I’ve been meaning for a while now — I’m talking more than a decade, actually — to pick through the classic compilations I’ve picked up over the years and spend some genuine quality time with the games therein. Get a real look at them, beyond just the usual cursory glance. Since I was stuck out of town for a week with a Vita and didn’t bring along any retail games, I decided to get close and personal with Capcom Classic Collection Remix. And just to be wild and unpredictable, I decided to start from the back end of the collection rather than the beginning with a game called… Varth.
Varth is pretty crazy! If you draw a line between 1943: The Battle of Midway and modern manic shooters, Varth would sit somewhere right in the middle of that line. Its aesthetics and mechanics feel a lot like 1943 on steroids, but the amount of crap flying around kind of blows the human mind. At the same time, it’s not quite manic, because the screen-filling bullet spew doesn’t adhere to rigid patterns. Furthermore, while your ship’s hit box seems pretty generous, it doesn’t restrict itself to the tiny handful of pixels of danmaku games.
I would say Varth sits precariously somewhere right in the middle of that line. Its reach, at times, exceeds its grasp. Too often the game will throw things at you with no warning — enemies fly up from the bottom of the screen while you’re pulling back to avoid encroaching waves of foes from the front, sandwiching you with instant unforeseen death. I’m sure dedicated fans of the game would shrug and say, “Yeah, so?” because they’ve played Varth dozens of times and have the patterns down to an art; those “gotcha” moments ain’t no thing once you’ve beaten your head against them long enough for them to become second nature. But I find them frustrating.
I guess I shouldn’t complain. It’s kind of an old-school approach, right? A game a little too rough to finish on one quarter, or even on a first attempt. Or, in my case, a third attempt in the space of a week — but every time I try, I get a little further in. How quaint! It’s like the ’90s all over again. Oh, right, it’s from the ’90s. Well then.
Varth throws a lot of interesting ideas from a number of shooters into the mix. Your fighter can collect a pair of indestructible satellites that double as missile launchers and shields… it falls somewhere between a Gradius option and an R-Type bit. The power-ups resemble 1943’s (machine gun, spread gun, laser), but the progressive power-up system almost feels like something out of a Hudson TurboGrafx-16 shooter. Your ship is practically worthless without the satellites, especially once you make it a few levels in, though the game is kind enough to replace them fairly quickly when you die rather than leave you helpless against impossible odds as in a Gradius.
Also similar to a danmaku title: The importance of bombs. You can carry up to four screen-clearing bombs at a time; once you fire one off, your bomb meter recharges fairly quickly to enable you to fire off more. They become a regular part of your arsenal rather than languishing as these things you hoard jealously and never use.
All in all, a bit uneven, but fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the game in the wild, nor have I ever seen it mentioned by another human being. If not for the fact that I own a copy right there on my Vita, I might not even believe it exists! But here it is. And maybe someday I’ll make it past that ridiculously cheap Stage 15 boss that pinches me between this impossible spray of bullets and a bunch of crazy bullets from directly behind. Maybe.