Retro Game Review: “Vulgus” (Capcom, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s AugustThe Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the martians built the pyramids.

Today, we’re going to look at Capcom’s very first game, a 2D, vertically scrolling, space shooter titled Vulgus released in 1984. 

Vulgus main title

Humanity is under attack! Maybe. Who knows? I wasn’t able to discern any plot from my time with Vulgus, but that was pretty much par for the course with arcade games in 1984. 

You take the helm of a small gray ship (the Vulgus? Maybe. Who knows?) and your mission is to blast across three separate stages over, and over and over again. Much like its contemporary arcade games, Vulgus doesn’t seem to have an “ending”, and the challenge is instead driven by achieving the high score. The difficulty does seem to increase a bit every time the game restarts, at least, so there is that small bit of variety to keep you playing if you’re not keen on setting a high score. 

The stages themselves are comprised of three planets, a Mars-like cratered red planet, an Earth-like watery green planet, and an ice planet like… I don’t know. Can there an ice planet in the Milky Way without water? In any case, each planet is separated by short sequences in outer space as you travel between them. 

Vulgus stage one screenshot
Get your ass to Mars… and kill everything you see

Your ship will be confronted by waves of enemies, most of which are small and in the shape of bugs or robots. This is also the first appearance of the Yashichi enemy, which looks like a red compass/throwing star that would returns in later Capcom games almost as an unofficial Capcom logo. There are some larger enemies that take several hits to destroy (or a shot from your powerful torpedo weapon), but there isn’t anything that really constitutes a “boss fight.”

Other than the above mentioned torpedo, which have a limited stock, the only other power-up that you collect in Vulgus is a speed boost. While these pickups are helpful, this all adds up to what is a pretty dry shoot ’em up game by modern standards. You also lose all of your speed when you die, so you will be struggling until you can snag some more speed. 

Vulgus Earth stage screenshot
Some kind of… smart bug

Despite being a vertical shooter, the field can scroll quite a bit as you move from left to right, giving you lots of horizontal space to maneuver. This can certainly help you stay alive, particularly if your speed is low. It’s a much better strategy than trying to use the vertical space. If you don’t avoid the top 2/3 of the screen, you are likely to get annihilated very quickly by advancing enemies. Stay low!

Vulgus looks fairly basic by today’s standards, but it looks pretty decent compared to its 1984 contemporaries, and shows how much graphical advancement had been made in the three short years since Namco’s Galaga (1981). Everything scrolls smoothly, and despite the colorful backgrounds, it’s still rather easy to see the oncoming enemies. There is also a nice effect where the star fields flicker as you transition from planet to space and vice versa. However, I can’t help but mention that the spiral galaxies look like sparkly blue dog crap. 

Vulgus space stage screenshot
See? Piles of blue dog crap.

The game’s soundtrack leaves much to be desired, as well. And by soundtrack, I mean the one, short, monotonous track that unceasingly repeats throughout the entire game. It might be more tolerable if it was only the tune playing at during a single stage, but it’s grating to be pummeled by it incessantly. Maybe having the music go silent when you are flying through the space areas would have made given the player a sufficient break? Not that these ideas matter decades later, I suppose.

In the end, Vulgus is a curio, but it is far from being a classic. There simply isn’t enough depth in the gameplay to keep it interesting for very long, and the music will actively begin to push you away after just a few minutes. Even Capcom gave up on it, in a sense, as a sequel was planned for the original Nintendo Famicom/NES, but Neo Vulgus (or Titan Warriors) never saw the light of day. 

However hardcore retro shooter fans or game history aficionados may still find Vulgus worth checking out. Not only is it the very first title developed by what would become a storied arcade game developer, but it was also published in the United States by SNK, a turn of events that will put a smile on the faces of 90s arcade fighting game fans. A fleeting smile.

Vulgus ice planet stage
Let’s put these aliens… on ice! (Kill me)

Thanks for reading!

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