Do you remember shmups? No, I mean, do you really remember shmups?
Triangle Service does. And not only do they remember them, but they’re bringing back some of their classic shmups, including EXZEAL, a game originally released as one of two games on the 2007 arcade cabinet Shooting Love 2007. As a re-release, EXZEAL seems to be a bit of a double-edged sword, but let’s begin with gameplay.
Like most titles of this genre, you begin with a start screen where you’re allowed “x” credits, each credit representing one play of three ship lives. The “x” here is three, but this number will change the more you play the game, so don’t fret if you need more digital quarters to shoot ‘em all. Next is the most important step: choosing your ship! The elegantly titled UNIT-1, UNIT-2, UNIT-3, and, wait for it… UNIT-4, are your four choices, and each has their own weapon system and playstyle. All ships have a standard multi-shot gun, but there are specific differences that help distinguish them from this. UNIT-1 carries a remarkably powerful charge shot that increases its point bonus the farther the target is from your firing position, up to x16. The charge takes quite some time, but EXZEAL has a quick charge mechanic where you can wobble your ship back and forth or in a circular motion to speed this process up. UNIT-2 also has a charge shot, but it fires in 5 directions which also max out at x16 points via kill distance. For balance, while these shots aren’t nearly as large as UNIT-1’s single shot, they do charge at a faster rate. UNIT-3 is standard multi-shot gun only. This build seems to be more aggressive, as point bonuses only increase the closer you are to your target, up to x8. While there is no charge shot, the cannons seemed to be more powerful on this ship than the others. UNIT-4, like 3, is guns only but also has left, right and backward shots that activate when you move your ship in the desired direction. A player can wiggle their ship to fire side to side rapidly, and there is a button for this, but doing so impairs the control you have over your movement significantly. Shot bonuses only apply to these extra shots and increases in value the farther you are from your target, which I've seen as high as x12 (it probably maxes out at x16).
With the ship selected, we now have the vessel that we will use to “shoot” the “them up”.
Stages are, as expected, waves of smaller enemies leading up to a level-ending boss with multiple stages. While this is a fairly generic and by the numbers formula, EXZEAL adds some interesting mechanics throughout to mix it up a bit. Stage 1 introduces a seemingly invulnerable, round enemy that doesn’t attack, but merely bumps into others of its kind and the player if you’re so unfortunate. Their weak spot is the obvious, red glowing bump on the rear of the craft, safely hidden from your shots by the body of the ship. To eliminate them, the player must shoot one side of the enemy to rotate them until this side is revealed. This mechanic is used in later levels with enemies and other objects floating on the screen. Aside from turning enemies, EXZEAL also contains inanimate obstacles, specifically the wall of brown and red crates found in Stage 4. To survive, the player must shoot and/or push crates out of their way with their primary gun, weaving in and out of safe zones, all while battling enemies that can push the crates around and into you. I particularly enjoyed areas like this, as it does a wonderful job of reinterpreting the shmup genre, breaking up standard stages while keeping the tension levels high.
To add to the tension, EXZEAL’s soundtrack is typical high energy electronica played at fast tempos. The tracks are quick and catchy, easy to play along with, and never distract from the action. Aside from the music, the sound of gunfire and charging shots are also standard arcade cabinet fashion. Ships themselves are fairly quiet if they make any noise, and boss ship presence is alerted by their looming size and the change in musical track.
On this subject, because this is a re-release of sorts, this is where EXZEAL begins to show it’s age. The music is uptempo, as it should be, but it sounds very early 2000’s arcadey because that’s when it was made. Much of the sound, from changing options in the menu to starting a new game is, again, VERY arcadey. You are constantly reminded that this game was originally released as an arcade game because WHILE YOU ARE STILL PLAYING IT you can see the cabinet’s monitor bezel. You know, the glass that typically covered the monitor and had written instructions regarding how to play the game, how scoring works, what ships you can use, and what the game was called on it. The graphics, too, are dated and very much a throwback to the period this was created in. Polygon shapes with hard sides and rigid edges define the player’s ships and the enemies you face. Think Playstation 1 or Dreamcast: you understand what you’re looking at, but you wish it looked better. The menu is also about as barebones as you can get, with large squares you move between marking where to select a new game, score attack stages, or game settings.
Now, you may think, but Charles, it’s a re-release, not a remaster, why are you upset about this?
Because this game is going on ten years old, that’s why. EXZEAL is almost ten years old and according to its minimum system requirements can run off of your PC’s onboard graphics without any problems. This isn’t unacceptable, just disappointing, because I know that at its heart EXZEAL is a great shmup that deserves so much more. But perhaps my anger can be replaced by your nostalgia. Maybe the reason you’re looking at purchasing this title is that it is the perfect time capsule you want it to be. Honestly, it’s the very same shmup that was released in arcades. The only difference is you don’t need a pocket full of quarters to keep trying to pass that stage, or beat that boss, or play again. Like most shmups, you can play it on your sideways monitor (there’s even an achievement for that if you’re into that sort of thing). If you choose to play it on any modern monitor, EXZEAL runs in full HD at 60fps! Also, like most arcade shmups THERE’S LOCAL MULTIPLAYER!!! Yes, not online with dangerous strangers, but local, friend filled multiplayer.
If you are in the market for a satisfying shmup that, while dated, retains its challenge and performs the role fully and capably, then perhaps EXZEAL is the choice for you. Responsive controls, varying ships with unique playstyles, clever level and enemy design, and the classic challenge of quarter-fed arcade shmups (yes, there are areas that you must use a bomb to survive) all culminate into an honorably satisfying package that delivers exactly what a true shoot ‘em up of the 00’s should be. Nothing more. Nothing less.