Ultimate Guide: Flying Shark
Three decades ago Flying Shark zoomed into arcades and dropped a bomb on the competition. Martyn Carroll revisits the 2D shooter that scored a direct hit for developer Toaplan and repeated that success on home systems
Martyn Carroll braves the skies and investigates Toaplan’s popular arcade shoot-’em-up
Think Toaplan and the first game that surely springs to mind is Zero Wing, the Japanese developer’s horizontally scrolling shooter. And that’s almost certainly because of the ‘All Your Base’ memes of the early Noughties that was born from the ropey translation work seen in the game’s European Mega Drive version. But if it wasn’t for that curious meme you’d more likely associate Toaplan with its range of stand-out shooters – titles like Twin Cobra, Truxton and, arguably its crowning glory, Flying Shark.
Building on Toaplan’s earlier titles, Tiger Heli and Slap Fight, and riffing heavily on Capcom’s arcade perennial 1942, Flying Shark was a war-themed shooter that looked great and played even better. Players piloted a biplane over five stages, facing increasingly resolute enemy waves of air, ground and sea forces. To even up the frankly ridiculous odds you could upgrade the plane’s guns from a feeble twin-shot up to an awesome 12-shot spread by collecting power-up tokens. These tokens were released by clearing a squadron of red planes than would zoom in and circle the screen – along the same lines, yellow squadrons would award you 1,000 points while white squadrons offered up a rare 1UP token.
You were also armed with a limited supply of smart bombs that would create a large blast radius, destroying multiple enemies and their shots. You began each stage with three bombs and more could be obtained by taking out certain ground targets. Bombs were best saved for the ‘bosses’ you encountered towards the end of stages, which ranged from an armoured vehicle to a whacking great warship. Unlike many shooters, you didn’t have to beat the boss to continue as eventually you’d pass over them, so destroying them was mainly for the points bonus. Similarly, there was no ‘end’ to the game – it simply looped back to stage two, albeit with the difficulty level increased – so you could go again on the same credit and see how many points you could accrue.
Flying Shark ran on 68000 hardware and, as you’d expect, it utilised a vertically-mounted monitor which displayed a resolution of 320x240 pixels. However, the actual play area was
320x320 pixels, so the screen would also scroll horizontally dependant on the player’s position. This sometimes resulted in unavoidable deaths
as you’d scroll straight into enemy fire, but overall it was a welcome feature as it made the game feel less cramped and more expansive. Another nice touch was the detail in the destruction. On being hit, enemies rarely exploded and disappeared; instead, planes would catch fire before crashing into the ground, and tanks would continue to move with their turrets ablaze. The game was full of pleasing visual touches, such as the way your plane’s wings dipped as you banked left and right.
Like most of Toaplan’s early titles, publishing duties were handled by Taito. In the US Taito licensed the game to Romstar which retitled it Sky Shark, though nothing else was changed. In the UK the game was licensed to Electrocoin which retained the original name. Despite the war theme the game wasn’t based on any real events and no obvious insignias were displayed, so it was easy to export around the world without altering anything. Unsurprisingly, the game’s backstory was vague: something about the war almost being lost to the enemy and the allies sending in an unnamed pilot in a last ditch attempt to reclaim occupied bases.
“TECHNICALLY it WAS A DIFFICULT GAME AS There were A LOT of SPRITES on-screen” Andrew Parton
The game made an early appearance at Tokyo’s AOU (Amusement Operators’ Union) show in February 1987. UK magazine publisher EMAP sent Tim Rolf to the event and he reported back that the two most popular games at the show were both from Taito – Rastan Saga and Flying Shark. “Having had to wait ten minutes to get a go on Rastan Saga,” he wrote in Sinclair User, “I had to wait a full 15 minutes to get near Flying Shark.
It was worth it. If you like shoot-’em-ups then this has got to be the best around. It is difficult, but Taito has made it so awesomely playable that the difficulty is a real joy.” Players who’ve tried to take on the latter stages with regular guns may dispute Tim’s ‘real joy’ claim, but otherwise his positive reaction to the game was typical among critics.
The success of the coin-op and the strength of the Taito brand ensured that the home conversion rights were hotly contested. In Europe Telecomsoft won out and commissioned Catalyst Coders to develop the home computer versions. Catalyst produced the Commodore 64 version, but quality concerns led to Telecomsoft taking the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC versions off Catalyst and handing them over to Graftgold, who managed to turn around the conversions in a few short weeks. Catalyst was kept on to produce the ST and Amiga versions which were eventually released round 12 months after the 8-bit releases. Over in the US, Taito chose not to release Catalyst’s C64 version and instead commissioned fellow UK developer Software Creations to create a new C64 version from scratch. Software Creations also developed the NES console version. A PC version was later released, and in the following years arcade-quality versions appeared on the Japanese X68000 and FM Towns systems.
Back in the arcades several titles capitalised on the success of Flying Shark. Twin Cobra ran on the exact same hardware and was essentially Flying Shark with helicopters, although it was actually a sequel to Toaplan’s earlier hit Tiger Heli. In
1988 Taito released its own clone, Fighting Hawk, which is often listed as a follow-up to Flying Shark despite Toaplan having no obvious involvement. Toaplan did return to the Flying Shark theme with Twin Hawk, which introduced co-op play, but it was not a direct sequel. That overdue honour would go to Fire Shark which debuted in 1989 and is covered elsewhere in this feature.
As for Toaplan, it would continue to mastermind innovative shooters until it folded in 1994. Its final game, Batsugun, is considered to be the precursor to the ‘bullet hell’ type shooters which former Toaplan employees would go on to perfect at
Cave. Batsugun also solved a small mystery as the game’s background info revealed that one of the six playable characters, 55-year-old Rom Schneider, was the mysterious pilot of Flying
Shark 30 years earlier! While this retcon creates a link between the two games they’re quite different. Flying Shark is remembered as a classic from the era when 2D shooters still ruled the arcades, while Batsugun is seen as the beginning of the genre’s maniacal, less accessible phase that followed.
“it WAS PRETTY Good. BACK Then it WAS ALL Fun AND GAMES” Martin Howarth