[ Writer ] = Eight Rooks
[ 04/06/03 ] = Ginga Fukei Densetsu: Sapphire (Legend Of Galaxy Policewoman Sapphire)

The business of shoring up a console's life expectancy with hardware addons is not without risk, this being the same now as it ever was. Sega got it wrong with their 32X for the Genesis, and consumers voted with their feet. NEC, on the other hand, kept revising their PC Engine console with greater success. Importantly, NEC gave people more reason to buy their upgrades - the software backing them up contained several standout titles where Sega gave the public far too many risible games comprising a great deal of low quality FMV and little else. Sapphire (Hudson, 1995) is one such standout title, requiring a CD-enabled PC Engine and the final expansion to the machine, the Arcade Card. Unsurprisingly, it's a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up - NEC's machine had a great many of them - and the nuts and bolts of it are not any different from what one would expect for having the extra hardware to draw on. Still cutscenes set out the token plot, a future where special operatives pursue the enemy across time and space (this explaining why the theme skips from SF to fantasy and all points in between). There are four of these heroines to choose from, with the usual tweaks to performance and weapon selection to set them apart from each other.

Pick a pilot, launch yourself upon the first level, and even today Sapphire carries something of an impact. Strong colour palette, large, well-defined sprites for all the low resolution and... polygons? Textures? Morphing? The effects stand out in comparison to what the competition was doing at the time because all too often titles like Starfox on the SNES (for all their undoubted excellence) looked suspiciously like demos of the new techniques. Plus they still carry weight today because they remain so well integrated with the standard 2D backgrounds and sprite manipulation. Aesthetically, Sapphire feels beautifully complete, if a little rough and ready; the first level is an amusingly blatant lift from BladeRunner, and the second feels perhaps too much of a tribute to Konami's Castlevania franchise. But though the technical side of it does nothing for the gameplay, it certainly doesn't hurt. Bosses spin and flip in the third dimension, flail their arms, belch fire, whatever; there is a solidity to it all and a presence that many shooters in the 32-bit era and beyond never managed, for all their flash and pyrotechnics. Considering the PC Engine is basically a souped-up 8-bit machine, this is no mean feat.

The music deserves a mention, also, given this too takes full advantage of the platform. Many of the CD titles had hugely entertaining music, and Sapphire ranks among the best. Bruising J-Rock with jackhammer drum machine programming, it happily outranks even Lords and Gate of Thunder, making far better use of diverse instrumentation than Gate and varying the composition more often than Lords of Thunder.







It passes unnoticed for a while, but partly, the player is afforded the chance to take all this in because Sapphire is one of the slowest titles ever created in the genre. This is the first failing of the game. There is one pilot who is the standout "fast one" yet even she hardly matches a Vic Viper sped up a couple of times, to borrow an example from Gradius. Her three friends float across the screen at a snail's pace and the player is not given the opportunity to get any of the four to move any faster. This could be overlooked were it not for the fact that Sapphire can also feel less than perfectly laid out. It is hardly careless, and rarely if ever unfair, per se. However, the game comes across as a title designed for a tate screen squashed down into half its normal playing area with too little thought for how it plays after that. With the slower ships, the slightest lapse in concentration, even on the first level, can see the player drifting helplessly into enemy fire; it barely counts as bullet patterns but the projectiles are often so large, and movement so restricted, that the game seems to be dependant on pattern memorization all too quickly.

Add to this Psikyo's trick of weapon powerups (dropped from kills) bouncing off an invisible wall an inch above the bottom of the screen, continually snatched out of reach. On top of that, powerups cycle through three possible weapon progressions, ergo chasing them very slowly around the screen as you attempt to slide out of the way of enemy fire can often be frustrating. Showboating seems sometimes not worth the hassle, to put it bluntly. Your ship can make use of a powered up attack, netting you bonus points if you charge it up and take out a number of enemies in sequence, but the slow pace and nature of the attack waves means it can be a great deal of trouble for little or no reward.

Is Sapphire worth the high prices it commands? If you care, then no, likely it isn't. Without question it is a far better than average vertical shooter, with the capacity for long-term play and attempting to better your score that any decent title in the genre holds. But there are better things to spend your money on in the field. All the same, Sapphire is an amazing technical showcase for the format and - artistically at least - a beautiful piece of design which still holds up today; it is a touch more for the collector than the enthusiast, though.