Year: 1989 |Publisher: T&E Soft|Developer: T&E Soft|Original format: MSX | Version played: MSX
Defunct Japanese developer T&E Soft may be best known in the west, if they are known at all, for their range of dry golf simulations but in Japan they were better known for the highly influential action RPG series, Hydlide, which debuted within months of Falcom’s Dragon Slayer, provided some inspiration for Ys and gained fans as high profile as Hideo Kojima and Hideki Kamiya. Now this post isn’t about Hydlide – maybe some day – but I don’t think you can talk about Undeadline without acknowledging the influence of T&E Soft’s most important series. Yes, Undeadline is essentially a vertically scrolling shooter but it’s stuffed with action RPG design and it feels less like a Xevious or 1942 and much more like an on-rails Ys. As you might imagine, that makes it very much up my street!
T&E Soft made more traditional shoot-‘em-ups, like the Laydock series for example, but as a shmup, Undeadline is most similar to is its MSX stablemate, Knightmare, released by Konami in 1986. Both games see you control a human character who moves up an auto scrolling screen on-foot, firing projectiles at a parade of enemies and shooting open boxes to reveal either new weapons, power-ups or state changing items. Only Undeadline takes the simple but supremely playable concept of Knightmare and takes it to a whole new level with greater depth, more playable characters, a non-linear design, an RPG-like experience system and way better graphics and music courtesy of the beefy MSX2 system.
Undeadline is a bit of a prized possession among MSX collectors but it’s not one you see praised by shoot-‘em-up players all that much, and I wonder if that’s because of the RPG influence. As shmups have evolved over the years, it feels like the genre has polarized around a few game design conventions that makes more experimental efforts like Undeadline feel somehow wrong or bad. In fact, Undeadline is superb, though it takes a while to get to grips with its unconventional design and for the fun to reveal itself.
The first thing you’ll notice when playing Undeadline is the number of choices to be made, even before you’ve fired your first shot. There are three playable characters – a fighter, wizard and ninja – each with their own stats across strength, magic, dexterity and agility. On top of that, the first six stages can be tackled in any order, just like a Mega Man game. While the level of choice is an obvious selling point, it also very quickly becomes a puzzle as you delve further into the game and reckon with its challenges, wondering if there’s a “correct” or easier way to play.
The bewilderment only multiplies within the stages themselves. Treasure chests litter the land and there are even secret chests you can uncover by shooting at their location. Each contains a new weapon or an item. You can collect multiples of the same weapon in a row to power them up and while you might have a favourite weapon – I really like the Gradius-style “Option” that adds a little monster to trail behind you and lend its firepower – you’ll also find that some weapons are better suited to your character’s stats than others. As well as the weapons, you’ll also find armour and potions, though some of them can actually have a detrimental effect. The red potion depletes your health, for example, while the grey boots slow you to a crawl.
You’ll soon realise that choosing which items to avoid is just as, if not more important, than deciding which to pick up. Inadvertently collect the lead boots, equip the wrong weapon and crawl through a curtain of bullets into a dead end, and it won’t be very long before your energy bar depletes to zero. With only a small number of extra lives, and no continues, mistakes can be deadly!
Undeadline is one hell of a tough game. In an interview in the Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers Vol 2. T&E Soft’s Tetsuya Yamamoto recounted that the developer liked to push its play-testers to the limit by cutting a hole in a piece of paper and using that to cover the screen so only a portion of the playfield was visible at any one time. Like Goku training in 100x gravity, the testers naturally developed superhuman gaming skills, and the designers kept increasing the challenge to keep up with them.
The result is a game that’s not just esoteric for its genre with an inherent learning curve; it also poses a relentless challenge to match. Thankfully, the settings menu allows you to drop the difficulty down to “easy” and activate Rensha mode for turbo fire. But these only feel like compensation to adjust the challenge to a realistically achievable level, and you’ll still have to get good to see any chance of progress.
Undeadline rarely lets up. Each level throws a relentless march of undead enemies at you, and if you don’t take them out in good time, the screen can become overcrowded with bullets. We’re not talking a Cave bullet hell shooter here, but since each stage features obstacles and paths that regularly guide and funnel you into enclosed spaces, a few too many bullets on screen can be extremely dangerous. What’s more, the MSX2, despite its awesome technical prowess, isn’t quite capable of keeping up with this many moving objects and detailed sprites on-screen at once (it’s a little better for millionaires with an MSX2+) so it also has a tendency to slow down when things get hectic. Accidentally pick up the lead boots at the same time and you’ll be lucky to get out alive.
All of this chatter about difficulty and oppressive stage design might fool you into thinking Undeadline is a miserable experience, but that’s far from the case. It just takes a little while to click. You need a strategy! For example, each character has a unique defensive move. The fighter has a shield that can block direct hits, the wizard can turn invisible to avoid bullets but not enemies, while the ninja can leap through the air. Is one any better than the other? I really like the ninja’s jump as it’s also handy for nipping about the map if you feel you’ve gone slightly the wrong way. But like all great games, it doesn’t feel like there’s a “best” option, more that you should pick the one that most suits your play style.
Since each character also has their own stats, each is also more suited to certain weapons. The ninja has a high dexterity score, which means she’ll do more damage with the flame shot and the boomerang, but I really like the Option, which is powered up by magic, which the wizard is naturally high in. Thankfully, you can level-up your stats by collecting any of the three fairies that are hidden in each stage and revealed by shooting at their location. Each fairy is worth one skill point and can be spent in-between stages, so you can upgrade one of the three stats that powers different weapon types or upgrade your agility and boost your movement speed. In a nice bit of design balance, each stat also has a ceiling that only raises with each level, so it’s never possible to pump all your points into one stat and overpower it.
All of these variables around character abilities, weapons, items, the order you tackle stages in and even the route you take within them give Undeadline a deep and rewarding sense of strategy. The more you play the more you’ll experiment with every single element and although it’s easy to assume there’s some sort of optimal strategy to be uncovered, I’m convinced there actually isn’t and that one of the great joys of this game is in finding the combination that works best for you. After that… It’s all down to good old-fashioned skill!
Like any great game of the Eighties, no matter how many guides you read or videos you watch, knowing what to do is no substitute for practice and experience. It takes skillful play to clear any one of the game’s first six stages and beat its boss, and doing it without taking damage, though it might seem impossible at first, is 100% possible with practice. After a few hours of play you’ll realise that the lack of continues isn’t unfair, punitive, unfashionable or even flawed design. It’s a blessing! It forces you to play, play and play again, and helps you realise that, strategy aside, you’re going to have to learn every inch of those stages to win. That’s when it really clicks!
Like the very best arcade games, it’s in the learning that Undeadline’s depth and fun unfolds. Each time you play, even if you do badly, you’ll feel like you’re learning a little bit more each time, becoming a little bit better. Gradually, steadily, mastering the game and watching it transform from difficult, weirdly designed oddity to something intimately familiar and enjoyable at each step. You get into a rhythm, you’ll definitely get into “the zone” and in doing so you’ll unlock one of gaming’s greatest feelings. That state of play when you’re at one with the game and at peace with your inner mind, playing like a master and feeling on top of the world, while all else in life fades into the periphery.
At this point I’d like to make the distinction that although Undeadline is a game that needs to be learned, it is most definitely not a memory test. Yes, enemy and item placement is fixed every time, but with multiple routes and player options available, you can make plenty of meaningful varied choices along the way. Furthermore, things can and will go wrong! Some chests contain a question mark, which will activate a random power-up or harmful item, and other undesired chests may well be unavoidable. If you sprint down a narrow alleyway, all guns blazing, causing all the chests in that restricted area to open up then you’ll have no choice but to collect what’s in there, whether you like it or not. You could easily end up with a weapon you’re not well suited to, or something much worse, and this is exactly where your skill, experience and ability to adapt will serve you well. So learning Undeadline isn’t about memorizing the stages – though that will definitely help – it’s about mastering the systems and knowing how to make the best of each split second. Which can only come with practice.
Even now, after many hours of play, though I’ve managed to beat each of Undeadline’s stages individually, I haven’t quite beat all of them in a single playthrough and I’m therefore yet to see the seventh and final stage. Maybe I need to cut a hole in a piece of paper and train myself like those T&E Soft playtesters, to boost my skills up to god level. Or maybe I just need to play one… more… time. Either way, I know I’ll have a great time getting there!
FIVE LITTLE THINGS ABOUT UNDEADLINE THAT I RATHER LIKED
1. Chest contents are pre-determined but totally different depending on which character you’re using. T&E Soft really took their time with the gameplay balancing.
2. The Dungeon stage boss is easily the most impressive in the game. It’s huge and detailed, has multiple parts to destroy, a stunning multi-sprite tentacle attack and, when you eventually beat it, this spectacular and horrific exploded corpse!
3. I really love the little illustrations on the level select screen. I want them as a set of postage stamps!
4. Some of the weapons are awesome when they’re fully powered up, like the flame attack which gradually evolves from a spittle of flame to an impressive jet of fire that sways with your movements and obliterates anyone in it touches. I love it!
5. At the beginning of each stage, your character turns around and gives you a little salute. T&E Soft definitely didn’t need to animate that but they’re game dev superheroes for doing so!
Finally, how about some music from Undeadline…