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.

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