This is the nineteenth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1704 1722 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

The magic of random number generation has provided another selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s Zenodyne R, by Team Grybanser Fox (although it’s listed under the name of Team Grybanser Fox’s founder, Jack Darx). Its tagline in the bundle reads:

90s 16-bit YM2612 Shooter Strikes Back!

Ah yes, of course, YM2612. I’m sure everyone is familiar with this famous 90s… thing, providing some of the finest Y and M of that venerable decade. And we all know that it was, uh, much better than YM2611, which leaned too hard on the Y, and didn’t provide nearly enough M. Yes. Those are all definitely true facts that I didn’t just make up.

Today, if someone referred to a game as a “shooter”, most would assume they meant a first-person shooter. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the term “shooter” was shorthand for “shoot ’em up” games, now affectionately called “shmups”. These games trace their roots all the way back to the earliest arcade classics like Space Invaders, and to this day retain a strong arcade sensibility. The genre tends to offer stiff challenge that encourages players to learn and improve over many attempts, limited “lives” before players must start over again from the beginning (unless they insert more credits to continue), and an emphasis on chasing high scores for coveted spots on the leaderboards.

I’m not well versed in shmups. But I was always intrigued when I’d seen them in arcades. The main impression I got from them was one of spectacle: far from their humble origins, the shmups that dominated arcades in the 1990s were full of gorgeous sprite artwork depicting absurd giant spaceships, a ludicrous amount of lasers, and near-constant explosions everywhere. They were Space Invaders taken to the extreme. They looked incredible, but they were also intimidating, filling the screen with enemy gunfire that could destroy the player’s ship in a single hit. I tried my hand occasionally, but never got far, and never tried to seriously tackle one. If you’d like to learn more about shmups and their history, this is a very detailed rundown.

One thing I learned from that article is that, for those players who wanted to play shmups at home rather than (or in addition to) at arcades, the Sega Genesis (aka Mega Drive outside of the United States) was the system of choice. And that’s where the YM2612 comes in. This was the Yamaha sound chip that was used in the Gensis, and Zenodyne R — which is clearly a throwback to the shmup classics of the 1990s — features a full original soundtrack composed for the YM2612 chip by HeavyViper. I must say, I was impressed with the music. Not just with HeavyViper’s compositions, which are great, but also with the capabilities of the YM2612 chip. While I haven’t gotten to the 16-bit consoles yet in my trek through the early Japanesestyle role-playing games, I have fond memories of game music for the Super Nintendo (SNES), the main competitor to the Sega Genesis. But this soundtrack sounds better than the SNES soundtracks did, to my ears. Turns out it’s not that simple: Google informs me that the sound chips in the two systems were quite different, with the YM2612 using FM synthesis and the S-SPM chip in the SNES using sample-based synthesis. This made the SNES better at reproducing specific instrument sounds, so if you want some piano and strings in your soundtrack, the S-SPM will be a clear winner over the YM2612. But if you want to lean heavily on synthesizer sounds, the YM2612 could do a great job, with higher bitrate output and a lot of cool effects and other ways to manipulate the sound. And it sure sounds fantastic on the synth-driven soundtrack for Zenodyne R.

Zenodyne R sure looks the part too. The screenshots in this post don’t do it justice, as it employs a lot of sprite-based tricks to create a great sense of motion. Explosions cycle through a whole sequence of sprites to make them look wonderfully dynamic, and ship weapons use rapidly alternating sprites to convey the high rate of fire spewing forth. Imagine the screenshots in this post have three times more bullets on them, and you’ll have an idea of what Zenodyne R looks like in action. Enemies range from tiny little tanks to huge spaceships bristling with guns, and while they aren’t really animated beyond the occasional rotating turret, it’s hard to complain when they explode so nicely. In fact, my only complaint about the art in Zenodyne R is that some of the backgrounds are too busy, making it harder to distinguish deadly bullets. The game also has a nice set of options, including “tate” options for rotating the screen, if your monitor supports portrait mode. Sadly, mine does not, so the vertical playing area was letterboxed on the sides.

So, right down to the music and artwork, Zenodyne R is aiming for nostalgia among shmup fans. In fact, the “R” in the name stands for “remake”, if the executable is to be believed. This made me wonder if the game is in fact a remake of a classic Genesis shmup, but it seems it’s simply a remake of Team Grybanser Fox’s own Zenodyne, which was a quick project that they subsequently polished up for full release with Zenodyne R. It’s also the second game in the Zeno series, following 2015’s Zenohell (which is also included in the bundle!). And, just a few days ago, after I’d already been playing Zenodyne R for a while, Team Grybanser Fox released the final game in the series, Zenodeath. I promise this was a coincidence and that I do, in fact, choose these bundle entries randomly.

After the 1990s, shmups fell out of fashion, carried on mostly through indie offerings that tended towards the hardcore. Zenodyne R is no exception. It’s very hard, pretty much right from the start. It falls, I believe, into a subgenre known as “bullet hell” shooters, in which players must carefully dodge screen-filling bullet patterns, with a single mistake resulting in the loss of a precious life. The closest I’ve come to playing a “bullet hell” shmup is the strange hybrid Furi, but my impression of them was that they generally featured slow-moving projectiles for players to carefully maneuver between. Zenodyne R has some patterns like that, especially during battles with its bosses and minibosses, but it also has some bullets that move very fast, and some that don’t use fixed patterns and instead fire directly at the player’s position. More importantly, the player’s ships all move very fast, making it hard to perform precise dodges. The pacing is absolutely frantic, with mere split-seconds to read the incoming fire and move out of the way, while spewing death from one’s own overpowered weaponry. So much happened so quickly that I found myself only focusing on specific parts of the screen: watching my ship carefully as I steered between enemy fire, trusting that my own weapons would take out the enemies above, and only glancing towards the top of the screen when the coast seemed clear below. It’s exciting, but perhaps not the most welcoming to new players.

In fact, what I’ve just described is the “normal” difficulty setting, which apparently features “slower bullets”, and lacks the harder branching paths included on “arcade” difficulty. And I was using the ships rated as the easiest for novices. In other words, this was Zenodyne R’s attempt to welcome new players, and it’s still pretty brutal. But, to my surprise, I actually did start to improve, after I got used to a few things. The guide to the shmup genre that I linked above (here it is again) was helpful in understanding how Zenodyne R works. Specifically, it explains the concept of “medaling”, a scoring system in which defeated enemies drop medals that earn a ton of points as long as the player doesn’t miss any. That’s important because getting a lot of points is how one earns “extends”, or extra lives. Once I realized the importance of not missing any medals, I was able to get further into the game before running out of credits.

Zenodyne R also has an unlock system, which is separate from the scoring system. Players earn “tech points” as they play, which unlock new ships, pieces of lore, and more credits for continues. Story is rarely a focus of shmups, but the bits of lore in Zenodyne R are pretty badly written even so. More exciting are new ships, which have their own fire patterns and movement speeds, and extra credits are very useful for getting to the later stages. Eventually players can even unlock a free play mode, which I assume means unlimited credits. Strangely, the unlocks don’t show up as a pop-up window or anything, players must manually check the unlock menu from the title screen to see if they have access to anything new. It’s not a huge hassle, but it’s strange that unlocks aren’t more obvious. The tech point system encourages players to learn good play strategies, awarding extra points for completing stages without using any continues or bombs, or simply for surviving long enough and defeating specific bosses.

Ah yes, the bombs. Ships in Zenodyne R have primary and alternate fire modes, as well as a limited number of bombs which can clear out all the bullets on the screen. These are handy for getting out of a pinch, but the action is so fast that I usually went from “I can dodge this” to “I’m dead” without having a chance to think “I’m about to die, I should use a bomb”. On the plus side, this meant I often got the bonus tech points for completing a stage without using bombs, but that came at the cost of lost lives. The few moments that I did set off a bomb at just the right moment, however, felt great.

Unlike bombs, shooting is something players will do constantly. There’s really never any reason to let go of the fire button. Alternate fire is accessed by holding down a second button (the default binding is Shift, but I remapped it so as to not interfere with my screenshot button) and generally changes to a wider shot spread. There are exceptions, however: some of the unlockable ships have focused fire patterns even in alternate fire mode, and one of the starting s hips has a decent spread in its main fire mode, but its wider spread alternate fire mode also slows the ship movement down. Initially that bothered me, because I hadn’t yet realized its utility: slowing down for sections that require careful dodging movements. Instead, I favored the second starting ship, which switches between powerful focused fire and a spread-shot alternate fire. This ship was apparently added to the game after release as a cross-promotion with Team Grybanser Fox’s game Fire Arrow Plus.

I spent almost all of my time in alternate fire mode, which could blast approaching ships easily, no matter where my own ship was on the screen. In some sections I never even had a chance to see the incoming enemies, as they exploded as soon as they entered the screen under my hail of gunfire. This let me focus on dodging and not worry too much about killing things, since they’d die anyway without me needing to aim much. I’d drop back to the standard focused fire for bosses and minibosses, as its raw power could take them out quickly. In fact, the difficulty balancing in Zenodyne R struck me as odd, because in later stages I was destroying minibosses before they even had a chance to fire a shot. This may have just been a result of using the ship added to the game after release; I never got that far with any of the original ships, which are likely balanced better.

Weapons can be powered up a few times with special drops, but this system seemed superfluous to me. My weapons would be maxed after just a few minutes of the first stage, and while they’d drop down one level if I died, my death usually spawned new power-ups for me to pick up after I respawned. It felt as if the game was meant to be played with maxed out weapons, and losing a life is enough punishment without the additional hassle of reduced firepower. The power-up system struck me as catering to genre convention rather than as a specific design decision.

Once I got the hang of medal collecting, and started to learn the early stages better, I began to do much better than I expected. I started to make steady progress into later stages, which meant the tech points rolled in much faster, offering the precious extra credits I needed to make it to the end. Finally, after a particularly good early run that saw me clear a few stages before needing to use my first credit, I was able to finish the game, having used seven credits to do so. This got me the first of seven endings. To get to the others, it was hinted that I needed to take some hard paths, which means going up to the “arcade” difficulty settings, since “normal” lacks any branching paths. And of course, there are those five other ships to try too.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’m inclined to take things that far. But I will leave Zenodyne R installed. It actually works great as a game to play in short sessions, in a spare moment here and there. I’m interested to see if I can master the second starting ship’s ability to change its movement speed as a way to dodge more effectively. I could see myself trying for another victory with that ship, but the later ships that only feature focused fire are frankly terrifying. Only being able to destroy enemies that are directly in front of the ship? That means enemies live a lot longer, shoot back a lot more, and generally make for a much tougher time.

But I’m sure shmup fans will relish these challenges. And after working past an initial hump, I found it wasn’t all that bad to get into as a new player either. Is Zenodyne R the ideal starting point for getting into shmups? I’m not qualified to answer that, but I suspect there are better games to serve as introductions. But if you fancy blowing up a whole of of spaceships in a frantic firefight, you could certainly do worse than Zenodyne R. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s for sale for a minimum price of $8.99 at the time of writing. And if you like it, check out the first game too (which is also included in the bundle), and the freshly released final entry in the series.

That’s 19 down, and only 1685 1722 to go.