Gaia Seed is one of those games that few have actually played, but nonetheless fetches insane prices on eBay. Last year, it was released on the Japanese PSN. MonkeyPaw games has kindly decided to bring the game over to the US for the measly sum of $6. But which price point is it more deserving of?
At first glance, Gaia Seed is a pretty standard space shmup. If will feel incredibly familiar if you’ve ever played any Gradius. Almost disconcertingly so. In fact, the first salvo of enemies you fight in Gaia Seed appear in exactly the same way as the first you fight in Gradius. The score font also seems to be an homage, with Gradius’ classic crossed zeros.
However, once you get past the somewhat underwhelming first impressions, Gaia Seed takes on a respectable identity of its own.
One of the more interesting elements of Gaia Seed is the recharging shield bar. While it seems like this mechanic has worked its way into almost every genre since Halo was released, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it in a shmup. Considering that Gaia Seed was released in 1996, it’s an incredibly forward-thinking concept, and it’s implemented very well into the game. It’s a nice balance to the ship’s giant hitbox. It prevents the game from being a “quarter-muncher” (which makes sense, considering that it was never released in arcades), but it recharges at a slow enough rate that the game is still a bit of a challenge.
Gaia Seed limits the player to one of two upgradeable primary weapons and two static secondary weapons. For the primary, you have a choice between the reddish “Needle Shot,” which gains a wider spread the more you upgrade it, and the blue “Laser Shot,” which becomes more intense with subsequent upgrades. The secondary weapons are released from the back of the ship and fire forward at regular intervals while you fire your main weapon. The green “Cypher Wave” fires four wide shots, but the yellow “Energy Blaster” fires two that leave a trail as they explode to damage more enemies.
To upgrade or change shot types, you have to defeat a certain enemy who looks a lot like a pallet-swapped version of your ship and he will drop a pill-shaped powerup. It will alternate between either red and blue for your primary fire or yellow and green for your secondary. For primaries, picking up the same color that you currently have equipped will level up that shot type, but picking the other color will change your weapon to a level one version of whatever you’re not using. If the weapon can no longer be upgraded, picking up the powerup will result in a point bonus.
Instead of using bombs, Gaia Seed’s screen-clearing method of choice is “Intense Fire.” Relegated to another slowly-recharging gauge at the bottom of the screen, it can only be used when the gauge is completely full. Although simply activating it will damage or destroy enemies onscreen, the majority of the Intense Fire is based on your current weapon. If the Needle Shot is equipped, it will fire circular homing shots, whereas the Laser Shot just becomes incredibly wide and destructive.
I personally prefer a fully upgraded Needle Shot and an Energy Blaster for crowd control, since the Needle Shot allows me to hit more enemies while the Energy Blaster is really useful for eliminating enemies that enter the screen in a row. However, the Laser Shot has my preferred Intense Fire. While the options in Gaia Seed may be limited and a bit conventional, they’re all very comfortable to use and I’m sure anyone could find a combination to suit their gameplay style.
A few paragraphs back I said that the game looks pretty standard at first glance. That’s before you realize just how insane the amount of sprite scaling and rotation is and notice the parallax-scrolling in the background. Bigger enemies will explode into particles, backgrounds will shift and distort behind you. While the game doesn’t usually impress with originality, it makes up for it with technical punch.
Sometimes the amount of things onscreen can get overwhelming (often when there are a number of bullets onscreen), but the overall effect is rather nice for a shmup with somewhat underwhelming art direction.
The bosses subscribe to a similar design philosophy as the levels. While they all have some pretty impressive visual effects, the only really memorable one is the first, which is a bizarre snake-thing that bursts out of a pile of debris. The bosses aren’t usually that hard, using familiar bullet patterns and the occasional giant laser. However, they are enjoyable to play against, and all have their own distinctive music: ranging from operatic vocalization, to ambient techno, to 90s hip-hop.
In fact, the entire soundtrack is just as creative and high-quality as the boss music. Composed by a little-known game composer by the name of Naoto “Xacs” Ishikawa, Gaia Seed’s soundtrack is constantly shifting genres, but still manages to feel cohesive. From the soaring organ, piano, and vocals of the stage one theme to the bass-heavy house of stage three, the game’s music constantly impresses. In my opinion, the soundtrack alone is almost worth the price of admission. The game also includes a BGM sound test option!
Overall, Gaia Seed is simply a fun shooter. It’s not too difficult, has some lovely music, and kept me entertained throughout the entirety of my time with it. Considering the distinct lack of shmups on the Playstation Network, Gaia Seed is a very pleasant surprise.
Food for thought:
1. Gaia Seed’s intro is narrated in terribly stilted Engrish with Japanese subtitles by default. However, if you switch the voice option from English to Japanese, you’ll get a Japanese narration and English subtitles. The story makes very little sense either way.
2. You can defeat bosses by avoiding them until their timer runs out. Doing so on the last boss leads to alternate endings. There’s only one good ending!