R-Type (TurboGrafx-16) review
"Love it or hate it...the Bydo alien armada is threatening to misbehave, and ‘time out’ has failed to make the intended impression. So the fate of the free world rests on the shoulders of an untested contingency plan. Yes, the R9 spaceship in your control represents our lone retort against waves of alien menaces (no pressure). "
You might just fall in love with R-Type. That's no lie. But, the whole truth be told, you might just as easily hate the game with an equal passion. It's pretty much one or the other. If you like planning out your shooter sequences, you'll love it. If not... Well. The fact is that very few seem to claim the middle ground when discussing their opinion of the revolutionary side-scroller credited with being the first “thinking man’s shooter”. At first glance, the distinction will seem like ludicrous hyperbole, but when the dying starts in earnest, and refuses to let up, you’ll understand.
And that's because Irem’s claim to fame is about as hard as they come. Granted, this Turbografx-16 version is not as difficult as the arcade original that had folks pumping in quarters like a hockey team at a Laundromat. Still, much was made of NEC's system hosting the best ever translation of the shooter, because, unlike like previous versions (like the Sega Master System port, for example), nothing was left out. Irem did their best not to compromise, allowing all the intricate backgrounds, and all the nasty boss creatures to make the trip intact. As such, critics lauded NEC's R-Type as ''arcade perfect'', but that's not quite right (we'll save the nitpicky comments 'til the end).
In case you were wondering, the story does manage to be arcade perfect (you probably weren't): the Bydo alien armada is threatening to misbehave, and ‘time out’ has failed to make the intended impression. So the fate of the free world rests on the shoulders of an untested contingency plan. Yes, the R9 spaceship in your control represents our lone retort against waves of alien menaces (no pressure). I don't need to tell you that the odds are not in your favour. But I just did. The fact that the R9 putts around like a Sunday driver with a clear schedule doesn’t help. And the fact that the enemies not only zoom by you at times, but leave a Chinese checkerboard of bullets in their wake, only makes that hill you’ll need to climb a bit steeper.
But the Bydo don’t know about your secret weapon! And what the Bydo don’t know will hurt them, and how. Enter the Force Device. It’s an indestructible orb that can attach to the back or the front of the R9, augmenting your offensive prowess and absorbing bullets alike. And there’s more. With the push of a button, you can fling the Force away from you and into the fray, so that the two of you can get down to some independent damage-dealing. Of course, when you’re separated like this, you’ll find that the power of your standard wave cannon and the Force’s own guns will pale in comparison to what is possible when your units are united. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all that.
The Force Device isn’t your birthright though; you’ll need to procure one to enlist its services. That will entail shooting down POW units, which are little pods that hop around and do nothing other than carry power ups. Your first coloured power up will earn you the Force, and the weapon that colour represents. Blue is the reflective laser, yellow is the air-to-ground laser, and red is the ring laser. Whichever weapon it is that you collect, it’s going to be as weak as light beer at this point; it's only slightly stronger than your original wave cannon. Also, your Force, when detached at this level, will only fire in a V pattern, targeting two streams ahead at 30 degree angles.
However, that second power up, no matter what the colour, will make your Force fire in four directions, beefing its offense up considerably. Furthermore, when you decide to team up with Force, you’ll assume the full magnitude of the coloured weapon you just picked up. Besides the weapon power ups, there are speed increase, homing missile, and Bit icons, which can be earned by the same POW-killing method. Obtaining a few 'speed ups' is essential to hurry the R9's languorous movement, and the two tiny invincible orbs known as Bit units, which protect the top and bottom of your ship, are almost as critical. Behind all this firepower, and considering the simplicity of the system behind amassing it, where’s the intense difficulty I spoke of? This game’s really a cakewalk, isn't it?
Allow me to laugh. Out loud. (LOL.) Irem has equipped you in this fashion so that you’ll have only yourself to blame when the diabolical level design begins to emasculate you. Enemies will come from every angle at speed, and with guns smoking, in a way that seems so wrong and so unfair by the standards of other shooters. It certainly won't seem right when the rat-faced boss of all bosses first appears from stage left to crowd the screen. Where do you go to dodge his swinging tail and his alien fire, while you pound projectiles into the grotesque face in his midsection? There seems to be a 'safe spot' but you can't hit him from there... You turn your electric blue bolts of diagonally reflecting laser fire onto the mound boss' blinking 'eye', in hopes of performing a hack job. But with the mechanical serpent pulsing through the thing's valves, it's a tight situation--surely there is another way?
And how can the programmers seriously expect you to make it through a level overflowing with segmented snakes and red bullets on a blood red alien backdrop? How do they envision you navigating the exploding walls of the ruined city, to slip away from curling hordes of relentlessly waving enemy patterns with no Force as protection?
Trial and error will help. Though learning what not to do doesn't necessarily translate into instant coordination of the best possible attack plan. But even if you manage to ascertain what should be done to squeeze through, say, the infamous level seven areas of death, for example, executing said plan is another story entirely. This is what makes R-Type such an amazing draw to those who love it. And this is what earned it the title of thinking man's shooter. If you remember Super Mario Brothers, where Bowser would bring to bear his arcing hammers, flying fireballs, and his own bounding body upon you to evade, you'll recall that you'd need to formulate how best to get past him alive. You could run under him, or you might take the moving platform above him to the exit. Then you'd have to consider at what point to actually make that mad dash.
R-Type forces you to make these decisions constantly, and asks that you do so on a much higher level of both planning and performance. Gamers who want their shooters to be a complete reflex rush will be disappointed--you won't clear R-Type your first time with the greatest reflexes in the world. There are too many unforeseen, screen-cluttering scenarios. It will take time and death to come to grips with many of the initially intimidating situations onscreen, but when perfection is reached, there's no better feeling. So if you welcome problem solving along with your adrenaline rushes, R-Type will speak to you.
Irem's favourite son outdoes other classic shooters of its time, and flashy new generation releases alike. We've learned about the challenge, but what keeps you coming back in the face of adversity is the balance. Balance is hard to come by in a shooter. Gradius is considered a classic, yet after you die in Konami's hit, you continue from a restart point wholly crippled. R-Type uses restart points as well, and they're about as reasonably placed as those in Gradius. The difference is that R-Type provides you with a speed power up, or a Force Device almost immediately, and though things will obviously be considerably tougher than if you had cruised though fully powered (ie: if you had stayed alive), you'll always have enough to make it through.
Sometimes a strategy different from the one you might use when aided by the Force Device and other power ups must be employed to succeed after death, but the means is always there. This near flawless balance is what, above all, keeps R-Type relevant even today. It's also what makes me slam down the Turbo Pad in frustration, and still hurriedly pick it up a second later to hit continue before the counter runs down. You'll likely do the same. There's more to see, after all. More of what Irem popularized: a gargantuan, multiple screen-filling battleship, trademark segmented snakes galore, and the now cliched gooey last level alien womb. If these staples aren't of Irem's innovation, their game did more than their part to popularize them.
R-Type isn't perfect, mind you. While the graphics feature the arcade version's same detailed depictions of organic, otherworldly life stuff and cold mechanical structures meshed expertly together, there is the unwelcome addition of quite a bit of distracting flicker (sometimes bullets get lost in it--not good). And the game on the whole, different versions notwithstanding, has aged slightly, being outperformed by sequels such as R-Type III and R-Type Delta in terms of design and polish. The music is not the strongpoint here that it is in those games either, but tracks like the first, seventh, and boss level tunes are suitably mood-setting in their alien alto. Nitpicking aside, the unapologetically obstinate trail-blazer still has a furious fight to offer. If you can handle the challenge, by all means, take Irem up on it.
Take them up on it, if only to enjoy the supremely rewarding feeling you'll get when you've honed your skills enough to be able breeze through a section that appears impossible in a rookie friend's eyes. You can allow yourself the liberty of gloating, because you've paid your dues to get to this stage. You've earned the right. ''It's easy to me kid,'' you might say, ''but you won't get it for awhile.'' The 'newbie' might answer excitedly like this: ''But I've now seen you do it, so now I can do the same!'' You'll pause then, for effect, and snort, mildly disgusted, ''You don't know the first thing about R-Type, do ya kid...''
The Verdict: I'll play until the day technology advances to the point where R9s are built as soundly as Force Devices. Yep, R-Type has been brilliant.
Staff review by Marc Golding (September 10, 2003)
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