1942 may represent the genesis of Capcom’s arcade design genius, but Vulgus represents the genesis of, well, Capcom. To my knowledge (and that of every resource I’ve ever read), Vulgus marked the company’s debut into game publishing and development. It is… well, it’s about what you’d expect from a freshman title in an era where the bar to entry into the arcade arena seemed awfully low. Vulgus isn’t bad, but it’s also somewhat less than remarkable.
Vulgus is simple, repetitive, and does little to impress. It’s fun enough, though, and demonstrates both a respectable level of technical competence and just a hint of imagination — enough, I think, to have justified the company receiving a second chance. This is not a great game, but you can see the beginnings of greatness peeking around the edges.
First, let’s remember that Vulgus, dated 1983, arrived a year (maybe less) after Xevious shattered the tyranny of locked-screen vertical shooters. No longer did a space craft have to drift against a field of black, perhaps dotted by stars; no longer did foes fly in a fixed formation and arrange themselves just so relative to the player until every last one had been destroyed. Xevious placed its action against a scrolling scenery, added a hint of real three-dimensionality to the mix, and sent enemies hurtling at the screen in dynamic formations that reacted to the player’s actions and skill.
Into this incubator of liberation arrived Vulgus. It stripped out the extra dimension, but it fancied up the backgrounds, combining the Xevious scroll with Zaxxon‘s alternating backdrops of low-altitude flight and free-space maneuvering. The shooting may have been fairly simple, but you can see that the designers put some thought into the setting of the game. The core levels take place over land and sea, while the functional equivalent of bonus stages — though Vulgus doesn’t appear to be actively divided into discrete levels as such — transpire in the inky blackness of space. Again, shades of Zaxxon here: The deep space sequences play out far more simplistically than the other areas.
Shades of Galaga, too. The enemies are largely dull and repetitive (though I was happy when spinning Yashichis showed up and began homing in on me — finally, the origin of Capcom’s famous symbol made itself manifest to me), lacking real personality or visual interest… and then the big ships begin to appear. They’re huge bugs! I guess that was a thing in old arcade games — not only the Galaga titles, but Vulgus and its semi-sequel Exed Exes as well. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The big bugs take half a dozen shots to put down, and there are no real power-ups to speak of… but your ship does have a very limited supply of missiles that can pierce foes and take down giant bug-ships in a single shot. You collect more missiles by flying over POW symbols littered throughout the stages. They’re slow and difficult to use effectively, and they’re in fairly short supply. So knowing when and where to use them — generally that would be when a formation of black ships darts in and lines up for a perfect enfilade for roughly three seconds — becomes a key part of Vulgus’ strategy. Wiping out a ton of ships in a single shot doesn’t net you anything more than points, but this is an old enough game that all you really care about are points, so who’s complaining?
Unlike with Varth and 1942, I don’t foresee myself ever finishing Vulgus. That’s because, unlike those other games, Vulgus lacks a continue feature. And it is crazy hard, with tons of tiny ships shooting tons of tiny bullets right at you and then following you around the screen as you try to evade all the hazards. The game does not know the meaning of the word “mercy.” Neither is it unfair, though. It’s just not quite compelling enough to be worth taking another crack at after the 40 minutes I spent with it on my train ride home today, that’s all. Still, a nice enough start for what would become a legendary developer.