Earth's future in intergalactic relations, if video games are to be believed, can be summed up thusly: We're the neutral, laissez faire good guys. The aliens are convinced that our otherwise mundane existence is somehow a threat to theirs. Real reasons are rarely given; perhaps they're like the Vogons, who needed to destroy Earth because it stood in the way of their highway. In the end, though, it doesn't matter because they're always out to invade or destroy us.
The shooting game Side Arms saw a few slightly differing incarnations, with the differences mostly being in the title. Most people just call it Side Arms. The package of the rare TurboGrafx-16 version - which is the best-known version and frequently considered the defining version - simply calls it Sidearms. Capcom calls it Hyper Dyne Side Arms. Or Side Arms Hyper Dyne. The music is also different. In all the ways that really matter, though, the game is the same across every appearance. The gameplay is pretty much unchanged. The arcade classic had a two-player mode which the TurboGrafx-16 doesn't have, but the Turbo version has a soundtrack which is by far superior.
Side Arms is a shooter. By that, you should be able to make a wild stab at guessing the story. If you blow it, please defer back to the first paragraph. If you still don't get it, you're a fucking idiot, but since I'm a nice guy, here it is spelled out in plain English: Aliens have taken over the world. Your job is to Save the World! Instead of flying in a spaceship, you'll be fighting in a mobile suit. Off into ten levels we go. Ten insanely merciless levels slowly descending into a classic bullet hell.
I first owned this game on the Turbo, but it wasn't until the playing the arcade edition on the second Capcom Classics Collection that I was able to get anywhere outside the fourth level. That was because the Classics Collection version has unlimited continues, and the continues on it play like lost lives: Continuing places you right in the exact spot where you died. The greatest challenge in Side Arms isn't quite from the fact that everyone attacks from everywhere at the same time, though; it's because the respawning invulnerability time is too short and doesn't grant you enough time to get the character to safety between the time you die and the time you become solid and vulnerable again. As a result, you're going to be losing lives in good, long strings before you get any breathing room.
The types of enemies populating the ten levels in Side Arms tend to attack in constant waves, and most levels have nasty obstacles which make for a narrow screen and no room to maneuver. Enemies tend to be placed in hard-to-attack locations a lot of the time, although many of them have multi-directional guns and homing missiles, which means they have no problems getting at you. The enemies that are easy to attack come in waves and frequently make charges at your body. While that makes them easy to keep at a distance, they tend to pop up in any given direction on the screen, so you're stuck dodging shots from hard-to-reach bad guys while attacking the charging cavalry enemies at the same time.
It's a way of padding difficulty, but one I'm willing to accept - Side Arms is a shooting game, after all, and we don't expect things to be easy. What isn't nearly as acceptable starts showing up in the second level: The centipede enemy. There are two types of centipede enemies. They both move very quickly and can take about a billion shots to the head - which, by the way, is their only vulnerable part. They're in the game sparingly at first, but soon they get used as a fallback enemy for the times the game thinks you're starting to do too well. The later levels will send two or three of these suckers at you at the same time, and between them and everything else going on, well, it's enough to make even shooter masters who have mastered the likes of Giga Wing or Mars Matrix jitters. That's the real annoyance of Side Arms. It wasn't good enough to leave an already-padded challenge level be.
Someone seems to have had a pretty set idea of just where games would end, too. If you're playing the Capcom Classics Collection version of Side Arms, you can make it through the game because there are unlimited continues. In the Turbo version, though, you start with three lives and get only two or three continues. Extra lives are extremely rare, and continues don't reproduce at all. In the Turbo version, I was usually very very lucky to make it halfway into the third level. The even rarer occasions I was able to survive to the fourth required took more luck than skill. I think I made it that far twice, and my best game got me halfway through the fourth level. I'm convinced someone realized a lot of games would end here because the level designs through the first four levels are some of the most challenging and superb I've ever seen in a shooter. The quality and length of the levels undergoes a serious drop in the fifth and sixth levels. By the seventh, it's clear Capcom didn't give a rat's ass anymore. Those levels all appear to have been thrown in backhandedly, and they seem to be more in the game to get in your way than provide a memorable and fun gaming experience.
The supreme irony of this is how easy the bosses are. Every boss except the first and final repeats, and the first boss and two more of the boss designs use the same forms of attack: A three-way laser and a pair of homing missiles. One of them adds charging toward you occasionally. The other boss design is a large flying saucer which you meet three times. The first time, it launches bullets. The second time, lasers. The third time, homing missiles. Sensing a pattern here?
The graphics in Side Arms don't have the world's most original designs, but they work well for what they do. They're bright and colorful, and it's mostly easy to tell the foreground from the background. Things tend to get more blase in the later levels, but by then you'll be too busy trying to ward off the bad guys to notice any graphic shortcomings.
The sounds in the arcade version of Side Arms are terrible and sound muffled. Fortunately, if you're lucky enough to own the Turbo version, everything is a lot more crystalline. The arcade music is generic and sounds like it's being recorded through a brick wall. The Turbo version gives us music which rocks, especially in the first level. The first level music should be considered a classic track, and probably would be if the Turbo was a more popular console.
The controls are very easy. Button I fires right. Button II fires left. Run is a weapon selection screen which pauses the game - that can be a distraction, but it does allow you to collect your bearings in one of the game's many tough situations. There are no smart bombs, but the weapon selection is diverse and creative: There's a little thing called the Orbital Bit which orbits you and assists your fire; a shotgun which is weak by can destroy enemy bullets; a BFG; a three-way; and an auto gun which doesn't do jack shit if the autofire is on. There are two forms of the auto, actually: One fires only straight ahead, the other to the right as well as above and below you. The suit can also get a super upgrade which allows you to take an extra hit and fires in eight directions. Nice, but the eight-way firing seems to neglect certain directions at times. Other than that, flight is a breeze. When you collect speed power-ups, they make a difference, but not a big one.
Side Arms should be better than it is. It's a worthy effort and a potential classic through about five levels. Unfortunately, there are ten levels, as well as recycled bosses and poor enemy placement, so only a big shooter fan should try Side Arms.