CAProduction / Hudson Soft
To state things lightly, the retro video game scene has grown over the past few decades. To state things realistically, the retro video game scene has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Gone are the rare and unconventional days that held niche opportunities to strike up conversations with others about titles you used to play as a kid, wherein old time questions such as “Hey, remember Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo?” are now much less likely to receive those teary eyed, nostalgia ridden responses, but traded in favour for something like: “Yeah, duh. I 101%’d it yesterday and captured all of the footage. Just gotta edit it before I upload it to the Tube.” As of the year 2021, vintage titles have come back to seize a significant portion of gaming’s spotlight, and their return to prominence has had an undeniable effect on the releases of today, reflected in gameplay, packaging and more. Whereas blockbuster titles such as 2016’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End harp back on developer Naughty Dog’s glory days by showcasing footage of a whimsical Crash Bandicoot running around and splintering crates, other contemporary releases like 2017’s Sonic Mania have legitimately attempted to make their games look and feel as retro as possible, wagering that what worked then will most certainly work now. Accompanying the rejuvenation of games from yesteryear are the cliques that identify with them. Sure, you’ve got your guys and girls that will only play retro titles, seemingly forbidding themselves from touching anything that hit shelves after the year 2000, but that exclusivity intensifies with the individuals that rarely play anything outside of fighting or role playing games, for example. Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying a specific genre of games, but with such passionate people often comes the absolute need to profess their skill, mastery or knowledge regarding a certain title or category of games overall. The genre of shooting games, or shooters, is no stranger to this. Near and far, shooting game connoisseurs have documented their finite love and proficiency relating to the titles that they hold dear, ready and willing to educate you on the most miniscule points available. That’s not what this review contains. Since 1996, I’ve considered myself a stupendous fanatic of all things video games, but I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a champion at nothing. I take every game at face value and play them strictly for the fun and curiosity of things, regardless of price or rarity. Now, don’t get me wrong, those two aforementioned qualities can definitely pique my interest from time to time, but I’m willing to bet that we can all agree that cost or scarcity can’t save a bad game from being second-rate, or worse. That being said, Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire, also known as Galaxy Policewomen Legend Sapphire, or just Sapphire, for short, happens to be both lavish and infrequently found, but neither of those statuses will hold much water if the game happens to be downright crummy. One of the last releases to hit the console, and frequently referred to as the crown jewel of the PC Engine library, just what is it about Sapphire that makes it such a solitaire?
For an 8-bit console like the PC Engine, Sapphire is a juggernaut of a release if there ever was one. Requiring its own separate Arcade Card just to run, the quality of the game’s music and graphics are on levels that belong in another generation entirely, spinning out a standard better suited for the Sega Saturn or Sony PlayStation. Chew on that for a second. How many NES or Master System games can you name that would’ve been better suited for a console that released nine years later? With the assistance of the Arcade Card, Sapphire pushes the PC Engine to its limits, showcasing colours, textures, and on-screen action simply not seen in games of an 8-bit caliber. Speaking of the Saturn and PlayStation, both of those systems had already been introduced to the market a year before the release of Sapphire (the PC Engine was intended to compete with the 1983 Famicom, for goodness sake), making its existence that much more awe-inspiring, and further cementing its future legacy as one of the greatest shooters of all time.
In the gameplay department, Sapphire is lucid and lively, with controls that are straightforward and enemies that are surprisingly quick-witted. I’ve played quite a few shooters throughout my life but after spinning more than a handful, it’s easy to get a feel for how the majority of the games present themselves. In stark contrast to the crowd, Sapphire unleashes varying oscillations of enemies that ambush and bombard the player in swift and unpredictable fashions. Just as I think I’m getting a hand on how the game operates, it lobs a few more surprises my way, keeping all of my playtime situated at the edge of my seat. Boss and mid-boss skirmishes are always entertaining thanks in large part to the way that they dole out attacks. The opposition will attempt to destroy your ship by nearly any means necessary, whether it’s by pulling it in close with tentacle-like appendages, in due course squashing your vessel to smithereens, or by hurling massive boulders at it, shattering it in half a second. Rapid and ruthless, Sapphire’s difficulty levels will present a significant challenge for some, but thankfully, they can be modified within the game’s option menu (though, the game is still pretty exigent on Easy mode…)
There are four different characters to choose from, all of whom come with their own individually numbered ships that possess unique qualities. The aesthetic of the vessels really reminded me of those from 1965’s Thunderbirds. I like playing as Jasmin (the girl with the purple hair) as I find her division of speed and power to be the best fit when I’m actually trying to make it through the entire game, whereas I almost never select Helena (green hair), piloting a ship that’s durable, but painfully slow moving. Each ship fires out ammunition in dissimilar patterns and acquiring power-ups of various colours will change the trajectory of your shots on the fly. Green power-ups equip your ship with an exceedingly wide shot, one that eventually even covers the rear of your vessel. Blue power-ups offer a straightforward shot that significantly dials up the strength behind your discharge but doesn’t cover much surface area, and red power-ups provide the best of both worlds with a shot that dishes out a mix of both green and blue’s qualities. I try my best to only collect red power-ups for the obvious reasons, but there are times when the other power-up’s values can be of more help. Upon power-up acquisition (how many times have I said power-up?), two miniature ships will flank your own, capable of shielding your sides from enemy fire and unleashing a special charged shot when you release the fire button for more than a few seconds. I thought this made for an interesting gameplay mechanic as powerful, charged up shots are typically released by holding down the fire button and then releasing it, but such is not the case within Sapphire. Capable of hunting down multiple enemies on the screen at once, the special shot is a really handy one but sometimes challenging to pull off. Commonplace in the genre of shooters, all four ships are also stocked with bombs to deal significant amounts of damage to incoming enemies and can really help during some of the gnarlier boss battles (they’re all gnarly). The game also supports the ability to play with two players.
Obvious from the onset, one of Sapphire’s star attractions lies within its stunning showcase of graphical power. As I mentioned earlier, the game actually looks like it’s running on 32-bit hardware as opposed to 8… absolutely incredible considering the limitations it was working with and not an attribute that more than a handful of titles can capably claim. Thanks to NEC’s 1994 innovations in the forms of the Arcade Card Duo and Arcade Card Pro upgrades, the increased RAM gifted to the PC Engine empowered the console to operate a small selection of technical wonders – releases that many perceived to be inoperable with the machine. The only drawback to wide eyed game enthusiasts looking to enjoy end of lifecycle titles like Sapphire was that they required one of the Arcade Cards to function properly, presenting yet another additional cost for consumers to cough up, supplemental money that the PC Engine built up a well known reputation for demanding. That said, I really cannot understate just how far-fetched the game looks while running on a system released in 1987. The level of detail devoted to the environments through which your ship will be flying is even higher than I went in anticipating, exhibiting extents of caliber that I’m more so used to seeing presented from different, more powerful consoles entirely. I know I keep touching on the point that it’s hard to believe that the game released for the platform that it did, but it really does just go to show how much of a mechanical marvel it proved itself of being. As Sapphire follows a time travelling storyline, there exists a plethora of different domains to feast your eyes on as you continue to make progress, all of which look really phenomenal. The game’s first stage, set within a futuristic city, is my favourite from the five that Sapphire offers.
Sapphire’s story revolves around a team of policewomen in pursuit of criminals across time and space, consequently landing them in a variety of perilous situations taking place in medieval times, ancient Japan, Egypt, and more. The story itself has an interesting premise, but not a ton of depth. There are a few cut scenes that will occur as you progress through the game, but they tend to be short and somewhat tedious. That said, I don’t recall hearing of anyone legitimately wanting to play the game for its incredible story. Most shooting games are pretty lackluster in the narrative department due to the fact that they simply don’t need to have a pronounced one to be enjoyable, and Sapphire is really no different.
The music that accompanies Sapphire’s red-hot action is akin to something out of a Guns N’ Roses concert, heavy and hard-hitting. Hudson Soft commissioned T’s Music, a group of incredibly talented musicians responsible for an innumerable amount of other jammin’ soundtracks, to handle the game’s tunes. Coming off of their previous work for titles such as Toilet Kids, Lords of Thunder, and Final Fight CD, the virtuosos at T’s went right to work on making another absolutely killer soundtrack, ripe with righteous guitar solos and celestial shredding that will keep you head banging from start to finish. I remember being blown away by the game’s menu music upon first firing it up, knowing from that point on that things were going to sound beyond badass for the next five levels.
Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire is a rollercoaster of a shooter, absolutely ballistic in terms of music, graphics and gameplay from start to finish. 26 years later, the title still lives up to its prodigious reputation, delivering a fun, unique, and satisfying gameplay experience that is sure to surprise more than a few who have yet to relish in its qualities. A masterpiece of a shooter, I’m confident in saying that I strongly doubt Sapphire has even remotely disappointed anyone who has played it.