Nintendo's Virtual Console and Sony's PlayStation Classics are at their best when they give gamers inexpensive access to rare, pricey, or otherwise inaccessible software. EarthBound, Rondo of Blood, Shantae, U*foria, and more: We've seen quite a few Virtual Console releases over the years that bring premium collectibles home for cheap. And now we can add another to the list: Recca, aka Summer Carnival '92.
Released in extremely limited quantities two decades ago for the Japanese Famicom (their version of the NES), Recca pushed Nintendo's 8-bit hardware to its ragged limit. As a precursor to modern-day "bullet hell" games, Recca definitely felt like an answer to the intense top-down shooters that were cropping up around that time in Japan on PC Engine (TurboGrafx) and Mega Drive (Genesis). In fact, it even includes a hidden jab at Sega as an Easter egg....
Recca does a remarkable job of facing off directly against more advanced systems' top shooters. In terms of manic intensity, it stands toe-to-toe with Hudson's best -- Super Star Solider and the like. The Star Soldier series rose to popularity on the NES but quickly shifted over to PC Engine; with Recca, Naxat seemed to be making an effort to humble Hudson by saying, "Hey, we can do that, too, and on much weaker hardware."
There seemed to be an undercurrent of rivalry between Naxat and Hudson back in the day. Naxat's sister publisher, Taxan, had published Star Soldier for NES in the U.S., but for the most part the company made its name by going head-to-head against Hudson with its own array of shooters, most of which appeared on Hudson's home turf, so to speak: The PC Engine. Both companies played a game of brinkmanship with each new release throughout the early '90s. Recca, then, was just Naxat showing off.
Honestly, you can tell that Recca was meant to impress more than entertain. On the technical side, it's nothing short of amazing. As a shooter, though, it's good... yet not earth-shattering. The sheer ambition of its design will make you marvel at all the things you never knew the NES hardware could accomplish, but it won't change your mind about how shooters play. It lacks the polish and substance of Hudson's best -- or Naxat's best on more capable hardware, for that matter.
Make no mistake, though, Recca really does make an NES fan reel with disbelief. The same hardware that slowed to a crawl for modest shooters like Life Force, that struggled to handle straightforward action games (like, say, Taxan's Low-G Man) -- here, it churns out dozens of ships blazing across the screen, spewing curtains of bullets at high speeds. It's a tour de force of 8-bit programming and clever design tricks. For example, it almost certainly takes the form of a vertical shooter because the NES's sprite-drawing capabilities were limited by the horizontal; by rarely placing many sprites side-by-side but instead emphasizing columns, Recca programmer Shinobu Yagawa minimized flicker and kept the game looking far more solid than you'd think possible with so much happening on-screen.
Still, all that dazzle takes its toll on Recca at a fundamental level. For all the action happening at any given moment and the huge number of sprites flying around the screen, Recca constantly butts up against the hard limits of the NES hardware. You see a lot less flicker than you'd expect, but it still shows up pretty often. And while the overall feel of the game is silky and fluid, the NES just wasn't made to handle such speedy gameplay. Controls never feel quite as pixel-precise as you need in a shooter like this, and fine movements (say, to avoid streams of bullets) can be difficult to execute.
Gameplay also tends to be relatively simple compared to similar shooters, probably because the constraints of the hardware imposed harsh limits on what Yagawa could get away with. Power-up capsules lack visual distinctiveness, and the sheer speed and jumpiness of the controls reduce Recca to a game of pattern memorization. I suppose that's the case for most shooters, but the best ones are a little more discreet about it.
I hate to disparage Recca, because it really is an exquisite technical showcase for the hidden potential of the NES. And it's a pretty decent shooter, with several different modes and probably considerably more content than you'll ever see without vigorous save state abuse. But it's crazy hard, with much of the difficulty arising from twitchy controls that make playing Recca feel like navigating a stunt obstacle course in a minivan with a broken axle. It's an amazing piece of work, but like so many tech demos, it has its shortcomings as a game.