1996, the western world prepared to drive the final nail into the cross, whilst the land of the rising sun remained faithful to Sega’s Saturn.
The proceeding year in Japan, Sega spent millions creating an advertising campaign featuring the fictional Segata Sanshiro, who quite aptly, would hunt you down if you didn’t buy the machine. Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles USA, a very real Bernie Stolar, CEO of Sega America, famously commented during E3: “The Saturn is not our Future”
This era of mixed loyalties is when Shinrei Jusatsushi Taromaru was born.
Designed exclusively for Sega’s ST-V arcade format in 1996, an honour not often bestowed when developers focused on hardware inspired by Sony’s Playstation.
Simply put, Sony had Namco’s System 11, Sega didn’t – The package they offered to aspiring developers like Treasure, Raizing and Time Warner was affordable licensing in exchange for home conversion exclusivity.
Time Warner Interactive signed up and began programming Taromaru.
It celebrated a humble launch in the pachinko parlours and arcade centers of Tokyo, paying homage to Japanese mythology to gain its popularity.
Inevitably a home conversion was announced for late 1996, games publications across the world began reporting on the forthcoming release, seeking out information regarding its elusive team of programmers. The project director rumoured to have been from the Treasure stables.
Although never officially announced, it is speculated that publisher Time Warner Interactive planned a localised version for international territories, but to no avail.
Production delays in Japan pushed the launch of the title back from late 1996 to January 1997. Abroad, poor sales of the Saturn during the 1996 holiday period forced third party developers to re-evaluate what games should be published outside of Japan.
Midway Games took over Time Warner in 1996 and worked towards completing titles currently in development. In
The decision was taken in February 1997 to disband the Japanese division, consequently production for Taromaru halted at around 7,500 – Accounting for why import supplies in 1997 were scarce, more so, why owners could be forgiven for being snobbish.
The fact Taromaru is 3D playing 2D captures enough interest amongst nostalgic fans of 16 bit side-scrolling action games like Shinobi, Altered Beast and Strider.
Even today, this is enough reason for some to track down a copy and pay the entry fee of around $400 on most auction sites.
In terms of presentation, the colour manual features a few pages covering the plot, proceeding to battle strategies, concluding with a few wise words from your sensei. Complete copies should come with a full size sticker and registration card, although the obi strip is not produced with same grade of card that Treasure commissioned for Radiant Silvergun.
The game follows a classic tale of a kidnapped girl, a hired gun, and plentiful enemies. Although the narrative is equal to Double Dragon and its countless clones, this is far from a side scrolling beat’em up.
A short graphics intro eases you into the main screen where you choose between one player, two players and options. Start the game and you are presented with the choice of two assassins. What really sets this game apart is replacing punches, kicks and shurikens with a marker system; while far from perfect; it hovers around your character until it locks onto enemies for you to attack.
During the first level it becomes apparent the production team looked to Konami’s Castlevania for enemy design - flying vampires, skeletons, arachnid and amphibious bosses are proof of this.
But where Taromaru excels is around half way through the first level. The polygon backdrop scales and rotates, giving the illusion of a 90 degree turn into an intersecting street. Impressively, the third dimension in this mono world appears almost seamless, owing to the VDP 1 and VDP 2 (video display) processors.
These silicon wonders independently handle Taromaru’s 2D sprites against a 3D plane, further leaps delivered by way of the Saturn’s quadrilateral polygon processing.
The result is less distortion and better depth in level design compared to the Playstation.
What really captivates you about Taromaru is its red-book soundtrack. The mystical mood is set perfectly through the composition of flutes and drums, at times, chilling.
Treasure’s rumoured directional input is evident throughout various design aspects. There are Strategic elements as you cling onto the rafters of a building, attempting to make it to the top. Rotating spikes and flames hinder your journey, time your moves and act fast before the screen scrolls up.
Frequent boss fights keep the action coming every other minute, mastering attack patterns being the key to proceeding further.
While this all builds a cogent argument for how this game is up there with the best, there are faults.
One could argue this side scrolling shooter hybrid has never been tried before, and for good reason - it simply fails to work. Contra and Metal Slug have pretty much conquered the market when it comes to run and gun games, but does Taromaru’s marker system introduce the right kind of innovation?
The answer is both yes and no.
Sin and Punishment on the Nintendo64 surely took inspiration from Taromaru.
Even though it’s a fully 3D, on the rails shooter, the lock-on system is accurate enough to demonstrate what can be achieved through extensive play testing.
At times, the marker system in Taromaru refuses to lock onto enemies, deciphering whether enough energy can be conserved to complete the game.
Thankfully the controller input is responsive enough to counteract this nuisance, although your finger can become sore hammering the ‘A’ button to unleash attack.
Rapid fire controllers totally defeat the purpose of this game, albeit strangely improving the accuracy rate of the marker, possibly due to the increased fire rate forcing it to move quicker.
Although, is any game without its faults?
You could sit there with a clipboard, keen eyed, picking every tiny fault in Taromaru.
But when the bulk of the game leaves you smiling, you know this is one for the collection. Extras are a bit scarce with only a ranking mode unlocked upon completing the game, although extras are often just gloss to add an artificial sheen.
The game is easy to pick up, but near impossible to master. One wonders what could have been achieved from the Saturn if titles of this quality were released outside of Japan, taking on the Playstation until the bitter end.
What does the future hold for this game? – Certainly there is no sequel planned.
When asked by a fan if a re-release on XBOX Live or Playstation Network was possible, Midway responded: “The original source code has been lost” - All these factors influence the value of Taromaru in the current market.
The only way to play one of the Saturn’s rarest games is by digging deep into your pocket, unless you resort to a shady emulator.
Evolution, what a beautiful thing – Sure, games have come a long way since the days of Taromaru, but this is a Hanzo sword – sharp, rare and priceless.