In the fall of 2015, a strange thing happened. The Dreamcast, a console taken out of active duty in 2001, received a brand-new game.
This wasn't the first time that Sega's swansong machine had welcomed software in the second decade of the 21st century. To pick just two examples, a run-and-gunner by the name of Gunlord had landed in 2012, and April 2013 saw the gorgeously detailed Sturmwind attract favorable comparisons to old-school horizontal shooters like R-Type and Thunder Force IV. But it was a rare occasion, a special one, nonetheless.
And what Sturmwind had done for side-scroller fans, Hucast Games' Ghost Blade attempted for those preferring their ships to fly up the screen, vertically. The German indie studio had already put out DUX on the Dreamcast in 2009, a shooter that landed somewhere between those aforementioned titles and Sega's own retinas-scorching Fantasy Zone, and it received warmhearted praise for its tribute of sorts to CAVE- and Treasure-style bullet hell games past.
That said, Ghost Blade certainly didn't push into any new directions, representing a fairly straightforward form of the genre. No color switching or multiple weapon load-outs here—just two firing modes, focused and spread, and a handful of bombs, albeit split between three different fighters. Each of these, piloted by unnecessarily revealingly clothed ladies, had unique-looking but essentially effect-identical blasts, a far cry from Giga Wing's four protagonists with their own stories. Power-ups, "tech orbs" and various other boosts were confusingly spilled by defeated enemies, the game offering no real guidance as to what did what, and at the end of each stage was a big boss: shmup design 101, really.
But Ghost Blade was certainly a looker that played perfectly smoothly, its pounding music was irresistibly infectious, and it ultimately represented more than a footnote in the history of the Dreamcast. It was a clear sign that independent development for the commercially dead console continued to be an area of interest, as this year's RPG Elysian Shadows will further illustrate.
Above: 'Ghost Blade HD' teaser trailer
And Ghost Blade has now, as of February 28th, made the jump to HD systems, available for PlayStation 4, Steam, Xbox One and Wii U. And it's still pretty darn good, without being close to top of its class—a commendable B+ of an experience. Given the breed of the game, age can't weather it any; and its visuals, now superbly crisp and more detailed than the Dreamcast original, positively dance off of the screen. Which can be a bit distracting, when there's quite so much going on, so many enemy bullets to slip between—but such is the nature of the genre, really. That hyperactive music hasn't dulled any, either.
I've taken it for a blast on Wii U—it's always a delight to dust off the GamePad, especially for an indie title—and if I had to pick up on one disappointing aspect of the HD conversion, it's that it doesn't feature any further, newly designed levels. There's still only the five, and none of them are especially long. I've had three stabs at it, and have already got as far as the fourth stage's boss—that's on its "normal" difficulty, by the way, as "hard" is definitely a bit too much for these creaky thumbs. (There's also "easy", plus training modes that allow access to completed stages, to truly master their attack patterns.)
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I can definitely imagine big shooter fan friends of mine digging into this, scaling the online leaderboards, chasing every achievement in pursuit of a top score and damage-free, perfect run. But I don't see myself really pushing deeper into the game, once I see those credits roll for the first time. Perhaps if this was on 3DS or Vita—or Switch—I'd be more likely to, in those shorter, on-the-move sessions between home and office. But as a home-only concern, it's unlikely that I'll be spending much longer with Ghost Blade HD. Your mileage may differ, of course.
I can't deny it's got personality, though. The human avatars might as well be faceless hips and tits, titillation for no good reason, but the enemy ship designs are striking, and the levels astoundingly bright. They've some odd names, though. The fourth is "Thwarted Democracy", which I'm pretty sure was the subtitle of one of those multi-cassette Dreamscape collections your rave-gurning, bomber jacket-clad mates blasted out in 1994; and the third carries the stickily suggestive title of "Orgasmic Stride". I could make a comment here about how its massive cruiser of a boss spreads its evil seeds all over the place but, come on now, as if I'd go there. (And like Waypoint isn't horny enough, right?)
It mightn't stand out on modern systems as it did when a Dreamcast exclusive, but what Ghost Blade HD works great as, though, is preparation for something ever so slightly different, and definitely a lot bigger in scope. A game I am really looking forward to spending a lot of time sat on my sofa in front of. And that's Nier: Automata.
The producer of said Platinum Games-developed action-RPG, Taro Yoko, told Waypoint that he'd been studying CAVE's shooters, to make sure his game's own brand of bullet hell was both authentically hectic and possessed a freshness. So if you, too, are anticipating that March release, Ghost Blade HD is a fine place to practice your sweetly timed maneuvers, so you'll be dodging those glowing balls of death like a pro.