Fire Shark: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis

Fire Shark: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis
Fire Shark: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis

Insert Disk collects Fire Shark for the Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis.

Today’s retro game review is Fire Shark for the Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis. This retro gaming classic has become a popular Toaplan shooter in recent years. Originally released in the arcade, it quickly made its way on to Sega’s 16-bit consoles. Initially the prices were at a bargain bin level, these days though they command significant prices for collectors.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. I thought that it would be worth a trip back to the good old days of the simple vertical shooter today. The Sega Mega Drive was of course in no shortage of shooters early on in its life cycle but one more never hurts. Join me today as I take a look back at Fire Shark for the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis.

So, what do we have here? Well, quite simply put. On the surface, yet another generic early 90’s shooter. Now that statement isn’t going to play well with everyone but deep down I think we all know that there’s a bit of truth in this. Does Fire Shark look as good as Battle Squadron?… not really. In terms of sound track is there really anything memorable here?… Perhaps not. Is the box art anything special…? I’d struggle to tell you it competes well against some of the other shooters on the system. So, why am I even bothering to review this one? You may ask.

Well, if nothing else it’s for completionists sake and also that I would like to highlight some of the charms of the game. Afterall, this is a game that has become very popular in recent years and even the most elusive of things in the Mega 16-bit world, a re-issue. To best understand Fire Shark we have to travel back to the arcade. Japan 1988 to be precise and the release of Truxton (or Tatsujin to give the game its native title). It was a time when vertical shooters were a go to staple of the arcade. Let’s face it, late 80’s and early 90’s pumped these out faster than Street Fighter 2 variants back in the day.

Truxton quickly became Toaplan’s leading shooter. With simple graphics, fast flowing gameplay and instant appeal it was the ideal arcade game for grabbing arcade goer’s money. As with many games it wasn’t uncommon to then re-use assets and code in other games. The following year in 1989 Fire Shark would hit the arcades and yes, you wouldn’t be the first to notice that this is a bit of a reskin of the original concept. The playfield layout, power bars, bomb mechanic and general gameplay all being virtually identical. However, it would be unfair to simply call Fire Shark a reskin of Truxton. There are of course new enemies, different settings, attack patterns and a lot more going on here. Truxton often gets a bit of an easy ride being set in space, there’s a lot of easy to draw scenery there. Fire Shark does up the quality here in more varied locations.

So, Fire Shark essentially trumped Truxton as it was the natural successor for Toaplan. An easy to produce sister game. Before I go on too far with Fire Shark though it is important to understand Toaplan’s wider release schedule in this era. The same year, April 1989 saw Toaplan’s arcade release of Hellfire. This time a side scrolling shooter with a rather novel weaponry shifting mechanic. Move forward to October 1989 and Toaplan released the infamous Zero Wing. Yet another side scrolling shooter with suspiciously numerous similarities to Hellfire. Although of course with enough to change up the formula. I’ll perhaps make a specific episode on what was going on at Toaplan at the time but for now it’s enough to know that by the end of 1989 Toaplan had 4 decent arcade shooters on their hands.

Now, who do we know that has roots in the arcade? Good old Sega of course.
Who do we know that just released a new 16-bit console needing third party support? Good old Sega. Sega’s ability to bring the arcade in to the home was something that was very much their strong point. Golden axe, Super Hang On, Space Harrier 2, After Burner, Out Run, Altered Beast and the list goes on. Yes, the early arcade to Mega Drive was very much a signature strategy of the system in the early years. With Toaplan’s range of arcade shooters and Sega’s arcade to home strategy in full force this was one of the most obvious collaboration deals in history.

Afterall, Nintendo’s licencing model and strict guidance had effectively priced out many third-party developers during this time. Sega were free to fill their boots with arcade conversions. So, Sega fans received decent home versions of Hellfire, Truxton, Fire shark and Zero Wing. By 1992 every region had a full complement of games. So, bringing us back full circle to Fire Shark and why I led with the statement that. On the surface, it was yet another generic early 90’s shooter. I stand by that comment and that’s ok. Not all games are meant to be diamonds, shinning out brighter than everything else around them, pushing the boundaries of technology and gameplay. The simple fact is that Fire Shark was never meant to. It was designed as an easy to produce follow up for the arcades off of the back of Truxton. Simply put, if the formula works, why change it? As mentioned though, Fire Shark did go on to refine upon its roots and it’s these that I’d like to take a look at today.

Fire Shark may be guilty of being a little generic in places and even quite unoriginal but it is still a game that you can get a lot of fun out of.
There is a back story to Fire Shark but I’ll boil is down to you being the one fighter against the empire scenario, you get the idea. The game uses the well tried and tested mechanics of points, power ups and bombs. Points are perhaps the easiest to explain, shoot something, get some points. Get enough and you’ll be treated to extra lives. This dovetails nicely in to the lightning collecting mechanic. Collect enough of these lightning bolts on a stage and receive a hefty completion bonus. Next up are the power ups. These come in the form of a blue spread shot, a green focussed shot and of course the red fire shot. You’ll start off with the weakest of the weak pea shooters, but that’s ok because those first enemies drop like flies.

Gradually though you’ll gather those power ups dropped by specific enemies and before you know it your aircraft is modded to the max. The blue spread shot really does cover most of the screen. It isn’t exactly focussed but a decent choice for just sitting back and causing widespread damage. Next up the green lasers, well they look very pretty that’s for sure. The idea is that this concentrated weapon will do more damage than the spread shot. The catch though is the narrower beam field. This is perhaps the obvious choice for level bosses that need to soak up significant damage to take down. But you can forget all of that though as you’ll only ever need option number 3, the fire shot.

Simply put it’s overpowered in a very pleasing way. At maximum power you’ll be playing with two forward facing fire columns i addition to two side fire columns that undulate back and forth. After just a few seconds of playing it’s clear that this really is the end goal in terms of weaponry. It simply rips through everything in its path. It’s so good in fact that one of your main objectives will be to try and hold on to it. In some cases, you’ll find yourself in the ridiculous situation of dodging the other coloured pickups as much as the enemy fire. All in an attempt not to switch to anything but the fire weapon.

This is where the main fun of Fire Shark really kicks in, simply shooter action. If you’re in to your old school classic style shooters then Fire Shark really delivers. The sprites are incredibly generic as are the backgrounds. In some ways it’s barely a step above older games such as 1942. The bomb system also seems a little underwhelming. In Truxton release a bomb and this happens. Nice stuff. In Fire Shark. Well ok, it’s a big explosion but not exactly memorable. And this is my main gripe with Fire Shark, as good as it is and still a fun game, there’s no denying that the developers phoned this one in a little. It’s all those little details that could have elevated it. In Truxton, change weapon and your craft changes colour too. An easy element to add. There are also certain elements of sponginess that enter the game due to the lack of finesse. For example, in games such as Battle squadron if you hit an enemy requiring multiple hits it will display an impact animation of hot metal and trigger the appropriate sound. It sells the illusion of combat. In Fire Shark, well there’s some pretty lazy execution going on here at times. Observe here as the supposedly super powerful green laser hits the enemy. Nope, nothing. The laser continues on regardless and the enemy shows no hit animation. As a gamer you’re left wondering if you even hit the sprite or not. This may sound like quite a small gripe but observe side by side the effect impact animations have on the feel of a game. Battle Squadron feels like you’re connecting, Fire Shark seems quite indifferent.

In a way this sort of sums up Fire Shark. Again, going back to Battle Squadron briefly, the levels were varied, colourful and animated. Techniques such as blittering added a certain magic to the semi-visible enemies. All set to a rocking musical. And this was programmed around the same time by a single student. Now look at Fire Shark in comparison. Same hardware, same era, worlds apart.

Even the physical presentation just doesn’t quite connect with me personally as a gamer. Truxton, yeah, that looks interesting. Fire Shark, yeah that looked dated even when it was released. But above all the thing that really gets me about this game is the price. Yes, I paid the £2.95 entry price for this one back in the early 90’s in near mint condition and I consider that a fair deal. Afterall, Fire Shark was a mainstay of the bargain bin during this era.

But look at what’s going on in the current climate. Enjoy paying the £97 asking price for this PAL edition. For reference, that’s around $134 USD at today’s exchange rate. And these do sell. A recent search showed that someone shelled out £60 for a PAL edition, that’s around $83 USD. The madness continues with Hellfire, Zero Wing and Truxton. Toaplan games I simply walked in to a store to pick up with my pocket money in the 90’s are now commanding significant prices. From my super quick calculation, I spent around £15 for all 4 games in mint condition in the 90’s. They now have a combined value of around £421 if you were to pay the eBay asking prices.
That’s $20.76 in to $561.90 USD. Some fairly crazy mark ups on these games then. Don’t even get me started on Twin Hawk. So, what on earth happened here? Well, a few things really.

1. Collectors rediscovering the classics. Out of the 4 major Mega Drive Toaplan releases I have to say that Hellfire is my pick of the bunch and a great example of the era. Simply put, its classic charms have stayed the course. A new generation has come to discover the Toaplan range and want in on the deal.

2. The Zero Wing effect. Again, a quirk of the internet catapulted this game in to the spotlight. Most notably for the “All your base are belong to us” meme. The game became famous almost for famous sake with the public, sort of the Paris Hilton of video games if you will. Whereas this game had previously sat in everyday gamers collection like myself, it now reached a new audience wanting to pounce on the rising popularity. It’s a great game but the price has most definitely been fuelled by a new breed of internet collector.

3. Scarcity. It’s fair to say that these games were released near the start of the Mega Drives life cycle. They were almost filler games in many ways until the good stuff like the Thunder Force series arrived. Fewer cartridges combined with increased demand helped push the prices ever higher for completionists.

4. Finally, the retro-bit re-release. These collector’s edition re-releases feature all 4 games, artwork, certificates, stickers, art cards, full colour manuals, slip cases and you can even get the collectors vinyl soundtracks. All of a sudden, these games became cool again. So, I’m sat here with a pile of bargain bin games that are fun but not necessarily the best the system had to offer. The price of Fire Shark in my eyes simply just doesn’t warrant the current collecting value in my opinion.
But there you have it, a set of 4 games that almost inexplicably rose from the grave. To then see a second life as collectables. Sell these and you’re well on your way to getting that elusive mint boxed PAL Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Oh wait, I have one of those. I know I keep teasing this but believe it or not this isn’t even the most valuable game in the collection by some way and I do hope to bring you a special episode of high-roller items at some point in the future. Hopefully next year when I get the space to display some of the more valuable equipment that currently sits in storage. But how to leave this review of Fire Shark. Well, it’s all a bit of a mixed bag. Ignoring price, I would recommend Fire Shark to those with nostalgia attached to it and also perhaps newcomers to the genre. It’s simple enough to pick up and get right in to the action so it has some real appeal for the first timer. I’d also extend this to the younger game getting in to the genre, it’s a great example of the basics done well. For my £2.95 I’m more than happy.

For some casual shoot ’em up fun the game does deliver. There are bullets, bosses and powerups so you can’t say fairer than that. Sadly, the chances of casual collectors now owning this one are drying up a bit due to the price point. For collectors this poses a bit of an issue. However, for those seeking a decent 90’s shooter you won’t be left feeling too sad as the Mega Drive had so many other notable games in the genre. What can I say, Fire Shark, an average game with an extraordinary price point.

Until next time, happy gaming.

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