Varth - Capcom - 1992

Varth - Operation Thunderstorm
Arcade - Capcom - 1992

Re-reviewed by Malc

Yes, I know I reviewed this years ago, but looking back I didn't do Varth justice. Glossing over all nuances of gameplay, I proceeded to blather on inanely and give it a 6/10. A while ago I acquired a pcb of it and have a whole different opinion now.

After extensive play - Varth proves itself to be among Capcom's finest shootemups. Not the best - but for 1992 surprisingly packed with action and secrets and extremely long - 30 levels in all, taking a good hour to complete at least. Level structure is quite unusual too - most levels don't have bosses - instead bosses sometimes have their own levels all to themselves. It's quite common to race through 4 normal levels to then be confronted with a gigantic boss taking 7 or 8 minutes to kill.

Varth goes against the grain of the arcade style 3-minute play - resulting in extended, frantic and sometimes overwhelmingly physically tiring sessions. I'm pretty sure that the game gets harder the better you play, or the more powered you are... so if you get in the zone you're in for a long hard fight with the only breathers being between levels.

With so much going on, it has been mooted that Varth is a sort of proto-Gigawing with possibly some Takumi members having worked on it... the players ships have some similarity but apart from that and the amount of action onscreen I don't really see it. Maybe someone can sit through to the end credits and check the names!

Getting into the zone in Varth is something thats quite easy to do once you understand how it works. And its only once you are in the zone you really begin to appreciate it - otherwise it's possible you might become a little bored by it. I've found myself playing up to level 23 on a credit - totally melded with the joystick and lost in the gameworld and coming away from the machine after such a run is a mental shock back into reality.

The only real problem with the game is the excessive slowdown. Capcom are really pushing the capabilities of the CPS1 system here with silly amounts of sprites, explosions and bullets onscreen and the game can start to crawl. Even at the quietest moments it never seems to run totally smoothly either - I find it quite clunky. Other capcom games such as LED Storm and Strider have a similar chunky, rough feel.

They might play a little chunky, but the resolution is pretty high. Using a much higher res than say, Data East's arcade games, Varth's graphics are pinsharp with a high colour palette. Beautifully drawn and coloured backgrounds are standard, which some interesting effects such as lightning and rain, sandstorms and fuzzy clouds adding to this beauty. The 30 levels (I've seen 23 so far) are not massively different from each other graphically, as each level continues on from the last - but it will take you through clouds, caves, seascapes, deserts and volcanoes. Don't expect R-type style organic lairs or deep space or anything. (oooh, maybe that's what the levels I haven't seen are like!)

Unusually for a vertical shooter, you can interact a bit with the backgrounds. Capcom's 1941 - in many ways a very similar game to Varth, let you spin your plane against the rock walls, which was a lovely touch. Varth takes this a little further by having lethal electric grids to be shot away as well as having to navigate channels and tunnels - usually filled with lots of small planes in these tight spaces, and some secrets.

Secrets? - Lots and lots of little secrets lie around the levels, including flags, tiny blue racecars, the wee guy from Sidearms and Ryu! Finding Ryu results in a shout of "Hadoken!!" and he'll throw lots more secret icons at you if you shoot him more. Some hard to destroy little floating enemies also give you increasing points if you can shoot them all - each level has lots of potentially hidden secret items - I know I have found a lot but on every play I discover more.

I've never thought of Capcom's sound effects and music as their strongpoints. Mostly it's to do with their instrument sounds, raw and without subtlety, usually blaring horns or organ noises like an early Casio keyboard. Maybe it's just me that has this problem. The actual composition is really good though, fitting each level perfectly, with boss battles obvious by the music choice, even before the boss has rolled onscreen.

2 player mode is pretty standard, but with an extra feature that if you position your planes above each other you get a special rotating quad Pod protection - this means 2 players can both double their defenses during difficult boss fights whilst throwing everything they have to hack away at bosses' weak spots.

And talking about hacking away, don't be afraid to use your bombs regularly. You have a max stock of 3 (I think), and quite often get a Bomb pickup from certain enemies. As well as this, your bomb stock is replenished as a small meter grows - and handily - the more you waggle the joystick about, the quicker this meter rises. If you waggle like a loony, you can get a new bomb every 10 seconds. It's probably time to talk about the Weapons, the core of every shooting game! (Well, it is - imagine a shmup without bullets). After much soul-searching and newfound enjoyment of Varth, I have to now give it 8/10.


The only option you get before starting the game is your pod choice. Drastically altering how you play the game, your Pod choice is crucial. Previously I'd always plunked for the Fixed pods, believing them to offer the best protection - having them stuck in front of the plane at all time, I knew I wouldn't get hit from the front. Apart from lasers and firey blasts though.

But something happens to the difficulty of the game - it ramps up hugely in a way I can't quite explain - that does NOT happen if you use Smart Pods. Even before I found this out, I'd begun to get good at using Smart Pods and reaching levels I'd only dreamt of before.

Smart Pods try and react to the bullets coming in, and I'd say they manage to stop a very large proportion of them smashing into your ship. They offer all round protection, but are NOT guaranteed to catch every bullet. I don't even consider playing the game with fixed Pods anymore, it seems a lazy way to play by hiding behind that frontal barrier, and not actually dodging that much - Instead you are actively trying to catch the bullets.

Have fun experimenting with them and their various nuances, I've had interesting and heated arguments with MikeB over Pod choice alone. The real expert however, does not use Pods. When you start the game you have no Pods at all, it's only by picking up the Pod icons do they appear. NOT picking up your pods results in a large Podless Clear Bonus at the end of the levels.

So ok, that's Pods then? Nope - there's more. As well as two main behaviour types, they come in 3 different flavours as well, gathered by shooting either a certain type of helicopter or rows of red planes. There's Homing, Missile and Napalm which do pretty much as you would expect - and are a bit unpowered at their first strength. Gathering more icons of the same type upgrade your pods until they become really effective. I like homing best, with lots of little red homing ships flying about - reminding me a lot of Raiden Fighter's Slave ships. Plus a very strange thing has happened to me a couple of times... sometimes rainbow coloured rings appear and temporarily attach themselves to your pods, giving them super strength for a few seconds. Lovely!

Finally, we're done with Pods. Normal weapon types are also available in 3 different flavours, being Machine Gun, Spread, and Laser. The Machine Gun has a limited autofire capability, and is probably my favourite. Depending on which normal weapon you have picked up, your bomb type also changes too. Collecting POW icons will raise your normal shot type as well.

Now, let me take you through the first 15 levels of Varth. That's only half the game! Compared to some modern 5 level shmups that's got to be value for money!


With a scary amount of cannons, this tank hides behind a chunk of rubble and reveals itself as being awfully wimpy. I've chosen Smart Pods here, and although you will think that Fixed Pods are easier to work with, mastering Smart Poddery is the experts route. Whoa! I've got FOUR bombs here, how did I manage that?



Blasting into level 1, a very easy level to help you get acquainted with the weapons. Even novices can attempt a Podless Clear and succeed easily. At the moment I have no Pods, but if I pick up that orange H icon I'll get them, with Homing Missiles installed.


The yellow text at the bottom indicates which level you are currently on - definitely something you want to know when there's 30 levels to plough through. Even though your ship has a small hit area, it's not tiny - and anything touching your fuselage will kill instantly. Don't worry about those wide wings though as they can't be damaged. I usually lose a life when a bunch of subs pop up and instantly clutter the screen with bullets.



Quite similar to level one, it has now started to thunder and lightning a bit - visually this looks lovely! Notice a series of chequered flags I've revealed - grab em for lots of points.

Watch out for a small blue car speeding down the motorway here too for even more points!


Shoot this breast-like extrusion enough times and... bursts open to reveal a couple of nasty bosses with annoying shields.



A pretty boring screenshot really - except I've managed to capture Ryu in action. Once I revealed him early and he dropped about 12 little cars of 100,000 points each at me.


Kill it and the screen goes a bit haywire, making your eyes go all funny. Not quite sure why they did this as it doesn't really work.



Probably the first real boss in the game, this is a gigantic floating island powered by a single rotor in the middle. This is where if you have chosen Smart Pods you will be really wishing you had Fixed ones instead. Stick with them though!


As well as bullets, lasers start to get shot at you a lot... and neither type of Pods will protect you from them. This sub-boss twirls around a set of firey blasts as well as throwing a bunch of lasers, and again is the cause of a lost life or two for the unwary.


<< LEVEL 5

Another harbour style level, with lots of really hard long battleships to clear. Although it's very tempting to blow up all the stacked box things at the sides, concentrate on getting rid of the big ships as soon as you can.


This is actually as far as I can usually get with Fixed Pods. By now theres just too much stuff coming from behind, and Fixed Pods do not protect your arse whatsoever. Enemies have little compunction in point blanking you, and with the apparent increased difficulty ranking up using Fixed Pods, by now the screen is awash with bullets coming from behind.



Still on level 5, its time to wander down some caves filled with blastable pink bits - these kill you on touch so be very very careful.

Hidden in this network of pink stuff are lots of flags, classic reward vs risk scenario.


Don't really know why I chose to keep this pic, as nothing very interesting is happening. The large ground building can be completely blown away just at the very end of the level, not sure about the significance of this either. Ah well, it's Boss Time now...



As I mentioned already, bomb as often as you want. The Laser type normal shot I have here means my bomb will be a large blue grid which covers the entire screen, helping clear all the small trains off. Other bomb types are better for more focused attacks on bosses though.


With 3 layers of wings completely covered with small gun turrets and a three way fireblast out its bum, Level 7 introduces an excellent boss to test your Smart Podding skills to the max. The most deadly attacks are the small orange spirals followed by the large firey blasts - be careful not to get cornered.



Beautiful level this, nicely shiny and neony, with some forbidding music which signals the appearance of....



Exiting level 8, theres a bunch of floating small "mines" which, if you manage to kill all of them, result in increasing points being awarded. I think 200,000 is the max. This isn't helped by loads of little planes swooping in from below and ruining concentration.



Remember the circle of enemies in the first level of R-Type? This bit is really similar, shoot out the guns or else blast the glowing red bits to clear them all at once. A very fun level and a favourite of mine.


These missiles move so fast they can sneak in and blast you away before you know what you hit. Like here - blammo - dead. I had three full bombs in stock too - and should have taken my own advice about bombing on the slightest threat.



A not very subtle rain effect does its best to obscure the action in a quite nondescript level. Well, I supposed not every level can be a great one. If you look closely you will see a little SideArms guy to pick up here.


Remember the hard to kill battleships earlier? Many of them make a return here and are best bombed. Look how I cleverly managed to avoid both of them with my bomb blast.... doh!



Level 10 is also quite nondescript, and the little SideArms men pop out of lots of hidden parts here. Don't know why they suddenly became popular... earlier levels feature flags and cars much more. These laser tanks are fast and won't give you much chance to dodge if you are too close. I like using my own laser attack here as it gets rid of them quick.


After destroying its arms, the centre will begin to attack - and if you've got this far you WILL know the genius of Smart Pods by now. A lot of the fighting is done with turrets shooting from behind here, keeping you on your toes and holding your breath til it finally sinks.



Anyone that's played 19XX will be in familiar territory here, as there is a Y-Fronts Carrier in that. Another large boss only level, it's taken up by this huge X shaped Carrier - just hack away at the weak spots and each arm of it falls off.


Suddenly the earth cracks open to reveal submarines in lava, with huge cauldrons spitting globs of flame.



Look!! There it is!! The Rainbow thing which attaches to the Pods and causes them to go Berserk. Except I haven't got any Pods at the moment so it just floated away.... argggh!!!


Somehow I missed out level 14 entirely after this, never mind, here's a shot of a sub-boss pelting me with tightly spaced lasers. On a good day, getting this far is about normal. Managing a run up to 20-odd levels is less so.



Starting off with some sandstormy effects (kind of similar to that in Thunderforce 4), after fighting a tank you pass over some really cool backgrounds - I especially like the Thunderbirds 2 crashed ship here.


Coming from a boiler-like train section, these are my most hated enemies in the game. With fast spinny attacks any lives you have left will soon be toast.

Remember - there's another 15 levels still to go! Incredible :)



Absolutely excellent level in which a long train tries to stop you in your tracks, bit by bit.

Each section has a bunch of turrets with a central major attack - watch out for this large emerging cannon!

Varth never got any home conversions as far as I know, but plays very nicely in Mame. Once again, for the connoisseur, only the pcb is really recommended... it pops up every so often on Ebay and isn't that hard or expensive to get. Part of the reason I'm now rating this higher than originally is that I'm now playing it the way it was supposed to be - hunched over a cab with a joystick to wrench.

Beware difficulty settings though. Capcom's cps1 games have some quite confusing dip settings, defaulting to easiest difficulty if all set to OFF. I think also the default difficulty in mame is set to easiest as well. Normal difficulty for this game should be 4, however, I like it set to 2 difficulty, as I'm not that good at it on 4. I like to zone in for a while, and you get a bigger chance to do that on difficulty 2.

Have I missed anything important, or screwed up? Email me please! - Bye - Malc


shmups!   © 1997 - 2007  Malcolm Laurie