Pasok Retro is our regular look back at the early days of Japanese PC gaming, featuring everything from 1980s specialized computers to the happy days of Windows XP.
The first stage of Knight Arms begins with a mecha blasting through the star-studded infinity, the specks of space dust whizzing by to convey a palpable sense of speed and direction as mechanical enemies fly in from all sides. Literally: A dramatic “LOOK BACK” message appears in the center of the screen during deceptive pauses in the action, an unsubtle reminder that it’s time to unleash one of the most impressive features of this Sharp X68000 game : the possibility to turn around.
Turning just wasn’t a thing in rail shooters around 1989. In the formative games of the genre, like Space Harrier, there was no way to do a U-turn to fire at what’s surreptitiously approaching from behind, turning your entire field of view inward. real-time when you over-face. This system in Knight Arms is so flexible that it’s actually possible to fly through an entire level—each level – backwards, although it is not recommended to try this.
Somehow that’s not even the best part. This game has a flair for the dramatic from the first level, and shooting things in the emptiness of space wouldn’t cut it. The curved horizon of an unnamed moon slides into view, the pockmarked surface rendered in much greater detail by this home video game than the checkered floors of the famed arcade shooter Space Harrier. I’m so busy staring at this impossible floor that I’m blown apart by the tiny gunnery enemies on the surface.
The second time I’m thrilled and dying waiting for this incredible feature to reappear, just in case my eyes lied to me the first time. On my third run, a metal gate appears in the distance, getting closer and closer until it fills the entire screen and begins to open. The mech spins sideways and shrinks into the background, and suddenly the action has shifted seamlessly from one plane to the next, as if Knight Arms had always been a side-scrolling shmup.
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Games released on dusty old floppy disks just don’t – not even stunning tech demos set to catchy Eurobeat tunes programmed 30 years later to show off on old hardware. But Knight Arms makes it look so damned simple, as if this is just something 1989 computer games should be doing all the time. There is no loading screen to sit through. No real break in the action. Just two very different game types presented as one continuous whole.
The 2D segments effortlessly maintain this sense of wonder, eschewing the usual automatic right-to-left scrolling. Instead, you control the pace by scrolling the screen as you move forward or backward. These side-scrolling segments aren’t as strictly 2D as they first appear either: your mech can not only spin around like before, it can also spin go inside and from the screen at will, a nifty move that lets you take out enemies firing shots from otherwise inaccessible background layers or swirling into view from the front, their sprites (and bullets) grow or shrink to simulate their current distance from the “camera”.
This was hot stuff in 1989, and graphical showmanship on this scale inevitably comes with a hefty frame-based price tag, even on a home computer so powerful it could host pixel-perfect ports of contemporary arcade hits like Strider and Final Fight. The 3D segments often get a bit jerky on the 10MHz X68000 machines Knight Arms was developed for, and there’s a tendency for the action to slow down a bit during bullet-heavy 2D stages. Running the game on later, more powerful X68000 hardware makes it faster, but without any code to properly master the faster processor. In the 1980s and early 1990s, trying to run games on later generations of PC hardware almost always caused more problems than it solved.
But given the era when Knight Arms was released – a time when Sim City was brand new, the original Game Boy debuted and Wolfenstein 3D was still a few years away – the fact that developer Arsys Software was trying to make something like this not at allno matter how close it was to get it done is incredible.
It doesn’t matter if Knight Arms isn’t always as smooth and accurate as more run-of-the-mill shmups, because the focus here isn’t on hitting high scores or perfect kill runs. In fact – heresy! – no score is kept at all and you can continue from the beginning of the last stage reached as many times as you like. This game just wants to deliver an unforgettable experience; to cause the players to fall through the clouds of an alien sky until the land can be seen just below, the ground getting closer and closer until the Knight Arm is low enough for mountains to loom in the distance and trees become a collision hazard. If it’s not exciting for everyone watching, then it’s not part of the game.
Despite the focus on visual spectacle, Knight Arms is still a cleverly designed rail shooter. Powerful weapons and life-saving shields come with hard constraints that encourage intelligent play, positional awareness, and a hesitant trigger finger. Even the smallest 2D bosses that block progress go through multiple stages, with the visible combat damage they take directly related to specific weapons and shot types. Blow off a boss ship’s front cannon and that cannon will no longer be able to fire – although this will most likely prompt them to activate something else instead, which will in turn force you to quickly change tactics and maybe even direction from which you attack if you want to live.
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Knight Arms knows when to use those eye-catching graphic embellishments and when to hold back too. The stunning stage transition effect is used sparingly; each level is presented in the way that best suits the action, even if that means the perspective change isn’t neatly split down the middle or doesn’t happen at all in some levels. This unpredictability helps keep the mind-blowing act of ’80s programming from getting stale, like a visual checkpoint marking the halfway point of a stage or a sure sign that the next screen-filling boss is just around the corner.
The premise of an action game that alternates between the era’s two most popular shooting forms sounds like something the excitable kid at school with an uncle at Nintendo would have made up. But this game really existed 34 years ago. This is the future made in the past: a game that was bought, sold, and forgotten before many other developers had even dared to try anything close to Knight Arms’ lofty goals.