Past meets present: R-Type
The release of a brand new R-Type, 17 years after what was supposed to be the last one, is an excuse to go back to the franchise's '80s arcade roots.
This column is “Past meets present,” the aim of which is to look back at game franchises and games that are in the news and topical again thanks to a sequel, a remaster, a re-release, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
In 1987, one of the major innovations in the shoot-em-up genre released. R-Type, developed by Irem, hit arcades that year, and it was so much different than anything else that had come before. It wasn’t the first horizontally scrolling arcade shooter, by any means, nor was it the first of incredible impact: Gradius predates the original R-Type by two years, for instance. R-Type, though, was different, notably so.
It wasn’t a fast-paced shooter, filling the screen with as many enemies or bullets as the technology of the time allowed. It was slow. It was deliberate. Its pacing meticulous, carefully constructed for the kind of game that you were playing, which was different than what had come before, and vital to what would come out of the industry next. You do not move around very quickly in R-Type, not unless you have maxed out your ship’s speed with upgrades. Even then, though, the scrolling remains what it is: slow, deliberate, peeling back the rest of the stage you’re in little by little, unveiling the horrors that await, until the scrolling stops and it’s time to face the stage’s boss.
R-Type isn’t fast-paced, but it still brings something to the table that keeps you focused: claustrophobia. You have to be sure to avoid crashing into not just enemy bullets or lasers, but the enemies themselves, the walls, the ceiling, the floors of stages that have them. Your ship feels large on screen: too large, when navigating caverns while dodging both incoming fire and the enemies doing the firing. R-Type takes patience, and also practice. If you try to rush things, especially while unfamiliar with the terrain and what’s next, you’ll die. And die again.
One way to avoid dying by way of weapon fire is to utilize the game’s pod. This pod is an upgrade that attaches to the front or back or your ship, and can be launched from there at any time so you can reorient it, or simply because you wanted it to fly on its own while shooting separately from your ship. The pod changed the landscape of horizontal shooters: it was both an offensive and defensive weapon, capable of being shot right into the maw of a boss to pump them full of bullets at close range, or fastened to the front of your ship to absorb enemy fire while you dodged what could not be absorbed. R-Type’s final boss is difficult to fire at, given it has a small window through which you can fire, and you’re busy dodging an increasing number of deadly projectiles while you attempt to aim. If you fire the pod directly into its little hidey hole, though, you only need to worry about avoiding those projectiles. Which, admittedly, is no small feat on its own: this doesn’t make the last boss battle easy, it just makes it easier. If you’ve recently died and your ship is moving slow, well, it might also be the only way to defeat the stage at all. R-Type forces you to realize strategies like this, and it’s part of the appeal, even all this time later.
The pod is also how you deal with enemies behind you, which is its own achievement in design that keeps the stages and the potential solutions to them varied. That your weapons also fire differently depending on whether the pod is attached or not, whether it’s in the front of the ship or the back, only adds to that as well. None of this might feel new now, not after 34 years of the series and more than a few other games inspired by R-Type, but what matters is that the design of the original keeps this all feeling good to play and experience, even today.
In anticipation of the late-April 2021 release of R-Type Final 2, a new entry in a series that had gone dormant back in 2004 with what was aptly named R-Type Final — a new entry in a series whose developer, Irem, switched over to pachinko and slot machines a decade ago — I went back to the beginning of the franchise. It is astounding how already fully developed and fully realized the concept of R-Type was back in 1987 when it first released. This initial entry in the series isn’t the best the franchise has to offer, but that has more to do with some of what came after than any faults this ‘87 classic might have. There is a Die Hard kind of thing going on here, where you realize, upon playing R-Type, how much the rest of its genre — and the future direction of the series itself — borrowed from this origin point. R-Type, 1987, feels nearly as good to play today as it must have back when it first launched. You can’t ask for much more of a recommendation to revisit or visit for the first time when talking retro games.
If anything, playing R-Type Final 2 just reminded me further of how good the original R-Type is. I’ve never played the 1987 version of the game — my go-to version of it is the Turbografx-16 one*, a port developed by Hudson, which has smaller screen resolution that creates a tiny bit of vertical screen scrolling that isn’t present in the original — but this was true even with my not having experienced the definitive version of the title. R-Type Final 2 isn’t a bad game or anything, but it’s comfortably one of the franchise’s middling releases. Fun to play, worth playing, but it mostly just makes me want to revisit the original or, or spend more time with some of the franchise’s best offerings, like the Super Nintendo’s R-Type III or the Playstation’s R-Type Delta. Those both do a much better job of replicating the feelings of the original R-Type while providing fantastic level design and setpieces of their own: R-Type Final 2 is more R-Type, which is good, but it’s nothing you haven’t experienced before. That’s less good.
*R-Type is one of the 25 games included on the North American side of the Turbografx-16 Mini, which, unlike Nintendo’s pair of minis, has not been discontinued and is still available for purchase. There are also 32 Japanese (PC Engine) games included on the North American version of the mini, many of them shooters you don’t need to know Japanese to play: it’s $100 well spent, in my opinion.
Maybe the best example of that is in the battleship stage, a staple of R-Type games ever since the original’s. The boss fight of R-Type’s third stage is the stage itself: you are flying the R-9 Arrowhead ship around an enormous battleship, as the screen slowly scrolls. Sometimes the ship is in front of you, sometimes it is below you, sometimes behind, sometimes above. You are forced to fire in front of you, behind you, dodging the ship, what it’s firing at you, and the geography around the both of you in order to survive. You slowly make your way around the battleship, damaging more and more of its systems, until finally your small ship comes out on top, the stage complete. It’s really great, still so to this day, with the pacing and weapon placement and movements you need to make all feeling right and good.
While the battleship stage in 1987’s R-Type still awes, Final 2’s is… alright. The balance feels a bit off. Enemies show up on screen in droves, and they’re often difficult to keep track of given the game is using 3D backdrops while having your ship move in a 2D space. It is slightly less obvious what parts of the ship can fire at you or if you’re causing damage to those parts, which can result in you suddenly getting cooked by a laser and dying while you’re trying to avoid a horde of enemy ships as they move from the 3D background into the 2D foreground. The game’s checkpoint system is not the greatest, either: you always come back in a place where there is an upgrade of some kind not too far ahead, but R-Type is designed for you to possess many such upgrades, so dying once usually means dying many more times until you can get it right. Which is frustrating in its own way, when what you’re replaying again and again doesn’t feel as good to play as a game from 34 years ago does.
What makes that more disappointing is that it’s not like some random developer acquired the R-Type license and made a game of their own: new R-Type Final 2 developer Granzella is made up, in part, of former Irem designers. This occasionally happens with the series, though: R-Type II was nothing close to what the original R-Type was; my three favorites in the series are spread out releases, all on different consoles from different console generations, with entries I like less and return to less releasing in between. R-Type Final itself wasn’t a standout entry in the franchise, even if it did serve as a solid enough goodbye. R-Type Final 2 is a decent enough return, one that utilizes the multiple ships with varied weapons approach of its predecessor, but one hopes there is eventually an R-Type Final 3 — or, you know, something that makes more sense name-wise — that does a better job of capturing the feel of the series while bringing something new and vital to the table in the process.
Visually, too, R-Type Final 2 is lacking. I don’t mean graphically: it looks fine enough on the Nintendo Switch while playing undocked, for instance, though certainly not top of the line or anything. More in terms of the art direction is where the issue is. There is no cohesive vision here in that regard: R-Type, famously, relied heavily on H.R. Giger-esque visuals to create your Bydo foes, the enemy that was both biological and cybernetic, that was ugly and terrible to behold. There are some cool monster creations and such in R-Type Final 2, but overall, the venues hosting these encounters feel more generic than the ones in a game released at a time where “space levels” were black backgrounds with a few white dots for stars in the background. The bosses, too, fail to be memorable from a visual point of view, whereas the original’s major foes became iconic for a reason. Some of this is on the original R-Type for creating such high standards for the series out of the gate: standards that still hold up to the modern eye.
Again, R-Type Final 2 is fine, but if you’re not a hardcore fan of the series and yet are interested in trying it out, you might as well play one of the other entries. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind emulating, III or Delta are right there. If you want to experience the original, well, there is no shortage of platforms on which it appears: it’s appeared on 26 different platforms over the last few decades, and you can find the updated R-Type Dimensions EX release of it on the Switch, Playstation 4, and on Steam, which also includes R-Type II as well as original versions of each game. R-Type games are brutally difficult, and you will need to be patient as you memorize enemy patterns, changing geography, and where and how you should be utilizing your pod and its capabilities. The game is worth the learning curve, though, as it’s still a game with obviously stellar design and pacing.
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