Retro Review - Bio-Hazard Battle
Recent Platforms: Steam, OnLive, Virtual Console
Platform Reviewed: Steam (Sega Genesis)
Release Date: October 30, 1992
The shoot 'em up genre of video games was relatively popular during the eighties and early nineties; the side-scrolling entries appeared almost everywhere in arcades with memorable titles ranging from the classic space action of Gradius to the biological adventure of Salamander. Horizontal shooters in general were incredibly simple to pick up and play, which made them attractive to casual gamers, but they were also challenging enough to ensure a large amount of replayability. The (inevitably large) invested amount of time further increases when you consider the ability to experiment with various power ups, the want to explore branching paths in stages, and the desire to achieve a maximum score.
Bio-Hazard Battle (named Crying in Japan) was one of many horizontal shoot 'em ups to make an appearance on consoles, this one being designed for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) system. The story revolved around the idea of a colonized planet named Avaron being devastated by a retrovirus, leading to a spaceship adventure with the goal of migrating remaining survivors to a safer uninhabited location. It featured a biomechanical atmosphere in a world filled with various enemies, and offered some intense combat with a variety of ships and power ups to collect. There were some notable things though like its instrumental soundtrack, but is there enough variety here to help Bio-Hazard Battle stand out from most other horizontal shooters?
Bio-Hazard Battle may appear to be yet another space shooter type of game, but that doesn't mean that the graphics aren't worth noting. Visual coloring is smooth and pleasing to the eyes, although the player ship and enemies are easy enough to spot. Setting colors tend to be of a dark visual style, with weapon attacks and enemies often having lighter shades to help them be easier to track. The movement animation is also fast and fluid despite some very occasional slowdown when too many projectiles appear at once. Something also impressive are the multiple grounds in terms of graphics; by that I'm referring to how there will often be an additional background to provide a sense of environmental depth.
A surprisingly dark atmosphere helps Bio-Hazard Battle notably stand out from its more lighthearted arcade competitors. There's a sense of continuity with the level settings; as an example the first level has you flying through the planet's upper skies before landing onto the second level which illustrates a decrypt and monster-overrun city. Biomechanical infestation on both the human architecture and the actual creatures you fight creates a more dramatic atmosphere, and it almost makes you feel like you're part of a sci-fi horror experience. Later levels involve you moving through claustrophobic caves and volcano-infested seas, and let me tell you, fighting what looks like a mutated shark in the center of an ocean does initially feel a bit unsettling.
The music for this game is absolutely fantastic. If this review was being graded solely on the soundtrack, then there would very likely be a perfect ten for this category alone. Why are the stage songs so impressive? Because they use instrumental layering and cover various different moods while still having plenty of variety. The theme for the first and eighth stages begins with a stereo percussion mix, adds a dramatic introduction of horns to the mix, eventually transitions to an upbeat woodwind type of melody, and then blends all the instruments together to create a harmony effect. If you listen very carefully, there's even a subtle bass type of effect playing in the background. Once you get to the second and seventh stages, everything becomes much more fast-paced and emotionally cheerful and uplifting, almost to provide a sense of excitement to compliment the sky setting of the area. When you encounter the boss creatures, there's a mix of alarm type noises with a warped version of the positive notes from earlier; it very suddenly changes the mood and actually projects some emotion onto the stage atmosphere. Instrumentals change each level to provide variety, but the excellence of the musical layering makes this game's soundtrack a truly memorable one.
The sound effects are pretty typical with what you would expect in a shoot 'em up, but none of them are bad to listen to. There are different noises for each of the various weapon upgrades, projectile attacks and collisions from biomechanical enemies, and a few levels have some ambience alarms that slightly play in the background at times. It's your basic run of the mill as far as sound effects go, but the sound test reveals more than thirty effects in total, so the effort put into having variety is appreciated.
Bio-Hazard Battle shares many similar themes to the other horizontal shooters of its time. You control one of four biomechanical ships, each representing a different animal with its own differences in mechanics. Depending on which you select, the speed at which you can navigate can be faster or slower, the secondary weapons you pick up change to different types, and your charged shots can change between being a straight shot to being wavier in motion. One button serves as a rapid fire while others allow for charged shots. The goal is to make your way through eight levels with different natural backgrounds, each one being progressively more difficult than the previous; in fact the last three levels can only be played on the upper difficulties.
Enemies come in various forms, sometimes actually being a part of the stage during the more organic levels. There are insects which ambush in groups, there are stronger enemies that repeatedly fire bullets that you need to be quick to dodge, and boss enemies can have multiple forms whose patterns need to be carefully observed. An interesting machine in the second level doesn't actually kill you; it rapidly tries to move over you in an attempt to lure homing missiles to your ship. This is an example of creative monster design; a later cave level has pore-like creatures stick out of ground holes in an attempt to ambush you. These encounters can be carefully planned for by paying attention to not just your own ship but also the stage's natural design. If I had to give some criticism, it would be that there are some random sections where large enemies will pop up without enough warning, so memorization is sometimes needed if you choose to take the upper branching paths.
While the game is surprisingly hard during certain areas, you do have a secondary gadget that follows you around known as the Power Star. This acts as both a shield and weapon, and its position can be controlled with your ship movements, although being on an older system there is no actual dual stick control. The Power Star can block projectile attacks if it's carefully positioned between you and your enemies, although this is easier said than done on some of the later bullet-hell segments. In terms of offense, you can pick up four differently colored "Energy Seeds" whose effects on your secondary weapon depend on your ship choice. Green seeds have a universal effect across ships; it fires bullets in numerous directions but is weaker by comparison. Blue seeds provide homing attack features, which fire less frequently but are incredibly handy for targeting larger and more aggressive enemies, situations where you wouldn't want to move close to them because of their rapid projectile attacks. Orange seeds can either provide faster but weaker homing attacks, or more interestingly, bounce around the walls of the terrain until an enemy or screen edge is hit. Finally, yellow seeds while being more difficult to control are capable of destroying enemy bullets. Each of these weapons can be enhanced up to three times if the same color is repeatedly collected in a row.
Also, video game developers, take notice. This is one of the few shooters where touching a wall will not actually kill you. The only way to die in this game is to either be hit by a projectile attack, make a collision with an enemy creature, or to get crushed on the edge of the screen. With that said though, this game is still very action-based in terms of offense and defense. Branching paths are sometimes accessible, and using them well can help you avoid some of the more stressful enemy encounters. The action is fast, and mastering the movement controls is a necessity, especially since the difficulty curve isn't always consistent within levels. This along with a lack of checkpoints can seem a bit unfair at times, but it's balanced by the fact that if you die, you just quickly respawn on the same area with one less life. There are nine credits for continuing should you get a game over, but these place you at the start of the current level instead of midway through.
Being a score-based game, there is an additional challenge in trying to beat a maximum score, but the lack of online leaderboards in recent versions limits this feature to local players. Something that is certainly appreciated though is a simultaneous two-player mode, something which is sure to provide some fun if you play the adventure locally with a friend. Various difficulty modes are also available, ranging from somewhat easy to exponentially hard. The game also has plenty of secrets including a hidden asteroid level and a level select feature. A sound test is also available in the menu so you can listen to the game's fantastic music anytime.
Bio-Hazard Battle is a pleasant surprise that takes the shooter mechanics of other retro shoot 'em ups and adds a few features of its own. An atmosphere that actually provides some level depth is visually impressive, the music contains numerous layers of instrumentals which succeed at manipulating mood, and the animation is fluid despite occasional slowdown. The levels contain enemies whose behaviors can sometimes depend on the environment, and the various items that change depending on ship preference allow for some very creative ways to take down the biomechanical opposition. The difficulty may be somewhat inconsistent within stages, but this doesn't stop it from being one of the better shooters released for the old system. Bio-Hazard Battle is an underrated gem that currently only costs around three dollars on Steam, so check it out if you get the chance!