One of the things that have always amazed me about shmups (shoot ’em ups) were the degrees of creativity certain design houses put into their particular games turning many into an adrenaline-fueled slice of never ending action. As players craved more challenges and as shmup architects sharpened their skills, “bullet hell” (or “danmaku” which means “bullet curtain” in Japanese) shmups started appearing in the 90s, tossing oceans of bullets in all directions to make prospective shooter aces feel loved.
That was especially true when it came to the bosses. Waves of deadly projectiles could form patterns onscreen, beautiful tapestries of arcing death, spiraling pinwheels doom, or focused cones of absolute fear. The patterns were intentional in their design as if the programmers wanted them to tapp into the instinctive psyche of players suggestively luring them into safe spaces between the fusillades their reflexes felt should be there.
By the time bullet hell shooters began appearing on the scene, Kaneko was already an old hand in the arcade having started in 1980 and eventually accruing a work history that included the iconic Taito as a publisher. By the late 90s, they weren’t quite as high profile as others in the field were such as Capcom, Psikyo, or Cave — at least when it came to shmups. Kaneko’s main claims to fame were apparently in other genres that were as far removed from bullet hells as you could probably get with puzzle titles such as their Gals Panic series.
That didn’t mean they had no clue on how to make a shmup work. Air Buster in 1990 was a neat shooter in its own right, and eight years later, they’d wow bullet hell fans with Cyvern in 1998.
As Malc over at shmup mega-fan site, Shmups, says in the opening paragraph to their review of Cyvern:
“Possibly THE game I’d take to my desert island, Cyvern is a little-known modern shooter which proves to be amongst the very best arcade shmups ever.”
And it’s hard not to see why.
Kaneko really seemed to pull out all the stops to make Cyvern look, sound, and play on the same level as titles wheeled out from those who had made the genre their home field. And like many of its peers, took the “stained glass” approach in telling everything the player needed to know onscreen. A mysterious enemy, three cybernetic dragons to pick from, and epic bosses culminating in a final showdown against some biotechnological terror. Simple but still effective in conveying enough crunchy eye candy juxtaposed behind the blistering action.
The game consisted of five, vertically scrolling stages each capped with a furious boss fight and many of these bosses were of the “multiple stage” variety with other bits to destroy before finally dealing with the main core, like the first stage boss which took the form of a huge armored train-like vehicle with multiple “cars” to blow off. Like many other bullet hell bosses, that also meant that their fighting styles would sometimes also change with new, and often fiercer, bullet patterns.
Visually, Cyvern was awash in colorful and finely detailed pixel art. Exploding ground vehicles would leave smoldering craters behind, large vessels would register damage as turrets and rocket launchers were blown off. The best damage detail was reserved for the bosses themselves as players worked them over with their chosen Cyvern. Burst hulls, twisted plates, exposed mechanics, shattered deck plating…it was a feast for the eyes.
Two players could co-op to help each other survive the challenges ahead, each picking one of the three Cyverns who also had their own individualized attack patterns. The red Cyvern was configured with a conical spray of bullets. The blue Cyvern had a more spread out firing pattern. And last but not least, the green Cyvern had a focused stream of bullets pointing straight ahead.
In addition to a limited number of “bomb” super weapons to help clear the screen or inflict savage damage on the bosses, each Cyvern also had a “Banish” attack. A gauge filled up as enemies were destroyed representing the energy you had at your disposal to use this special. The red Cyvern had a devastating fire breath though it had limited range. The blue Cyvern had a lightning attack that automatically tracked enemies onscreen. And the green Cyvern had a sky-splitting green beam of energy to lay waste to everything directly in its path.
Learning to balance between shooting enemies (and powering up your basic attacks with pick ups left behind by exploding enemies along the way) as a breather to let your Banish gauge fill up and then unleashing it (which also acted as a score multiplier) was a key survival technique. Continuing picked the action up at the point of death, but you also had to say goodbye to your score at the same time. On “finishing” the game, you were looped back to the start to keep fighting (and scoring) until all your lives (or quarters) were spent.
Unfortunately, Cyvern is one of those little known arcade shmups that never quite found its way over to the West unless, as Malc points out in his detailed review, you want to invest in a Super Nova system board that Cyvern ran on. The Super Nova was Kaneko’s own cartridge-based solution similar to Capcom and SNK’s efforts with the CPS-1 and Neo Geo MVS respectively. The only other alternative was emulation.
As for Kaneko, they seem to have disappeared around the time a civil lawsuit was levied against them in 2005. After that, there’s nothing. Not even an active web site aside from what the Internet Archive has remembered and even then, the last word from the company around 2005 involved their legal fight. By the time 2008 rolled around, the site was dead along with, most likely, the company. Unlike Air Buster which found its way to the consoles of the day like the Sega Genesis in 1991, it doesn’t seem as if there’s anyone left to bring Cyvern and anything else from Kaneko over; a persistent problem in preserving many arcade-only classics and introducing them to new audiences via other mediums.
That makes Cyvern one of those sadly neglected classics from arcade’s past that many players may simply miss out on because of its relative obscurity. It’s sad it hasn’t joined other titles like Cave’s Guwange on other platforms (in Guwange’s case, as an Xbox Live Arcade title for the X360 and mobiles). After all, I’d like to think there’s always room for flying as a shmup cyber dragon in any generation.