Back in the late 1980s, when coin-op arcades still mattered, one of the PC Engine console's major claims to fame was its ability to render arcade-quality games the Nintendo Famicom struggled to cope with. The American TurboGrafx-16 failed to capitalize on this advantage, in part because it came out here a few years after its Japanese debut, but a lot of the console's action titles were arguably coin-op quality with solid music, plenty of fast-paced action and minimal sprite flicker. Avenger was never released in the US, but it's easy enough to play the original version -- only the level descriptions and voiceovers are in Japanese (Avenuja!), and it's easy enough to figure out what's going on without speaking a word of the language.
Publisher Sin-Nihon Lasersoft/Telenet is probably best known for the Valis series, but the company's development teams were capable of delivering a more than adequate arcade shoot-'em-up when called upon. Avenger pits a well-armored helicopter against an onslaught of enemy planes, copters, boats, and spacecraft; it was published in 1990 for the first-generation PC Engine CD-ROM format, with Redbook audio music. The title screen theme features cheesy synthesized brass and drum machines, calling the Valis CD soundtracks instantly to mind.
The game is a straightforward shooter -- we fly upward, shooting enemies, picking up the occasional power-up and eventually facing down a large, bullet-spitting, beam-spewing boss in our quest to destroy a bio-mechanical alien threat. Unlike many later shooters, we can power up our weapons along the way, but our basic array of equipment must be made before the level begins; there will be no magically instant exchanging of lasers for rockets here. We have just a few options as the game begins, but more choices become available as we approach the final level, allowing for a modicum of strategy:
Avenger suffers from many of the standard PCE CD-ROM System 1.0 limitations. The CD medium supplies plenty of storage, but there isn't very much real memory onboard and the console can only make use of so much data at one time. This means the levels tend to be visually repetitive and short -- the CD-audio soundtrack is excellent, but using the CD for music means nothing much can be loaded into memory during a level. At least each level has a different look -- the early going is open, allowing the player to focus on shooting:
This canyon level requires more careful flying, and only a powered-up weapon can deal with the myriad gun emplacements lining the navigable areas:
This cityscape looks very nice, but doesn't get in the way very much; I'm including it here because we get to see some LaserSoft company blimps drifting through (and shooting at us, which appears to put the game's publisher on the side of the alien invaders):
Avenger makes up for its short levels by cranking up the difficulty -- it's a constant barrage of enemies and missiles, and the bosses take a lot of punishment. And we only have one life -- once five hits are taken, we're at the Game Over/Retry? screen:
The action is intense, but often repetitive -- even the bosses don't vary much. Most just throw a repeating, hard-to-dodge pattern of missiles out, and only a few call for specific offensive weaponry, like this transport craft that likes to race alongside us instead of up front where we can shoot at it:
Each victory is celebrated with a full-screen illustration, making good use of the CD medium, although maybe not the development budget, as some of them get reused:
And when we've beat the last boss, and the alien mothership blows up in the background, our heroic copter pilot sets down the Avenger...
And the helmet comes off... and ZOMG! It's a GIRL!
Well, it was cool when Nintendo did it a few years earlier in Metroid. The animation tips the game's hand a little too much -- we're given only the briefest shot of the pilot's face in closeup at the start of the game, but when she finally steps out of the copter, the androgynous full-body shot before she takes her helmet off seems a little too deliberate. Still, it's good to see a tough-as-nails shmup starring a female protagonist, at a time when the game industry seemed to be all about the laser-firing codpieces.
Avenger is another of those games that NEC could have brought to the US -- the company localized several other Nihon Telenet titles -- but chose not to. This may have been because it's a fairly difficult game -- Blazing Lazers was no doubt a better choice for mainstream marketing -- and the CD-ROM peripheral was not a huge hit in North America. But it's a solid title, much better than I expected, and very reminiscent of the Capcom and Romstar arcade shooters of the time. Good stuff.
This one seems to have flown under the collecting radar -- if you can find a copy for sale, it can usually be picked up fairly inexpensively. Check here if you're in the market.