4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by Toaplan
Published by M2 / Tatsujin in 2021
Paying respects to shmup classics is never a bad idea if you have some spare time. It also serves two noble purposes. One of them is to put into perspective their undeniable importance to the development of the genre. The other is, well, to have fun obviously. It could be easy fun, but challenging fun is preferrably the best option. Tiger-Heli is definitely one that fits the bill, and its resurfacing in new consoles thanks to the fine people from M2 offered a great chance to revisit this defining title in the history of Toaplan. After all, the only true arcade port of Tiger-Heli until recently was in the Toaplan Shooting Battle 1 compilation released for the Playstation in 1996.
Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli is the first compilation in the M2 ShotTriggers Japanese series that's exclusively dedicated to Toaplan. It contains Tiger-Heli, Kyukyoku Tiger and Twin Cobra, in what's seemingly a repetition of the aforementioned package released for the PS1. However, it offers much more in terms of available adjustments, interface improvements and extra content since you can also play several console versions of these games through DLC. There's even a port of Get Star, an extremely odd platformer released by Toaplan in 1986. Unfortunately the downlodable content can only be redeemed with Japanese PSN accounts.
Even though it's quite different from the titles that followed in the Toaplan timeline, Tiger-Heli was immensely successful and established the company as one of the main shmup households during the 80s. The main inspiration for the game was Gyrodine, which actually had in its developmment team some of the guys who would later found Toaplan. However, despite the similar use of a helicopter as the player's avatar there isn't much in common between both games. Toaplan's debut enjoyed greater success both in the arcades and in people's homes, given that in certain regions the port of Tiger-Heli for the Famicom/NES was certainly one of the most popular shmups of the 8-bit era.
Art during the initial loading of Tiger-Heli on the PS4
As the first shmup developed by Toaplan, Tiger-Heli established the basic visual grounds that would define much of the company's style for a few years. In terms of gameplay, however, it's quite unique in how it deals with movement speed and bomb management for example. It's deceivingly slow and methodical, and despite the straightforward nature of enemy formations there comes a point when a solid amount of memorization becomes inevitable. It teaches the importance of never underestimating a simple game that uses only two buttons for shooting and for dropping bombs.
Once the helicopter takes flight over an urban landscape, tanks and turrets will fire aimed bullets at intervals that get increasingly shorter as the difficulty picks up proportionally. For each life you get two bombs placed on the sides of the chopper, which can explode if hit by a bullet. The firing rate is capped so you can only have a certain amount of bullets on screen at any time, nevertheless it's still possible to point blank in order to land a lot more shots per second. Bombs have no panic function but can still be used defensively, however a proactive approach can lead to much better survival chances in some of the trickiest sections.
Improving firepower is possible by hitting a tiny ground square that keeps cycling quickly between a white arrow pointing up, a red arrow point sideways and a blue B for extra bombs. The arrows generate "little helis" that float downwards and latch to the chopper on both sides when collected, providing great attack reinforcements. You can have a maximum of two little helis at any given time, but just like the bombs they can be destroyed with a single hit. As for the yellow pulsating squares, an extra life is achieved whenever ten of them are destroyed (a counter keeps track of how many you have). By the way, score-based extends are also registered with 50.000 points and for every 120.000 points after that.
Whenever you die and get sent back to a previous checkpoint the helicopter is respawned with two bombs. This bomb stock is also replenished during the landing/take-off sequence between levels, which is also where you can collect 5.000 bonus points for each bomb or little heli you're carrying when you land (surplus upgrades taken throughout the level give you 3.000 points). These are the main ways to score higher, but there are also a few secrets such as the indestructible red house at the start of the first stage that gives you 10.000 points (and more if you keep shooting it), or the areas where a racing car will slowly travel from right to left if you stand there after having fired exact multiples of 16 shots and is also worth 10.000 points.
Entering the second loop of Tiger-Heli on the PS4
(courtesy of YouTube user FunnyPlace Channel)
(courtesy of YouTube user FunnyPlace Channel)
Before playing this port of Tiger-Heli, the 16-shot secret for the passing car was unknown to me. Achieving it is possible in all available spots of this version though, thanks to some of the gadgets designed by M2 (the shot counter and the stage map). A staple that has become synonym with the company, these gadgets are invaluable and give much more information than what you can see from the game screen alone. This port also offers four game modes to choose from. Arcade is locked in the Normal difficulty and denies any changes to the game settings, providing the unaltered original experience and avoiding the confusion related to different arcade board versions. Super Easy mode is also locked, Custom allows all sorts of tweaks possible and Arcade Challenge is a collection of stage-based score attack modes.
Since everything in this Playstation 4 version is in Japanese, if you want to watch a replay from the leaderboards note that you need to download it first by pressing ×, then proceed to Replay Theater inside the Materials Room menu to see it.
Click for the option menus translation for Tiger-Heli on Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli
Despite the apparent bare-bones and primitive aspect of Tiger-Heli, its ability to keep sucking players for just one more credit is undeniable. There are no stage bosses, but those large tanks that appear in pairs at certain points could definitely claim the title of bosses if they wanted to. An interesting gameplay detail is that even though a few jets zap through the screen here and there there are absolutely no shots fired by aerial enemies, a concept that Toaplan would employ again in Daisenpu / Twin Hawk. And as far as looping games go, Tiger-Heli is also special because it excludes the first stage from subsequent loops, which then have only three stages instead of the initial four (the high score table mentions areas, with 8 areas comprising a full stage). Finally, the game makes the most out of the available music, changing its regular theme to an equally energetic variation whenever you're carrying at least one little heli.
My best result in Arcade mode / Normal difficulty is below. Once I got familiar with the game again I was able to reach the 3rd stage of the second loop (repetition of the 4th stage).