There aren't many shooters I would dare say are greater.
During the 80's to mid 90's, the side scrolling space shooter was every bit as popular as the plat-former and side scrolling brawler, some would probably argue even more so. It seemed as if a month couldn't pass by without these games being released a dime a dozen, especially for the Sega Genesis which was heavily crowded with them. There were several stand outs in the genre for sure, and many of them have went on to become personal favorites of mine; but there was one that stood out quite brightly and has went on to become my second favorite space shooter of all time, Gaiares.
The story is pretty interesting; the Earth has virtually been destroyed due to mankind's pollution. An intergalactic terrorist group by the name of Gulfer led by Queen Zz wants to plunder the Earth and use the pollution to advance their weaponry. The governing empire of the Galaxy called the United Star Cluster has warned the Earth to stop them or they will super nova the sun and destroy the planet. However, in return for defeating Gulfer, they will provide the surviving inhabitants a new planet. An ace pilot armed with a weapon for his ship called TOZ chooses to battle Gulfer.
Gaiares managed to get everything right for a shooter, and I mean every little thing as if it went down a check list of what is suppose to be added and then from there improved on it all in some way. The game has a very challenging difficulty through relentless enemies, stage design, and epic bosses. The stages are so well done with traps that can kill the player outright such as a stage with small black holes attempting to suck in the ship, guillotines in castle's, and fireballs from raging suns. There is so much to evade the player will rarely catch a breath. Plus some of the later stages have an alternate route that can be far more difficult than the other. The bosses are simply amazing and they can take up the entire right side screen, and they will give you a fight to remember, especially the sixth stage boss who comes equipped with an impenetrable shield and a sword firing projectiles. These are some bad ass boss battles for sure.
The player isn't at all defenseless though. The ship can increase or decrease it's own speed, and the ship comes equipped with the TOZ which functions similar to the Option weapon in the Thunder Force series by firing the same weapon the ship fires; but it comes with an added feature though, the TOZ can be fired on ships to steal their weaponry and provide the player either with the same weapon or a more powerful variation of it: such as missiles firing horizontal and vertical, really thick laser beams, or a thinner concentrated laser blast that does major damage. This also includes some secret weapons that are massively over-powered to the point of being unfair against the enemy. In addition to all of this, there is also a force field than can be obtained and recharged, and it can only disappear after repeated hits. Gaiares just seems to have it all and it was a huge step forward for shooters.
The visuals were very good for their time; the black holes fit perfectly with the colorful stage design in the third stage, and the underwater level is quite pretty as well. The final stage looks awesome and the character designs for the bosses are even more breath taking. The steel Valkyrie in the first stage blew me away when I first saw it years ago, and the iron warrior for the sixth stage looks even better. This game has a heavy mecha anime influence. The synthesized music score compliments everything well, with the 5th stage containing a bass heavy score that is simply mesmerizing. This is the only space shooter I can think of that rivals the Thunder Force series in regards to music. It still loses to be honest, especially when compared to Lightening Force and Thunder Force III but it's no less amazing.
I'm not sure if Gaiares can be downloaded at this time. I still own it in cartridge form and this game has been in my possession since 1991 and I have no intention on ever letting it go. If it ever becomes available in some form and you can somehow play it I highly suggest doing so. I must warn that is a very difficult game in which many games were tough as hell during that era, but it will likely become one of the most memorable shooters you ever touched, and I don't doubt it will be in a good way.
Highs: Tons of innovation, amazing visuals and character designs, fun and powerful weapons to use, great stage design, outstanding music score, challenging difficulty
Lows:Difficulty will bother some gamers