Saturday, March 9, 2019

Hudson Soft's original Caravan trilogy

Hudson's All-Japan Caravan Festival...a legendary series of competitions held yearly throughout the 80's and 90s. It was established at the height of the shoot-em-up's popularity, and this shows in the lineup. Before Bomberman became the face of Hudson, the first three years of the competition revolved around the Famicom shooters Star Force, Star Soldier and Hector '87 (known in the west as Starship Hector). Here's a little history lesson!

Star Force (1985 Tehkan)

While not the first autoscrolling shootemup (that honor I believe goes to Konami's Scramble in 1981), it's definitely one of early influencers on the genre.

Star Force is often spoken of in the same breath as 1986's Hudson's Star Soldier, and for good reason; however, Star Force was originally developed by a completely different company called Tehkan (better known later as Tecmo, and currently known as Koei Tecmo). Hudson ported Tehkan's arcade original to the Famicom a year after its release, and while Tehkan later went its own way with Star Force 2, Hudson took several cues from the original and made history with the Soldier series.


I think Star Force probably gets short shrift in the face of its more famous spiritual sequel, but there's still a good time to be had with even such a simple game. Compared to more sedate contemporaries like Namco's Super Xevious, both the player and enemies feel zippier with the ability to fire as fast as you could press the button (when closer to the top of the screen at least; when at the bottom, the number of onscreen shots was limited). It was also known for having an impressive 22 different enemy types, each with their own pattern of movement. The simple controls and satisfying explosion sounds make this game hold up surprisingly well!

Star Soldier (1986 Hudson)

With Star Soldier, Hudson built upon the earlier Star Force formula and made the game its own. Functionally very similar to the previous game with one very unwelcome (in my opinion) addition: the ability to fly beneath the terrain, rendering the player invincible but unable to attack. I think there's a simple trick to doing this at will, but more likely you'll be doing it on accident at the worst possible times.

Star Soldier keeps the large enemy variety and large bosses, while rewarding the player with not just two (as in Star Force), but four levels of shot power. Fully powering up your ship and being able to autofire in all directions is still fun.

Star Soldier is the most famous subject of Hudson's Caravan competitions (until Bomberman took over, that is) and was the game that cemented the legendary reputation of Toshiyuki Takahashi, a Hudson employee also known as Takahashi Meijin, or "Master Takahashi" for his ability to supposedly fire 16 times per second. Takahashi Meijin is an interesting story that I won't go into here, but look him up!

Hector '87 (1987 Hudson)

This is the one they don't talk about so much. In some ways Hector '87 seems like a step back from the previous game; the graphics are improved and stages alternate between vertically and horizontally scrolling a la Konami's Life Force, but the pacing feels slightly sedate and the player's ship design is decidedly un-hype, leading to a less compelling overall package. Although the player feels more sluggish, enemy attacks are severely increased! Thankfully you have a health bar now (which honestly is the weirdest thing about this game).

One interesting choice is Hudson's decision to give the player a standard shot and a bomb to hit ground enemies, just like Xevious. However, they also did away with weapon power-ups entirely,

In Hector '87's favor, however, the game allows players to choose 2 or 5 minute "caravan mode" from the title screen, making it even easier to practice for competition.

After Hector '87, Hudson would move the Caravan onto the PC Engine console. Other than 1988's Power League baseball game, the Caravan would continue to revolve around shooters for quite a while longer, including the excellent Final Soldier (for my money the best in the Soldier series).

If you want to try some no frills retro shooting, give the original trilogy a try!