Friday, July 28, 2023

UN Squadron (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
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)

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.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Radiant Silvergun (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Treasure
Published by ESP in 1998

Already established as a revered developer for the console market throughout the 90s, Treasure took to themselves the task of making their first arcade game with Radiant Silvergun. And my friends, what a debut! How many companies come up with such a hit in their first try, I wonder? Anyway, the similarity of the arcade board and the Sega Saturn architecture soon led to a port to Sega's 32-bit system that became extremely sought after and rare, further cementing the game's reputation as one of the most desired titles in the platform. Of course there are more noble reasons for that, after all the game is a masterpiece that challenges players in a way very few shmups do, with outstanding production values and incredible cinematic elegance.

It doesn't take long to at least understand the hype behind Radiant Silvergun. Just a few credits are enough to realize how different it is, from the enigmatic stage structure to the fact that you have 7 weapons at your disposal from the get go. It's all tied up into a detailed backstory and controls built upon a layout that originally uses only three buttons but in the port takes full advantage of the Saturn controller. With an ambitious soundtrack and a slew of graphical effects it's all about spectacle, but spectable backed up by an elaborate leveling up system that many consider akin to RPGs. I can't say I agree with that, in my opinion what makes this game unique is an intricate puzzle element that's rarely seen anywhere else in the genre.

And instead of just porting the arcade game Treasure went beyond the basics and added an extra Saturn mode that expands the original structure while cleverly giving less experienced players the chance to see the whole game without resorting to infinite continues. Gameplay basics are the same for both modes though, as are those ominous but nonsensical messages that appear during boss warning announcements, of which the most famous one is definitely BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS.

Getting circled by Nasu, the boss of stage 2C

The three fundamental shot attacks consist of vulcan (button A), homing (button B) and spread (button C). The combination of these inputs lead to extra shot types that are mapped to the other buttons in the controller, which results in homing spread ring (button X, or B+C), backwide (button Y, or A+C) and lock-on plasma (button Z, or A+B). Finally, at the press of all basic inputs A+B+C or button R you activate the radiant sword, a short-range moving appendix that's also capable of blocking/absorbing regular bullets. If you absorb 10 bullets, as indicated by the gauge below the score counter, the next sword activation will be the hyper sword, a devastating attack that deals great damage and also makes you invincible.

The amount of weapons at the player's disposal is overwhelming up front, but they are all effective in their own way. Vulcan and spread are great for immediate offense, whereas the lock-on plasma and the homing ring can reach through walls. The current power of each basic weapon is shown in cycles right beside the score display, but in a game that has absolutely no power-ups how exactly are we supposed to upgrade our weapons? That's when chaining comes into play, and everything about Radiant Silvergun assumes a whole new level regarding strategy. It's not about haphazardly killing everything anymore, and there's simply no way around this if you want to have a chance at succeeding in the long run. If you ignore it completely there comes a point when your weapons start to lack power and bosses become virtually invincible.

Chaining in Radiant Silvergun is color-based. Except for bosses, every single enemy is either red, blue or yellow. The basic rule is that these enemies must be destroyed in successive groups of three of the same color, without killing anything else that bears a different color. By doing that the multiplier over the base values increase dramatically, additionally powering up all weapons used in the process. Dying or destroying an unwanted enemy resets the chain/combo value. Another source of upgrades is the act of correctly dismantling bosses. Almost all of them have multiple parts/components that can be destroyed independently. Managing to get a 100% destruction ratio yields a lot more points and faster upgrades, but if you go straight for the kill and leave the extra parts intact this destruction bonus of course won't be as good.

Extra scoring methods can be squeezed in depending on the enemy layouts. A secret chain, for example, is obtained when you destroy at least one red enemy, hit a blue one and then start targeting only yellow ones. Chain values skyrocket quickly and soon reach the maximum of 100.000 points for every three enemies destroyed. Despite the difficulty to actually pull it off, stage 2B is a great example of when to exploit the secret chain technique. Other ways to score more points is by standing close to bullets and lasers (grazing), landing multiple hits with the same weapon and finding the "merry dogs", which are hidden in specific places and can only be unlocked by using the homing ring (B+C). They come in three types, but increase in value progressively.

Long story short, the upgrade progression is directly related to the weapons you use and to how well you're able to score. As I hinted above, the puzzle element related to chaining is one of the defining features of Radiant Silvergun, as well as the amazing sense of style and grandeur evoked by the game's scope. The stage structure, for instance, is quite unorthodox. In Arcade mode the game starts in stage 3, which is comprised by 5 sections. After that you must choose between stages 2 or 4, both also comprised by 5 sections. Then you proceed to stages 5, 6 (where you face a humanoid final boss named Xyga) and 1 (where you can't shoot and must survive the attacks from the evil crystal behind everything in the story). Since each section has its own boss, it's as if the game had 13 stages. Each stage also has a name that ties into the story (Return, Reminiscence / Evasion, Victim, Origin and Link), an aspect that's fully developed in the new Saturn mode.

Original trailer for Radiant Silvergun on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaSteve)

Specifically tailored for this port, Saturn mode spices things up with extensive backstory animations and Japanese narration while making players go through all levels from start to finish (after stage 3 you advance to stage 2 and then stage 4). There are also four extra bosses in stage 6 prior to the final showdown against Xyga. More merry dogs than usual can be found, and minor graphical tweaks were applied to make the game a little more colorful. Since this mode is longer, the upgrade progression is a little slower than in Arcade mode. In any case, the most important feature of Saturn mode is that you're given the option to save your game so that you'll always start with the power-up levels you had in your last run. Eventually you'll max out all weapons at level 33, thus making it a lot easier to defeat bosses and reach the end of the game. The only initial challenge of Saturn mode is that continues are limited and get unlocked as you play, whereas you can just add credits at will in Arcade mode (with the L button). You can always play Saturn mode on a clean slate at any time, of course. 

Given how the gameplay works, it's reasonable to consider Radiant Silvergun to be one of the most methodical vertical shooters out there. It sure has its share of hairy moments, with true bullet hell sections and pressure mounting against some gigantic bosses the less powered up you are, but for the most part the rhythm of the game is clearly dictated by slow moving bullets. That said, for the majority of players the deadliest enemy for a good while is the confusion regarding weapon usage. Missing a hyper sword charge or triggering it in the wrong occasion, for example, can throw everything off in any run. That's why planning ahead, applying good crowd control and devising safe strategies for bosses are so important. This process might take longer than usual for a shmup, but the journey is decidedly worth it.

Arcade and Saturn modes are quite distinct between each other, as I mentioned above. They do share the same extend routine though, with score-based extra lives granted at 1 million and 5 million points. Other than that, all credits across both modes have incredibly detailed stats that can be seen in the options screen, which is also where you switch between game modes. You can even unlock special menus that allow stage selection, for example. The only features that I really missed in this outstanding port is a replay save function and some decent practice options. Unlockable stage selection is nice but doesn't cut it, especially with the frequent deaths of my back-up batteries.

I focused on Arcade mode after I came across a working MAME rom. I used it to practice until stage 2C, where it unfortunately crashed, so I had to learn everything after that the hard way. It was a memorable undertaking, but certainly not as memorable as Saturn mode, which I'll leave for a future opportunity. A common misconception about Radiant Silvergun is that the game is too long, but that's only true about Saturn mode, which takes over an hour to be completed. As we can see from the photo below, I was able to 1CC Arcade mode in less than 27 minutes in the Normal difficulty, going through the stage 2 branch (stage 4 is too evil). My back-up battery was dead during this run, so all the history from a previous 1CC and other attempts were sadly gone.

Now I can finally say I'm ready to move on to Ikaruga.