2 Difficulty levels
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by Game Arts
Published by Game Arts in 1993
Available in a few PC formats since 1986, Silpheed graced the Sega CD library in 1993, wowing gamers with sleek polygon visuals and a sci-fi presentation that remains astonishing to this day. Polygons are what caused heated comparisons with Starfox on the SNES, which came out the same year and proved to be a smash hit among shooter fans. Although this comparison helped fuel the competition between Sega and Nintendo during the 16-bit wars, it was without a doubt a foolish one. After all, Silpheed is a true vertical shmup, and Starfox is one of the few rail shooters available for the SNES. Polygons are the whole basis and foundation of Starfox, whereas Silpheed mixes them with sprites in order to create the illusion of an intergalactic war, complete with massively huge battleships, deadly lasers and lots of debris flying everywhere.
In the year 3076, tactical fighter spacecraft SA-77 Silpheed must travel 64 light years until reaching the Earth. You're its pilot and your mission is to take down a cosmic bad guy. Besides the game itself, your journey is conveyed by a series of cool polygon animated intermissions with great voice-over narrations. The introdution, for instance, is one of the most epic I've ever seen in any shmup, and I can just wonder how amazing it must've been to witness such awesomeness back in 1993 (I arrived quite late to the party). There is, however, a wide gap between these animated visuals and the actual gameplay, in what I consider to be the defining aspect whether or not someone will endorse Silpheed as a great shmup.
The first time you see your ship it's hard not to think of it as a wimpy looking spacecraft. The vertical perspective is tilted, and the ship gets even tinier as you move up the screen. The starting background for the first level isn't that impressive, the music is kinda cheesy and your guns feel slightly underpowered as waves of enemies swarm by in a familiar fashion many will immediately associate with Galaga. Nevertheless, there's an underlying heartbeat of greater things to come, hinted by a battleship that's reduced to shreds by a series of giant lasers just before the boss fight. A treacherous asteroid belt follows in the second level. By the time the third stage starts and a huge spaceship gets in the way of your bullets, it's quite obvious that Silpheed has many tricks up its sleeve, and loads of charm to attest its reputation of a Sega CD must-have.
With the exception of the first stage, every time a new level starts you halt at a weapon selection screen so that you can equip the ship. It’s possible to carry one main weapon on each side of the Silpheed, so you’re always shooting pair combinations of forward beam, wide beam, phalanx beam (best one in my opinion) and auto-aiming shot. These weapons are not instantly available - a new one is added for every 40.000 points you score. You can also assign one of the following optional weapons for each stage: graviton bomb (blocks bullets), EM defense system (shield), photon torpedo (slight homing ability) and anti-matter bomb (very powerful). They appear at random with every 50.000 points, and you can't use the same one in two consecutive stages. The use of optional weapons is limited, and its stock is automatically filled the more enemies you kill.
Lives in Silpheed work according to a health meter with 6 hits. After the 6th hit you get a message of "no shield". Getting hit again will cause "weapon failure", where only one of your selected main weapons will work. A further hit will trigger "engine failure", impairing movement and terribly slowing down the ship. In this condition, the next hit you take means GAME OVER. To recover health you must take repair items by destroying crystals that come from the top (you also get some health back in between stages). The crystals will also release bonus points (1.000 to 10.000), extra energy for the optional weapons and items for screen wipe-out and temporary invincibility. Sometimes you have to be sharp to get these items, they come staggering down and it's very easy to lose them when you're trying to dodge all the incoming fire.
Silpheed: stage 4
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcingi)
Despite the pale impressions from the first stage, the gameplay in Silpheed is smooth as silk and gets quite intense in later levels. Enemies will arrive in the most diverse formations from all sides, armed with aimed shots, kamikaze movement patterns and a wide variety of bullet spreads. Sometimes there’s so much going on that a few seconds of distraction are enough to reach a no-shield situation. More than the actual dodging, getting used to enemy behavior is the key to success in this game. Using the optional weapons wisely is also a good thing to do.
Silpheed is all about atmosphere, exuding an unique charm especially among other 16-bit shooters. The aesthetic effect that results from the use of polygon pre-rendered backgrounds is amazing. I feel like I’m fighting the death star from Star Wars every time I approach the 2nd boss. And the descent into a space fortress in stage 4 is even more impressive. Sound effects are great and most of the music evokes the outer space theme quite nicely, even though there’s a scratchy undertone to the whole audio in the game. And let’s not forget about the radio voice-over and this guy shouting useful tips such as “turn left” or “watch out for the cannon”, which adds greatly to the sense of action. He reminds me of the B-52’s lead singer when he yells “look at the size of that thing!”. Shmup shack, bay-beeeee… Gosh, I must be really old to remember these things.
Online sources point to two tougher difficulty levels, but I didn't get any results by doing the command sequences to get them. Once the credit is over you get a screen showing your score and stats for enemies destroyed and weapons fired. Don't press anything if you want to play for keepsies and register your performance! My new 1CC high score on NORMAL is just a little bit above the previous one I had.
A last note about the game: it received a sequel for the Playstation 2 called Silpheed - The Lost Planet, which supposedly preserves the same feel and atmosphere of the Sega CD chapter. Is it any good? I expect to find out soon!