Before you get too excited by the prospect of a game with hillbillies dueling with starships in space, it should be pointed out that the boxart for Phalanx is a deliberate deception on the part of the game’s advertising team. Handed a game they knew was “just another space shooter”, they put a banjo-strumming old man on the cover to try and draw in more interest, but unlike ROB the robot convincing wary U.S. consumers to pick up the NES console in 1985, this marketing trick likely lead to nothing but ambivalence or outright disappointment.
Phalanx is, in many ways, just another space shooter. Your ship flies horizontally to the right, you being able to guide it around the amount of screen you’re on to avoid the fire of other spaceships as you return in kind. Comparisons to Gradius will immediately come to mind for lovers of the shoot-’em-up genre, and Phalanx even has that same sort of mix of technological and organic opposition. It’s not completely bereft of interesting ideas though. While there are a fair bit of pretty standard shooting levels, the second level immediately mixes things up with a push against a water current (although this sort of feels like the game’s way of forcing you into moving at max speed, eliminating the idea that you would have any real reason to choose the slower options). There’s another unique level where you are no longer moving forward automatically, a battleship lying ahead that you can navigate through and around to destroy it from every angle. None of the levels are really boring, just a bit unexceptional even when they’ve introduced new elements. You’ll either have to fly your ship around obstacles or fire at enemies, and the game is surprisingly kind in handing out extra lives for racking up enough points. That helps a bit to motivate the player to actually bother with killing enemies that are sometimes easier to skip, but all weapon power-ups and upgrades are always handed to specific visible enemies so you don’t have to worry about missing out on those.
Phalanx’s weapon system is how it hopes to set itself apart from other space shoot-’em-ups, and I can’t deny that it’s an interesting system. Besides the default fire, there are four weapon types you can find during Phalanx, but when you pick up one, instead of just overriding your current fire, its also added to a bar on the bottom of the screen. At any time you can swap between the weapons you’ve picked up, and they have a few upgrades as well as a missile supplement that is swapped out in a more typical alternating manner. Storing and upgrading the weapons means you can approach enemy fighters with whatever works best for that battle, but a death will rob you of the weapon you currently have equipped. This doesn’t seem so bad at first, but unless you’re playing on Easy, you’ll find that death is a much more common occurrence than finding weapon pick-ups, and your default fire falls into the classic shoot-’em-up pitfall of being unexciting and weak without any of the augmentations. Since you’re likely to run out of weapons against the bosses, the game hurts itself by putting you in a bind where you’re using your weakest weapon against the hardest foes.
There is a strange trick to the weapon system though that is Phalanx’s unique twist on the weapon system. At any time, you may jettison one of your stocked weapons to unleash a special attack, almost like your typical bomb ability but surprisingly more effective. While you aren’t guaranteed a screen clear, almost every boss and miniboss in the game can be devastated by proper use of this ability, you just have to sacrifice your effectiveness in battle if it doesn’t work out perfectly. The sacrifice needed and its usefulness against bosses means there’s almost no reason to use it elsewhere, so it becomes a battle of keeping those weapons until its time to dump them, but thankfully most the weapons are decent. Laser is the clear stand out with a penetrating and powerful shot, Ricochet is a close second with its screen covering energy balls, but Homing and Energizer can be a mixed bag. Energizer is a charged shot that dishes out a lot of damage but can’t keep up with screens that have many enemies you need to clear, and Homing, while useful in clearing the screen, can get hitched into homing in on the wrong target, making it potentially useless against certain foes. The hierarchy of weapons does mean it’s not too hard to pick which ones to use as bombs, but getting stuck with the worse ones in the wrong situations can really drag down the experience.
In a tightly designed game or even another space shooter, I can see Phalanx’s systems working well enough (although the default fire should be given more of a punch), but Phalanx’s nearness to being acceptable is ruined by some shoddy difficulty. Easy is a palatable experience and although there are technically different endings for which difficulty you pick, they’re not substantial enough to worry about, just like whatever story this game’s rare hints of plot seem to be trying to tell. However, Normal, Hard, and the deceptively named Funny mode all crank up the wrong aspects to make things harder. Mainly, the screen during play will be filled with more fire from your foes, but most every enemy in the game uses the same, tiny, orange fleck of a shot that can blend into the background and be hard to detect to dodge in time. You do get three hits before dying and upgrades will restore one lost bit of health, but it’s not enough to push against the tide of little cheese dust shots that fly at you. Even with continues and lives, deaths didn’t feel like the game succeeding over your skill, it just had a lot of ways of backing you into corners or springing a new mechanic on you so you have to get hurt to learn it.
Worst of all though are the bosses. Once you’ve fought them for a few seconds you’ll likely know their pattern, their movement, and when and where you need to fire, but if you don’t want to use a bomb to end it quickly or can’t because your weapons are gone, prepare for a slog. They aren’t even that hard to deal with for the most part, but the bosses are more endurance tests, the game hoping to make you slip up and lose your health and weapons from having to do the same thing repeatedly. This gets especially dull when a boss or miniboss has a weak spot that only appears at a certain time for a short duration, and since they usually have you dodging a lot of little orange dots at all times, you won’t be landing a lot of shots quickly. Coupled with the common space shooter graphical crawl when there are too many objects on screen and you’ve got a game that takes longer than it should for the wrong reasons.
THE VERDICT: While it can’t match the boxart in the creativity department, Phalanx had a faint glimmer of hope when it came to some of the ideas it had. A few interesting level concepts and an intriguing take on tying bombs to weapons could have worked, but it’s got a few niggling problems that keep it from even being just a typical space shooter. Things are satisfying when you’ve got the strongest weapons pumping, but it’s a drag when you get knocked down and the game tries to force the good stuff out of you with sweeps of small shots and overly long battles that test your patience.
And so, I give Phalanx for the Super Nintendo…
A BAD rating. Were it not for the hillbilly on the cover, talk about this game would have died along with the many other space shooters of the early gaming years. While a serviceable shooter when everything is running swimmingly, Phalanx pulls the rug out from under players a little too often, throwing in attack patterns you must be hurt by to learn that will weaken you as punishment for not having done the research in advance. Even knowing what you need to do going in doesn’t really improve the experience much as the learning session likely left a sour taste in your mouth, and the reward for success feels a bit hollow when it’s often earned by bombing a boss for an instant kill or slowly drilling away at a tedious foe. Shoot-’em-up fans have a plethora of options to choose from, so a game that lazily dropped in new mechanics to draw attention to it can’t hold a candle. One way to save the game could be to make each weapon have a default mode you get to keep. A weak one, sure, but then you can have the joy of weapon switching at all times and still keep the sacrifice bomb mechanic by completely removing upgrades from a weapon if you used the bomb. In its current state though, Phalanx is copying issues from competitors like Gradius without even trying to fix them, and thus it fails to earn the attention its box drew to it.
Phalanx, in the end, serves best as a perfect example of why you shouldn’t always trust a product’s cover since its actual contents do not really invite any interest on their own merit.