By the time of its 1992 European release, Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy was a side scrolling shooter when the genre was rapidly becoming irrelevant, with R-Type and Gradius - benchmarks of this format "“ spiralling into bland repetition. Seemingly a recipe for disaster in terms of acceptance on these shores, Parodius also featured an over-the-top, comedic anime visual aesthetic, with on-screen enemies that included evil Penguins, scantily clad burlesque girls and Aubergine spewing volcanoes. If any game was easy to write off in '92, it was this one.
Yet in doing so players missed out on one of the best entry points to this often inaccessible genre. For all the warning signs that P:NSF bears upon its incredibly colourful Japanese animation visual design, the title's mechanical structure spreads wide its super-deformed tentacles to embrace the uninitiated to the 2D scrolling shooter.
Initially conceived as a tongue in cheek homage to Konami's "serious" shmups "“ most prominently Gradius "“ Parodius maintains the high level of challenge found in its source material without punishing the participant for the mistakes they will inevitably make. The title begins this MO of inclusion and accessibility even with ideas at Gradius' core, such as automating the branching upgrade system that set this other shooter of the company apart from competitors of the time. These additions to your ship increase speed, fire-power and shields to assist you as you take on hordes of approaching enemies and by removing freedom of choice from the newbie by default, Parodius demonstrates to players how this intricate system can be exploited to better cope with the varied situations it presents.
While each of these dioramas is the standard shooter fair of "destroy the bad guys and avoid their bullets", it keeps the flow of the title interesting by mixing up the inherent challenges found in the different waves of craft. One moment the best course of action will be to have a ship that is able to fan out its shots to deal with multiple bogeys approaching from several angles, while the next minute a more concentrated field of fire is desirable to pump round after round into bullet sponge bosses.
Another improvement of P:NSF over its source material is through generous check pointing. In the early nineties "the arcade experience at home" was still highly sought after. Parodius is not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination - one hit from an enemy vessel, or a single scrape against the scenery still results in the loss of a life - but unlimited continues combined with restarting progress tens of seconds (and not tens of minutes) earlier, encourages players to improve and once again learn how the title wants you to play it. A particularly prominent example of this comes early in the game and a scenario in which you must fly underneath the moving feet of a show girl. The sequence requires impeccable judgement and precise movement over an extended period of time. While more mean spirited titles of the genre would demand the pilot restart from the beginning of the level, or perhaps even restart the whole game should they run out of lives, Parodius is simply content to allow you to attempt this scenelet again. With repetition comes improvement, with improvement comes progress.
This encouraged progression is a good thing too, as the title is bursting with fresh ideas at almost every turn. Due in part to its unhinged themes and energetically remixed public domain song soundtrack, Parodius is full of must-see moments, that come in the same quantity of an Uncharted or a Vanquish. From sinking a pirate ship that is also a giant cat, to destroying a screen filling Easter Island Head mother ship, the game never fails to shock, dazzle and inspire in its near-constant set pieces.
Featuring generous encouragement within a strict rule format, plus endearing pixel art that feels as relevant in today's retro revival as it did almost two decades ago, Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy represents undiluted creativity and positivity in a genre that so often feels stale and stingy. An irreverent and frothy but immaculate and deliberate piece of games design that deserves investigation from everyone, from shmup fans to the utterly uninitiated.