You know what I hate? When I think to myself "oh boy, I sure would like to play some Contra," so I turn Contra on and then I realise that I've played Contra a thousand times and I need to get some variety into my running-and-gunning experiences because all that happens when I play Contra is that I die over and over again and that kind of repeated failure is detrimental to a person's self-esteem, you know? That's got to be a common experience which we've all shared at some point. Luckily, Sunsoft have us covered with their 1989 arcade bullets-solve-all-the-world's-problems-em-up Bay Route!
According to this title screen, the game starts with you piloting some kind of aircraft directly into the sun (or possibly Big Bird). I do like the logo, something about the metallic fade effect just lifts my heart. Anyway, why are we here, and more importantly who do I need to shoot to accomplish my mission?
Get to the "airtrip," sneak into the embassy, take out the hostages, gotcha. Sorry, take out the hostages alive. Look, when we're in this kind of life-or-death situation you should try to use less ambiguous phrases than "taken out".
Our hero Tom arrives at the start of the first stage in style, dropping into combat from a jump-jet. I'm sure you're all wondering why Tom doesn't just fly the jump-jet to the enemy headquarters and land there, but I'm sure he has his reasons. I'm going for "a terrible bloodlust that must be sated through the death of hundreds of enemy combatants," and that also explains why Tom is being sent on this mission alone (unless you're playing two player).
Here we are, then. Bay Route is a run-n-gun title that lacks anything in the way of innovation, so you know the score - move from left to right gunning down anything in your path, unless it's un-gun-downable in which case you should probably jump over it. Try not to get hit, because Tom comes from that proud line of heroes with brittle bone disease and an allergy to any kind of physical contact that manifests as instant death. He's not just the best agent we've got, folks: he's the only agent. None of the others managed to fill out their written exams without dying due to the exertion of lifting their pens or having to think or metabolize food or breathe.
I'd put Tom's weakened state down to the fact that Bay Route takes place after the standard videogame apocalypse. You know the one, it's the end of the world scenario where God turns around and says "ha ha, I was just kidding about that virtue stuff, only psychos, scumbags and human effluent get to live," leaving behind a world where the ruined cities and barren soil are home to thousands of evil gang members and, like, one decent human being. Oh, and lots of things that post-apocalyptic gang members need, like motorcycles and guns that use large grey spheres as ammunition and vast wardrobes filled with nothing but white vests and brightly-coloured trousers.
Mind you, no matter how badly the world has been devastated it's no excuse for handing important missions to someone who dies because of this:
In case you can't tell, that's Tom dying because a goon gently bumped into him. The goon also dies. Man, the porn studios of the post-apocalyptic age are going to have a real hard time keeping profits up. My favourite thing about this is that you still get the hundred points for killing the bad guy, the numbers posthumously added to your score as Tom's corpse lies twitching in the dust. I'm sure that'll make him feel much better.
So on you go, moving through the desert and shooting people. It's difficult to talk about Bay Route without comparing it to Contra, because that's all you can think of if you've ever played Konami's classic before sampling Bay Route's overly-familiar delights. It's honestly just a helluva a lot like Contra. You can shoot diagonally and straight up, there's a bit of light platforming, you can collect a power-up that gives you a spread-firing weapon and cannon-fodder enemies are constantly swarming all over you. This is only the first stage, though, and judging Bay Route already seems a trifle harsh - it still has plenty of time to put forward its own unique take on the run-n-gun genre. Here comes the first boss, and hopefully this'll be where Bay Route begins to find its own voice. Stage one boss, come on down!
I'm terribly sorry, I'm not sure how that got in there. Here's Bay Route's actual first boss:
Oh, come on. An armoured wall with guns stuck on it? How terribly passé. You know the drill, shoot all the guns off and then destroy the door. It's hardly the most mentally taxing foe I've ever faced, even in the "hurr hurr I shoot things good" genre of gaming. Open Sesame, you big, immobile prick, and let's get to stage two already.
Bay Route at least has one difference from Contra, and that's the weapons system. You see those four icons at the bottom of the screen? Well, unlike most shooters of this ilk you don't collect a power-up that gives you a specific gun - you actually start with four different weapons that can be scrolled through at the push of a button. This is a system that moves Tom up a few notches in my estimation, because he knew he was embarking on a dangerous mission and he had the foresight to realise that it might be helpful to have a few different options for murder at his disposal. Far too often, the run-n-gun hero will merrily bound into battle with naught to defend themselves but their personal sidearm and a jolly demeanour, working on the principle that if they need a new gun they can just prise it from the gore-slicked hands of their fallen enemies. Not Tom, though - he's a forward planner. It's just a shame that two of the four weapons he brought are next to useless.
Nice to see you can still get "ICE CREAM cookies" in this blasted wasteland.
Where was I? Oh yeah, guns. The first weapon is a basic machine gun. Okay, so it's a machine gun that fires slow-moving gray spheres but it's definitely in the machine gun mould. Next is a grenade launcher. I know what you're thinking, and having access to a grenade launcher normally would be "totally sweet," but the "launcher" part of that description is a little misleading as it only fires the grenades about five feet away from you. Gentle Grenade Depositer would be a more accurate name, and this gun actually gets worse because for some bizarre reason you can only fire it while you're crouching. You will use the grenade launcher, because explosions are cool, and it will get you killed when an enemy is running towards you and you're pressing the fire button but nothing's happening and then you're dead because you forgot that, for whatever nonsensical reason, in the Bay Route universe grenades only work if you drop to one knee first. Are you just that dedicated to shooting people in the groin, Tom? Is that what this is? High-explosive rounds are too precious to waste on any other target but the unmentionables? You're a weirdo, Tom.
Weapon three is a flamethrower. It throws flames, but not very far, and it's the only weapon that lets you hold down the button for continual fire. The final weapon is a weird one; it fires a single shot that splits when it hits something, the resultant four shots travelling in a cross pattern. It's an interesting idea, but this weapon's effectiveness is limited by the fact that it fires so goddamn slowly. I suppose it's not completely pointless, it's just hard to justify using it (or the grenade launcher) when the faster-firing and more powerful machine gun and flamethrower are available.
I'm at stage two's boss already? Man, that was fast. The levels in Bay Route are short and a little empty, the only think that really mixes up the gunplay being the few vertically-spaced platforms you can hop round on. The boss is also bland, being the "robot snake" design that I'm sure will be familiar to you from many other games. Shoot the snake in its end pieces as he flies around you, (because for some reason, robot snakes in videogames can always fly,) stage complete, let's move on.
Stage three, and you didn't think we'd get through this ruined, futuristic landscape without heading through an abandoned factory, did you? For shame, you should know by now that all criminal enterprises in videogames consist of a series of dilapidated factories connected by elevators and the occasional outdoors section.
You might have noticed that there's a bad guy standing in front of me, and yet my flames are harmless passing though him. It took me a while to figure this out, but he's supposed to be hiding around the corner (that is, further into the background) where my flames cannot go. This guy should be the leader, he's the only member of this evil organisation who's shown any kind of planning beyond "piece of cake, I'll just run right up to him. My face can absorb bullets, right?"
This stage is pretty good fun, on the whole. It's more involved than the first two areas, with some added variety in the routes you can take and the occasional fire pit that you can watch enemies wander into like particularly dense moths. It even has a miniboss!
Granted, that miniboss is just ED-209 but it's better than nothing, even if you can beat him by just crouching in front of him, switching to the flamethrower and holding down fire. Well, intelligence never was ED-209's strong suite, was it?
Just as Bay Route is getting a little interesting - not innovative, not surprising, but kinda fun none-the-less - Sunsoft bring out a boss battle that is sure to go down in gaming history as one of most heart-pounding, nerve-shredding encounters of all time: it's Tom vs... The Box.
Seriously, it's just a rectangle that travels around the screen on a rectangular path, all rectangular like. Has there ever been a less enthralling boss battle? Even that wall at the start of the game had visible guns, this thing just spurts out the occasional bullet from somewhere deep in its rectangular guts. On the plus side, this is the only part of the game where the grenade launcher comes in useful, because you have to shoot down onto the top of the rectangle and the best way to do that is to use the arc of the grenades. Just remember, you know, while crouching.
Stage four bursts into life with a pointless and boringly-implemented side-scrolling shooter section where Tom suddenly remembers that he had a flying motorcycle this whole time. Coulda saved some time if I'd know about your flying goddamn motorcycle a little earlier, champ. This isn't necessarily awful, it's just dull - an incredibly basic shoot-em-up where enemies appear with no consideration given to making the combat interesting, just "oh hey look, an empty space into which Tom will soon be firing some bullets, I'll fly over there! Or failing that, I'll jump straight down this giant chasm!” Whatever organization these goons work for must be an awful employer, because these guys have the suicidal tendencies of a lemming book club who just finished reading The Road.
On the plus side, I like the background art here. It's nothing stellar, even by 1989's standards, but it has a pleasing grittiness to it that I appreciate.
No, it's fine, just leave the bike with the mounted guns in the middle of the desert. I'm sure it'll be there when you get back.
It's a hovering robot lobster boss. Shoot upwards into its glowing purple orb. It's not complicated.
At least this mansion survived the apocalypse intact. Yes, that is an angel statue on the right, yes, you do have to have to fight him and no, I have no idea what he's all about. Every enemy so far has either been a man in a vest or a boring robot, so the sudden appearance of living statues embodying the Lord's divine punishment was rather unexpected. I'll take it, though - Sunsoft appear to have otherwise completely run out of ideas at this point and the whole stage is just a long, flat trudge through waves of enemies who are tired of living and seek only the final solace of Tom's flamethrower. Going back to the Contra comparisons, part of the reason that Konami's game is a much more enjoyable experience is that the level design rarely consists of these featureless, single-plane corridors: there are always platforms to negotiate, bad guys popping from all angles and it hardly ever boils down to "hold right on the joystick and tap fire".
There are also chandeliers that drop on your head when you walk under them. This shouldn't be a surprise, because almost every large light fixture in almost every game ever was apparently installed by Del Boy and Rodney and will collapse at the slightest provocation. Except in the Castlevania games, but that's probably because Dracula is so fed up of the Belmont boys whipping all his candelabras that he takes extra care when installing new lighting solutions.
The mansion has a secret high-tech base underneath it, because underneath mansions is always the best place for this kind of scientific research facility - just ask the Umbrella Corporation. It also has fire poles. At least, I hope they're fire poles and this isn't the bad guys' attempt to raise some extra capital by opening a science-themed "gentleman's club".
Here's another boring robot boss, this time some kind of scuttling wall-mounted chameleon thing. The boss fights have been a major downer throughout Bay Route, all of them lacking invention, scale or, in the case of the first boss, lacking the ability to not rip Contra off wholesale. This boss was even more pointless that usual, because for some reason - be it a programming error or the blessings of the gaming gods - I managed to stand in a particular spot where he couldn't hit me despite walking through my body several times. To beat this boss, all I did was stand still and press fire, and that about sums up the experience of Bay Route's larger battles.
We're into the home stretch now, and things are starting to get a little biomechanical - although they're definitely sticking more to the "mechanical" side of things, even with the weird little maggot creatures that drop from the ceiling. They're small and annoying to hit, or at least they would be if I hadn't powered up my flamethrower recently. You see, sometimes enemies drop a power-up which upgrades your currently-equipped weapon when collected, making them much more useful. The machine gun becomes a Contra-style (natch) spread shot, the grenade launcher gains the ability to be fired from a standing position and the break-apart shot changes from a cross pattern to a spinning circle, but best of all is the flamethrower. Powering up the flamethrower changes it from a powerful weapon hampered by a miniscule range to a screen-covering beam of fiery justice that you can spray around like Satan's own garden hose to incinerate everything in your path. I actually kinda like this weapon upgrade system - it gives you a few extra death-dealing options and that's always nice, even if I would have preferred each gun to have more than one possible upgrade. Still, it's a nice touch.
Hey look, there's a woman trapped in that demonic crane game! This is a pretty good tactic from the villains' point of view, because you'd think that Tom might be a bit more reluctant to destroy their robots if the hostages that need saving are wedged inside them. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Tom doesn't give two fucks about the hostages and blasts the thing all the way to that big junkyard in the sky. I told you that using the phrase "taken out" in the mission briefing was a bad idea.
A couple of screen further on is Bay Route's final battle. It's a large man with a machine gun standing behind a box, and you know what? I think this is my favourite battle in the game. I like it when the final boss is just some guy, because it makes sense that they'd have exhausted their supply of giant robots in an attempt to kill Tom before he reached them. There's a sense of desperation, a feeling that this is the final stand, and as I'm sure I've mentioned before the leader of any given military organisation is very rarely the toughest fighter so it makes sense - you never send the General out to the front line, do you?
Of course, then Sunsoft have to spoil it by making you fight a skeletal robot torso as the true final boss. I know, some of you like your final bosses to be grand and epic and to give you a sense that you've triumphed over a truly powerful adversary, and don't get me wrong: a lot of the time, I want that kind of final encounter too. Chrono Trigger would have been much less satisfying if the final boss had been an Imp. In Bay Route, however, all the bosses have been pretty tedious and this one is no exception as Ribby O'Metalskull here just floats up and down in front of you, and I just think the previous fight was more satisfying.
So, I destroyed the final boss and saved the girl. One girl, singular - the mission briefing definitely mentioned hostages in the plural, but Tom has found a nice young lady and that's enough for him.
"Oh, thank you!" she says, via the magic of speech samples. "Any time," says Tom. He's a smooth operator, that one. Then they fly away in the helicopter to eke out a dismal existence in the ruined, post-apocalyptic world that is their home. That's the entire ending, by the way: they just fly into the acid-yellow clouds, game over, get the hell out of my arcade.
Maybe I've been hard on Bay Route - it's definitely not a bad game. The core gameplay is fine, it controls well and the weapon system is interesting if somewhat unbalanced. The presentation is on the dull side of average, with some forgettable music and enemy designs that aren't going to make you sit up and take notice, but it's always nice to have some sampled speech and I do quite like a lot of the backgrounds, especially the first stage with its crashed airliner. I think it's fair to say that Bay Route's big failing is the overall average-ness of the game, and Sunsoft didn't really seem to bring much in the way of ideas to the table besides "let's make Contra but not as good, oh and we'll have a flying motorcycle section." Dull bosses, single-minded enemies and generic locations make for a game that won't live long in the old memory banks, but if you've played all of the better-known run-n-gun titles and you're looking for something that you can spend an hour or so blasting your way through (especially with a friend) then Bay Route isn't going to make you swear off videogames forever or anything and you'll probably have an okay time. Just don't expect another... oh, what's that game called? The Konami one, with the moving and the shooting? Yeah, that one.
(P.S. Bay Route, Beirut. I assume that was intentional, because there are no bays in this game.)