Old fashioned shoot-'em-ups are a lot like jazz. Once a driving force of pop culture, both are now savoured only by a dwindling number of dedicated purists who grumble at how the bovine mainstream masses are incapable of appreciating the off-kilter appeal of their chosen obsession. In years gone by games like Xevious and R-Type were legitimate blockbusters, accessible to anyone who had a pocketful of change. Today's vertical and horizontal shooters are obscure, chasing the remaining faithful, wallowing in their hardcore status and pulling scary faces at any normal folk who happen to glance in their direction.
Which brings us to Triggerheart Exelica, which pulls a very scary face indeed. Released into Japanese arcades in 2006, it holds the honour of being one of those games still being ported to the Dreamcast - and the Dreamcast alone - many years after SEGA's white brick of loveliness was supposed to have rolled over and died. Much like Rez, that other Dreamcast shooter that tore its way back into our timeline via Xbox Live Arcade, Triggerheart is a game of short length but deceptive depth. There are just five stages, all of which can be blasted through in less time than it takes to enjoy an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba - a feat that can be achieved even by novice players, thanks to unlimited continues. Such generosity only lures you into a false sense of security though. The goal, as with all games of this ilk, is not completion but perfection. Playing through all five stages using no continues should be your goal. Most, of course, won't even come close.
So what does Triggerheart offer to make it stand out from the pack? Not story, that's for sure. There's some hastily translated and incoherent manga guff surrounding the action - something to do with pink-haired space chicks screeching at each other - but the only reason to pay attention is to enjoy sparkling dialogue captions such as the immortal "You did well to get this far...but I am fed up of your face."
There are two characters to choose from, each flying around in a Triggerheart suit. Think Zone of the Enders, Mobile Suit Gundam and, well, pretty much every mech-centric anime ever made. One has a wide shot spray, the other a more focused forward attack. Both, however, can harpoon enemies using an Anchor Shot - and it's this that provides the game's big point of difference.
Anchored enemies can be reeled in and used as a shield, swung around to destroy surrounding enemies and projectiles and then released to cause MASSIVE DAMAGE. Far from being a quirky optional attack, because the screen can literally fill with enemies and bullets, the Anchor mechanic is absolutely essential to success, relegating the traditional shooting to secondary status, used only to clear a path in emergencies. It's highly likely that many players will try the demo, not even use the Anchor Shot, and throw their hands up in horror at how impossible the game is. Not true - as watching an expert at work proves.
But there's no getting away from the fact that Triggerheart is a slender affair, even by arcade standards. The length of the levels isn't a problem, but their rather vanilla design is. The best shmups build and build and build until your eyes are bleeding from the ludicrous sights being thrown at your face. Triggerheart, by comparison, merely strolls along, tossing out predictable attack waves and uninspiring bosses. It's also impossible to avoid the fact that such games were not designed to be played on horizontal widescreen TVs. Shrunk to fit the middle to the screen, the effect is claustrophobic and ugly. There is, cleverly, an option to flip the game on its side to use the whole screen, but this is only useful for the rare few who have a telly that can be safely rotated 90 degrees. It's a basic port that does little to rework the game for the new hardware, or to offer anything new to fans of the original.
For all the structural similarities to Rez, this never comes close to being as innovative or compelling as Mizuguchi-san's trance classic. Even so, it's not without merit for those who crave the challenge of climbing online leaderboards. Indeed, it's quite nice to see XBLA catering for such a devoted niche audience with such a undiluted hardcore offering. Yet for that very same exacting audience, Triggerheart's rudimentary charms will likely prove to be a snack rather than a banquet. With the majestic and genuinely eye-popping Ikaruga waiting in the wings, you can happily keep saving your 800 Points without missing out on anything special.