an outlier for composer Yasuhiko Fukuda. Down Load was his second original soundtrack after some work with Data East’s Tantei Jingūji Saburō detective series, but everything he’s done since has been cheerful music for more colorful games that include SmartBall and various installments of the Bomberman series. Outside of video games, however, he’s composed music for various animated productions throughout the 80s and early 90s, and the more suspenseful moments found in them make it easy to see why he was a perfect choice to create music for Down Load‘s setting. On a system with a wonderfully varied library of shooters both exclusive and ported from the arcades Down Load still manages to stand out and create its own identity with both its surreal cyberspace backgrounds as well as its urban cyberpunk aesthetic.
It’s not quite perfect however, Down Load commits a mortal sin that makes things a bit unfair: Each time Syd gets hit, his weapon’s strength is decreased. In other words, one could be making their way through a level successfully, only to find the boss at the end to be absurdly difficult because they took one or two hits just before the encounter. The second stage’s boss in particular may be brick wall for new players due to how much of the screen it takes up and the surprisingly wide range of laser fire it throws at the player along with some other attacks. It also makes the game’s weapons a bit more challenging to learn.
The variety of weapons is nice, but
theke rning in this gam eare sick!
At the beginning of each stage players get to select what weapons they’d like to fly into battle with. There are only five in total, but each one is very different, and balancing them by giving each a different amount of ammunition per level is a cool idea not many shooters have used (an early example of games that do are ADK/SNK’s Sky Soldiers, Time Soldiers, and Sky Adventure). The first thing players get to choose is whether they’d like their main weapon to be a laser that fires straight ahead and can pierce enemies or a cannon that is weaker but fires in a wide spread when upgraded. One then get to pick one of three alternate weapons to take along as well. The first is a rapid firing pair of homing missiles, the second is a drone that can absorb enemy fire and use it to create a powerful explosion, and the third is a big metal shield that the player can rotate around their vehicle to protect them from most enemy projectiles. On top of that, the speed of Syd’s bike can be adjusted at any time to one of four settings, something players must always keep in mind for a game that very mercilessly requires quickly get from one side of the screen to the other or to stay in one place and precisely dodge incoming projectiles.
This sounds like it would provide for a great level of variety and flexibility to how players approach the game, but very little thought was put into the potentially interesting weapons at Syd’s disposal. The shield can only actually take fifteen hits before it becomes ineffective, making it not worth the extra second needed to rotate it into different position. It’s also quite large, and will absorb plenty of enemy fire that, were it not equipped, would have missed the player completely. The drone seems like it would be the most useful, but it automatically detonates after absorbing only five bullets (or colliding with an enemy. In a game with plenty of small craft constantly flying in to attack this makes it almost impossible to use strategically. The player can choose to detonate it early, however, and this seems like the best use for it, making what could have been the most interesting weapon into one of the most typical things in the genre: tap a button and a big explosion happens.
Now, the homing missiles on the other hand are fantastic. The player can equip 94 of them per level. They fire in pairs, do a good amount of damage, move fast, have good seeking ability, and can even destroy some enemy bullets and attacks! There’s no reason to use anything but these, and they’re a lifesaver during the game’s many boss fights. Fortunately, while the weapons are not as balanced as they seem to be on the surface, all of these options justify their presence with their badly edited (concept of kerning is a site to behold) English language names and descriptions. And it is worth switching from the cannon to that laser for the cyberspace levels since it’s piercing effect makes it ideal for the large swarms of weak enemies that regularly show up there.
That consistency with the game’s enemy placement, the focused soundtrack, cool character designs, and of course the proto-90s cyberpunk aesthetic makes Down Load one of my favorite PC Engine games. And there’s even a sequel for the PCE CD that rocks almost as much, making the series one of the coolest exclusives on the system! Now behold, the many deaths of Syd!
The image and message vary depending on what segment
of each stage the player gets their game over in.
I almost forgot! Like many PC Engine action games, Down Load’s manual is a simple foldout pamphlet rather than a stapled booklet. The coolest example of this is for the game Metal Stoker.