Review: Toaplan Arcade Garage: Hishou Same! Same! Same! – M2 Delivers Two Seminal Sharky Shmups
M2’s ShotTriggers series has been an ongoing pilgrimage of preservation for some of the greatest shoot-em-up’s in arcade history. Hishou Same! Same! Same! combines an early Toaplan series of two: Hishouzame and Same! Same! Same!, known in the West as Flying Shark and Fire Shark, respectively. Both original arcade titles are presented here with a variety of modes, correctly maintained aspect ratios, screen settings, and a library of bonus features and options to tinker with. Regional variations are also present, since they have slight alterations in overall difficulty. After an initially long load, the opening menu screen blasts you like a Van Halen power ballad with a terrific arrange of Flying Shark’s ‘Against The Attack’ — regrettably unavailable as an in-game audio option.
Flying Shark (1987) and its sequel, Fire Shark (1989), are quasi-World War themed shoot-em-ups, sending up biplanes with hefty ordnance against futuristic, cannon-bristled tanks, battleship-patrolled seas, enemy bases and muted mountain ranges. Graphically, these titles are a product of their time, and all the more endearing for it, peppered with land-based details like runway strip airmen pointing you to glory, or the trailing plane that crashes on take-off, its pilot lying inert in a smouldering pit.
Toaplan sought to broaden their shoot-em-up horizons with a faster, more expansive experience in the Shark titles, ploughed with secrets, bonuses and layered scoring elements. Anyone who assumes that the modern bullet hell format is the summit of shoot-em-up difficulty doesn’t understand the broadness of the genre. In bullet hell, 90% of fire is pure periphery, obsfucating paths through tiny hit-boxes. Conversely, Flying Shark and Fire Shark are absolute destroyers of worlds, with singular aimed bullets zipping in from every direction. To ease the pain, M2 provides a finger-sparing auto-fire button — something the original arcade release didn’t have by default. Unfortunately, it’s locked at 10hz speed, which is about double what it should be, and as a result there is some break-up in the rate of fire.
Like most shoot-em-ups, powering-up is a matter of urgency, and doing so requires you to know the opening stages in detail. Flying Shark is the easier game, with just five stages in a loop, and more limited weapon options and strategies. It’s similar in feel to Tiger-Heli, though less punishing, and some may prefer its brevity and relative simplicity. More straightforwardly structured, you swat biplane formations and accrue power-ups until you’re laying out a formidable barrage. It’s an extremely enjoyable learning process, and getting through even the first 15-minute loop is incredibly gratifying thanks to its incremental nature and awesome, driving soundtrack.
Fire Shark, comparatively, is a long, 10-stage stint that’s soul-crushingly tough from its opening gambit to its snowy final third. At the same time, this was a revolutionary shoot-em-up release, not just for Toaplan’s output, but for the genre entire. It plays faster and looser but no less exactingly, requiring razor-sharp reflex and heroic resolve. It established many modern idiosyncrasies that continue to echo in today’s vertical scrollers, and is considered a highly influential work. At the same time, it’s unashamedly brutal, with bewildering bullet speeds in its latter half. That said, the second-player ship has a much easier ride, privy to both slightly slower bullets and far more extra lives, and is a widely preferred alternative among even seasoned shoot-em-up enthusiasts.
The problem is, selecting the second player ship, while doable, is ridiculously convoluted, unlike the PS4 version where it’s simply a case of a quick option-screen adjustment. We don’t know why this is, and it’s essentially impossible to do in handheld mode, making it a rare quality lapse from the usually reliable M2.
In both games, coloured icons bounce around the screen, some providing power-ups to your weapon meter, additional bombs, or upping your ship’s speed. Fire Shark offers three weapon types, including the dreaded green laser: a powerful but ineffectively narrow shot type that usually has you avoiding its circling icons in addition to a hail of bullets. But, build the blue spread shot or the ultimately dwarfing red laser flamethrower, and you’re instantly more in control. It’s great fun in both titles to get your early power-up routines down-pat: the first milestone on a road to many potential victories. But, knowing when to hug the bottom edge of the screen to demolish incoming gunboats before they can fire on you, or those tight horizontal shots that soar dangerously across your plane’s nose, is of the utmost importance.
While the difficulty level across both games is steep, it’s also an art-form. You are unkempt metal, pitted and warped, like that from the wing of a battle-worn Spitfire, and the conflict will temper you over days, weeks, months or years, until you’re factory-curved and polished to a shine. Dedicating yourself to learning either of the compilation’s titles is to commit to mastery. You need to remember what’s coming and when; how to deal with specific formations on the fly, and sudden curveballs in the form of a measured quantity of RNG. Either way, you can expect to be pipped out of existence thousands of times, stripped of power and sent back remorselessly to the last restart point until you learn to turn the tide. Fighting your way through tens of increasingly difficult loops is akin to wrestling an actual shark — if that shark were buttons and directional inputs — but there’s genuine elation in overcoming the challenge.
For those who drill down into the core, there are plenty of scoring tricks and secrets to mine, too. Differently coloured enemy planes come in waves, seemingly dependent on your performance, and, while there are a lot of random elements in Toaplan’s early games — and it’s still not clear exactly what produces the white 1up-carrying biplanes — there is still some method to the madness. To help break this down, the now familiar M2 gadgets, which provide information on what’s happening beneath the game’s surface, offer a mini-map and display panes detailing bullet speed, weapon levels, and even the colour of upcoming formations.
In the event it all gets too much, a Super Easy Mode offers a welcome, casual diversion. Featuring auto-bombing and lots of extra lives, it’s both an exciting and relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Elsewhere, Custom Mode and Arcade Challenge — the latter a practice area where you can can get granular with game parameters — offer alternative time-sinks.
Several home ports of the games are also on board, but sadly locked behind DLC barriers. Realistically, we think they should have been included, at this price, in the base game — but if you can only buy one, make it Fire Shark’s superb Mega Drive port. It offers a console-friendly take on the arcade game, cracking audio, and a more reasonable difficulty curve, making it both encouraging to clear and a blast to try and master. And, should you find yourself in a fit of gnawing rage and done (temporarily) with shooting things, Toaplan’s Wardner, a fun side-scrolling fantasy platform game, is also available as a (somewhat random) DLC extra.
Toaplan Arcade Garage: Hishou Same! Same! Same! is wonderful, historical stuff, conserving two beautifully designed roadmaps for the future succession of the genre. Antique, yet savagely modern in their viciousness, there are few titles that brew with as much energy beneath a late-’80s vintage aesthetic, driven intrepidly by Tatsuya Uemura and Masahiro Yuge’s incredible soundtracks.
Despite this, it would be misleading to cite the package as something for everyone. It’s a perfect addition for people collecting M2’s series, and for those with an interest in the preservation and best possible representation of notable arcade titles. As shoot-em-ups, Flying Shark and Fire Shark require a specific approach and methodology, and won’t necessarily be to all tastes. If you revel in the thrill of old-school hardcore gaming, it’s a duo that potentially offer years of service. For everyone else they may feel a bit samey, samey, samey.