Wireframe

Twin Tiger Shark is a modern take on classic Toaplan shoot-em-ups

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

For just under a decade, Japanese studio Toaplan made some of the most distinctive and innovative shoot-‘em-ups around. Tiger-Heli (1985) featured video gaming’s first-ever smart bomb. The likes of Slap Fight, Flying Shark, and Truxton (aka Tatsujin) established a visual and gameplay style that lasted until its closure in 1994: devastating weapons systems; enemies that attacked in elaborate patterns and shot at the player with unnerving accuracy; and unforgettably catchy music, often composed by founder members Masahiro Yuge or Tatsuya Uemura.

The work of Swedish developer Mikael Tillander, Twin Tiger Shark affectionately revisits Toaplan’s late-eighties heyday, channelling the spirit of its pivotal 1987 military-themed shooter, Flying Shark, and its 1989 sequel, Fire Shark. Like those games, Twin Tiger Shark sees you take control of a heavily armed biplane as you take out a vast army of tanks, battleships, and armoured gun emplacements. Toaplan fans will recognise the style immediately: the snaking flying formations of enemy planes, the tanks that roll out from under cover and take two hits to destroy, and the devastating, screen-clearing smart bombs. “My main interest when playing games has always been shoot-‘em-ups,” says Tillander, who’s been a programmer ever since he received a Commodore VIC-20 in the mid-1980s. “Twin Tiger Shark was just another in a long row of shooters I’ve made. But this was the first time I made an obvious homage to another existing franchise or company.”

Your biplane may be fragile, but its weapons pack a Toaplan-style punch.

Although closely modelled on Toaplan’s games, Tillander’s shooter isn’t a slavish copy, however. “Flying Shark had a slower-moving player ship and each enemy bullet was a hazard to be taken seriously,” Tillander notes. “So you had to take out the enemies as soon as possible. It sure helps to know where the enemies are going to come onto the screen. Twin Tiger Shark has a faster-moving player ship, to please players of today, and way faster enemy bullets, but the idea’s the same.”

Tillander programmed Twin Tiger Shark in JavaScript and released an initial build for free in the mid-2000s, and on itch.io in 2014. What he did next was truly unusual, though: in November 2021, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Tillander ported it to a JAMMA arcade board, meaning it could be installed and played like a traditional coin-op shooter. This process required Tillander to port the game itself from JavaScript to C, and also create his own custom arcade boards. “I needed to design all of the hardware, create my own processor, graphics card, and sound cards, as well as all of the glue logic for it,” says Tillander. “I did a lot of PCB revisions until I got something working. I still can’t believe I pulled that part off.”

A considerable amount of work went into making Twin Tiger Shark’s tiny JAMMA board.

With the hardware taken care of, Tillander then had to rework the game itself to run correctly. “Since I did my own processor, I couldn’t just take a C compiler and start working in C straight up,” he recalls. “I needed to make my own assembler that would take the machine code I wrote and convert it to something readable for the processor. I could have gone the route of trying to make a C compiler, but I opted to make the whole game in assembler – true to how [Toaplan might have] made it in the eighties. So none of the code from the Java version was of any use – it was all reprogrammed. Some of the sounds and graphics could be used, but I remade most of that as well.”

Tillander’s dedication soon paid off, though. His Kickstarter made over £16,000 in pledges – more than four times its minimum goal – and the JAMMA game itself eventually made its way into Japanese arcades, including Tokyo’s famous Game Center Mikado. Needless to say, the sight of a Toaplan-inspired game showing up in its country of origin was a big moment for Tillander. “That was unbelievable,” he says of that Japanese arcade appearance. “Mikado even had a super-player, Chantake, play the game live on a YouTube stream. Hearing the commentary reactions and reading the chat during that was rewarding, to say the least.”

In development for the Sega Mega Drive, side-scrolling blaster ZPF is set to appear on Kickstarter in the autumn.

Despite the stresses of his day job as a programmer at a tech company, and having two lively kids at home to look after, Tillander’s been busily making other shooters between his Twin Tiger Shark projects. There’s space shooter Broken Pearl, side-scrolling run-and-gun Heavy Recoil: Convoy Chaser, top-down horde blaster Prison Break: Zombies, and Mega Drive hack-and-slash, Tänzer. His latest work-in-progress is shooter ZPF, also for the Mega Drive (see box) – which left us wondering: given that several of Toaplan’s titles appeared on Sega’s 16-bit console, might we see Twin Tiger Shark ported to that system, too?

“You know, I’ve been thinking about that on and off this year,” Tillander reveals. “After I’m done with ZPF, I’ll see what I can do, but Twin Tiger Shark on Mega Drive is a possibility, for sure.”

BLAST PROCESSING

Tillander largely worked by himself on his previous games, but for Mega Drive shooter ZPF, he’s teamed up with two collaborators in the US: composer Jamie “JGVEX” Vance and artist/designer Perry “Gryzor Rozyrg” Sessions. A side-scroller in the heavy metal vein of Lords of Thunder for the PC Engine, ZPF began as a GameMaker project by Sessions, before he saw Tillander’s work on Tänzer and the pair started collaborating on making the shooter for the Mega Drive. The trio have been working on ZPF for almost two years, and while there have been some challenges along the way, there’s now a publisher involved – Mega Cat Studios – and a Kickstarter campaign planned for this autumn. “The game was started a few years ago and had been making steady progress until late last year when we decided to restart the whole thing,” Tillander says. “We weren’t getting what we wanted out of the current engine, so I redid it all. We’re now in a much better position to create a game that we’re truly happy with.”

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