Irem Collection Volume 1 reminds me of those anniversary editions of classic albums. You’ll have splashed down twice the price to get about twenty versions of the same songlist, with live versions, demos, acoustics and acapella versions that were sung in the shower. They’re exhaustive, fascinating, and I’m pretty confident that I’ll never listen to them ever again. But I’m glad I have them anyway.
Irem Collection Volume 1 takes that ‘anniversary edition’ approach to the Image Fight series – a series that you’d be completely justified in knowing zero about. The first was a Japanese arcade game that never made it to our shores, before getting ported to the NES, PC Engine and Sharp X68000 in versions that – again – never made it to our shores. It’s an import darling, and can fetch a fair price on auction sites. It then got followed up by Image Fight II (purely on the PC Engine) and a half-sequel called X-Multiply, which opted for horizontal shootery rather than vertical. None of them reached even a fraction of the notoriety of Irem’s biggest series: R-Type.
Rather than just include Image Fight, Image Fight II and X-Multiply, curators United Games Entertainment have chosen to do the Anniversary Edition thing. We get Image Fight in Arcade, PC Engine and NES iterations, while Image Fight II (PC Engine) and X-Multiple (Arcade) get a solitary version each. It’s a hell of a compendium, inordinately exhaustive, and more than the average shooter will need. But hey-ho, it’s nice to have them.
We decided to go chronologically through the games, which was our first mistake. There really isn’t a huge degree of difference between all of the Image Fight games. The NES version, as you would probably expect, is the most compromised of the three games, and acts as a de-master to the ‘fuller’ PC Engine and Arcade versions. It’s a neat curio, and is probably best played as a kind of spot-the-difference once you have played one of the other versions. Other than that, it’s the most throwaway of the titles here.
Pick either the PC Engine or Arcade versions of Image Fight (unless you’re a real Irem-head, you don’t need to go beyond one) and you’re in for a shooter that’s one-half R-Type, and the other oddball.
Much like its classic sister-series, Image Fight gifts you ‘forces’ to make mincemeat of your enemies. These are huge bolt-ons that snap onto the front of your ship once you pick them up. You will soon organise them into columns of ‘worth having’ and ‘not’. There are absolute beasts that pump out homing missiles or bounce rings around the arena. Others are piffle, and you’ll wonder whether you were better off without them.
But what makes Image Fight stand out in Xbox’s (underrated) catalogue of 2D shooters is the Pods. These are satellites that slot around your ship, and they come in red or blue versions. The blue pods always shoot forwards, and you will have experienced something like them in plenty of other shooters. But it’s the red pods that send the skill ceiling of Image Fight into the stratosphere.
The red pods fire in the direction opposite to your last pressed button. Retreat backwards and they will fire forwards. They are immediately counter-intuitive and stay that way for hours; but once you master them, they’re invaluable. You can position yourself so they’re providing covering fire while you take on a bigger threat (almost all the missiles in Image Fight can be shot). And they’re versatile buggers, as they can be used as battering rams, shields and even be thrown ahead of you for a quick boomerang attack. I frigging love the pods in Image Fight, and clearly the players at the time – and designers – thought the same too, as they are one of the few constants across the collection.
But what is truly remarkable about Image Fight and Image Fight II is the audacity of the bosses and levels. They don’t look like much (Image Fight and its sequels are as visually bland as paintings in a cheap hotel room), but they’re imaginative wonders. We’ve taken on armadas in a rickety space station, where walls crumble and fall on you if you happen to shoot them; another is plagued by detritus that you have to shoot if you want to make headway; while a boss can only be killed if you manage to creep into its tiny cell and shoot it while matching its movement. Both Image Fight and Image Fight II have the ability to surprise with every level.
Aside from the visual meh-ness, the Image Fight series (including X-Multiply) have a predilection for levels that shove you into tiny spaces and expect you to navigate them. I’m all in for the shooting, but squeaking through tiny gaps in walls isn’t what I play a shooter for, and the occasionally suspect collision detection (which errs towards killing you rather than offering leeway) doesn’t help. I was at my happiest when decimating a battleship; I was at my least happy when I was dying because I clipped a wall.
On occasion, these games are too opaque, which doesn’t help either. You start playing ‘Acts’ and then move into ‘Stages’, which have completely different scoring and rating systems. It can often feel like two games sellotaped together. There are no tutorials to speak of; weapons are sometimes kept between levels, sometimes not; and cutscenes are often in untranslated Japanese. When you include the unintuitive pods, these games can feel a little unfriendly to a first-timer.
But then there’s X-Multiply, which is a wee treat. A complete left-turn for the Image Fight series, it skews closer to R-Type than Image Fight. The vertical shooting swaps out for horizontal, and the bland spaceships are hoicked out and replaced with demons. It’s great, and only tarnished by an even greater love for navigating spaces that are the size of cat flaps. Marrying the level design and quality of R-Type with the pods of Image Fight is a cracking mix, and X-Multiply turned out to be our fave, which is no mean feat considering that this is a rather cracking little collection.
Want a visit to a shoot ’em up museum, where you can play every conceivable version of the Image Fight series? Want to find out what Irem were working on when they weren’t pumping out R-Types? If any of your answers are vaguely positive, we’d encourage you to get a ticket to Irem Collection Volume 1. It’s stupidly exhaustive, fully featured, and – with the Pods system – burns brightly with stellar ideas. You might not need to play every game in this collection, but it would feel far less complete without them.