Mission Start!

  • Developer: Sting
  • Publisher: Data East (PC Engine), Sting (Sharp X68000), G-Mode (Wii Virtual Console, Windows)
  • Release Date: January 8th, 1991 (PC Engine), November 15th, 1991 (Sharp X68000), September 4th, 2007 (Wii Virtual Console), May 16th, 2017 (Windows)
  • Available On: PC Engine, Sharp X68000, Wii Virtual Console, Windows (PC Engine version via Project EGG)
  • Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up (Vertical), Sci-fi
  • Also Known As: Last Battalion (Sharp X68000 version)

You ever look up a game’s credits or developer and then clap with glee once you realize it’s a name that has never let you down? That’s what happened to me with Override here – the Data East publishing and the fact it’s a shoot ’em up wouldn’t make it easy to call this, but Override is actually a Sting joint! For those unaware, Sting has been around since 1989 and made a name for themselves over the years through unique RPGs like Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union, complex roguelikes with wild visuals and intentional hostility like Baroque, games that combine elements of roguelikes and other genres like Evolution and Knights in the Nightmare, and games like Dokapon Kingdom that just want to watch the world and its players burn. They’re pretty much as niche as you can get in terms of making things for a very specific audience, but if their particular sensibilities click with you, then hoo boy are you in for some good times! I’ve only ever played Riviera to completion, but I had a great time learning how to get things done in it and my brief samplings of Evolution and Baroque instantly impressed me and made me realize that Sting is a developer that knows how to speak to me. Dokapon Kingdom is some of the best multiplayer gaming you can get if you have friends willing to take some punches; seriously, some of the funniest moments in games that I’ve had have come from introducing unsuspecting friends to Dokapon Kingdom and its unbridled viciousness! It’s funny, then, that I still haven’t finished most of their games, but time, backlogs, and a burning passion to write at length about games make fools of us all, I suppose! Override here is both a perfect opportunity to start at the beginning of Sting’s catalog while also getting a look into their initial design philosophy and tastes that led them down the path they would eventually take. Baroque wasn’t until 1997, after all. Man, I love it when random picks work out like this! I’ll play anything and everything out of curiosity, frankly, but I do have my personal biases, so I’m naturally gonna be extra eager whenever obscure/unusual JRPG developers come up even if the specific game isn’t a JRPG.

I had a whole straightforward spiel relating to Override being their first game ready based on what Wikipedia says, but upon further investigation, the situation is a bit more complicated than I expected. According to Mobygames, Psycho Chaser was actually their first credited game in 1990, but if you look on Sting’s official website, it says on their Last Battalion page that it was their first in-house work, which leads me to believe Psycho Chaser may have been contracted work for them. Their website’s game list also seems to skip a bunch of their credited stuff per Mobygames in general, including things like Extra Innings and TKO Super Championship Boxing. Japanese Wikipedia makes things even more confusing by not listing Psycho Chaser at all on Sting’s page! Regardless of whether or not Override was their first or second game, Override is very much in the same vein as Psycho Chaser to the point that I believe they warrant comparison (which I’ll do throughout this post): both are shoot ’em ups with cool box art, they have names that don’t really tell you much about them, and both have at least one thing going for them that helps them stand out a bit in a genre that was heavily covered on the PC Engine. All six people who worked on Psycho Chaser ended up working on Override as well (alongside the addition of Game Designers Hiromichi Sueyoshi and “Arabu” and Hozumi Yoshida in the Special Thanks section), which does a lot to explain their general similarities and does lend credence to the idea of Override as something of a spiritual sequel to their previous project. That whole thing about having something that stands out does apply more to Psycho Chaser than Override if I’m being honest, though; as solid as Override is, you could make the argument that it’s a step down from Psycho Chaser in pretty much every way, from its lower difficulty to its less varied aesthetics and its (even) simpler mechanics. Still, I think this one is worth approaching in the same way that Imperium is – it may not be the shining jewel of the genre nor is it something that innovates upon it, but it’s still a good time with a thing or two to say, and isn’t that all that really matters?

If you take a moment to look at a video (or any of the screenshots I have here), you probably won’t spot anything out of the ordinary. This is one shoot ’em up as heck shoot ’em up and that remains true throughout. You shoot things, try not to be shot, and collect power-ups to make the shooting easier. Heck, there aren’t even bombs for screen clears like in most shoot ’em ups or grounded enemies to worry about like in Xevious and the millions of games it inspired! So what does Override do differently, exactly? For starters, you can take four hits before going down and you can occasionally find power-ups that heal you, which is surprisingly generous compared to other games in the genre. Multiple units of health isn’t unprecedented in the genre, but it’s rare, and some games (like Cyber Core, another PC Engine shoot ’em up) make you earn the ability to take multiple hits and aren’t afraid to take it away from you, which Override never does. I imagine this is the kind of thing that experienced players will scoff at, but as someone who only plays the genre occasionally, I really appreciated having this safety net. It’s nice to be able to learn from mistakes in a less punishing way while still having to finesse your way out of dangerous situations constantly so you get the thrills of near-death experiences without having to start over or lose everything. Four hits is generous, but you don’t get invincibility frames after getting hit, so if you don’t immediately move or if you panic and fly around randomly, you’ll incur more hits than you expected. Losing a life also drains you of all your power-ups, so when you finally do get shot down, you’re still appropriately punished for making multiple mistakes. That’s exactly the kind of subversive and smart design that Sting does well: you have to punish the player for messing up, of course, but you don’t have to do it the same way that everybody else does, so why not try a different approach that gets the message across without making it an all or nothing thing? I’m not super familiar with “Euroshmups” as they’re called, but a lot of them tend to include features like this that get a lot of flack from shoot ’em up fans, and that seems like a shame if I’m being honest. I’m no authority on this genre, trust me, but trying to snuff out all other design philosophies except the one you like seems like a good way to scare people away from trying out your genre, which would be deeply unfortunate – shoot ’em ups are cool, but they take time and study to show their true potential, so everybody should have someplace they feel comfortable starting at even if it’s much easier or much different than the accepted norm.

The Sharp X68000 version seems to have a bug where it randomly grants you the maximum amount of points after clearing a level, granting you 20+ lives on the spot (but also preventing you from earning more). Trust me, I’m not this good normally!

Another thing Override plays with is how power-ups work. There are two kinds of power-ups you can find by shooting down pods, literal “power ups” that make your primary projectiles stronger and power-ups that provide a supplementary projectile of some kind (which get stronger if you collect more of the same one). Both are vital to your success – it doesn’t matter how cool looking your laser is if it’s too puny to shoot down enemies – but your projectile type is much more flexible. Power boosts stay with you until you lose a life, but unlike some other games, grabbing a different weapon type doesn’t reset either of your power levels. This approach encourages plenty of flexibility and quick thinking while still giving you moments in which you need to make split second decisions. Because you don’t have to worry about giving everything up to make a swap, you can experiment with different weapons in different sections to plan out a granular approach that works for you without ruining your current run. There’s several options and they’re all quite good, too; you’ve got a spread shot, one that has drones circle you for protection and additional firepower, shots that come from your sides, laser drones that trail behind you, allowing you to place them to deal damage while safety staying away from fire, and one particularly unusual one that lets you rotate 360°, allowing for diagonal fire. I found all of these useful in different situations (though the rotating one was a bit difficult to control!), so I absolutely took advantage of the ease of swapping throughout.

Being able to rotate and shoot diagonally in a shoot ’em up feels really strange, though I guess it does have its roots in games like Asteroids…

This system is a rejection of the one seen in Psycho Chaser, which gives you everything at once and just lets you switch with a button at will. The upgrade system between levels is woefully missed here (I like upgrade systems, what can I say?), but beyond that, I think Override’s take is a bit more interesting because of how it makes you commit while arguably being more fitting for the game in question as well. Psycho Chaser has you playing as a hulking robot that’s designed to be a Swiss army knife and a one man army, whereas Override gives more of an impression that you’re just some guy thrown into a situation with minimal support. I suppose, then, it makes more sense that you need to procure things on-site and do whatever it takes to survive. If you make a bad call and miss or grab the wrong power-up, you may find yourself regretting it down the road, which is a level of emotional investment and turmoil that Psycho Chaser can’t quite reach with its systems. Sting really seems to have taken well to this approach of resource management and decision making because it comes up in many of their future works. Roguelikes are obviously chock full of tense situations where you need to work with what you’re given and Baroque is so harsh and confusing that it’s probably one of the peak examples of “living with what you’ve got”. Evolution has its share of randomized dungeons too, but it also forces you to choose who to bring into dungeons as your third party member, preventing you from easily rotating as needed. If your chosen member isn’t a good match for the challenges ahead, you’ll have to either wing it or try a different approach next time. Riviera is perhaps the most restrictive of them all since it forces you to bring just four items into battle and make do with that, subverting the common RPG situation where people hoard loads of items for the end only to never use them even when they could have at any time. There’s beauty in survival when it comes from ingenuity and decision making, your teeth clenching as you trust your gut and jump into the fray with a hope and a prayer, and Sting captures the allure of this exceptionally well in nearly everything that they do.

Bombs might not be in the game, but you have something that’s even better once you get a feel for it. If you refrain from shooting for several seconds, your ship will charge up for an exceptionally powerful attack. Let that bad boy out and you’ll cover the screen in wavy projectiles, destroying most things with ease. Even bosses can only take a few of these! It seems a bit busted for you to have infinite access to such a powerful weapon, and it kinda is if I’m being honest, but I do think there was consideration put into its incorporation. In order to use this charge shot, you have to leave yourself vulnerable for several seconds, and in a game that loves to have enemies fly straight at you, that’s a pretty scary thing to do! To make things even spicier, getting hit resets the timer on the charge, so you get punished AND you have to start over if you mess up. This results in the use of the charge shot creating a roller coaster of an experience; in some parts, you’ll hit the perfect tempo, blasting away with perfectly calculated salvos that stop enemies just before they get you, which allows you to sail through levels with relative ease. Other times, you’ll try to use the charge shot but miscalculate your timing, creating a snowball effect where you get hit, don’t fight back because you’re desperate to get that charge going, only to get hit more than you would have if you just used normal shots instead. I think this layer of complexity, even if that word perhaps oversells it a bit, does a lot for the moment to moment action. You have to be smart about which approach you take and recognize the feedback you get based on the choices you make. Rather than just holding down the shoot button and drowning out the music, you have to find the best times to do that instead, knowledge that makes subsequent playthroughs even more reasonable. It’s a relatively basic thing, but the way it changes how you think about and approach the game makes it even more compelling to me than the trade-off between safety and points that bombs usually introduce, so it’s a little twist I’d like to see elsewhere.

Really, if there’s one place Override falls short, it’s with its presentation. I don’t mean in terms of performance or anything like that because this game runs fast and smoothly with nary a lull in the action, but in terms of everything else. It’s not a bad looking game, but it feels like it’s missing a hook of some kind. A lot of shoot ’em ups, or even just sci-fi games in general, like to get weirder or creepier as they go on, throwing you into environments that look like (or are!) the insides of some kind of creature as a way of making the finale feel like an unraveling of the truth. You’ve made it to the enemy base, fought your way through the alien hordes, so now you get to see where these fellas come from and what their origins look like. Everything gets freaky, everything gets more and more dangerous, and it works every time! But Override never feels like it hits a proper climax. After an exciting introductory level, you fly inside a crater to get deeper inside the planet, which is pretty cool, but from there, you alternate between lava-filled plains and mechanical corridors with nothing but various kinds of planes, robots, and turrets to deal with. It’s functional, but it’s never exciting, and aside from some solid boss designs (the final boss is essentially a mechanical heart, so that’s more like it!), it never dares to do anything to surprise you. Considering how unbelievably creative Sting would later become, I guess you could attribute this to Sting being green and new to the scene. Even that isn’t necessarily a foolproof theory, though, because Psycho Chaser had more variety going for it, from having you traipse across some kind of beastly ribcage to having you shoot down freaky alien birds, beasts, and bugs, so it’s unfortunate that they got more subdued for this follow-up. As I briefly mentioned, the boss fights are quite good, including a machine that actively protects its weak point, a robot that divides into two to attack you from above and below, and another machine that uses its long arm-like things to trap you, but the final level is “wasted” on a boss rush that changes nothing about them, which could have been used for a more exciting finale instead.

Later in 1991, Sting decided to revisit Override and remake it for the Sharp X68000, publishing it on their own and renaming it to Last Battalion in the process. This is easily what I’d call the definitive version of the game (this is also the version Sting lists on their official website) because they really went all-out with it! For starters, instead of the original game’s total lack of story (the PC Engine version doesn’t even have an ending beyond the credits!), Last Battalion has a complete backstory with newly introduced characters, all of which is lovingly detailed in-game through cutscenes and on the company’s website. Instead of a nameless ship, you now play as Kane Asagiri, the American ace pilot of the Gigaias, who is assisted by Emily von Willwald, a green-haired girl who clearly has a thing for our new hero. I guess you could say this is a prelude to Riviera’s romantic focus and cast of women dedicated to being into the protagonist! It’s not a particularly deep story, focusing on a malfunctioning supercomputer called Freya that cuts the rest of the world off from Uranus, but the cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous! The characters have some of the smoothest blinking and mouth animations that I can think of and the illustrations make the whole thing look like the coolest anime that never actually existed. In particular, Emily does this little wink and head tilt that’s so expressive that it makes her romantic interest obvious even if you can’t read Japanese and I absolutely love the way this is animated. They don’t get to flex on this level for the ending, using only still images (that still look lovingly detailed, mind you) but to compensate for the original version, there’s now two endings! Beating the game once gets you the first ending, but if you can complete the harder second loop, you get to see a second ending where Kane and Emily get married, which is a sweet way to top off a challenge that’s much harsher than anything in the original version.

Aside from the new story, the gameplay itself has seen many changes. Last Battalion is a much more challenging game than Override, likely a response to that game’s low difficulty. The options menu now gives you Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties alongside the ability to select your starting lives and even display size for your monitor. Enemies are faster and seem to like coming in larger groups, and they also really love to divebomb you now. There are entirely new enemy types and formations and they’ve even thrown in new minibosses to throw off anyone familiar with the original game. Power-ups are much more scarce than they used to be, making both your choices and your mistakes that much more costly, but they all feel stronger as well, featuring bigger hitboxes and flashier visual effects. Some of the levels have even gone through some changes, the most significant being the first level, which is now a battle in space instead of a flight over a green valley, making for something that properly matches up with the opening cutscene. The environments afterwards have seen changes as well, offering more variety between them. The highlight is the new look for stage 4, which has you flying over a bunch of blood red rectangles that kinda resemble the towers on the startup screen for the Playstation 2! Bosses were tweaked both mechanically and visually as well, the final boss being the most notable example; instead of a mechanical heart, it’s now a menacing face that uses arms to lunge at you, and they also narrowed the playing field to prevent you from using the sides to easily dodge its attacks (something that worked well in the PC Engine version). Last Battalion is a great remake because it manages to satisfy all kinds of prospective players: those who may be less “hardcore” and more interested in things like presentation and story will find a much more satisfying experience here, but the expert shoot ‘em up players aren’t left out to dry either because they now have access to options that allow for a more challenging experience that doesn’t eliminate the game’s original identity and all it did to try to stand out.

Override might not be the most exceptional shoot ‘em up ever, but it’s one that does nearly everything well, and the things it doesn’t do as well were corrected for its remake, which is a privilege most games don’t get to experience. Between the PC Engine version’s approachability and the Sharp X68000 version’s added bells and whistles, there’s something here for everyone who has even a passing interest in shoot ‘em ups. Override can be safely recommended for those unfamiliar with the genre as something that’s reasonable for them to finish (I beat it on my first attempt thanks to how generous it is with granting extra lives), whereas veteran players can try to go for Last Battalion’s elusive second ending to get the thrills they seek. Though it doesn’t make any dramatic changes to the STG formula, the things it does change work in its favor; the charge shot is a great way to ensure players are always empowered and never have to deal with the Gradius Problem, and the power-up system encourages experimentation while allowing for a generous number of mistakes. I’m somewhat surprised that this one never makes it to lists of recommended PC Engine games because I think it’s a great starting point for exploring the genre. Sure, it may not be as intense as CD options like Lords of Thunder or as silly as something like Air Zonk, but it takes all kinds to make a genre interesting and diverse, and at least from my (admittedly limited) personal experience, Override has a place in the PC Engine pantheon as a worthy workhorse that prepares you to enjoy the system’s many delights. I can’t think of a single bad game to ever come out of Sting and this game just further confirms that statement. Man, Sting really is cool!

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