Naxat Soft's Recca (also spelled "Rekka", meaning "blazing fire") is quite possibly the best shooter on the Famicom, and without question the fastest. It is also among the rarest. Shooter competitions were apparently the "in thing" back in the early 90s, with Hudson Soft creating several yearly tournaments featuring its Star Soldier series, amongst others. Naxat Soft had their own competition called "Summer Carnival '92", and Recca was given the honor being used for this tournament. However, since it was released in the late years of the Famicom (the previous year's tournament had used a PC Engine CD game, Spriggan, which was a much more powerful system) very, very few cartridges were produced, and they often go for $250+ on the secondary market. One of the driving forces behind Recca's speed was Shinobu Yagawa, who later joined Raizing/Eighting Shooters to program several more over shooters such Armored Police Batrider, Battle Garegga and Battle Bakraid, before leaving for Cave to develop Ibara and its sequel, Pink Sweets.
From the very beginning, Recca is obscenely fast. Imagine enemy ships moving onto and off of the screen in as little as a second, with groups of two dozen on screen at the same time, each of which is immediately replaced by equally large groups. Hordes of ships and many, many shots will pour onto the screen without pause for the duration of the entire game, creating a curtain of fire and enemies. The blazingly high tempo music is the closest you'll get to hardcore techno on the Famicom, and it's all very similar to Yuzo Koshiro's Streets of Rage soundtracks. It suits the action perfectly, and it's so booty shaking that a soundtrack CD was released in 2005, over a decade after Recca's initial release. The only problem is that it tends to get drowned out by all of the bullet noises and explosions.
Bosses are often half the size of the screen and have huge limbs consisting of multiple sprites moving in unison. You'll have to deal with dodging massive laser weapons from multiple laser turrets at once, or ships that literally fire fountains of shots in an endless stream, or potentially multiple ships that do both and more. The graphics are equally as incredible. Besides its intense speed, there are some absolutely amazing effects in the background. The screen will begin rapidly warping at certain points, and at others it will begin moving backward or forward EXTREMELY fast. It almost creates a strobe-like effect and looks quite startling. You can change the speed of your ship by hitting the Select button, which was a common feature in the 16-bit days, but practically unheard of for the Famicom.
There may only are be four levels, but they're quite long and relentless. Each level of Recca has a enemy wave followed by a mini-boss, followed by a second enemy wave, followed by a boss. The only exception to this is level four, which has something like a dozen bosses, among them each of the first three levels' bosses, with enemy waves between each. Astonishingly, despite how fast paced this chaos is, there's an astonishing lack of slowdown. Sure, it exists in the hairier moments of the game, but 95% of the time, it's running smooth as silk - the losers who programmed Gradius 3 for the SNES should've looked at this and committed harakiri. Recca pushes the Famicom in the same way that Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier pushed the Genesis, making it do things that people thought were impossible.
There are five primary weapons in Recca, and five more secondary weapons, the latter of which are floating turrets that surround your ship. Each of these can be powered up multiple times, which will grant your shots new properties. Certain weapons have projectiles that can be aimed, or home in on enemies, or fire backwards, or shoot wide bullet sprays. The ability to have two weapons at the same time allows for a healthy amount of customization. If your ship is destroyed, you will lose your secondary weapon, but given how plentiful they are, you will never go long without one.
Like most shooters, Recca has bombs, but they work a bit differently. When your primary weapon is not being fired, a meter on the bottom of the screen will begin to build while a energy ball begins to form in front of your ship. After a couple seconds, this meter will be full - by tapping the A button, you'll shoot the energy ball, which will explode and cause huge damage to whatever it is. There is no limit to how many bombs can be charged up, giving you near unlimited firepower, but requiring that you can defend yourself long enough to charge it up. While it's charging, the energy ball can also be a make-shift shield, as it will absorb small blue bullets while it is in front of your ship. This system was reused in the 2006 Cave game Pink Sweets - Ibara Sore Kara, which also goes to show how ahead of its time Recca was.
Recca, as incredible as it is, is difficult. Like, almost impossibly difficult, and a large reason for this is simply due to how rapidly the game tosses things as you. And if you manage to beat the final boss, you're treated to the obvious declaration that Recca is a "Super Hard Shooting Game". After the credits, you'll get a another screen declaring "To Be Continued..." with an awesome sprite of a boss that was never actually fought during the game.
And they aren't lying - it does get continued. After beating Recca, reset your machine (or more likely emulator - make sure to do a soft reset), and you will get a completely different set of levels with each boss fought in a different order. Other shooters occasionally give you multiple loops, which usually just increase the difficulty level, but this is all rearranged. Freaking awesome. This effectively doubles the length of the game. As these other levels are made from the same backgrounds, enemies, and boss fights, graphics, and audio, albeit with different arrangements, this is like the shmup equivalent of the second quest in The Legend of Zelda.
But jeez, if you thought Recca's first loop was difficult, you haven't seen anything. Recca's second wave defies belief - I literally laughed out loud at how over the top it is, to the point where you wish for slowdown, or begin weeping. I can absolutely guarantee one of the two. While Recca seems like it might have inspired Cave, it's second wave is even more like a Cave shooter. There are even sections which require shot dodging exactly like a bullet hell/danmaku shooter, except faster and with a standard ship sized hitbox. Its bullet patterns lack any Team Shanghai Alice style beauty, though, and here everything is simply chaos. Unfortunately, even after beating the second wave, you never get to fight the boss from the final screen. Perhaps it was intended for a sequel that never appeared...
As if this all weren't crazy enough already, there's also a hidden mode called Zanki Attack that's even more intense. It plays like the normal game, except that you get fifty lives and when enemies explode they'll release four or more suicide bullets in random directions, perpetually flooding the screen with shots. Another secret gives you access to a sound test where you can even listen to tracks that were left out of the game. There's also a "Change Limit" screen, and another code for infinite lives. If you'd like to skip straight to the second wave then you can do that, too, via a level select cheat.
The cheat codes, by the way, are... Zanki Attack: Reset the game, hold A & B, hold Start to choose Normal Game, then hold Select and Up before the game begins. Sound Test: Hold Select immediately after starting Normal Game. Change Limit: Reset, then hold Select during the swirling text animation. Infinite Lives: Access Change Limit, then hold A, B, Up, and Select, and push Start. Level Select: Access Sound Test without releasing Start. Then push A, B, and Select to set your starting level.
In spite of its face punching difficulty, every shooter fan owes it to themselves to play Recca, a gem to outshine all gems, if only to see how technically amazing the programming is. It puts even the mighty Compile NES shooters - hell, most 16-bit shooters - to complete and total shame.
While prices of the actual Famicom cartridge remain high, Recca was released on the 3DS Virtual Console in Europe and North America in 2013, making it its first international release, and actually making it affordable.
Thanks to Ghegs and EXMaster for their contributions to this article.