I have a question for you. Context first: I am playing the PC Engine Mini at the moment, so obviously this has led to playing and replaying many shoot’em ups.
I was getting to write something (in French) about it but somehow my notes have bifurcated into a deep dive about the legacy of speed selection in shooting games. So I’d like to confirm with the brillant (and possibly younger, fresher) minds around here: could you help me figure out what is the first game, or first home port, that allowed for manual speed selection of your ship in a shooting game? To put the question in a more specific way: which game did that before Gunhed, released in Japan on the PC Engine in Summer 1989?
As long as I’ve known the console, this feature (and the ►►► iconography to represent the speed level) has been characteristic of PC Engine titles — and especially the Star Soldier family — but I had actually never paused and thought about the legacy of this feature until now. I naturally assumed the feature was already present in the first Star Soldier, even moreso because I remember it well being present in the remake Star Soldier R on WiiWare (which I admittedly played much more thant the Famicom game) but it turns out it’s not the case.
On the PC Engine, unless I am mistaken, the first title to include this option is Compile’s Gunhed. Developed together with internal staff at Hudson, Gunhed is the missing link between Star Soldier on the Famicom and the future Super Star Soldier series. It is also the title which changed the course for Aleste games by strongly influencing both Super Aleste and Spriggan (which in turn had an influence on Musha Aleste).
Yet, neither Zanac nor the first Aleste included such a feature, and I cannot find any Compile title prior to Gunhed that used that feature, despite their many home computer and console exclusives (I say this because the feature feels like it belongs to consoles moreso than the arcades). The challenge of scrolling on the MSX means it was probably not a realistic feature back then anyway.
The other suspect I had in mind was Technosoft, as the only non-PC Engine game which is synonymous with manual speed control to me is Thunder Force III. Same lack of result: I could not find any prior Technosoft game which included manual speed control, and Thunder Force III itself was released after Gunhed. I remember and have found a number of other games with a similar system but all of them released circa 1990 / 1992.
Gradius established the concept of complex upgrade systems in shooting game in 1985, but speed was still awarded as a one way bonus back then and most developers followed through this “linear upgrade” design philosophy (notably Toaplan).
I would be surprised if no game messed with the idea between 1985 and 1989, but I can’t find any example in Japan, at the very least. It does sound like an idea early US arcade games would at least explore. Even if the direct connection with Japanese games would be unlikely in this case, maybe one example could be found there? Is there indeed no shooting game that made use of manual speed control before Gunhed?