3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1991
UN Squadron, also known as Area 88 in Japan, is one of Capcom's boldest attempts at the horizontal shooter genre. Loosely based on the manga of the same name released in the end of the 70's, the Super Nintendo port is the most recognizable home version of the arcade game, and in my perception is curiously more fondly remembered than its source material, probably because it expands on the original gameplay and also due to a harder challenge level as a whole.
A quick intro with a take-off sequence made with mode-7 sets the tone for UN Squadron. You take the role of one of three pilots and need to complete several missions to stop an army of mercenaries known as Project 4. They have taken over a peaceful kingdom, establishing strongholds in several parts of the country and deploying all sorts of military machinery and convoys to keep their evil clutches over the land. Only those brave enough will be capable of harnessing the power of the weapons carried by a selection of formidable aircrafts, scrambling through several colorful landscapes and dangerous caverns. Some slowdown is expected if the action gets too cluttered, but overall the graphical performance is decent, as is the soundtrack.
The choice of pilot affects gameplay in two ways: how fast your plane is powered up and how fast it recovers from taking a hit. Shin Kazama powers up faster and takes longer to recover. Greg Gates powers up slower and is the fastest to recover. Mickey Scymon lies in between both his coleagues. They all start the journey piloting the F8E Crusader, the most basic aircraft from the fleet, capable of carrying only three special weapons but a very versatile plane regardless. It suits most of the starting missions quite well.
Intro for UN Squadron on the Super Nintendo
(courtesy of YouTube user mcbanjomike)
(courtesy of YouTube user mcbanjomike)
Fulfilling the missions is accomplished by using a vulcan cannon and by firing special weapons with limited ammo, which in turn are selected by a specific button in the controller. All inputs can be properly mapped in the options screen. Certain enemy waves leave behind power-ups when fully destroyed: the orange one adds 1 point to the upgrade meter of the main shot, the blue one adds 3 points. On the right side of the overhead display the POW number indicates how many points you need to advance to the next power level, which is shown right above the cash counter. Cash is the other component of the upgrading process, and is automatically registered as you kill enemies and complete full stages. It's used to purchase special weapons prior to each level and to earn the right to fly new aircraft models. Each pilot starts the game with a cash stock of $3.000.
Lives in UN Squadron are treated in a very unique way. Each life comes with a health bar that allows players to take some hits before dying, but there's a catch. Whenever you get hit the energy gauge flashes for a brief while, returning to normal once the plane has self-restored. If you get hit again during this critical period you die no matter how much health you have at the moment, then a new target area must be chosen from the map. Dying is also detrimental to the cash balance because all the special weapons you're carrying are instantly gone, whereas if you complete the stage successfully all cash from unused weaponry is reinstated into your account. A word of warning to preserve health: you can safely hug the upper and lower surfaces of any stage, but you absolutely can't do the same on mountains or walls inside caves.
Stage order is another factor that adds to the challenge. After the first level a selection of stages opens up in the map for you to choose from. Naturally some of them are harder than others, often demanding at least some basic planning for special weapons or which plane to use. Unfortunately the mission commander only lets you know about the details of each stage after you've selected it, which completely defeats the purpose of strategic thinking. While not that serious in the long run, it's certainly unfavorable for newcomers and might rub people the wrong way. This also applies to the selection of planes since their description is only visible for the ones you haven't purchased yet. If they're already in your inventory there's no way of knowing what they do unless you choose them for the mission, a decision that's final and might not be the best one depending on the stage.
And speaking of planes, testing them is probably the most fun part of UN Squadron. Some of them are faster or slower while emphasizing air-to-ground or air-to-air combat. The A10A Thunderbolt is the slowest one but comes with an extra downwards stream for the main shot at the expense of a max power level of 3. The best feature of the YF23 Stealth Ray, for instance, is that it's undetectable to homing missiles. However, if you want to be able to use all special weapons you'll definitely aim for the F200 Efreet, which at the cost of $ 1.000.000 also comes with a maximum power level of 7.
Shin Kazama is out for justice
Besides the odd decision to not let the player know beforehand any info of the level or the plane choice, another aspect of UN Squadron that's particularly annoying is the firing limitation of the main shot. You just don't have a normal automatic firing rate. One press of the button fires a bullet salvo for a few seconds, requiring another press in order to maintain a steady firing stream. Seriously, was this really necessary? I guess it's better than nothing (no autofire at all), but it's an extremely irritating mechanic that's very detrimental to the player's concentration at key points in the game. Of course this can be instantly alleviated by the use of a turbo controller, a luxury that's not easily available for most people, myself included.
One final note about the gameplay concerns the gallery of secret items. They are, in fact, extremely important for survival, and knowing where to find them might represent the difference between life and death. All you have to do is shoot their location to release them. Never stop shooting and watch out for unsuspected corners in caves or prior to boss fights, you might be pleasantly surprised. The fuel tank fills your health meter partially, the yasichi (the lollipop) completely refills it, the star gives you a cash bonus of $50.000, the mech (actually a miniature of the character from Side Arms) is a smart bomb that clears the screen of enemies, the weapons rack adds ammo to the special weapons and the unicorn grants you with a shield that can withstand a good number of hits. Finally, extra lives are registered with 30.000, 100.000 and then for every 150.000 points afer that.
In my quest to 1CC UN Squadron in the Normal difficulty I ended up purchasing only the F200 Efreet as soon as I could afford it. I did go for the convoys that start showing up in the map in order to grab at least some $100.000. Each convoy gives you roughly $20.000 and apparently they don't stop coming at all (honestly, talk about a lazy means of rebalancing the cash mechanic). These convoys are also the reason why it makes no sense to talk about high scores in this game. I played with Greg Gates and finished with the result below. Since there's no score buffering and this screen disappears really fast, if you want to have it in pictures you need to resource to special recording arrangements.